West of the Moon

A Tolkien Fanfiction Archive

 

 

The Baker's Wife
In which Merry eats Cold Buttered Toast, Pippin loses his Roll but wins the Game, Frodo brings his Master's Wife out early and shares his Buns with Sam, Fatty has an Inamorata and Beryl gets an Eyeful. But is it Canon? Guaranteed.
Author: Polecat
Rating: NC-17

 

Story Notes: Bongo and the Brillantining Bracegirdles borrowed with thanks from Mira, though this story has nothing to do with her far superior 'Code of the Brandybucks' series. Thanks again to Wendy, Beta-extraordinaire :-)

Author's Note: Can anyone else hear tango music coming from my closet?

******

Sunlight sped low across the heavens over Arda, washing the skies behind it a pale, watery blue. No clouds halted its journey towards the earth and it raced on, heedless and yet knowing of both past and future in an existence where the path is predetermined and time has no meaning. The land rose up eagerly to meet it, wishing to embrace both the light and the warmth it heralded. It travelled on in a headlong rush to the culmination of its quiddity.

It illumined a foot.

If there were any around to observe, they would describe it as a relatively large, well-formed, hirsute foot.

The owner of the foot had left the narrow paved byways and was walking purposefully over some potato fields in the direction of Hobbiton. Most of the crop had been harvested and the terrain was uneven but the inconvenience of the route was compensated by its directness. It was the shortest course from The Hill to the town shops, leading right to the back of the bakery.  The walker utilised this option because, despite the barely rising sun, he was already late.

The left hand came up to shade his eyes from the early morning light, displaying long fingers with neatly trimmed nails. In the other hand he carried a cotton bag, along with a crumpled piece of parchment on which was written the list of groceries required for the next few days. A mischievous breeze swirling over the field caught and tugged at the bag, which flapped hopefully behind him, its freedom thwarted by the hobbit's hold on the cloth handles. He adjusted his grip to ensure no chance of escape, for the bag had been a hand-sewn gift from a little girl who would be sorely disappointed should he ever lose it.

A sizeable mound of potatoes signaled the edge of the farm; these had been left as they had been deemed unsuited for market due to damage by pests or weather, or sometimes because they were so knobbly and full of deep eyes that they were reckoned worthless. The pile would shrink over the course of a week or so, picked over by the very poor and the very miserly, until only the worm-ridden and diseased tubers remained. These would be scavenged by rodents or quietly rot until the snows covered them, and by the time Spring rolled up the white blanket no trace of them would be seen as the farmer tilled the sod for the new planting.

Reaching the end of the field, the hobbit trotted briskly between two stone walls, the right hand one part of the butcher's shop and the one on his left, the baker's. As he turned the corner he saw precisely what he had feared: a queue already twenty hobbits long, and that was just those who could be counted outside the shop. He sighed and placed himself at the end of it.

"Morning, Mr Baggins," the elderly lady in front greeted him.

"Good morning, Mrs Burrows," answered the hobbit, politely.

"Lovely morning, isn't it, Mr Baggins," continued Mrs Burrows, repeating the phrases of hundreds of years of standardised pleasantries.

"It is indeed, Mrs Burrows," replied the hobbit.

"I got up a bit late this morning, the old bones aren't as sprightly as they used to be." She shifted her feet, adjusting her stance to a slightly more comfortable one. The curled white hair on them appeared red-gold in the early morning light.

"You would certainly have fooled me, Mrs Burrows," he said, gallantly.

Soft brown eyes gleamed for a moment as Mrs Burrows gazed at him. "And what is your excuse, Mr Baggins?"

"I do not have a very good one, I am afraid, Mrs Burrows," he admitted, adopting a contrite tone.

Both hobbits shuffled a couple of steps forward.

"Ah, well, I may as well hear it, this line is moving rather slowly."

"I lost track of the hour and read until the candle burned down. I believe I have had less than half the night's sleep."

"You have not had children yet, I see, Mr Baggins," smiled his interlocutor.

"As I am still a bachelor, Mrs Burrows, I fear you are quite correct," replied the hobbit, reflecting her good-natured smile.

They took a few more steps.

She reached out and patted his hand. "Ah, well, you still have plenty of time. Choose her well. Don't let any of those money-chasing floozies fool you."

"I will and I won't, thank you."

Mrs Burrows still had a hold on his hand and she turned it over and cradled it in her own, running the fingertips of her other hand lightly over his palm.

"Hmmm," she said thoughtfully.

The hobbit waited patiently.

"Hmmm. Ahhh. Hmmm."

Another shift in the queue.

"Oooo. Yes, of course. Now I see."

Silence.

"Mrs Burrows? What do you see?"

"Mmmm. Yes, indeed," came the reply, as if lost in thought. The fingertips continued to roam over his fingers and palm, barely touching them.

The hobbit waited a little longer.

"How many children will I have, Mrs Burrows?" he asked, eventually.

She looked up. "I have absolutely no idea, my dear, but you have a beautiful hand and it feels lovely." The smile changed to a grin and the eyes flashed.

Frodo could not help but smile broadly and shake his head slowly at her. At the age of ninety-three, Mrs Burrows remained a wicked flirt. She released his hand and they shuffled forward again.

"I do like your shopping bag, Mr Baggins," she continued, smoothly, "wherever did you get it?"

Frodo fell into discussing the origin of his cloth bag and the merits of different lengths of handles, all the while wondering two things: firstly, what Mrs Burrows must have looked like sixty years ago and secondly, at which age do female hobbits suddenly decide that they must wear fuzzy crocheted hats that look like nothing so much as tea-cosies? Mrs Burrows was a handsome hobbit and must have been absolutely stunning in her youth, and up until at least the age of seventy, a female hobbit would not be seen dead in a fuzzy crocheted hat. Then came this blurry period, after which, the same female hobbit would emerge, by the age of eighty-five, sporting the once-derided said item. It was all quite puzzling.

He crossed the threshold into the warm building and breathed in the glorious scent of freshly baked bread and pastries. His stomach rumbled.

"Did you not have time for first breakfast, Mr Baggins?" queried Mrs Burrows.

"Alas, no."

"Likewise." She sighed, biting her lip. "Oh, I do hope there are some left," she said in a worried tone, voicing the thought of every hobbit from the five still waiting in front of her to the end of the line, now another twenty-five long behind Frodo.

The baker produced Hobbiton Buns only once per year, on the day before the Pressing Festival, also marking the beginning of the baker's personal one-week holiday. The queue was comprised of hobbits wishing to buy extra bread, particularly of the heavier, longer-keeping sort, and, most importantly, the Buns. Sugary, spicy, sticky, square and coiled, they were in such demand that the baker had imposed a half-a-dozen purchase limit per hobbit. All knew that if there were to be any fighting in the line, the shop would be closed instantly and Hobbiton's local duck population would become perceptibly fatter.

Some minutes later a very happy Mrs Burrows farewelled Frodo politely and left the shop, clutching six Buns and four loaves of barley bread. Frodo stepped up to take her place at the counter. As he requested two each of the wheaten and the spelt loaves, as well as two of the barley bread and his allotment of Buns from the baker's wife, he tried to avoid looking past her through the door at the baker himself who was heaving laden trays to and fro, in the process of removing the final batches of Buns from the oven.

"Mr Baggins? Would you like anything else, sir?" The Baker's Wife was addressing him and he hoped he hadn't been staring.

"Ah, no, thank you. That will be all today."

He paid, put the goods in his bag and sidled past the restless queue and out of the bakery, into the morning sunshine. Well, he might have been staring just a little. It was not as if either the baker's wife or the baker himself could blame him for it. In fact, it was quite likely that every hobbit in the Shire stared at the baker whenever they patronised his premises.

Of all the hobbits Frodo had ever seen or heard of, only Hobbiton's baker had shaved feet.

As the sun rose higher, the yellow rays picked out a hobbit standing outside the bakery and frowning to himself. Frodo had patted and turned out every one of his pockets and emptied and repacked his bag all in vain. His shopping list had decamped into that world where all small-yet-important scraps of parchment go to rest from their labours, along with buttons, teaspoons and odd bedsocks. He was now attempting to picture precisely what had been on that list by remaining very still and creasing his brow. It seemed to help a little. Most of what had been written there was for the butcher and had already been ordered by Sam earlier in the week, to be delivered this afternoon.... Aha! Of course. Candles. How could he forget? The candle shop adjoined the bakery, and Frodo turned and ducked inside.

More than an hour later he emerged and started for home, both his bag and mind significantly heavier. He was sorely tempted to ask Sam to buy the candles next time, but that would be unfair and possibly even cruel. Sam already worked very hard, performing a more than satisfactory job, and to saddle him with having to listen to the candlestick maker's endless chatter might be seen as just cause for terminating their long-standing relationship as employer and employee. In an effort to postpone a future visit, Frodo had purchased far more candlesticks than he strictly needed, or indeed, he quickly discovered, than he could comfortably carry.

He sighed and switched the bag to his left hand, walking with that peculiar leaning gait of one who has far too much ballast on one side. He was accompanied by that familiar feeling of having forgotten to buy something, but was now far too mentally weary to attempt to remember precisely what. In order to try and forget about the burgeoning pain in his arm and slowly cramping fingers, his mind gave him something of more interest to muse over. It thought about the baker's feet.

The baker's feet were a constant topic of discussion in homes and taverns all over the Shire, surpassed only by the subject of Bilbo Baggins. This was despite the fact that the baker had been in the habit of shaving them for nigh on forty years. That was when an accident had left him with a useless right shoulder, and unable to effectively knead dough. Instead of finding an alternative occupation to earn his coin, he had switched to mixing and kneading the dough with his feet. Naturally, bread peppered with short, curly hairs was unsaleable and he had taken the momentous decision to shave all the hair off his feet and legs in order to continue his trade. He was evidently willing to endure the constant sideways glances and whisperings whenever he passed by for the sake of his art. And art it most certainly was. There was no other bakery in the Shire that could hold a candle to the Hobbiton establishment.

At first, the local population was disturbed when it was discovered that their bread was being kneaded by foot. To combat this, the baker had begun a ritual, now unchanged for forty years. In the evenings, prior to starting work, he would sit in front of the window of his closed shop and his wife would wash his feet thoroughly in a shallow tub, using copious amounts of frothing soap and several changes of water. She would then dry them with white towels and he would walk on a path of fresh towels to the rear of the shop whence he disappeared to commence mixing and kneading. This, along with the excellence of his product had had the desired effect, but also another, unforeseen one. Hobbits would stop and watch the ritual as expected, but there were those who would travel great distances to see the spectacle, under the pretense of wishing to try the fabled breads. Some, however, could be noticed in the vicinity of the baker's front window almost every evening.

The Baker's Wife herself was of no lesser interest to the gossiping classes, and would have been suitable conversation fodder without being attached to her eccentric husband. She had a debilitating phobia of mice and rats, which was particularly unfortunate as the nature of her husband's work ensured some sort of rodent flux throughout the year. Young boys were continually in her employ as indoor rat-catchers, along with fifteen felines to take care of the outdoors area. The butcher complained regularly that her cats were not catching rats because it was far easier for them to steal from him. Her unchanging reply was that surely an adult hobbit could outwit a cat.

All these rodent-prevention techniques were not, however, guaranteed to work under extreme conditions. During the last mouse plague, she had stood on a table and shrieked and screamed until she was hoarse. It was said that she had thrown everything on the table at the scurrying grey balls of fur including a rolling pin, an earthenware bowl and a huge carving knife. Only the knife had managed to injure a mouse by nicking off half of its tail. Since then, any rodent that was spotted parading a mutilated tail would be named "The Baker's Wife".

The lady herself was only ever referred to as "The Baker's Wife" as if she had no identity of her own. This might have been because she also conducted an alternative enterprise alongside her husband's. During the morning, she was in charge of the shop. It typically closed around elevenses or when everything had been sold. After lunch until mid-afternoon, she would cut hair. She had no qualms about trimming foot hair if requested, which was unseemly in the eyes of some and downright suspicious in the eyes of others. The state of her husband's feet already attracted those with a special interest in the topic, and at night she was reported to run a well-patronised, but unnamed business.

Many locals had their hair cut by the baker's wife for she was a pleasant hobbit, if a bit taciturn, who did an excellent job at a very reasonable price. Frodo never visited her for such as the multi-talented Sam was more than capable of the task, having learned from watching Bilbo. His foot hair was a different matter and he could easily imagine Sam's reaction if he were to ask him to extend his services. Frodo found it quite straightforward to tidy it himself, and assumed, like most of the hobbits around him, that unless one was too old, too young or too infirm for the required flexibility, then one would probably get it cut by another solely for the pleasure of it. Running a brush or comb through one's own foot fur was precisely that, brushing or combing hair. When the same action was performed by the hand of another, it was liable to end in marriage or injury.

By the time Frodo reached Bag End, his neck and both his shoulders were aching and deep ridges had carved themselves into his fingers. He hauled up the shopping bag onto the kitchen table and spent a minute or two slowly uncurling his hand and grimacing melodramatically. He wished someone were there to whom he could complain. Unfortunately, his visitors were not due to arrive for another two days. By then, he sincerely hoped, he would no longer require their sympathy. He sighed and began unpacking his purchases.

****

Samwise Gamgee stood next to the parsnip patch, trying to decide which job he ought to do next. There was turning the compost heap. There was always turning the compost heap. He could check the horseradish which was probably planning yet another takeover bid of the bottom garden by now, or.... He shaded his eyes from the afternoon sun and scanned the area around the smial on the hill. That lawn up there was looking distinctly shaggy to his mind. It could do with a bit of a clip, just to tidy it up. He set off up the slope towards his master's abode, shears in hand and whistling contentedly.

Soon after, Frodo glanced out of the kitchen window and caught sight of his gardener on hands and knees, clipping energetically. He put one knee on the padded bench under the window and leaned out.

"Sam!" he called.

Sam raised his head and looked towards the call. "Yes, Mr Frodo?" he replied.

"Would you like a cup of tea?" asked Frodo, sure of the answer.

"That I would, sir, it's most kind of you." Sam was already walking towards the window. "I'll just pop around the back and clean up a bit."

Frodo smiled and withdrew back into the kitchen. He winced and rubbed at his shoulders, wondering if this morning's effort at imitating a pack pony had done him some real harm, before moving to set out the cups and saucers.

Presently, Sam came in, feet, face and hands carefully scrubbed. He sat down at the table, looking a mite uncomfortable as Frodo poured the already prepared tea. Frodo had issued the invitation, so technically Sam was now a guest in the smial, however temporary, and this knowledge clashed with his usual position in the same. He settled quickly, though, and they slipped into an easy conversation about the stocks in the cellar and what variation on the planting schedule could be considered for next year.

After a companionable silence, Sam took a sip of tea and said, "Mr Frodo, are you feeling well? Your shoulders look like they're paining you a bit."

"As a matter of fact, Sam, they are," laughed Frodo ruefully. "I overexerted myself this morning carrying a waggon-load of candles up from town." He rolled his shoulders and leaned his head from side to side.

"Oh." Sam was looking at him thoughtfully. He seemed to be about to say something more, but then changed his mind and took another mouthful of tea instead.

"And all because I decided that I couldn't deal with further conversation from old Colmed for at least another month," continued Frodo, twisting his mouth apologetically. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to convey the impression that I dislike the old hobbit. I don't. It's just...." He blew out a breath in defeat.

"Aye, Mr Frodo, I understand you right well there," said Sam. "He talks too much."

"Ah, well, it is my own fault - my goodness! I can't believe it!" Frodo jumped up from his seat and leaped towards the breadbin.

"Sir?"

"Here we are having tea and I completely forgot the whole point of this morning's venture! Here you go, Sam." He placed a Bun on a plate and put it on the table in front of his guest.

Sam's eyes widened. "Sir, no, I couldn't take that," he stammered.

"Whyever not?" asked Frodo, whipping out another plate, "I have one, you have one. Go on. I will be disappointed if you let it go stale." Frodo smiled encouragingly at Sam and bit lustily into the yielding delicacy.

Sam lowered his eyes and spoke to his plate. "I'm terribly grateful, thank you, sir," he said, "but I won't eat it now. I'd like to take it home and share it with my gaffer."

"Of course you must, that is a lovely idea," said Frodo through his mouthful. He swallowed and licked his lips. "But with two sisters and one gaffer around you must take another three with you." He started to pull them out of the breadbin.

"Sir, no!" exclaimed Sam, twisting around in his chair, "One is more than enough for the likes of us, begging your pardon, sir."

"Hmm, now let me see," said Frodo, thoughtfully stroking his chin. "One is for you, because you are the best gardener in the Shire - "

"But - "

"Uh-uh! Please wait until I have finished, Sam," admonished Frodo mischievously. "Now where was I? Ah, yes. One is for the Gaffer, since without his efforts, the best gardener in the Shire would never have come along at all, and -"

Frodo was thoroughly enjoying watching Sam's slowly flushing face and squirming body.

"Hmm, yes, and of course, without Marigold making me that cloth bag all those years ago, I would never have been able to carry them up here and finally, - " Frodo paused for a moment, "one for May because she nursed you through that sickness when you were twenty. There." He flicked his hand up to indicate that no more excuses would be tolerated and sat down, looking smug, whilst resuming the assault on the rest of his Bun with gusto.

Sam was obviously torn between politeness and Buns. "You're too generous, sir. Let me take just one more, then we'll each have a half when I get home," he mumbled.

"Sam, really, what would I do with four Buns?"

For a moment, Sam looked like he thought there might possibly be more to this question than he could see. Then he decided there wasn't. "Eat them, sir," he said, bluntly.

"One Frodo plus four Buns in one evening equals one Frodo feeling ill in the stomach -," lied Frodo and forestalled Sam's next suggestion by saying, "- and they must all be eaten today. They do not keep well." This truth balanced out the previous statement.

Sam was beaten by the two-pronged attack of Frodo and Buns. "Uh, thank you, sir."

"You're most welcome," answered Frodo, draining his cup. He stood up again and began wrapping Sam's Buns in paper. "Enjoy them with your family and I trust I will see you bright and early tomorrow at the Pressing Festival."

"That you will," smiled Sam, standing up as well. He accepted the package from Frodo and started for the back door. "Thank you again, sir. You are too kind."

"Not nearly enough," countered Frodo swiftly. "Sleep well. You'll need all your energy for tomorrow."

"I will, Mr Frodo. Good evening, sir."

Once Sam had left the kitchen, Frodo reached for the remaining Bun and savoured it slowly, closing his eyes. He stretched his neck and shoulders once again and wondered if he should perhaps pour himself a bath.

****

The wine press had long been known in the Shire but in practise it was not used nearly as much as might be expected. Trampling the grapes was simply too much fun and a perfect excuse for a party. The most difficult task was waiting patiently for Will Whitfoot to finish his speech and to ceremoniously stomp on a bunch of grapes, signaling the opening of the one-day Pressing Festival. Most of the wine grapes in the Shire would be picked and processed within two weeks of this day.

