POV - Bilbo & Frodo
In which greetings are exchanged, secrets are told, vengeance is considered, relations are explained, inventions are admired, dirty linen is aired, exhibits are judged, teamwork is displayed, and everyone enjoys the show.
1 Lithe, 1390
I am sorry you were not able to meet with me and the others yesterday, though I admit I would have preferred to be out at the Drop with you, no less for the company than for the view. Be sure to send me a note if you are inclined to do so again.
If agreeable to you, I would like to have a meeting with you and the others this afternoon after the horse show. I don’t think there is any other way to make them stop pestering either of us.
On a more pleasant note, it seems your lad, Frodo, has made a friend of my son, Darron. Falco has said many complimentary things about your boy and Darron thinks them all true. I look forward to meeting him myself.
1 Lithe, 1290
Your presence yesterday was sorely missed. We didn’t try to explain the important news and spoke mostly about Odogar’s attempt to split Eastfarthing. I’m sorry for you to say that Wilcar was in agreement with us about the best way to handle it. He is opposed to any other plan.
Your cousin, Otho, is here at our inn. He’s quite in support of you and is trying to enlist me to twist your arm on the matter. I think he’s telling the truth about Pal. As for the rest, I’m not sure. I think he fancies himself the master of a farthing. I think I fancy you as Mayor.
I will not allow you to charm your way out of another meeting, however. Don’t think to escape from our clutches a second time; you’re not the only hobbit who knows how to track a wily creature to his lair. Given what you have written, I think it worthwhile to have the Thain be part of this meeting as well. I forgot where Addy is staying. Would you let him know, too?
Since we’re discussing disagreeable things, I heard our boys got into a scuffle last night. Bargo’s nose was bloodied, but I think the greater hurt was to his pride. I hope Frodo took no more harm than that. Bluebell has assured me that it is all Bargo’s fault, while Asphodel asserts that Frodo is to blame. My guess is that they both could have minded their manners a bit better, and I don’t mean the boys.
If you think it worth more conversation, we should get some beer and have a chat. Otherwise, let’s just get some beer. After all, it’s the Fair!
1 Lithe, 1290
I am so sorry! I apologize for my stupid brother being so mean and getting us both in trouble with Mama. You were just giving me a kiss. Please say you’re not mad at me!
Don’t send any notes back. Mama’s watching for them. At least we got one dance before Bargo ruined it all. Papa just laughed when he heard about it.
1 Lithe, 1290
Did you get in trouble with Uncle Bilbo for the fight with Bargo? It wasn’t your fault. If your uncle’s mad at you, I can get Papa to talk to him. Papa knows Bargo picked that fight. Papa thinks very highly of you. I heard him tell Mama so.
You and me and Darron should get away from my sisters and go about the Fair. Amy seems to think she gets to come along, but she shoved Darron after you left and she’s a brat, so she can stay with Mama and the other girls.
Michel Delving, 1 Lithe, 1390
‘ ‘Scuse me, ‘scuse me sirs, thank you!’
They all stepped aside to allow the Messenger to trot past with his satchel of letters. During the Fair, there were so many people in the town staying at the various inns, the Mayor hired a few new Messengers just for the five days of Lithe to go from one inn to the next all day long, picking up notes and dropping off others. Another set of them trotted about the Fair itself, collecting notes to be taken back to the inns from the folk who camped out in their wagons and vice-versa. A special post office was set up on the fairgrounds where anything that could not be delivered was taken and several cheery women kept it organized, taking in new bundles, sorting them in flat wicker trays, and handing them out when the right person came to inquire about a letter gone the wrong way. There was a lass whose job it was to read letters to those who could not and another who would write a letter when needed. At the inns, the innkeepers usually had someone who would do the same, wishing to be hospitable. It always impressed Bilbo that most notes were correctly delivered within an hour of their writing and very few ever went astray.
He had a letter of his own to be delivered, but it would go with a special messenger. Bilbo walked along, enjoying the lovely morning, following Rory and Mac to Rum’s stable. Frodo slouched sullenly behind them. The lad had not protested when Bilbo announced they would accompany their cousins, but his angry look let Bilbo know Frodo did not wish to see Rum. I should have sent him to Rory. No, he needed to see Rum, and Rum him. Bilbo cringed inwardly at what Frodo had seen and heard last night. It had to happen, Baggins. There was no way to prevent the two from meeting. In truth, Bilbo had not known until last night how strong Rum’s affection for Drogo and Prim had remained after the two had left for Buckland and was now deeply guilty for not having gone to see him after their deaths.
Rum was still beautiful enough to take his breath away, but what most startled him was how Rum was showing his age. Sixteen years with all their sorrow and grief had marked him. In his own mind, he only ever saw Rum as the mischievous child of the years spent at the Great Smials or else as the alluring youth who was always about, always tempting him, after he had returned from his adventures. Rum pursued him single-mindedly and he had been deeply flattered by the tween’s attentions. Then the worst rumors began to surface and Bilbo had sternly told him to stay away from Hobbiton. After Rum came of age, they had a rather tumultuous affair for almost seven years until the young man finally understood that he could not win Bilbo’s heart. They had met and parted, always with a terrible argument, for years after that until the occasion of Esmie and Sara’s wedding in Buckland, when they had their last fight and had stopped speaking to each other. I never thought he’d get old. Not older than me. After that final fight, they had only exchanged a few desultory notes until Bilbo had written about the root harvest in Foreyule.
They walked almost to the northern edge of the town and then turned west on a well-kept track that went out onto the plateau. The road was lined with larger houses set a bit apart unlike the tight quarters of Michel Delving proper, and each had a good-sized barn. Half a furlong out, they turned into the drive that led past a house with an apple tree in front of it and a two-story barn behind it. Someone in the barn was singing. Bilbo turned to Frodo.
‘If I send you on an errand, can you find your way back here?’
Frodo looked a bit puzzled, but nodded. ‘Yes, of course I can.’
‘Good.’ Bilbo pulled a letter out of his pocket. ‘I need you to go to the North Inn and give this to Addy. Rufus needs to get a hold of him but couldn't remember where he was staying, so asked if I'd send on the message. Can you find your way to the inn?’
‘Yes, Gin told me where it was.’
‘You may visit a bit with your cousins if they are about, Frodo, but I want you to come back and meet me here once the letter is delivered. We’ll be going to the Fair from here.’
‘Yes, Uncle, I won’t dawdle.’ With a kiss for each of them, Frodo trotted down the drive and back up the lane towards the town.
‘Good thinking, Bilbo,’ Rory said. ‘Keep the boy out of the way.’
‘Out of the way of what, Rory?’ Rory raised an eyebrow and motioned over his shoulder towards the barn with his thumb. Frodo is better armored against the Thain’s wiles than you are, cousin. Bilbo smiled sweetly. ‘I’d leave him with Rum before I’d leave him with Sara.’ Though I have no intention of leaving him with any of you. ‘Besides, you were perfectly happy this time last year to put him right under Rum’s nose.’ Bilbo left Rory to splutter and walked to the barn.
Once his eyes were accustomed to the dimmer interior, Bilbo saw the double line of stalls opening onto a central aisle with doors at the back and a tack area at the far end. There was a large black pony standing loose in the aisle, watching the singer in a stall. The animal saw Bilbo walking in and nickered, which stopped the singing. Rum stepped out of the stall, recognized Bilbo and smiled. Bilbo heard the other two walk in behind him. Rum waved at them to come closer.
‘Good morning!’ he greeted them. The elegant, almost exotic, hobbit of the night before was not present, though there was no hiding the man’s beauty. His hair was a barely brushed mess of waves and curls, haphazardly braided and liberally sprinkled with bits of hay. His trousers were old, with a hole in one knee and a patch on the other, his pockets lumpy from treats for the horses. His shirt was just as old, the sleeves stained with green slobber from the animals, a few rips and patches apparent, and covered with an old, supple leather vest, stained in a patchwork of browns, greens and black. There was a bit of something wet smeared on one cheek, probably where a horse had nuzzled him. He looked very happy and gave them each a hug, then went back into the stall and continued mucking it out. ‘That’s Thomas, by the way,’ he said over his shoulder and nickered.
The pony bobbed his head to the visitors in greeting. Rum’s steeds were always good mannered, even if their master wasn’t. Bilbo returned the animal’s bow. ‘Good morning, Thomas.’ It was wise to return a polite greeting in kind. He was rewarded with a velvet kiss.
