10. Delving

POV - Frodo

In which Frodo and Bilbo journey to the Fair and unearth the past.


25 Forelithe, 1290

Dearest Frodo,

I miss you so much. You’re so sweet to write. I know you are very busy helping Uncle Bilbo, just like Milo helps Papa. I know you must be doing important things in Hobbiton.

I'm jealous that you are going dancing all the time! You are going to have to dance with me every day at the Fair. We leave here in three days and are going to get there on 30 Forelithe. We are staying at the White Chalk Inn. I can hardly wait to see you!

Mama and Papa had an argument about me going to the Fair. She wants me to go to Buckland now and doesn’t want me to see you. Bargo doesn’t want me to go to the Fair, either. He’s still mad you punched him. If he didn't want to be punched, he shouldn't have been so mean.

I’m going to give you a big kiss the next time I see you!



25 Forelithe, 1390

Dear Cousin Frodo,

I miss you so much. Merle is helping me write to you. She misses you, too. Are you going to come home for harvest? Ula won’t be here. She has to go home. You should come for Yule, too. Merle says she will bake you a special cake and I can have some too if you come for Yule.

Me and Berry climbed the willow tree by ourselves. We’re going to go to Uncle Bard’s farm this summer. Fatty and Stella and Tilly will be there and we’ll have fun. Can you come see us?

Papa says I can have a pony when I’m big enough to brush Pebble all myself and pick up her feet. Me and Merle will come ride to see you, then. Gammer says we can.

Merry (and Merle! I love you Frodo!)


26 Forelithe, 1390

Dearest Little Cousin,

I miss you so much. The Hall feels empty this summer and there is no one to talk to with Dilly and you both gone. I am jealous she gets to see you! You’d best not be making plans to be anywhere besides Hobbiton when I come back for harvest, you rascal. You never did give me a dance at Wintermark so I am claiming one now. And a dance is all you get, brat! I hope you have fun dancing with Bluebell at the Fair. Ha ha! Be sure to give Dilly a dance.

It also feels strange to have the Master gone for so many days. Mistress Gilda is getting quite grumpy and is quick with the cane. I have a bruise on my ankle where she gave me a good rap. She apologized after. The elf tonic continues to do her good. Now that the weather is warm, she needs to drink less of it. Every day, I go for a short walk with her outside the Hall and she only needs to take my arm if the ground is rough or there is a slope.

Unfortunately, Cousin Esmie is almost back to her old hateful self and is taking advantage of Dilly and Aunt Prisca being gone to get her claws back into things. Sara may not be quite as stupid as he was last year, but he can’t say no to her and she is a bad influence. Dilly needs to come back and keep an eye on her. Esmie knows I don’t care much for her. I so look forward to coming home in Halimath and not having to look at her wicked face.

Merry can’t stop talking about the pony he is going to get and so, of course, Berry wants one, too. The Mistress said that Merry and Berry will need to visit you and Uncle Bilbo as often as possible once they can ride. Probably Merle as well.

There are so many babies this year and more to come! Mistress Gilda has me doing all of the deliveries now. Cissy and Helga both say they want me to midwife their babies later this year, so I will have to come back after harvest.

Ma and Da are very happy that they see you all the time. Are they well? They’ll never say so they don’t worry me and my brothers don’t write. Only my little rascal cousin-brother does!

My love to you and Uncle Bilbo,

Cousin Ula


27 Forelithe, 1390

Dear Bilbo,

I hope that you and yours are well.

This letter is to invite you to supper with me and Ada on Midyear’s Day. I will be throwing a party for various friends and family and I would be honored if you would attend. The Thain and the Mayor will both be there. I had heard that your cousin, Rory Brandybuck, will be at the Fair this year. If he is, please extend this invitation to him, as well. I would very much like to meet the Master of Buckland.

When you get to Michel Delving, please do come to call, if only for a few minutes.

Wilcar Chubb

East Road, Morning, 28 Forelithe, 1390

Frodo sat on the wagon bench behind Uncle Odo and Aunt Sage, next to his cousin Baldo, and watched the Shire roll by. They had left early in the morning to take advantage of the cooler temperatures and would have a long stop in the middle of the day to let the ponies rest when the sun was at her hottest. They would go as far as Waymeet tonight followed by another day of travel to Michel Delving. Mac and his team led the way, followed by Uncle Wili and Aunt Prisca and then Odo and Sage’s wagon. Ahead and behind, there were other travelers upon the Road, all bound for the Free Fair.

Up ahead, a peal of laughter rose from the middle wagon as Bilbo said something to amuse Aunt Prisca. He had been flirting shamelessly with her since yesterday afternoon, getting some mock-threats from Wili for trying to steal her away, which the pair ignored.  

Everyone was doing their best to ignore the hostile silence between Uncle Rory and Bilbo. When neither had showed up for lunch, Frodo figured they had just stayed down the Hill and had gone to Odo’s farm for the meal, but Bilbo had come home mid-afternoon, withdrawn, showing the same mix of anger and sadness that had gripped him on their northern walk. Mac had watched Bilbo a few minutes, then headed out the door and off to Bywater. He and Uncle Rory returned not long before supper. One side of his uncle’s face was a little swollen and red and he moved like his shoulders hurt. Frodo had not asked Bilbo what happened and he did not really want to know. He suspected his own behavior the day before may have been the spark to their argument.

He’s parted. Frodo tried not to shiver at the thought. He had thought a great deal about what Bilbo had said two days ago. This is why he needs the elves. And the wizard. It was hard to think of Bilbo as old the way Uncle Wili or Uncle Rory were obviously old. No, you have seen him look old. When Bilbo was tired or showing a certain kind of anger, then he looked old. All the arguments over the new farthing, this had made him look closer to his true age. And when you’re being a brat and aggravating him. Nothing had made Bilbo look as tired as the fight in Long Cleeve. His eyes had been dimmed and his face lined, shoulders stooped. You did that to him, with all your poking. I don’t do that anymore. That was the rat, not me. Don’t fool yourself. You’re still a bit of a rat. The other kind of anger did the opposite; when Bilbo blazed with wrath over wrongs done, then he looked ageless. That’s when he wanted things. No, people. Bilbo never wanted things. He might enjoy fine shirts and the best pipeweed, a luxurious smial and a well-stocked library, but he was just as happy to wear some rough spun clothes and walk around in the dirt, eager for the opportunity to meet a new person and make him his friend. He wanted people – to meet them, to hear their stories, to introduce them to other people, to help them. To shake them, threaten them. Do things to them. Maybe kill them. The Parting is in his anger. Bilbo had been angry with Uncle Rory for some time.

Mostly, Frodo did not care what had happened. All he cared about was Bilbo and the Parting. He did not want to share the old hobbit with anyone else, did not want them to stir up exactly the mix of wrath and melancholy that Uncle Rory had done, did not want these other people with their incessant claims badgering Bilbo to do this or that to rescue them from their own stupidity. He and Bilbo only needed each other. They could do what made Bilbo happy, like the ledgers and translations. Better yet, they could read poetry and he would listen to the stories of Rivendell that Bilbo loved to tell. They would cook things for each other, and Bilbo could sit in his study writing letters while Frodo taught Sam and May their lessons. Bilbo would have no reason to be angry.

The talk he had with Bilbo reassured him somewhat. He won’t just leave you. That had been his secret fear over Bilbo’s insistence that he listen to Dudo’s obnoxious attempts to win his affection, that perhaps all his bratty behavior and poking had finally worn the old hobbit out and he hoped to leave him with another relative to deal with. But he won’t. He’s just waiting until you are old enough and then you’ll go with him. It had been startling to hear the other reason Bilbo wanted him to be pleasant to Dudo, but it made sense. Dudo might say evil things about Bilbo, repeating the disgusting lies he had heard whispered around Hobbiton, to try to force Bilbo to give Frodo to him and Tulip. It made clear the cryptic exchange between Dudo and Otho over lunch back in Thrimidge. Dudo had seemed puzzled at Frodo’s dogged loyalty to Bilbo, but he also seemed content that Frodo was often down in Bywater.

