POV - Bilbo & Frodo
In which deals are double, trouble is stirred, forgiveness is granted, the east is evaluated, farthings are offered, a chastisement is delivered, and assignation is set, and Frodo starts to tell a new story.
29 Forelithe, 1390
I hope this letter finds you and your nephew well. I know you are at the Free Fair and may not get this until after you return.
Mister Odogar is clear he will only accept gold, lumber or finished hides for his stone. He will not take just lumber or hides. All payment must come with some bit of gold. This started in Afteryule this year. I don’t know what happens to that gold. It is not spent anywhere in Scary, or even in Whitfurrows or Frogmorton in any great amount. I know some has gone to purchase hides from Girdley Island and a bit more for lumber from Greenbough of Whitfurrows.
I won’t be able to trade stone after Forelithe. It will have to be bought with gold.
30 Forelithe, 1290
Dear Mister Frodo,
Thank you for your letter.
Ma says to tell Mister Bilbo that the smial is ready for guests after the fair if they come back with you.
I have an Uncle Andy, too! He makes ropes. The Fair sounds like fun with dwarves and all that. I wish I could go to it. Has anyone ever climbed down the Drop? It would take a long rope to go down a cliff. I wrote you a poem.
My Uncle Andy
Is very handy.
A roper by trade.
His ropes are well made.
With a big hop
You can go down the Drop.
Use Andy’s line
And you’ll be just fine.
I weed the garden every day. The squashes are big now. May says you should cook some of them for us for lunch when you get back. We miss you.
Midyear Day, 1390
I hate Bargo more than ever and I hope Papa sends him away forever. It’s not fair that I get punished for his bad manners. Mama’s crying now. Papa says he tried to beat up your cousin, Gin Took, who didn’t do anything wrong, and that you and Odogrim stopped him. I won’t get to see you or Gin or Darron tonight. Papa says you may write to me but you have to send your letter to him and he will say if I may have it. Please don’t make Papa mad!
Midyear Day, 1390
You’re a wretch for not coming to visit a lonely old woman. No matter, I can find a host of lusty lads out here in the wagons. Your worst cousin came by for a visit. He’s near as pretty as his ponies. Another kiss from him and I’ll forget about you.
I’ve seen you about the Fair, but you’re always talking to someone who thinks they are important. Ha! I’ll talk to you at the Moot, as will everyone from Eastfarthing. I’ve heard a bad rumor that your sackless cousin thinks to be the Bolger. People are scared, thief. We need some disreputable cousins in charge.
Don’t think to escape without a dance. You promised me one.
Michel Delving, Evening, Midyear's Day, 1390
Frodo knew Bilbo’s wish to stay away from Wilcar’s party was probably wise, but he did not want to sit here in this room for the rest of the day with nothing but his own thoughts and Bilbo’s anger. Neither was anything he wished to spend time with. Before the old hobbit could change his mind, Frodo retrieved his letters and hopped off the bed to put them away in their trunk. He heard Bilbo sigh again, followed by sounds of the writing desk being set to right.
Tonight, tomorrow, and then we go home. Sam’s letter was just what he needed to read. The youngster was getting very clever with rhymes and had delighted in making short ones whenever they worked in the garden, talking about the plants, the earth, birds, sunlight, rainfall, their own dirty hands and feet, whatever caught the little Gamgee’s fancy in that moment. This one about the Drop and ropes was longer than any Frodo had heard from Sam before. When they got home, Frodo, decided, he would spend the first day doing nothing but listen to Sam’s rhymes in the garden. Unless May wants us to bake a pie. That thought made him smile.
He pulled off his shirt, went to the washstand and quickly removed the bit of grime that he had acquired on the picnic. That had been fun. He had gotten to know Gin’s other siblings, Fire, Dottie and Evie, better. Evie reminded him very much of Merry with his cheerfulness and ability to become filthy without any effort. Fire was not as bold as Amy or Pearl, but she was smart and was very good at the riddle game they played during lunch. Blossom called her the “family scholar” and they were all very proud of Fire’s learning. Dottie loved her sewing just like Merle did, but was not the slightest bit shy at joining in on any rambunctious game and had actually climbed the highest in the tree on a challenge from Gin before Addy had seen them and shouted at them to come back down.
Washing done, Frodo went over to where Bilbo had hung some of their shirts on pegs, and selected the nicest one, Dilly’s Yule gift shirt. He thought it would please her to see him wear it.
‘Not that shirt, Wilwarin.’
‘Why not?’ Frodo knew he sounded irritable and did not care.
‘That and the rest of your fine clothes are for the Moot tomorrow.’ Bilbo’s response was just as testy.
Frodo turned to look at his old cousin, who was regarding him with the look that said he thought Frodo was doing something beyond stupid. He had not been on the receiving end of that look in a long time, and Frodo found he really did not care for it. ‘What if I want to look my best tonight?’ He crossed his arms and matched Bilbo’s stare. ‘The last time we fought about my clothes, if I recall, you wanted me to look my best. Don’t you want me looking a fine young gentlehobbit, especially considering who will be there?’
Bilbo’s expression remained stern, but the mocking quality left it. ‘Your best is for the Moot, as is mine. That will be your first public presentation as my heir, and you must be impeccable. Tonight, the less attention you get, the better.’ He smiled slightly. ‘I think you have mastered the skill of being a fine young gentlehobbit, regardless of your clothes. Dress as you wish.’ Bilbo went back to washing up.
Frodo returned Dilly’s shirt to its peg and put on the one he had just been wearing. He’d only worn it since he got back, so it was still fresh. Clean trousers in place of the grubby pair he had worn through the day and a plain but good fitting waistcoat finished his attire. He did take time to make sure his feet were neatly brushed. He tried not to sigh or be impatient when Bilbo fussed with the drape of his sleeves and felt his braces to make sure they were lying flat. The old hobbit finished his own dressing and looked similarly neat and slightly subdued. They were soon slowly walking through Michel Delving along roads Frodo had not traveled, heading north and slightly east, towards the nicer end of the town.
Bilbo seemed lost in thought, which might not be good given the wretched events of the day. Frodo cast about for something to distract him. ‘Bilbo, how is the Moot run? You said I am to be presented. How is that done?’
‘You could say, Frodo, the Moot has already begun. When clan heads, township heads, and village headmen get to Michel Delving, they send their records to the Mayor’s Office at the Town Hole. I sent mine for the Baggins clan and for Hobbiton, Bywater and Overhill.’
‘Really?’ Frodo was surprised. ‘You’ve never talked to me about those.’
‘We talk about them all the time, Frodo, or, rather, we talk about what is in them. Births, deaths, marriages, harvest amounts, major repairs, like to the Bywater Dam, and other things of note. Most of what’s in the ledgers cover this. I’ve been writing them up while you’ve been busy with other things and I have a minute’s peace.’ Bilbo gave him a teasing grin and a wink.
‘I would have been glad to help if you asked!’
‘I know, Wilwarin. This was simply writing up some lists, not at all interesting, and you had more important things to attend to, like keeping your Aunt Sage from beating me with a spoon for not letting you come eat at her table more often.’ Bilbo was smiling fondly at him, which was much better than the anger earlier this evening, so Frodo took his hand and smiled back. ‘In truth, lad, you’d already done the work when you prepared the ledgers. Mostly I copied that. When we got here, I just sent the papers off to the Mayor with a Messenger. I also took a copy of the township records to Wilcar when I paid a call on him the first night since they are part of his farthing.’
‘And what do they do with it?’
‘Knowing Pasco, not much,’ was Bilbo’s dry answer. ‘What the Mayor is supposed to do with it is get a sense of how the Shire fares and see if there are problems to be fixed. I remember Father bringing home a veritable mountain of reports after each Fair and us going through them and making sense of it. Father did this for eleven years. I know Wilcar uses his reports to see what needs his attention in Westfarthing.’ Bilbo snorted. ‘Given what Wilcar said at the meeting, I doubt Rum or Pal bother to inform him about the Tooklands, as they are supposed to. I doubt they inform Pasco, either.’
You already know how to be Mayor. If Bilbo agreed to be Mayor, the Shire would be well cared for. You wouldn’t be like Pasco; you would do a great deal with those records and everything else you learned. Frodo felt petty for wanting to keep Bilbo for himself, just the two of them being content at Bag End minding their own business and no one else’s.
‘But the Moot itself,’ Bilbo went on, ‘that is where decisions are made and pressing matters addressed. For example, I expect that Rufus will talk about the increased number of Big People wandering through Northfarthing and will ask for the Watch to be increased and more Bounders assigned up there. As you had recommended, I might add.’