Mac and Rory immediately began admiring the horse and were soon introduced to Dickon, the other half of Rum’s team of Shirebourns. They were perfectly matched solid black dray ponies, both stallions, and even Bilbo could tell how fine they were. Across from them was a nondescript pair of ordinary ponies, Bob and Pot, who belonged to Pal, and Rory and Mac did not stint them. The animals were pleased to be the center of the hobbits’ attention. Rory produced an apple and bit off chunks to hand out to his new friends, while Mac performed similar magic with a carrot. Bilbo found himself a safe perch on an empty stall wall to stay out of the way. Barn cats soon appeared, rubbing up against ankles and hooves, meowing for attention. One even jumped up onto Rum’s shoulder.
His cousins quickly decided that this was a much better place for their team and Uncle Wili’s than the stable at The Sheepfold, no matter how good the innkeeper. Mac went with Rum out the far door to look at space for the wagons. It amused Bilbo that, once actually in Rum’s presence, all of Rory’s antagonism vanished. That was another of Rum’s talents. It took a very determined person to remain at odds with the Thain when speaking to him if Rum had decided to be agreeable. Soon, their Brandybuck cousins were waving farewells and saying they would return within the hour with the teams and the wagons. As soon as they left, Rum’s cheer vanished and he came over to the stall where Bilbo sat.
‘I sent him on an errand. He’s taking a letter to Addy for me and then he’ll meet me here and we’re off to the Fair. By the way, the letter is an invitation to a meeting with Wilcar and some others this afternoon. We’re going to be discussing serious things, and I think the Thain should be there.’
‘I don’t give a damn about how the farthings get divvied up, except for the Tooklands.’
‘That’s not serious. That’s just Odogar giving us a bit of entertainment. This is about the odd things people have been seeing around the Shire.’
‘Odd like you never getting older?’
Bilbo tried not to be dismayed at how quickly Rum tied the Troubles to his own appearance. ‘Yes. Exactly that.’
‘What is wrong?’
‘You need to come to the meeting so I don’t have to repeat myself.’
‘I will.’ Rum studied Bilbo intently for a minute. ‘You really didn’t know that I didn’t know. About Frodo.’
‘I really didn’t. I’m sorry.’ Rum nodded. ‘No one remembered the lad, except me, afterwards. I was the only person outside of Buckland who seemed to know he was there. Now I wonder if most others thought he had drowned as well.’
‘You were very mean not to just tell me.’
Bilbo gave him a stern look. ‘I do not answer questions when you put them obscenely. Especially not about Frodo!’
‘People are already saying wicked things, aren’t they?’
‘Where I am concerned, people have never stopped saying wicked things.’
‘I don't. I miss you. Will you come see me? With him?’
‘That will be up to Frodo, and you did yourself no favors last night. You frightened and angered him when you struck me.’ Some red came to Rum’s cheeks. ‘After you left and he saw the bruises you gave me, he said he did not want to see you again. He doesn’t want you at Bag End.’
Rum’s expression was anxious. ‘So you forbid it?’
Frodo has enchanted you. ‘No. I trust his judgment. You have my permission to make amends and persuade him that you are someone he should trust. He is like me or Drogo. Your charms have no effect. He will see you, and judge you, as you are. I suggest you behave when he is watching and that you write to him. He is wary of relatives who claim to be friends, but who never have paid him any mind until I adopted him and there was advantage in knowing him.’
‘Hmm.’ Rum’s look was now thoughtful. ‘What is the actual story around sending him to Pal? I didn’t want to shame him yesterday, but there was a lot more that Tina told me.’
‘What Pal said – Tina said he read it to her from the letter – was that the boy being sent needed to be broken of bad habits and unnatural inclinations. He was leading other boys astray and needed to be kept strictly with girls. I can’t believe that of the young man I saw yesterday.’
Bilbo wondered how much of this to tell Rum. If you hide it, he will know and he’ll keep pushing. ‘He’s grown much in the last year he has been with me. Bigger and taller, but also wiser, more mature. He’s a bit of a troublemaker, but less so than his father ever was. The truth is that he was set upon by a pack of older cousins who used him badly and then claimed he had solicited them.’
Rum gestured in exasperation. ‘And no one saw what was happening? Just where was Mother Gilda in all this?’
You understand why this is nonsense. Bilbo knew that he could trust Rum with the story. ‘It all started in the terrible year. Gilda became sick early that spring. The full explanation of her illness will be part of the afternoon’s conversation,’ that made Rum’s eyebrows go up, ‘but outwardly she was seized with a constant tremor, slight at first, but now so severe she can’t walk unassisted. After the initial mourning, Frodo was ignored by all and left too much to his own devices. I visited as I could. Looking back, I wish I had taken him home with me then, but I was afraid I couldn’t care for him especially with my own sorrow so deep. It seemed cruel to take him from everything he knew, too.’ This got a sympathetic nod from Rum. ‘I didn’t realize he wasn’t being watched. The worse Gilda got, the less she or Rory minded him. Gilda and Rory discouraged my visits; Gilda because she didn’t want me to see her sick, Rory because he didn’t want me near Frodo.’
‘So you wouldn’t… encourage him?’
‘Yes, that.’ He exchanged a look of disgust with Rum. ‘Not long after my visits stopped, three older cousins,’ Bilbo did not want to complicate the story with Tom, ‘began using him obscenely, having him service them to win their attention and approval.’
‘How old? Him and them?’
‘He was sixteen or seventeen, around in there. They were all tweens.’
‘And no one thought it odd that these older boys were doing things with the littler one?’
What did anyone know? No, what did Gilda and Rory know? More than they will admit to. Once they were told the truth, they didn’t contest it. ‘I think it was ignored, rather than not noticed, and probably assumed to just be some tween fooling.’
‘A gang of tweens on a younger child is not fooling.’
‘Agreed. By the time I came to claim him, Frodo had turned tween himself and was no longer so compliant. The ringleader in this was Asphodel’s youngest son, according to Frodo, and he was flatly forcing Frodo by this time.’ Bilbo did not care to be fair to Bargo. ‘They started slandering him to excuse themselves. I spent several days trying to get people to explain to me exactly what Frodo was doing that had them all upset and justified sending him off to Pal. From what people said, it sounded like tween fooling that had started recently. Then, I had the misfortune to see them using him, and understood what was actually going on. Though perhaps I should say it was fortunate, because then I knew what to ask Frodo to get the answers from him directly. That’s when I decided I was taking him at once. I persuaded him to come with me and we left the next morning.’
Rum gave him a curious look. ‘Why did you need to persuade him?’
‘What do you think Frodo would do if you tried to order him?’
‘He’d be his father and you’d be in trouble,’ Rum said with a nod.
‘I couldn’t just drag him along. He’d resent that. He had to want to come with me.’
‘Why wouldn’t he? I’d have jumped at the chance to go on an adventure with you, as would almost every tween boy in the Great Smials.’
‘That’s where the Queen of Calamities comes into the tale. She had been filling his ears that the only reason I wanted him was to debauch him and that, since he was just a little nothing bastard, that’s all anyone would ever want of him. I think she actually believes this. Frodo certainly believed it. I had to convince him otherwise.’ And now he trusts me so much he’d allow me to do exactly that.
Rum leaned against the wall of the stall and thought. ‘How does the story of the dwarf attacking Sara fit into this?’
‘What is the story you’ve heard? All I’ve heard are rumors.’
‘It’s one of Esmie’s. The basic story is that you went with a dwarf to Buckland for Wintermark, that you found a pretty boy there and wanted to take him home, that Sara tried to keep you from doing it, that you set the dwarf on him to punish him for interfering, and that you bought Rory’s silence with a gold Dwarf Crown.’
To explain this would mean explaining about Sara. Rum will not judge Frodo harshly for this. ‘The reason Frodo found Esmie’s stories about what I would do to him so believable was because Sara was already using him.’ The look of horror on Rum’s face let Bilbo know he was right to trust this cousin. ‘He caught the other boys using Frodo just as I had, sent them off, and used Frodo himself.’
‘Just what did he do to our lad?’
What did he do? Bilbo had thought a long time about Frodo’s behavior, what Frodo had described and what he had seen of the other boys. There were things he had seen Frodo do that did not neatly fit into what the boy had told him. If all the bullies had wanted from him was to be mouthed, then why had Frodo behaved so seductively? How did you learn how to soothe an angry man? ‘I… am not sure. Frodo is reluctant to talk. What I know is bad enough. Sara had bribed a Hall boy to keep a close eye on Frodo and report back any misdeeds. Sara made Frodo choose between being beaten or sucking his cock as punishment. The one time the boy refused to service him and accepted a beating, Sara still forced himself on Frodo, and didn’t give him a choice after that.’
Rum stood there, jaw clenched, one hand tapping against his leg, then slammed a fist against the boards of the stall, startling all the horses and sending the cats scurrying. ‘You still haven’t explained the dwarf.’
‘When we went back to Buckland for Yule…’
‘Why did you do something that stupid?’