One of the advantages of being Master of Bag End meant that Frodo had the right to be the first to step into the vat containing the harvest from his modest-sized vineyard. This year, as always, he tried to maintain an air of dignity about it and not immediately start bouncing around like a child on a feather bed. Bilbo had privately admitted to having to resist that urge as well, even at the age of one hundred and ten. Frodo found it rather difficult to look dignified, not only because he was standing in a huge vat on a pile of fruit with his breeches rolled up above the knee, but also because the feel of the squelching grapes under his feet and between his toes was really too pleasurable. It was hot work and therefore perfectly acceptable to wear one's shirt with sleeves rolled up and tails hanging out.

The owners of the vineyards had free food stalls set up for anyone who trampled their grapes and the beverage that day was wine, rather than ale. It was decreed that the wine must be sold rather than given away at the Festival, and had to be diluted with water. This had been proposed by concerned influential members of the community in an effort to reduce drunkenness. The population immediately followed the letter of the new law and the wine was duly diluted and sold: by about ten percent and in pint glasses.

This particular festival resulted in a co-mingling of the nobility and working classes never to be seen at any other time of the year. It was probably due to the communal nature of the work that needed to be done, and the fact that everyone wanted to do it. The generous lubrication provided by cheap alcohol was also appreciated by all. Hobbits queued up, regardless of their lineage, to scrub their feet before taking the place of a tired comrade in the vat.

Musicians wandered around the field, playing requests and encouraging the toiling hobbits. The most popular tunes were those for well-known dances calling for a continual swapping of partners. It was much easier for a pair of hobbits to hold onto each other's shoulders for balance than attempt to squash piles of fruit unaided.

Frodo was thoroughly enjoying himself, hanging onto a young Bolger and energetically jumping up and down. He felt it was near time for a break, as he was getting to the point where a rest with a bite to eat and a drink would not be unwelcome. As the call to change partners rang out across the field, he released the Bolger boy but did not lift his feet quite high enough as he turned. He stumbled and lost his balance, and instead of gripping the next hobbit's shoulders, he pitched forward into the awaiting pair of arms.

"Come on - GET LAYING! Don't jussit there and look at me stupid-like - LAY!"

Farmer Brockhouse was there as usual, whipping himself into a frenzy whilst his prize layers stared at him in dumb offense.

A hen ruffled her feathers and produced a promising 'Cluck'. But it wasn't one of his.

"My gals'll beat yours by an omelette for ten this year!" screeched Farmer Chubb, all cheery toothless grin and spittle flying off his lips.

"You ain't got hens - juss a bunch of ol' boilers! They be fit for naught but Chooks in Wine Stew!" came the instant retort.

There was a sudden cacophony of squawks. Not for the first time, both farmers wondered if chickens were more intelligent than they might wish to believe.

Of all the ridiculous competitions at the Pressing Festival, this probably took home the ribbon. There were only the same two contestants every year, each with twenty prize laying hens lined up facing one another and the aim was nothing more than to see who had the most eggs at the end of the day.  It was not something one would instantly note down as a gripping spectator sport. Yet it infallibly drew the biggest crowd and the wildest betting, particularly from the older hobbits. There was something mesmerising about watching a sitting hen and wondering when it would drop its load, not to mention the eight hours of insult trading which accompanied them. Many hobbits would set up their picnic blankets and baskets and settle down for a long day of watching the action.

Eight years ago, old Wilibald Bunce had won a stupendous bet as he not only picked who won and the correct number of eggs involved, but miraculously which of the hens did the laying as well. The result, eighteen to Farmer Brockhouse and seventeen to Farmer Chubb, spoke itself of the nail-biting finish to a high-scoring contest, though Farmer Chubb still told anyone who would listen that his seventeenth egg was a double-yolker and so the contest should have been a tie.

This fixture did have a connection to the Festival, albeit a convoluted one. Regardless of the winner, all the eggs would be contributed to those already stockpiled, for a huge amount of albumen was required for fining the previous vintage.

Sam was always impressed by the hens. How anyone could set about laying anything with all that racket going on was beyond him. He could imagine himself getting stomach cramps or colic or something like that - not that he knew how to lay an egg, of course.

A familiar melody drifted through the air and Sam raised his eyebrows as he took a pull on his wine drink. He looked around to see who was responsible this year. It was not even lunchtime yet and the tune for the Chicken Dance was already playing. The Chicken Dance was specifically choreographed for, and by, the egg-laying competition, though if any gathering was ale-sodden enough it would be performed impromptu and at random. It matched the springle-ring in energy but outstripped it by miles in its ability to make any hobbit who actually danced it look like a complete fool. Hobbits who woke the next morning with horrible hangovers also woke hoping that they hadn't actually gotten drunk enough to start up with the "Chicken Dance". Even midsummer's "Little Frog Dance" had nothing on the humiliation and constant ribbing which would inevitably await them.

Sam's search for the first Chicken Dancer of the fair was interrupted when instead he caught a glimpse of Hobbiton's baker wandering around the field. Irresistibly, Sam's eyes were drawn downwards. The hairless feet looked shocking and strange to him: large, naked and for today, covered in purple splotches. He had seen them often before, yet each time was a surprise. He did not find them disgusting or repugnant as some claimed, but fascinating. He wondered how they would compare with those of big people who were rumoured to be so ashamed of the nakedness of their own feet that they hid them from each other in shoes.

Privately, Sam felt he was one of the few hobbits who truly appreciated feet. Spending much of his working life on his hands and knees meant that he would often see the lower altitudes of an approaching hobbit before any other part of them. All those years in quiet observation had given Samwise quite specific likes and dislikes when it came to the subject of feet. A subject he had dared to discuss openly with only one other.

Hobbits whose feet he particularly admired included Fredegar Bolger and Rosie Cotton. Lobelia Sackville-Baggins had gorgeous feet, with shapely ankles and delicate toes and foot fur so luxurious that Sam thought he understood why Otho not only married her, but continued to tolerate her temper as well. His favourite feet, though, well, they were not for him. But he knew he would be compelled to follow those feet wherever they went for the rest of his life.

For a topic that was taboo in polite conversation, many hobbits still invested an awful lot of time in activities which drew attention to their pedate extremities. Young girls paraded around the field, their foot fur decorated with ribbons. Sam smiled to himself. Invariably the bows would come undone and someone would fall over their own feet, usually when they were trying their best to look sophisticated. Others, particularly from the nobility, put lemon juice on their foot hair and spent hours sunning their feet and legs to turn brown hair blonde. They did not wish to tan the rest of their skin, so it was a common sight in the summer months to see pairs of legs and feet lined up on the thresholds of holes, with disembodied high-pitched chattering emanating from somewhere inside.

And there was always that old staple that was continually rediscovered, as sure as the turning of the seasons - ah, yes. There was a perfect example of the end result wandering around there, Sam noted. A child would find out that tree sap could be used to make foot hair clump together and stick out in all strange directions - and stay there. This was quite enjoyable until they also discovered that it could only be cut off. There was always some boy trying it out - on himself or his sister - and hence there was always a sprinkling of young hobbits trotting around with odd bald patches on their feet. Sam had tried it himself, years ago. And naturally, Marigold had insisted on not being left out. The Gaffer had not been amused, but his mother had laughed uproariously. He had always loved the sound of her voice and her laughter had often saved him from a thrashing. To hear that laughter now, he need only close his eyes.

***

Sam's daydreaming was disrupted by a kerfuffle from the direction of the egg-laying competition where a flurry of clucks and squawks rapidly increased in volume.

Farmer Brockhouse's prize cock had escaped and was currently strutting up and down between the two rows of hens. He was also skillfully evading both farmers' attempts to catch him with time enough to prance, preen and even crow. All the contestants were beside themselves, flapping and screeching excitedly. The last thing now on their collective bird brains was laying eggs. A few of those hobbits who had put down bets early in the day groaned. It was going to be a low-scoring match.

Sam went to get another drink, all the while casually scanning the crowd at ankle height. Sunlight gleamed through the trees and fell on a toddler with black, shiny foot hair. The hair on his feet and head was so glossy in fact, that the ray of light refracted out as a myriad of shifting colours. Sam stared in horror, unable to look away. Who would do that to their own child? He must be a Bracegirdle. Only the Bracegirdles ever used brilliantine, to the point that it almost had become their defining feature, but to use it on a child that young?

The child himself was blithely unaware of any wrongdoing on the part of his parents. He squealed and lurched towards his goal.

"Wuck!" he shouted.

Unfortunately, his goal was a moving one.

"Wuck!"

A lady in ridiculously large skirts hurried after him. His gait may not have been stylish, but it was effective. The child and his quarry were getting close to the pond. The lady picked up the pace, realising she had been gossiping too long and her small charge was now in danger.

"Wuck!"

His intended prize abandoned the fast waddle in favour of the fast flap. It was more effort, but it was worth it. Soon, indignant noises were coming from the middle of the pond.

The toddler stopped stock-still, right at the edge. He stared out over the pond with its calmly paddling occupants in slack-jawed wonder, unwittingly mirroring the High Elves when they first gazed upon Valinor.

The lady finally caught up with him and, throwing herself theatrically to her knees, she embraced him from behind, pressing her cheek into his hair and crying out, "Oh, Bongo darling, I thought I had lost you!"

Sam rolled his eyes.

Bongo noticed nothing.

Frodo, meanwhile, was sitting under a tree, wine-and-water in hand and jacket and waistcoat beside him, attempting to relax after his morning exertions. There were several reasons why this had so far proved fruitless. Firstly, his neck and shoulders seemed to have seized up and they were now hurting considerably. He was also suspicious that he could feel an incipient headache. Secondly, large numbers of relations, acquaintances and hangers-on were vying for his time, generally all asking the same questions; that is, where was Bilbo and did Frodo think that Bilbo might be dead? After about fifteen years it did get rather tiring. Thirdly, and most distractingly, his mind was determined to think about things other than the subject at hand.

He felt again the lovely squelch of the bursting grapes under his soles and the deep slide up over his ankles to his calves in the must. The juice squirted between his toes and they met another set of toes and they were both meshed together with the juice and the skins and the swirling fruit. If he tried hard, he could block out the feeling of a hard chest and muscular arms around him and the alluring smell of fresh sweat. But everywhere he looked he could see stained feet and he thought of grapes and oh....

"Mr Frodo, I hope you do not mind me saying this, but you look a bit peaky."

Mrs Burrows had waited until the latest batch of relatives had moved on before she had spoken. "Perhaps you need to lie down for a bit somewhere quiet."

Frodo looked around, feeling dizzy from wine, exertion, lust, too much sun, too many relatives, sore shoulders and a definite growing headache. "You are quite right, Mrs Burrows," he replied, "and a dose of good hobbit-sense is just what I needed. I will take your advice."

He stood up, took his leave of the old lady and headed for home for a short lie-down with the intention of coming out to see the last throes of the egg-laying competition at sunset.

****

No matter how enjoyable treading the grapes was, it was still hard going for those involved in taking regular shifts. By the end of the day exhausted and inebriated hobbits with purple-stained feet and legs could be seen littering the ground, as wilted as the autumn leaves surrounding them.

Sam left the field and trudged wearily but happily up The Hill with Frodo's jacket and waistcoat draped neatly over his arm. He had found them lying under a tree with no master in sight and had decided to drop them off at Bag End before heading home. The last of the light was draining away from the long streaks of cloud on the horizon, and the stars began to prick through the heavens one by one as Sam looked up and saw Bag End, dark and silent. It loomed in gloomy contrast to the day's festivities and the fading sound of birds chirping and fussing in the trees as they settled down for the night.

Sam frowned and, with an effort, quickened his step. It was quite possible that Frodo was already in bed after the day's excitement, and the warm day had convinced him that no fire would be necessary. But a voice inside Sam told him this was not the case. The windows of the smial stared unseeing at the landscape before them and every rustle of his approach fell dead as if any noise had become suddenly unwelcome in this place.

He quietly pushed open the back door of Bag End, swished his feet in the foot-bath to rinse them and padded silently into the kitchen. What he felt here was not the comforting enfolding darkness at the end of a beautiful autumn evening. It was, rather, the prickly, implacable darkness that caressed one's cheek and breathed fear into one's nostrils. It carried on it a dank, sour smell of stale air and illness.

He groped for the table, putting his burdens down on it before finding his way by touch to the flint and candles, forcing away the sudden panic rising in his throat. Once the flame flickered and strengthened, greedily plucking at the wick and sucking away the wax, he held the candle aloft as if to ward off an evil spirit, much as his grandmother had done if anyone had talked of the death of a still-living person. The darkness unwillingly retreated just enough to reveal a room with a bare table and untouched counters that showed no signs of use for the usual supper. He scooped up his master's clothing and pressed on, shadows against the walls leaping large and shrinking as he walked.

The lounge and dining halls were empty and silent, the doors to the study and library stood open and showed no occupant, and when Sam stood still and held his breath, the only sound to reach his ears was the thrumming of his own pulse, growing quicker and louder as the seconds ticked by. He cautiously placed his hand on the doorknob of the main bedroom, letting his fingers curl around it slowly and gently before turning it with infinite care. The door sighed open on well-oiled hinges to show a pristine bed flanked by cupboards and furnishings and no sign of life.

Sam now began to hurry in earnest, dropping the armful of clothing on the floor and heedless of any noise he might make in the unforgiving place this smial had become to him. He opened the doors to all the spare rooms and glanced in, slowed only by the wavering light of the candle, which threatened him with snuffing itself out should he dare to move too swiftly. By the time he finished searching the rest of the hole, he was standing paralysed in the cellar, battling with his fear of what had become of Frodo. Frodo must have come back to Bag End, there was nowhere else he would have gone or had reason to go to. He usually left a note on the kitchen table if urgent business required him to make an unforeseen trip. Sam pushed away wild thoughts of Frodo riding out on an Adventure like old Mr Bilbo or being struck by lightening and began reasoning that perhaps he had been too hasty in his search of the rooms and Frodo had gone to sleep somewhere unusual if he had overindulged in food and wine at the festival. This was not unknown to happen and Sam had not been so thorough in his initial exploration as to check under all the tables. For a proper inspection, more light would be the first requirement.

He strode back to the kitchen and squatted down to light the wood in the hearth, all the while planning his next moves. He would look calmly through every corner of the hole first, including under the tables, inside the cupboards and behind the beer barrels, then try outside around the hole, and only after these actions had proved to be unsuccessful would he raise the Row to send out a search party for the missing Master of Bag End.

As the fire crackled into life and began merrily to chase away the darkness, Sam decided that his mind would think more clearly with a breath of fresh air in his lungs. He sidled around the table and put a knee on the padded bench under the window sill, leaning over the cushions as he reached up with both hands and let in the cool night breeze.

The bench was soft and yielding and it groaned quietly under his weight. Sam looked down and saw, in the growing light, along with the pile of pillows, here and there a glimpse of dark green cotton and brown velvet. He had found Frodo.

"Mr Frodo?" Looking at the abstract pile of cushions and clothing, it was difficult to tell which end of the bench he ought to address.

There was no answer.

Sam carefully removed two small square pillows and discovered a pair of purple-stained feet, the two large toes tightly interlocked. Sam paused, staring for a moment before he shook himself and tried the other end. He tugged gently at a large feather bolster and encountered resistance. The removal of four other cushions revealed Frodo lying on his side, fully dressed in the same clothes he had worn all day, head firmly barricaded under the bolster.

"Mr Frodo? Can I help you, sir?" This was rather odd behaviour, even for Frodo.

There was an extended pause, before a muffled reply rasped out, "Headache."

"Then - ," Sam bit back an obvious question and instead altered it to," - I'll be back very soon, sir."

He moved to a corner and reached high up to a small cupboard wherein the medicinal herbs were kept. The jars and tins had been jumbled about and in the dim light it took a minute or two for him to locate the one he wanted. He put it on the counter and used the end of a teaspoon to prise off the lid. It was empty.

When had the last of the willow bark been used? It was a useless question, but Sam couldn't stop himself wondering. He then berated himself for not thinking to check the stocks of the medicines, despite it never having been his responsibility. He poked despondently about in the cupboard again, despair settling softly and heavily on his arms, weighing them down.

"There's none left." The voice from the bench reached Sam's ears as if its owner were miles underground. "Forgot to buy more."

Sam turned to see Frodo slowly remove the bolster from his head, keeping his eyes tightly shut against the pain and most likely the light as well. His face was haggard and his skin looked sallow in the firelight. Frodo must have left the party already feeling unwell, and his state of dress indicated that most of that time had been spent right here on the bench, in a vain attempt to block out the pain by trying to sleep.

"I'll go down the Row and see if any there have some for you, sir," murmured Sam, keeping his voice low in an effort not to disturb Frodo any further. He knew that there was no willow bark in his own home.

"No. Don't go." It was little more than a croak.

Sam's concern emboldened him to gainsay his master. "It won't take but a - ," he began.

"No, Sam, I forbid you," interrupted Frodo without raising or changing the tone of his voice. "Everyone has had a lovely day and I won't have their much needed sleep being ruined by poor Mr Baggins' delicate nerves." The words grated harshly in the quiet of the kitchen, stilling Sam's movement towards the back door.

It was one thing not to wish to give cause for gossip but quite another to lie for hours in pain on a bench. Frodo's orders however, were mercilessly clear. Sam hesitated, trying to think of willow bark alternatives that might be available in the smial.

Frodo's toes disentangled themselves as their owner shifted his legs and re-settled into a more tightly curled posture, covering his head with the crook of an arm to ward off any trickle of light. The feet folded over each other and one foot began slowly rubbing the instep of the other in an unconscious repetitive motion.

"Sam, I'll sleep it off." The transparent lie was his dismissal, but Sam chose not to understand it as such, for he had had another idea. Instead, he scuttled off to the bathing room.

Frodo's world was a haze of pulsating pain. All light had become an evil to be banished and actually moving his head could not even be contemplated. If he could put his temple under cool, flowing water it might help, but in doing so he also might well drown. No, that wouldn't help either. His only desire was to drift into unconsciousness and wake up some time later without this infernal headache. Attempting a cure with strong concoctions of sleeping draughts was another option, but Frodo's mind wasn't quite that addled. Despite his present situation, he had no wish to cross the pharmacological line from "medicine" to "poison". He truly did not want to see Sam or anyone else again tonight, but facing company any time in an unspecified pain-free future would be quite acceptable. He scrunched his eyes and twisted his face into a grimace as he clamped his head between his arms in yet another effort to squeeze away the ache and slip into blessed darkness.

A muffled sound reached his ears. He ignored it.

It was repeated. Frodo had no idea what it was, but it wasn't a hobbit sounding the Horn of Buckland so it was no concern of his.

Something warm and wet touched his right heel and began moving slowly up his calf muscle. This perhaps ought to be investigated. Certainly if it went any higher.

The something reached the back of his knee. It felt pleasant. In fact, it was the only sensation other than pain that he had been able to register for a number of hours now. He would investigate it if it went any higher.

It didn't. The something slid around his knee and down over his shin, encountering more and more hair as it travelled lower. It paused at his ankle, as if taking a breath, or making a decision, then skidded quickly over his sensitive furry instep, settling over his toes. It weaved in and out between the toes, glided over his sole and vanished.

Frodo was stunned. He had absolutely no idea what that something was. Amidst the throbbing, his mind presented him with a picture of  large dog with a warm wet tongue. He clamped his arms tighter around his head. He sincerely hoped it wasn't a large dog with a warm wet tongue. It would have to be a very large dog indeed.

