Crossing Cards

Half the Shire came to the Bywater Fair. Hobbits love any excuse for a party, after all, especially a party with both food and entertainment. Singing, dancing, amateur theatricals, every goodwife of the district trying to outdo her neighbors in the matter of pies and tarts and sweet, creamy cheeses -- even the threat of Bilbo Baggins reciting some of that nonsense he called poetry couldn't keep any hobbits away. They intended to thoroughly enjoy themselves.

Well. Most of them did.

"Go away, you -- you -- you Brandybuck!"

Meriadoc didn't even have the grace to stop grinning, much less let go of Lotho's jacket sleeve. "Kind of you to have noticed," he said cheerfully. "It's not much I'm asking, is it? Just to step into the fortune-teller's tent."

"I know better," Lotho Sackville-Baggins said resentfully, at last pulling his jacket free and brushing it off. "This is some scheme of yours."

Meriadoc threw back his head and laughed. Lotho folded his arms over his chest and tried to look down his nose at Merry, despite being three inches shorter than the Brandybuck. He was in a foul mood. He'd escaped his mother for the day, Lobelia being confined to her bed with the megrims, but things degenerated from that promising start. He'd been caught in a rainshower on his way to the fair, and the colors had run on his new waistcoat, leaving streaks of bright purple trickled down his pale yellow breeches. The dessert table ran out of gooseberry pie just before he'd arrived. And not a single hobbit so much as ducked their head to him, but he'd seen at least three bow to that Frodo Baggins. Worst of all, Frodo had brought his usual shadow -- that charming gardener of his, what was his name... when would Meriadoc Brandybuck stop laughing?

"Of course it's a scheme," Meriadoc said, when he'd got his breath back. "I wander about, close to the tent, and drum up business for her, and in return I learn who's frightened of a mere fortune-teller."

"I am not frightened! I simply think it's utterly pointless. Superstitious nonsense."

"Then you should have no objections to passing a half-hour in her tent." Somehow Meriadoc had gotten hold of Lotho's elbow again, tugging him along like a recalcitrant calf. "Laugh about how inaccurate she is, afterwards, if you like -- with your friends, if you have any."

Lotho drew breath to argue with Meriadoc again, but too late -- that infuriating Brandybuck pushed him through the tent-flap, and there Lotho was, facing the fortune-teller.

The tent was as gaudy inside as out. Scarves and hangings concealed the rainbow canvas, but the place smelled of spice and smoke like some land far distant from the Shire, and the only light came from a single oil-lamp, festooned with brassy metal, sitting on the table behind which the fortune-teller waited. Lotho did his best to swallow on a dry throat, and strode forward to sit down in the chair facing her.

"Good afternoon, Mr. Sackville-Baggins," the fortune-teller said in a muffled, husky voice. Lotho jumped, and peered through the gloom at the fortune-teller. Female, but veiled so he couldn't see her face. Well, what matter if she recognized him? He was a Sackville-Baggins.

"Good afternoon," he said, in his grandest manner.

The fortune-teller inclined her head. "Do you wish a simple reading?" She took a pack of paste-board cards out of a small box, and fanned them out across the table-cloth, their backs gaudy with some outlandish pattern. "Or something more?" A wave of her hand indicated a small set of wooden shelves Lotho hadn't noticed, holding who knew what, tools of this ridiculous trade of hers.

The light caught a gleam of bone-white sphere, and Lotho shivered and looked away from the shelves. "The simple reading," he said, trying to keep the superior tone in his voice. His voice cracked half-way through the sentence.

The fortune-teller gave no sign of noticing. Instead, she gathered the cards together again, and shuffled them as expertly as some cardsharp. Lotho watched closely. He hoped to catch her stacking the desk, but he saw none of the usual tells.

