13. Tell

POV - Bilbo

In which Bilbo tells stories of the past, the Shire's and his own, listens to the tales of others, and refuses to be told what to do.


1 Lithe, 1390


I heard you had a run-in with the Thain last night. Pal came to breakfast this morning and told me that Rum had gone over to speak to you and had come storming back not long after, infuriated by something you had done. Or declined to do. Rum told Pal that you are going to claim Eastfarthing as a whole and spoil all their plans.

I am prepared to try to rescue this disaster, but now I do not know what you are trying to do. I will not contest you for this. May we please meet after supper today?



Fairgrounds, Michel Delving, 1 Lithe, 1390

Bilbo could not stop watching Rum. This was how Rum had won him over so long ago, with a champion team at the Free Fair. He had won over the whole Shire that day, in truth, much as he had done today. He was not quite thirty-three years old and had presented a team of bay ponies. Bilbo did not think even an elf could have been more beautiful than Rum was when he stood in the center of the arena, his attention on nothing but the team, unaware that the command he had of his ponies he also held over the watching crowd. Bilbo knew the next time the youth flirted with him, he would not resist. He did not hear from Rum until several months later. It had been worth the wait. For a while, he had actually believed he was in love. Perhaps the man no longer possessed the exquisite perfection of his youth, but, to Bilbo’s eye, Rum was even more beautiful now than he had been forty years before. He knew if he was not careful, if he did not pay attention, he would end up saying “Yes” again. And you know how that always ends, Baggins.

Bilbo caught his lad’s name being spoken and looked around to see who said it. Blossom was trying to collect her brood and was looking around distractedly. The other hobbits sitting near them were already leaving the stands. ‘Frodo, where’s Pearl? She was here just a minute ago. Wasn’t she sitting with you and Amy?’

‘She went off to help her grandfather with the team.’ It amused Bilbo that Frodo was calling Rum Pearl’s grandfather without a second thought.

Blossom looked worried. ‘That’s not good. Pal’s about and he’ll be angry if he sees her with Rum. I need to go get her.’

‘We’ll go collect her, Blossom,’ Bilbo said. ‘Where will you be?’

‘The main square. There’s shade and food over there.’

‘Frodo, come with me,’ Bilbo ordered. When the rest of the ragtag bunch of children would have followed, Bilbo gave them a stern look. ‘No. I do not need you getting trampled. Stay with Blossom.’ Tom ducked behind Blossom to get away from Bilbo’s glare and even Gin swallowed and edged a bit closer to his mother. ‘And behave!’ All the children nodded vigorously. Blossom gave him a grateful smile.

Odogrim was still nearby and said, ‘I’ll help Aunt Blossom, Uncle.’

‘Thank you, Odogrim.’ With a nod, Bilbo hastened away, Frodo on his heels. They were soon back in the stables behind the arena and had to be careful so as not to be stepped on. ‘Frodo, you will need to take Pearl back to Blossom when we finally find her and stay with them, or at least keep the older ones out of trouble.’

‘What about the meeting?’

‘You were not invited to it.’ Bilbo stopped and faced Frodo. The lad was not pleased by that news. ‘Nor were any other of the younger men. Mac, Milo, Fargo, Baldo; none of them will be there, either.’

The slightly sulky look was replaced with something more thoughtful. ‘Why not?’

‘The Thain, the Master, and the headmen of three of the four most powerful clans in the Shire are meeting before the Moot.’ Bilbo paused to let this sink in. ‘We will discuss the Parting and how it has affected the land, the beasts and the missing headman. We will have a few elder kinsmen to counsel us. I cannot remember a comparable meeting since the end of the Fell Winter. I was your age the last time such a meeting was held. Father was invited, but not me, even though I helped him prepare for it, just as you have been helping me.’

Frodo pondered this, then nodded. ‘All right. I won’t press. But you will tell me what happens?’

‘As far as I am able to, yes, as Father did with me.’ Bilbo gave him a smile and a wink. ‘Besides, you deserve to go enjoy the Fair! Deliver Pearl to Blossom, then you and Gin can go cause some trouble.’

That got a smile from his boy. ‘Gin is quite capable of causing trouble without me!’ Bilbo motioned for them to get moving again. ‘I think I’m turning into the big brother.’

‘There are far worse things to be, lad!’ This news made Bilbo happy. Yes, you will be their responsible and respected big brother. ‘I think you are making yourself quite a fine set of friends and it makes me happy to see you enjoying their company.’ He knew that was a little manipulative to say, but it was true. These are the kinds of cousins you need to have about you, not like the Buckland pack.

Not too far ahead, Bilbo spotted Pearl sitting on one of the Shirebourns. When they got close, Bilbo saw that Mac and Rory were also there with the Rushies, and they were enthusiastically talking to Rum about the competition. Rory saw Bilbo and Frodo first and waved them over.

‘That was a wonderful show!’ Bilbo said cheerfully, clapping Mac and Rum on their shoulders and then stepped back out of reach. Rum looked a little disappointed, probably expecting a hug, but he did not make a fuss. Bilbo was keenly aware of Frodo standing near him. Set a proper example for your lad.

‘I thought my boys were well trained, but we’ve got a ways to go,’ Mac said with a smile at Rum.

‘Not that much to learn, Mac,’ Rum said, smiling back. ‘I have this feeling that tomorrow is not going to be as easy for my lads. They’re going to have to work for their oats, not just show off.’

‘Rum,’ Frodo said, instantly getting Rum’s full attention. ‘Aunt Blossom sent me over to collect Little Miss Hoyden, here.’ Frodo pointed his thumb up at Pearl.

‘And we have a meeting to attend that would be terribly boring for the youngsters,’ Bilbo added.

‘Boring for us oldsters, too,’ Rum dryly said, getting a chuckle from Rory.

‘Can’t I stay here with Dickon and Thomas?’ Pearl asked.

‘Well…’ Rum began, but Bilbo shook his head.

‘Blossom said Pal is about and I saw him on the other side of the arena watching the show. He may already have spotted her.’

With a sigh, Rum held up his arms to help Pearl off the horse. ‘I’m sorry, Sweet. You need to go with Frodo.’

‘But I want to stay with you, Grandpa!’

‘Your father will yell at us both if he finds out you’re here…’

‘So, don’t tell him.’

Rum laughed and pulled her down. ‘Well, yes, but he still might see if you’re sitting up so high. You be good, or as good as you can be, and go back to Blossom. I’ll come find you later, all right?’

It took a few hugs and some wheedling before Pearl finally agreed to leave with Frodo. Rum did not stop watching her until the two children were out of view. He looked at Bilbo with a scowl. ‘I was going to take her and go see the Drop, you know.’

‘Let Wilcar know. He might just call off the whole meeting and go with you. He scolded me and Frodo for not taking him with us yesterday.’

‘Tomorrow, we should do that. As soon as the pull is over, off we go!’

It did sound like fun. ‘Fine with me if your boys here are up to haul a cart after the pull.’

‘Deal! So where is this stupid meeting?’

‘The stand of trees over there past the stables.’ Rum nodded and began unharnessing his stallions, tossing their gear into his wagon. Mac said he needed to get his team back to Rum’s barn and put them in the paddock to stretch and roll, so they bade him and the Rushies goodbye. After he brushed Thomas and Dickon down, Rum indicated they should walk to the trees. His horses followed him like a pair of dogs.

Rory walked a few paces to the side, admiring them. ‘What’s your stud fee?’ he asked Rum.

‘I didn’t know you liked me that much, cousin,’ was Rum’s wicked reply.

Rory laughed. ‘Too high, no doubt! What about for either of these fellows?’

‘Depends on the deal and the mare. For a single mare, a copper crown.’ Bilbo whistled at the price. He had never heard of a fee that high before. Rory simply nodded, glancing at the stallions. ‘If you’ve got more than one mare, then it’s less per mare and I’d possibly trade for a foal.’

‘Guarantee a live foal?’

‘Yes, always. Also, a single mare comes to me before and stays until I’m sure she’s carrying. If you’ve got more than one mare, we come for a visit.’

‘You thinking of the Bree mares, Rory?’ Bilbo asked.

‘No, they’re for saddle, though it would be a pretty pairing. I’ve got the mother of the Rushies, Marigold, who’s probably got one good foaling left in her, and I’m thinking Fist’s sister, Fern, might be good.’