The something returned and repeated the action. Up his Turin's tendon, over his calf muscle - could it be a cow's tongue? Why would a cow be in his kitchen? - to the back of his knee, and bother, not high enough, down again towards his toes and away.

A hand touched his shoulder and he indicated his desire to be left alone with a long polysyllabic groan.

His other leg was now being given the same treatment. Ah, so it wasn't a tongue at all. It was a cloth and someone's hand. Frodo felt faintly disappointed. A tongue would be quite nice, depending on whom it belonged to, just a little higher, it would take his mind off -

A bright line of intense agony flashed along his temple. No lights, no tongues, no cloths - nothing existed except this torment created by his own mind. The spasm in his brain slowly subsided and he could hear another low sound enter his tortured world. He realised someone was speaking to him again.

There was a pause, as if an answer was required.

"Don't care." Frodo decided that this would be the truthful answer to almost any question at the moment.

He could block out light and sound, and the rattling of his head deadened feeling in the rest of his body, but one sense he could not turn off was smell. And for some reason he could most definitely smell lavender.

"Hate lavender." Why did people insist on bringing him lavender-scented presents? There were several bottles of the horrid stuff sitting in his bathroom and he couldn't give them away fast enough. How far away was his birthday so he could offload some more mathoms?

"It's very good for headaches, sir."

Ah, so Sam was still around.

"Don't care." At least this time it was the correct answer. "Hate lavender." The effort of speaking was excruciating. Lavender flowers were lovely and Bag End's gardens had quite a beautiful patch of them, thanks to Sam, but the smell of the distilled oil was something else entirely. If anything, it would give him a headache rather than cure it.

"I'll change it to the marjoram then, sir."

Fine. That was fine. Marjoram was nice. As long as - when did he turn onto his back? And why was Sam here rabbiting on about lavender and marjoram oil? All these unanswered questions were aggravating the ache. It was best not to think at all. He pressed his forearm hard across his eyes and let out a small whimper. It didn't help.

After an indeterminate amount of time the scent in the air changed perceptibly and a weight settled itself on the bench next to his feet. Once again a voice, vaguely recognisable as Sam's, floated through the fog towards Frodo.

"Now don't you worry none, sir. It might take a few minutes."

Worry? What was there for him to worry about? There was nothing in this world that he currently cared about except cures for blistering headaches.

Something clamped firmly over the instep of his right foot and he jerked it back automatically. It was a hand, and it had been expecting this resistance as the grip was gentle but unyielding.

"Try to relax, sir."

"Sam, what are you - " The sentence tailed off into a moan. Speaking was intolerable. Expressing his discomfort using more primitive methods, he discovered, was another matter. He had been on his own all evening and moaning aloud to oneself has little therapeutic effect. A good, heartrending wail when an audience is present, however, sometimes gives momentary respite. Frodo gave it his all.

Well, the pounding in his skull had not dimmed, but his spirit most certainly felt lighter.

"I'm trying to cure your headache, if you'll let me, sir."

How touching his feet was going to chase away the hemicrania, Frodo was not sure. The last time anyone had sunk their fingers into the hair on his instep was a few years ago now, but the ending of that evening had been altogether acceptable. That hobbit's hands had not stopped at his knee. Frodo smiled despite his suffering and wondered if Sam knew some tricks of his own. The smile quickly changed to a grimace. When would this agony end?

A pressure on the sole of his right foot brought some of his attention to the matter at hand, that was to say, Sam's patented Headache Cure. It appeared to consist of a foot massage. Frodo knew only one purpose for a foot massage and had never truly considered taking Sam as his lover before. He had known Sam for so long that his gardener had become a fixture of Bag End, and, in some ways, permanently a child in Frodo's mind. But what was he now? Thirty-four? Thirty-five? This was comforting to know because Sam was certainly not acting like a child.

Or a lover.

His fingers were not tangled in Frodo's hair at all. His hand was merely placed against the instep to balance the force exerted on the underside of Frodo's foot.

It was an extremely odd feeling. At his northern end, there was nothing but pulsing, beating pain and yet at his southern end, tiny wavelets of pleasure were radiating along his leg and gradually climbing higher. At the present time his stomach was utterly confused and Frodo thought for a moment that he might be sick. Then Frodo's right foot was placed back on the bench and the left was now settled onto a lap and the ministrations continued. The massage roamed over the entire sole, but concentrated on the pads of the toes, returning again and again to this area. Curiouser and curiouser, thought Frodo. Most of the foot massages he'd experienced before had been somewhat different. Then again, they had usually been cut short by other, more important matters.

He now could feel distinctly not only fingertips, but knuckles being applied. Frodo was musing vaguely where Sam could have learned this technique and on whom he might have been practising it, when he realised that the process of thinking was not hurting quite as much as it did before. Perhaps there was something in this after all. Frodo could hear the comforting crackle and snap of the fire in the hearth and little else. No, there was also the soft sound of Sam's regular breathing and the faint whisper of flesh sliding on flesh. The world was now no more than a soft bed where both pain and pleasure mingled in an uneasy truce. Not long afterwards, Frodo finally sensed his body relaxing and pleasure gaining the upper hand.

The scent of marjoram grew a little stronger and the hands fell on his left foot again, now slickened with oil. It felt wonderfully good, though not, as might be expected, exciting. Pure relief was flooding his tired limbs. The abating of the misery which had so long held him in thrall seemed to him at this moment as the most exalted feeling a hobbit could ever experience. That comforting pressure was sending ripples of calm through his soles and along his whole body to his mind. Once again, the focus of the massage was on the pads of his toes, but now the stillness of the room was complete. Frodo breathed out on a mewling little sigh. He never felt the hands return to his right foot.

***

A beam of sunlight squeezed between drawn curtains, streaked across an exposed throat and commenced a steady climb upwards. Blissfully unaware that its fate was being decided, it crawled over the swelling of the larynx, leaping lightly onto the chin and skimming over its small cleft, then dancing joyously over the lips, frivolously coaxing them to a bright cherry red. Then onwards once again with another spring across the cheeks and up onto the tip of the nose, sliding down the bridge and highlighting the cheekbones before jumping mischievously right onto the closed eyes.

The eyelids twitched a few times, then opened, and the playful ray of light vanished instantly into blackness.

If sunlight managed to reach his face during the autumn months, Frodo knew that he must have slept to nigh on lunchtime. His stomach certainly deemed it was lunchtime. He rubbed briskly at his eyes with his knuckles, and over his whole face with his palms, then rolled over and sat up. He shook his head to clear the last of the sleepy fog from his mind, then stood up and scratched. Odd. He was still wearing his underlinens. He usually wore only the nightshirt.

His mind began to process the previous day's events and as it did so he sank slowly back onto the edge of the bed. It couldn't have happened like that, could it? No, it had to be a dream. Sam did not give him some sort of magical foot rub and then put him to bed like a babe. Yet Frodo could not recollect anything past lying on the bench in the kitchen in excruciating pain for what had seemed like an age or more and then his feet being expertly massaged. Sam and oil were involved in the picture along with a lavender - no, a warm herby odour and ...

Frodo looked down at his feet. Then he brought up his right foot to lie across his left thigh and ran his fingers over the sole. It was completely oil-free. He bent down as far as he could and sniffed. If there were any smell remaining, it was very faint indeed. He must have imagined the marjoram. Marjoram! That was it. He sniffed at his foot again. The lingering scent helped to order the jumbled memories. He recalled the headache, and Sam and the lack of willow bark. There was something about dogs which he couldn't quite categorise, his feet were being massaged and then his mind could find nothing more to give him. Beyond that was only conjecture which led to waking up in bed, mercifully pain-free, yet disturbingly with his underlinens still on. He wished he could not hear the niggling voice telling him that if he had wakened in his traditional night attire, he would have remained oblivious as to how he came to be there.

As he poured water into the basin for a quick wash before he dressed, his mind was racing as to how to talk to Sam. For some reason Frodo felt as uncomfortable as if they had both gotten roaring drunk and woken up together in bed with a suspicious stiffness in the limbs and a lingering tell-tale tang in the air that could not be mistaken for marjoram. In truth, as far as Frodo could remember, Sam had been perfectly professional about the situation and, ultimately, his remedy had worked. But the picture of Sam's gardener's hands touching Frodo's feet, broad palms cradling a heel, a knuckle caressing an arch, warm fingertips stroking his ankle then dipping repeatedly between the toes and finally, finally, sinking into the hair on his instep.... Frodo braced his hands against the rim of the basin and groaned. He was eroticising the whole situation, it had never happened like that at all; but his imagination had been as effective as any tween's. Annoyed with himself, he tore off his nightshirt, splashed cold water over his face, and before he had time to reconsider the matter, sloshed a sopping washcloth over his groin.

There really were better ways to deal with this sort of thing.

After Frodo had dressed and composed himself, he poked his head around the bedroom door, listening carefully for signs of life. The smial was devoid of any noises that could be construed as hobbit-created. Only lazy birdsong drifting through the window along with the distant sound of someone chopping wood further down the Row broke the noonday stillness. Naturally, there would be somewhat less activity on the morning after the Pressing Festival. His stomach gurgled loudly in the quiet.

On reaching the kitchen he discovered a basket of food and a note. The rounded, large script told him it was from Sam before he picked it up.

Mr Frodo, Sir,

                        I let you sleep because you had nothing on this morning.

Frodo winced at the unfortunate choice of words.

                        I will be in the bottom garden today if you want me, Sir.

                                                            Yours Sincerely,

                                                                                    Samwise Gamgee

Bilbo had always insisted on correct form in his letters. Combining this with Sam's economic use of the written word, it invariably made Sam's "notes" look like final demands for payment. Frodo knew that Sam would consider writing and re-writing a note to be a waste of time, though he could craft perfectly fluid letters when he set his mind to it. It struck Frodo then that Sam always signed his full name, and never used the usual opening term "Dear", though Bilbo would undoubtedly have taught it to him.

Whatever else the writing style might indicate, one thing was perfectly clear. Sam was as embarrassed as Frodo about the events of last night, and had fled to the farthest reaches of the gardens to hide. Frodo was grateful for the time alone. He picked up the basket, snagged a book from a pile in the hall and stepped out to enjoy a solitary lunch under the Party Tree.

****

Blue and white and waving green met Frodo's gaze as he lay on his back with his head pillowed on his folded arms, the book lying untouched in the grass and lunch all but forgotten. He had made it only as far as two chicken and chutney sandwiches, three pickled gherkins, an apple and half a seedcake before he gave up and let his mind wander wherever it wished. And it wished to wander back to the previous night.

It kept offering varying scenarios on exactly what must have happened for Sam to get him into bed. Where solid information was lacking, it happily supplied preposterous alternatives. These would rapidly lose any thread of reality as each version left the plane of Arda and shot into the realms of impossible fantasy, or at least fantasies that Frodo had heretofore not connected with Sam. The recurring themes of Sam, feet and oil led to some disturbing combinations that Frodo truly did not want to consider, but mostly to things that he found he did.

One small fancy clambered slowly above the chaotic tangle of half-formed inclinations and flickering daydreams and, through repeated suggestions of its possibility, grew into an all-consuming craving. He wanted Sam to give him another foot massage.

A blue titmouse flew into his view and settled on a branch directly above him. Frodo frowned. He was too comfortable and preoccupied to move, but to lie on the ground, face to the heavens with the underside of a small bird obstructing one's view was not wise. He sighed and sat up, clutching his head in his hands.

He could pretend he had another headache. However, if there were accidentally no willow bark to be had a second time around, Sam might smell a rat. He could pretend to pass out. But Frodo had never fainted before in his life and to do so now might end up with him lying in bed surrounded by a gaggle of leeches, poking and prodding and prescribing potions which would be nothing like the physic he was after. Frodo also felt he ought to be above faking an illness. Bilbo hadn't been above it, of course, but that behaviour had been saved solely for the Sackville-Bagginses. Samwise was someone Frodo actually liked and whose opinions he respected. However, walking up to him and asking directly for a foot massage was quite out of the question. Sam would be sure to misunderstand his intentions. It was the oldest pickup line in the book short of Want to feel my foot fur? How coarse.

He stuffed the book and remainder of his lunch into the basket and started meandering back to the hole. A warm, dry, south-easterly caught at his hair and lifted it playfully from the back of his neck. Frodo smiled wryly to himself. He could smell lavender.

***

A ray of late afternoon sunlight found Frodo pottering around in the kitchen, considering the important matter of dinner for an extra three hungry hobbits. It struck his back, and then, as he moved away, travelled on towards the cold hearth. It bounced merrily on the copper kettle hanging in its path and, following the laws of nature which governed its existence, instantly changed direction back outwards and upwards. It found time to contemplate its fate awhiles before passing into the beauty of eternal night.

Frodo jerked his head away from the light, suddenly realising that he had missed afternoon tea. Ever since Sam had been a child, following his father around in Bag End's gardens, Sam had usually found something important to do within about twenty feet of the kitchen window around afternoon tea time. Bilbo had attributed this to the smell of seed cake or Westfarthing Splits with their implicit promise of clotted cream and strawberry jam. Nevertheless, the old hobbit had long ago taken to asking him in for a cup of tea and a chat. Bilbo's delight in telling stories and Sam's unwavering thirst for them ensured a pleasant time for them both, despite the huge age difference. Ever mindful of overstaying his welcome, Sam would remain perhaps half an hour before politely excusing himself to help his father tidy up after the day's work and get home just before nightfall. Even after the Gaffer had placed the entire workload on his son's shoulders and Bilbo had left Frodo in possession of Bag End, the routine of the day had not changed. Sam still hovered around the kitchen at afternoon tea time, and Frodo continued the tradition of asking him in. The short talks between Frodo and Sam were more of a two-way affair than they had been when Bilbo had presided. Sam would use the opportunity to discuss gardening decisions, news of his family's doings and sometimes a little local gossip. Unwittingly, Frodo had come to rely on Sam for many things, and not simply for alerting him when it was time for a seed cake or two. Frodo now awaited and, indeed, longed for Sam's company. He wondered if this break with tradition had left Sam feeling the same. There was only one way to find out.

As Frodo directed his feet to walk briskly towards the bottom garden his mind was racing over the options he had considered that lunchtime. None of them appeared suitable. He forced himself to keep walking, despite his indecision. It was his duty to talk to Sam before his gardener went home for the evening. If nothing else, Frodo knew that he should thank Sam for alleviating his headache, and thus to allay any fears that some servant-master boundary had been overstepped. Sam's Disappearing Gardener behaviour was enough to tell Frodo of Sam's opinion on the matter, and yes, technically one could say it had, but Frodo found that he did not mind at all. It occurred to him that the easiest way to speak about this would be to simply tell the truth. With just a couple of details omitted. Whether or not he managed to engineer another foot massage in the process was not the point. Perhaps he ought to avoid that part of the topic today, if only because he could not yet think of a good enough excuse, though his hope for a lightening bolt of inspiration had not entirely faded. He sternly ordered his feet to stride on.

He found Sam kneeling next to the horseradish patch, loading his few tools into a bucket. Taming the horseradish was a never-ending job almost until winter, ever since Bilbo planted the stuff when the Gaffer was not looking. The Gaffer had not been amused, despite Bilbo's protestations that he had done it because he was inordinately fond of horseradish and much preferred the fresh root to the bottled sauce. Now it required attention every few weeks, not to help it grow, but to foil its regular forays into the rest of the garden. It was the sort of job that required some time but little thought; the sort of job one would choose to do when one's mind was busy elsewhere.

Sam's mind was quite evidently elsewhere as he dropped the gardening fork into the bucket and emitted a huge, heartfelt sigh. He passed his hand over his brow, leaving behind a smudge of dirt and turned as if to look up in the direction of Bag End. It was plain that he had only then seen Frodo approaching, far too late for any attempt at concealment. He stood up, surreptitiously trying to wipe his hands on his breeches.

"Ah, Sam, I'm glad I managed to find you." It sounded a bit businesslike, but it was a good start.

"Sorry, Mr Frodo," said Sam deferentially, unsuccessfully attempting to direct his expression away from 'worried' to a more neutral setting.

"Oh, no, not that you were difficult to find, I mean, I found the note - and the lunch. Thank you for taking the time to make it for me, it was delicious." The words hurriedly launched themselves from his lips with no thought behind them and Frodo began to worry where this conversation would end up if he allowed his tongue rather than his mind to have control. Sam might decide to seek alternative employment.

"It was no trouble, sir. I made a cold lunch because I couldn't be sure when you'd wake."

The remaining leaves on the surrounding trees whispered new gossip as Frodo tucked an imaginary wayward curl behind his ear. Sam chewed the inside of his cheek, and all of a sudden turned his attention to a loose thread on the hem of his shirt.

"Do you -"

"I were -"

Sam ducked his head and Frodo tried to steer the conversation in the general direction he needed.

"Do you have a little time to spare this evening?" he blurted, and coloured. This was akin to the first time he had ever asked a lass out. No, it was worse. It sounded like he was asking Sam the same. He rushed on, hoping to clarify things quickly. "I would like to ask you about something."

Sam looked panicked and swallowed before he composed himself and said, very quietly but clearly, "Yes, Mr Frodo. I were just tidying up."

Frodo prided himself on his rhetoric, which years ago had reliably gotten him out of trouble, and these days served as competent diplomat in local disputes and well-appreciated entertainer of his friends. Yet at present it was forsaking him as surely as the light of the setting sun.

"Ah, yes, well, when you are ready, could you pop in?" He sounded like Bilbo in moments of forgetfulness.

"I'll be right there, sir," replied Sam, meekly.

On returning to Bag End, Frodo's plans for a fortifying cup of tea and a talk disintegrated. One of his guests had already arrived. Pippin was waiting on the doorstep, having escaped his relatives earlier than they bargained for. Naturally, a guest must be fed on arrival, and Sam was commandeered to help, for Frodo had not had the expected amount of time to prepare. Pippin was fond of Sam and they cooked and talked and drank in the kitchen until Merry and Fatty arrived, whereupon they removed to the dining room to continue eating and drinking and talking.

After dinner, they picked up their glasses and repaired to the parlour, a bottle of wine wedged firmly in Fredegar's hand. Sam politely turned down the request to join them further, as he intended to meet his Gaffer at the Ivy Bush, but volunteered to clear the dining table and wash up before heading out. The offer was gratefully accepted.

Frodo opened the bottle and then decided to obtain a fresh glass for himself, for this wine was a different grape variety to the previous one. Reusing the same crystalware for several diverse wines never seemed to bother any of his guests. He headed back towards the kitchen, emptying the last of the dregs into their new home, just in time to see the retreating figure of Sam, laden with a pile of dirty crocks and cutlery, enter the same. As Frodo reached the door, a fork slipped off the top plate and clattered to the ground. Without a second's thought, Sam reached out with his foot and picked it up with his toes and in one smooth movement put the plates next to the sink whilst deftly transferring the fork to his hand and onto the pile again.

The wineglass slipped from Frodo's fingers.

Sam twisted abruptly at the sound of smashing vitrics. "Mr Frodo, are you hurt?" he asked, taking a step forward.