"The situation," the fortune-teller said suddenly, startling Lotho out of his preoccupation. Lotho sat back and watched as she plucked a card, apparently at random, out of the deck. She set it down: a picture of a large wheel with so many spokes it made Lotho's head spin to look at it. Upon one side of it stood a golden sheaf of ripe wheat. Upon the other was propped a long triangle -- a crutch, perhaps. Ill-drawn, Lotho sniffed to himself, and far too brightly colored.

"The wh said. "Uncertainty. At the moment you are in high position -- but at any time, matters may change, and you might find yourself either crushed down, or even higher than you are at present."

Lotho grimaced. Was he to be impressed by this flummery? All the Shire knew of his family's relations with Bag End. He started to get up.

"The foundation of your life," the fortune-teller continued, passing on to the next card. This one showed a hobbit dressed in proper tunic and breeches, standing in a field, his arms crossed over his chest, frowning. He looked a little like Lotho's father Otho, dead these several years, and Lotho relaxed back into his stool. "The Hierophant, they call this card," the fortune-teller said. "Here in the Shire, we call him the Keeper of Tradition."

Tradition? Lotho sat down again, and leaned forward to better study the card. Perhaps the fortune-teller understood things more than he'd thought.

"Your recent past," the fortune-teller droned on. This card showed a pair of cupped hands holding four coins, poor copper things to Lotho's eyes. "The four of coins," she said, quite unnecessarily in Lotho's opinion. "Riches -- riches passing into your hands, but not out of them."

Lotho allowed himself a smirk. Of course not. He was no spendthrift, not like those Brandybucks, or even certain Bagginses he could name.

"What you think of yourself," the fortune-teller said, and Lotho leaned forward still more to look at the next card she laid. A hobbit in rich clothing, holding something in his hands: Lotho couldn't make out what. A walking-stick of some kind, or a thin bag of coins. Curse these ill-made cards, how was a hobbit to see what was what? He looked up at the fortune-teller inquiringly.

"The Emperor, they call this," she said, though she gave no sign of having noticed Lotho's look. "Like our Thain, or the Master of Buckland, or the Master of Bad End Underhill." She raised her eyes from the cards for the first time, pinning Lotho into his seat with keen eyes. "But far more, Lotho Sackville-Baggins. You fancy yourself master of all you survey, and you would survey everything."

Lotho tried to swallow. He slid back on his seat, and remembered why he hadn't wanted to come here. She didn't know that. Nonsense. All of it, nonsense.

"What others think of you," the fortune-teller said softly, and turned over the fifth card. On it, a young hobbit stood on the edge of a precipice. His head was thrown back, his eyes closed, and one foot out as if he meant to walk off the cliff, but he smiled up into the sky. A dog barked at him from behind, in warning. "The Fool," the fortune-teller said.

"No," Lotho said, or tried to say. He forced a laugh. "You've gotten the cards mixed up." It couldn't be true. This was all foolishness. He should never have let Meriadoc Brandybuck push him in here. It was nothing more than thick incense and pasteboard cards. He could get up and walk out of here right now.

"Th never lie," the fortune-teller said calmly. "The next card -- your near future." She turned it over: some poor fool of a hobbit stood there, four swords pinning his breeches to the ground, while another pointed with a fifth sword and laughed. "Five of swords. Mockery," the fortune-teller said, in tones of creamy satisfaction that drowned out Lotho's splutterings. "Humiliation. Rich you may be, Lotho Sackville-Baggins, but the Emperor you are not. "

"Thank you, madam." Lotho pushed himself to his feet. He would strangle Meriadoc Brandybuck the instant he got outside, he thought. "I think you've told me -- a lot of food for thought." No, not strangle him. Humiliate him. He'd come up with something, somehow.

"But stay," the fortune-teller said. "The reading isn't over."

"It isn't?" Lotho heard his own voice distant in his ears, thin and weedy.

"No." The fortune-teller drew a final card. "This explains and influences the whole, past and future alike. The crossing card, it is called."

Lotho glanced longingly at the door-flap. One more card, he thought. How much more terrible could it be?

He looked back, and felt his stomach plummet to the curls on his feet.