‘They’re not bad to ride, they’re pretty smooth gaited, but they’re tiring for most riders because they’re big barreled. Cross them with a saddle mare, you could get something nice,’ Rum said seriously. ‘If you can spare the time to come to Whitwell on your way back, I’ve a few of their get you can take a look at. I’ve got more around Tuckborough and Longbottom. And Dilly needs to meet Eglantine! They will get along famously.’

‘I think we probably will,’ Rory answered.

‘Bilbo, you and Frodo should come along, too,’ Rum said, expression hopeful.

With a shake of his head, Bilbo said, ‘Not this time, Rum. I want to go home and do nothing for a while. We may tramp through Southfarthing later this summer…’

‘…and you will pay a visit then, excellent!’ Rum ended for him. Bilbo smiled and neither confirmed nor corrected him.

When they got to the trees, Wilcar and Rufus were there, sitting on a bench in the shade, talking with Falco and Odo. They waved as the others approached. ‘Where’s Addy?’ Bilbo asked.

‘Off retrieving Andy from Odogar’s clutches,’ Wilcar replied.

‘Is that wise, having Odogar’s son-in-law in on this conversation?’ asked Odo.

Rum laughed. ‘Andy is a proper Took and will know better than any what mischief Odogar is planning. Probably what mischief Pal is planning, too.’ Wilcar nodded agreement. The next few minutes were spent talking about the horse show while they waited for Addy and Andy to show up. Bilbo mostly listened, and studied the hobbits gathered.

It had been no exaggeration to Frodo about the nature of the meeting. A meeting such as this last had been held at Bag End in the early summer following the Fell Winter. There had been no Fair that year due to the sickness and death the cruel winter had brought upon them. Even though it had been at Bag End, Bilbo had not been made part of the meeting and had been consigned to the kitchen to fetch and carry whatever food or drink the guests required. Our fathers and grandfathers were the last to meet like this, though at the end of a calamity instead of ahead of an unknown threat. The Old Took had still been alive and was Thain, but was too weak to travel, so had sent his sons Grim and Summer, Rum’s grandfather. Odogar’s father, Rudigar Bolger, had been there, still grieving the loss of his father two months before. Rory’s father, Uncle Gorbadoc, had been there, as had Rufus’ father, Rudolph Burrows. Wilcar’s grandfather, Wilson Chubb had arrived from Michel Delving with the Mayor, Addlegar Longhole, Tulip’s grandfather. Addlegar had not yet been seized by the frost and still had his wits about him. Hugo Boffin, the Goold brothers, Menegar and Menecar, Gilda’s grandfather, Harald Bracegirdle and his brother Bruno, Otho’s father, Longo, Falco’s father, Bingo, and Odo’s father, Bodo and Bodo’s brother Bono, had rounded out the group. They had discussed what to do to prepare for the coming winter, whose strength might be as terrible as the previous one. They worked together, then, to care for the Shire and its folk. None sought precedence and all worked for the good of the Shire.

Crops were poor because of the cold spring and the weakened populace. No morsel could be wasted, no selfishness could be allowed. Careful tallies were to be kept so that those who were generous would be known and rewarded. Gold was collected so that stores of grain and other food could be purchased, though there was little beyond the Shire to be obtained. Repairs of bridges, roads, dams, mills and other common goods were listed and an order to them set so the most important was fixed first. New farms for those in afflicted places were found in gentler corners. While the face they showed to the Shire afterwards was one of cheer and confidence, Bungo had confessed to Bilbo that the situation was dire; another such winter and the Shire might perish, much like the kingdom of the tall Big People in the pages of the book Rory had given him. Their concord had lasted for just over five years, long enough for the Shire to recover.

After a quarter hour, they saw Addy approaching with Andy and Wili. Bilbo did not know Andy very well for he had been born only the year before Bilbo had left on his adventure and had grown up when Bilbo had not been such a welcome guest at the Great Smials. Like Rum, he sported the Old Took’s white forelock. So had his father, Gis, until Gis’ hair had turned all white. Bilbo’s mother had a similar white streak, as had Uncle Gar. Bilbo had always wished he had inherited that mark as well.

Greetings were exchanged and places taken. Wili gratefully accepted a seat next to Rory on one of the benches. Bilbo preferred a seat on the ground with his back against the trunk of a tree. With what they were to discuss, he wanted to be touching the earth. Rum simply scrambled up onto the back of one of his ponies and looked down on them all. When everyone was settled, Rum cleared his throat and looked about him.

‘Cousins, I’ve been hearing odd things since last Yule, none of them making much sense. Would you, any of you, please tell the Thain what is going on with the Shire?’ Rum gave Bilbo a long look. ‘At the center of it all is you, Bilbo. It is the one common thread throughout. The first words I heard of things gone wrong was your letter from Buckland alerting me to the poor root harvest in Eastfarthing and asking for my assistance. Perhaps we could start with that?’

‘Actually, I shall start earlier than that,’ Bilbo said, ‘and look very long ago indeed, for that is when it all started. Almost eighty years ago, in 1311, the potato harvest in Eastfarthing failed. Half of you weren’t even born when that happened. I was Frodo’s age. I will never forget that awful time. When I went to Buckland this last Yule, Farmer Haysend of the Yale was kind enough to give me, Frodo and Dalin Steelhand a ride in his wagon to Whitfurrows. He told us of another failed root harvest in Eastfarthing, but affecting more than the potatoes. Most of the roots and much of the winter squash were ruined. It made me very worried. He also told me that Odogar was not speaking to Rory about this problem – and he obviously had not spoken to me – and was working with the Thain to bring in roots from Southfarthing.’

‘He was not speaking to me, either, only to Pal,’ Rum said.

‘As I found out the next day with the help of Rory and Wili,’ Bilbo confirmed, ‘and then I spent the rest of the Yule visit piecing together that Odogar and Pal were simply using the failed harvest to gain more gold and goods for themselves. Odovacar was running back and forth between Scary and Whitwell.’ Bilbo looked at Andy, who nodded confirmation. ‘At Wintermark, Odogar himself appeared, would not admit to the mischief he was performing, flatly denied to my face the scale of the harvest failure, and then tried to cast it all as some kind of collusion between Rum and Rory. At the end of this rant, he proposed to create a new farthing in the center of the Shire from pieces of the others and to put me in charge of it. He claimed this would need to be done to break the hold that the Chubbs, the Tooks and the Brandybucks have on trade on the Road, and put it into the hands of the Bolgers, Burrowses and Bagginses.’

‘Yet he was dealing secretly with Pal the whole time, correct?’ Wilcar asked.

‘Correct. There was no reason to his rant, only resentment and greed. Something else he said indicated he might already have been speaking to Otho to gain his support for this mad plan. Thankfully, Rum and Rory were taking care of the actual problem, which was the failed harvest, and Rufus, who was also at Wintermark, immediately pledged to send all excess from Northfarthing down to Eastfarthing. Unlike eighty years ago, no greater harm was visited upon us and no goodwife’s table went bare, though perhaps not as generously provisioned as she would have liked. What the next harvest will bring, we must wait and see.’

Bilbo looked around at the hobbits. Most were nodding, having heard or been part of this tale, so it was familiar. Andy looked embarrassed since Odogar was his father-in-law. How much did you get taken into Odogar’s confidence? Not as much as you thought, I’ll wager. He would have to talk to Wili later about what Andy would have known. Rum just looked thoughtful.

‘I say this about Odogar only because this is how I started pulling all the pieces of a larger puzzle together. The actual problem with the harvest was handled by those here, and harm turned aside. The foolishness about splitting farthings I believe we are also in agreement on, namely that it will not happen.’

‘I haven’t given up on claiming the Tooklands,’ Rum interjected with a grin. Wilcar grinned back and shook his head, while the others all laughed.

‘The puzzle I have been solving I call the Parting,’ Bilbo began again. ‘Rum, Wilcar, Andy, I think you are the only ones here who I have not discussed this with before,’ the three nodded, ‘so there is much you need to know, but it is difficult to describe. When Rory and I first spoke, last Halimath, we talked of changes happening since the death of the dragon, of increased trade and prosperity from increased travel on the Road, but also of increased dangers and rumors of war.’