"Feet - uh, tripped," gabbled Frodo, and then a second later, "No, Sam! Don't you move! There is glass everywhere. I'll get the dustpan and brush." He scurried to the broom closet.

Moments later, he was on his knees in the kitchen, sweeping tiny fragments into the pan. He could feel that Sam was extremely uncomfortable with this reversal of roles, but Frodo still took an inordinate amount of time to clean up, under the pretext of doing a thorough job. He also kept Sam backed into the corner as long as possible by commencing his sweeping at the opposite end of the room.

"Mr Frodo, I - " began Sam, his curling toes another indication of his discomfort, along with the tone of his voice.

"Sam, I won't let my carelessness result in you picking glass out of your feet for the next three days." Frodo made sure that his head was aimed towards the task at hand, whilst working his peripheral vision overtime.

The feet balanced on their outer edges, and the first and second toes interlocked.

Frodo delicately flicked a shimmering sliver into the pan.

The left toes scratched nervously at the Turin's tendon of the right foot.

Frodo squinted at a imaginary sparkle on the ground and rapidly swatted at it in a show of energetic sweeping.

The ball of the right foot smoothed down the hair on the left's instep.

The movement of the brush slowed.

In the kitchen, nothing could be heard: neither the scuff of the brush, nor the shift of fidgeting toes, nor even the sound of breathing.

Frodo began to raise his head, but a shout of laughter from the palour seemed to halt this intention, and he spoke to Sam's thighs instead.

"You can walk around me now, Sam, and I'll just finish the corner behind you," he announced, somewhat brusquely.

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." Sam stepped around Frodo, trying to keep well clear of his master and almost falling on top of him in the effort to do so. "I'll get the rest of the crocks from the table, sir." He disappeared.

Frodo remained where he was, staring blankly at the pile of transparent fragments in the dustpan. Three sentences. Three uses of the word 'sir'. His actions had made Sam extremely agitated.

They had not helped his own situation either, and Frodo hoped that Sam would take a little extra time in collecting the rest of the dishes. He had been on his knees in front of his servant and found that he wished to remain so. If there had been no one else around he might have reached out and... No, he would not have done that. He sighed and moved his hands to complete the task he had begun. The glass winked at him and tinkled softly.

"Sorry," said Frodo in a tired voice, addressing the contents of the pan, "I can't understand you."

He stood up and poured the debris slowly into the garbage bin where it settled with innumerable muted clinks. He stared after it sorrowfully.

"Talking to inanimate objects is fine," came a voice from the doorway, "but when you expect to hear an answer you should seriously consider taking a good, long holiday."

Frodo smiled at the garbage bin and then tilted his head towards Fatty. Fredegar was leaning on the door jamb and grinning broadly.

"But I am quite sure it was trying to tell me something," Frodo replied smoothly, becoming once again the entertaining host.

"'Ouch', perhaps?"

"That is ridiculous, Fatty, everyone knows that wineglasses can't feel anything."

"Yet they can talk?"

"Weeell," said Frodo, affecting deep thought by stroking his chin, "I'm not sure about talking, but they certainly can sing."

"Whatever you say, Frodo, it's your smial. I'm far too polite too tell a hobbit who has just fed me an excellent meal that he is on the Pony Express to Bag End."

There was a short silence as Fatty paused for effect.

"Oh, wait, you're already here." Fatty's grin stretched even wider.

"As are you."

"Ah, yes, indeed. In that case, I can tell you exactly what that wineglass said and the answer is sitting in the dining room."

"What?" Frodo squeaked out.

"Frodo..." Fatty came and put his arm around Frodo in a conspiratorial manner and whispered, "It is a wineglass. It can only say one word. 'Wiiiiiiiiine'. We've finished the one in the parlour and the other is sitting in the dining room, waiting for you to open it."

"Oh, of course. Ahem." Frodo recovered himself and plucked four wineglasses from the cupboard with a flourish.

Fatty raised an eyebrow.

"Get four more for me, would you, there's a good fellow," said Frodo calmly, jerking his head back in the general direction of the cupboard.

Fatty's second eyebrow joined the first, but he did as he was told.

"You told me what wineglasses say," explained Frodo, "and now I will show you how they sing."

He led an amused but bemused Fatty out of the kitchen.

Not long after, Sam left for the Ivy Bush, accompanied by the strains of Merry and Fatty's enthusiastic but violently out-of-tune singing, Pippin's laughter and Frodo's glass harmonica.

****

"According to this, seven out of ten Shire hobbits say that feet play 'a very important role' in how attractive they find someone." Fatty lowered his newspaper and regarded his own feet, which were currently resting on the kitchen table.

"Hmmm. Symmetry? - ooh, eight out of ten. Shape? - mmm, nice line of the toes, well-defined, rounded heels - nine out of ten. Abundance of fur? - ahhh - most assuredly ten out of ten." Beaming, he spread his toes wide and wiggled them contentedly.

"Size? Two out of ten."

"Hoy!"

"Lucky for you," continued Merry nonchalantly from behind the 'Middle-Earth' section of 'The Hobbiton Weekly', which consisted solely of news from the rest of the Shire and very occasionally Bree, "I am one of the three out of ten hobbits for whom feet 'do not play a great role' in my opinion of someone's beauty."

A snort of laughter was heard as a long-fingered hand reached around the 'Arts and Collectibles' section propped at the end of the table, and secured a teacup.

"Ooh, I'm not so su-ure," crooned Fatty as he returned to the article in 'The Anar'. "It states here that nine out of ten working-class hobbits admit to being attracted by feet whilst only one out of ten of gentlehobbits confess to the same. It continues with '...this extreme disparity between the sexual tastes of the aristocracy and that of the peasantry can only be reconciled by concluding that (A) the aristocracy and peasantry are not of the same breeding stock, (B) the aristocracy found it difficult to answer such a question truthfully or (C) all the peasants we were able to interview were drunk at the time.'"

"I vote 'D'."

"D?"

"The writers interviewed the peasants in the Dragon just before closing time and the aristocrats at polite afternoon teas in front of a specially imported panel of aunts." An appreciative chuckle emanated from behind 'Middle-Earth'. Frodo folded his paper, stood up and pawed at the other sections of 'The Hobbiton Weekly' which were scattered all over the table.

"'The Anar' hasn't improved since I used to read it," he commented. He found the part with the brain-teasers on the back and cast an eye over the "Tooks and Brandybucks" problem.

Fatty ignored this and peered around his paper at Merry. "I think it is 'B'. I can easily believe that nine out of ten hobbits find feet attractive."

"Meaning you do," retorted Merry.

"As do you," shot back Fatty, grinning.

"Oh dear, that leaves only....," Frodo did a quick calculation in his head, "seven tenths of myself which likes feet arguing with the other three tenths which doesn't." He contorted his face to display agonised horror, placed a hand on his breast and cried out theatrically, "What can this mean?"

"Not much, just that you're choosy," replied Fatty instantly.

Frodo maintained his exaggerated position and slid his eyes over to study Fredegar. He did not much like the gleam behind those eyes, particularly when he had no idea what it was about. Fatty could not possibly have known what had happened in that very kitchen two nights ago.

"I have an idea," announced Merry, relinquishing his paper in favour of a slice of toast. He slathered butter over it and took a bite. "We could ask Sam."

Frodo flicked his eyes over to Merry.

"Ergh."

Frodo returned his eyes to Fatty.

"What?" asked Merry.

"Huh?" answered Fatty.

"What's 'ergh' about Sam?"

"Nothing."

"Then why did you say 'ergh'?"

"Your method of putting half an inch of butter on your toast when it is cold caused the 'ergh'. You are the Cold Buttered Toast King. You have to put it on when it is hot, so it soaks into the bread. That's how you are supposed to eat toast."

"Oh." Merry looked at his toast, denture indentations clearly defined by the butter. "I do that for crumpets and muffins. Not toast."

"I see."

"In any case, we at least understand each other." He took another, larger bite of Cold Buttered Toast. "I thought it was strange that you would insult Sam."

"Sam is an excellent fellow and I would never wish to insult him."

Frodo sat down abruptly. He felt completely dizzy. At this rate, he would get another headache and he still hadn't had a chance to drop by the apothecary in Hobbiton. Then it occurred to him that that might not be such a bad thing, after all.

"So?" prompted Fatty. "What are we supposed to ask Sam about?"

"About feet."

"Ask him what about them and why?"

"Well, he is a peasant, and he is currently not drunk, or judging by his usual standards I would assume that to be the case," said Merry, reaching for his tea.

"You are planning to walk up to Sam and ask if he has a fetish for feet?" asked Frodo in a strangled voice.

"Not if he has a foot fetish, of course not, don't be silly," answered Merry, looking a mite puzzled. "Just if - " he reached over and tugged at 'The Anar'.

" - feet play a very important role in how attractive he finds someone," finished Fatty.

"Oh. Hmm. Well, it still might sound odd coming from you," said Frodo, desperately scanning his paper for an idea for a change in topic. Unfortunately, neither Merry nor Fatty were particularly interested in "Tooks and Brandybucks".

"All right, then," stated Merry. "You can ask him for us." He tipped his chair backwards and peered out of the window in the hope that Sam was in view and shouting range.

"I think it is a silly question to ask anyone." Frodo could feel himself beginning to perspire.

"Why? You were quite happy to ask him that time if he thought fair or tanned skin was more attractive," put in Fatty.

"I do not believe that story," countered Frodo swiftly, slipping into the routine of a familiar argument.

"There were wit-ness-es," sang Fatty, reasonably in tune.

"I have absolutely no recollection of my saying any such thing to Samwise," sniffed Frodo, trying to prevent his voice from climbing into his countertenor range.

"That's because after the meal you hit the pipeweed, the port and then finished with a thimbleful of that apricot liqueur given to Bilbo twenty years ago by the Baker's Wife. That stuff is dangerous. It seems to make everyone tell the truth."

"Codswallop. I merely got a bit tipsy. I always remember everything." He pretended an immediate, all-consuming interest in the newspaper.

"I wasn't at this party, but I keep hearing about it," chimed in Merry.

"You should have seen Sam's reaction! It was priceless! He said - "

"Mushrooms!"

Frodo had jerked open the paper and suddenly heard the distant voices of the Ainur.

"What?" asked Fatty.

"Where?" asked Merry.

"Yes!" said Pippin, entering the kitchen an hour later than everyone else.

"It's the special edition for autumn!" Frodo exclaimed - and the subject of 'feet' was forgotten by all.

Once a year, Morel Longbottom, writer of such authoritative tomes as "Mushrooms Demystified: The Complete Guide to the Fleshy Fungi", "Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms" and "Mushrooms of the Shire and Bree Area" would write a long article on likely places to find the most sought-after species of mushroom, drawing on the weather conditions leading up to the season. 'The Hobbiton Weekly' never announced exactly when the special edition would be released, which cleverly ensured an increase in sales around late September and early October.

***

"Took E four."

There was a pause.

"Brandybuck E five."

Another pause.

"Took F four."

Fatty was snoozing and Merry was reading methodically through the rest of "The Hobbiton Weekly".

"Brandybuck capture Took F four."

Merry turned a page and began reading the letters to the editor.

"Old Took C four."

Silence.

"Master's Wife H four. Check."

"Thain F one."

The newspaper rustled. "You brought your Master's Wife out early, Frodo," commented Merry, lazily.

"I have a cunning plan," said Frodo, tensely. "Brandybuck B five."

"Old Took capture Brandybuck B five."

"It sounds like it's working," snickered Merry.

"Just you wait," snapped Frodo, "and stop interrupting. Proudneck F six."

Pippin and Frodo were sitting at the bare kitchen table and staring intently at each other. They were playing "Tooks and Brandybucks" and the stakes were the highest possible. Honour. Pippin had nearly beaten Frodo the last few times and much as he did not want to admit it, Frodo could no longer afford to play a game with Pippin without giving it his full concentration.

"Bullroarer F three."

Merry retreated into his paper.

"Master's Wife H six."

Little was to be heard except the odd rustle, the intermittent scratch of pen on parchment as the moves were written down and the strange pronouncements dropping from the lips of the battling hobbits.

Pippin had sacrificed an Old Took a while back and now Frodo had just captured one of his Great Smials with a Deepdelver.

Merry reached the birth notices.

"Took E five."

Frodo frowned. Pippin was losing pieces left, right and centre and calmly advanced a Took as if nothing was happening! Well, since it was there for the taking....

"Master's Wife capture Great Smial A one. Check." Pippin had now lost both Great Smials and was in check to boot.

Merry scanned the marriage notices.

Pippin bent one knee to tuck his foot onto his chair and aimlessly toyed with the hair on his instep.

"Thain E two."

"Pippin, could you refrain from playing with your hair in public," said Merry who could see the action, "you're not a child anymore."

"I've seen Sam do it," replied Pippin, without diverting his gaze from Frodo.

"I beg your pardon?"

"When he takes a nap at lunchtime in the garden. His toes move continually and sometimes they tangle themselves in the fur on the other foot."

There was a short silence.

"I don't think I will ever be able to look Sam in the face again," said Merry.

"Then you'll have to look at his feet instead," retorted Fatty, cracking an eye open and snorting.

"Proudneck A six!" cried Frodo, angrily.

Fatty instantly shut his eye and pretended to sleep.

Merry hid behind the paper and began reading the death notices.

"Bullroarer capture Brandybuck G seven. Check."

Frodo twitched.

"Master of Buckland D eight." He had no choice.

"Thain's Wife F six. Check."

Frodo drooped. "Proudneck capture Thain's Wife F six," he grated out, throat suddenly constricting. Again, no choice.

He knew what Pippin's next move would be.

"Old Took E seven. Check - "

Frodo put his head on the table and groaned. He had lost.

"- and Mate."

In only twenty three moves.

Merry folded the paper.

***

Some time later, an afternoon sunbeam struck a mass of dark hair spilling onto the kitchen table. It found a beautifully-shaped ear and caressed it gently. It slid down to the exposed nape and stroked it lovingly with the lightest of touches.

Frodo's guests had tactfully retreated to the Dragon for an early pint and possibly dinner as well. Although Pippin had said nothing after his win, Frodo could hear his celebratory whoop from somewhere down the Row.

Frodo's forehead remained welded to the table. Why, oh, why did the twin topics of Sam and foot fur have to be raised at that moment? He was sure he could still have won if only either Sam or foot fur had been mentioned. But both at the same time? It was incredibly unfair.

Then Frodo remembered. He still had not spoken properly with Sam nor had the courage to thank him. It was now already afternoon and again there was no Sam in sight. That knowledge jolted him out of his self-pity and he raised his head, tried to push aside his traumatic loss, and set out to find his gardener.

He was turning the compost heap.

There were grey circles under his eyes and every muscle in his body gave witness to some inner tension.

"Good Afternoon, Sam," said Frodo. Not an original opening, but a tried and tested one.

"Good Afternoon, Mr Frodo," came the standard response. Sam's eyes flicked towards Frodo's forehead before they were lowered.

"You look tired, Sam, are you feeling well?" asked Frodo, concern taking precedence over the confusion of other emotions in his mind.

"Ah, I'm fine, sir, thank you for asking."

"You look like you haven't slept at all."

"Well, not a lot, sir. I think it were last night's weather." Sam attempted a smile.

Frodo snorted with wry amusement. "Last night's entertainment, rather," he said. "Fatty's singing would be enough to give anyone a headache. You should have gotten someone to give you a foot massage afterwards," he continued, realising far too late that the word "headache" and the phrase "foot massage" were now permanently intertwined.

Sam opened his mouth to reply, but no words came. He looked horribly upset.

Now that the subject had been broached, albeit unintentionally, Frodo ploughed on regardless. Whatever damage he could cause had been done. "I never got around to thanking you for the one you gave me that night. It worked like a charm, though I must admit I can't remember it all."

Sam's mouth remained ajar but the effect of Frodo's words on his expression was like a cool breeze on a hot summer's day.

"Oh, sir. That's good to hear, that is," was all he could muster before he pressed his hand over his face as if to stifle a sob.

Frodo groped for an apology. "I'm terribly sorry, Sam, I had no intention of distressing you." He waited a few moments to see if his words had any effect.

Sam took a couple of deep breaths before removing his hand and attempting a wavering smile.

"No, sir, not you. It were only my mind playing tricks on me, you might say." He squared his shoulders and ran a hand through his curls. "How may I help you, sir?"

You could start by giving me another foot massage was Frodo's first thought. Thank goodness he had not said it aloud. He cleared his throat instead.

"Ahem. How about coming in for afternoon tea?" he asked, and smiled.

***

Somehow conversation flows more easily when the participants have a pot of tea and a few seed cakes between them. Frodo set the cakes out and installed himself in his favourite chair and Sam, after having made the tea, settled down opposite him. The kitchen felt cosy and the sunlight gleamed cheerily off the wooden table.

"So you never had no chance to move either of your Brandy Halls?"

Sam was studying the list of moves of the "Tooks and Brandybucks" game. He did not play himself, but seemed to quite enjoy discussing it.

"No. Frankly, the whole thing was over before I knew it. Of course, I can pin down where I went wrong after the fact." Frodo rubbed his hand over his face and sighed. "You would be amazed by the clarity of my hindsight."

"Can't say as I can see where you went wrong, sir," commented Sam, perusing the list of moves and sipping his tea.

"Proudneck A six," nodded Frodo, now feeling sadder, but wiser for his experience. "If only I had not made that move."

"But there must have been a good idea behind it, I'd guess," said Sam, expectantly.

"Not really. I was - er - not concentrating as I should." Frodo stared morosely at the table.

"You're too hard on yourself, Mr Frodo," came Sam's soft reply, and something about the way it was said made Frodo look up.

He found Sam looking at him gently and warmly and Frodo felt a peaceful happiness in Sam's presence that had been missing in the last couple of days. He was glad it was back.

Matching Sam's soft tone, he said, "Sam, could you tell me more about that foot rubbing technique, please?" He lowered his eyes again as he suddenly could not tolerate that bright gaze. "It - it worked so well, and well, I'm interested in any cures that are effective and do not involve smelly potions and complex receipts and leeches coming around and poking, telling you to cough and such.... and it seems like something I should be able to learn, for who knows if I am ever stuck somewhere with someone who has a headache and there is no willow bark.... and I would not forgive myself if I gave up this opportunity to learn something that could have helped, and I cannot stop talking because I am terribly embarrassed to ask you," he finally finished. He fiddled with the handle on his teacup and prodded at a half-eaten seedcake.

There was a silence which Frodo had no idea how to interpret. When he raised his eyes to Sam's, however, he saw the same warmth and gentleness as before, unchanged, and a beautiful smile was added slowly to the well-loved features.

"Of course, Mr Frodo," he said. "I'd love to."

Frodo swallowed, and for some reason felt like crying.

Sam's manner abruptly altered; he drank some tea, and became rather businesslike.

"Well, sir, the idea is very simple," he began. "Each part of your body is supposed to match a spot on your foot. If you rub the right spots, you can help or maybe fix the sickness."

If Frodo had not himself experienced the efficacy of this method, he would not have believed a word. As it was, he found it difficult. "It sounds a little like an old wive's tale."