"The Lovers," the fortune-teller said. Now she sounded like she was laughing. "Not a matter of business, then, that causes that downfall, but a matter of the heart. Who do you love who is so inappropriate, Mr. Sackville-Baggins?"

Lotho tried to say something, anything. Instead, he only managed a sickly smile, and then fled the tent for the relative privacy of the edge of the fair.

Who do you love? Nobody. Nobody at all. Nobody he could have, he knew that. Bag End's gardener thought the sun rose and set on Frodo Baggins: he made no secret of that. He didn't even know Lotho Sackville-Baggins existed. Humiliation, oh indeed. How had the fortune-teller known?

Lotho forced himself to his feet. It was nonsense, that was all there was to it. Mother always said so. But still, no need to borrow trouble. He'd go home early. No, even better: the miller's son from hereabouts (what was his name, Tad? Ted?) had asked to meet Lotho this evening. "Something to your advantage," that's what he'd said.

Five of swords. Crossing cards. Ha.

Lotho headed back into the cacophony of the fair, head held high. He'd show them. He'd show them all. Somehow.

*

"Is this one your schemes?"

"Of course it's not," Mr. Merry protested, hand over his heart. "Honor of a Brandybuck."

Rosie shook her head, and glanced at the fortune-teller's tent skeptically, bright and cheerful as a rainbow. "I've no questions to ask," she said. Mr. Merry was too polite to contradict her, though his raised eyebrows and exaggerated look up and down her body made Rosie blush. "Especially not about that," she added snappishly.

"Of course not about that," Mr. Merry said, expression immediately as open and honest as you please. "A pretty lass like you m have her pick of the lads. But you've a pie or two up for prizes, don't you? You can ask her about that."

Rosie blushed even harder. Yes, she did have her summer-berry pie in for the judging, and she'd stand it against the best in Hobbiton. But she didn't have her pick of lads. She didn't want her pick. She wanted -- she wanted -- oh, she was a fool, dreaming with her head in the clouds, see if she wasn't!

"Just a few minutes," Mr. Merry wheedled. He put his head to one side and fluttered his eyelashes at her as if he were a lass himself.

Rosie couldn't help but laugh. "Oh, leave be! I'll go, if you're so insistent on it!"

"Excellent!" Mr. Merry abandoned his pose immediately, and drew open the doorflap of the fortune-teller's tent. "This way."

Rosie shook her head, but ducked inside nonetheless. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the relative dimness. A single oil lamp lit the whole, a jolly shiny thing that showed drapes and hangings all about, as colorful as the outside of the tent.

"Well, come in. The seat's just there. Mind you don't look into the lamp, or you won't be able to see the cards."

Rosie came forward, looking about her curiously. Off to her left stood a short set of shelves, laden with oddly-bulging bags and a pale globe of blown glass. But the fortune-teller sat behind the table with the lamp, pasteboard cards spread out on the fabric before her, face-down. Some sort of flower gleamed from their backs: no, several flowers, woven into an elaborate knot that made Rosie's eyes ache to try to follow it.

"Sit down," the fortune-teller repeated, and gathered up the cards. "Do you want a general reading, or have you a specific question to be answered?"

Fredegar Bolger, Rosie nearly blurted. But she bit her tongue in time. Mr. Bolger hardly counted as a question, after all. "General," she said instead. "A general reading."

The fortune-teller smiled at her, quick glint of teeth and eyes in the lamp-light, then shuffled the cards with quick, light movements. At last she pulled one out of the deck and laid it on the table between them. Rosie leaned forward and peered at it. She saw a lass with golden hair, dressed in blues and whites, her hands held out so she looked like she held the sun in her right hand and the crescent moon in her left.

