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MARIGOLD’S CHALLENGE #34
Frodo clung to the trunk of the elm above the branch where he sat, too desperately winded to climb higher. He panted, the fear in his belly like a raging fire. His feet hung down, perilously close to the snapping and snarling jaws. The dogs had him well and truly treed, and there was no escaping them.
If only he had heard the dogs before they had come so close.
If only he had not been so entranced by that stand of lovely mushrooms: the wonderfully flavorful ones often known as Penny Buns.
If only he had not been so eager to prove his daring that he had come so far onto Farmer Maggots’ property--further indeed than any of the other lads who had come on this particular raid. It smacked of recklessness, and he knew he would be in serious trouble once Uncle Sara and Uncle Rory found out. This was his worst idea ever--worse than climbing up the chimney in the dining hall two years ago.
If only Aunt Gilda’s lawn party had not been so boring…
The older tweens had been monopolizing the quoits, and somehow some of the pins had been lost for the lawn bowling, and Frodo and his friends felt themselves too old for the games of chase the younger children were playing. The Bracegirdle lads in attendance had started up a game of kick-the-ball, but after a while of putting up with those spoilsports, most of the other lads had left in disgust. Frodo was just thankful that Lotho was not there. Not much chance of that, though. Aunt Gilda could not abide the Sackville-Bagginses. So even though this party was in celebration of Cousin Seredic’s betrothal to Hilda Bracegirdle, one of Lobelia’s nieces, the S.-B.’s were nowhere in evidence.
Frodo had slipped away from the party, along with his Brandybuck cousins Marroc and Gundamac, known as Gunny; and the visitors--his Bolger cousin Wiligar and two of his Took cousins, Isembras and Isembrand, who were brothers and the great-grandsons of the Old Took. Marroc was only a month older than Frodo, and Gunny was a year older. Wil and Brass were two years older, and Brand was the youngest in the group, only eighteen.
“Do you suppose they’ll notice we’re gone?” asked Brand nervously.
Marroc shook his head. “In that crowd? I don’t think anyone will notice at all.”
“The question is,” said Frodo, “what are we going to do? The kitchens are all going to be very busy.” He’d put his mind to it, and a larder raid, while it would be fun, would not stand much chance of success with all the busy cooks and servers. The servants had already cleared away the refreshment tables for luncheon, and had not yet laid out the things for tea.
Marroc grinned. “Let’s go scrumping!”
Gunny responded with a wolfish grin of his own. “Let’s go to Bamfurlong. Old Maggot always has the best vegetables! And we might even find some of his famous mushrooms!”
The rest all looked to Frodo, who hesitated only briefly. He’d made his peace with boats, more or less, in the years since his parents drowned--it wasn’t like this would be the first time they’d done this, after all. But there was always that stomach-turning moment when they first shoved off…if he suggested a farm this side of the Brandywine, the others would fall in line. Still, he hated his weakness, and he didn‘t want the others to know it still bothered him. And it was the mention of mushrooms that made his mind up. It was true, the best mushrooms *did* come from Bamfurlong.
“Why not?” he said, after pondering briefly. “Only--will Margulas mind?” He looked at Marroc. They’d never be allowed to cross over on their own on the ferry. They usually used the rowboat belonging to Marroc’s older brother Margulas, who was twenty-five. And Margulas and some of the other older tweens usually accompanied them when they raided across the river. But Margulas was busy with the quoits.
Marroc shrugged. “I don’t think he’ll care. Besides, we’ll be back before he ever even knows we’re gone.”
Wil, Brass and Brand had been silent while the Brandybucks had discussed the options, but now that the decision had been made, they fell in line with the plans immediately. This was going to be a good deal more fun than any old lawn party!
They made their way to the boathouse, which was some distance downriver from the ferry landing, luckily encountering no one along the way.
Marroc quickly found the rowboat belonging to his older brother, and they looked it over. “Will all six of us fit?” asked Frodo doubtfully. If Marroc said “no”, he’d have the perfect excuse to bow out, and they’d think he was being generous.