‘Because Frodo missed his little cousins and Gilda and he wanted to be there.’ Rum sighed angrily and shook his head. ‘The dwarf, Dalin, is the son of one of the dwarves from my adventure, Dwalin, and went there to talk to Rory about trade. When we were there, Frodo told Rory what Sara had done, Gilda wrung a confession out of Sara, and Mac gave Sara a thrashing. A few days later, at Wintermark, Sara tried to force himself on Frodo again in retaliation, couldn’t, and beat him up. I told Dalin if Sara tried anything else, he was to protect Frodo. They got in a fistfight, and Dalin taught Sara a lesson. Frodo started the fistfight because Sara had taunted him about being my whore. I did give Rory a gold Crown, but that was done before the fight with Dalin. It was my Yule gift to him.’
‘And people call me depraved.’ Rum was silent for a long minute. ‘I have an argument to settle with Cousin Rory. This could be part of it.’
Bilbo considered this, then shook his head. It would not do to have Rum’s name enter into this. ‘Thank you, but no. The Master has failed in his duty to me to keep Frodo safe, and he has said slanderous things of my kinsman, Drogo. The apology he owes is to me. I am handling that to my satisfaction. Frodo is taking on the bullies who did him harm, now that he is old enough, and making them see the error of their ways. I suspect there will be a few fistfights – which he will win – over the course of the Fair. I think it good that he restore his own honor.’
Rum cocked his head. ‘You don’t wish to take on Sara?’
‘Oh, I very much do. The trouble is, if I see him, I will kill him. That’s why Rory brought Mac, not Sara.’
‘Ah. Wise of him.’ Rum smiled in his most charmingly malicious way. ‘If you change your mind, my dearest Bilbo, let me know. I would like the opportunity to… handle… our misguided cousin. I don’t see I’ll have much use for Car after the Fair and I need a new amusement. I have to say that the little one is much prettier. Will Frodo be giving him a thrashing?’
Bilbo knew what Rum was asking and offering. He apologized, he swore he would be good. ‘Odogar disowned him for repenting and I have claimed him. That’s where the rumors about him got started. Odogrim is a bit simple and Frodo has forgiven him. I believe he will assist Frodo with the thrashings as a way to make amends.’
‘What a good boy.’ Rum walked over to Bilbo and took his hand. ‘I’m sorry for hitting you.’
Bilbo leaned down from his perch on the stall wall and kissed Rum’s brow. ‘I know you are, love. I’ve already forgiven you. But only this time. I won’t forgive you again.’
‘Fair enough. How do I make amends?’
‘I don’t know. That’s for Frodo to decide.’ Rum nodded and went to Dickon, letting the stallion out into the aisle so he could muck the stall. A barn cat quickly came out of hiding and leapt onto Rum’s shoulder. About ten minutes later, Bilbo heard something and looked towards the front doors of the barn. In a moment, the sound resolved itself into children’s voices.
‘Grandpa?’ Pearl called out as they walked in the barn doors, then she nickered like a horse. A chorus of nickers sounded in return, and ponies stuck their heads out over stall doors to look at her. A big black pony standing in the center aisle whinnied. Beyond the pony, Rum was standing next to a wheelbarrow and he waved.
‘Grandpa!’ Pearl pulled her hand out of Frodo’s and darted over to Rum who picked her up in a big hug. The black pony nickered and nuzzled her hair. Frodo looked around for Bilbo and spotted him sitting on a stall wall. The old hobbit just smiled. He better not have touched you. Amy and Fire walked past him to go to Rum. Frodo and Gin trailed behind. Rum was merrily greeting them all and they were chattering at him at once.
‘I was going to come get you, Pearl, when I finished with Dickon here. – Hello, Fire, you’ve come to visit, have you? – Amy, you look lovely! Have you been dancing yet? – Gin, I swear you’ve grown an inch since I last saw you! – Good morning, Frodo!’
‘Good morning.’ He stayed an arm’s length away, though the others crowded in for a hug and a kiss. Frodo would not have believed this rumpled, somewhat dirty hobbit was the same as the beautiful visitor of last night were it not for the striking forelock. And the lovely face. Frodo was not sure he liked the Thain looking so… ordinary.
‘You children need to be up and out of the way,’ Rum told them once greetings were done. ‘There’s more horses on their way here right now and I expect them any minute.’
‘Boys, up here,’ Bilbo said, pointing at the stall wall near him. Rum put Pearl and Fire up on Dickon’s back while Amy followed Gin to the top of the wall, wiggling in between him and Frodo. ‘Frodo, do Addy and Blossom know the pack of you is here?’
‘Yes, Uncle. They’re following with Dottie and Evie.’ Whatever had been in the letter Bilbo had sent to Addy had pleased the hobbit, and when he found out that Frodo was going to meet Bilbo to go to the Fair, he said they would go with him. It had been a boisterous walk and slower than Frodo liked. He wanted to be back to Bilbo as quickly as he could. He studied the old hobbit carefully, looking for any sign that he had been handled improperly by Rum, and found Bilbo to be impeccably neat.
Rum went back to work, carting out the manure, bringing back a pile of straw, raking the stall, filling the manger and the water bucket, all the things Frodo had seen done a thousand times in stables in Buckland. When he was old enough, Uncle Rory, Mister Tunnelly and Mac had shown him how to do this. It was interesting to watch Rum and compare him to Rory or Mac. The animals paid him mind just as they did to his Brandybuck kin and he responded in kind. What was different was the way Rum wove in his talk with the children to his converse with the beasts. Where Mac or Rory would pay no mind to the people around them when they spoke to their animals, Rum switched seamlessly from pony to granddaughter to barn cat to nephew and back again. He could tease Amy about the dance last night and then sing a snatch of song to the little ponies near the door, and next nicker at Pearl, who replied with a nicker and a giggle in return, all the while making his own hobbit humming sound like a cat purr to amuse the barn cat who somehow kept itself balanced in his shoulder. Rum did not seem to mind the claws digging into his vest. His deepest nature is what he shows his animals. If this was true, then he was a good man. Frodo scowled a little. He did not want to think well of this cousin. He wanted him to be something he could dislike. Not a wicked person, all twisted like Esmie or Sara or Odogar, just not good. More like Otho or Tom.
‘Hello?’ Aunt Blossom was in the doorway with her youngest girl, Dottie, Uncle Addy not far behind with Evie. Rum patted Dickon on the shoulder, pointed at the clean stall and waited for the horse to walk in before going to greet the new arrivals. Bilbo climbed down to offer his salutations, motioning for Frodo to stay up. Within a few minutes, Dottie and Evie were sitting on the other black pony and the adults were sorting out their day. Frodo tried to listen in on their plans, but Amy started a tickling match with him and Gin and he had to pay attention or risk being tickled off the wall.
Gin looked over at the adults and then said in a low voice, ‘You didn’t get in trouble, did you, Frodo?’ Amy was all ears.
Frodo shook his head. ‘I told you, Bargo’s stupid,’ he said just above a murmur. ‘Uncle Bilbo knows all about him,’ including things I’m never telling you, ‘and he thinks it’s good if I teach the bully a lesson. As long as it’s just a little shoving, he doesn’t care.’
‘His sister’s mean, too, right?’ Amy asked. ‘You said so.’
‘I wouldn’t want either of them around me,’ Frodo replied, making a face, which made Amy smile.
‘She likes you, seeing how she kissed you,’ Gin said with a smirk.
‘She’s a rotten kisser and an even worse dancer, but you can go find that out for yourself.’
Gin poked him. ‘And how would you know what a good kisser is?’ Frodo just smirked in return, and tried not to think too much of the kisses he had seen last night. Amy’s expression was not so happy and she poked him, too.
‘Where are we meeting Darron?’ Frodo asked, wanting to change the subject.
‘You and me are meeting Darron at the dwarf tent, Frodo, and you’re staying with Mama!’ Gin sternly informed Amy.
‘Frodo!’ Frodo breathed a sigh of relief and jumped down from the wall. He did not want to get caught in a sibling squabble.
‘Yes, Uncle Bilbo?’ he asked, walking over to the adults. Gin and Amy scrambled down and followed him.
‘I have remembered a letter I must complete and send this morning, so I need to return to the inn for a bit. Would you be a good lad and help Addy and Blossom get this mob over to the Fair?’
You’re sending me away again. Frodo kept his face bland and hoped his anger did not show. ‘Of course, Uncle. Should I come back to the inn when that’s done?’
Bilbo shook his head. ‘No, I will not be long and will come to the Fair after. I will look for you first near the dwarf tent – you two boys are to meet Darron Chubb there, yes?’ How did you hear that? Were we that loud? ‘– and if I don’t see you there, well, I shall walk about until I do. If nothing else, I will see you at the horse show.’