‘Is that when you expect Odogar to present his plan?’
‘If he is going to do it, that’s when it will happen, yes. Anyone can speak up, if they like. It is simply all free folk who are of age who wish to speak.’
Frodo gave Bilbo a quizzical look. ‘But I’m not of age. Why will I be at the Moot?’
‘Because you are my heir. Clan heads may allow an under-age heir to attend so that he may learn, but he may not address the Moot or vote on a decision. He may only observe.’
‘What does it mean that I’m presented?’
‘Just that you will be standing next to me and that I will say who you are, if asked.’ Bilbo gave Frodo a keen look. ‘The point is that it will be you, not anyone else, who will be called my heir, and this will make clear to the rest of the Shire, and not just our misbegotten family, what my decision is. There are a number who do not yet know, or else have been misled about the truth. And there are some who hope to… persuade me to make another choice. Those who hope to change things will lose much of their argument when you are seen with me and in the company of other Baggins men.’
‘Does that include Otho?’
‘He will do as I tell him.’
Stupid, Rat. He knew better than to bring up Otho. Bilbo’s grasp on his hand no longer felt reassuring. ‘Good. One less thing to worry about,’ Frodo said firmly. ‘So, what gets decided?’
‘A number of things. The Watch, shirriffs and bounders, changes to the Messenger Service, repairs to roads and waterways that affect many and will take extra effort to perform, and the taxes to pay for all of it.’ To Frodo’s relief, Bilbo let go his hand and clasped his own behind his back, thinking. ‘The meeting yesterday, Frodo, was also part of the Moot. The Thain has been informed of the Parting and we came to an agreement that has not been struck since the Fell Winter. No farthing will be split, nor any headman deposed, nor will the Mayorship change hands before the next election two years hence. We who were there have pledged to set aside our contests and disagreements and work together to keep the Parting at bay, as far as we are able. Tonight, this party, is our first task. We sound out Odogar and Pal and we see if we can persuade them not to go forward with their foolish plan. I don’t think their plan can succeed, mostly because it will work only if I agree to head the new farthing, and I will not, but we are going to see if we can prevent it even being discussed. It would be best that the Moot be conducted with no sign of division.’ Bilbo gave Frodo a look. ‘Which is another reason I would like for you not to attract any attention at the party. Through no fault of your own, Wilwarin, you are a point of division in a number of ways to different people.’
Frodo stopped. You could ruin everything. Be a Baggins, not a rat. ‘I can go back, Bilbo. If being there is going to cause you trouble, I needn’t go.’
Bilbo thought for a long minute, then shook his head and motioned for them to keep walking. ‘You are not the one doing wrong and I won’t deny you the company of your friends because others are obnoxious. Unfortunately, I cannot avoid this party if only because I have already promised my friends that I will be there to help them deal with fools, else I’d suggest that we collect Gin, Darron and Amy and go dancing at the Fair. If you youngsters would prefer that, I’m sure Addy would be happy to take you.’
Frodo stretched a little and winced. ‘If I weren’t so sore, I’d do that instead. Gin’s going to be worse.’
‘Ah, well, probably best that you find some quiet corner where you can visit and rest. I know you must be ravenous by now.’ Frodo allowed as to how he could stand a meal or two or three, making Bilbo laugh.
Their walk had led them to a low spur of the eastern hills that jutted out toward the high plain. The main road going north passed just to the west of it and that’s where the North Inn where Gin and his family were staying was located. On the far side of the spur was the White Chalk Inn where Uncle Dudo and Aunt Tulip had a room. At the end of the lane they were now on, Frodo saw trees and many growing things. Soon, they came to an open gate in a low stone wall, the lane turning west to follow the wall.
Beyond the wall was a large, beautiful garden ringed by ancient trees, the greatest of them standing in the center surrounded by lawn, and well-tended gravel paths wound among the plantings and trees. The western trees caught the light of the declining sun and cast long shadows over the lawn and flowers. Through the trees, Frodo saw a steep hillside punctuated by many round windows on several uneven levels. Lanterns hung from tree branches, waiting to be lit. Tables, some empty and ready for sitting, others laden with food and drink, stood under the eastern line of trees. In the middle, under the spreading oak, many hobbits gathered.
Darron had obviously been watching for them and sprinted across the garden to greet them, giving them each a welcoming hug. ‘Frodo! Uncle Bilbo! Welcome to Fat Bank!’ He led them to the larger group. Wilcar and Ada waved them over and greeted them warmly. Most of the hobbits there were Chubbs of varying degrees of relation, almost all residents of Fat Bank. Frodo was happy to see his Chubb-Baggins kin already there, though Odogrim was not with them. Right, Odogar is supposed to be here. Frodo felt sorry for his cousin. He made a promise to himself to go to Nobottle this summer and visit Falco, Nora and Odogrim. He doubted Bilbo would mind the tramp.
Frodo’s stomach rumbled and he gazed longingly at the supper on the tables, and wondered how long it would be until it was served. Darron evidently heard the sound and grinned. ‘I know! Within the hour, when most guests are here, then we’ll start. But we can go visit the kitchen before.’ Frodo looked over at Bilbo, who winked and motioned with his head for the two boys to go. Darron grabbed Frodo’s hand and darted down one of the side paths into the eastern trees. ‘Short cut!’ It took only a few minutes to get to the kitchen yard where things were roasting on spits and kitchen girls were busy with their last mixing, chopping and putting things into dishes. A woman with a wide wooden paddle was pulling fresh baked bread from a large oven. She saw the tweens and laughed, shaking her head, before picking up a small loaf from an earlier baking and tossing it to Darron. He thanked her and went to the kitchen door, standing aside to let others come out, then scooted in, Frodo on his heels. The fat kitchen matron shooed them into a corner and brought over a bit of butter, cheese and beer.
‘If I don’t feed you boys, you’ll start picking at the real food,’ she scolded as she grinned at them, wiping her hands on her apron. ‘Finish that, get out of my kitchen, and no pinching the girls on the way!’ She gave them each a kiss on the forehead (and a light slap on the cheek) before bustling off, calling for someone. Frodo and Darron lost no time wolfing down the provisions and heading back to the party.
‘You sure Gin’s going to come?’ Darron asked Frodo as they walked.
‘He said he was. Unless his folks decided not to come, he should be here.’
‘He just looked pretty beat up at the picnic,’ Darron said. ‘I thought he might hurt too much. You didn’t get hurt, though.’
‘A little bit, not enough to bother me,’ Frodo lied. He knew he was going to hurt abominably tomorrow.
By the time they returned to the party, more people had arrived, including Rory, Mac and Dilly, Wili and Prisca, Odo and Sage, and Dudo and Tulip. To his dismay, Otho and Lobelia were also there, talking to Dudo and Tulip and ignoring Bilbo. Frodo went over to Bilbo who smiled, then gave him a warning look and motioned very slightly in their direction. Frodo nodded to show he had seen them and knew to keep his distance. Before he could say anything to Bilbo, Pasco Goodbody walked up with a fat, pleasant looking woman on his arm.
‘Bilbo! Finally, we get to say hello!’ the Mayor cheerfully greeted the old hobbit. ‘I’ve been seeing you about the Fair the last two days but have never been able to keep up with you.’
‘Pasco, wonderful to see you,’ Bilbo said with his most genial smile, ‘and Amelia,’ he leaned over and kissed the woman’s cheek, ‘it has been far too long since I have had the pleasure of talking to you. May I introduce my nephew, Frodo? Frodo, this is Amelia, our cousin Pasco’s wife.’
‘Very pleased to meet you, Missus Goodbody,’ Frodo said pleasantly.
‘So, you’re the young fellow Ada can’t stop talking about,’ she said, leaning forward to give him a kiss on the cheek. ‘Darron’s mother told me she’s going to steal you from Bilbo.’ Darron grinned and nodded his head.
‘She’s just going to have to line up behind the rest of us,’ Sage good naturedly interjected, giving Frodo another kiss and ruffling his hair. Frodo managed not to duck, though he did flinch a little. ‘He is the nicest boy in all of Hobbiton and all the girls are sweet on him.’ Frodo felt his face get red. ‘Ada can have her turn after Nora, Tulip, Blossom and I are done with him! We figure we can each keep him one month and then give him to the next one.’
‘Well, just add me to the list, then!’ Amelia teased. She gave Frodo’s shoulder a squeeze and he had to grit his teeth not to grimace as she pressed sharply on a large bruise. ‘Oh my, and the sooner the better! The poor lad’s wasting away.’