"That it does, sir, because it is," said Sam. "The leeches won't have nothing to do with it, so the hobbits who practise it keep quiet."

"Oh." Frodo was still digesting the idea. "It does sound a bit - outlandish. But it clearly works. So, if I have a... - stomach ache, you could - " he trailed off.

"If you had food poisoning, sir, then the best thing to do would be to get the bad stuff out of your stomach, first, if I might say so," answered Sam. "But if you kept bein' sick for no good reason, then it might help. When May nursed me through that sickness o' mine, I couldn't keep nothing down - no food, water or medicine. She rubbed my feet for me and after it I could keep down the medicine and a bit o' food and drink. It ain't magic, and it won't work for everything."

It had never occurred to Frodo that a brother and sister might rub each other's feet. Obviously, he had associated foot massages with only one thing for far too long. He decided to pull his mind out of the ditch once and for all. It made the next question much easier for him to ask.

"Could you, Sam, um, rather, would you demonstrate on me? When I am conscious, that is?"

Bugger. His mind had fallen right in the middle of that ditch again. There were so many questions Frodo wanted to ask Sam about that night and did not dare to. He reached for the paper and pen left on the table since the "Tooks and Brandybucks" game. "I would like to write down which sections of the foot correspond to which parts of the body." He wondered if every body part was represented on his feet. Judging by the effects of past foot massages, the answer was probably 'yes'. He jerked his mind back from the brink.

"Yes, Mr Frodo," said Sam, easily. "Let me first go wash my hands."

Sam was unquestionably the purest soul in Arda. He did not seem to have any problems keeping his mind on the health aspects only. Frodo felt rather ashamed.

"Uh - I'll wash my feet," he said, trying to keep the nervousness out of his voice, and then continued, forcing the light tone, "that would probably be a good idea, wouldn't it?" He escaped to the bathing room.

He had just finished patting his legs dry, when a faint rustle alerted him to Sam's presence. Sam had obtained a fresh towel from the linenpress and was holding pen, paper and inkpot in the other hand.

"I was wondering, sir, where would you like to lie down?" he asked. If he appeared any more innocent, Frodo was sure that Sam would be bathed in a golden light and accompanied by appropriate choral music.

"Lie down?" repeated Frodo. Maybe he should consider singing in the female section of the choir this Yule. Just for a change.

"Yes, sir, I think it would be more comfortable for you than sitting on a chair and putting your feet on the kitchen table. I know I'm not flexible enough to stay like that for long. It might take a bit of time."

"Uh ..." Frodo's mind had careened over the edge, and had actually landed in a bog. It seemed very wide in all directions and might take days of hard toil to get it out of there.

"Beggin' your pardon, but that bench under the window in the kitchen is a bit cramped and awkward for me, if you understand me, sir."

Frodo wasn't quite sure what he understood. "Oh, well, in that case the best place would be my bedroom," he heard himself say quite smoothly, and his feet duly transported the rest of him there.

On reaching his room, Frodo armed himself with the writing materials Sam had brought and thought about the best way to appear scientific and proper. He made a show of putting two pieces of parchment on the floor, standing with one foot on each and tracing carefully around his feet. He had just completed the task when he realised what Sam could have studied for at least a minute. He tried to ignore this. Sam was being utterly professional and so would he.

He hopped onto the bed, swung his feet up and placed them onto the waiting towel whilst waving the parchment around energetically to dry it. They had failed to bring anything to blot the paper. Never mind.

"Right. Where do we start?" he asked, back propped against the bedhead and pen poised.

Sam, with some visible trepidation, climbed onto the bed and sat cross-legged at the end. He reached out and, careful not to touch the furry instep, hauled Frodo's left foot into his lap.

"Right, sir." He began pressing Frodo's toes between thumb and forefinger. "This area here, the pads of the toes, are for the head area."

Frodo scribbled on his left-foot paper.

"Where the big toe joins the rest of the foot, is the neck area."

Frodo annotated the diagram.

"Here, just below the little toe, is the shoulder - beggin' your pardon, Mr Frodo, I need to put my hand here..." Sam cupped his hand over Frodo's instep, but did not touch it.

"Of course, of course, go right ahead," Frodo managed airily, even waving his pen around to good effect.

He surreptitiously bit the inside of his lower lip and pretended great interest in his diagram as he steeled himself for the touch. He could feel the heat of Sam's hand closing in, and the fur on his foot seemed to want to reach out and embrace that heat. His whole body from the hair on his feet to that on his head prickled deliciously in anticipation and he wanted to gasp in delight, but he couldn't, he couldn't. He thought he could feel the actual pressure of Sam's hand, but was it only the increased heat as that hand came closer? No, he could feel it, it was wonderful, the pressure was increasing tantalisingly slowly and he wanted to cry out, to groan his pleasure in a joyous delirium, but he mustn't, he mustn't.

Sam's hand settled quietly and stilled.

As the wave of feeling subsided, Frodo realised he could taste blood. Such a small act had been such sweet torture that Frodo began to doubt that he would survive the session at all, let alone get through it without making his physical reactions obvious. He blinked and the parchment swam into focus again.

Sam seemed to be waiting patiently.

Frodo's breathing finally slowed.

"Here are the lungs, sir, this is the stomach...." Sam's voice continued as if there had been no pause in the proceedings at all, and for this, Frodo was grateful. He concentrated hard on writing.

They continued on through the heart, kidneys, spleen, intestines, bladder and various limbs and joints before Frodo's left foot diagram began to look rather messy and smudged. It was in great danger of becoming one large blob of illegibility.

"Well, Mr Frodo," announced Sam, "a lot of those are mirrored on the right foot, so we won't need to go through all of it again. How about if we let that dry, and you can rest for a bit. I can show you the proper way to get this to work best."

Frodo had no objections in principle, and was unable to explain to Sam the concerns he did have about the possible side effects of "the proper way", so he put the parchment aside with the writing materials on the bedside table and resettled himself.

"Firstly, sir, don't be afraid to push hard."

Frodo fought the urge to hide his face in his hands. Without any warning, he was up to his neck in that bog again.

"Our soles, as of course you know, sir, are quite tough, so delicate poking ain't going to do much."

Frodo wondered if Sam had any idea how his words were being interpreted.

"Especially if you have a big area to rub, like for the larger organs, it's good to get in there with knuckles as well as fingers."

Frodo didn't know if he was going to explode with laughter, anticipation or something else.

Fortunately, the next thing Sam said was, "This is your stomach, sir," and proceeded to demonstrate. His fingers pressed somewhere just below the ball of Frodo's foot, near the beginning of his arch.

This time, Frodo could actually appreciate how much pressure Sam was using. Hobbit soles naturally could not afford to be terribly sensitive, otherwise walking would be impractical, or they would have long ago switched to the option of wearing shoes, like Big People. Frodo could see the muscles of Sam's forearm working and he thought how the shoulder and chest muscles must also be involved in the action. He quickly realised that it was probably not such a good idea to think about such things at this point in time. He shifted a bit to get more comfortable.

"I'm sorry, but I don't think I can feel my stomach doing anything, Sam," he said, conversationally.

Sam laughed for the first time since this surreal session had begun and some indefinable tension about him melted away. "That's fine, sir," he said, "I'd be worried if you could. I ain't pressing that hard."

"So what am I supposed to feel?" asked Frodo.

"It's supposed to feel good, sir," replied Sam, addressing Frodo's foot.

"It does," Frodo found it surprisingly easy to admit, "but I rather expected something more - er - for example, if you press my foot 'stomach' then my real stomach should tingle, or something," he explained, hurriedly.

"No, sir, nothing like that. It ain't like pressin' a lever. It should just make your stomach work better if it is not right."

"And if it is right?"

"Then it just feels nice," answered Sam, still not meeting Frodo's eyes.

There was a short silence and Frodo wriggled again to optimise his position.

Sam's hands began to roam over Frodo's foot. He seemed to be wandering over an awful lot of different organs, but Frodo couldn't remember which ones and there didn't seem to be any rush to reach for the diagram to check. It was probably still drying. Better not to touch it yet. He gave another little squirm.

Suddenly, Sam said, "Hmmm, let me see..." and moved his hands to Frodo's right foot. He clamped down on the instep before Frodo was truly aware of what was happening and began to probe. "Hmmm...."

"Sam."

"Yes, Mr Frodo?"

"You are sounding like your Gaffer when he sees a potato plant with yellowing leaves."

"Sorry, sir. Your neck and shoulders are a bit stiff, if you don't mind me saying, sir."

"How did you know that?" asked Frodo, completely stunned.

"I can feel it in your feet, sir."

"You can tell what is wrong with me just by feeling my feet?" Frodo's eloquence had temporarily deserted him.

"Yes, sir," answered Sam. "This should help to relax them. Your lower back is also a bit stiff."

Frodo tried to ignore the thought that there was something else with precisely that problem and Sam's massage seemed to be making it worse. He hoped Sam would not be able to detect that, either through his feet or the more standard optical method. In fact, Sam had made no mention of several important organs, but then again, they had not gone through everything before the parchment had gotten rather cluttered. He tried to think of something else.

"Sam, where did you learn all this?"

"Beggin' your pardon, Mr Frodo, but I'm not allowed to tell."

"May I ask why not?" queried Frodo, readjusting his position further.

"Because of what I said earlier. The leeches don't like it, and if it gets around then they'll be houndin' her."

"So it is a 'she'," mused Frodo.

Sam's hands slowed. Frodo glanced up rapidly and his gardener's face was easy to read - flushed with shame and anguish at his slip.

"Sam, I promise I won't tell a soul," Frodo soothed. "I understand. No one will find out through me."

Sam's hands halted.

"Please. I beg you, Sam." He waited a moment. "Please tell me." Frodo knew he was using his position as Sam's Master as well as considerable emotional blackmail to wheedle this information, but it had become tremendously important to him. As he expected, it did not take long for Sam to capitulate.

"The Baker's Wife," he mumbled, without looking up.

Frodo was astounded - the Baker's Wife? Had Sam visited her establishment at night? When? Several questions crowded into his mind at once. He forced himself to speak dispassionately, in an effort to get Sam to talk, rather than clam up in a panic.

"I had no idea that she knew anything about healing. How did you find out, Sam, if you don't mind me asking?" Frodo hated himself at this moment, but he had to know more.

Sam's hands began a slow, contemplative motion, as much to calm Sam himself, thought Frodo, as anything else. He recognised that he was detecting Sam's own state of mind through the way the massage was being administered. This was more of a reciprocal activity than Frodo had ever before suspected.

"I was nought but a little thing, about seven years old, when I caught a mouse in the street outside the bakery. She saw me, and asked what if I would like to work a bit and earn some money. My Gaffer said 'yes' when I asked him, and so I went."

Sam glanced up and saw Frodo's face, fascinated and hanging on every word. He dropped his eyes again, cleared his throat and continued.

"I would watch for rats and mice for a few hours for two or three days o' the week until I were eleven and then I was all the time in the garden with my Gaffer. But we had talked a lot together we had, and we got on well, even though I thought she were an age old at the time. As I got older I still went there, just for a bit of a chat you might say and then one day, I were seventeen or so, I suddenly asked her about the baker's feet. Of course, I knew why they ain't had no hair on them, but ... " Sam's voice trailed off.

Frodo tried to wait patiently, but finally had to say, "But...?"

Sam seemed to decide something and finally replied, "Well, we got to talking, and she said I were old enough to learn how to help people, if I were willin'. And I was."

"And she taught you.... foot massaging for health?" prompted Frodo.

"Yes, sir. She discovered it herself - she's a very clever hobbit," Sam's voice took on the seriousness and urgency of one trying to convince a skeptical audience. "After the baker shaved his feet all those years ago, hobbits would come up to her and start to talk. She would listen because being polite to customers is good for business, but soon saw that lots of the stories were the same. They said how rubbing their big toes were good for headaches and rubbing other bits for stomach aches and such. After a bit she started to read books but couldn't find nothing about it. So she wrote down what she heard and at last asked hobbits as she could trust to be her experiments. She still works on it now, but not so much."

"I thought ...," began Frodo and then realised that his next statement might insult Sam.

"Hobbits do come to her at night, sir," said Sam, divining Frodo's unasked question, "but not for the reasons you might expect. She teaches this and some other things, but that's all."

"Oh, I just assumed.... That is quite terrible of me," said Frodo, abashed.

"Most folk think that of her, sir," said Sam, gently. "Funnily enough, it's less trouble to her if folk do think that." His hands moved more firmly.

"Oh....," Frodo slid a little further down the bed.  After a while, he asked, "What else does she teach?"  Every muscle in his body seemed to be loosening of its own accord and possibly turning to jelly. Sam was awfully good at this.

"She teaches how to massage with your feet," came the reply.

Frodo didn't quite see how that would work.

"Yes, it sounds strange, sir, but the hobbit doing the massage sort of walks on the other hobbit."

Frodo could not help visualising Sam walking all over his back. "But wouldn't that squash the one getting the massage?" Whilst the idea of Sam using those magnificent feet to stroke various parts of his body was very tempting... well, Sam was not Will Whitfoot, but neither was he a lightweight, it was all those muscles....

"You tie a rope to the ceiling and hang onto the two ends to make sure no one gets hurt. Feet are bigger than hands and you can give a rub that sweeps over large areas of your body. It works quite well."

Frodo was quite sure that if Sam offered to demonstrate that on him, he would say yes. They would have to get a piece of rope long enough and tie it to that beam there on the ceiling and then Frodo would most likely have to remove all of his clothes.... He was no longer propped against the bedhead and did not care.

It was quiet, and the room was now flooded with the orange-red light of late afternoon. Sam's hands worked slowly and methodically and Frodo felt thoroughly relaxed. His eyes closed as he took pleasure in the simple act of breathing.

"Are you working on my lungs now, Sam?" he asked, contentedly.

"As a matter of fact, I am, sir. You're gettin' good at this already." Frodo could hear the smile in Sam's voice.

Some time passed where nothing was said and Frodo was vaguely aware that he was supposed to be studying Sam's techniques. Lying flat on his back with his eyes shut was probably conveying the distinct impression that he wasn't paying quite as much attention as he ought. But it felt too wonderful to move or do anything about it.

Whilst he was drifting dreamily on this bed of clouds, a little thought entered his mind. He couldn't quite grasp it at first, but then it grew and shaped. Sam was concentrating on the slope of the arch on his left foot, towards the heel. Frodo couldn't remember what was on his scrawled diagram, but he was fairly sure that it must be one of the parts they hadn't discussed yet.

It felt too pleasant to worry about it. After all, what was Sam doing? Rubbing his feet. That was all. A foot rub for good health and well being. And he was certainly feeling that. Anyway, he could be wrong. He probably was.

It was interesting though. Usually he had to think about relaxing that part of himself. Frodo wondered lazily how he could test this theory, without actually asking where on the master's landscape his gardener thought he was probing at the moment.

"I seem to have some vague recollection of you using some sort of oil," Frodo mentioned conversationally, keeping his voice light and his eyes shut, as if the memory had just meandered through his mind at that moment.

"Ah, er...," Sam's voice faded a little before strengthening again, "that was because the smell is supposed to help with the problem that you are tryin' to rub away, sir. Otherwise you can just use a plain oil. Lavender and marjoram are ones for headaches and I remembered that you had 'em in the bathro - " He stopped abruptly and cleared his throat. Sam had sometimes heated water and changed the towels in Frodo's bathroom, but his duties there were officially rather limited. The stock of lavender oil was in a small cupboard with the soaps and tooth polishing powder and other little necessities like nail scissors, tweezers and the nose hair trimmers. The marjoram oil, on the other hand, was kept right at the back in a separate compartment along with some interesting lotions, the pumice stone and, oh, dear, the razor. Not that he had ever used it. But neither had he thrown it away.

Frodo couldn't tell whether he felt shame, horror or excitement at Sam knowing this. Not all of him was encumbered with such conflicts, however. There was nothing he could do except hope his breeches and waistcoat provided enough concealment. Of course, it was possible to jump off the bed and tell Sam that was enough for today, but he couldn't make himself do that. He wanted to feel - more.

"I'll just go and get the - um...." said Sam, the sentence tapering off into a mumble and, Frodo assumed, a vague gesture in the direction of the bathing room.

"There's no need Sam, I have some right here," he said hastily, in a effort to cover Sam's obvious embarrassment. He wondered if all this meant that he was correct in his earlier guess. He still couldn't be sure.

Without opening his eyes, Frodo reached out to the side and unerringly found the correct draw-handle of his bedside table. It was not until his fingers had closed around the bottle therein that he realised this action had probably told Samwise far more about his predilections than all the years of chatting over afternoon tea.

A sudden stillness enveloped the room, and Bag End's master bedroom was temporarily devoid of any sound. Frodo's attempt to prevent Sam becoming uncomfortable had had precisely the opposite effect. He could practically see Sam's open-mouthed amazement without the necessity of visual confirmation. This picture, of course, was not helping his earlier problem one iota.

Frodo decided quickly that he had only two options before him: play convincing innocence or simply brazen it out. He automatically tried the first as it was his habit refined over years of getting out of trouble.

He pretended to feel around in the drawer for a bit to give Sam time to compose himself.

"Ah, here it is," Frodo announced in a nonchalant manner, as if finding small bottles of oil in bedside tables was a habit of Varda's Virgins, and opened his eyes.

Sam's face was very flushed and his eyes were shifting restlessly in the vicinity of Frodo's feet, trying to look as if he were concentrating on the task at hand. Sam was appalling at feigning anything, which was one of the things that Frodo liked about him. On the other hand, Frodo realised, he who had had so much practise at lying, always polished with a good dash of bleach so he could still see his reflection in the mirror of morality, was performing just as poorly. Sam may not be able to fool people easily, but neither could he be easily fooled.

Frodo cleared his throat discreetly to get Sam's attention, and saw him nervously lick his lips and swallow before raising his eyes.

Frodo smiled and handed him the oil.

Sam accepted the bottle with a slight, tense nod of thanks and quickly returned his gaze to the task before him. He removed the cork with one slow, measured twist and Frodo unconsciously held his breath. A tiny dribble onto the sensitive pads of two long, strong fingers and the thumb closed in to smear it carefully over the remaining two that had been waiting patiently in line. The bottle was recorked with the palm of the hand, and, mesmerisingly, transferred to Sam's toes, which completed the action of lowering the bottle off the bed and onto the floor beside them. Frodo found the need to swallow and to remind himself to breathe in quietly. Fingertips touched fingertips in a near-perfect mirror image; an unhurried, deliberate motion spread the oil in sustained circles, and Frodo felt as if he were witnessing a secret ritual, the movements of which had been choreographed a thousand years ago.

The fingers moved towards his feet and he could watch no longer. Lying down in this manner and looking in the direction of those hands meant that he would be faced with the inescapable reminder of how this massage had affected him. Not that he had forgotten. It was merely a feeble hope that it wasn't as conspicuous to Sam as it appeared from his own angle.