But Marroc nodded. “Oh, no doubt,” he said. “After all Brass and Brand don’t take up as much room as Margulas does.” The Tooks just grinned. It was true that they were a bit smaller than the average hobbits of their age. Tooks often were, unless they took after the Bullroarer.
Now Wil was hesitating. Bolgers in general were less fond of boats than other hobbits. But he looked over at Frodo, who gave him a smile and an encouraging nod. Soon all six of them were in the boat, and it was a bit of a tight squeeze. Still, they were not uncomfortably crowded, and there was still plenty of elbow room for Marroc and Gunny to do the rowing.
Frodo swallowed his bile as they cast off, and concentrated on keeping a calm demeanor. If any of the others noticed his pallor, or his knuckles tightly gripping the seat on either side, they kindly pretended otherwise. Frodo closed his eyes, and managed to relax, as he listened to the chatter of the others, as Gunny and Marroc regaled the three visitors with tales of past raids, and of the tastiness of Farmer Maggot’s produce.
The riverbank was a bit high on the other side--they could not beach the boat. As the prow bumped the bank, Gunny stood up and jumped up to the shore, with the end of the rope in his hand. With a practiced move, he tied the boat to an alder growing there, and then the other lads got out. Marroc and Frodo leaped ashore nimbly, while Wil, Brass and Brand clambered out a bit more awkwardly.
It was about a mile’s walk west to the lane that led to Farmer Maggot’s property. Bamfurlong was the largest and most prosperous farm in the Marish. They reached the lane, and continued south for just a while, and then Gunny said, “Time to split up. We’ll meet back at the boat at teatime.” No one inquired about pocket watches--they all had stomachs, after all!
A rail fence ran along the lane, and hedges divided some of the fields. It was easy enough to see what crops were growing--there were rows of lettuces and cabbages and cucumbers and tomatoes and carrots and radishes and onions and…it was enough to set a hungry hobbit lad’s mouth to watering.
“You mentioned mushrooms?” asked Wil.
Frodo nodded. “The Marish has wonderful mushrooms. Look for shady copses and soft ground.”
Bard and Brand exchanged a doubtful look. “The only trees I see,” said Bard, “are pretty far in.” For it was rather an unwritten rule--farmers did not get overly excited about scrumping as long as it was within reason, and as long as the raiders kept their depredations to the edges of the property. But to trespass far inside a farm’s boundaries was to court both anger and danger.
“Well,” said Frodo, “you don’t expect to just see the mushrooms growing by the lane.” For mushrooms were not often cultivated--they grew wild, and they were prized by those who were fortunate enough to have them growing so on their property. And suddenly, Frodo decided that *mushrooms* were exactly what he wanted to find. Let the others waste their time on carrots and cabbages--it was mushrooms for him.
With a grin, he said “I’ll see you back at the boat!” and he put one hand on the top rail, and nimbly leaped the fence, darting off down the field of turnips, in the direction of a likely looking copse of trees.
As though Frodo’s act were a signal, the other lads quickly split apart and began their search for the perfect vegetables.
Frodo cast a glance behind him. Gunny was inspecting the tomatoes, and Frodo knew he’d find one or two that were just right. Each of the other lads would find something different, and then they would share their bounty.
Frodo had often been to Bamfurlong, not only scrumping about the edges of the property, where he had once before been spotted by one of Farmer Maggot’s grown sons, and been sent off with a warning, but also accompanying his Uncle Rory or his Uncle Sara when they had gone to conduct business with the canny old farmer. He recalled this particular copse of trees well--in their last raid of Maggot’s farm, he and Margulas had made the wonderful find of some Summer Truffles beneath a rotting log--
No, no such luck today. But Frodo was not minded to turn back. He looked behind him, and spotted Brass among the lettuces. Grinning in anticipation he trudged forward. Mushrooms would be a far better contribution than lettuce…
He found a Wood Blewitt, a perfectly huge one, but it was only one, nonetheless, and would not go far among six lads. He picked it anyway, and kept searching, moving further and further into the property. There was a small pasture, inhabited by a single brown and white cow, who looked up briefly as Frodo crossed. On the other side was another copse, and there--oh my! Penny Buns, enough and more for all of them to share. He regretted not having a bag. He took off his shirt to use, and totally entranced by the wonderful mushrooms, began to pick them…
Maggot was busy in the barn, when he began to hear the whimpering and growling of his dogs. He walked out to the dog run, and realized that all three of them were agitated.