Frodo could tell from the tension around Bilbo’s eyes that he disliked this conversation, though his uncle’s smile never wavered. ‘Pasco,’ Bilbo said, ‘I had forgotten how delightful it is out here in Michel Delving.’
The look of cheer on the Mayor’s face slipped just a bit. ‘Ah, well, yes, yes it has its appeal.’
‘I had forgotten the magnificent vista off the Drop,’ Bilbo continued, at his most charming, ‘and the equally astounding sight looking back from the bottom. I think I might wish to spend more time in this part of the Shire.’
‘But Hobbiton is so nice,’ Pasco protested. Frodo kept his expression friendly, though he wanted to laugh. Bilbo, you are being a rat! He knew Pasco was worrying about Bilbo wanting to be Mayor.
‘Yes, I do love it, but I’ve been there so long,’ Bilbo sighed, ‘and it’s a bit dull. No new people, no new doings, no new… responsibilities. I keep thinking that I need a change of scenery.’ He gave Pasco a sly look. ‘Others have been urging me to consider Michel Delving. All the dwarf trade, you know.’
‘Well, trade follows the Road, and the Road goes right by Hobbiton, so you should see plenty of dwarves there,’ babbled the other, starting to look worried.
‘True,’ Bilbo thoughtfully agreed. ‘Rory and Wili have been urging me to reconsider my… opposition… to doing business further east. Rufus and Wilcar, too. And Otho. Him most of all! Even Pal seems to approve of that possibility.’
‘And the Thain?’ Pasco pressed.
Bilbo gave him an amused look. ‘Cousin Rum thinks I should be Mayor.’ Pasco gaped, as did Amelia. ‘He has the oddest ideas. And there he is.’ Bilbo waved, leaning over to Pasco as he did. ‘Don’t say anything to encourage him.’
Frodo looked across the lawn and saw Rum walking with Addy, Gin and Amy. He and Darron waved and a moment later Gin and Amy had raced ahead to see them. Gin looked terrible, with one eye blackened, smaller bruises along his jaw, and his lower lip swollen from the split. Washing his face actually made him look more hurt since it had cleaned away the grime that had camouflaged the injuries. Even so, his younger cousin was grinning and seemed in gay spirits. He had changed his trousers but was still wearing the shirt Rum had loaned him that morning, which was comically large on him, not that Gin seemed to care. Frodo gave his cousins a hug and kiss hello.
‘That was fun today, going down the Drop,’ Gin started chattering, ‘but Mama didn’t want to come to the party and leave the babies alone, so it’s just us, and Uncle Rum said he’d help Papa, so he’s here, too, but he was already invited, and Pearl’s mad that we didn’t bring her, but Odogrim stayed and he is going to help Mama take the others to the Fair tonight, maybe we should go there too, there’s going to be dancing, is supper ready?’ The last comment was probably the only thought that could have stopped Gin’s babble. He looked at the food tables much as he had gazed at Bluebell the previous evening. Amy wore a similar look as she eyed the meal-to-be.
‘Soon,’ Darron assured his cousins.
Addy and Rum strolled up and exchanged greetings with the adults, the Mayor still looking alarmed over Bilbo’s confidence about Rum’s wishes. Of course, they all want Bilbo to be Mayor. Except for Otho. Frodo wondered at Bilbo’s hints that he might be reconsidering taking over Eastfarthing. Pasco was in favor and ready to throw his weight behind it in Thrimidge. It made no sense to him why Bilbo was saying this now. To make Pasco protective of his prerogatives and oppose any suggestion at the Moot that Bilbo be made Mayor. All the double-dealing was making Frodo confused and cross.
‘Good evening, Frodo.’ Rum was looking at him closely, eyes slightly narrowed as he studied how Frodo was holding himself. Bilbo was watching both of them.
‘Good evening, Rum,’ Frodo said politely in return, trying to be neutral in his response. Whatever Rum was looking for, it pleased him, and Frodo saw some sternness leave the Thain’s expression. The man smiled and nodded to acknowledge Frodo’s greeting and turned away. Bilbo caught Frodo’s eye and made a motion with his head that indicated it would be a good time for he and the other youngsters to depart. Just as he did so, a small bell was rung, announcing that supper was served.
‘Finally!’ said the four youngsters at exactly the same moment, making all the adults near them laugh.
‘Go on, you little monsters!’ Addy said, grinning. ‘Leave a bit behind for the rest of us!’ That was all the encouragement they needed. They were quickly in line, grabbing plates and serving themselves from the platters of food that adorned the tables. Darron told them to follow him once they had filled their plates and led them to a small table with benches a bit away from the rest. There was no tablecloth or lanterns on it, but none of the youngsters cared about a cloth and Frodo solved the lantern problem by climbing up a tree and snagging one off a branch while Darron and Gin got some beer for them all. They were soon eating, not wasting breath on needless things like talking. It took two more trips to the food tables before the four were sufficiently sated and could engage in conversation.
‘Do you really want to go to the Fair and dance tonight?’ Frodo asked Gin, who shook his head.
‘I do,’ said Amy. Darron looked hopeful, but Gin shook his head again.
‘Papa says we have to stay with him and not go wandering about, remember?’ he sternly told Amy, who made a face.
‘We can do a little dancing here,’ Darron said. ‘There will some music after supper. It won’t be as much fun as at the Fair, but…’ Amy looked happier, but Gin still shook his head.
‘I’m too sore.’
‘So?’ Amy said with no sign of sympathy for her brother. ‘You can just stand there. I’ll dance with Darron and Frodo.’
‘Not with me! I was in that fight, too,’ Frodo said. Darron brightened at the prospect of having Amy to himself.
‘How are you?’ Gin asked, worried.
Frodo grinned. ‘Hurting a lot less than any of them!’ That got a grin in return. ‘I’m a bit sore and Uncle Bilbo said I should visit with you lot and rest tonight.’
Darron frowned. ‘What about tomorrow? All the grownups are going to be at the Moot and those three will be about.’ That brought a little fear to Gin’s face.
Frodo shook his head. “They’re not going to be a problem. I spoke with Uncle Bilbo about that after I got back from the Drop.’ He stopped and thought carefully about what parts of the story to tell. Darron and Amy did not know about Gin being forced, just that he had been getting hit when Frodo and Tom showed up. ‘He and Uncle Rory went and talked with Uncle Rufus right after we all left for the Drop. They told him that Bargo was the ringleader and that he had written a letter to Gin pretending to be Bluebell to lure him where they could beat him up.’ Frodo gave Gin and Darron an exasperated look. ‘Next time, when I tell you that some cousin of mine is bad news, will you listen to me? I told you Bargo would pound you for flirting with his sister!’
‘And she’s not pretty or nice,’ added Amy, smirking.
‘Anyway,’ Frodo continued, not wanting the siblings to get into name calling, ‘this isn’t the first time Bargo, or Hamson, for that matter, has ganged up on some younger kid and tried to beat him up for no good reason. Odogrim knows all of Bargo’s tricks because they were together in Buckland. That’s why he’s always hanging around when Bargo is nearby, to keep him in line. Uncle Rory and Uncle Bilbo told Uncle Rufus all about what happened,’ Gin looked at him sharply, ‘and he agreed it was Bargo’s fault. He’d already heard about the other bullying. Uncle Bilbo said that we had beaten those three up so bad, they won’t be walking around tomorrow,’ this made Gin grin, ‘but that we should stick together and with Odogrim just to be sure. Uncle Bilbo told me, because their parents are going to be here at the party, that I should stay out sight and mind my manners.’
That got vigorous nods from the other three. ‘Good idea,’ said Amy. She thought for a minute. ‘Are the girls going to be here? Bluebell and Harriet?’
‘I know Bluebell won’t be. Not sure about Harriet,’ Frodo told her. ‘If she was, I think we would have seen her by now.’ This thought pleased the other three. The day’s shadows were very long, edging into the soft twilight of midsummer, and it was good to do nothing but sit and pick at some tasty food and talk about unimportant things. Darron told them about the solution his parents had come up with to apologize to Dilly about how mean the losers of the sewing competition had been to her. He also had gossip about the woman who had caused the fuss, which Amy listened to with glee. Frodo was glad that he was going to wear Dilly’s shirt tomorrow where everyone would be able to see it. He glanced at Gin in the Thain’s shirt. That had been the other strange thing of the day, seeing Rum so many ways.
Frodo looked at the other tables until he found where Rum was sitting. What he saw made him smirk. Let me see, who have we here? Bilbo, Rum, Pal, Uncle Rory, Uncle Rufus, Wilcar and Ada, Pasco and Amelia. All they need is… Wilcar leaned back in his chair and Frodo saw Odogar sitting between him and Uncle Rufus. Mayor, Master, Thain and all the farthing heads at one table. Plus Bilbo. His eyes kept coming back to Rum.