The hands resumed their previous task, and this thinnest possible skin of oil provided an awareness of the massaging fingers like no other he had ever experienced. The pressure on his sole glided effortlessly in a sensation that conjured up the grapes in the vat, and it travelled up and up, over his ankle and back down again in a delicious long slide. One finger touched just below his ankle on the inner side of his foot, employing the gentlest of strokes. None of the foot massages he had experienced had ever explicitly concerned themselves with this area. Odd. But it was so good. How could this part have been ignored for so long? Heel cradled in a broad palm, a knuckle caressing the arch and the fingertip roaming under his ankle. He almost groaned in frustration when the hands replaced the foot onto the towel, but the pent-up breath came out on an unmistakable sigh of pleasure as the treatment was resumed on his left foot. If he kept his eyes shut, he could believe that Sam had not heard it, or had at least taken it for a normal, everyday sort of sigh. The movements were repeated and Frodo was musing as to which part of the body this bit might correspond to - it was feeling better and better with each stroke - when he felt a second fingertip added, very close to the first.

Frodo cautiously opened an eye the merest sliver and studied Sam. He was engrossed in his task, breathing steadily through parted lips like a marathon runner at the mid-point of a race. A sheen of sweat gleamed on his upper lip and further down, in the hollow of his throat. Sam had been working hard, and the muscles of his forearms continued to undulate, as directed by the requirements of his finger movements. In the dying rays of the autumnal sun, their bodies fused together in the long shadows on the wall and Frodo found himself yearning for the same.

But all he could see was Sam the professional masseur. On shutting his eyes again, he believed he could feel Sam the lover. The proof of this was tangible but it was not conclusive and Frodo wondered what indeed could provide such proof. If only Sam would thread those miraculous fingers through Frodo's foot fur and caress there, just for a fleeting moment, it would be confirmation enough. Frodo doubted Sam would ever be able to take that step, even if he were interested in his master. But surely Sam understood the effect his ministrations would produce. He knew this technique well enough to cure headaches and detect illnesses, surely....

Suddenly, Frodo wanted to sit up and grab Sam's hand - the same hand that now added a third fingertip to the delicate, rippling movement - and lie straight back down, pulling that hand with him. He wanted to feel Sam's weight crush him into the bed so he could exhale his name on an exultant cry. He wanted to undo three of Sam's buttons and then show him precisely how exemplary his foot rub had been.

An age-old expression of desire, longing and frustration escaped into the twilight.

The fingers ceased their movement. Frodo put a hand over his still-closed eyes.

"I had forgotten about Pippin," he heard himself say, "I have to face the cocky hobbit tonight." He was amazed at the skill of the lie. Yes, he had forgotten about Pippin and yes, he would have to face his gloating at some time in the near future, but neither of these things had occurred to him until he required a cover for his slip. Well, it was not a slip so much as a shout, in a language that all could recognise from the furthest East to the Uttermost West.

He kept his face covered, knowing he was lying there, erect and desperate, a Sam with oil-slicked fingers sitting at his feet, and knowing that he, Frodo, had just discovered the depths of his own cowardice. He wanted to weep, but that would add self-pity to the mix and he would not allow it.

A touch moved softly over the top of his big toes, parting the fur. Touch me, just a little higher, just a little further up, pleaded Frodo, and I will know.

It did not. It weaved in an out of the fur on the toes and rubbed the pads beneath and Frodo was reminded of Sam's hands stroking the nose of a pony, when it needed to be calmed. Sam's reassurances always seemed to work. They were working now.

"Would you like to have a sleep for a while, Mr Frodo?" Sam's voice reached him as if from a long distance. "I could call you when dinner is ready."

"No, Sam," sighed Frodo, drowsily. "You do more than enough as it is. I should get up now. That was lovely." How could he sound so bland?

The hands left his feet and Frodo felt as if he had lost something terribly important.

"Sam, could you continue that just a little longer, please?" he asked, hoping he did not sound plaintive. Speaking had become an effort, a tangible weight on his lips. "Then I'll do something about supper."

"Of course, Mr Frodo," Sam's voice floated into his consciousness at the same time that the touch was resumed.

Without understanding the meaning of doing so, Frodo's mind categorised that sound under 'loving'.

****

Frodo was woken by a shout and a crash. He lay on his bed for a moment, looking at the firelight flickering on the ceiling beams and began musing idly about rope. This brought him closer to reality, but not fully. He felt calm and peaceful and the racket coming from the kitchen as Pippin helped Sam to make dinner appeared distant, and no concern of his. He turned his head towards the window and admired the stars, watching them wink at him as the remaining leaves on the highest, thinnest branches stirred in the evening breeze. He blinked contentedly and ran his left hand over his body from shoulder to thigh. He moved his hand back up towards his shoulder and the cotton under his palm bunched and tried to follow. He stopped and looked down at himself. Dim as the light was, it was easy to discern that he was wearing a nightshirt.

Not long after, Frodo entered a world of bright firelight, crashing pots and constant banter. Merry and Fredegar were staying well out of the way as Sam and Pippin danced around each other in the kitchen in a complicated choreography. Sam's economy of movement and smooth working style contrasted dramatically with Pippin's, which involved much noise, flamboyant waving of hands regardless of the implement held therein, and, naturally, perfectly fluent conversation.

On seeing Frodo at the door, Pippin instantly demanded that Frodo recite three times loudly and clearly that "Pippin is the greatest 'Tooks and Brandybucks' player in the Shire". Frodo smiled and recited that Pippin was the greatest Took in the Shire, which bought him time to work up to the official statement. Meanwhile, he escaped to the library, saying he needed to find a special mushroom recipe. His retreat was followed by Fatty shouting after him to clarify whether he was searching for a special mushroom-recipe or a special-mushroom recipe. The kitchen exploded in laughter behind him.

In the library, Frodo scanned the books on mushrooms lined up together on the shelf. Now that he thought about it, Bilbo had acquired an awful lot books on the subject over his long years and he himself had not been exactly complaisant in the matter either. He walked his fingers over the spines, passing "Fine Morel Tales", "Cultivate Your Love: A Practical Guide to Growing Mushrooms in the Hole",  and "The Mushroom Cookbook for Mushroom Lovers". This signaled the beginning of a large section on the shelf which contained such titles as "Mushroom Basket: A Gourmet Introduction to the Best Common Mushrooms in the Southern Shire, with Applications Throughout the North", "Taming the Wild Mushroom: A Culinary Guide", "Wild About Mushrooms", "Pilzsammlers Kochbuch: die besten Speizepilze sicher bestimmen und schmackhaft zubereiten" - Frodo was not sure where Bilbo had obtained that one and doubted he could have read it - "Mushroom Magic: 1000 Fantastic Fungi Feasts and Magnificent Mushroom Meals" and about fifty other variations on the same before Frodo promised himself never to buy another mushroom cookbook again. A slight change of topic was signaled by "The Psilocybin Enthusiast's Notebook", "Time Out of Mind" and "Dwarvish Rites" as he continued his search. He finally selected "Mushrooms: Techniques for Stalking and Hunting" along with "Taming the Wild Mushroom" and quickly flicked through them for pages appropriate to his purpose.

His purpose was nothing more than a feint in case someone should enter the library. The rest of the time was spent rapidly scanning completely different books, from all over the shelves. By the time Fatty announced that the meal was being served Frodo had discovered that his library did not contain the information he desired.

Dinner that night was to be for Frodo and his guests only, Sam having excused himself after setting the table, in order to eat with his family. Sam never quite looked at Frodo in the few words they exchanged, but, Frodo noted, Sam appeared to be doing the better job at hiding his agitation from the others. Maybe it was because he always had something on which to focus his attentions or it was the result of years of training in a position where his own feelings were generally required to be hidden. Frodo used the excuse of the excitement of going mushroom hunting tomorrow.

They sat down to table, and Pippin called for silence and for Frodo to recite the "Pledge of Allegiance to the Took", which was Pippin's own variant of the ancient and long disused "Pledge of Allegiance to the King". As Pippin eagerly informed Frodo precisely which words should be repeated with especial feeling, he employed his napkin for emphasis, whisking it gaily about without having first unfolded it. The bread roll which Sam had thoughtfully concealed inside promptly flew out, bouncing smartly off Merry's temple and ultimately landing in Fatty's meal, a considerable distance from its point of origin.

Retribution was swift and terrible. Fatty immediately picked up the roll and took a bite, then tossed it to Merry, who did the same, passing it inexorably onwards to Frodo's hand. By the time Pippin had his roll returned to him, it was hardly a crumb of its former self.

****

That night, somewhat earlier than usual, the soft sounds of three sleeping hobbits drifted along the tunnels of Bag End. The four of them had forgone the usual late night for the sake of truffle-hunting early on the morrow. The fourth hobbit, however, was awake and seated near his bedroom window, dressed neatly in a white shirt and grey breeches.

The small fire in the grate died as the moon outside cleared the clouds on the horizon and rode higher in the night sky, painting the Shire with a thin layer of cool light. A crystalline shower poured through the window and glistened on curled hair, flowed over shoulders and torso and pooled on the floor. Any who looked at that moment would have sworn that the hobbit was old, terribly old. His hair was thick but grey and he was clad royally in a shimmering silver shirt, but the eyes - the eyes appeared in this high-angled light as two inscrutable hollows, black as the Void, empty and lost. The image vanished as the hobbit stood and moved out of the light, walking towards the wardrobe. He pulled out from somewhere in its depths a small intricate box of dwarvish make, and from the bottom drawer of the bedside table, he extracted a curious silver key. He pushed it carefully into the lock and the mechanism released the lid without a sound.

Inside was the golden Ring that Bilbo had left behind, the one that Gandalf had long ago warned him not to use if he could help it. He had not used it all these years, despite knowing that Bilbo had, and often. Towards the end, Bilbo had taken to putting it on simply to avoid hobbits he had no desire to see or speak to at that moment, which Frodo had put down to the typical cantankerous behaviour displayed by the very old.

Now, however, Frodo felt he had a valid reason to use it. He needed to pay a visit to someone, and had no desire to be seen. It was, he rationalised, ultimately for a good cause.

Frodo picked up the Ring and ran his fingers over the metal. It always felt cold whenever he touched it. He held his breath as he slipped it on the ring finger of his right hand. At that moment he could feel no change come over him, certainly not as if he were invisible, whatever that might be like. If it were not for Bilbo's success, he would not have believed that he was now indistinguishable from a ghost. The one notable oddity was that the Ring on his finger felt quite heavy, heavier than he had expected from its weight in his palm. Frodo blinked his eyes as it had become a little difficult to see in the fireless room. He opened the door carefully and peered out into the corridor. Merry's snores reassured him and he padded silently through the smial and slipped out through the back door.

Once outside, he started down the road at a brisk trot, towards Hobbiton. He smiled wryly to himself for it was quite possible that he was too late. His guests had taken longer than expected to go to sleep.

The road was empty and silent, and the dark shadows of trees appeared as tall old men with thin gnarled hands and a desire to reach out and grasp at him. Squat, ugly shapes disguised as bushes leered at him from the side of the road. The shadows had never frightened him before, not even as a child. Walking at night was usually pleasurable for him, particularly with a bright moon. Tonight, though, he was having difficultly seeing; maybe he should have brought a lamp after all. The moon was high but it was strangely dark. He checked to see if it was still there and squinted against its piercing brightness, yet it seemed veiled, like a coy maiden who had nevertheless chosen the finest, most insubstantial material for her face covering. Unfamiliar and unnameable sensations continuously brushed past him, raising the fine hairs on the back of his neck.

He checked the sky again and saw, low on the horizon, winking between the last of the thinning clouds, the light of the Evening Star. It was there, an undimmed white flame, even though the light of most of the other stars had been blotted out by the greater radiance of the full moon. Somehow, that knowledge brought him comfort and he continued his journey with fresh determination, unconsciously forming the name of Elbereth on his lips.

It did not take him long to reach his destination. He paused outside and looked in. All was dark and silent and he cursed inwardly. How perfectly stupid of him to visit this place now. The baker was on holiday, everyone knew that. He stood outside the door, peering discontentedly about the street. It was so late as to be early morning, at that hour when all lights are doused and not a creature stirs, not even the much-reviled mice. He carefully pushed down on the door handle, despite knowing it was useless.

The door clicked open.

Frodo was so surprised that he did not know what to do for a moment. If the baker and his wife had gone to visit relatives, as Frodo supposed they must during this week-long break, then they might have accidentally left the shop unlocked. Maybe it was normally left unlocked as there would be little inside to steal. Perhaps they were taking their holiday at home and simply used the time to hide away for a while. Frodo had no idea of the truth, but if he listened to any of these reasonable suggestions, then there would be either no point entering or it would be extremely rude.

If there had been any to observe, they would have seen the door of the bakery swing open and then closed of its own volition.

Once inside, Frodo could see a glow of light coming from somewhere behind an inner door that was left ajar, leading away from the kitchen. Moving as quietly as only a hobbit intent on stealth can, he poked his head around it.

The room was oddly furnished, with a large long table and a couple of low benches. Several small chests of drawers were lined up along the back wall. There were dozens of white towels piled in the corner of the room along with two wide shallow wooden buckets. There was little else to be seen by the light of the fire, except a stout female hobbit, whose hair was showing distinct streaks of white, sitting at a little desk and making notes from a book. Her pose reminded Frodo of himself, except his own study was far more comfortably appointed. She moved her left hand to tuck a curl back over her ear which immediately fell forward again as she bent to her task. It was the Baker's Wife.

Frodo stepped back, took off the Ring and slipped it carefully onto the chain in his pocket, then raised his hand and knocked softly on the door. He hoped this method would not startle her as much as his usual brisk motion. It was only after he had knocked that he realised he could not remember her name.

****

At an hour which no one marked, for there were none around to see, some bushes in a shallow dell next to the Hobbiton-Hill road swayed as if in a strong wind. If there had been anyone to watch, this might have struck them as odd for only the lightest of breezes swirled in the night air. They could not have observed anything else, however, as Frodo had put on the Ring again, an extra precaution. He found that there had been no need. The dell was well hidden and it was a perfect spot from which to check the road for any movement on it. The Baker's Wife had long understood the necessity of discretion for an unaccepted school such as hers; however Frodo still felt rather silly, as if he were taking part in some melodramatic play, what with the trapdoor and secret tunnel he had recently negotiated.

Ultimately, it had been a successful trip. A small, slim volume was tucked into the pocket of his breeches, yet he was aware that the story he had spun to obtain it (involving a travelling band of musicians and an old book that had supposedly been lost) had not been believed.

He trotted home, still wearing the Ring despite the utter desolation of the road, only taking it off once he was safe inside his bedroom. The matter of the Ring had turned out to be irrelevant. All that fuss and worrying whether or not he should use it against Gandalf's admittedly rather nebulous advice of "very seldom or not at all" and ultimately it hadn't even been needed. He sighed and told himself he was being unreasonable about the whole thing. Somehow, it remained in his pocket the rest of the night, on the chain that Bilbo used for it, until he undressed for bed. Only then did he put it away in its box and lock it.

****

The next morning, Frodo was understandably tired and in no mood to be woken by a pig grunting outside his window before dawn. The pig on its own would have been tolerable, as its happy noises were quite musical in its own way, but the trio providing the accompaniment of "Good Morning, Frodo!", "Time to get up, lazybones!" and "We won't keep you any mushrooms!" in atonal key at full volume was unimpressive to say the least.

Now that he thought about it, the porcine solo was sounding very close to his ear. Awfully close. If Merry had let Beryl loose in his bedroom again.....

He sat up with a start, half expecting to see small intelligent eyes regarding him from the chest of drawers where their owner had been rooting through his underwear. Fortunately, it was not the case this time.

The beast thrusting its four heads through the window, backlit by the eerie glow of pre-dawn could have been the stuff of nightmares, had it not consisted of Pippin, Merry, Fatty and Beryl. They were lying on the grassy slope and the shutters had been pulled right back so they could all fit.

"Well, Her Royal Highness, the Porcine Princess certainly wins the beauty contest, hands down," said Frodo, climbing out of bed.

"Trotters down, you mean," replied Fatty.

"I see you are at your wittiest, this time of the morning, Fatty," rejoindered Frodo. He walked to the wash basin and poured water. His audience did not move.

"I'll be ready shortly," he said, waving them away with the washcloth.

"That's good, isn't it Merry," said Pippin, conversationally, "Frodo says he'll be ready soon. Even though he is already late."

No matter the event, Frodo seemed to be late for everything this week. "I'm sure you don't wish to make me any later," said Frodo, looking pointedly at them.

"We're not," said Merry, "we are waiting, you are standing there talking."

"Is there to be no privacy for an old hobbit?"

"It's never bothered you before."

"This is not quite the same as wading in a creek."

"We understand. We'll put it down to stage fright."

There was a chorus of agreement after Fatty's statement. Frodo rolled his eyes.

"How about you take Her Royal Highness, the Porcine Princess and yourselves somewhere else for a while, hmm?"

"Beryl wants to watch," said Merry. Beryl gave a grunt, right on cue.

Frodo was suspicious. Fatty had been known to tweak tails and such to guarantee animal effects.

"No, she does not. She is as pure as the morning breeze." Frodo moved towards the window.

"Actually, her morning breezes are bit high, wouldn't you say so, Merry?" remarked Fatty.

"Especially the one she just let go," put in Pippin, wrinkling his nose. His disembodied hand waved briefly in front of his face.

"I'm sorry, but the show is over for today," said Frodo, laughing, and yanked the curtains shut.

A chorus of disappointment came from behind the cloth, followed by various comments of "Spoilsport", "Prude", and "Poor Beryl, they don't let you have any fun, do they?" Several grunts followed which he assumed to be induced.

Frodo shook his head wryly and then stripped off his nightshirt. He lathered up and rinsed quickly and efficiently, drying himself briskly with the small towel, paying particular attention to the area between his toes, a habit acquired through years of enforcement. His nurse in Brandy Hall seemed to be able to trace every illness ever contracted back to 'water left between the toes after bathing'.

It was not until he stepped into his breeches that he heard a grunt, followed by various overly-loud shushing noises. He refused to turn around and acknowledge his audience for he knew immediately what had happened. Really, it was time to get those curtains fixed so they closed properly.

****

Beryl was a splendid example of the Greenhills bloodline. Mostly a solid black colour, nature had blessed her with four pure white socks, a white upturned snout and mouth area, and a little joke of a white tuft on the end of her black, curly tail. She was an excellent mother and one of the best truffle-finders to be had. She did, however, come with a number of faults.

Firstly, she was far too intelligent and got bored easily. Not bored of finding truffles, but bored when her hobbit handlers decided to stop for a rest and a bite, and not include her. She had been known to cause a diversion, and then double back and eat the unattended vittles. The second problem was also linked to her superior intelligence. Most pigs would sniff a truffle and immediately start rooting around it at which point the truffle-hunter would lay in with his stick so the delectable fungus could be retrieved uneaten. Beryl grasped very well how things stood between pig and handler, and did not agree with them. She would start rooting at random, whenever she felt like it. After a few rounds of this, the handler would decide she was incapable of finding anything and become less and less attentive each time she dug her nose into the leaf litter. Sensing the exact moment, she would strike, and a large juicy truffle would disappear down her throat. This behaviour was unacceptable in a truffle-sniffing pig. Her third fault was a violent dislike of female hobbits and ducks. Since truffle-hunting for most hobbits tended to be an excuse for a family outing and a bit of a walk, this problem had precluded her from being hired out many times. The ducks simply kept out of the way. Fortunately for Beryl, her sterling farrowing ability had so far saved her from paying dearly for her exceptional brainpower and eccentric habits.