‘Don’t think about giving us the slip on the meeting this afternoon, Bilbo,’ Addy half-warned, half-teased and Bilbo shook his head.
‘No, I will be there. I asked for it. I didn’t want to have it until Rum could be there, too.’
This was the meeting they had tried to get Bilbo to attend yesterday. If you’re going to discuss splitting the Shire, then the Thain should be in attendance. He glanced at Rum, who looked like an unkempt stablehand from a second-rate inn. Then again, perhaps just having Bilbo would make for a more respectable meeting. No, Rum will ask what others won’t say or will wish to ignore. He looked again at Rum with a different eye. Bilbo needs you to dismay them.
Bilbo gave him a few coins and a kiss, warned him to mind Blossom and Addy, and quickly left. Out in the drive, they heard the jingle of horse harness and Bilbo hail someone. Rum trotted after, and called his own hello from the barn door. Uncle Rory and Mac had arrived with the teams and wagons. The next few minutes went quickly as the teams were driven past the barn and to the back to unhitch wagons, while Blossom herded the girls together and set out through the front barn doors, all amidst hellos and farewells and where people should meet. Frodo allowed Rum to give him a good-bye kiss just as he gave to Gin and even managed a pleasant expression if not quite a smile. Addy knew the way over a back lane to the north gate of the fairgrounds and they were there in not quite an hour.
If yesterday had been disconcerting, today was chaos. The sheer number of hobbits all together was nearly overwhelming, the crowds being five times the size of the previous afternoon. Addy and Blossom had a firm grip on the younger children, holding hands tightly, while Frodo had Gin by one hand and Amy by the other. The people were packed so densely, it was difficult to see where you were. Frodo quickly learned to look up and forward and get his bearings by the roofs of the buildings and where certain trees were. The noise was beyond anything he had ever encountered before, with people, animals, squeaking carts and musical instruments all adding their own layer to the indecipherable buzz. Thankfully, both the crowds and the noise lessened as they walked further away from the entry gate. Gin and Amy became talkative again, though they did not let go his hands.
The first stop was the cow barn. Addy had two different herds, one of milk cows, another of beef cattle, and he was looking for some new stock. Frodo was only used to the brown milk cows in Buckland, who were small and docile, and the occasional ox, and the different kinds of cattle amazed him. There were red shaggy cattle with wide spreading horns that lived up in the northern moors. There were shiny black cattle from Southfarthing, looking a great deal like Rum’s black Shirebourn horses. There were huge oxen with white hides speckled with red and down swept horns, tiny white milk cows banded in blue, and solid, sturdy Rushey Reds. Addy was soon deep in discussion with a farmer from Northfarthing who had some black and white spotted cows who were good milkers. Evie was fascinated by the cows and kept asking his own questions, much to the farmer’s amusement. This conversation seemed likely to go on for some time, so Blossom kept walking to let the girls see the rest of the animals. Frodo helped by taking Pearl’s hand and soon found himself between Pearl and Amy.
‘You’re my cousin, right?’ Pearl asked.
‘Yes,’ Frodo thought a moment, ‘doubly your cousin, I think, since your grandmother has a Baggins mother, but I’m not sure what degree. Can you talk to horses like your Grandpa Rum?’
Pearl nodded happily. ‘Yes! As long as I can remember, I can talk to them. They’re not very smart, though, and they don’t have a lot to say. Do you have a pony?’
‘No, I don’t. I don’t really need a pony.’
‘Everyone needs a pony,’ Pearl sternly informed him, then smiled. ‘Ask Grandpa and he’ll get you one. He has the best ponies in the Shire.’
‘Thomas and Dickon are beautiful. Perhaps I should.’
‘If you got a pony, then you could come visit,’ added Amy, giving him a bright smile.
‘Uncle Bilbo would let you have a pony, wouldn’t he?’ added Gin. He was holding Fire’s hand. ‘It would be good if you could come visit. Then I’d have someone besides girls to talk to.’ His sisters and Pearl scolded and slapped at him for his cheek, which he ducked, laughing.
Bilbo gave Drogo a pony so he could visit with Rum in Tuckborough. He was not sure exactly where Longbottom was, but knew it was very far south. He knew he did not want to go to Whitwell. ‘I don’t know. I can ask.’
‘Yes, you should ask!’ Gin said.
Blossom led the way out of the cow barn and headed off to the sewing building where Frodo had seen women carrying in quilts, clothes and other fabric things the day before. High windows near the eaves let in light and there were a few large lanterns hanging from the roof beam. Walls and stands were hung with dozens of quilts and lengths of cloth, and dress forms showed off skirts, shirts, waistcoats, coats, breeches, aprons and other attire. On tables, there were small hoop stands displaying fine embroidery and near one of those, Frodo spotted Dilly. He called her name and pulled Pearl and Amy along with him to see her. She gave him a hug and kiss and gave them to the girls as well. She and Blossom exchanged greetings and then Blossom nodded at the closest hoop.
‘Is that your work?’
‘Yes, it is,’ Dilly said proudly. It was a piece of extremely fine linen embroidered with a garden of flowers. Bees and butterflies were caught darting among the blooms, and a tiny, perfect daffodil peeked out from the back, its yellow head so real Frodo imagined he could smell its scent and see it bob in the breeze. ‘I worked on this all spring. Those are mine, too,’ she pointed at garments on two nearby forms. One was a linen shirt, made from the same fabric that held the embroidery, and looked much like the shirts she had given to him and Bilbo for Yule, while the other was a woman’s blouse in more of the linen with inset panels of fine lace and beautiful embroidery on the collar and cuffs. ‘Uncle Bilbo wrote me and said if I was coming to the Fair, I should bring a shirt or simply take the one I’d made him, for he thinks my work as fine as any to be had in the Shire.’
‘Oh, indeed it is!’ Blossom assured her, closely examining the blouse. ‘I have never seen anything finer than this. Did you do the lace as well?
‘No, Amalda Brandybuck did that. Her bobbin lace is second to none.’
‘Dilly, Mac didn’t say you were showing your work at the Fair,’ Frodo said, amazed at her poise. Ula’s right, you are bolder. He was not prepared for the unhappy expression that came over her face, nor the sharpness in her tone.
‘That’s because I never told him. I can decide for myself what I’m going to do!’ she snapped. ‘I’m a mistress, not a mouse, and I don’t need him telling me what I should do.’
Frodo knew a spousal argument when he saw one. ‘Oh, well, of course not. I’m glad you listened to Uncle Bilbo and brought these. They’re beautiful!’
‘If you don’t walk away with the blue ribbon, I’ll be very surprised, Dilly,’ Blossom said. This made the little woman beam. ‘When is the judging?’
‘Same time as the horse show.’
‘I’ve had enough of dust and horses on our trip. I will be sure to come back here when the horse show starts.’ The women embraced and Blossom kept walking amongst the needlework, her girls trailing behind and exclaiming over this and that beautiful thing. Gin tugged on Frodo’s sleeve.
‘Now’s our chance!’ he whispered. ‘We can go off to the dwarf tent and find Darron. I bet he’s waiting there for us.’
‘We can’t just abandon your mother and the girls.’
‘Yes, we can!’
‘That would be rude and your father would give us both what’s for,’ Frodo scolded, though he really did want to go to the dwarf tent, especially since he was supposed to meet Bilbo there as well.
‘We’ll ask and then we’ll go,’ and without waiting for Frodo’s protest, Gin bounded up to his mother. ‘Mama, can me and Frodo go find Darron, and Frodo has to go to the dwarf tent, you heard Uncle Bilbo say he’s going to meet us there, and it’s boring, I don’t want to see quilts, and Papa should be along any minute now, he can’t still be talking about cows, and…’
Blossom put her hand over Gin’s mouth with a laugh. ‘All right, you rascal, enough! Yes, you can go with Frodo to the dwarf tent and meet your friends. Find your father at the horse show later. You have a penny if you get hungry…’ but Gin was already sprinting away, yanking Frodo along behind him. They dashed out of the building, dodging people, and got all the way to the sheep barn before they noticed that Amy was on their heels.
‘No! You have to go back!’ Gin scolded her. ‘You’re not invited! This is just us and Darron!’
‘Mama said I could, so there!’
‘I don’t need you tagging along, being a nuis …’
‘It’s fine, Gin. Amy can come along,’ Frodo interrupted. Amy grinned, then stuck out her tongue at her brother. Frodo was not sure Amy followed because she wanted to flirt with him or because she was bored with the younger children, but he was not going to waste time taking her back and he certainly was not going to leave her on her own in the middle of the Fair. ‘Let’s go, Darron’s waiting.’ Amy grabbed one of his hands while Gin sulked a bit to his other side. As Frodo expected, Gin’s bad mood lasted for about three strides and then he was back to being his usual irrepressible self. They were almost across the grounds and to the dwarf tent when Gin tugged on his sleeve.