In truth, Dudo was not a bad sort, not like Otho, and Tulip was nice, if not very smart. Dudo was a mercer and sold many kinds of cloth and thread. He had a small, prosperous shop in Bywater and a good-sized warehouse, trading and selling cloth from all over the Shire and even beyond it. Frodo had liked visiting the shop and having Dudo explain the different kinds of cloth, from sturdy canvas to delicate silk, where it came from and how it was used. Frodo’s interest in his business pleased Dudo and it was something they could speak about that did not make mention of Bilbo. It amused Frodo that some of the cloth his Baggins uncle sold had been woven in Brandy Hall. Dudo and Tulip would be at the Free Fair to speak to weavers and traders, but they were not going to leave Bywater until tomorrow.

Bilbo didn’t know, either. That made him feel less stupid. Gammer had told them both and at the same time. She’s a healer, she’s knows when someone is sick. His uncles who knew the land, Rory, Rufus and Odo, they all had seen it. It did not sound like it was hurting Bilbo, just that it was not natural. It was just how he was. He doesn’t change, so there’s time to wait for me to grow up and then we can go. Frodo was not sure he wanted Bilbo to go and be healed. I’m barely a tween. It will be a long time. So, all that mattered was getting through the Fair and then they would come back home and others could leave them alone and stop making Bilbo angry.

Up ahead, Mac called out that it was time to stop and rest. To the north of the Road was a flat area ringed by tall sycamores. There were several wagons already stopped there, the teams standing at hitching rails under the trees while the Hobbits ate lunch and rested under wagon covers or else in the shade of the sycamore grove. Some stone watering troughs were to one side, filled by a long-handled pump. Frodo hopped off the wagon as soon as Uncle Odo brought it to a stop and went over to help his Uncle Wili unhitch the ponies.

‘I’ll take care of them, Uncle,’ he told Wili with a smile.

‘You needn’t work so hard, lad.’

‘No, really, it’s no problem,’ Frodo assured him. ‘Mac and I can take care of the ponies.’

‘Frodo’s right, uncle,’ Mac called out, and Baldo echoed him from where he was unhitching his father’s ponies. ‘Let us fellows tend the horses and you help the ladies with our lunch.’

‘I’d think you’d want to be closer to the food, Frodo,’ Wili teased him, ‘but I’ll not wait to be asked twice.’ Beyond Wili, Bilbo was helping Prisca get their lunch out of the back of the wagon. He gave Frodo a wink and a nod to let him know this was what Bilbo wanted him to do. Frodo wanted as many of the elders together as possible to keep Bilbo and Rory away from each other.

The ponies were soon unhitched and the harness straps loosened so they could rest comfortably. After they were watered, they were hitched to a set of rails near where Sage, Prisca and Bilbo were laying out the lunch on a picnic blanket. Frodo wiped down Wili’s team and put on their feedbags so they could enjoy their meal, too.

Lunch passed without incident. Frodo sat next to Bilbo and picked at his food which encouraged Bilbo to eat his own and set a good example for him. After lunch, they napped for an hour or so, Frodo gladly taking advantage of opportunity to curl up next to Bilbo, his head on Bilbo’s shoulder, one of the old hobbit’s arms protectively around him. When they started out to Waymeet, Bilbo came back to sit with him in Odo’s wagon, while Baldo sat with Mac and Dilly and Rory went with Wili and Prisca.

The sun was declining but the day still warm and bright as they came down the long slope into Waymeet. The town was built on a narrow, shallow valley with the Road running through the middle. Smials were delved back into the hillsides and houses filled the flatter lands near the Road. At the center of the town, to the north of the Road, was a big square with large old trees around its edges, boughs reaching far out from the trunks over the hard-packed earth below as though they were trying to touch. A few furlongs past the center of town, they pulled into the yard of The Wandering Goat where Bilbo had long before reserved rooms. Inns along the Road quickly filled during the Fair days for hobbits traveled in great numbers to attend. Bilbo insisted on giving Odo and Sage the room he had reserved for himself and Frodo, saying they would be quite all right sleeping in one of the wagons. Frodo looked wistfully at the plump feather bed in no-longer-his room. Supper was plain but plentiful in the common-room and he ate enough that even Aunt Prisca quit scolding him to take another serving. When the sun went down, they all walked up the slope to the main square, which was festive with lanterns, colorful streamers, and musicians warming up on a stand to the side. Frodo was cheered at the thought of some dancing. It would feel good to move after spending so much of the day jostled about in the wagon.

To his surprise, Aunt Sage was the first to ask him for a dance. ‘I’ve seen you in the square and I know you’ll not step on this old crone’s toes,’ she teased. Sage was a very good dancer, it turned out and after the first dance he changed partners with Bilbo, who had been dancing with Prisca.

‘Now I’ve got two Bagginses after my wife,’ Wili laughed, raising a mug of beer in salute. Prisca stuck her tongue out at her husband and whirled Frodo off in a very sprightly round which left them both breathless and laughing. A pretty girl with pale brown hair giggled and asked him for the next dance, which he was only too glad to give her. He liked the dancing here in Waymeet; the girls did not know who he was and were not so forward, though they were friendly enough. When he got tired, he looked around for Bilbo and soon saw his uncle energetically talking to some hobbits he did not recognize. There was a man and woman who, from the way they were standing, seemed together, and there were some younger children milling about them. As he approached, Bilbo saw him and motioned for him to come close.

‘There you are lad. Addy, Blossom, this is my boy, Frodo. Frodo, this is your cousin Adelard Took and his wife, Blossom. They’re up from Longbottom.’

This was the cousin who had seen a Grey Rider down in Southfarthing. ‘Pleased to meet you,’ he said, offering his hand.

‘Good to meet you lad,’ Addy said with a nice smile and a firm handshake. The hobbit looked at Bilbo. ‘This is the boy Uncle Gis was telling me about, from Buckland, yes?’

‘Yes, my cousin Drogo’s son. I adopted him last year.’ Frodo recognized the look of displeasure on Bilbo’s face and wondered what it could be about. The exchange seemed perfectly proper to him.

‘It is very nice to meet you, Frodo,’ Blossom added, leaning over to give him a kiss on the cheek. ‘Here’s our little pack. My girls are Amy, Fire, Pearl – she’s Pal’s but she’s with us for the Fair – and Dottie.’ The girls, who looked Merle’s age or a little older, chorused “Hello!” and went back to their own chatter. ‘And the boys are Evie,’ a little boy about Berry’s age gave him a gap-toothed grin, ‘and… Addy, where’s Gin?’

‘Boy’s off again, is he?’ Addy grumbled good-naturedly. ‘Gin! Gin!’ he bellowed and soon a hobbit about Frodo’s age came dashing up.

‘Yes, Papa? Hi Uncle Bilbo!’ Bilbo grinned and waved at the imp.

‘Meet your newest cousin. This is Frodo Baggins, Bilbo’s boy. Frodo, this rascal is my son, Reginard.’

The boy stuck out his hand with a grin. ‘Hi Frodo, call me Gin. Papa, how are we cousins?’

‘I haven’t the faintest idea. Figure it out for yourselves. Go find some girls and dance. Bilbo, we would love to have you come visit…’ Addy and Blossom were back to talking to Bilbo. Gin tugged on Frodo’s arm.

‘Let’s go before they change their minds!’ Frodo grinned in return and nodded. As he walked past Bilbo, his uncle handed him a few coins, which Frodo thought best spent on beer for himself and his new cousin, which met with vigorous approval from Gin. When they had mugs in hand, they found a somewhat quiet corner of the square where they could watch the dancing.

‘So, how are we cousins?’ asked Frodo.

‘Dunno,’ Gin said. ‘You down from the Old Took?’

‘Yes, he’s my great-grandfather.’

‘Great-great for me,’ Gin replied, and then cocked his head. ‘I didn’t know Uncle Bilbo got married.’

Frodo almost choked on his beer. ‘What? Married? No, he’s not married!’

‘But you’re his son, right? Papa said you’re Bilbo’s boy. You heard him.’

For a moment, Frodo could not say anything. ‘No! Nothing of the sort! I’m his nephew. He adopted me last year.’

‘Oh. Why’d he do that?’

‘Because my parents died and I needed a home and he needed an heir, so it all fit.’

‘Oh, oh!’ Gin stammered. ‘I’m so sorry! About your parents, I mean. I didn’t know. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude.’