“Ho, now, my lads! Do you hear something?” The dogs were large and powerful, nearly as big as ponies to a hobbit, but Maggot had no fear of them. His family had kept the huge dogs for generations, ever since the Fell Winter. His dogs were friendly as kittens to the family, but they were fierce protectors, and were quick to defend their territory from intruders.
Maggot went to the gate. “Snap! Bull! Blackie! Go find it!” He loosed them, and they took off at a loping run. He noticed that they headed east, and he suspected that youngsters were out scrumping again. A fox wouldn’t be out in the day. And if they were close enough for the dogs to detect, they must be trespassing deep into his property. Muttering and mumbling about greedy youngsters, he followed his dogs at a lope.
Absorbed in his find, it took a moment for the sound of the dogs to penetrate Frodo’s mind. He was completely taken unawares as they burst through the underbrush.
Terrified, he dropped the shirt and the mushrooms and took to his heels, running as fast as he could. Looking back, he could see the monsters, their sharp teeth gleaming, and their red tongues hanging from their mouths, from which came the sounds of snarling and baying. They were gaining on him, and the only thing he could think to do was to climb a tree…
If only the farmer doesn’t recognize me, Frodo thought desperately. But he really did not believe that he would be that lucky. He closed his eyes and clung even harder to the tree.
Maggot had paused briefly to pick up the discarded shirt, with its bounty of mushrooms, and was taken by a wave of anger. His mushrooms were highly prized, and brought good coin to his family. But they weren’t like the crops he grew in the fields--he could easily calculate how many tomatoes or turnips he could afford to lose to mischief. But the mushrooms were not something he could predict from season to season, and all of them were valuable.
Then he picked up his pace. He was not going to allow this particular trespasser escape. He listened to the dogs’ baying--they had clearly cornered or treed their prey, for the sounds had stopped retreating and were coming from one place.
Clinging to the tree, his face buried against the trunk against the horrid sight of the dogs snapping and snarling only inches away from his feet, Frodo wondered if he would ever get out of the tree. And then he heard a voice, bellowing.
“Snap! Bull! Blackie! What have you found, my lads?”
The snarling and baying changed now to excited yips and whimpering, as the animals greeted their master.
Frodo did not look at him, but shook his head. There was no way he would come down with those beasts still sniffing about below. He gulped, and hunched up, and clung even more tightly to the tree.
“I said come down!” repeated the Farmer angrily.
There was a brief silence, and then Frodo whispered, “I can’t.”
“Why? You got up there! And you are not so high as all that, young hobbit!”
Frodo licked his lips. “It’s not that,” he said, on the verge of tears “it’s--it’s--*them*!”
“ ‘Them’ ?” the Farmer repeated, puzzled, as he absently rubbed Blackie’s ears. Then the light dawned. “The dogs?”
With a curt word, he sent the dogs away. They obediently went several feet away from the tree, and sat, alert for any other commands.
Trembling, Frodo slipped down from the tree, and stood before the angry farmer, his head hung in shame. He knew he had broken the unwritten rule--not to trespass so far on someone’s property, not to take that which is dear, but only that which could easily be replaced. His eyes were filled with tears, but he blinked them away.
Farmer Maggot studied the miscreant silently, allowing the lad to squirm. Finally he said, “I hope that the Master will give you a good thrashing for this!”
And at this, Frodo’s heart dropped clear to his stomach. No, Uncle Rory would not be thrashing him. “I wish--” he stopped and bit his lip. He hadn’t meant to say that aloud.
Maggot looked startled. “You *wish* he would thrash you?”
Frodo gulped, and nodded. “Uncle Rory won’t thrash me. But a thrashing’s soon over.”