‘Look, it’s your friend, Tom, the one from Waymeet. Hey, Tom! Tom! Over here!’
Frodo groaned to himself as Tom Tunnelly looked over and saw them, a smile lighting up his face, and groaned again when he saw that Hamson and Harriet Bracegirdle were with him. And this had been such a nice morning. The trios approached each other.
‘Hello, Baggage,’ Hamson said with a sneer. Harriet was also looking at him with disdain, and Tom’s cheer had turned into watchfulness. My friend when it is convenient, eh Tom? Much to Frodo’s annoyance, he saw Lotho wandering up. Of course, I would have to run into you all. He wondered when Bargo and Bluebell would make an appearance and utterly ruin his day.
‘As rude as ever, Hamson. It’s nice to know some things don’t change.’ Frodo remembered an odd comment from Yule and turned to Harriet. ‘Hello, Harriet. Did you know Dilly has some of her work on exhibit at the fair? One of the shirts uses Aunt Amalda’s lace. Aunt Blossom thinks Dilly’s going to win an award for it.’
This change of topic caught both the Bracegirdles flat-footed. Harriet recovered first. ‘No, no, I didn’t. Where is this?’
‘Back there at the sewing building.’ Frodo smiled and waved his hand in the general direction they had just come from. ‘Oh, where are my manners? Amy, this is Harriet and Hamson Bracegirdle…’
‘Oh, we know them,’ was Amy’s sour reply, and she eyed Harriet with some serious dislike. ‘Hello, cousins.’ Gin looked similarly displeased. Lotho arrived to make the mix even less pleasant, and Frodo wondered what would happen if he simply bade them all farewell and made a dash for the dwarf tent. Given Hamson’s greeting, he had a feeling that some serious insults were in store, which would mean a fistfight. You can’t abandon the younger ones.
‘Really? I didn’t know that. How are you cousins?’ Frodo asked as graciously as he could, preferring to keep the attention on some other relatives’ antipathy.
‘Their mama is Mama’s big sister,’ Gin said shortly, glaring at them. I might not be the only one in a fistfight. He would have to ask Gin later why there was so much bad blood between them and their Bracegirdle cousins. Aside from common sense and good taste.
Lotho gave Frodo an ugly look. ‘Morning, Baggage.’
‘You know the rudest people, Frodo,’ Amy said, wrinkling her nose. ‘Ugly, too. Who is this potato?’
Frodo could not help snickering and Gin guffawed. ‘No one you want to know, Amy.’ Tom, having sized up the odds, was quietly edging away from the Bracegirdles.
‘Shut up, Baggage,’ Lotho snarled.
‘Certainly. Let’s go,’ he said to Amy and Gin, taking their arms. Amy had not stopped her hostile stare at Harriet and Frodo was reminded of barn cats with their hair puffed up, growling at each other. He half expected the two girls to yowl and claw at each other as they passed. ‘Darron’s waiting for us.’ Without looking back, he kept them walking briskly towards the merchants row. Only when they turned the corner did he spare a glance and was aggravated to see Tom had come with them. Go away, snitch! He let go his cousins’ arms and rounded on Tom. ‘Why are you following us? Get back with your friends – or whatever you are to them now.’
‘Those aren’t my friends. I just got stuck with Hamson when Mister Greenbough started talking some business with Mister Bracegirdle,’ Tom protested.
‘Don’t leave Tom with those nasties,’ Gin added. If you only knew how nasty Tom is. He puts your cousins to shame. ‘C’mon, let’s go. Uncle Bilbo’s probably there by now, too.’
With a shrug, Frodo turned and walked, Amy taking his hand again. ‘Don’t you need to stick with Mister Greenbough and keep track of his deals?’ she asked Tom.
‘No, not while he’s bargaining. He does that himself. I scribe down at lunch all the morning deals and then again after supper. I also do the accounts each night. The foreman sends ‘em on in the morning, we get 'em the day after, I work ‘em up, and Mister Greenbough looks ‘em over.’ Tom sounded completely earnest when describing his work. Frodo did not say anything and let Gin and Amy talk with Tom.
Finally, they came close to the dwarf tent. There was no getting nearer because the place was thronged, with a long line of hobbits patiently waiting their chance to go in and see the dwarves' wares. Frodo made a guess and led the others between two other stalls a bit short of the tent and into a back lane where things were piled and various ponies, oxen and donkeys were picketed. As he had hoped, back by the dwarves' pack ponies were both Darron and Uncle Bilbo near where they had eaten their lunch the previous day. He waved and hurried over.
Bilbo waved at Rory and Mac on his way down the drive. In truth, his correspondence would wait, but he wanted Frodo to stay with the other children and enjoy himself, not be his ancient cousin’s shadow. The oldest girl obviously had a bit of a crush on his lad and he thought it good that Frodo should be the object of some appropriate affection. The girl reminded him of someone, but he could not quite remember who. Gin and Darron both seemed to be excellent boys for Frodo to know and be friends with.
He also did not want to spend any time in Rory’s company, at least not for a few hours. Bilbo was not sure who had written the words to Pal about Frodo, whether Esmie or Rory, but they sounded far too close to what Rory had said in their first talk about Frodo’s misbehavior Halimath last. He wanted a little while to calm himself before dealing with his stupid cousin. All my stupid cousins. Rory’s just stupider than most.
Bilbo returned to the inn, but not too swiftly, giving himself time for his temper to cool. He wrote a few quick notes to be delivered around the town and the Fair, nothing of importance but best to take care of before he was out all day. It also kept his excuse for leaving Frodo from being an outright lie. He considered writing a letter to Dalin about the rumor Esmie was spreading, but decided that the warning he had sent last Thrimidge was sufficient. He did not want to set down on paper what Rum had told him.
The perfect malice of the rumor left Bilbo deeply angry. There was almost no way to challenge it, let alone explain the truth behind it. Esmie’s clever move had been to not name Frodo, just to mention a “Buckland boy,” which would reinforce the bastardy rumors about Frodo as well as stir up old scandals about his own tastes. It made suspect Frodo’s presence with Bilbo while casting Sara as some kind of hero trying to save the boy from debauchery. He had to admire the elegance of its crafting even as it made him wish to leave the Fair and go to Buckland for his own revenge.
As he left the inn, Bilbo paused a long time looking at the ponies Clyde Cotsman kept for renting out, rolling his ring between his fingers. A small voice in the back of his head whispered how nice it would be to finally silence those two, showing him visions of how they would wail and abase themselves, begging him not to hurt them more, offering him any pleasure he could imagine to make him stop, and how he would enjoy himself without limit. No, Baggins. You can’t leave Frodo here by himself. It was a minute before his arousal subsided enough to allow him to walk about with his dignity intact.
The walk to the Fair helped put him in a better mood. The morning continued to be lovely, clear and bright without being too hot, and the good cheer of the hobbits around him distracted him from dark thoughts. Oddly enough, talking again with Rum left him feeling happier, though he knew that they could fall into a squabble in the blink of an eye. I have missed you, too, love. And he did. He missed Rum’s wicked humor and his passionate loyalty. He missed the man’s insight, his fearlessness, the way Bilbo never had to pretend to be other than he was or deny his own desires when with this beautiful, exhausting, obscene, loving, aggravating cousin. He’s not a stupid cousin. He’s certainly not the worst. Bilbo hoped Frodo would not reject Rum.
Bilbo took his time strolling. If Frodo got to the dwarf tent and he was not there, the boy would just go off with Gin and Darron (and he wagered Amy would end up in the mix) and have fun gadding about the fair. He knew Odogrim would keep an eye out for the youngsters, too, having had a quiet word with him this morning at breakfast after sending Frodo back to their room to retrieve something. Odogrim was only too happy to be a protector for all the children. Bilbo let his feet lead him on a circuitous path around the Fair, looking at more kinds of chickens than he knew existed, stopping to examine different kinds of potatoes and listening to a few fellows debate which were more resistant to ground rot, which cellared best, which mashed well, tossing a coin into the cap of a talented fiddler, and other things that amused him and kept him in good cheer.