"The Sorceress," the fortune-teller said. "Your situation. She could be you, young and learning your own power -- oh, don't shake your head at me. At your age every lass finds out a flash of ankle or a shy glance can turn a lad's head, which is power enough for us hobbits. Or she might be your mother -- and don't tell me your mother doesn't rule your home, because I've never found a home yet where the lady doesn't govern things, not even the Great Smial of the Tookland." Rosie tried not to smile at the notion of the Thain himself being ruled by his wife, and the fortune-teller tched her tongue. "But you're of an age where being ruled isn't entirely to you laid out the next few cards quickly, talking as she worked. "Your foundation is the Sun -- bright and strong, as good as any could wish. Your recent past, seven of cups, air-dreams and cloud-castles. What you think of yourself -- the Fool."

Rosie stared down at the silent judgment of the cards. On the seven of cups, a young hobbit lay on the grass, seven cups dancing in the sky above him like stars, while on the Fool card, that same young hobbit looked ready to follow those stars right off a cliff. Ma was right, she thought, unreasonably angry with herself for having come. Even fortune-tellers knew the truth of it. I shouldn't let a dance and a single kiss lead me to dreaming.

"What others see," the fortune-teller said, and turned over the next card. A hobbit-lass sat there by a spinning-wheel, dressed in summer-green Sunday best. Rosie looked up at the fortune-teller in bewilderment. "The Empress," the fortune-teller said, though her eyes were thankfully down on the cards as near as Rosie could tell. "Like the Thain's Wife, the Mistress of Buckland, the Lady of Bag End, only all together and more besides." Now she did look up from the cards. "You're not such a fool as you think yourself, my dear."

Rosie looked back down at the table, biting her lip. They were only cards. She shouldn't believe them. "What else?" she said.

"Near future." The fortune-teller laid down the card, then shook her head over it. "Judgment," she said, though Rosie had guessed at the meaning of the hobbit frowning over a set of scales. "Decisions of some kind, though I'm not sure what. Perhaps even danger. I wouldn't have thought... where are you going?"

Rosie froze where she'd started to rise from her seat. "Isn't that the last of it?"

"Of course not. There's still the crossing card." The fortune-teller waved her back down to her seat. "It influences all the rest, past and future. And for you, my dear, that means--"

With a flourish, she produced the final card -- two hobbits, holding hands and looking into each other's eyes. Rosie's breath caught.

"The Lovers," the fortune-teller said, with an air of immense satisfaction. "I wouldn't take that Judgement card so seriously after all. Into every life a little rain must fall."

Rosie murmured something polite, and made her escape. Her head wouldn't stop spinning.

It was only a fortune-teller, using pasteboard cards. She mustn't take it seriously.

But if -- oh, if!

Rosie bit her lip, then gathered her skirts and headed into the crowd to find Fredegar Bolger. Come what might, she'd at least make the invitation. Just to come to her father's farm. An afternoon's conversation. He was too much the gentlehobbit to mock her if he said no. And if he said yes - oh, if!

*

"Ah, there he is."

Mr. Merry froze for a second in the act of closing the tentflap behind him, then tried to peer over to see who'd spoken without actually moving anything more than his eyes. Mr. Frodo if he meant to step back and hide from his cousin. Then he stuck his free hand in his pocket and went forward instead. Sam followed whether he would or no, since he'd no mind to let go of Frodo's hand. A morning spent at chores rather than the Fair was quite long enough separation for hs taste.

Mr. Merry relaxed as he recognized who'd spoken. "Frodo! Don't startle me like that!"

"Then don't hide," Frodo said. "We've been looking for you all afternoon. What are you doing here?"

"Helping out."

"I didn't know you went in for this." Mr. Frodo nodded toward the fortune-teller's with a raised eyebrow.

Mr. Merry shrugged. To Sam's eyes, he didn't look a mite abashed. "My mother's telling the cards this Fair. She ordered me to help pull folk in, or she'd tell Father about why his best breeches are pink now." He cocked his head. "I don't suppose you'd like a reading, would you?"

"I think Aunt Esme knows too much about me already," Mr. Frodo said. He glanced over to his left, a half-smile on his face. "Sam?"