‘The Troubles,’ Rory said flatly. Bilbo motioned for him to go on, not sure what Rory would say but wanting him to be part of this discussion on equal terms with the others. After Dilly’s dismissal in the sewing contest, he had begun to worry about resistance to including Buckland and its Master as a legitimate part of the Shire. ‘Bilbo and me, we talked quite a bit during Harvest when he came to get Frodo.’ Mentioning Frodo surprised Bilbo. You’d better mind your tongue, Brandybuck. ‘We talked about the things Bilbo just mentioned and how we needed to start now, before the Troubles arrived, to get a solid group working together – Mayor, Master and Thain, the farthing headmen, and the major clan heads and heirs – so that we are prepared for what might come down the Road.’ Bilbo nodded vigorously at Rory’s summary and he saw some smaller nods of agreement among the group. ‘I may not have been as old as Bilbo during the Fell Winter, but I do remember it and what it did to Buckland.’ More nods and looks. ‘But I hadn’t told Bilbo all that I knew. Or feared. That came out at Yule.’

‘When we went to talk about the hedgerow, right?’ Wili interjected, getting a nod from Rory and Bilbo.

Bilbo picked up the tale. ‘Rory and I had spoken of people being dwarven-hearted when we talked in Halimath, but I’d never seen or heard anything like Odogar’s response to the failed harvest. It was so… odd. When Frodo and I talked to Wili and Rory about it, Wili gave it a name – Dragon Fever. You described it best, Wili. Tell them.’

‘Dragon Fever is the desire to turn everything into gold, and as dearly as possible, even if what you need is something else. Like getting roots from Buckland instead of Southfarthing, or selling coal to Newbury instead of Bree.’

‘It’s like an ague of the heart, burning and scorching out all common sense,’ Bilbo added. ‘I have seen it at its worst twice – first when I saw Thorin Oakenshield seized by it when he claimed the hoard of Smaug, and again when I spoke to Odogar at Granite Bank in Astron. It wasn’t until Rory’s words at Yule that I understood it was part of the Troubles.’

Rory shook his head and sighed. ‘Odogar and I had been arguing about the Marish for almost two years, but it was different than just a little needling over who tips their hat to him. He wanted to cut Buckland off from the rest of the Shire, keep us out of those lands no matter the harm done, like a failed harvest. What made me worried, what worried the Mistress as well, was… a deeper wrong.’ Rory leaned down and dug a few pebbles out of the ground at his feet and began rolling them between his fingers. ‘A feel in the earth, in the air. Something that makes the land itself afraid. Something that makes illness harder to heal and is producing twisted, deformed offspring, hobbits as well as farm beasts.’ That made the others shift in their seats uncomfortably and look about. Rory looked at Bilbo. ‘Gilda and I have sensed and seen this wrongness for some time, but it’s been getting much stronger the last ten years. If the wrongness can seize the earth, twist babes in their mother’s womb, why not claim a heart? That’s what I said to Bilbo.’

‘Is this why you keep asking me about things wrong and sick in Southfarthing?’ Rum asked Bilbo.

‘Yes, exactly for these reasons. Rufus gave me the last big piece of the puzzle at Wintermark. He told me of orchards in Northfarthing that had no rot or pestilence, yet were still and dead.’ He nodded to Rufus to speak of Northfarthing.

‘It’s mostly in the trees,’ Rufus began. ‘Now that I know what to look for, I can give it a name. Bone Root. The trees afflicted by this, it is as though they never come out of winter’s sleep, and their roots become hard and drained of life, turning to something like bone. After Bilbo walked in Northfarthing with his lad this spring, he came to Oatbarton and told me what they had seen, and then I went up north myself and looked. No animals will stay near these trees. There are grasses, too, circles in the meadows, where the stalks and leaves go dry for the winter, then never grow again. Sheep won’t graze it and animals in a field where one of these patches appears are always spooked.’

‘Rufus, I’m curious,’ Bilbo said, ‘and perhaps you know the answer. Billy Stubtoe said that some trees in an orchard were walking in the early spring and we should not go near them until they had rooted for the season. They were near some others seized by Bone Root. He was very serious that the healthy trees walked, and he was completely sober.’

Rufus shrugged. ‘I’m inclined to believe it, though I’ve never seen one move. I know there’s apple trees that aren’t where they were two years ago. They join the orchards where Bone Root is creeping and it stops.’

‘The Old Orchard in Buckland definitely walked at one point,’ Rory offered, ‘though not recently. Maggot says the trees in the Old Forest walk all the time.’

‘It’s like they are guarding the other trees,’ Rufus answered, nodding his head. ‘I’d not claim that outside this group, but I think it is so. We’ve also seen deformed offspring among the livestock, though not any hobbit babe that I’m aware of.’

‘We’ve seen both, now, in Buckland and the Marish, though nothing in the trees or meadows,’ Rory added. He looked grim. Sara’s heart and Mac’s babe. Bilbo felt a little more sympathy for his stubborn cousin. ‘I don’t think it is the land itself. I went into Eastfarthing to fields where the crops failed, and I listened to the earth. Touched it. Tasted it. There’s naught wrong with the dirt, but it’s wary. The plants upon it, they cling to it, trying not to let go. I can’t smell or taste rot either in land or plant. The further west I come, the less fearful the land. There’s nothing wrong west of the Oatbarton Road.’

‘This is all fascinating, Bilbo, but I still don’t understand why you call it the Parting,’ Rum said sharply. ‘What is parted?’

‘It is as though the Winter is working its way back in through the very bones of the earth, keeping life from taking root in wood, field and womb, and keeping it all in a state of barren waiting. The parting is between form and life.’

Rum gave him a long, calculating look. ‘And you are parted. That’s why you don’t age.’ Bilbo nodded. Andy looked a bit shocked at the news, though none of the others looked surprised. ‘And Gilda? This is what makes her sick as well?’

‘No!’ Rory said, indignant. ‘That’s not what affects her! Anyway, she’s getting better. Bilbo got an elf healing scroll and there’s medicine from that she’s taking.’

I’m sorry, Rory. That’s not true. That was not something to be said before others. ‘Rory’s right. Gilda is not parted, not as I am. But she’s like Rory with the land or yourself with beasts. She’s like my mother, a healer who can perceive illness too deep for others to feel. Gilda said that whatever has caused her tremors, it is not some usual illness, but her very soul shaking in fear, and said she can pinpoint the day, even the hour, that some great evil had been thwarted and she felt its anger. In that way, she has known of the Parting before any of the rest of us understood what it was. Gilda said to me at Yule, “It is as though a cold breath follows you, keeping you frozen in time,” and that’s how I knew what I looked at when I walked north.’

Again, Rum looked at him intently, thinking. ‘Were you parted before you left on your adventures? Is that why you left?’

My clever boy. You never forget a detail. Bilbo smiled. ‘And why do you ask that? Isn’t it more likely that I brought something back with me?’

Rum shook his head. ‘Not if it started with the Fell Winter, as you seem to think. Though the seeps I’m seeing near Longbottom sound suspiciously like the poisoned stream you crossed in Mirkwood. I doubt you carried a bucket of that back with you.’

‘I am not certain what has caused my own parting. It happened sometime around my adventures because that is when I stopped aging, at least outwardly. What I am certain of is that whatever afflicts us is greater than the Shire and far older. Rory gave me a book at Yule that Frodo and I translated after our walk in the north. The book was a collection of writings from tall Big People, those who once lived in these lands before we hobbits settled here. Things we are seeing, they also saw. Barren trees. Twisted babes. Dying meadows. It’s part of why they left. They knew that evil things were coming down from the northeast, from the same places where Orcs and goblins now multiply. Where the dragon lived before he attacked Erebor and drove out the dwarves.’ Bilbo looked around at the others. ‘What I am also certain of is that we hobbits are what holds this parting at bay. The Big People, they could not stop it, but we have.’

There was a look of pride on the others’ faces at this claim and Rum nodded. ‘The land does not trust the Big People, not as she does us,’ the Thain said. ‘I’ve never heard of one of them who can speak to a tree or a beast as a hobbit can.’ He cocked his head and thought a bit more. ‘So, why do you say the Fell Winter started it if it has always been here?’

‘It didn’t start with the Winter. The Winter weakened us greatly, even more than the Long Winter had, and that let the Parting come back. If I have calculated the dates correctly, Smaug seized Erebor from the dwarves not many years after the Long Winter. The Fell Winter was our turn, with the poisoned snow and the White Wolves. When the snows melted, the melt water was sour and tainted, and harvests were poor for several years. Corn is still harder to grow than before it. It killed many children, it weakened mothers, and deaths were greater than births every year after that until after I came of age, over ten years. Mostly what it did was depopulate the northern reaches so we hobbits were no longer tending the land. That’s where the Parting started. Some up there call it the Fading and remember it starting about thirty years ago. That’s when Gilda first started noticing that illness was harder to heal and she needed to rely on stronger medicines from the elves.’