‘It’s all right,’ Frodo assured him. ‘You couldn’t have known.’ Gin still looked guilty so Frodo cast about for something to change the subject. ‘How do you know Uncle Bilbo?’

‘Oh, when we would go up to the Great Smials to see Grandpa Flame, sometimes Uncle Bilbo would be there, and he’d tell his stories!’ Gin was much more cheerful. ‘We haven’t seen him in a while, though. He looks the same.’

‘Uncle Bilbo does have the best stories,’ Frodo said, not wanting to talk about how Bilbo looked.

‘Oh, the best! Which one do you like best?’

‘Easy – when he got Smaug to roll over on his back and show him the chink in his armor. Talking to a dragon is very dangerous.’

‘Did he really talk to a dragon? I mean, I can believe the spiders, but a dragon?’

Frodo nodded vigorously. ‘A dwarf came to call at Bag End last Yule, and he gave Bilbo a present from King Dáin, brought all the way from Erebor. It was five gold Dwarf Crowns and on each one Bilbo was pictured, talking to Smaug!’

Gin’s face was alight with wonder. ‘You don’t have one of the crowns with you, do you? So I can see?’

‘No, they’re all at home. But if you came to visit, then I could show you. What’s your favorite story?’

‘The spiders! They’re scary!’ Gin launched into his own story of flicking stones at big spiders in his family’s barn, pretending they were the evil spiders of Mirkwood, and then they riddled each other over the riddle game, and stood for a while, beer and dancing forgotten, telling each other Bilbo’s stories. Frodo was delighted to find someone who liked Bilbo so much and knew he would need to become firm friends with this cousin.


Frodo looked about to see who had said his name and found himself looking at Tom Tunnelly, who gave him an apprehensive smile and little wave of his hand. ‘Tom, what are doing here?’ He motioned the smaller boy over, which made Tom smile in truth and hasten to Frodo’s side.

‘I’m here with Mister Greenbough. We’re going to the fair. He’s going to do some business and wants me along to keep track of his deals.’ Tom said this with no small pride.

‘Gin, this is a friend of mine from Brandy Hall in Buckland, Tom Tunnelly. He’s prenticed to Mister Greenbough, who runs a lumberyard in Whitfurrows. Tom knows his figures like nobody’s business!’ Gin looked suitably impressed. ‘Tom, this is my cousin, Reginard Took, from Longbottom.’ The boys shook hands and exchanged greetings. ‘How long have you been traveling, Tom?’

‘Since early yesterday. We went all the way to Bywater yesterday, then Mister Greenbough did business there this morning, and we got in here within the hour.’ Tom turned to Frodo, his back to Gin, looking intently into Frodo’s eyes. ‘I almost forgot! Your Aunt Tilda and Uncle Gun send their regards to you and your uncle and hope you’re both doing well. Your aunt said if I saw you, I was,’ Tom leaned in and gave him a kiss on the cheek, flicking Frodo lightly with his tongue as he did, ‘to give you a kiss from her.’ The look on Tom’s face was inviting. Frodo doubted Gin saw what Tom had done and hoped he did not look too shocked himself. ‘Your aunt has been ever so kind to me,’ Tom chattered on, never dropping Frodo’s eyes. ‘She invites me to Highday supper every week, and she’s brought me some baked things at the lumberyard, always enough to share!’

‘Aunt Tilda is very kind.’ Frodo stepped away from Tom and to the side, not wanting to stand so close. He was not sure what mischief Tom had in mind but he was having none of it. ‘Have you been back to the Hall?’

Tom shook his head. ‘Not yet. After the Fair, I’ll go for a week, and then again at harvest.’

‘Ula will be back in Hobbiton for harvest. She promised me we’d go dancing.’ There was no hiding the sour look on Tom’s face at that news. Serves you right, you sneak! ‘Speaking of which, Gin, your father told us to find some girls and dance.’

‘Right he did, cousin!’ Gin looked over at where the girls were gathered at the edge of the dance floor. ‘I saw you out there earlier.’

‘Let’s go!’ Frodo did not wait for an answer, but deposited his beer mug on a table with other dirty mugs and headed off to the girls, waving the other two to follow. It only took a quick smile and an outstretched hand to get a lass to come with him. Gin had similar luck, though his dancing was better described as more energetic than skilled. Tom stood glowering at the side. Frodo ignored him and asked another girl as soon as the first dance ended. And don’t even think that you’ll get to go fooling with me ever again.

It was only when the crowd started to thin and the musicians stopped playing that Frodo looked about for Bilbo. The old hobbit was sitting next to Uncle Rory on a bench under one of the big trees, both with beer and they were laughing at some story Uncle Wili was telling them. He and Gin walked over, Gin looking about for his parents.

‘You two wore me out just watching you!’ Uncle Rory teased. There were a rather large number of empty mugs under the bench and Frodo wondered if they had all been drunk by his uncles. From the way Uncle Wili was swaying, Frodo suspected they had. Rory motioned at Gin with his half-empty mug. ‘You’re Addy’s boy, right?’

‘Yes sir, Reginard Took.’

‘I’m your cousin Rorimac Brandybuck. Call me Uncle Rory.’ This uncle had also been drinking quite a bit.

‘Yes, Uncle Rory. Where are my parents?’

‘They went back to the inn, lad. Your little brother was falling asleep,’ Bilbo answered. He had a mug of beer, but it was mostly full and he was obviously in full command of his wits. ‘I told them I’d bring you back so they could go put him and your sisters to bed.’ Frodo looked at his two drunk uncles and his new cousin. Being big brother again, Bilbo, watching after us all.

Bilbo stood, gave the rest of his beer to Frodo, who gladly drained it, thirsty from all the dancing, and held his hands out to Rory to help the other stand. Rory handed his mug to Gin, who followed Frodo’s example, and let Bilbo pull him to his feet and into an embrace. They stood like this for a moment, then Bilbo gave Rory a tighter hug and a kiss on the temple before swatting him lightly. ‘Come on, you drunken ass, time to go to bed.’ The two walked back to the inn with an arm around each other’s shoulders, Wili weaving slightly at their side. I guess they’ve made up. It had been like that in Buckland, too. Bilbo and Uncle Rory had argued over him, been cool to each other for a day, then had been back to best friends the next. When they got to the inn, Rory told Bilbo that he should not be sleeping out in a wagon. Frodo recognized a peace offering when he heard one. I guess you deserved your thrashing.

‘That was decent of you to give Odo and Sage a spot, Bilbo. My bed’s big enough for us both.’

‘No doubt it is, Rory, but then I’ll have to listen to you belch the rest of night, not to mention smell your farts,’ Bilbo answered with a grin, earning a fairly sharp whack on the back of his head. Frodo and Gin could not hold in their snickers. ‘Besides, that leaves Frodo by himself out here.’

‘He can stay with me in our wagon, Uncle Bilbo,’ Gin volunteered. ‘That’s where I’m sleeping.’

‘Show me.’ Leaving Rory and Wili at the inn door, Gin led them out in the yard where the carts were parked. Quite a number of them had hobbits sleeping in them. In a large covered wagon not far from the west wing of the inn there was what looked like a reasonably comfortable pallet with a heap of blankets. Bilbo inspected it briefly and nodded. ‘Very well. Frodo is this all right with you?’

‘Yes, it is!’ He and Gin grinned at each other.

‘Gin, go tell your father you’re back. Frodo, come get some things from our trunk.’ Bilbo insisted on waiting until Gin returned and both boys had climbed in the wagon. With a good night kiss for each boy, Bilbo left to collect Rory and go inside. All the dancing and the beer took its toll and Frodo was soon curled up with Gin under a few blankets, sound asleep.

Michel Delving, Early Evening, 29 Forelithe, 1390

The next day’s travel was merry. Bilbo and Rory were back to being friends and Addy and Blossom added their wagon to the train, which meant that Frodo and Gin spent the entire day together getting to know each other. Frodo got to know the other children as well. The oldest girl, Amy, flirted with him a little, but she was more interested in hearing about all the different kinds of cloth in his Uncle Dudo’s shop, as was Blossom. Fire and Pearl were more interested in talking to each other, though the youngest girl, Dottie, wanted to hear about Merle who she had a letter from.