Before Sam could say anything, Merry interrupted: "No, no, do it together!" He looked up at Frodo, eyes asparkle with mischief. "I want to see if she, well, figures it out. She scared Lotho Sackville-Baggins near out of his waistcoat this morning, and Rosie Cotton came out red as berries. She's good."

Sam glanced down at his hand, entwined with Frodo's. It wouldn't take no fortune-teller to know where his heart lay, no, nor his body neither. Frodo tightened his grip as if to prevent Sam from backing off, but he didn't look away from his cousin. "Has she done one for you?"

Merry folded his hands behind him and widened his eyes even more, innocent as a kitten's, fluttering his eyelashes a bit for good measure. "Please? It won't take long, I promise."

Frodo sighed, and looked over at Sam. Sam shrugged, and glanced up at the brightly colored tent. He'd never dared the fortune-teller's at previous fairs, except once when a bunch of the lads invaded to get their fortunes told all to the same time. "I don't mind, sir," he said aloud.

"Very well, then," Frodo said, letting go of Sam's hand finger by finger. "Merry, stop fluttering your eyelashes like that, you look silly. We'll go in."

Mr. Merry smirked as he pulled open the door, but done was done, and Sam would follow wherever Frodo went. It was naught but a game with cards, for all Sam remembered. What harm could it do?

They both paused just inside the door to allow their eyes time to adjust. Sam's eyes were dazzled by the fine scarves and tapestries, but he heard Frodo tch his tongue. "That one hung in my guestroom at Brandy Hall," he murmured in Sam's ear. "And that lamp Bilbo gave to Uncle Saradoc and Aunt Esme for his last birthday."

"But what's the smell?" Sam murmured back.

Frodo hesitated a long moment. "I don't know," he admitted at last. "I don't know."

"Don't the hobbit seated behind the table in the center of the tent. Even knowing who she was, Sam couldn't rightly see her face in the dim light. "If you're come for a reading, then sit down."

Frodo exchanged a smile with Sam, then came and obediently sat down. Sam took up a position just behind Frodo, folding his hands politely behind him.

"You're short-tempered today, Aunt."

"It's the cards," the fortune-teller said, picking up the offending items from the cloth in front of her.. "I managed them well enough back at Brandy Hall, but they haven't behaved themselves this entire day." She sighed, then looked up, her gaze going in mild puzzlement from Frodo to Sam. Sam stiffened, then felt Frodo relax on his stool and lean back against Sam, just a little bit. Sam relaxed too, and the fortune-teller shook her head at whatever she was thinking, then began to shuffle the cards. "Any particular sort of reading, Frodo?"

"No," Frodo said, then glanced up, his curls brushing Sam's thighs. "Sam?"

"Depends," Sam said after a moment's thought. "What sorts are there, ma'am?"

"All sorts," the fortune-teller said, looking back and forth from Frodo to Sam again. She waved her hand over at a set of low wooden shelves. "There's a crystal ball over there, if I choose to make up a story out of whole cloth, and a few bags of runestones, though don't tell that wizard friend of yours I have them, Frodo Baggins, or he'd skin me alive. Or there's the cards." She cut them as she spoke, then briskly shuffled them back into order. "Why don't I try a standard reading, Mr. Gamgee, and then you'll see for yourself?"

Sam reddened a trifle at being called 'mister' by the Lady of Buckland -- the Gaffer would never let him hear the end of it if he found out -- but he nodded shortly, and leaned over Frodo's shoulder to watch.

"The first card is your situation," the fortune-teller explained, laying down a card that showed a hobbit with a coin in each hand, the coins drawn so large they nearly dwarfed the hobbit. "Two of coins," she said. "It means balance, juggling things to try to make them come out right."