The first sight of the Thain that day was probably what most people thought of when they thought of Rum, seducing another man and tempting him into greater depravities. Frodo wondered if Odogar had any idea what his heir was doing with Rum. Then there was the amusing storyteller, tattling on everyone as he spun his yarn about a long-ago romance, his own and Bilbo’s as much as Drogo and Primula’s. Most of the day he had spent with a very different person than either of those people, or any of the faces the Thain had shown him over the last few days. Rum had abandoned a near-certain win in the horse show to take children on a picnic. He was like Bilbo, a caring big brother. Rum had simply brought him and the other two fresh shirts to replace their fight-torn clothes, had packed whatever extra food had been at his house to go along with the basket Bilbo had sent, had been calm, cheerful and reassuring to all of them, but especially to Gin. For someone with a reputation for seducing and corrupting young men, there was nothing in Rum’s actions or demeanor that indicated he was anything but a good and reliable kinsman. Frodo glanced again at Gin, who was trying to explain something to Darron, arms waving, oversized shirt askew, then back to Rum. Yes, you difficult cousin, I forgive you.
Bilbo watched the four youngsters hurry off to get some supper, and felt he could finally breathe. He trusted Frodo to be on his best behavior, but he had no such faith in any number of the adults at the gathering. He also wearied of hearing his own care of the lad be set at naught by the women. As if I am not a better cook than most of you. I know what my lad wants to eat! The way they talked about taking Frodo away from him left his chest feeling tight and a small voice in his head urged him to take the lad and leave before they could steal him. I’m the burglar and that treasure is mine. Bilbo had only a moment in which to savor his relief before he heard a familiar voice behind him.
‘Good evening, Cousin.’
The dragon emerges from his lair. What destruction do you think to perform? Bilbo schooled his face to its most blandly pleasant before turning. ‘Odogar, good evening to you.’ Flanking Odogar were Car and Andy, Odogar’s daughter Ododrida on her husband’s arm. Bilbo extended his greetings to the children and stood, all amiable patience, waiting for Odogar to speak. There was no sign of the absent mindedness that had marked the man in Granite Bank. His eyes were bright and his bearing alert.
‘Where are you staying, Bilbo? You’re not at either of the northern inns.’
‘I’m down at The Sheepfold, closer to the Fair. Falco had recommended it.’ Falco had recommended that the two of them buy half-interest in the place almost two decades ago and it had been a very good purchase. ‘There’s quite a number of us down there. One hallway is nothing but Baggins and Brandybuck.’
The mention of the Brandybucks brought a scowl to Odogar’s face, but it left quickly. ‘It would be more convenient to be closer to the fairgrounds.’ Odogar looked about. ‘And where is your... nephew? Did you bring him?’
What did you wish to say instead of "nephew"? Something obscene, no doubt. Bilbo waved a hand in the general direction of the food. ‘He’s around here with some of his friends.’
‘I heard he’d gotten into a fight with his cousins this morning. Taught them a lesson about picking their opponents more carefully, too.’ Odogar looked honestly amused by this.
With a chuckle, Bilbo said, ‘Frodo doesn’t pick fights, but he doesn’t lose them, either. Takes after his father that way.’ I don’t lose to my cousins, either.
Whatever Odogar was going to say in reply was lost when Rum threw an arm around Bilbo’s shoulders and gave him his most dazzling smile. ‘Cousin Grumpy! You’re not getting away from me that easily.’
Not now, Rum. Bilbo did not know what this troublesome Took was up to, but he was certain he wanted no part of it. He gave Rum a dour look. ‘Oh, lucky me.’
‘Well, you could be if only you would not be so sour all the time.’ Rum smirked and raised an eyebrow. With a sigh, Bilbo stepped out from under Rum’s arm. Rum was not dissuaded in the slightest and ran a hand down Bilbo’s arm. Pal was standing nearby, looking at the two of them with undisguised disgust. ‘You are getting quite unfriendly in your old age, Bilbo.’
‘Don’t let me stop you from finding a more appreciative audience,’ Bilbo replied in his coldest voice. Rory had wandered up by this time and was snickering quietly.
‘Not content with meddling in the Marish, Brandybuck, eh? Now you’ve come to meddle in all Shire business?’ Odogar was smiling when he said this, and his tone was light, but there was no mistaking the hostility in his eyes.
Rory gave Odogar a big smile. ‘Not at all, cousin! I’m not here to meddle in anyone’s business. I came to show you people out here what good ponies and good cloth look like! You can make that your business, or not, as you like.’ This got a general laugh from the people standing about, and even Odogar had to smile and nod, though his look was still sharp. Rory’s smile stayed wide. ‘There’s goods to be had in the east, and are well worth a trip to Buckland.’ Bilbo gave Rory a warning glance. Don’t antagonize Odogar, you idiot! As he glared at Rory, he felt Rum rest a hand in the small of his back. Perhaps I should go find the children and take them to the Fair to dance. He set his heel firmly on the edge of Rum’s foot and ground down, which just made Rum smirk and try to work his fingers under the back of Bilbo’s waistcoat.
‘The cloth in Buckland has always been some of the best to be had,’ Bilbo heard Dudo say. ‘I’d like a good amount of the linen and the lace for my shop.’
‘But there’s not that much demand for it in the Shire.’ Pal had stopped staring at him and Rum and was addressing Dudo. ‘Trading south is where you’ll actually be able to make some coin from it.’
Dudo looked puzzled. Oh, right, Cousin Otho claimed the southern trade wasn't that good. Perhaps you should not listen to him. ‘There are many goodwives in mid-Shire who would be glad for Buckland linen, Pal. Probably a number out here in Westfarthing, too, now that they know what’s to be had.’
‘True,’ Pal acknowledged, ‘but you’ll still do better with the south, and not just cloth. Traders pay more than goodwives. Things come up from the south, too. West is just dwarves and some elves. But Westfarthing and Southfarthing, plus the Big People beyond, there’s room for business.’ He glanced at Rory and Odogar. ‘Waymeet might be a good place for a big market, seeing as how it’s well placed for all of that.’
Odogar and Rory both looked ready to protest, but Wilcar interrupted, smiling widely. ‘Please! Enough trade talk! I insist you be good guests and help yourselves to the wonderful supper Ada has had made for you. I’ve set aside a table for us all – Yes, Pasco, you and Amelia as well! – and we can continue this after we’ve had a bite.’ Wilcar laid a hand on Odogar and Rory’s shoulders, steering them towards the food tables, while Ada collected Pal and Rufus, who Bilbo had not even seen amidst the others. Rum tried to take Bilbo’s arm and received a sharp smack on the shoulder and glare, which amused Rum no end. Pasco and Amelia brought up the rear. As they collected plates and waited their turns, Bilbo caught Wilcar’s eye and raised an eyebrow. Wilcar sidled over. ‘I figured we might as well talk to them now,’ he murmured, ‘and see what they’ll say openly.’ His look was mischievous. ‘No one can be conniving if they’re all in the same place.’ With a wink, he went over to Odogar, who had finished filling his plate, and guided his guest to the reserved table. When his turn came, Bilbo did not resist allowing Ada to seat him at her right hand, Rum sitting opposite. Wilcar was flanked by Odogar and Rory. Rufus was next to Odogar and Pal was next to Rum. Amelia and Pasco sat between Rory and Bilbo. For several minutes, there was no conversation while people ate their supper. Bilbo had no appetite, as usual, but managed a few bites of everything, since it would have been rude to Ada not to sample the feast.
‘You may be right about the trade in the south, Pal,’ Odogar said. Like Bilbo, he had touched little on his plate. ‘The real trade is to the east. We know this from Bilbo. The future of the Shire is what comes down that road.’ No, the future of the Shire is its past, and what lies now beneath our feet. Bilbo kept his expression one of mild interest. Rum was rubbing one of his feet with his own beneath the table. ‘And we hobbits have things to offer…’
‘…like Buckland linen!’ Rory teased.
‘Yes, yes, that! And more, all of the work and industry on display at this fair. We need not to be stuck in the mud, always ploughing the same rows…’
‘Variety is a good thing in ploughing,’ Rum cheerfully agreed, and began tickling Bilbo’s calf with his toes. Bilbo had to take a sip of beer to hide his smirk. I hope you don’t mistake Ada's feet for mine. Only someone who did not know Rum well would think that his attentions were real. Bilbo wondered who Rum’s true target was. Given the audience at the table, he guessed it was either Odogar or Rory, but it could just be an attempt to aggravate Pal.