Uncle Bilbo spent most of his time either with Uncle Rory or with Uncle Addy, at one point all three of them sitting in Addy’s wagon while Blossom and the girls visited with Dilly up in Mac’s wagon. Gin and Frodo were sitting in Uncle Wili’s wagon along with Gin’s little brother, Everard, right in front of Uncle Addy, and Frodo could see his uncles were having a quiet discussion about something serious. Frodo suspected that they were talking about signs of the Parting near Longbottom.

To Frodo’s great relief, he did not see any sign of Mister Greenbough’s wagon or of Tom the entire day. He hoped that luck would continue through the Fair. Part of him wanted to talk to Bilbo about what had happened, but the other part was very much opposed. He’ll just get grouchy, Baggins. He has enough to worry about. No point angering him. If Tom found him and tried to flirt with him again, Frodo decided he would punch him like he had done to Bargo. And then I’ll find a girl and kiss her right in front of him! He no longer felt much pity for Tom.

It was getting to the end of the day and the Road was descending into Michel Delving. He and Bilbo were sitting with Uncle Wili in his wagon with the others in a line behind them. Frodo stared in wonder at the great town around him. The Road itself went into a long defile with many small ravines opening into it. Every hillside he could see had smials delved into them and the Road itself was lined with workshops, stores, inns, taverns, butchers, bakers, greengrocers, and any other kind of craft or commerce one could think of. Mostly, Frodo was amazed by how many hobbits there were. Even were the place not choked with traffic from the Fair, he knew that several thousand people called this township home. It was strange to see hillsides that had no fields or gardens scattered between the homes, though there were many trees planted along the terraced roads that ran before the banks of smials. At the foot of the ravines and behind the shops along the Road, regular houses were packed together quite closely, some with common walls, and a number roofed with turves, capping them with grass and wildflowers.

When they came out of the defile, Frodo gasped. Before the tumbled hills of the White Downs stretched an emerald green plain that reached far north and south, curving slightly east and out of view in the distance. Farms were scattered across it, making a huge patchwork quilt of the land. Directly west, the green ran straight towards the sun for more than a mile, then abruptly ended. Further on, he could glimpse a great expanse of rolling green hills stretching out towards the sunset. The Road ran straight and slightly southwest towards another defile, the sides of which were snow white and precipitous.

‘Quite a sight, eh, lad?’ Bilbo asked.

‘Yes! What is it?’

‘That’s the Delving Drop. If you go down and look back, it is a great, sheer cliff, all sparkling white.’

‘Can we go see it?’

Bilbo chuckled. ‘Not today, Wilwarin, but I think we’ll find a few hours and go for a tramp. It is a marvelous sight.’

Also upon the plain about two furlongs west of the town, Frodo could see the extensive fairgrounds, already bright and gay and full of motion even though the Fair proper did not start until the day after tomorrow. Wili turned his team north at Bilbo’s direction and they traveled along the main north road until Bilbo pointed to a side lane. Their Took cousins waved farewell, said they would meet again on the morrow, and continued up the road. The small lane went back between low workshops and a few warehouses to a stone arch which led to a large courtyard. Over the gate was a sign saying The Sheepfold, for that was the name of the inn. The forward and side portions of the yard were lined with pens and stalls for animals and they were nearly full. Towards the back was the entrance to the inn proper. Stable boys came forward to claim the ponies. A short, stout but neatly dressed hobbit walked out of the inn door and over to Bilbo.

‘Mister Baggins, good evening sir.’

‘Mister Cotsman, it is always a pleasure to see you,’ Bilbo replied with a smile and a handshake.

‘I’ve got your rooms reserved, sir, as you asked,’ the innkeeper signaled for some of the hands to help unload the wagons, ‘and a good supper for you.’

‘Clyde, I have a request,’ Bilbo said apologetically. ‘My cousins, Odo and Sage Proudfoot and their son Baldo came with us unexpectedly. Is there anything we can do to find them lodging here, or else close by?’

The innkeeper looked a bit doubtful. ‘Ah, Mister Bilbo, this will be a tough nut. I’ve only got one room that’s fit to be let, and it’s barely big enough for two, let alone three.’

‘Let’s go in and let the ladies rest while you and I take a look, yes?’ Bilbo said pleasantly. Soon the party was seated in the common-room with beer, bread and cheese before them. The room was already full of other guests and travelers come to enjoy the good beer served at the inn. Bilbo motioned for Frodo to come with him and Mister Cotsman. The man walked back through the public rooms into a warren of tunnels with doors every so often. They went to most northern tunnel.

‘Here’s the room I have left,’ Clyde said, opening the door. It was about the size of Bilbo’s bedroom at home. The bed was in an alcove at the back of the room and was large. Like Bilbo’s room, the chest of drawers was built into the wall and there was a small stand with a washbasin and a mirror on the opposite wall. There was no other furniture aside from a small stool. ‘This would hold the mister and missus, but not the son.’

‘What room did you reserve for me?’ Bilbo asked.

‘Oh, the best, Mister Bilbo, of course!’ Clyde led them back down the hall to a different door. This one had a small sitting room with bedrooms to either side. Each bedroom was larger than the first room they’d seen. Bilbo gave Frodo a look.

‘We should take that other room, Uncle Bilbo, and leave this for Odo, Sage and Baldo.’

‘Perhaps. Clyde, what do the other rooms I let look like?’ The three others were single rooms, but spacious, though one was slightly smaller and had a bed that might not comfortably hold two. The rooms were all on the same corridor, with a washroom at the very end of the hall. ‘I say that you and I shall take the first room we saw, Frodo, and have the others sort out how they wish to divide up the rest.’ They all agreed this made most sense, and went to rejoin the others.

Another delight was waiting for them when they returned to the common room. Uncle Falco was there with Aunt Nora, Fargo and Odogrim. Fargo’s wife, Hazel, had not come to the Fair, staying at home to care for their daughter, Briar, who was too young for such a trip. Cheerful greetings were extended all around. Frodo was glad to see that Odogrim looked well-fed and happy, and gave his cousin a warm welcome. The women were already in deep conversation. None too soon, given the complaints of his stomach, supper for them was laid in one of the private parlors across the front of the inn, and Frodo soon found himself sitting with Fargo, Baldo and Odogrim, eating voraciously. Several smaller tables had been set up end to end to make one long table where they could all sit. Uncle Bilbo sat at the head and Uncle Rory at the foot. Immediate hunger satisfied, Frodo started talking to his cousins about their travel. After a bit, he felt a prickle on the back of his neck and looked about the room to see who was watching him. It was Uncle Rory, who smiled and gave him a wink. When Frodo looked up the table a few minutes later in response to a question from Aunt Sage, he noticed Rory was still watching him. He glanced at Bilbo, who had barely touched a bite on his own plate. Bilbo was watching Uncle Rory. Frodo saw Bilbo smile and raise an eyebrow then smile a bit more widely before turning to talk to Aunt Nora. So, not quite done with your argument. Frodo did not like the idea that he was the cause of their discord. He liked even less that Bilbo did not eat any more of his supper.

At the end of the meal, Uncle Falco came over to Bilbo. ‘Cousin,’ he said, ‘Nora and I are off to pay a very short call on Wilcar and Ada. Would you like to pay your regards? He has been nagging me for a month to make sure you come say hello.’

‘I think it best I do,’ Bilbo answered with a nod. ‘He specifically asked me to call as soon as I got into town. Do you think he would mind if I brought Rory?’

‘Not at all. Wilcar is most hospitable.’

Bilbo waved Rory over. ‘Make yourself presentable, Brandybuck. We need to pay a quick call on Wilcar Chubb.’ They went back to their rooms to clean up. Bilbo washed his hands and face and changed his shirt to a finer one. He also pulled a small bundle out of the trunk and tucked it under his arm. ‘I’m not taking you now, Wilwarin,’ the old hobbit said, ‘for I’d like to take the measure of Wilcar first. You will need to be presented in your best light the first time he meets you. Remember, he’s Pal’s brother-in-law and of no close kin to either of us.’ With a kiss and an admonition to make himself useful to his aunts while they settled in, Bilbo left.