Bilbo eventually wound up at the dwarves’ tent, hoping he had not missed Frodo. Wilcar’s son, Darron was already there, looking a little forlorn, so Bilbo took him back to the pack ponies and introduced him to each dwarf who walked past, much to the lad’s delight. Bilbo was careful to make the dwarves aware that this boy was the son of the headman of the farthing so they would be sure to present themselves well. It was not too long of a wait before Frodo came around a corner just down the back aisle, trailed by the other children. He was not sure that he liked Tom Tunnelly being one of those children and it did not look like Frodo was all that pleased either, given the irritated looks he threw at the smaller boy. Bilbo had not missed their odd interaction in Waymeet two days before when Tom had given Frodo a kiss on the cheek. Frodo will take care of all the bullies in his own way. Greetings, hugs and kisses were liberally distributed, even to Tom, and Bilbo asked what the youngsters has seen so far at the fair.
‘Uncle Bilbo, you didn’t tell me that Dilly was going to exhibit her work at the Fair!’ Frodo gently scolded, though he was smiling.
‘Is she? Wonderful! She didn’t tell me that she had decided to,’ Bilbo replied.
‘She has embroidery and shirts in the sewing building,’ Amy helpfully offered, ‘and Mama thinks she’s going to win.’
‘The sewing judging is the same time as the horse show,’ Frodo said. ‘Aunt Blossom said she’d go watch that, not the horses.’
‘And I shall join her,’ Bilbo firmly said. ‘You boys should cheer on Mac with the Rushies.’
‘Amy should go with you to the sewing,’ Gin suggested, earning a punch and a glare from his little sister. The two quickly got into a hissing argument about whether or not Amy should go, which made Frodo roll his eyes and ask Darron what they should do until the horse show started.
‘Easy, the mechanics barn. There’s a lot of neat stuff there!’
‘Let’s go then. C’mon you two!’ Frodo did not wait for an answer but started following Darron. Not ceasing their argument, Gin and Amy fell into line, with Tom bringing up the rear. Once the children were out of sight, Bilbo went off to find Dilly. She was standing near her work, quiet, while a steady line of women examined and admired her handicraft. Bilbo thought that most did not realize Dilly was creator of the lovely pieces, given how they ignored the tiny woman. She was delighted to see him.
‘See, Uncle Bilbo, I did as you told me!’
‘Yes, you did, Serindë, and Blossom tells me she thinks you shall be the queen of the Fair with your needle and thread.’
This made Dilly blush deeply. ‘Well, we’ll see. There’s other very good work here. It is very sweet of you to come see me.’
‘I will be staying here with you until the judging is over. It’s too bad that the horse show is the same time or else Mac would be here as well, to…’
‘He can just keep himself to his horses,’ was Dilly’s tart reply. Bilbo decided he was going to get to the bottom of the discord between these two.
‘Dilly,’ he said softly, taking her arm and leading her a few steps away from the display tables to a quiet spot behind the dress forms, ‘I have been watching you be rather put out at your husband since the day you arrived at Bag End. It saddens me that you two are at odds. What is wrong?’
She blushed again, but this was from anger. ‘He’ll not give me a child. He says he won’t, not yet, but I want one now. I’m perfectly fine. It’s for me to say and I want my baby now.’
‘Ah.’ Bilbo was not certain he should inquire further, since it was obvious that Dilly was going to treat Mac coldly until he did as she asked. ‘Well, what does Gilda say on this? She…’
‘I don’t care for Mama Gilda’s counsel.’ Dilly looked even angrier. Bilbo did not have to feign astonishment. ‘She ill-wished my baby at Yule. She can keep her words to her old wicked self!’
‘Dilly! Gilda did not do that!’ Bilbo scolded in a sharp whisper. ‘I was right there! She merely warned you not to speak.’
‘No, she said ill would come of me speaking and made it so! She’s a powerful old witch and she’s mean!’ Dilly spat.
This was not something Bilbo was prepared to hear or debate. Dilly seemed quite set in her distrust of Gilda. ‘I think you too harsh, Dilly, but I will not gainsay you. You will have another child and soon, and you will need Gilda when that time comes.’
‘I’ll stick with Ula. Gilda wouldn’t even let me hold my baby once to say goodbye. I am through with her treating me like I haven’t my full wits. Or any of them who treat me so!’
That was interesting. Bilbo cocked his head and gave her a quizzical look. ‘Any of whom, Dilly?’
‘As if I didn’t notice things weren’t right with Frodo before you took him!’ she said. ‘Prisca, too, but Mac said not to interfere.’
Bilbo took one of her hands. ‘I very much wish to talk to you of what you noticed, Dilly, for there are things I just don’t understand,’ he murmured into her ear, ‘but I don’t think here is the place to speak things aloud.’
‘Oh, no, of course not, Uncle,’ Dilly said, looking more like her meek self.
‘And I am unhappy to see you and Mac divided. He loves you and he is hurt by your chastisement.’
A stern expression returned to her face. ‘He’s forgiven when I have my child. Not before.’
Bilbo nodded and squeezed her hand and they walked back to her embroidery hoop. Soon, five hobbits, four women and a man, wearing judge’s ribbons on their chests walked through the sewing building looking at the various examples of embroidery and fine needlework. Cheers in the distance let everyone know that the horse show had started. Judging of the sewing was more sedate, but no less competitive. The judges spoke to each other in murmurs, and one had a writing board with paper on which she made small notes after each conference. There was no hurry to their evaluation, and they were almost two hours at their task. Not long after they began their judging, Blossom showed up with the two youngest girls in tow and stood with Bilbo and Dilly, telling them of what they had seen at the Fair. Evidently, Pearl had simply skipped off to go watch the horse show at some point. Blossom was unconcerned at the girl’s absence though Bilbo was tempted to go look for her and make sure she had found the other children or at least Rum. The cheers from the horse arena continued.
Finally, the judges began placing award ribbons on the winners. In each category to be judged, they started with the fourth best, giving it a white ribbon, then the third best received a yellow ribbon. Second place was a red ribbon and first was given a blue. A large purple and gold rosette with streamers was meant for the best in show. There were separate competitions for certain kinds of stitchery, the distinctions between which Bilbo had a difficult time discerning. As the ribbons were distributed, there would be polite applause and the occasional cheer. In floral embroidery, Bilbo watched the white, then the yellow, then the red ribbons get placed on the respective winners. The senior judge, an elderly woman with a mound of yellow-white hair, took the blue ribbon and placed it on Dilly’s flowers. Dilly gave a little squeal of joy while Bilbo kissed her and Blossom and the girls applauded madly. Though there was the usual polite applause, other people standing about did not seem so happy and there were a few whispers that Bilbo did not catch.
‘What did I tell you, Dilly?’ Blossom said with a big grin. ‘You’ll be taking home a few more of those ribbons, if I know anything!’
The awards for embroidered clothing was next, and Dilly won for both men’s shirts and women’s blouses. This time, there was no applause aside from Blossom and the girls. Dilly was so excited she did not notice and kept looking at the blue ribbons with glee. A few other categories were awarded and then it was time for the Best in Show award. The senior judge pinned the purple and gold rosette to the exquisite woman’s blouse of Dilly’s. As soon as she did, someone said, ‘But that’s not Shire work!’
The judges turned towards the speaker, a round faced woman with crossed arms and a sour expression. ‘Are you claiming the entrant did not do this work, but purchased it?’ the senior judge sternly asked.
The woman shook her head. ‘I don’t know if she did or she didn’t, but she ain’t from the Shire. She shouldn’t even be entered.’ This woman was the red ribbon winner in men’s shirts.
The senior judge looked about until she saw Dilly. ‘Missus, is what Patsy Pigweed said true?’
‘I’m Daffodil Brandybuck, I’m from Buckland, and that is most certainly my work.’
A chorus of supporting and protesting voices arose, some arguing over whether Buckland was part of the Shire, other arguing whether it mattered where the entrant lived as long as the work was her own. All of the red ribbon winners said Dilly should not have been allowed to enter, while some yellow and white ribbon winners argued in her favor, though more to keep rivals from winning than out of any sense of fairness. Dilly listened to the contest, her expression becoming more and more disgusted. She walked over to each of her pieces, plucked off the ribbons, and handed them back to the senior judge, then rounded on the original complaining woman.
‘I’ve always heard that folk out here in the west were a queer lot, but until today I’d ne’er had reason to think you cheats, scolds and dwarven-hearted,’ she said with pride. ‘If this is how you want to win, Mistress Pigweed, you need these ribbons more than I do.’ Dilly took her shirts off the forms and folded them neatly, while Bilbo collected the embroidery stand. They left, followed by Blossom and her girls.
Darron was right. The mechanics barn was full of fascinating contraptions. Gin even forgot to squabble with his sister, so entranced was he by the things clanking and cranking. Amy herself was not the slightest bit intimidated by the large equipment, wheels and gears turning, or the oxen and draft horses being led about to show off this or power that. Frodo thought this boldness at least as appealing as her dancing. Frodo asked Darron about the exhibit, for he had never seen anything like it at the Marish Fair.