Odogar threw a dark look down the table at the Thain. ‘What lies along the East Road is what will bring the Shire to greatness.’
‘I have walked the East Road,’ Bilbo said, ‘from Hobbiton to Erebor. I have been under mountains and over them, upon rivers and lakes, in a forest larger than all the Shire.’ When he had their attention, he continued. ‘Most of what lies along the East Road is wilderness, waste and ruins. There are peoples we can trade with, but there are also fearsome creatures who would more gladly serve us as supper than serve it to us. Smaug may be dead, but there are more dragons and things even darker than that, if the wizard is to be believed. So, yes, there’s greatness to be had. And danger.’
‘South, it’s not like that,’ Pal quickly said. Oh, but it is. The wizard will tell you that. ‘The traders who come up the Greenway, they say there are civilized lands and great kingdoms there.’
Rum stopped flirting and became serious. ‘That’s where Uncle Isengar went on his adventures, south. He said it was full of great cities of Big People, and tall ships, and wide farmlands.’ For a moment, Bilbo saw in Rum’s face the little boy who sat on the hearth at Uncle Gar’s feet, listening wide-eyed to all the tall tales his adventurous old kinsman had claimed to have had. ‘South might be best.’
‘This all sounds very interesting,’ Wilcar said, ‘if not entirely safe. I begin to think no place safe, save the Shire. What I don’t understand, Odogar, is why you and Pal think dividing up the farthings is good way to do any of it.’ The two looked startled at being confronted so bluntly on their plans. ‘I mean, what it sounds like is we need better markets, not new borders. Care to explain it to me?’
‘I wouldn’t mind knowing, either,’ Rufus tossed in with a big smile. ‘I’ve been hearing all sorts of things since Yule. Still doesn’t make a lick of sense to me.’ Bilbo smiled and settled into his seat to enjoy the nonsense. He even tickled Rum back.
‘Because Bilbo can be in charge of it. You just heard him. He knows more about what lies outside the Shire than anyone else,’ Odogar said. ‘Whatever comes down the Road, good or bad.’
‘Can’t say I disagree with that,’ Rufus offered, ‘but how is making Bilbo deal with Rory over the Marish going to help with trade on the Road? I’ve seen the way the new map is drawn and Bilbo’s not running the Road and the markets on it, just the Hobbiton area, maybe Waymeet, but mostly farmland to the south, and Bilbo’s no farmer. Change that and it might start making sense.’ Odogar’s look was calculating, but Pal was plainly unhappy. You don’t want me, or Otho, for that matter, actually managing markets. You probably plan to fold Waymeet into your new lands. But Rufus is right that it makes sense for me to be in charge, and not of farmland. Bilbo was finding it harder than usual to disagree with himself. Didn’t you say you would change your ways if there was great agreement that you should?
‘I have to admit I don’t care for any of the maps.’ Wilcar’s good humor had been replaced with a stern look. ‘There’s more than a bit of presumption that the east end of Westfarthing is just sitting about looking for a new master. I can assure you it is not. If I didn’t know better, I’d say this was but an elaborate plan to seize some rather rich lands and increase others’ wealth at Westfarthing’s expense.’ Odogar and Pal did their best to look innocent, while Bilbo grinned and gave Wilcar a nod. That’s why not, Baggins, because these thieves scheme to rob everyone. Orcs are more honest!
‘Well, the Tooklands should be with Southfarthing, no matter how it’s figured,’ Rum airily said, ‘and if that’s going, well, you might as well be done with everything north of that. Give it to Bilbo so he doesn’t go wandering off again.’
‘That’s not an argument that will win me over.’
‘We don’t bother to ask your opinion about the Tooklands, so it’s not as though you’re running it now, Wilcar.’
‘Still not a valid argument, Rum.’
‘Besides, if you really mean to make Bilbo in charge of the Road, Odogar, just have him take over Eastfarthing,’ Rum smiled sweetly at Odogar. ‘That’s where the main towns are now. It’s not like you’re doing all that well with it. I suspect we’ll be getting an earful about that at the Moot tomorrow.’ Bilbo kicked him sharply under the table. What bothered Bilbo most was that Odogar did not look angry at Rum’s words. He remembered how Odogar had kept after him to take command of a farthing, even after he had acknowledged Bilbo’s rejection of the mad scheme.
‘You’re all being fools,’ Bilbo said with more humor than he felt. ‘There is no call for great changes in unsettled times like these. The obvious answer to all of this is what Wilcar said but a few minutes ago; make sure that the major townships have well built, well run markets. That just takes some forethought and a bit of gold, stone and lumber. Michel Delving, Waymeet, Bywater, Oatbarton, Whitfurrows, Stock and Longbottom all need one, and they all need to be run together so they are not stealing trade from each other.’
‘What about the market beyond the bridge?’ Odogar glared across the table at Rory, who smirked back. ‘Isn’t that in competition with the others?’
‘That is outside the Shire proper and is a risk for the Master to take as he wishes, though it would be great folly if it does not stay in accord with the Whitfurrows market.’ Bilbo gave his Brandybuck cousin an unsympathetic look. ‘Buckland needs to trade with the Shire, not be in contest with it, if it expects to flourish.’ That wiped the smirk off Rory’s face. ‘Besides, Odogar, you’re the one with the most gold,' especially as you won't take anything else in trade, ' the most stone and the most lumber in the Shire. You can build up whatever markets you wish. I hear nothing from Wili these days except how well the Whitfurrows market is doing now that Bertie and Fred are there to keep Old Will from his usual shenanigans. Share some of that experience and spread your prosperity to the rest of the Shire.’
Odogar gave him a thoughtful look. ‘So, you say there is no sense to a Centralfarthing, nothing to be gained from it?’
Nothing for anyone except yourself and Pal. ‘I’m hard pressed to come up with a good reason. The best I can come up with is that Westfarthing is so large that it is a lot to try to care for.’ Wilcar shrugged and then nodded. ‘A new farthing would have to come out of Westfarthing most, but, to be fair, would need at least some of each of the others,’ you don’t get to avoid partition, Pal, ‘and what is given must be proportional to the size of each. It cannot be done except with the consent of those who would live in it. Even so, it doesn’t answer what to do with the Road. Those problems are best answered with common sense and not letting our fears and desires divide us.’ Bilbo smiled and sipped his beer. They would unite behind you, Baggins. You know it. You can thwart these thieves.
‘I’m of the opinion that our desires unite us,’ Rum said, ‘as long as everyone gets something of what he wants.’ He gave Bilbo a winning smile, making Bilbo scowl. ‘And though I did not get all I wanted at the Fair,’ the Thain turned and raised his glass to Rory, ‘I congratulate my Buckland cousins for their fine showing this year. I heard the tale of the Rushies at the pull and can honestly say that my lads have never pulled that much.’ Everyone toasted Rory’s team and offered congratulations. ‘Oh, I almost forgot. Eglantine sent me a letter. I told her of meeting Dilly and she said she would be delighted and honored if you could spare time on your trip home to come to Whitwell. You must come see my grandchildren.’
Bilbo watched Pal’s face flush a few shades redder. Rum had not looked away from Rory, but it was clear to Bilbo by the set of his face that he knew just how offended Pal was by all of this. Luckily, Rory was wary of playing Rum’s games and looked over at Pal with a smile. ‘Pal, if it is not too much of an imposition, I would like to have Dilly meet Eglantine. I thought the ladies had met, but Eglantine didn’t come to Buckland when Sara and Esmie married. I’m not sure when we’ll be this close again.’
‘Of course you must stop by and stay as long as you wish,’ Pal answered.
‘Only a day or two at the most,’ Rory assured him. ‘I’ve been gone a half-month as it is and need to get home.’
Talk around the table quickly devolved into chitchat and unimportant things, for which Bilbo was thankful. Rum did not stop his flirting, but was less obnoxious and allowed himself to be distracted by Ada. Bilbo tucked his feet under his chair and lavished his attention on Pasco and Amelia, asking about what they had found most interesting at the Fair, praising Pasco’s excellent organization of the Messengers (though in truth that was due more to Wilcar’s directions than any initiative Pasco had shown), and listening to the dull and tedious doings of their multitudinous offspring. Through it all, Bilbo was aware that Odogar was watching him. In this way, the supper went by and dusk turned into evening.