Beryl also had one great plus for Frodo and his friends, or possibly yet another fault, depending on who was looking at the situation.

She was in love with Fredegar Bolger.

Fatty could do absolutely anything to her - tweak her tail, poke her in the ribs, whack her with the stick and she would not retaliate. She would find a truffle like any normal pig and practically step back for him when he slapped her on the rump to get her away from it. He would still have to make sure he was quick enough. Truffles were fair game, though with Fatty, she played the game fairly. She would frisk like a piglet in his presence, follow him around with a lovelorn expression if he ignored her and stare mournfully after him when he returned her to the farm. It was all quite sickening.

No one, least of all Fatty himself, could work out what he had done to deserve such unswerving adulation. He was constantly asked when the wedding would be.

Meanwhile, Merry was musing on the more practical of Beryl's positive qualities. "How many pork chops do you think we could get out of her?" he asked Frodo as they tramped along.

The sun had risen though the dew had not yet evaporated, and they were cutting across country to a promising clump of oak trees. Fatty had a rope, on the end of which was Beryl, who was alternating between trotting and bounding out front like an excited terrier, large erect ears flapping happily.

"She bit the last hobbit who call her 'Pork Chop'," warned Frodo.

"And who was that?"

"Ah, that would have been me."

Merry gave a snort of laughter.

"Which is why I only address her now as 'Her Royal Highness, the Porcine Princess'. You can get away with 'Her Royal Highness', or 'Porcine Princess' at a pinch, but only when she is occupied with truffles."

Pippin caught up with Merry and Frodo, three large mushrooms of differing varieties already in his net bag. "I think I will have my meal sooner than you three," he announced brightly.

Merry shook his head at Pippin in exasperation. "Honestly, Pippin, I can't believe you are letting it get in the way of you eating the queen of all fungi."

Pippin ignored him, and set off to inspect another propitious rotten log.

"Do you think he is truly a hobbit?" mused Merry, after some thought.

"He can't be. Perhaps he is a very short Big Person masquerading as a hobbit," answered Frodo.

"He must spend a lot of time pasting hair on his feet every morning."

"Indeed, I believe he must."

Pippin had recently found out that the reason Beryl liked finding and eating truffles was because they smelt similar to the breath of a sexually active boar. This alone was not enough to prevent him from eating them himself. Logical extrapolation, however, intimated that truffles must also smell like Fredegar Bolger.

****

Frodo's all-night vigil caught up with him just after elevenses. Claiming obvious tiredness, he announced that he must return to Bag End and genially offered to carry the current harvest back with him, to save his friends having to lug them around for the rest of the day. The offer was resoundingly refused. The courier was quite fairly judged to be far too unreliable.

After ten minutes of the most earnest promises and swearing of oaths failed to produce an effect, he did manage to extract two good-sized truffles from Fatty, with the vow that Beryl could have the run of his hole for a week should they accidentally disappear before the mushroom gatherers returned.

He reached Bag End in time for lunch, before which he placed two dozen eggs along with the truffles in a container and closed it. By dinner time, the scent of the truffles would permeate the shells and be absorbed by the eggs, which would then be whisked with a little milk into one of the simplest and most delicious dishes known to hobbitkind. Truffled scrambled eggs.

Lunch was a solitary, thoughtful affair. He took it uncharacteristically in his study, as opposed to the kitchen, so that he could ponder and plan in peace. As he bit into a pear, he leafed once again through a small book, the same one that he had stayed up the rest of the previous night to read. If his plan bore fruit, he would henceforth be deeply in debt to the Baker's Wife. Though he had made no mention of her former pupil, her last words to him had murmured past his ears as he had pattered down the tunnel.

Treat Samwise well.

"I will," he said quietly, smiling at the air before him.

After tucking the book carefully away, he wandered to the bedroom, still contemplating his course of action. He was mentally preparing himself as if for a game of "Tooks and Brandybucks". It was a game he did not intend to let slip away from him. Sam had unexpectedly made the opening move the previous afternoon when he had completely unnecessarily dressed Frodo in the nightshirt, which meant that Frodo had the right of choosing the battlefield. Fighting a tournament on home ground gave Frodo an advantage which would not easily be wrested from him.

As he lay down on the bed, still musing, in order to refresh himself with an hour or two of sleep, he suddenly smiled a twisted, lustful smile. He was decided on one manoeuvre at least. If he woke up after this nap in a nightshirt, he would get up, find Sam, and, irrespective of where his gardener might be at the time, nail him right through to the ground.

***

Several hours later Frodo heard the sound of shears clipping intermittently. It must be time for afternoon tea. Without opening his eyes, he flopped a hand onto his chest. It encountered buttons and a waistcoat. He slid his hand a little further down, just to check. His breeches were also in place, and, presumably, untouched. Frodo was only very mildly disappointed.

He yawned and then stretched long and satisfyingly, noticing that the gardening noises moved further away as he did so, probably closer to the kitchen window. A splash of water on his face to clear the last drowsiness of an afternoon snooze, and he was ready. He checked the small fire in the hearth and added another log of wood, as the evenings were becoming cool. Just as he was about to leave, Frodo paused for a moment, thinking. He then turned and walked to the bedside table and retrieved the bottle of oil. He held it by the neck for a moment before placing it carefully on top of the table in a slow but decisive movement. His fingers still gripped the bottle for a few seconds before he softly uncurled his fingers and lifted them away.

He then drew the curtains and left the room, closing the door silently behind him.

A few seconds later, the curtains performed their usual trick and slipped open a fraction. The slim finger of sunlight which edged between the two pieces of material found the little flask directly in its pre-ordained path. Part of the beam reflected off the glass and scattered brightly around the room. Another part passed into the bottle and exited the other side, having donned a richer shade of gold. The third part however, remained inside the bottle, as securely trapped as the contents, surrendering its warmth into the gently enfolding fluid.

Motes of dust flitted in and out of the beam and the air in the room grew warm and still. The only sound to be heard was the occasional snap of the fire. The bottle continued to sparkle in the slowly sinking afternoon light.

****

They may not have been Hobbiton Buns, however, Frodo's Scones, which he whipped up and served for afternoon tea, were still worthy of the highest praise. The quickest excuse for clotted cream and jam as Bilbo had named them, and both Frodo and Sam took advantage of that excuse to the fullest extent, grinning at one another across the table like children as they sank their teeth into the delicious morsels.

"....and so Merry thought of the worst possible promise I could make and it is torturing me terribly."

Frodo was carrying on being his entertaining self, all the while envisaging various scenarios involving the laces on the breeches Sam was wearing today.

"What did you say you'd do, Mr Frodo?"

"That if of one of those truffles disappears, then Beryl gets to stay at Bag End for a week," said Frodo, shaking his head, "I can't believe I agreed to it. I am sure I can smell them from here." He cast a longing glance at the closed box.

Sam's smile suddenly froze. "Do you - ah -," he cleared his throat and started again, "Do you think Mr Merry would notice, sir? If only a very small bit went missing?"

Frodo's eyes went wide, staring at Sam's rosy face and suddenly he laughed, "Sam! Don't tell me that you've - "

"No, sir, I saw the box in the kitchen and wondered what was in it and it were just a tiny bump on one of 'em, it almost fell off -" But Frodo wasn't listening, as he hurriedly fetched the container with the eggs and placed it on the table, in order to inspect the damage. He resumed his seat in the manner of the Thain about to pass judgement on a matter of great importance.

Two heads, one crowned with dark brown curls, the other with sun-bleached light brown curls bent over the box. Frodo turned first one, then the other truffle over in his in fingers. He pointed with the tip of his little finger towards the specimen. "It was here, wasn't it, Samwise," he said, gravely.

Sam's eyes met Frodo's across the box. "Yes, sir," he answered, matching the seriousness of his master's tone.

"You know what this means, don't you, Samwise."

"A lot of cleaning for me, sir."

"Your Gaffer will not be amused."

"Ah - now I understand, sir."

"But only if Merry finds out. I promise you it will not be from me."

"Thank you, sir."

Frodo replaced the truffle with the incriminating evidence facing downwards. "Let us hope they return late enough when it is very dark and are hungry enough not to spot it." He shut the lid.

There was silence for a moment.

"Uh - Mr Frodo, sir?"

"Yes, Samwise?

"When you made that promise, it were for a whole truffle to go missing, weren't it? So a little bit of one shouldn't matter, should it?"

"Samwise, I've never known you to be such an equivocator."

"Only when it comes to pigs living in my Gaffer's home, sir."

"I see."

Frodo eyed his gardener mischievously. And maybe when it comes to one or two other things as well, he thought. Sam was no longer looking at Frodo, but rather at a knot of wood on the kitchen table. Whatever he was thinking of was making him smile.

"Anyway, we'd best get started so we have plenty of time to be done before they return," Frodo announced briskly, pushing back his chair and draining the tea from his cup like the dregs from a whisky glass.

"Started on what, Mr Frodo?" asked Sam, obviously puzzled, lifting his eyes to Frodo's as Frodo stood up.

"Oh, dear, I'm sorry Sam," said Frodo smoothly, "I thought I had discussed it with you. Didn't we agree that we would finish the foot diagrams today?"

"Uh -" Sam evidently had not been informed of such plans. He hastily got to his feet.

"My apologies, Sam," continued Frodo, "but if you do not have the time, we can put it off -"

"No, Mr Frodo, that's fine, I'd be happy to - "

"Honestly, I don't know what I was thinking, I must have dreamed it after lunch," said Frodo, almost as if to himself. "I didn't sleep much last night, so I am still a little tired. Please forgive me for presuming."

"There ain't nothing to forgive, Mr Frodo," replied Sam, having recovered from his surprise.

"Thank you, Sam, that's wonderful of you, I do appreciate it." Frodo spoke as if he had just completed some useful business transaction, possibly involving mulch. "I'll just get myself washed up and ready then." He disappeared from the kitchen.

Sam remained in the kitchen, left only with the feeling that more might be going on in his master's mind than Frodo was saying. He wanted a little time to muse upon it, but his train of thought was broken by a rapid dimming of the light outside. It was not that late and, out of habit, he looked through the window to check the weather. The sun was still reasonably high for the time of year, but some large white clouds were moving along in a stately manner, and it was indulging in a game of peek-a-boo with the earth. Having reassured himself that there was no danger of a sudden hailstorm, he pumped water and washed, collecting a towel from the linenpress on the way to his master's bedroom. The door had been left slightly ajar and he could feel the warmth from the room seeping out and around him.

He knocked softly, and on hearing Frodo's musical 'Come in', he pushed inside and stopped dead.

Frodo was standing in the middle of the room, apparently engrossed in the diagrams he had drawn yesterday. The right foot sketch, which on the previous day had not been filled in at all, was now carefully annotated, though Sam had not yet instructed him how. But this was not what had caught Sam's attention and rooted him to the spot.

His master was wearing a nightshirt.

Frodo glanced up as if he had just registered that there was a distinct lack of the bustling, preparatory noises which usually accompanied his gardener. He smiled at Sam and returned to inspecting the pieces of paper in his hand, beckoning him blindly to come further inside the room. Sam swallowed and walked towards the bed, taking some time to arrange the towel.  The curtains, he noticed, were drawn imperfectly as was their wont and the temporary darkness outside ensured that the only light in the room was firelight; a tremulous living glimmer which was reflected and distorted by a small, transparent convex surface gleaming next to the bed. A familiar sound, soft but clearly audible made him raise his head sharply. He turned in time to see Frodo, nose still nonchalantly in the parchment, sauntering away from the door. The hair on the back of Sam's neck prickled, but it was not caused by fear. Outside, the noise of families with overtired children coming back early from the hunt drifted up The Hill from somewhere far away. Inside, however, it was momentarily very still.

"Let's try it, shall we?" announced Frodo suddenly and climbed onto the bed. "I think I have it memorised." He sat, back propped against the bedhead, with his right leg extended and the left tucked up, and smiled airily at Sam.

"Yes, Mr Frodo," answered Sam, moving carefully into position and trying not to stare at his master.

What Sam could not help seeing and what Frodo must have known perfectly well was that Frodo was wearing one of the nightshirts normally reserved for the hottest of summer evenings. In addition, it appeared to be the oldest one of those that he owned. Every contour of his body lent its shape to the material and it was easy to discern the major areas of colour variation.

Frodo took a handful of his cotton attire and tugged at it. "I'm wearing this for you, Sam," he said pleasantly, in a manner which implied that Sam should thank him.

"I- I beg your pardon, sir?" stammered Sam, sure that he could not have heard correctly.

"For some reason, I keep falling asleep when you rub my feet so I this time I am taking precautions," said Frodo, conversationally. "It will save you all that trouble later." He smiled brightly.

Sam's jaw fell.

Frodo appeared not to notice. Picking up another towel which had been lying innocently on the pillow next to him, he unfolded it and placed it across his lap. He rubbed his hands together in a businesslike manner and flexed his fingers. He looked at the still-stunned Sam as if expecting his gardener to do something.

"You will have to stick out your right leg as well, otherwise it won't work," he said, matter-of-factly.

Sam managed to find his voice, though it did not seem to be functioning quite as it should. "Sorry, Mr Frodo, but what won't work?" He hoped that did not come out in falsetto. Sam never spoke in falsetto.

"Rubbing each other's feet at the same time, of course," replied Frodo easily, as if this idea had also been discussed. Since Sam appeared once again to be unable to add anything to the conversation, Frodo expounded his idea a little further. "That way, I can actually practise the technique and you will be able to tell me what I am doing wrong. There is no use in me just lying here."

There was no telling what Sam was thinking at this point, and it was doubtful if Sam himself knew.

"Learning by Doing," quoted Frodo, happily. It was a favourite phrase of all hobbits involved in teaching any sort of trade. "I intend to Learn from you and then Do," he said, with great emphasis on the important words.

Another short pause ensued before something jolted through Sam and he pulled himself together. He lowered his eyes and took several deep breaths before replying, firmly, "Yes, Mr Frodo."

As Sam unfolded his right leg and manoeuvred it into position, trying to avoid brushing against Frodo's outstretched leg in the process, Frodo continued to chirp contentedly, "I thought it would be better if I first practised on the organs we did yesterday, instead of writing down a whole host of new ones immediately. Otherwise it would be like studying baking without ever kneading a single Bun."

Sam twitched, but his eyes remained fixed on Frodo's foot. Now that he had something specific on which to focus his attention, he appeared much calmer. Frodo had finally understood that Sam was perfectly capable of doing a highly commendable job of hiding his feelings, given either some preparation time or a specific manual task. Any self-preservation technique, was not, however, guaranteed to work under extreme conditions. Frodo had every intention of creating just such conditions.

He extended a hand and hauled Sam's right foot into his lap, avoiding the instep as Sam had done the previous day, and wriggled a little closer so that his own foot could be reached. Frodo felt it being picked up and gently placed onto a folded leg. He shivered involuntarily. How did Sam turn such a simple movement into something so sensual? He would have to move a little more carefully. To underestimate one's adversary was the quickest way to a loss. Sam's very manner meant that most hobbits misjudged his abilities, especially his intelligence, from the first. Frodo did have the advantage of having known Sam for many years and had not made that mistake, but they had never before tested each other's strength on this particular battleground.

"Could we start on the liver region, Sam, because it is on the right foot and quite a big section. I think it would be easier for me."

Frodo noted that this comment made no significant impression. Sam was unaware that this was an area they had not yet discussed.

"That's a very good idea, Mr Frodo." Sam sounded more confident. He was in his opponent's territory, but they were using his own choice of weapons.

"Sam, if you don't mind, I think I will have to put my hand here...." All of a sudden, Frodo's voice became earnest. Sam's answer was terribly important to him, even though he guessed it would be in the affirmative. It was the manner in which it was said that Frodo needed to read clearly. His hand hovered over Sam's instep, beautifully furred with sun-bleached brown curls, and the desire to sink his fingers into that luxurious patch twisted his intestines. The firelight entwined a gilt thread all the way from the base of each shaft to the tip, as if a great artist had painstakingly tinted individual hairs to create a breathtaking work of art. To be allowed to touch it would be akin to an act of worship.

"Yes, Mr Frodo," came the reply, so soft it was boardering on a whisper that might have been longing, and Frodo sensed how Sam's body stilled, anticipating and craving the touch as he himself did. Without watching, they mirrored each other's movements, the left hand stealing quietly towards the instep, as if there were a chance of their quarry taking flight. Again, Frodo could feel the heat of that skilled hand approaching with delicious slowness and wondered if his own hand could possibly be doing the same to Sam.

When Frodo recovered from the initial touch of Sam's palm and his own was also in place, he looked up, checking to see if Sam was prepared for him to start. It seemed to take Sam some moments longer to reconnect with his surroundings.

Frodo began to prod tentatively at the appropriate area with his thumb, but he soon forgot what he was supposed to be doing for what lay under his hands was even more beautiful than he had dreamed and utterly captivating. Sam may have spent far more time outdoors, walking on rough terrain rather than carpets or wooden boards, yet his soles were as soft to the touch as the finest lambskin gloves. Perhaps it was because of his youth. Frodo let his fingertips graze lightly, enjoying the subtle variations in texture as he stroked all the way from toes to arch to heel.

"Beggin' your pardon, Mr Frodo, but you need to push a bit harder there," murmured Sam into the quiet which had descended, "for the best way for healing." Both were keenly aware of how their soles, although tough, still transmitted a delicate caress with overwhelming clarity.

"Ah, oh, all right then," said Frodo, somewhat distracted. He began again, increasing the pressure as suggested while simultaneously trying to ignore the pleasant sensations occurring at his southern end. He had discovered that there was one rather serious flaw in all his machinations. It was awfully hard to keep his mind on his strategy whilst receiving a foot massage himself. Really, it was something he should have foreseen. He pushed in harder still and concentrated on staying approximately within the correct region. The right kidney was fairly close around here somewhere and he did not want to spend a lot of time stimulating that. Inducing Sam to dash off to the lavatory was not a part of his plan.

"That's - that's good, Mr Frodo." The slight unsteadiness in Sam's voice was greater praise to Frodo that the words themselves. He tried using a knuckle.

"Can you feel it? Is that good?" he asked, when there was no verbal response.

There was a slight delay. "Yes, sir, I can." Another pause. "It's - very good, sir."

Frodo switched back to using his thumb and began to move over the lung area and up to the shoulder area pressing as deeply as he dared, using slow, protracted movements. He heard a small sigh escape Sam, almost poignant.

"Sam, am I doing this correctly? Are you all right?" he asked, concerned.

"Oh, yes, Mr Frodo," answered Sam, "Yes. I forgot how long it was since anyone did this, is all."

"I thought that May gave you foot rubs."

"Only when I were sick, Mr Frodo, and then you can't appreciate 'em quite so much."

"Well, I can certainly understand that," said Frodo, smiling. "Sam could you stretch out your other foot as well?"