‘Oh, this is Father’s idea,’ Darron said proudly. ‘Father wants to improve the quality of things we use here in Westfarthing, like ploughs, pipes, presses, mills, mangles, saws, even wagons and harness. When the dwarves started tramping through, they sometimes would stop and ask for work. Most of the time, they were asked to smith things, but Father saw they were clever with engines and construction, and quickly saw how other things could be made better, not just knives and lamps. A few years ago, when Grandfather was getting old and asked Father to take over running the Fair, he set up this exhibit so clever ideas could be shared.’
Frodo surveyed the offerings in amazement. ‘There’s only one dwarf here. All the rest are hobbits.’
‘There’s a good prize for a hobbit who can come up with an improvement, and the dwarves are asked to only present the one thing, and different than the year before. They invent things; we make them work in the Shire.’
‘Bilbo was talking to a dwarf last year at Yule, Dalin. He’s a cousin of Bóin. The dwarf talked about using a mill to spin thread. They’re doing it in Dale, when the bowman who killed Smaug became king, but Dalin said they don’t spin nearly as good thread as we can do in the Shire. Uncle Bilbo thought that we could use the dwarf mill, but be more skilled with thread and make the mill better.’
‘He should talk to Father about that,’ Darron said seriously. ‘There could be more wool and cloth to sell if there was a better way to spin thread.’
Through all of the visit to the mechanics barn, Tom stuck close to Frodo, sometimes even taking his hand or arm, though Frodo thought it was more out of fear of the machines around them than any attempt to flirt with him. Tom was scared of most new things. Even Amy is braver than you are! Still, he tried not to think badly of Tom just for being timid. He did not try to reassure the smaller boy, but neither did he push him away. As long as Tom behaved himself, there really was not any harm.
When the horn sounded to announce the start of the horse show, the tweens wandered over to the stands overlooking the horse arena, stopping along the way to pool their coins and buy some food and ale. Tom was very proud that he had a copper penny, ‘Of my own, not Mister Greenbough’s,’ to add to the collection. Just as they bought their lunch, Pearl bounded up.
‘I’m here to see Grandpa in the horse show,’ she happily informed them.
‘Aren’t you supposed to be with Aunt Blossom and Fire?’ Frodo asked.
‘Mmm-huh, but I need to see Grandpa. He’s going to win,’ Pearl unrepentantly replied. Frodo sighed and gave her part of his own lunch and told her to come along. In the stands, they were hailed by Uncle Addy, who had Evie and more food.
‘I knew the pack of you would show up and came prepared,’ he teased, handing out chunks of bread and hard cheese along with a bag of pickles. ‘Where’s Bilbo?’ he asked Frodo.
‘Off with Dilly and Blossom in the sewing building. That’s being judged now. He told us to go watch the horses.’
Frodo heard someone calling his name and saw Odogrim coming up the stands with Baldo, Odo, Sage, Dudo and Tulip following him. Greetings were made all around, with Frodo very certain to make sure Amy was introduced to Dudo and Tulip. She was soon interrogating them about the cloth they had in their store, which seemed to amuse Uncle Dudo no end, while Tulip and Sage were more than happy to discuss the qualities of linen from different parts of the Shire. Odogrim gave Tom a long, hard look and then gave Frodo a questioning glance. Frodo shrugged and motioned for Odogrim to sit nearby.
‘Papa!’ Darron waved to his father who was with Falco and Nora and another woman who resembled Esmie, and who Frodo knew must be Darron’s mother, Adalmira. After these four joined them, Darron said, ‘Father, this is Frodo Baggins, Uncle Bilbo’s nephew.’
‘And your new best friend,’ Wilcar teased his son, who blushed a little, but grinned and nodded, giving Frodo a shy look. Frodo stood and Wilcar held out his hand. ‘I’m pleased to meet you, son. I’ve heard many good things about you.’
‘And I of you, sir,’ Frodo replied with his most pleasant smile. Make a good impression, Baggins. It’s what Bilbo wants you to do.
Wilcar gave him an intent look, the kind Frodo had not experienced in a while, and then nodded slightly and smiled. ‘I heard you went out to the Drop. Did you like it?’
‘Very much! I wish we’d have had more time for it.’
‘Well, you and Bilbo are always welcome guests in my smial, so you should come visit us when it’s not such chaos. Then we can make a day of it!’ Wilcar seemed quite sincere in this invitation, so Frodo thanked him. ‘Where is Bilbo, by the way? Not trying to give us the slip again, is he?’
‘Not at all,’ Frodo assured him. ‘He will be at the meeting. I expect him here later as well.’
‘Oh, so you know of the meeting?’ Frodo nodded. ‘Do you know if the Thain will be there?’
‘Yes, that’s who Bilbo went to talk to first thing this morning. He’ll be there.’ For some reason, Dudo did not look very pleased at this news, though Wilcar smiled and nodded.
‘And Rory Brandybuck?’
‘And Uncle Rory, yes.’
Wilcar’s look became sharp again, but not unpleasant. ‘That’s right, you’re Rory’s nephew, too.’
Frodo nodded. ‘My mother is his youngest sister.’
‘I had forgotten. And I’ve forgotten my manners! Ada, this is Darron’s new friend, Bilbo’s boy, Frodo Baggins.’ Frodo exchanged greetings with Adalmira, who looked even more like Esmie close up and who repeated Wilcar’s invitation for him and Bilbo to please come visit.
There was no more opportunity for talk because the horse show began. Pearl and Amy claimed the seats to either side of Frodo. Today was for the parades of breeding stock and for the team show. Tomorrow would be wagons and the weight pull. The races, both trotting and running, were to be held on a raceway beyond the fairgrounds itself on the third day.
Across the arena in the other stands, Frodo spotted various people he knew, including Uncle Rufus and Aunt Asphodel with Bargo and Bluebell. Bluebell stared very intently at him then looked cautiously at her mother before giving Frodo a little wave. He smiled back but did not move. When she was not looking at him, she was glaring at Amy and Pearl. He really wished Bluebell would develop a crush on someone else. To his surprise, Uncle Rory was sitting next to Uncle Rufus, talking energetically about something. The Bracegirdles were all sitting together, including Lobelia and Lotho, though Otho was nowhere to be seen. Up in the far opposite corner of the stands, Frodo saw the Odogar and Car Bolger with a man sporting a white forelock identical to Rum’s and a woman next to him who resembled Odogar and Car. Frodo guessed they were Ferdinand Took and his wife, Ododrida Bolger, Car and Odogrim’s sister. Uncle Wili was sitting nearby, listening, though Aunt Prisca was not in attendance. After a bit more searching, he spotted Otho and the Mayor, Pasco Goodbody, sitting next to a man who bore a strong resemblance to Esmie and had to be Pal. He wondered if Pal knew Pearl was at the Fair.
The parade of brood mares was first. In the parade, the mares were brought into the ring one at a time, trotted up and back the length of the ring, then walked around the edge to the end of the line while the next mare was brought in. There was not any judging on it, just the parade, because the animals were too different to compare. There were a few awards handed out for excellence, each greeted with a loud cheer and applause. One mare who won such an award was a pretty bay who looked much like Uncle Rory’s Breeland mares.
The stallions were next and there were more of them, so there two parades. As with the mares, the stallions were trotted up and back, then walked around. They tended to be better quality than the usual little pot-bellied pony, a half-hand or more taller, and much better groomed. One pony was almost the size of a full-sized horse and it took two hobbits to handle him. Frodo looked across the ring at Uncle Rory who scowled and shook his head, knowing that someone had not trained the beast properly. He did not win an award.
Near the start of the second parade, there was a long pause before the next horse came in. It was Rum and one of the black Shirebourns. There was no mistaking Rum for anything except the Thain of the Shire. He looked even more beautiful than he had the previous night and there was a collective murmur of appreciation for the perfection of him and his stallion. The halter he had on the pony was so delicate it was obvious it was for decoration, not control. When he gaited the pony down the arena, there was none of the awkwardness or clumsiness that others had shown in the loose dirt. Rum moved forward at an easy run, his upper body still, the thin braid of his long hair swinging from side to side as he went, and the horse kept perfect pace next to him, the lead line loose. Applause started in recognition of the excellence on display. At the top of the arena, Rum halted and the pony trotted past him, circling around without a tug on the lead and they came back down the line, the cheering growing louder until the two came to a stop. As one, they turned to first one set of stands, then other, and both of them bowed, before walking to take their place in the line. It seemed right that this magnificent hobbit with this glorious pony was their Thain.
‘That’s Grandpa and Dickon!’ Pearl said.
‘You can tell them apart from here?’