‘So, we aren’t holding it at bay anymore?’ Odo asked.

‘No, we still are doing that. It’s just that what we resist has become stronger itself over time. This is what the news from beyond the Shire tells us, as well. We’re not the only ones fighting this, but we may be the most successful.’ Bilbo though a moment. ‘The wizard told me once that hobbits are tough as tree roots and more stubborn than dwarves. Not all of us have a sense of land or beast, but most have common sense. And generous hearts.’

‘Unless they have Dragon Fever,’ said Wilcar, ‘in which case they have none of those qualities.’

‘Someone in the grips of that affliction is parted,’ Bilbo said quietly. ‘This is not mere greed that claims Odogar. Andy,’ Bilbo looked at the younger man, ‘have you been to visit your father-in-law in Granite Bank since autumn before last? That is when Tilda, Wili’s sister-in-law, saw the first saw clear signs of Dragon Fever in Odogar.’

‘Drida and I were there early last year, a few weeks after her mother died. Father Odogar was acting oddly, but I just thought he was grieving.’ Andy looked very concerned. ‘This is an illness? He’s sick? Are you sick, Uncle Bilbo?’

‘In way. It is something wrong. I feel old, tired, drained, though it doesn’t appear that way. I don’t think Odogar feels unwell, if that’s what you are getting at, just that he doesn’t seem to see what is about him. I do think that losing Jessamine made this worse, and his grieving is part of it.’ Bilbo shook his head. ‘Wili and I were in Granite Bank in Astron. The smial itself I think is a place of parting. It felt wrong the same way that the orchards of the north felt wrong, cold and barren. I don’t know if the place is causing the parting, or if it is being distorted by Odogar. Some of each, I think.’

‘Andy, are any of the grandchildren in the smial?’ Rum asked.

‘No, Rum. Rosa doesn’t like the place very much, so she and Car have a house nearby.’

‘And Odogrim’s with me and Nora now, so he’s out of that,’ said Falco. Andy nodded at that news and threw a look at Bilbo. So, what has Odogar told you about that, I wonder? ‘Bilbo, ever since the meeting at Bag End in Thrimidge, Fargo and I have been speaking to folk up in the north of Westfarthing, along the border and out past Gamwich. I’m happy to say I’ve not heard of or seen anything out of sorts, aside from what we spoke on when you visited, though now I’m wondering if I’ve missed something.’

‘I’ve not heard of anything amiss in the rest of Westfarthing, either, Bilbo,’ Wilcar added, ‘not beyond the Drop. I rely on you and Otho for news from Hobbiton – and thank you for seeing to the dam on the Water! – and occasionally my Took in-laws see fit to send me a letter on how fares the Tooklands.’ He gave Rum a stern look, though a smile was teasing at the corner of his mouth.

‘Well, you should come visit the Great Smials more often if you want news of it,’ Rum airily replied, ‘and go scold Pal for news of the lowlands. As for Southfarthing,’ his tone became brisk and he only looked at Bilbo, ‘I’ve already sent you word of the seeps near Longbottom. I’ve not been to see the dead patches in the leaf fields at the east end…’

‘… I’ll go take a look after the Fair, if you like,’ Addy volunteered.

‘Yes, do that and let me and Bilbo know what you find,’ Rum agreed. ‘I’ve sent word around to keep an eye out for bad animal births and I’ll talk to Rowan, Boulder’s oldest granddaughter, about hobbits. She’s a midwife and healer, and I think she knows Gilda. They should talk. You know about the trade going out south over the ford, though I’m not sure where it goes after that. I know there’s a bridge on a big river a ways south that still hasn’t been rebuilt since the floods after the Winter took it down, so it must be forded. Demand will be highest in late summer when the river is at its lowest and easiest to cart things across. Along with corn, leaf, cheese and cured meat, there’s a greater demand for cloth and leather. Pal is going about trying to get folk to put in crops to sell, not live on. I can’t say for certain if it’s Dragon Fever or just a dwarven-heart, but he very much prefers coin to corn.’ Rum smiled at Wilcar in his most charming manner. ‘And if you get tired of having to ask about the Tooklands, I’d be glad to remove that burden from your shoulders at any time, cousin.’

‘You and several other scoundrels,’ Wilcar said in return, with a little less humor. He looked at Bilbo. ‘Day before yesterday, we spoke a bit about these scoundrels, my brother-in-law and your cousins. Him, too,’ he pointed at Rum, ‘but the other three are the worst. At least I can see a reason to put the Tooklands with the rest of Southfarthing. There’s no reason to the rest, save greed. And, given what I’ve just heard, I’m inclined to give them what they say they want. Well, at least what Odogar wants. Pal is presuming a bit on his connection to Ada.’

Bilbo shook his head. ‘I know what you’re thinking, Wilcar. I will not have a hand in dividing the Shire.’

‘Then take over Eastfarthing. I’ll cede Hobbiton…’

No.’ Bilbo kept his voice steady and calm, though he wanted to yell at them. ‘That is dividing the Shire.’

‘That’s putting the right person in charge,’ Rufus said, to the nods of most of the others.

And as soon as it is done, Otho will attack Frodo to make himself the Baggins heir. He’s going to do that anyway. No need to give him a fat reward for doing so. ‘I will not play these games.’

‘These are anything but games, Bilbo,’ said Odo. ‘Think of how you started this – talking to Rory to get the right people in place to guide the Shire through troubles that have started to appear.’

‘I don’t need to head a farthing to guide the Shire.’

‘Fine, then as Mayor,’ Rory interjected, leaning forward. ‘We talked about this, too.’

‘And I would also support this,’ Rufus said, ‘as you know.’ The rest were nodding, except for Rum, who looked bored. ‘I think there are very few who would not support you as Mayor, certainly everyone here wou…’

I wouldn’t.’ Rum crossed his arms and looked down at the others. ‘I don’t want Bilbo as Mayor.’

‘Finally, a voice of common sense!’ Bilbo called out from his spot against the tree.

‘I say you should be Thain.’ That led to a long moment of stunned silence as everyone stared at Rum in disbelief, then Rory started laughing.

‘That’s what I told him last Halimath! The Thain’s not always a Took.’ Rum and Rory exchanged a grin. The others started protesting or supporting the proposal. Most supported it.

Is that to make me Thain, or remove Rum? Bilbo stuck his hand into his pocket and worried his ring. This could be even more powerful than Mayor. The Thain’s proper task was to defend the Shire. I could do this. I know dwarves. He could arrange for their arms to shield the Shire. I can get more Bounders, stop the Big People from coming in. He rather liked the idea of stopping the Grey Riders at the Bounds. The Dragon-fevered could be kept on a short leash, not allowed to trade. The idea of spoiling Otho’s business was a very satisfying one. Otho would not dare to threaten me or Frodo. There could be some very painful lessons for his overreaching cousin on that count.

His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of Rum’s voice calming his ponies. The steeds were stamping and snorting, evidently disturbed by the loud chatter of the hobbits. One of them was looking directly at Bilbo, eyes wide, ears tipped forward, and the pony started backing up, not soothed by Rum’s hand on its neck.

Bilbo took his hand out of his pocket and slowly stood, not wanting to spook the beast. ‘Please, everyone, calm yourselves!’ he pleaded in what he hoped was a soothing voice. ‘This is another point of division.’ Their voices subsided and the ponies stopped being so nervous. ‘Pal would become apoplectic at this proposal…’

‘…which I consider something in its favor…’

‘Shut up, Rum. You’re not helping and you’re entirely self-interested on this.’ Bilbo glared at his troublesome cousin until Rum rolled his eyes and waved at him to continue. ‘Any unusual contest for power is going to be divisive. The only reason Odogar’s ploy over Eastfarthing might attract support is because it looks like he’s giving something up, which I don’t believe for a minute. I think he’s just going to wait until Centralfarthing is established, then claw it all back into Eastfarthing.’

‘I think you’re right, Bilbo,’ said Andy. ‘Brother Car does not share much of what he carries to Pal from his father, but he has said that if the split farthing doesn’t work out, it would be easy enough to pull it back together, but this time with all of Hobbiton as part of Eastfarthing. I know I’ve heard Odogar say it’s not fair that Eastfarthing is so much smaller than the other three.’ This news got snorts and head shakes all around.