As soon as it was polite, Bilbo excused himself and went to look for Frodo. He soon spotted his lad standing with his friends and a small pack of other tweens, no doubt more Chubb relations. They were well away from the adult guests. Bilbo looked about until he saw Otho and Lobelia standing with the Bracegirdles. To his annoyance, Dudo and Tulip were also standing nearby talking to them and a few others Bilbo didn’t recognize. Addy and Andy were in an animated conversation with Wili and Prisca and Bilbo almost went over to join them, but decided he needed a bit of quiet, so contented himself with a fresh mug of beer and an isolated spot in the shadow of the old tree in the center where he could keep an eye on Frodo and the rest. It was not long before some musicians set up and began to play some music. A few people began to dance, though the evening was still a bit warm for it. He could see Amy being flirtatious with the boys and wagered that, sore or not, Frodo would get wheedled into at least one dance.
‘There you are, handsome.’ Rum slipped an arm around his waist. Bilbo sighed and wondered if it would be terribly bad manners to pour the rest of his beer over Rum’s head. He doubted it would have any effect. He really wished Rum would play his games with someone else.
‘Rum, will you please go away?’ Bilbo looked over at Rum and was startled to see Pal and Odovacar both standing there on the other side of Rum. Not bothering to be nice, Bilbo gave Rum a sharp elbow in the ribs to make him step back, getting a nasty look from Rum and smirks from the other two. ‘Pal, Car, good evening.’
‘Bilbo,’ Car answered. Pal just gave a sharp nod.
‘Is there something you wish to discuss?’ Bilbo asked brusquely, in no mood to deal with nonsense.
‘Yes, uncle,’ Car said. He cast a look about him and moved closer. ‘Are you certain that there is no convincing you to take over Eastfarthing, in part or in whole?’
Bilbo studied the three before him. Rum looked partly bored, partly seductive, and mostly like he would prefer to be somewhere else. Pal and Car were both intent. ‘That is correct. I see no reason to cause turmoil in the Shire. I do not care to take on the responsibilities of a farthing. Why are you asking what you already know?’
Car sighed. ‘Because… Father is not in his right mind anymore.’
‘If that is so, Car, then you need to convince him to step aside and to take on these duties yourself,’ Bilbo said gently. ‘You are good son and loyal, but you must also be responsible for your farthing.’
‘I’d be happy to, but he is convinced that you have some special, secret knowledge, that will be… I don’t know… magical on running things,’ Car said with some exasperation.
‘Why does he think this?’ Bilbo asked.
‘Because you are the most marvelous looking man in the Shire, despite being old as dirt, Grumpy,’ Rum said, ‘so you must have some kind of magic working for you.’ Rum ran an appreciative hand down Bilbo’s back.
‘And you’re never out of money,’ Pal added, sounding all too much like his sister. ‘Odogar wants that good luck for Eastfarthing even more than he wants Eastfarthing.’
‘There is no luck that affects me. No.’
‘Then put your support behind Otho,’ Rum wheedled.
‘And why would that do any good?’ For anyone besides Otho and Pal, of course. ‘If I’m the luck charm, then why would he agree to anyone else?’
‘Just say that you’ll support and guide your cousin,’ Pal said. ‘It’s just to get the agreement. The point is to get Odogar to step down.’
‘But I think the only reasonable course to take is to have the farthing go directly to Car, as it should,’ Bilbo said in a puzzled tone, amused and disgusted by the greed on display. ‘Car, you and Bertie need to work with Odogar, get him to see …’
‘Bertie don’t see things the right way,’ was Car’s sharp answer, ‘and Father knows it.’ Ah, that’s right, Bertie isn’t a Dragon-fevered idiot like you. ‘Anyway, Father’s convinced that you’re the only one who can do this, who people will follow, but he’s starting to come around on Otho if there’s a new farthing.’
Come around to Otho? He and Otho are as thick as thieves. He was intrigued by the story that Odogar thought he possessed some kind of magic, something that made him prosperous. It would explain why his cousin kept coming back to him, despite being rebuffed. ‘Can’t you just… wait? I don’t mean to be callous, but Odogar is not that young.’
‘And you are that young? You’re the one who can’t afford to wait. The point is bad things can happen in single season if bad choices are made.’ Pal crossed his arms. ‘You’re always saying you look out for the Shire. You need to look out for it better. Don’t be the one dividing things when everyone is asking, no, begging you, Baggins, to unite.’
‘All of your desires can be united quite nicely, Bilbo.’ Rum’s tone was less flirtatious and he held Bilbo’s eyes. ‘I know what you’ve said about what you really want. But that can’t be guaranteed without the Thain’s support. It can be done directly.’
Bilbo knew that Rum was simply making things up. He did not drop Rum’s gaze. ‘If I may have a private word with the Thain?’ The other two walked off a few paces, but kept watching. Bilbo smiled and made a show of looking Rum over. ‘What’s going on?’
‘I need someone to be jealous.’ Rum tipped his head and smiled back.
‘My own reasons.’
‘Why is Car so eager to give away his own farthing?’
‘He isn’t. He just wants a big bite of Westfarthing.’
Bilbo stepped very close, face close to Rum’s. ‘Am I to say I support Otho or not?’
‘Not, but hint it’s because you’re thinking about it for yourself.’
‘Am I accepting your offer?’
The look in Rum’s face made him regret his words. ‘I know you won’t. Never again.’ Rum motioned for the others to rejoin them.
‘I’m sorry, but I cannot support Otho.’ Bilbo gave Rum a smile. ‘Your other… proposal… carries a certain appeal. You are right that I don’t want things divided. Let me think on this.’ Nodding genially, Bilbo turned his back on them and watched the dancing.
Frodo absently listened to Gin’s chatter as he kept watch on Bilbo talking to Rum, Pal and Car. Leave him be! He really did not like how Rum kept pawing at Bilbo despite the old hobbit’s obvious dislike of his touches. If those three did not depart, and soon, Frodo was going to drag Gin over there and let him start prattling at them. Then Pal and Car walked off a few paces, leaving Rum standing with Bilbo, whose expression now was pleasant, even welcoming. After some exchanged words, Bilbo moved close to Rum. Pal and Car exchanged an ugly look and smirked at each other. There was something intimate in Rum and Bilbo’s stances, but not lustful. Frodo had seen, if only a glimpse, the passion between the two – the kisses at the inn, the way Bilbo had watched Rum at the show – and he did not see it now. Just that quickly, their private talk was done and the other two returned. Frodo gave his attention back to Gin, agreeing that it was too bad they had missed the pull that afternoon.
A new song was starting, and Amy grabbed Darron’s hand. ‘Those two want to play sick,’ she said, pointing at her brother and Frodo, ‘so you get the first dance.’
‘Their loss,’ Darron grinned, and they were off to dance a Westfarthing Reel. Frodo and Gin clapped time at the side and enjoyed watching Amy and Darron weave in and out of the other dancers, first in a line, then in a square, then circling about, the lasses right ways and the lads widdershins. The next dance started with the two on the other side of the dancers. One of Darron’s cousins was trying to get Amy away from him, and Darron was having none of it, which made Gin snort derisively.
‘Much more of this attention and she’s going to have a head as big as a pony’s butt by the time we go home.’
‘Oh, be nice!’ Frodo scolded, though he also snickered. ‘So, she gets to flirt a little. It’s not like you haven’t been stirring up trouble with girls the last few days.’
Gin scowled. ‘She shouldn’t be flirting so much, not without Papa here.’
‘Uncle Addy’s right over there,’ Frodo motioned with his chin, ‘and he’s watching you both.’ Just like Bilbo’s watching out for me. For once, he did not chafe at the thought of Bilbo standing guard. ‘Let’s get some beer.’ Gin thought that an excellent idea and they were soon back with a glass in either hand, one each for themselves and the rest for Amy and Darron. When the glasses were empty, Frodo allowed Amy to pester him into a dance. He was too sore to completely enjoy it, but it was fun. Frodo and Darron made Gin do the next one and Amy ignored his pleas that she be sedate.
Frodo saw Dudo and Tulip heading his direction and waved at them. They waved back and came over. ‘We didn’t see you eating supper, Frodo,’ Tulip said after she gave him a kiss, ‘and thought you hadn’t come.’
‘Darron had a table a bit away from the others where we could eat and visit and not bother anyone,’ Frodo explained. He thought it would be impolite to say he had not wished to be anywhere near them while they were keeping company with Otho and Lobelia. ‘Tween chatter tends to bore most grownups.’