Sage and Prisca decided that they and their husbands would share the suite and Baldo would take the room with the small bed for himself. That left the other two rooms that Bilbo had let for Uncle Rory and Mac and Dilly. The remaining two rooms along the corridor had been let by Falco, so the family was all together along the hallway. Frodo found he was not needed to help the others, so spent his time unpacking his and Bilbo’s trunk. Odogrim soon came by and the two caught up on what they had each been doing since Thrimidge. Bilbo and the others returned a little more than an hour after they had left. Bilbo looked thoughtful. Odogrim excused himself and Bilbo closed the door behind him.

‘How about a pipe, lad.’ Bilbo loosened his shirt collar and cuffs and sat on the floor, back against the side of the bed, while Frodo fixed up their pipes. Bilbo accepted the proffered pipe without a word and sat, smoking and thinking. Frodo sat with his back against the wall so he could see Bilbo’s face and waited.

‘Wilcar is a good man.’ Bilbo said this without looking up. ‘There’s no sign of Dragon Fever in him. Not even a dwarven-heart.’

‘That’s good, isn’t it?’

‘Yes.’ Bilbo thought a while longer. ‘Wilcar is of no mind to relinquish anything to Pal. Or Otho. I think they shall find themselves disappointed.’ He drew on his pipe, staring off into nothing. After a few minutes, Bilbo said, ‘Falco and Rory want me to meet with Wilcar tomorrow morning. They want Rufus, Addy and Odo there, too. Maybe some others.’ More minutes passed. ‘They seem to think Wilcar might relinquish something to me.’ This made Bilbo sigh, then look over at Frodo with a long measuring glance. ‘What do you think I should do?’

They want Bilbo to take on a farthing. Sounds like Wilcar will do it, but only for Bilbo. For a moment, Frodo was pleased. The people of true heart know you are the best hobbit. It was a rejection of those who envied and slandered his uncle, who only saw something unnatural when they should see someone exceptional. Someone who could see a failed harvest and swiftly move to protect people from want. Someone who ignored petty contests and always did what was right. Someone who could talk a dragon into doing his bidding. Someone always rescuing others out of their own stupid predicaments. If Wilcar was not going to help Odogar, Otho and Pal to break up the farthings, then Bilbo had done all he needed to do. Frodo drew on his pipe and blew a thin stream of smoke, before answering.

‘I think you should go on an adventure with me and see the Delving Drop.’

Bilbo grinned. ‘I think you are right.’

Michel Delving, Early Morning, 30 Forelithe, 1390

‘Bilbo!’ Rory said in an exasperated tone. Bilbo and Frodo shared a mischievous look and kept checking their ponies’ tack. ‘Rufus sent round a note saying he was in town early. We need to meet with Wilcar.’

‘Well, you just go do that,’ Bilbo airily replied. ‘I have better things to do.’

‘You said you meet with …’

‘I said I would meet with Wilcar when I had time,’ Bilbo snapped, giving his cousin a glare. ‘I don’t have time this morning.’

‘This afternoon, then,’ Falco said reasonably.

Bilbo gave Frodo a smile. ‘Ready, lad?’

‘Yes, Uncle!’ Frodo swung up on the sturdy little pony Mister Cotsman had obtained for him as Bilbo did the same on his own. With a wave at their irritated relatives, the old hobbit urged his pony forward and Frodo followed. They were soon out on the main road that ran along the foot of the hills of Michel Delving. The way was busy even at this hour and Frodo had to pay attention to avoid bumping into someone or losing sight of Bilbo. The traffic did not thin until after they were out upon the plain and past the fairgrounds. Frodo nudged his pony to step up and walk next to Bilbo’s.

The sweep of the farmland was interesting. Frodo had never seen such a great, even expanse of land before. Everywhere else he had been in the Shire, the land was rolling, with greater and lesser hills, patches of woodland, gullies and rises and there were no edges; everything simply became the next. Here, there was nothing to impede the eye as far as Frodo could see north or south, the green fading into a haze at the edge of sight. Ahead, the land simply stopped, the abrupt edge like the shore of a great sea with green waves below and beyond. Even the view back towards the town was impressive, with high hills dropping steeply down to the eastern edge of the plain, the defile of the Road the only significant gap in their folds. There was nowhere else the Road could have gone. The lanes that led away from the main road were snow-white tracks through green grass.

‘Where does the road north lead to, Bilbo?’

‘To Little Delving. It sits where the hills meet the Drop in the north. The Drop is much lower there, not much more than a high hill itself. There’s no exit to the south, it just ends in the Drop, though it’s lower there, too.’

Soon, they reached the first break in the flat field and the Road dipped down into the cut through the Drop. The sun was not yet high enough to reach into the cleft, but the white walls of chalk made the defile brighter. There was a long line of people coming up the Road from the lower downs, some on foot, some on ponies, and any number of carts and wagons pulled by various dray beasts. Frodo and Bilbo stayed close to the northern wall to allow the others to pass. The roadbed itself was dressed stone and the high curb to either side that kept chalk from washing onto the Road had strange designs carved into it, birds, flowers, even tools like a hammer or an axe. Frodo asked about the carvings.

‘They’re ancient and dwarven. Durin’s folk laid this road.’ This thought pleased Bilbo a great deal and the old hobbit began humming something to himself. Frodo simply stared in amazement at the Road, which now snaked down the widening canyon, dropping further down with each loop. The sun finally rose high enough overhead to cast light into the ravine, though dark shadows crisscrossed their path. It was almost two hours from when they started out before they came to the bottom and out onto the sea of grass. The Drop itself cast a long dark shadow over the western lowlands. The Road once more became mostly straight and dashed away west as though racing the sun to the horizon. Across the low hills, Frodo saw homes and hamlets, the round doors of smials tunneled into hillsides, tendrils of smoke rising from chimneys, and long stone walls marking tidy farms. Bilbo rode a mile out from the Drop before following a small track up a nearby hill crowned with trees and gestured east. ‘There, lad.  There is the Delving Drop.’

The white cliff was breathtaking. From this perspective, Frodo could see that the upland was not flat, but undulated in long waves, making the white wall rise and fall. At its tallest, it had to be over two hundred yards high. The Road gap was the only significant break in the wall Frodo could see. They dismounted, tied the ponies to a low tree branch and took out the meal they had packed. They sat on the grass, eating their cheese and bread, admiring the fearsome beauty of the Drop. After they finished their food, Bilbo did not seem inclined to leave, so Frodo made up pipes for them. Bilbo smoked and hummed to himself, looking at the wall. At the foot of their hill, a steady stream of travelers passed by on their way to the Fair. Frodo heard Bilbo’s humming change, becoming a true tune, and then the old hobbit softly sang,

Far over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away ere break of day,
To seek the pale enchanted gold.

The pines were roaring on the height,
The winds were moaning in the night.
The fire was red, it flaming spread;
The trees like torches blazed with light.

The bells were ringing in the dale
And men looked up with faces pale;
The dragon’s ire more fierce than fire
Laid low their towers and houses frail.

The mountains smoked beneath the moon;
The dwarves, they heard the tramp of doom.
They fled their hall to dying fall
Beneath his feet, beneath the moon.

Far over the misty mountains grim
To dungeons deep and caverns dim
We must away ere break of day
To win our harps and gold from him!

Bilbo fell silent, eyes never leaving the Drop, but Frodo doubted his uncle was seeing the cliff in front of him. After many minutes, Bilbo said, ‘I know not how to slay this dragon.’

‘What dragon, Bilbo? Do you mean Odogar?’

‘No.’ He shook his head slightly. ‘The dragon that has seized the hearts of the Shire, turning them into ice, hungering only for gold.’ A few more minutes. ‘How long did Smaug sleep atop his hoard? Wizard, I have questions.’ With a sigh, Bilbo stood and began putting things back in the saddle bags. ‘Come along, Wilwarin. It’s a longer walk up than down.’

When they started down their hill, they saw a troop of dwarves with pack ponies walking along the Road, the beads in their great beards winking in the sun. Bilbo hailed them and waved, and a few walked part way up the hill to meet the Hobbits. With a bow, his uncle said, ‘Bilbo Baggins, at your service.’

After a moment of astonished shock, the dwarves bowed as a group, ‘At your service, Mister Baggins, Lord of Burglars.’ They remained bowed over. Frodo could hardly keep from bursting out laughing and sobered himself when Bilbo shot him an irritated look.

‘Thank you for your service, good fellows,’ Bilbo said with another shallow bow, which made the dwarves bounce back up, each looking more delighted than the next. A younger dwarf who reminded Frodo of Dalin stepped forward and offered another, elaborate bow.