‘What Odogar wants doesn’t matter. I say that the Shire would be best run with Bilbo as Thain, no matter that Pal will kick up a fuss,’ Rum persisted. ‘If people will pick you for Mayor, they’d pick you for Thain.’ He looked about at the others, expression mocking. ‘You can take care of two problems with one vote. I mean, really, who of you, the most reasonable and high-minded leaders in the Shire, actually wants me as Thain?’

The others looked at each other in consternation. Rum has looked into your hearts and sees the truth of your support for his proposal. I don’t doubt but that you’d think the same of me, given the right slander. Bilbo swallowed his irritation, smiled and raised his hand. ‘I do. I very much want you to be Thain, and not just to keep Pal away from it.’

‘Really? You know me better than anyone. How can you possibly want me to be Thain, Bilbo? What reason can you give?’ Rum’s challenge was almost angry.

‘Quite a number of reasons make you the best choice for Thain in troubled times. You’re smart, not a dim-witted drunk. You understand subtle things, and quickly. This is mostly because you are observant, which means you don’t wait to be told – you watch and you understand. You grasped things about the Parting that no one else has understood. You are the oddest hobbit in the Shire, and you are not afraid of strange things or of change. Our cousins here are all a bit hide-bound in that regard, and change is the only thing we can count on where the Troubles are concerned. Change won’t dismay you.’ Bilbo leaned against the tree, looking only at Rum, willing him to hear the truth in what he was saying. ‘You don’t care about propriety and won’t let that keep you from doing what is right. There is no better judge of another’s heart than you. You know when someone is true or false, when they can be trusted or not. Because you can judge a heart, you can persuade better than any. If there is something as terrible as the Fell Winter, the Shire will need a Thain who can make us look past fear and doubt and rally to defend ourselves. Finally, you have a true heart and greed cannot sway you. You will defend the weak and the unfortunate and not look to your own advantage. You’re right. I do know you better than anyone. That’s why I want you to be Thain, and no one else.’

Bilbo held Rum’s eyes until the other smiled a bit and shrugged. You’re not used to people telling you that you are good. And I know now what will make you want to be very, very good. The old hobbit glanced around at the others. Addy was smiling and giving Rum a proud look, while Andy nodded. There’s more support, Rum. Flame and Gis’ sons will back you. Wilcar looked swayed by the argument, as did Falco. The others looked a bit unhappy with Bilbo’s reasons. You’ll learn.

‘Very well, Bilbo, I will retract my recommendation that you should be Thain,’ Rum said, ‘but that just means I’ll throw my weight behind you as Mayor.’

‘Mayor, Master and Thain, isn’t that what you and Rory were talking about?’ said Falco.

‘There’s already a Mayor.’

‘And he’s both weak and in Otho’s pocket, as we saw at Bag End month before last!’ Odo snapped. Bilbo gave Falco a look, and his cousin responded with a wiggled hand.

‘Then you need to work harder to get him in your pocket instead,’ Bilbo replied almost as sharply. ‘If you are all going to be so foolish as to leave Pasco in Otho or Pal’s company, then you get what you deserve. He’s your uncle, Andy. Make sure you know when he might be meeting Pal and make yourself present.’

Before anyone else could jump in on the argument, Rufus held up his hands. When he had silence, he said, ‘Bilbo, all of us here know three things. First, we know the good that you do. There is not a village or farmstead in the Shire that has not felt your kindness over the last fifty years. No one cares for the Shire and hobbit folk as you do. Second, we all know that every reason you gave Rum for why he should be Thain – and I think they are all true and I hope our Thain will heed your counsel,’ Rufus gave Rum a long, steady look that made Rum’s cheeks color a bit, ‘those reasons are exactly why we here think you are best suited to being in charge of, well, something. You describe yourself with them. Third, we all know that you are adamant that you don’t want to be in charge. I understand that you don’t want to encourage faction, and I am convinced that the farthings should remain as they are, but I think there is something more to your reluctance, and we need to hear that reason from you. You’re happy enough to boss us about like this, so why not have an office behind it?’

You should stop your coyness, Baggins. You are the best one here. You should be in charge. Name what you want and these cousins will see that it is done. They can rue their support later. Bilbo looked at the ground and pondered. Thorin and Thranduil and Bard all thought the same, with their armies behind them. Almost it was their undoing. Not even the Arkenstone could bring them to accord. But I have no armies. I can bring these quarrelsome cousins to accord, just as Gandalf did the leaders of those armies. He liked the idea of himself as a powerful wizard. What would the conjuror have him do? He would tell them to do what is right, and do it themselves. In the distance, he could hear music from the main square. You have your charge – Frodo. He wants them to go hunt their own dragons, and he is right.

‘It is a fair question,’ Bilbo quietly said. ‘I am the one pressing the rest of you to understand the dangers ahead and to act, so why won’t I do this more openly?’ The others nodded and murmured agreement. ‘It’s not that I am too humble to think I could do well. I’m as prideful as the rest of you. Rum is the only one who is smarter than me, and I’m more sensible than he is. Part of me very much wants to be in charge. So, why not? The answer is as simple as this – I am parted. I have no idea what this means, how it will affect me. I think it reckless to put me in charge, make me and my parting so prominent. I think it more important that we as a group not be at odds, and that our lads also be amiable and work together. When our fathers and grandfathers met after the Winter, they were very certain to put forward a united and confident face, so that people did not fear, no matter the dire things they addressed. We should do the same. The Troubles are here, now.’

After a long while, Rufus nodded. ‘Very well, Bilbo. You will hear no more on this from me. I do ask that you continue your walks about the Shire and that you tell us what you find.’

‘Of course.’

‘So, we just tell Odogar and Pal “No,” is that it?’ Odo asked.

‘I think we should take their measure tomorrow night at the Midyear party,’ Wilcar offered. ‘All of you and all of them are invited, along with a passel of others. Let’s sound them out. We should try to avoid contest.’

‘Agreed,’ said Bilbo. They all nodded. ‘I weary of this conversation. It feels like I have spoken of nothing else since Yule. I think it time to go find out what mischief my lad has been up to in my absence.’

That got a laugh from Addy and Wilcar. ‘If he’s with Gin, we’ll be lucky half the fairgrounds aren’t in ruins by supper!’ Addy chortled.

‘And Darron will be helping with the other half,’ Wilcar grinned.

‘Pearl will be leading the effort, if I know my girl!’ was Rum’s happy response.

The group broke up with farewells and promises to meet later for less serious things. Wilcar and Falco were having a conversation with Odo, who still seemed unhappy at Bilbo’s refusal, and the three looked like they’d be talking for a while. Rum and his ponies ambled back to the stables with Addy and Andy as company. Bilbo walked to the main fairgrounds with Rory, Wili and Rufus.

‘We need to get some beer, Baggins,’ Rufus cheerfully said. ‘Your choice as to whether we talk or just drink.’

‘Let’s get the beer and see if we’re in the mood for a talk.’ Bilbo studied Rory from the corner of his eye for a few paces. ‘So, Master, can you work with the Thain?’

Rory did not reply at once. ‘Aye. We can work together, and well.’

‘You didn’t think so before.’

‘I hadn’t seen him with horses before.’ Bilbo looked at Rory expectantly. ‘What you said about a true heart. He has one. You can’t lie to a beast. You can bribe one, but they’ll not trust you unless you’re true to them. Funny, them getting all nervous near the trees.’

‘I had a short talk with Rum last night and again this morning. It’s been so long since we were on speaking terms that I had not realized how ferociously Alder and now Pal have been fighting with him and undermining him. He will be a better Thain if he has better people to work with. I begin to wonder how much of the stories about him are true and how much his hateful kin’s invention.’

‘Well, the stories come from somewhere,’ Rory said.

‘Which do you think more true of him, the man at supper last night, the fellow mucking out stalls this morning, or the Thain presenting his team at the show?’

‘Hmm.’ Rory did not answer and Bilbo did not press. They walked in silence until they came to the main square. Wili said he was tired and wished to return to the inn for a rest and come back in the evening after sundown. Rory said he would walk back with him, looking at his older cousin with some concern. Wili did look worn out. Bilbo said he would tell Prisca where they were if he saw her and bade them goodbye. Rufus got himself and Bilbo some beer and they soon found a bench in the shade. Bilbo watched the crowd for a glimpse of Frodo and the other children, or even of Blossom.

‘I’m satisfied with the meeting we had, Bilbo.’ Rufus gave him a smile and sipped his beer. Bilbo nodded and smiled back, but did not say anything. ‘I meant it when I said I shall not importune you again.’