Sam looked puzzled, but did as he was asked. He was now a little unbalanced, so Frodo tossed him a bolster to place behind the small of his back. As he did so, sunlight flashed into the room through the slit between the curtains and almost immediately faded away. Frodo switched to Sam's left foot, clamping down on the instep quickly, and probed, trying to give the impression of being professional. Sam recommenced working on the whole of Frodo's right foot.

"I think you might have stiff shoulders as well, Sam," Frodo announced suddenly.

The massage froze mid-movement. "You can tell already, sir?" Sam was evidently impressed as well as surprised.

"Actually, Sam, I can tell by looking at you, rather than through your feet," said Frodo, kindly. "You look tense."

Sam laughed, and Frodo could feel that laugh ripple through his own body. He decided he liked it when he made Sam laugh. Sam rolled his shoulders a couple of times and resumed kneading, now with long sweeps of his fingertips. "How does it feel now, Mr Frodo?"

Lips pursed like a grazier studying a sheep that had been poorly, Frodo poked and prodded randomly at both feet in front of him before answering, "Yes, they're fine now," and Sam giggled. Frodo realised that he hadn't heard Sam produce that sound for probably fifteen years or so. He decided that he would like to hear it more often. He settled his hands on Sam's left foot again and began a peaceful rhythmic movement, over where he thought was the heart position.

Sam continued his own thorough ministrations on Frodo's right foot, which rapidly took on an almost meditative quality. A quick flick of his eyes towards Sam's face confirmed what Frodo was sensing. Sam was lost in thought.

Frodo's hands began to migrate almost imperceptibly downwards. Out of the heart area, through the spleen and then further down still. Here they hesitated awhile, as if gathering courage. There was no indication that Sam had marked Frodo's wandering hands, for he was still dreamily rubbing, appearing to take great comfort from the repetitive motion.

The goal towards which Frodo's hands were heading was a small one, and he tried to recollect its exact location from the diagrams he had studied. Near the heel, at the beginning of the arch, around a bit, - ah, there. Well, he hoped it was there. If he were wrong, the good thing about all this was that he could not hurt Sam in any way. In fact, whatever he was stimulating would only benefit.

As Sam had said, it could not be likened to pressing a lever. But after some time, teasing over a particular region and then returning to that same area intermittently eventually produced an effect. A change in Sam's massaging fingers gave Frodo the cue he needed to concentrate on schooling his own features to reflect studious assiduity.

Sam had realised he was in check. As for all players in this situation, he had only three choices - move away, move a piece in defence, or lie down and admit defeat.

There was the sound of a throat being cleared. "Could I work on your left foot now, sir?" he asked. Sam had opted for the defence.

By the time he had stretched out his left foot and shuffled about so Sam could take it in hand, Frodo had committed himself to his next move. He reached out for the bottle on the bedside table, becoming slightly mystified as to why it felt warm. Unable to formulate a theory for this phenomenon, he dismissed it from his mind for the time being as it could only be an advantage.

"I'd like to try that technique of yours with the oil," he said, as evenly as he could.

"At the same time, sir?" squeaked Sam. Frodo decided he liked it when he made Sam squeak.

"Well, if you find it a bit awkward, I am perfectly happy to try it first and you can direct me."

Sam thought for a moment before replying. "No, sir, it won't be too awkward for me."

This was the answer Frodo had expected. Had Sam agreed to the suggestion, it would have left him wide open to Frodo's countermove.

"I noticed that you use only a very small amount of oil," said Frodo, twisting the cork out with a well-practised one-handed movement. "Is there any particular reason for that?"

"Ah, no, sir, it's just a matter of preference," replied Sam, abruptly lowering his eyes again, but Frodo had good reason to believe that his gardener was enjoying this game as much as he was himself. Sam was fighting a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth which he was attempting to hide by pretending an itch. If Frodo had not been a master at these sorts of diversionary tactics himself, he doubted he would have been able to detect it. He had certainly been fooled by Sam's innocent manner the previous afternoon and he would not be caught making the same mistake twice.

"I will follow your example today then," he announced and poured. Even though he tried to be careful, he still managed to get more on his fingers than Sam had done, but it was a lot less than usual. "Is this alright, Sam," he asked, adopting his most guileless tone, "or should I wash it off and start again?"

Sam glanced briefly at Frodo's slick fingers. He cleared his throat. "That will be just fine, sir," he replied, with impressive composure.

Frodo smiled and handed him the oil.

After he had poured his own small measure, Sam realised something was missing. Frodo was concentrating on spreading the oil over the fingertips of his right hand, and the left was held up in mid-air, aimlessly rolling the cork between finger and thumb.

"Beggin' your pardon, Mr Frodo, if you're finished, I'll put this away," said Sam, exhibiting the bottle.

"Oh, yes, here you go, Sam," said Frodo, but instead of giving Sam the cork, he tried to place it directly into the bottle while Sam held it. This sort of manoeuvre is always unwieldy at best and seems to require a lot more effort from both parties than when it is undertaken by one alone. Yet the sense of satisfaction is greater when it is finally achieved.

Fingertips glided over fingertips for long seconds as the sealed bottle was transferred to Frodo's hand. He returned it to the bedside table, within easier reach than before.

Frodo had thought that this time he would have been more prepared for Sam's touch, and this assumption had been an integral part of his scheme. It was rapidly becoming obvious to him that it could be the fatal weakness. Now that Frodo knew exactly which parts were being stimulated, due to newly-acquired learning of which Sam was oblivious, and that Sam himself must be well aware of the likely result of his own actions, it added an unexpected layer of excitement to the proceedings. Sam's fingers were mapping precisely where oiled fingers ought to go. Along Frodo's neck and over his shoulders, down his spine in long smooth sweeps, finishing off with a delicate touch describing tiny circles that teasingly probed deeper, only to slip away somewhere else just when Frodo was sure they were about to find that magic spot again. He had learned many very interesting things about Sam in the past few days, and now it emerged that his gardener was an utter tease in the bedroom.

It was working. Frodo was barely holding his own, rubbing rhythmically but unfocused as his mind became hazy and his chest rose and fell in time with his growing desire. He visualised reaching out and pulling Sam into a crushing kiss that would last only for the time it took to yank his own nightshirt up and Sam's breeches down. Frodo had already made sure that from then on, there would be nothing in Sam's way. His fingers loosed their hold and trembled as their owner paused on the threshold of decision.

If he hesitated much longer, there would be nothing to decide. Frodo recognised that this time Sam had every intention of bringing his master to completion and do so without expecting the pleasure to be reciprocated. It was possible that Sam's fascination with feet was enough, but Frodo doubted it. It was Sam's nature to keep on giving without ever asking anything for himself.

Yet, now that he considered it, Sam had indeed asked and it was marvellous how articulate he had been without ever broaching the topic with words. This was a language not described in any of the sagious works of the Elves or of Numenor. It belonged to hobbits alone, though pityingly few could converse in it. But did not Frodo now understand this language and, more importantly, could he not now speak it? The wish to inform Sam precisely what he would like to do with him stayed Frodo's immanent surrender, and gave him the impetus to regroup his scattered wits and change tactics. He let the towel slip from his lap, drew in a calming breath and began.

It was not poetry, like Sam's lyrical movements. Frodo knew that he had not mastered this tongue and would probably be coarse and rough in comparison, communicating in halting phrases and unsophisticated diction, but he hoped that the raw intensity of his message would still be felt by one willing to understand.

If Sam would let him, Frodo would thread his fingers through gold-touched hair and breathe on an eartip. He would kiss those beautiful lips and continue on down that throat, now beading with fresh sweat. As he did so, his hands would not be idle, quickly divesting Sam of his waistcoat to enjoy the feel of pushing back that shirt over those shoulders - shoulders, Frodo now realised, that he had admired for many years now. And any other time Frodo would delay the inevitable by kissing and licking that gorgeous chest, whilst stroking over the firm muscle on Sam's back and buttocks, revelling in the rush of desire rising between them to match his own; but today, his fingers were already anointed with oil and he would not be able to wait. He would stroke down Sam's spine and across the small of his back, whilst claiming his mouth, kissing hard and deep until their breath came in harsh gasps. Frodo was sure that after being patient for so long, Sam would easily be able to match the fast pace of this planned arousal. The balm on their fingers would then be put to an even better use, and Frodo almost lost himself as he spoke of an intimate touch and thought he heard a low moan in response. Real or imagined, it was all he needed to describe how he would cover Sam's back with his own body and thrust deeply, urged on by involuntary gasps of want and whimpers of desire.

Those cries were real. They mingled with the increased noises coming from outside as more hobbits returned from the hunt, farewelling each other across the fields, along with the shrill shrieks of exhausted hobbit-girls and the wails of equally weary hobbit-boys. Over the raucous calls of drunken males, the shouts of mothers as they rounded up their children and a musical selection of loud grunts, the sounds Sam had allowed to escape were barely to be noted. But they were all that Frodo could hear, and they resonated deep within him. He lifted his eyes to read his gardener's face.

Sam was in check, and stuck. He could no longer even pretend to work on Frodo's feet, and he simply sat, glazed eyes staring at the edge of the bunched-up nightshirt on his master's thighs, his hands shaking and his breathing harsh and quick, like that of a small creature cornered by a cat. Frodo watched carefully as he slid his three fingertips away from under Sam's ankle, and moved them slowly around, towards the temptingly furred instep. A tongue darted out to moisten a pair of swollen red lips and Sam's breathing halted, awaiting his fate. He was on the point of capitulating, and Frodo knew he could have mated him then and there. But Sam also looked as if, for today at least, this wasn't the way he wanted things to go. It dawned on Frodo that perhaps Sam had not yet been fully introduced to all the joys that love could offer. Added to that, Sam's upbringing and position in life was such that it would be difficult for him to to speak his desires aloud to one higher on the social scale and Frodo being Sam's Master would make it harder still, even distressing. Forcing him to admit defeat would be unkind and unnecessary. There was another way of approaching this game, and Pippin's earlier successful strategy provided the perfect solution. Frodo could bring this to a satisfactory conclusion by first appearing to lose. He suddenly ceased his assault and lifted his hands away.

By this time, Sam's face was instantly readable, despite his downcast eyes. A mixture of frustration and of relief, but his breathing remained ragged.

"I'm sorry, Sam," Frodo murmured, "but I did not realise how tiring this is for the one giving the massage. I think I need to stop and rest for a while."

Sam struggled to formulate some sort of an answer and it took him several long moments before he recovered enough to reply.

"That - that's all right, Mr Frodo," the words were halting and thickly spoken, "You take a rest, sir." He attempted to subtly reposition his hands so they might appear as if they had been doing something appropriate for the last few minutes. He cleared his throat, but the next words still came out roughly, low and quiet.

"Would you like me to go on, sir?"

Frodo did not respond immediately. Instead he waited until Sam, compelled by the lengthening silence in the room, had gathered his courage and raised his eyes to meet his master's.

Frodo smiled warmly and nodded.

"Please. But only if you would like to continue, Sam."

Sam's reply was only the shadow of a whisper.

"Yes."

As Frodo lay back against the headboard and wriggled to get comfortable, the sunlight returned, temporarily released from its imprisonment behind the clouds. The bright yellow shaft cut through the room and struck the opposite wall, clipping the hair on Sam's head as he bent forward, mesmerised by this sudden unfettered access to his master's feet and, in sooth, his entire body. Frodo smiled to himself as he squirmed further towards a horizontal position, for this vision was indeed accompanied by singing, though not quite how he imagined the Valar would sound.

To the irregular beat of banging pots, chopping noises and bursts of laughter, Pippin could be heard singing a familiar song, which extolled the virtues of making love under the trees in midsummer with a serving wench of easy virtue. The names of the protagonists, however, had been altered to 'Fatty' and 'Beryl'. Merry's slightly lower tones joined in with an unsteady bass line as Fatty's voice tried to cut through the noise in mock-outrage.

It never occurred to Frodo that he should go out and entertain his cousins. In fact, his last coherent thought about the outside world before he eagerly submitted to Sam's ministrations was that the rodent-gnawed truffle must not have been noticed, as neither Beryl nor his guests were scratching at his bedroom door, demanding to be let in. Either way, he was glad he had locked it.

The clouds turned the sun off once again and it became very dark as the fire burned low. Frodo closed his eyes as he lay on his back, his arms with their slippery hands and fingers lying open and relaxed at his sides. He knew that what his nightshirt had helped to conceal whilst he was seated would now appear more akin to a flag of surrender, except that it was not waving. In fact, his attire was pushed up so high that from Sam's vantage point, it could probably be determined if he were suitably equipped for his gardener's taste.

After a space during which time dilated for Frodo and compressed for Sam, Frodo experienced the lightest of caresses across his furred toes which told him more about Sam's desire for him than all the love poetry of the greatest bards. Ensconced in a world of their own creating, neither of them noticed when the words to the background music provided by the Kitchen Consort were slightly modified yet again; for behind the bedroom door, the eloquence of Sam's tactile oration took Frodo's breath away.

Tracing the outline of his master's feet with the tip of one finger, Sam spoke of yearning, a want sublimated through necessity of circumstance into a personal doctrine where he could see and hear but never touch, on pain of eternal banishment. Only in dreams could he act as freely as his heart wished, but it had sufficed. Now that the principle tenet of his belief had crumbled and his master lay before him, vulnerable and willing, the lack of boundaries so long in place had left him disoriented and uncertain.

The delicate touch set Frodo's body vibrating; humming like a wineglass played by the friction of a moistened finger. It felt good, but only led to Frodo thirsting to sound a lower note.

Sam dipped his fingers repeatedly between his master's toes, and Frodo could feel that Sam indeed worshipped him, but it was neither as a deity nor a work of art. It was as a flesh-and-blood hobbit who shouted joy to the four winds. Frodo, though sighing gently, was not shouting yet, but he did not doubt that Sam was more than capable of engineering it. He wondered briefly how much Sam must have heard before, but this was soon overtaken by the longing to know how Sam himself sounded, when transported by love. Three days ago, if asked the question, he would have guessed his gardener to be the silent type, releasing a soft hitched groan at most, but that view was assuredly incorrect. He wanted to hear the truth.

Sam's magical hands resumed their inunction of Frodo's feet with long, slow, deep strokes. Yes, thought Frodo, I would like that. All his unfocused excitement began to spiral inwards to the pit of his stomach and he released a choked whimper in tormented delight as it clenched. Those hands seemed to be roaming over every part of his flesh, kneading and teasing. Sam may have learned foot massaging for health, but his application of this knowledge was truly inspired.

Frodo's skin responded as if to kisses placed in a row along his throat, and a tingling flashed outward from that phantom epicentre, leaving heated, sensitised flesh in its wake. He began to draw more air into his lungs, unconsciously matching Sam's own breaths. Goosebumps pricked along the back of his neck and out across his shoulder blades. How did Sam divine exactly where his master longed to be kissed? Frodo was vaguely aware that he was making some helpful noises, yet could they truly be Sam's only guidance?

Frodo could no longer tell whether he was reacting to a physical touch on his feet alone or over his entire body. All he knew was that he was completely at Sam's mercy, and a willing thrall at that. Sam stroked and probed and Frodo swallowed, panting, wanting those fingers in his mouth. He was not sure how much longer he could hold out, especially now that those hands migrated elsewhere. The touch was careful but deep and Frodo groaned. He could not fault Sam's accuracy. It returned, pressing further into his flesh, hot and firm and though Frodo heard no sound, his throat was tight and raw. Sam was pushing him to the brink and Frodo was happy to go, but he would have preferred to tumble over the edge whilst held in Sam's tight embrace. He doubted that he had much choice left in the matter. One of Sam's outstretched legs still rested between Frodo's own and Frodo could sense the presence of Sam's foot, lying so close that he felt the fur whisper against his inner thigh. He writhed in abandon, every line of his body begging for more for he was well acquainted with how dextrous those feet could be. He wanted Sam's foot fur to brush along the sparser hair on his thighs and a smooth sole to slide a sheen of oil over him, yes, like that, moving further up and using that soft fur to caress and toy with him, mingling with the coarser hair and - ah, oh, Valar help me - flipping the sticky nightshirt off with the deft flick of a toe which then aneled itself with the ambrosial nectar as it coursed down .... Frodo moaned loudly into the darkened room. Pippin's strategy might have been an excellent one, but it relied on keeping one's head throughout the game. Frodo had lost his long ago and he could not last.

As if by chance, the toes of his unattended foot made a glorious discovery. They encountered cloth and warmth and instinctively stroked up and down, detecting delicious firm flesh straining behind; and Frodo heard a groan. A dangling something was brushing repeatedly over his instep. It was the end of a cord.  He grabbed at it desperately with his toes, catching it and pulling with a swift, sharp tug. It gave and unravelled itself accompanied by strangled cry.

There was only one thought resonating in Frodo's mind. Now. He sat up and gripped Sam's wrist like one drowning, pulling it deliberately away from his ankle. Sam looked up, but there was no puzzlement in his gaze. Only an intense, heated expectancy.

"I am quite ready for you Sam, whenever you are," said Frodo, his voice tightly controlled yet urgent and his bright eyes meeting Sam's in an unwavering promise.

Sam reached out in wonder and the tips of two trembling fingers grazed Frodo's cheek. In a state of bliss he sank his other hand into a long-desired goal, letting the curls slide all the way up between his fingers, again and again. Frodo opened his mouth on a gasp of delight and Sam became transfixed by those parted lips. A warm flask was pressed importunately into his hand, a breath of air followed by nimble fingers caressed his heated flesh and he pressed his forehead against Frodo's, holding him in place with a gentle hand on his nape. It took Sam a few moments to gather his courage before he tilted his head fractionally - and found that Frodo had done the same.

***

Sunlight sped low across the heavens over Arda, its deep golden colour warning of the approaching night hurrying behind it. It was densely clouded over the Shire, appearing from above like a gathering of old women. Most of the light bounced off the thick white folds of moisture and reflected back out, doomed to travel forever out into the Void. Yet a thin streak, a split second in duration, met a different fate. It shot through a transient chink in the banks of cloud and continued on towards the earth, flashing across Hobbiton and heading straight through a window on The Hill for it had been decreed that nothing would block its path. It skimmed across a white pillow and consummated its destiny by kindling rich brown with its ephemeral flame.

Light does not see, it simply is; yet it is often equated with truth, for it illumines it. Frodo looked down at the glorious vision spread out beneath him and he caught his breath; for in that instant he saw Love itself, crying out his name and expiring ecstatically in a thousand glints of gold.

****End****

Note: The vagaries of history have deemed that whilst hobbits have become extremely rare and shy creatures, their method of foot massage developed by the Baker's Wife has been transported over the years from Middle Earth to the Middle Kingdom where it is practised with great enthusiasm. Its claim to fame in this land, however, is strictly the belief that it is "Good for Health". From the Middle Kingdom, it has spread to much of the known world. Unfortunately, as is often the way with an idea that is borrowed from another culture and slavishly followed by its new disciples, the thickness of hobbit soles is occasionally not taken into account. Thus, despite the not inconsiderable pain on the part of some recipients of this therapy, both practitioners and patients persist, secure in the knowledge that it is increasing the lifespan of the latter. Whilst health benefits are undoubtedly to be gained from such treatment, a reduction of the pressure used would be far more pleasurable. A fact which lovers in all lands and times have no doubt long understood.

 

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