He looked up at the farmer, who waited for him to continue.
“He’ll put me to mucking out stables. And I won’t go anywhere for at least a month.” And that was the rub. If he were being punished, he would probably not be allowed to go to Hobbiton for his and Uncle Bilbo’s birthday--last year Uncle Bilbo had come to Buckland, so that meant that this year Frodo was to go to Hobbiton. But if he were being disciplined, he’d miss out on that.
“You’d rather have a thrashing?” The farmer stared at him incredulously.
Frodo nodded miserably, and risked a glance of appeal to the farmer.
Farmer Maggot was not proof against those blue eyes, and his anger was abated now. But he couldn’t let the little rapscallion off lightly.
“You want I should oblige you?”
Frodo’s eyes widened in shock, but he nodded.
“I’ll be as hard on you as I am on my own lads, I warn you!”
“I would not expect any less, sir.” Frodo’s voice was calm now.
Maggot reached up, and broke off a thin green limb, and then gestured. Although Frodo himself had never been thrashed in his life, some of his friends had, and he was familiar with the procedure. He gulped, and turned around, and bent over, grabbing his knees.
The farmer lashed out with several well-placed blows, and Frodo bit his lip, and closed his eyes tightly, yet still the tears came.
The blows stopped, and Frodo stood up.
“Be off wi’ ye now!” the farmer said. He turned and gave a whistle to the dogs, who stood as one, alert and eager. Frodo felt a horrible moment of apprehension.
“See, lads! The next time this young varmint sets foot on my land, you can eat him. Now see him off!”*
Frodo did not hesitate, but took off as fast as his heels would take him, the dogs snapping after him.
Maggot followed, at a leisurely pace, as they ran across the fields. He watched the lad vault the fence, and run down the road in the direction of the ferry. As he came to the fence himself, he noted the signs--as he thought, young Master Frodo had not been the only one pilfering. But apparently the others had confined themselves to vegetables at the edge of the fields. He could see Frodo and all three dogs racing down the road in a cloud of dust.
Turning his sharp eyes to the hedge at the other side of the road, he said loudly: “I hope this is a lesson to any what thinks they can steal from me!”
Marroc, who had hidden there in the hopes of finding out what had happened to Frodo when he did not turn up at the boat, gave a shudder, and backing out of the hedge, ran for the boat. It was obvious Frodo was headed for the ferry.
By the time Farmer Maggot reached the ferry, Frodo had been delivered to the Buckland side of the river, and the ferry was on the way back. His dogs were sitting across the lane leading to the landing, waiting for him.
He waited until the ferry hobbit returned.
The ferry bumped up against the dock, and the rope was being tied off. “Hullo there, Mr. Maggot,” said the ferry hobbit.
“Hullo yourself, Diccon. I’ve a message for the Master. You tell him I said that Master Frodo’s already *had* his punishment for stealing my mushrooms. I’ll send his shirt back, soon as the missus washes and mends it.”
The ferry hobbit gave him a nod. “Lads’ll be lads,” he said laconically, “but mushrooms is another thing.”
Frodo had to suffer his Uncle’s rebukes, and the embarrassment of having the bruises and welts on his backside treated with an infusion of arnica, witch-hazel, comfrey root, goat weed and black willow-bark**, which was supposed to work wonders for bruises. But the farmer’s message stood him in good stead, for Uncle Rory told him he’d had punishment enough as it was.
This did not help the other lads, who had confessed to their raid in their fear for Frodo. They were all punished with mucking out the stables--not for the scrumping, but for taking Margulas’ boat without permission, and for going across the Brandywine alone and unsupervised.
The experience left Frodo with a terror of large dogs, as well as a healthy fear of the good Farmer Maggot. It was very nearly over thirty years before he ever again set foot on Farmer Maggot’s land. In fact, he avoided the Marish as much as possible after that, to the extent that he forgot much of the geography of it.
But he still loved mushrooms.
**This is a concoction called "bruise juice" often used in the SCA by fighters who have bruises after a tournament or battle. "Goat weed" is another name for St. John's wort.
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