‘Thank you. I just don’t think it wise.’

‘I think you are wary of another thing, though you are too polite, or too politic, to say it.’

‘That is always possible.’

‘Otho needs you to claim something and then to stop claiming something else so that he may have a claim. And that could get very… ugly.’

‘I think you see my concern.’

‘I think I do. I am sorry, by the way, that my family, from myself down to my daughter, have been so trying to you and your lad.’ Rufus again stopped to sip his beer, though he was not smiling. ‘I had a chat with Bluebell and she said that there has always been some bad blood between Bargo and Frodo.’

‘Frodo has said the same. I think it good that they have some distance and time in which to let hot tempers cool and tween contests fade.’ Bilbo made his tone and face as mild as he could.

‘Well, I’m sorry for Bargo’s bullying and I’m sorry for Bluebell being a bit forward and stirring up more trouble.’

‘I’m not concerned.’ Now that Wilwarin has put your stupid oaf into his place. ‘The youngsters will settle this in their own way.’

‘I’m also sorry for Asphodel. I know she said something unkind to Frodo last night.’

Bilbo was curious that Rufus felt it necessary to apologize for Asphodel. ‘She was being defensive of her own children.’

Rufus sipped his beer, looking off at the crowd milling about. ‘No, she wasn’t. You are judicious, Bilbo, which is why I support your recommendations, even when I disagree with them.’ They sat for a few minutes, Bilbo patiently waiting for Rufus to gather his thoughts. ‘Asphodel has repeated to me things told to her by Esmie about Frodo. And about you. I thought I had dissuaded her from repeating such things, but I see there is more I need to do.’ Rufus frowned and turned to look directly at Bilbo. ‘I do not believe these things, especially given our conversation that one evening, but even without it, I cannot believe the claims being made. So, my question, which you may not be able to answer, is why Esmie would say such unworthy things about Frodo. My concern is that others may intend to say such things to press their own claims.’

Bilbo’s estimation of Rufus increased a great deal. He had no doubt but that Esmie had passed on the most ugly of her various lies. ‘There’s not much I can say here,’ he gestured around with his beer before taking a sip, ‘but you are right that they are both false, for reasons we have discussed, and done to lay claim on wealth certain people would not otherwise have access to.’

‘Hmm. That makes sense.’ Rufus cocked his head. ‘Early this year, Cousin Rudi was saying something similar, though not quite as salacious, and I believe he learned it from Otho. Then he said it was unworthy to repeat, as though it had not been all along. Did you offer Otho assurances?’

‘Of a kind. I assured him something… unpleasant… would happen should he allow certain slanderous things to be said by anyone in his smial.’

‘I see.’ Rufus did not ask any more questions and they sat, sipping their beer. When they finished, Rufus bade him a cheerful goodbye. ‘I need to find out where the family has wandered off to. Perhaps I shall see you near the dancing later?’

‘I think you probably will.’ Bilbo walked about looking for his lad. It interested him that Otho had been spreading lies early in the year but that his threat had worked so effectively. Effective enough that he warned his cousin not to repeat it. If Otho did try to get Dudo to go after the adoption, he might be able to use the threat again.

It was late in the afternoon and Bilbo was beginning to think he should have gone back to the inn with Wili and Rory. The beer left him a bit lightheaded, and though he knew he should eat something, he did not have any appetite. Up ahead, he saw Dudo talking to someone, and thought it probably was not wise to talk in his current state, but Dudo saw him and waved him over.

‘Dudo, good afternoon!’ he greeted his cousin, with a nod to the other fellow.

‘Good afternoon Bilbo. May I introduce you to Walter Headstrong, who trades in woolens here in Michel Delving. He’s a kinsman of Nora’s.’

‘I’m delighted to meet you, Mister Headstrong,’ Bilbo said with a smile.

‘Likewise, Mister Baggins, but you must call me Walt,’ the hobbit replied holding out his hand, which Bilbo shook.

‘I shall, but only if you will call me Bilbo! You know Falco, then?’

‘Oh, yes, and Fargo! Good chaps. I get him cloth for his store. He was kind enough to introduce me to Dudo.’

‘If you would wait but a moment Bilbo,’ Dudo said and returned his attention to Walt. ‘So send a sample of the green dyed wool as soon as you can and I’ll get it to a very good weaver and send that back to you. There’s a growing interest in boiled wool from Breelanders, by the way.’

‘You’ll have the sample in two weeks or less. I don’t know that I can get enough extra wool for boiling, not this season. I’ve already done my buying.’

‘Of course, but perhaps planning for next year.’ The two exchanged a few more words and then Walt bade them both farewell. Bilbo made a mental note to have Clyde Cotsman talk to his cousin in Tighfield about extra wool for Walt this season. ‘I’m glad we finally get to talk, though I have no idea where Tulip is. It was too noisy at the show.’

‘Well, we should have supper tonight. There’s a private parlor at our inn, and I think it a bit closer to the fairgrounds than yours.’

‘Yes, that sounds good. Tulip does wish to come back in the evening when it’s cooler.’

‘Very good! It can be just us, or we can have Falco and Odo and their wives join us.’

‘Tulip might be more entertained by the ladies than by us,’ Dudo acknowledged with a smile. This was turning into a pleasant conversation. Bilbo wondered when it would go wrong. ‘Who is the woman you were with at the show? The seamstress?’

‘That’s Dilly Brandybuck, Rory’s daughter-in-law. She’s married to his younger son, Mac, who went second in the horse show.’

‘Is she staying at your inn? I need to talk to her about linen.’

‘Yes, she is, and I’m sure she’d be delighted to talk to you.’

‘Uncle Bilbo! Uncle Dudo!’ Frodo waved as he trotted up, looking a bit dirty and rumpled. He gave them each a hug. ‘Aunt Blossom says to thank you for all your help today, Uncle Bilbo. Aunt Tulip says that she is watching the preserves demonstration, Uncle Dudo, and will meet you by the post stand when she is done.’

‘Your aunt and uncle will be joining us for supper, Frodo,’ Bilbo said, and Frodo smiled very cheerfully at Dudo, which pleased the hobbit.

‘That’s wonderful. How soon is supper? I’m hungry.’

‘You’re a tween. When are you not hungry?’ Bilbo asked, making Dudo laugh and Frodo smirk. ‘Not very soon, so let’s go get you something to eat. I’m walking back to the inn to rest until supper.’

‘I’d best go wait for Tulip. See you both at supper!’ After Dudo walked off, Frodo’s cheerfulness went away and he looked at Bilbo expectantly. Bilbo just smiled and walked towards the food stalls. With a sigh, Frodo followed.

‘So, what happened?’

‘What would you like to eat?’

‘You’re doing it again.’

‘Have you had anything since lunch?’

‘I’m not sure why I bother to ask you anything.’

‘Did you even have lunch?’

‘Yes, but I gave half of it to Pearl.’

‘Where is your adoring pack of puppies?’

‘They were kidnapped by passing Orcs. I’d have rescued them, but I fell down a hole.’

That made Bilbo laugh. ‘So, even Gin got dragged back to the inn for a nap. Is that why you’re by yourself?’

‘Yes, though I had to climb over a fence near the sheep shed to avoid Bluebell and Bargo. Managed to lose Tom that way, too.’

They were at a food stall, which prevented Bilbo from having to respond to that. Frodo was soon wolfing down slices of meat served on a slab of bread, with a mug of beer for his thirst. Bilbo contented himself with another mug of beer and a bite of bread and meat that Frodo insisted he have. ‘I know you haven’t eaten any lunch,’ the boy scolded him. They were soon walking back to the inn. ‘Are you going to tell me anything?’ Frodo asked.

‘Of course, lad. Your Uncle Wili is getting very tired from all the travel and walking, so I would like you to tend his ponies in the morning so he can rest.’ Bilbo gave Frodo a sharp glance to let him know his impertinence was not appreciated. ‘So, what did you do after you took Pearl back to Blossom?’

‘Went about with Gin, Amy, Darron and Tom. Did you know that Aunt Blossom is Violet Bracegirdle’s sister?’

‘Uh, I think I heard that once, but I forgot. Right, they’re both Grubbs. Maudie’s husband’s cousins. How did you find out?’

‘Me, Gin and Amy ran into Hamson, Harriet and Lotho this morning. Tom was with them, but decided he liked us better, so he followed us. For a few minutes there, I thought I was going to have to break up a fight between the cousins. They hate each other!’ Frodo snickered. ‘Amy called Lotho a potato.’