‘Bóin, son of Óin, at your service and that of your family’s, Mister Baggins, Lord of Burglars.’

‘You’re Óin’s boy?’ Bilbo exclaimed. ‘Frodo, this is our lucky day! Oh, where are my manners? Bóin, this is my nephew, Frodo, and we are at your service and that of your family’s.’ Bilbo and Frodo both returned Bóin’s bow.

The dwarf stood with a smile, looking even more like Dalin. He did not have Dalin’s tawny hair; his was more of a rich red-touched brown, but his eyes and smile were similar, and they were about the same height and breadth. From the length of his beard, Frodo thought they were probably close to the same age as well. ‘I am honored to meet you both, Mister and Master Baggins. My cousin Dalin charged me with finding you at the Fair, if you were here, and extend to you his warmest greetings and loving wishes for health, wealth and happiness. He commends me to you, and bids me provide you with any skill or service that I can.’

‘Well, let’s not delay you and your fellows in your journey, Bóin,’ Bilbo said, gesturing at the rest of the dwarves. ‘Frodo and I were just about to head back up the Drop ourselves, so if you would not mind our company, we will ride with you to the Fair.’

All agreed this was a splendid idea and they were soon on their way east. The entire troop of dwarves was quickly informed of their august new companion, which occasioned much reverential bowing and offers of service, which in turn earned them curious looks from passing hobbits, for the Road was quite busy. The dwarves had no difficulty keeping up with the little ponies Bilbo and Frodo rode, their own pack ponies being much larger, and Bóin strode between them.

Word from Belegost was good. There had been no sickness in the winter, as sometimes happened in the close caverns, trade did nothing but increase, particularly to the south, and dwarves were increasing in numbers in all their ancient homes. The less pleasant news was that King Dáin had decided that the army of Belegost should be rebuilt, and was sending more dwarves to occupy it. Dalin had been tasked to oversee their arming, for he was the most skilled steel smith in Belegost. This had made Bilbo silent for a while, studying the Drop intently.

Bilbo was right that the walk up the long defile to the top of the Drop was longer than the way down, especially as the day was warm. As they walked along, Frodo saw the dwarves surreptitiously touch the carvings along the curb, kneeling as though to adjust a boot, trailing fingers over the stone, then touching their forehead, lips and breast with their fingertips, much as Dalin had done when introduced to Aunt Gilda. Frodo wondered why they did this but thought he would ask Uncle Bilbo first. It would not do to anger a dwarf by asking something insulting. It was after lunch before they topped the pass and came once more upon the green fields before Michel Delving. By the time they turned aside at the fairgrounds with the dwarves, Frodo could not hide the loud rumbles of his stomach. A hobbit at the gate told the dwarves where their tent was to be set up and they all headed to that spot. After dismounting, Bilbo came over and took Frodo’s pony, handing him a few coins.

‘Here you go, lad. There will be someone selling food over along the fairway. Get yourself something to eat. I’ll wager you can find some friends of yours wandering about, too.’

‘Aren’t you going to eat anything, uncle?’

‘Oh, there’s still a bite of cheese in the bag. I’m not much hungry. I think I’ll stay here and visit more with Bóin and watch the dwarves set up their tent.’

Frodo gave him a skeptical look. ‘And avoid a certain afternoon meeting?’

Bilbo grinned. ‘Precisely! I’m not yet ready to end my adventure for today. Come find me when you’re done.’

Frodo shook his head at his uncle, gave him a kiss, and trotted off in the direction of food.

It was a little disconcerting at first to be in the midst of so many people he did not know, but he soon came to like the hurly-burly of the Fair being set up. This was much larger than the Marish Fair held in early Wedmath just outside of Stock, but once he was used to the greater scale, it was quite similar. It smelled of dust, lumber, manure, and food. The sounds were of things being hammered, people calling and shouting and being loud, animals bleating, oinking, neighing, barking and clucking, the clang of cauldrons, the creak of wagons, the snap of canvas. Near the dwarves, other traders, merchants and craftsmen from throughout the Shire and beyond were setting up their booths and tents, preparing to display their wares through the three days of the Fair. Many were already open for business and had clusters of hobbits standing in front of them, examining the offerings and asking questions. There were long barns of various kinds holding different animals in pens, their owners sitting on the fences or leaning on cages, chatting with their neighbors. More hobbits walked through, leading, herding or carrying their own livestock, calling out greetings as they passed. A big open barn had different kinds of wagons, plows and other farm equipment on display. At every corner, there was some musician or story-teller or other performer entertaining the passers-by, always with a cap on the ground ready for pennies.

He followed the smell of things cooking to a great greensward that took up a large part of the eastern end of the grounds. A huge chestnut tree stood in the center and others, tall and old with large, well-leaved limbs, stood at intervals around the open space. Large lanterns were hung upon the boughs almost as abundant as the leaves, and benches were all about in the shade. There was a stage at one end where bands would play. Food stalls stood nearby, many already open and doing a brisk business. A large number of hobbits simply slept in their wagons just outside the fairgrounds, so it made sense for the kitchens to stay open from before the Fair proper started to a day after, when the travelers would go home.

‘Frodo!’ He looked about for who had called his name and saw Gin jumping up to be seen over the crowd, waving madly. He waved back and hastened over. Gin’s father, Addy was standing there, along with his sister Amy and Odogrim as well as another young hobbit Frodo did not know. Gin gave him a hug. ‘You’ve been lost! Where have you been? I came over to your inn this morning but you were gone. Did you fall off the cliff?’

Addy gave his irrepressible son a light whap on the top of his head. ‘Enough from you, young man!’ Gin just grinned at the scolding. ‘Hullo, Frodo. We have been looking for you and your uncle. Where’s Bilbo?’

Frodo wondered if he should lie and say he did not know so that Bilbo would be left undisturbed. ‘Oh, he’s over there,’ Frodo waved in the general direction of the merchant’s tents, ‘talking with some dwarves he knows. He sent me to get us some lunch.’ He knew there was not any cheese left in the pack for he had eaten it all himself, and had planned to bring Bilbo some food once his own hunger was satisfied.

‘You haven’t had any lunch?’ Amy worriedly asked. ‘It’s late!’

‘That’s why I need to get some right away. I don’t want to leave Uncle Bilbo standing there too long.’ Frodo motioned at the food stalls. ‘Is there something here better than the rest?’

‘It’s all good,’ Gin cheerfully informed him. ‘We’ve tried most of it.’

Addy started giving directions. ‘Frodo, that stall there has some good cooked beef and bread, so get four servings, enough to share. Darron, help him carry that. Gin, go get a large basket of the cooked potatoes. Amy, some biscuits and scones for after. Odogrim, you come with me to get ale. All of you, meet back here.’

Their tasks were soon done and Frodo led the way to the dwarves’ tent. Darron was Darron Chubb, Wilcar Chubb’s son, and was about the same age as himself and Gin. Frodo knew that Bilbo would want him to be friendly with the lad and make a good impression. The fellow was open and cheerful, and they got along well. When they got to the tent, Bilbo was sitting atop a few stacked boxes, chatting with Bóin, their ponies standing nearby with the dwarves’ pack ponies. Frodo saw a brief flicker of displeasure cross Bilbo’s face when he saw Uncle Addy, but was all charming smiles by the time they walked up. Greetings were exchanged, introductions made, and Bilbo vacated the boxes so that they could be used as a table.

‘Bilbo, we missed you this morning,’ Addy said with a smile, passing over one of the skins of ale.

‘Frodo had never seen the Drop and I thought it a good morning for a short trip. It will be too busy after today to get away.’

‘Wilcar’s beginning to think you don’t like him,’ Addy teased.

‘Papa thinks no such thing!’ Darron protested. ‘Though, if you’d told him, Mister Baggins, he’d have gone with you. He likes riding out to see the Drop.’

‘Call me Uncle Bilbo,’ the old Hobbit said with a laugh, ruffling Darron’s hair. ‘Assure your father that I shall pay a longer call soon and I will be there for his Midsummer party. You youngsters better eat this before it gets cold.’ To Frodo’s irritation, Bilbo only ate a small bit of bread and meat and a single biscuit.