‘Grandpa looks nothing like a horse!’ Pearl replied to Frodo with a mischievous smirk, knowing full well what he meant. He gave her a look that made her giggle and then she said, ‘Once you know them, Thomas and Dickon don’t really look alike.’
‘You’ll have to show me, because I can’t see it.’
After the second stallions parade was through, all the award of excellence winners, mares and stallions both, were brought back into the arena for a final presentation. With the mares nearby, the stallions were a little feisty, snorting and baring teeth at each other, ears pinned back. Dickon did not waste his attention on the other stallions. He neighed at the mares, prancing and pawing at the dirt, head and tail held high, and he earned a few whinnies in return. Rum did have to give him a few tugs on the lead line to get his attention.
After the parade left, there was a break of several minutes while the arena was raked and the next exhibits prepared. Uncle Rory left the stands with a wave to Uncle Rufus and went back to the stable beyond the arena. A few minutes later, Frodo noticed that Pearl was missing and figured she had gone back to find Rum. Ordinarily he would be worried at such a small girl going among the horses, but was confident she knew how to command the beasts. After about half an hour, a horn blew to announce the start of the competition.
This was the first of three contests for teams. Today, it was a demonstration of their handling without a wagon to clearly show how well they worked in tandem. They would be judged on their soundness, how closely they matched each other, their obedience to their handler, their ability to obey commands and not be directed with reins, and how well they worked together. Tomorrow they would show how they handled with a wagon, and finally how much weight they could pull. Not all teams were entered in the weight pull.
The first team came in, a pretty pair of little pot-bellied greys, their manes and tails gaily braided with red ribbons. The handler’s friends sent up a cheer from their corner of the stands. The team was in full harness. They walked straight into the arena and down the center to the midpoint, where the handler called “Haw!” and the ponies turned towards their left. The handler called the direction a few more times until the ponies were walking straight towards the far arena wall. At the wall, the handler called “Gee!” and the ponies turned right. They walked along the wall to the far end, where the handler chirruped to them and they broke into a trot, him running alongside them. They kept trotting along the wall until they had covered half the distance and the handler called “Whoa!” making the ponies stop. They were commanded to turn around, and trot back the way they came. Once they reached the far end of the arena, the handler called “Haw!” again to make them turn left and once more walk down the center of the ring. They walked to the center, stopped, and then at a backward tug on their lead line, backed up straight the length of the ring. They finished by trotting next to their handler to the center of the ring and coming to a stop. To Frodo’s eye, they did a wonderful job, being quick to listen to their handler, staying together without jostling each other too badly, and moving mostly in straight lines.
The next team in did not do so well, being of noticeably different sizes and not backing up in a straight line. Their turns were ponderous and they were bumping and jostling each other. By the time of the fourth team, Frodo had a good sense of when a team was doing well. Near the end of that performance, Bilbo showed up with Dilly, Blossom and the younger girls, though Pearl had yet to return. Dilly seemed quite cheerful and Bilbo carried a canvas bag that had the parts of a broken-down embroidery hoop stand in it. Bilbo sat directly in front of Frodo with Dilly next to him. A fifth team, matched chestnuts with white socks and wide blazes, came walking in to loud cheers, including from Wilcar and Darron. They belonged to a Chubb kinsman and were performing well.
Frodo leaned down to Dilly. ‘What happened at the judging, or should I not ask?’
‘Oh, I did well, Frodo,’ Dilly proudly replied, ‘though I did not bring back any ribbons.’
‘You didn’t win anything?’
‘She won everything that was important – the judges’ honest opinion,’ Bilbo said with a big smile.
‘She was cheated by a mean old hag!’ Blossom said over the top of Addy’s head, obviously incensed.
‘Cheated?’ Ada looked concerned. ‘Cheating at the Fair? Wilcar,’ she tugged on her husband’s arm, ‘Blossom said someone cheated.’ That got his attention.
‘What kind of cheating? We don’t allow any nonsense at the Free Fair,’ he said sharply.
‘Mistress Pigweed cheated herself of an honestly won red ribbon, cousin,’ Dilly cheerfully informed him, ‘and got herself the blue ribbon for laughingstock!’
‘Whatever do you mean, Dilly?’ said Nora. The women pushed their men out of the way and gathered close to hear.
‘I won it all, right up to Best in Show with the lace blouse!’ Dilly proudly informed them. ‘Mistress Pigweed got second to me and complained that I shouldn’t be allowed to win because I ain’t from the Shire proper. She dug in her heels and weren’t going to let it go, so I handed back the ribbons and said she could take them. Poor thing, she’d rather win them than earn them.’
Wilcar and Ada exchanged a look and shook their heads. ‘Patsy’s gone too far this time,’ Wilcar said with a frown. ‘This will bring shame to the Fair if she’s allowed to bully her way to the blue again.’
‘Have a talk with Agnes,’ his wife counseled. ‘She’ll know what to do with Patsy.’
‘She argued you shouldn’t have won because you’re from Buckland, yes, Dilly?’ Wilcar asked. Dilly nodded.
‘Mistress Pigweed had a number of supporters, as she wasn’t the only one bested by our Dilly,’ added Bilbo. ‘There was a general argument about it.’
Wilcar considered this news with a frown. ‘Dilly, please keep your exhibits in good condition for display. I think I know a way about this, but I’ll need to consider it a bit more.’ To this Dilly consented.
The sixth team to enter the ring was Mac and the Rushies. They got a loud cheer from their corner and from Rufus and his family. Mac stood before them for a moment, holding their bridles, and said something to the ponies which made Stone and Oak nicker and switch their tails. Mac called “Hup!” and they stepped out briskly. At each point where they needed to turn, Mac called out a single command and the ponies quickly complied, making the previous teams all seem ungainly. Their turns were crisp and their motions confident. They never bumped or crowded each other, though they sometimes touched muzzles. Mac never had to tighten or pull on their lead to get them to obey, not even to back up. When they came to their stop in the center of the ring, the entire audience cheered and stomped their feet on the boards of the stands to make clear their approval of the performance. This startled the Rushies for a moment, but they quickly regained their composure at a word from Mac, and trotted out of the arena with him. Even Dilly was cheering, her earlier irritation at her husband forgotten.
A few more teams came in, some better some worse, but none as well matched and well-mannered as Stone and Oak. At one point, a hobbit brought in a pair of very large ponies, almost full-sized horses, who were powerful and well-matched, but unruly. ‘They’re just here for the pull,’ Darron said crossly. ‘Billy Greybark bought them in Bree last winter. They’re strong, but nasty.’
Frodo kept watching for Rum and the Shirebourns and finally saw the tops of their heads in the holding ring. He tapped Bilbo’s shoulder and motioned, but Bilbo was already watching. The arena gates swung open and Rum walked by himself into the ring. He walked to the center, turned back to the gate and whistled.
In walked Thomas and Dickon, in perfect step together, their black harness merging into their black coats, the silver buckles and ornaments winking in the sun. The ponies carried themselves with their necks arched, the faces perfectly perpendicular to the ground, exactly a hands breadth apart, and walked an absolutely straight line towards Rum, ears up and forward, eyes trained on him. The audience was silent, spellbound at the sight. “Haw!” Rum called when they were a few strides away from walking over him and they pivoted smoothly, never out of step, straight to the far wall. “Gee!” and they pivoted perfectly to the right and continued up the arena. Rum never left his spot on the center of the ring, merely turning to watch the team. When they reached the top of the arena, Rum whistled again and they broke into a slow, stately trot, each hoof lifted high as though trying to float above the ground, perfect mirrors to each other. When they reached the half way point, Rum did not command them to stop as all other teams had done, but whistled sharply and they performed a turn Frodo could never quite describe afterwards, but it was almost as though they trotted their front legs and turned while their hindquarters stayed under them and did not move. They trotted back the way they came, turned sharply left at Rum’s “Haw!” command and walked to him. He simply held up his hand and they stopped. With a wave towards them, they backed up swiftly the full length of the ring, halted again, and trotted forward on a whistle, once more coming to a stop before him. Rum smiled and turned his face up to Thomas and Dickon, who nuzzled him. The audience roared approval of their Thain and his team.
The other teams filed into the ring and lined up around the edge, while Rum and his team stayed in the center. The first team, the little greys, were awarded fourth place, with a white rosette with streamers for each pony. The chestnuts owned by Wilcar’s kinsman got the third place yellow award, and Mac’s Rushies took second. The Shirebourns led the way out of the ring, their blue ribbons perfect against their shiny black coats.
At the gate, Frodo saw Pearl standing with Rory, bouncing in place, overjoyed at her grandfather’s win. Rum scooped her up, tossed her onto the back of one of the ponies, and they walked off towards the stable. Rory gave Mac a hug and continued on with him, following Rum.