Sam flushed in private understanding, and felt Frodo's nod against him. They'd had to learn how to ration themselves, so Sam could do his work without Mr. Frodo's face coming between him and his pruning, and Frodo could read without daydreaming. But it made the coming together all the sweeter, Frodo said. Sam didn't know if he agreed. He still wanted, until Frodo laughed and called him insatiable. Ha. Not that Frodo seemed to mind --

"The foundation, of you and of your situation." The fortune-teller's voice startled Sam from his thoughts, as she turned over a card that showed a figure, cloaked and hooded, looking away, up toward something not shown. "Six of swords," she said, tapping the six blades that lay abandoned on the ground behind the figure. "Realization, understanding. Have you been reading that Elvish poetry again, Frodo?"

Sam swallo laugh, and heard Frodo force a chuckle. Not Elvish poetry, not for foundation between him and Mr. Frodo, but a kiss in a garden. Did she know? How far were the cards like to go?

"Recent past," the fortune-teller continued, eyes still on the cards. This card showed two hobbits raising a glass to each other. "Two of cups," she said, rather unnecessarily. "Friendship, or partnership." She raised her gaze again. "Did you ask a question of the cards, Frodo?"

"No," Frodo assured her.

"Hmmm. Sam?"

"No, ma'am."

The fortune-teller frowned down at the cards. "Maybe it's because there's two of you," she muttered, and Sam bit back the impulse to tell her what the card really meant. "It's confused them. Don't need to state the obvious... ah, well. Next card, what you think of yourself -- yourselves." A wagon wheel, this time, with a sheaf of wheat to one side and a crutch on the other, light and shadow behind them both. "Wheel of Fortune -- uncertainty. You could be high up, or thrown down. At the moment you're high."

"Not very flattering," Frodo murmured.

"I'm not here to flatter you," the fortune-teller reminded him, rather snappish, then turned over the next card. "Or perhaps I am... this is supposed to represent what others think of you."

"The Sun," Frodo said. He sounded doubtful. Sam squeezed his shoulder, aunt or no aunt. He knew exactly what the card meant, the light that shone in Frodo's eyes sometimes.

"Yes." The fortune-teller frowned down at it, as if preoccupied, then looked up at Sam again. "Well. Two more cards, Samwise Gamgee. Your near future -- the Ace of Cups. New beginnings, new life, new love."

Not that new, Sam thought. But then, he'd had his Mr. Frodo for little more than a year. New enough, he reckoned. He waited to see the last card as the fortune-teller turned it over.

A moment's silence. Sam felt himself blush again, even harder, and Frodo turned his face into Sam's belly as if to hide a blush of his own. The fortune-teller merely sighed. "Is this why my scape-grace of a son sent you in together?" she asked dryly.

"Yes'm," said Sam, since Frodo appeared unable to speak.

She sighed again. "I should have expected it. I've never seen this--" She picked up The Lovers and waved it gently, "--turn up so often as crossing card as I have today. Ah, well, spring, and a young hobbit's fancy lightly turns to love, as they say."

Frodo rose to his feet, but hesitated rather than follow Sam back toward the tent-flap. "Aunt Esme?"

"Yes, Frodo?"

"What did Merry get for his reading?" Frodo's voice held a beguiling hint of mischief to Sam's ear, a touch of his usually-suppressed Took and Brandybuck side. "He wouldn't say."

The fortune-teller looked up. "He got The Lovers for crossing card, no surprise. But for near future, he had the two of staves."

"And that means?" Frodo pressed, not looking away from his aunt.

She shrugged. "Wait and see. Likel for someone utterly inappropriate again." She gathered the cards together. "Now go on with you. Merry's likely to send another hobbit in here any moment."

They got safely out before Sam muttered in Frodo's ear, "Of course it said 'wait and see.' Peregrin Took's no more'n eight or nine."

"Yes, Sam," Frodo said, laughter rich in his voice as he took Sam's hand in his again. "But I don't think we should tell Aunt Esme that just yet. She's had enough shocks for one day."

"You're assuming those cards of hers haven't told her already," Sam said, and had the satisfaction of hearing his Frodo laugh out loud as they made their way into the crowd of hobbits at the Bywater Fair.

end

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