‘A what? Never mind. Why do they hate each other?’

‘Haven’t figured it out, yet. I didn’t want to ask in front of Darron and Tom.’

‘That’s wise. Do see if you can find out. What sort of things did you see?’ Frodo launched into an enthusiastic description of things he saw in the mechanics barn and some magician’s act and then a description of strange cows and other oddities until they were back at the inn. Bilbo left some directions for supper with Clyde, collected their bundle of letters, found out that Prisca had found Wili and Rory on the way back to the inn, and sent Frodo to fetch an ewer of hot water before going back to their room. He peeled off his shirt and tossed it into the laundry basket next to the door before going to the washstand. It felt good to wash away the dust and sweat of the day. He turned about and found Frodo staring at him with great disapproval. No, not him, at the bruise on his left breast. Best to address this directly, Baggins.

‘Before you ask, it ached a bit this morning when I woke up and it feels fine now.’

Frodo glared at him, all Old Took. ‘He’d better not touch you again.’

You have your work cut out for you, Rum. ‘Our cousin is ashamed for having lost his temper and he has apologized for striking me. I have accepted it and have forgiven him, but warned him I would not tolerate another outburst from him.’ Frodo nodded sharply. ‘I also told him he is forbidden to come to Bag End, as you do not care for his company.’

That made Frodo a bit uncertain. ‘Because I don’t?’

‘You told me you did not wish him to come visit. Did I misunderstand?’

‘It’s your smial. You may invite whom you wish.’

‘Frodo, Bag End is our home. Yes, it is for me to invite or forbid, but I don’t want visitors who are offensive to you. I told him that he had offended you and that he needed to earn your good regard.’

‘You said he might write.’

‘Yes, I think he will. He is sad that he has upset you, for your parents were so dear to him.’ Don’t push. Let Frodo decide for himself. ‘I do think that I will go to the Great Smials later this year, if only to see Gis and Petunia, though I do not require that you accompany me.’ Bilbo stepped away from the washstand and motioned for Frodo to use it. The boy pulled off his own dirty, rumpled shirt – What have you been doing, Wilwarin, to get that grubby? – tossed it in the basket, and set to work scrubbing. Bilbo collected the bundle of letters and began sorting it. Almost all were for him. One for Frodo was in a familiar hand. You’re not wasting time.

‘How far is Longbottom? From Bag End?’ Frodo asked.

‘As far as to Brandy Hall if you go overland. A third again as far if you stick to the roads. Why?’

‘Gin and Amy want me to come visit, so I wanted to know how far it would be.’

‘One very long day at a hard pace for a pony, two long days by foot. Even longer at a more reasonable pace.’

Bilbo sat on the floor, back against the bed and began reading his letters. Soon, Frodo came over and sat on the bed behind him. He felt Frodo place a washcloth hot from the ewer water over the bruise and press it against his chest. He put a hand over Frodo’s. ‘I’m all right, lad. Truly.’

‘This will help.’

‘Yes, it will. Thank you.’ Bilbo handed up the few letters for Frodo before returning to his own. There were a mix, including several that had been sent from Hobbiton by Bell, bits and bobs of business, and few from here in Michel Delving. There was an amusing one from Otho. ‘Very well, cousin. We shall talk.’ Though he was tempted to make Otho wait until Wilcar’s party tomorrow, there was no point increasing Otho’s aggravation. Otho might say things privately that he would be too clever to say before an audience. Frodo’s hand was still resting on the cloth over the bruise. Best not to aggravate this cousin any more than you already have.

‘Well, lad, I think I have finally convinced our various relations that I will not seek any office or prominence just because Odogar is being an ass.’

‘Good. They need to do their own work.’

‘It was your advice that kept my resolve strong in the face of their pleas, Wilwarin.’ Bilbo tipped his head back and smiled up at his lad. ‘I agree that they should hunt their own dragons. It’s good practice for them.’ After a moment, Frodo smiled back. ‘They are all apprised of the Parting, though there is much still to explain. That can be done in due time.’

‘They know about you?’

‘Yes, they do.’ The boy’s smile vanished and he nodded. ‘I also think that I have figured out how to convince Rum to behave himself and be a good Thain.’


‘I will give you until the end of the Fair to figure it out on your own. Let’s see if you are sharper than my other cousins.’

‘I will.’

Bilbo wanted to ask about Tom, but knew that Frodo would bring it up himself when he was ready to talk. ‘I’m going to write some letters before supper. You should try to nap a bit since the dancing will go very late tonight and the young ladies will insist you stay the entire time.’

This got a shrug and an embarrassed smirk from Frodo, but the lad did slip out of the rest of his clothes and get in bed. Bilbo retrieved the traveling desk and settled in next to the bed, humming softly to himself. He was soon rewarded with the sound of Frodo’s soft, even breath when the boy fell asleep. After he finished his letters, he took them and their laundry to the girl minding the front door and quickly returned.

Part of him wanted to crawl into bed next to Frodo and hold him. Before last night, he probably would have. After what Frodo had seen last night and how angry it had made him, Bilbo was wary of being too familiar. You weren’t disgusted, Wilwarin. You were jealous. He supposed it was better that Frodo not be revolted, but he distrusted what he had come to think of as the Rat, the shadow of Buckland that still touched his lad, and what it would encourage Frodo to do to please him, soothe him, keep his attention. He knows that Rum has a hold on you and he doesn’t like it. Bilbo knew he would have to be careful with his touches for a time, just as he had been on their long walk.

Then there were his own feelings that Rum had unearthed, things he thought long dead and buried, like the hard, lifeless roots of the withered orchards, anchoring him but no longer making him want certain things. Rum and Gilda. They are why you have rules, Baggins. Gilda he could simply love now. There was no question of more than that affection since she had wed Rory. And once she set out for Hobbiton. Bilbo wished he knew when she had done this, and why she had been angry with Rory. What would you have done, had she arrived? That would depend on who else was already there. He snorted softly at himself and shook his head. But Rum, this was a problem. He looked at the spot on the floor where they had stood last night and argued. Touched. Kissed. If Frodo had not been there, Bilbo would not have sent Rum away, not as upset as he was. That won’t happen again. He listened to Frodo’s breath. For his sake, it can’t happen again. I’m sorry, love, no more.

When supper time drew near, Bilbo gave Frodo a small shake to wake him. They were dressed and waiting in the parlor when Dudo and Tulip arrived. Frodo greeted them with the same cheer that he had shown Dudo at the fairgrounds. Bilbo did not think it entirely false, but there was a slightly forced feel to it. He did not think Tulip or Dudo noticed. Frodo was perfectly good mannered, asking Tulip about the preserves demonstration and Dudo about new kinds of cloth he had seen so far. Bilbo smiled and sipped some wine, not intruding into their conversation. If Dudo and Tulip were happy with the lad and how things stood, then they would be less likely to contest the adoption. Tulip asked Frodo about Amy, who had evidently been introduced to them at the horse show.

‘She’s a cousin of mine on the Took side, Adelard and Blossom Took’s oldest daughter.’

‘Well, she’s quite a bright lass! She has an eye for good cloth, even at her age.’

‘As soon as she heard about you and the shop, she did nothing but beg me to introduce her to you.’

‘When she’s a bit older, she’d be a good prentice for the shop,’ Dudo said, quite serious. ‘If she has a head for figures, she might even be good in the warehouse. I’ve never found anyone to replace Daisy.’

Falco, Nora, Odo and Sage came in then and Frodo was sent to let Clyde know they were ready to have supper laid. They were soon eating and talking about all the different things they had seen at the Fair that day. Frodo did not say much as he was applying himself to the food, encouraged by his aunts and getting approving looks from his uncles.

When the meal was done, they lingered in the parlor, smoking pipes and finishing the wine. Bilbo mentioned to Nora and Falco that he had met Walt Headstrong and thought him an excellent chap. This led to discussions of cloth trade and Bilbo thought he would find out a few things.

‘Dudo, I was talking to my cousin Ferdinand Took, Gis’ son, earlier today and he said that there was an increase in cloth trade going south out of the Shire, not just east or west. Have you seen this?’ Falco and Odo exchanged a look and paid attention.

Dudo shrugged. ‘I’ve heard some rumor of it, but Otho said it’s not that much, just a bit to fill up the last corners of a wagon that’s hauling leaf or hams. I wouldn’t ship cloth with either of those, unless you want to smell like that.’