Gin and Amy soon returned, Gin complaining mightily at his sister’s cruel heart. She abandoned him without a second thought, cheerfully greeting Dudo and Tulip and asking them if they had seen Dilly’s shirts on display. They talked for a few minutes and then Amy impishly asked Dudo if she could have the honor of a dance with him, which he agreed to with a laugh. Tulip claimed Frodo and they did a square dance with Amy and Dudo as the other couple. Frodo was beginning to like Aunt Tulip quite a bit. She was not very clever, not like Sage or Ula or even Amy, but she was openhearted and kind, and she genuinely seemed to like his company. If only you weren’t such friends with the Sackville-Bagginses! Why can’t you be more with Odo and Sage?
Addy was waiting for them when they finished, telling Amy that Darron had offered to take them on a tour of Fat Bank, and that they would need to head back to the inn after that. Frodo would have gone with them, but Dudo gave him a small tug on his shirt sleeve and motioned for him to stay. When the others had walked off, Frodo gave his uncle a questioning look. Dudo walked them a little way apart from the dancing.
‘Frodo, I dislike being harsh, but I am very disappointed in you,’ Dudo sternly said. Tulip nodded. ‘You were brawling with your cousins earlier today and did Lotho a good deal of harm. These Tooks seem to be leading you astray. You’re usually such a good-mannered lad!’
He opened his mouth to protest and tell them to stop listening to the SB’s lies and got a glimpse of Bilbo, still under the tree, watching. Do as Bilbo has told you to be with Dudo. A caring nephew who respects his uncle. ‘I would not call what happened this morning brawling, uncle. What were you told?’
‘That you, Gin Took, the youngest Bolger and a tradesman’s boy, picked a fight with Lotho and Bargo Burrows, and with Lotho’s cousin, Hamson Bracegirdle. You cornered them and thrashed them badly over a girl.’
The mendacity of the account was impressive. Frodo put on his most serious expression. ‘I do not like to call anyone a liar, but that is not what happened. The two pieces of truth are that the fight was picked over a girl, and that the boys you name were a part of it, though not for all of it.’
Dudo frowned. ‘So, what is the truth?’
‘The fight was picked by Bargo Burrows with Gin Took because Bargo did not like that Gin danced with his sister, Bluebell. He, Hamson and Odogrim used to be a pack of bullies in Buckland, and I received more than a few thrashings from them when I lived there. Odogrim’s apologized to me and is ashamed of himself for having been a bully. Bargo and Hamson are not sorry. I think they convinced Lotho to help them give Gin a beating, which he should know better than to do. The three of them were hitting Gin when Tom and I caught wind of it and came to help Gin. I think you can see how badly Gin was hurt. Odogrim showed up a bit after that. We fought only as much as we needed to make them back down.’ Frodo crossed his arms and returned Dudo’s stern look. ‘I think Lotho needs to learn which cousin to side with, Baggins or Bracegirdle. He let himself be used to gang up on a much younger boy. The bad influence in this case was Bargo and Hamson. If you don’t believe me, speak to Uncle Rory. He can tell you all about Bargo and Hamson’s vicious ways. It’s why they’re not welcome back in Buckland.’
A more thoughtful look came to his uncle’s face. ‘Bilbo told me that you had been poorly treated by your mother’s kin in Buckland, leaving you to be bullied and to fend for yourself.’
‘Yes, sir. Bargo and Hamson took advantage of me being ignored to treat me badly.’
Dudo looked at him a bit more, then sighed and put a hand on Frodo’s shoulder, giving it a squeeze. Frodo tried not to wince as he pressed a bruise. ‘I am sorry, nephew, for not bringing you home from that sooner.’ Frodo looked at Dudo in astonishment. ‘Bilbo has rightly taken me to task for failing you and my brother by leaving you in that uncivilized place.’
‘But I’m here now, I mean, I’m in Hobbiton where I belong. I’m near all my Baggins kin, now.’ Frodo looked at Tulip. ‘I hope you don’t think Gin and Amy Took are a bad influence on me, or any of their family. I think they are very good people!’
‘Yes, yes, they are,’ Tulip quickly said, ‘but not all Tooks. It’s a queer family. Some are too disreputable for words!’
You mean Rum, who is many times better a person than Otho. And you probably mean Bilbo, too. It frustrated Frodo that Dudo and Tulip could not see Bilbo as he was. ‘There are bad people in every family, and odd ones, and good ones. Bargo’s a wretch, but Uncle Rufus is a very good man, as are the older brothers. You have to know who to associate with and who to keep at arm’s length.’ Another glance said Bilbo was still watching. ‘I thank you both for your concern, but I think that you’d best be more concerned for Lotho, who seems to be falling in with bad sorts.’
‘Indeed, it seems he is,’ Dudo said.
‘I don’t mean to be rude,’ Frodo added, doing his best to look sheepish, ‘but I really need to go find a…’
‘Oh, yes, of course!’ Tulip said, turning a bit red. ‘Don’t let us keep you.’
He gave them each a kiss on the cheek, endured a pat on the shoulder from Dudo and another on the head from Tulip and escaped towards the smial. It was true that he needed the privy, but mostly he hoped to catch up with the others and see Fat Bank. As soon as he went in the door and followed signs to the privies, he knew he would soon be hopelessly lost were he to venture deeper into the smial. There was not a straight or level tunnel to be found, and he could not hear any familiar voices. The prospect of accidently running into any of his odious kin in an unfamiliar burrow was not good. He was feeling tired anyway and thought it best to find Bilbo and go back to the inn.
As luck would have it, almost as soon as he left the smial, he saw Otho and Lobelia heading towards him with Pal at Otho’s side. They had not yet seen him, so he slipped off the path and into the plantings near the western line of trees, trying to stay out of sight. He thought he could go to the wall, find a gate, and then walk up the lane to the main gate and come back in that way. He was almost to the gate beside the carriage yard when he heard hobbits behind him. Frodo stopped and slipped behind some camellias, waiting for them to leave. They stopped on the path right in front of the bush.
‘No! You can’t just go!’
‘I can do whatever I like, Car.’ Rum sounded bored.
‘You said we would talk at the Fair and then you weren’t there. You lied!’
‘That's not true!’ Rum protested. ‘Addy and Blossom asked for my help to care for the children. Their lad was hurt and all the little ones were scared. I couldn’t turn them down and there wasn’t time to send a note. I gave up a certain win at the show to do this! If that was your lad hurt, what would you want his uncle to do?’
‘All right, all right. Fair enough.’
‘Besides, I don’t see why you’re so upset. We’re talking now, aren’t we?’ Rum’s voice was inviting. There were some sounds Frodo did not recognize, then a gasp of breath.
After a long pause, Car said, ‘You said we could… meet later.’ His voice was husky. There was another gasp and pause. 'You're not off to meet Baggins, are you?' There was no mistaking the jealousy in his tone.
'No, I'm not.' Rum's words were clipped. 'You heard him. He's going to think about it.' With a snort, Rum said, ‘I’m not waiting around here for Bilbo to give me an answer.’
Car laughed. It was an ugly sound. ‘He has something nicer than you, now. Younger. Maybe he wants something besides you.’
‘What Bilbo wants only happens with my support,’ was Rum’s sharp reply. ‘He has until tomorrow to make up his mind. He throws support to Otho or he loses his whore. It’s as simple as that.’
‘You know that will happen?’
‘Otho says he can, but I’m not leaving anything to chance. I made sure the boy came with us on the trip today, and let him know there’s nicer things to be had.’
‘As nice as Baggins’ gold? Or his youth? Father’s right – Mad Baggins is the most unnatural thing that’s ever been in the Shire. Maybe the whore doesn't think you're as nice.’
‘The boy’s not stupid. He knows what happens to him the minute Bilbo dies. And he will. No matter his face, he's old.’
'So, are we meeting or not?'
‘If that’s what you want.’
There were some more sounds and another gasp. ‘Not here! Your house. It’s not that far…’
‘Pal’s arranged to meet some traders there in less than an hour. I mean, I don’t mind what they hear…’
‘Don’t be stupid!’ Car hissed. There was a minutes’ silence. ‘I know. Father’s meeting with Otho, Pasco and Wilcar shortly. Andy, too. It will go on at least an hour, probably more. I’m supposed to be there, but I can say I’m not feeling well. Go back to the White Chalk.’
‘Hmm. Yes, I like that. We can’t arrive together, though. I’ll go ahead and wait in the common room. Look in, but don’t stop.’ Rum sighed. ‘We’re wasting time. Go make your excuses. I will look for you. And…’ Frodo heard the sound of a kiss and some moans, all Car’s. ‘That’s a taste of later.’ Rum sounded like a purring barn cat when he said this. Frodo heard steps going away. ‘Frodo, it’s very rude to listen in on other people’s conversations.’
Frodo came out from behind the camellias. ‘Thomas didn’t give me away this time.’