‘What’s the Drop like, Frodo?’ Odogrim asked. ‘I’ve only seen it from the top.’ Frodo described it and the Road down through the defile, and Darron tossed in bits of information about what it was like in different seasons, what it was like to stand next to it, and soon all five younger Hobbits were chattering about it while demolishing the food. Bilbo and Addy withdrew a few paces and started talking about something serious, given their expressions, and Frodo wished he could be part of that conversation instead. He did not like leaving Bilbo to deal with their demanding kin by himself.

It was nice, though, to talk about nothing terribly important with hobbits his own age. After they talked about the Drop, Darron told them about Michel Delving and the most fun things to do at the Fair, which he knew best because he had gone to it every year since he was old enough to walk. Tonight, there was going to be dancing starting in a few hours and going on until everyone was too tired to stand. Darron gave Amy a bright smile at that news and she started flirting with him and Frodo, which was also nice. They figured out all of their degrees of relation, who had what siblings and where any of them had ever traveled. Odogrim was not only down from the Old Took on his mother’s side, he was more closely related to Frodo than the others, and he was first cousin to both Bilbo and Frodo, which made him very proud for some reason Frodo could not quite understand. Frodo promised Amy that he would introduce her (and her mother) to his Uncle Dudo and Aunt Tulip so that she would know the biggest mercer in the Shire. They picked at the bread and nibbled the biscuits and talked and somehow the afternoon went by very quickly.

A horn sounded from the direction of the greensward, announcing that there would soon be dancing. Bilbo and Addy wandered over. ‘I suppose you youngsters will want to jump about,’ Addy teased them.

‘Yes, Papa, may we?’ Amy begged.

‘For a bit, kitten, but we need to get back for supper.’

‘Frodo, if you wish to stay, that is fine with me,’ Bilbo said, ‘but you’ll need to come back with Addy. I’m going to take the ponies back and write a few letters before supper.’

‘Thank you, Uncle Bilbo!’

‘If it’s all right, Uncle, I’ll stay and help Uncle Addy keep an eye on these rascals,’ Odogrim said, ‘and bring Frodo back.’

‘That will do nicely. Thank you, cousin!’ With a kiss for each youngster, Bilbo walked off towards the ponies. For a moment, Frodo almost changed his mind to go with Bilbo. The strange mood that had come over the old hobbit when gazing at the Drop was still present, and Frodo did not think it wise to leave Bilbo to brood, especially if he would run into Rory, Odo and Falco before he could reach the relative safety of their room. He likes to know you have had some proper fun, Baggins. Go dance a little, then hurry back and make sure he eats his supper. Sit with him tonight, too. That will soothe him.

By the time they got to the greensward, there were several hundred hobbits of all ages milling about, cheerfully awaiting the start of the dancing. Addy sat himself on a bench nearby, said they had an hour and then needed to walk back, and warned Amy to stay within his sight. Frodo and Darron starting flirting in earnest with her, trying to get her to pick him first for a dance, while Gin made rude noises and taunted his sister. Frodo tried not to be disappointed when Amy chose Darron instead of himself, but she promised that he got the second dance from her. Frodo and Gin quickly found lasses who were more than happy for the attention of such a fine pair, the music started and dancing began.

Amy was true to her word and found Frodo for the second dance. She was not as good a dancer as either of his aunts, but she was funny and seemed more interested in actually dancing than in flirting with him, which he liked. She grabbed her protesting brother for the next dance, while Frodo claimed the girl Gin had just been dancing with. Many young ladies recognized Darron and he had more partners than he needed, which he did not seem to enjoy. Like the forward girls of Hobbiton and Bywater, the lasses of Michel Delving seemed to know exactly who the biggest catch of the town was. Frodo was glad that no one here knew who he was.

After the fifth dance, Frodo thought he would go stand near Uncle Addy and rest. Amy was very shyly asking Odogrim if he would like a dance, since he had just been standing there the whole time. After getting a nod of approval from Addy, Odogrim gave her a little bow and said he would be honored. Just as they walked off, something threw itself at Frodo and kissed him. It was female from the feel as he tried to peel the attacker off his face, but she was too close for him to see. Finally, he put some distance between himself and his amorous admirer.

‘I told you I’d give you a big kiss!’ said a delighted Bluebell. Gin and Darron were staring in amazement, then a hand grabbed his collar and Frodo was yanked backwards.

‘Get your hands off my sister, Baggins!’ snarled Bargo.

‘Quit, it, Bargo!’ Bluebell screeched. ‘He’s not doing anything! Stop being mean!’

Why didn’t I go with Bilbo? Frodo drove his elbow sharply into Bargo’s gut, jerked his shoulder up into Bargo’s face as the older boy bent over from the first blow, threw his weight against Bargo and snaked out a foot to yank the other off balance and knock him over. Bargo sprawled on the ground, nose bleeding. Frodo gave him a cheerful smile.

‘Hullo, Burrows. Nice evening, isn’t it?’ Without waiting for an answer, Frodo strode forward, took Bluebell’s arm and pulled her into the dancing. She offered no resistance, looking at him in shock. Luckily, the dance was not very fast or complicated, so neither of them tripped the other. Unfortunately, it was a long dance, so he could not be rid of her quickly. Frodo kept a smile on his face and said nothing lest he tell Bluebell what a loathsome, avaricious little worm he thought her. When done, he walked her back to where he had left Bargo. His nasty cousin was standing up holding a handkerchief to his nose and waving Aunt Asphodel away. When they stopped, Frodo turned to Bluebell with his nicest smile and gave her a little bow.

‘Thank you so much for the pleasure of that dance, Cousin. It was very sweet of you.’

Asphodel rounded on him in a fury. ‘You little hooligan! I should have known it would be you, Baggins, causing trouble!’

Frodo did not flinch. ‘Lovely to see you, too, Asphodel.’ Tilda is a better aunt to me than you are. By this time, Odogrim and Amy were back. Odogrim gave Bargo a very dark look and moved to stand next to Frodo.

‘You attacked Bargo!’

‘No, I did what I told him I would do if he ever put his hands on me again.’ Go explain that to your mother, Bargo.

‘Bargo started it, Mama,’ Bluebell said, slapping her brother’s arm. ‘Frodo didn’t do anything.’

The look Asphodel gave him was like the one Odogar had given him at Granite Bank and made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. ‘Oh, he started it. Just like a Baggins, spoiling everything you touch.’

‘Cousin Bargo’s a bully and an ass,’ Odogrim firmly said, ‘and he started all of it.’

‘And I’m going to end it,’ Uncle Addy said cheerfully. ‘Time to go home for supper, children. Now.’ Amy and Gin nodded, Gin looking a bit scared, and started edging away, Amy tugging on Darron’s hand to make him follow. Addy took Frodo by the shoulders, turned him around, and gave him a small push to get him walking. Odogrim walked with them. The younger hobbits kept looking back at Addy, worried, but he just motioned for them to keep going. Once they were clear of the crowd, Addy said to Odogrim, ‘Would you go forward and keep the children walking? I need to speak to my nephew for a moment.’ When Odogrim had herded the others a few yards ahead, Addy said quietly, ‘I think I know who those people are, Frodo, but can you tell me so I am certain?’

‘My aunt, Asphodel Brandybuck Burrows, and her two youngest children, Bargo and Bluebell.’

‘Rufus Burrows’ wife?’

‘Yes, and sister to Uncle Rory.’

‘Ah, right. Have you been fooling with the girl? Is that why Asphodel and Bargo want a piece of your hide?’

‘No. I want nothing to do with Bluebell.’

‘Didn’t look like it.’

Frodo hesitated. Just what to tell? ‘After my parents died, I was looked down on by pretty much everyone at the Hall. Just a nothing little… orphan with no friends and no standing.’ He had almost said “bastard”. ‘Bargo picked on me and beat me up and Bluebell treated me like dirt. After Bilbo adopted me, Bargo still hated me but Bluebell decided the heir of the allegedly wealthiest hobbit in the Shire was quite a catch. I’d really prefer neither of them put their hands on me.’

Addy looked at him closely. ‘How old are you now, twenty-five, twenty-six?’

‘Twenty-one.’ Addy’s eyebrows shot up. ‘I’ll be twenty-two in Halimath.’