‘Really? Andy seemed pretty certain that there was a fair amount being asked for, but perhaps he was simply confusing taking a bit more than usual with actual demand for a good amount of it.’

‘Well, I wouldn’t mind there being some increase in cloth trade,’ Falco said, ‘as that would probably mean an increase in wool trade. Otho’s more interested in leaf, and for good reason, being a farmer, so perhaps he doesn’t know what is happening with cloth. Dudo, why don’t you and I go talk to Andy directly and see what his measure of it is? At worst, we’ll have a beer with a good fellow; at best, we may find a new market for Walt’s woolens. Maybe we should get Walt in on this, too?’

‘Certainly, I’m always happy to talk, though I think Otho’s well informed on what is going into southbound wagons. There’s really not that much of anything that goes out, according to him.’ Falco and Odo exchanged another look.

‘I find that he generally does know,’ agreed Bilbo, ‘which is why I wondered at Andy’s claim.’

‘Otho’s rather put out that you won’t meet with him, Bilbo,’ Dudo said.

I know he is. Bilbo feigned confusion. ‘But I’m meeting him after supper tonight. He sent me a note this afternoon and I sent him one back. When did he say this?’

‘This morning at breakfast.’

Bilbo did not have to feign his sigh of aggravation. Which meant you probably heard from Pal about Rum being over here last night. That was not something Dudo needed to know. ‘I got a letter from him after supper yesterday saying only that he wished to speak before tomorrow night. I was going to talk to him after the horse show, since he was sitting right across the way with Pal, but he disappeared before I could find him. If it was so important to talk to me, he could have walked over! In any event, it doesn’t matter since we’ll be meeting shortly.’ Frodo was giving him a look that said the lad was not happy at the news he would be meeting Otho. Time to change the subject. ‘Dudo,’ Bilbo said, ‘you said you wanted to meet Dilly, yes?’

‘Yes, I do.’

‘Let me see if she is here.’ Bilbo left the parlor and went to Dilly and Mac’s room, tapping lightly on the door. She was there, though Mac was not, and she happily agreed to meet Dudo and Tulip. It took but a few minutes and she was in pleasant conversation with them. Bilbo left again to fetch Wili, Prisca and Rory and soon they were all headed back to the Fair for the evening. Frodo chatted happily with everyone except Bilbo on the walk over.

Once there, they went over to the main square where dancing was already underway. As soon as the crowd separated them from the rest of the relatives, Frodo took Bilbo’s arm and made him stop. They stared at each other for a few heartbeats before Frodo sighed and shook his head. ‘Never mind. You won’t answer anyway.’

‘What do you want to know?’

‘Everything, but I’d settle for just knowing where you’re going to be and for how long.’

‘Near the goat shed and I hope it will be brief as I promised Prisca I’d give her a dance. I doubt we’ll have much to say.’

‘Why do you need to talk to him? I thought you were decided on what you plan to do.’

‘I am decided, but I have no idea what he is up to. The real test will be tomorrow at Wilcar’s Midyear’s party. Which you are invited to, I believe.’

Frodo gave him a look that said the lad was not satisfied with the answers. ‘I’m going to go find Gin and Amy.’

‘Prisca would probably like a dance from you, too.’ Bilbo watched Frodo disappear into the crowd, then left for the goat shed. He did not have to wait too long before Otho appeared.

‘Bilbo, good evening.’


‘So, what’s the truth?’

‘I doubt there is any left. I’ve heard so many stories from so many people in the last two days that I have no idea what is going on or who is doing what.’

‘True. Let me put it differently. What do you intend to do?’

‘Stay as far out of this as I can.’

‘Rum is lying? You’re not going to claim Eastfarthing?’

What did Rum say to Pal? Bilbo could not be sure why Pal said what he did to Otho, or even if he did say it. It doesn’t matter. Let them deceive each other all they want. ‘I have told you and everyone else that I have no interest in claiming any part of Eastfarthing. I have said this since Rethe, and I am telling you that my mind has not changed. If you have an interest in Eastfarthing, I will neither support nor oppose you in your efforts.’ He put his hand in his pocket and rolled his ring between his fingers, letting the motion and the familiar feel of the gold calm him. I have already arranged to thwart all of your plans, you unscrupulous bastard. This was a pleasing thought.

‘Then what did you say to Rum?’

‘I don’t believe that’s any of your business.’

Otho gave him a look of disgust. ‘Come to think of it, I don’t want to know what goes on between you two. Or three.’

Bilbo pushed back his anger at Otho’s obscene jibe. ‘You’re feeling rather confident about your claims, aren’t you?’

‘I’d say that I am confident in the weakness of yours.’

‘I make no claims.’ I have what I want already.

‘Well, you’d best start making the right ones.’

You need something from me. Let’s make you roll over. ‘And what would the right ones be?’

‘First, you’d best be prepared to fight for Eastfarthing at the Moot.’


‘Because it is the best thing for the Shire and you know it. Odogar can’t be left in charge. He’s quite mad. You may be mad, like Odo said, but you’re also clever. You’ve spread enough gold around the farthing that people will follow you, if only in hopes of getting more.’

‘Very well, that is one claim you think I should make. What is another?’

‘You make a gift to Dudo of his nephew. Your birthday is coming up, isn’t it?’

Bilbo made his voice bored, though he wanted to slap Otho as he had Rory. ‘Leaving you as my heir to inherit the farthing.’

‘And Bag End.’

Bilbo studied Otho carefully. Not Dragon Fever. He would recognize that. You have no excuse. You’re not afflicted with anything except a bad case of greed. ‘And why should I do any of this?’

‘Because we are sick of you and your perversity.’

‘I don’t see how that is my problem and it certainly does not give me a reason to do you any favors.’

‘I will not allow you to deny me an opportunity to make my own fortune as you made yours. I know you haven’t much left, given how you’ve spent it. Running Eastfarthing, even a part of it, will secure mine.’

‘I’m not denying you anything, Otho. I’ve already told you that you can go claim that farthing as you please.’

‘But it is easier for you to do it. It would go to you without a second thought.’

‘But I don’t want it and you do. As I said when we met at Bag End, you need to work at making yourself as acceptable to them as you seem to think I am. That is your problem to solve, not mine.’

‘No. Your problem will be to explain why you are sharing your whore with the Thain.’

For a moment, Bilbo thought his ring burned as hot as his own temper, and his hands formed fists. ‘You really are quite tedious, Otho.’ He was surprised at how even he could keep his voice.

‘No, you are quite arrogant, thinking you can foist your whore on the clan as your heir. None of us believe it.’

‘Who is this “us” that you speak of?’ This claim truly mystified Bilbo. Unless he himself was sorely deceived, the other Bagginses thought Frodo to be his son.

‘Everyone except Dudo. He’s rather charming in his ignorance.’

No, they don’t think this. Pal thinks this. Hargo thinks this. Some misinformed Brandybucks think this. And you are missing the obvious, blinded by your own greed. For a moment, Bilbo was going to walk off from his mendacious cousin and back to the sensible members of the family. You warned him never to say such things, and he does so to your face. He thinks your silence is weakness. He needs to be taught a lesson.

Bilbo stepped close to Otho and spoke is a very quiet voice, getting the other to lean forward to catch the words. ‘No, Otho, they do not. Only you and your own conspirators think this. I shan’t be threatened into doing what I know is wrong for the Shire. You greatly overestimate the strength of your claims. As I said, you may do whatever you like to try to win Eastfarthing, and I will not interfere. However,…’

Bilbo let go his ring and pounded his fists hard into Otho’s chest just as Rum had done to him the night before, followed by a sharp elbow into his ribs, a punch to his gut and knee in his crotch. Bilbo crouched down next to his gasping, retching cousin. He wanted to keep beating Otho, pummel him until bones broke and blood flowed. In measure, Baggins. He needs to take a message back to the rest of his avaricious friends. Otho tried to scuttle away so Bilbo grabbed him by the hair and twisted his head up. He enjoyed seeing fear in Otho’s face.

‘However,’ he continued in a soft voice, ‘if you do or say a single thing against Frodo, you will find yourself unable to enjoy even the small fortune that you now possess. I’ve told you before that I will defend him. I tell you now that any humiliation, any suffering, any harm you think to inflict upon Frodo I will visit upon you and yours, and in greater measure.’

Bilbo stood. ‘I trust I will not hear of this again?’ Otho did not respond. ‘Do give my best to Lobelia. Don’t give me a reason to give her my worst.’


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