Starlight and moonlight caught the Thain’s face, washing away color and leaving it silver and grey, his eyes like stars themselves under the shadows cast by his brows. His forelock was bright, as though the moon had run his fingers through Rum's hair, leaving radiance behind. Frodo knew he should be outraged by the crude talk of him and Bilbo, but mostly he wanted to kiss this beautiful creature and see if he would kiss back. ‘I saw you walking ahead of us and I didn't hear the gate open, so I knew you were about.’
‘Ah.’ Frodo gestured to the gate. ‘I believe you have an appointment to keep.’
Rum looked back in the direction of the party sounds. ‘I should let the bastard get there and find nothing.’ He looked back at Frodo. ‘That was a lie, of course.’
‘That I would have won the show.’ His teeth gleamed.
‘And that you showed me nicer things.’
‘Oh, but I did! It was much nicer to be out on a picnic than dealing with this repulsive lot.’
‘So why are you doing this? Car’s disgusting and you don’t even want him.’
‘True, I don’t want him at all, but I need him.’ Rum paused. ‘I can’t forbid it, but… don’t repeat what I said to Bilbo. He knows it’s nonsense, but it upsets him to hear such things said. I’ll tell him myself tomorrow. Then he can be mad at me, not you.’
‘I won’t tonight or tomorrow, but after that I will.’
‘As you wish. See if you can get him to dance with Prisca before you leave. That always makes him happy.’ Rum leaned down and gave Frodo a very gentle embrace, careful of his bruises, and a kiss on the cheek. ‘I love you both. That’s the truth.’ The gate creaked, and Rum was gone.
Frodo walked through the garden, watching carefully for other hobbits. When he was back to the garden center, he looked around for Bilbo. The old hobbit was still at his post under the tree, looking intently in the direction of the smial. Frodo walked over to Bilbo and touched his arm, making his uncle start. 'I'm sorry!'
'Where did you come from, lad?'
'Back there. I had to dodge a few people on my way from the privy. It was easier to just go around.'
Bilbo snickered. 'There are a lot of them here. Where are the puppies?'
'Off touring the smial.' Frodo gave Bilbo a grin. 'Have you had a dance with Aunt Prisca yet?'
'No, come to think of it, I have not!'
'You'd best and then we should go, unless there is more you need to do.'
'We can go now, lad, if you're tired or hurting.'
'We're not going until you've had a bit of fun. After the company you kept at supper, you deserve something pleasant.'
'You take such good care of me, Wilwarin,' Bilbo said with a chuckle. Yes, I do and I always will. 'Where are Wili and Prisca?' They quickly found their cousins along with Odo and Sage. Prisca did not even need to be asked, but simply seized Bilbo for the next dance. Sage laughed and claimed Frodo while Wili and Odo teased about disreputable Bagginses stealing their wives. It was a good way to end the evening. They looked around for their hosts to say their goodbyes, but could find only Ada.
'Thank you so much for coming here, Bilbo, Frodo,' she said with a smile and a kiss for each. 'Wilcar will be sorry not to see you, but I fear he was dragged off to some silly meeting with Pasco, Odogar and your cousin, Otho, and won't emerge for a while.'
'Better him than me!' Bilbo said. 'While he has them distracted, we can make our escape. I shall speak to Wilcar tomorrow.'
It took a while to leave the party, for there were many there who wished to say goodnight to them. Though he wanted to ask what had been said at supper, he knew prying would only irritate Bilbo, so Frodo held his tongue. Bilbo did not ask anything, either, and hummed to himself, lost in some thoughts, as they wandered back through the mild night, stars and moon casting more than enough light to see their way.
This had the effect of leaving Frodo alone with his own thoughts, which he had been trying to avoid since the fight. Longer than that. Since… Since Sara had first pushed him down onto a bed. Since Bargo had first grabbed his hair and forced him to his knees. Since different men used him to pleasure themselves. Since Tom had first cajoled him into doing things that left the older boy panting in pleasure and himself lonelier than before. Since Uncle Rory had demanded he prove he had not seduced Sara or the others, had not sought them out, tempted them, corrupted them. Prove he had not done to them what he had watched Rum do to Car. What I saw them do to Gin. He finally grasped why Bilbo became so angry at the thought of what had been done to him, for he had felt it himself when he saw the bullies use his cousin. He was so scared. I wasn’t that scared. Yes, you were. You just didn’t want them to know. It had only been a few seconds seeing Gin’s face and the way the others had stood around him waiting for their turn to be serviced. It was enough.
I’m tired of that story. He wanted to shove it back into whatever box inside his head it had been locked into, but it was like struggling against all of their hands on those few times when he would resist and try to leave. I’m not that little boy anymore. Either of them, good or wicked, Gin or Rat. The one Bilbo had wanted him to be whenever he tried to explain what had happened, blameless and innocent, but also helpless, always subject to their hands and tongues and cocks. The one Uncle Rory had thought him to be, what Aunt Gilda had warned he was, tempting and corrupting, breaking others with pleasures they could not resist. Those who had used him, they had forced him to swallow not just their seed but also this story, that he drove them to their wickedness, that they were helpless to resist his seductions, and he had accepted both, the first because he could not have stopped them and the second because it allowed him to believe that he could have, had he wished it.
He had always known, he guessed, that the story was wrong, but he had not understood exactly why until today, and that was because of Rum. What Rum had shown him twice today was what seduction truly looked like. Rum had allowed Car to seduce himself, and whatever was probably now happening at the White Chalk was done by Car’s will and with Rum’s disdainful consent. What Frodo now understood was he had mistaken being good at satisfying others’ desires with being in command of them. That he was skilled at servicing them, Frodo had no doubt. He also knew that he did not dare turn the key in the lock on his room to keep Sara out, not when there was nowhere else to go and no one else to turn to, only himself and what would happen when he had to open the door. It was Sara’s will, and his alone, that kept him coming back to be serviced. Sara broke himself.
Frodo glanced at Bilbo walking next to him, still humming. You gave me a choice, a way to tell a different story, and I took it. He had been afraid of what Bilbo might do to him, but even more afraid of not being allowed to choose, to be trapped in a place where he had to wait for others to do with him as they wished and tell him it was what he desired.
When they got to their room, Bilbo told him to undress and get in bed while he fetched some hot water from the kitchen. Frodo did as he was told and was lying on his stomach in bed by the time the old hobbit returned. ‘The water is boiling hot, lad. I’ll need to let the towel cool a little.’ Soon, Bilbo laid a very hot, wet cloth over Frodo’s shoulders and back, and drew up the bed sheet to capture the warmth.
Frodo turned his head on the pillow to look at Bilbo, who sat on the stool next to the bed. ‘How does it look?’
‘Ugly. You’ll be sore a few days, I fear.’
‘I can tell.’ Frodo reached out his hand and Bilbo took it, smiling. With a sigh, Frodo closed his eyes and tried to relax his shoulders so the heat could work its way into his muscles. An odd thought came to him. ‘Six months. To the day, six months.’
‘Six months of what?’
‘When you did this before, putting a hot towel on my back because I’d been in a fight. It was Sun-return and tonight is Midsummer.’
For a moment, Bilbo’s grasp on his hand tightened. ‘Yes, lad. It is.’ His uncle’s other hand came to rest flat between his shoulder blades, gently pressing the towel against him.
‘This time, Bargo was the one who hit me.’
‘I would prefer you’d never been hit at all.’
‘Me, too.’ Frodo said this wryly, getting a snort from Bilbo. His odd thought changed and grew. ‘Bilbo?’
‘You know I’ve said that I’m not… that little boy anymore.’
‘That’s when it stopped. At Wintermark, that night. When I stopped being him. That little boy. When I didn’t want to be him anymore.’
‘And why is that?’
Frodo opened his eyes. ‘I stopped believing the story they told about me. I didn’t have another I believed, but I didn’t want that one anymore.’
‘I don’t know the whole story yet.’
Bilbo smiled. ‘It’s still being told.’ He lifted his hand from Frodo’s back, reached up and started to stroke his hair, but pulled his hand away. ‘I’m sorry, that was…’
‘Nice. Do that. Please.’ Frodo closed his eyes. After a moment, Bilbo touched his hair, tentative at first, then with longer, firmer strokes. This was as far from the bullies as could be. There was nothing of Bargo or Sara in Bilbo’s gentle touch, nothing of the silent men who gripped his locks as they panted and pumped. It was not like the picking and poking at him that others thoughtlessly did, dragging their fingertips through his hair and mussing it up to amuse themselves. This soothed him and was part of the new story.
‘You are not any kind of little boy anymore, Wilwarin.’