‘Hmm. You carry yourself older.’ Addy patted him on the shoulder. ‘I’m sorry to hear this, lad. You didn’t start that, but you handled it well. Try to stay away from that cousin, all right? He’ll be spoiling for a fight now.’ His uncle walked a little faster so that they caught up with the others. Frodo saw him give Odogrim’s shirt a tug and motioned with his head. The two of them dropped back, no doubt to have a chat of their own. Gin grabbed Frodo’s arm and pulled him up with the other two.

‘Frodo, what was that?’ he hissed, casting a quick glance over his shoulder to see where his father was.

‘Just a bullying cousin I used to deal with at Brandy Hall. He thinks because he’s bigger than me I’ll be scared and let him rough me up. Bargo’s kind of stupid that way.’

‘You looked scary!’ Gin said, eyes big. ‘You scared me.’ Darron nodded vigorously.

‘Don’t be scared of me. Unless you’re Bargo,’ Frodo teased.

‘Who’s the girl?’ Gin asked. ‘She’s pretty.’ Darron nodded vigorously to this as well.

‘She’s not that pretty,’ Amy scoffed.

‘That’s my cousin, Bluebell.’

‘You sweet on her?’ Darron asked.

‘No!’ Frodo saw Amy glaring at Darron. You’re not getting picked first at the next dance, you idiot. ‘She’s just as nasty as her brother.’ Amy smirked. ‘And I don’t think she’s that pretty.’ Amy’s smirk turned into a smile for him.

‘How’s she your cousin?’ Gin pressed.

‘Her mother, Asphodel, is my mother’s older sister. Brandybuck.’

‘Will you introduce me?’

‘Absolutely!’ Frodo assured him. ‘I’d love for Bargo to pound someone besides me for flirting with his obnoxious little sister.’

All little sisters are obnoxious,’ Gin assured him with a smirk, earning several slaps from Amy which he accepted with good humor. ‘But you were scary! I bet Uncle Bilbo was like that when he was fighting Orcs and spiders and monsters.’

‘I think I’d rather deal with spiders than Bargo.’ Gin and Darron laughed at that. The four of them talked about what they wanted to do tomorrow – Darron recommended watching the horse show – and where they would meet in the morning at the Fair. They waved goodbye at the side lane leading to The Sheepfold. Halfway up the lane, Odogrim stopped.

‘I didn’t see the fight between you and Bargo. What happened?’

‘Bluebell decided to give me a hug and kiss when she saw me, Bargo started roughing me up for it, so I reminded him he’s not to put his hands on me anymore.’

‘I told Uncle Bilbo that I was going to give Bargo a thrashing for what he’s done to you. Looks like you’re beating me to it.’

‘I know you talked to Uncle Bilbo when you stayed with us. He wouldn’t say what you discussed.’

Odogrim was silent a while. ‘I told him I apologized to you and that I was sorry and I’d never, ever do something like that again, not to you, not to anyone. I told him my father had… found out what I’d done. He threw me out. Disowned me. Uncle Bilbo claimed me and said I was his now and I obey him. He ordered me to be a good son to Falco and Nora, and to be your friend. I won’t stand by and let anyone hurt you like that again.’

Frodo was shocked to hear Odogrim had been disowned. It’s what Uncle Rory did to you when you told him. He took Odogrim’s hand. ‘You are my friend, and Bilbo doesn’t have to order anything.’

‘I swear, Frodo, I’ll be sorry to my dying day.’

‘I know.’ Frodo embraced his cousin. ‘Let’s get back. Bilbo’s going to worry if we’re gone too long.’

They got back to the inn and Frodo went to his room, tapping lightly before entering. Bilbo was sitting tailor-style on the bed, a traveling desk in his lap, and had a stack of letters at his side. ‘There you are, lad. I was wondering where you might be. Supper should be soon and you’re probably famished from all that dancing.’ Bilbo gave him a smile and a wink.

‘I’m ready for supper.’ Frodo took a seat at the other end of the bed, leaning up against the alcove wall. Bilbo went back to the letter he was writing, humming a bit to himself. Frodo studied him carefully, looking for any sign of anger or melancholy. His uncle looked a little tired, but not unduly so, and all else was usual. You should tell him about Bargo. No, about Asphodel. Addy may not have picked up on the meaning of her words, but Frodo understood them well enough. You think I corrupted Bargo. He knew it was Asphodel who said the poisonous things Bargo repeated. That’s where his spite comes from. He did not want to tell Bilbo about this, did not want to darken his mood, but there was no way it would not be repeated to him. ‘Bilbo?’

Bilbo did not raise his head, but he looked at Frodo. ‘Yes, Wilwarin?’

‘I got in a fight at the dance.’

Bilbo did not blink. ‘Let me finish this letter. I’m almost done.’ In just a few minutes, Bilbo sealed the last letter, put his traveling desk in order and set it all on the floor. ‘Tell me the story.’

‘We were dancing and it was all fine then suddenly someone grabbed me and kissed me and it was Bluebell.’ Bilbo wore an amused smirk. ‘No! It wasn’t funny at all! I don’t like her. And when I finally started pulling her off me, Bargo grabbed me and yelled at me to get my hands off her.’ All humor left Bilbo’s face. ‘He’s knows he’s not allowed to touch me, so I made him let go and bloodied his nose.’

‘Did you get hit?’

Frodo shook his head. ‘I flattened him, told him it was a nice evening, and walked off with Bluebell to dance.’ That made Bilbo snort. ‘When I brought Bluebell back, Asphodel was there, and she yelled at me. Bluebell and Odogrim told her that Bargo started it and then she said that I had started it. “Just like a Baggins, spoiling everything you touch,” is what she said. I don’t think she meant just the fight tonight.’

Bilbo looked away, mouth in a thin line. ‘There is no end to your stupidity, is there, Brandybuck?’

‘Do you mean Asphodel or Rory?’

‘Both. Actually the whole idiotic lot of them. Might as well throw in Gilda for good measure.’ Bilbo growled and shook his head, then stood. ‘Let’s get washed up for supper. Should I expect a call from Asphodel tonight?’

Frodo thought carefully. ‘Probably not. She’ll have an argument with Uncle Rufus and he’ll talk to you tomorrow.’

‘Good. Rufus I can stand.’ Bilbo took the ewer from the washstand and walked out the door. He soon returned with hot water. He insisted on scrubbing Frodo’s neck and back to get all the dirt from the recent travels. It felt good and got rid of several itchy spots, so Frodo did not protest. When he saw Bilbo dressing very nicely, with a fine linen shirt and one of his better waistcoats, Frodo copied him. It was odd that the old hobbit would dress so elegantly just for supper with their relatives, but he probably needed to make a good impression after having dodged their attention all day. Frodo was rather proud of his ability to put in his cufflinks without any assistance from Bilbo. He had practiced until he could do even the right-hand cuff smoothly. Bilbo smiled and nodded approval at his appearance and they went to the private parlor. Some of the family was already there, chatting while they waited for supper.

‘There you truants are,’ Aunt Nora said with a smile and gave them each a kiss. ‘You’ve been causing much consternation by not providing your ears to be talked off.’

‘Had I known ahead of time that Wilcar likes to ride the Drop, I’d have invited him, too, so he could keep his ears,’ Bilbo replied with a grin.

Soon the rest gathered and supper began. Frodo was ravenous after his exertions during the day and cleaned his plate twice before looking to see if Bilbo was eating. The old hobbit was still on his first plate, but seemed simply to be eating slowly due to conversation rather than just picking at his food due to lack of appetite. Everyone had a merry story to tell of what they had seen and done during the day, and by the time they were done, Bilbo had finished his plate and had even taken a few bites of second servings. Frodo was content with this. A good night’s rest, and Bilbo would be back to his usual self.

The kitchen girls cleared away the dishes and serving platters, and a few stable boys came in and took out the small tables so that the parlor was back to comfortable chairs and couches. The conversation turned to what would happen on the morrow. Mac had entered his team in the horse show, so they all agreed that would be the center of the day. Frodo was teased a bit over the dancing.

A strong rap at the door got their attention. It opened a crack and a hand holding a bottle was thrust in.

‘Brandy for the Brandybucks! Who’ll take me up on it?’

The door opened the rest of the way and in walked the most beautiful hobbit Frodo had ever seen.


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