17. Sting

POV - Bilbo

In which madmen meet, luck is debated, confidences are shared, and Bilbo returns to old tunnels to ponder new possibilities.


Midyear, 1390

Dear Frodo,

I’m sorry. I know I’ve been bad. I won’t anymore. I miss you. I want to be your friend. Please don’t be mad.


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2 Lithe, 1390

Dear Frodo

Thank you so much, you dear, sweet boy. You have been so kind to my silly brood, especially Gin, even when they have been nothing but trouble to look after. Addy and I are grateful to you and your uncle for the care you have given the children.

Aunt Blossom

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2 Lithe, 1390

Dear Cousin Frodo,

I am writing to apologize for my shameful behavior. I have said and done unspeakably cruel things to you, and I have no excuse for my acts. I am completely in the wrong for all of it.

I have sworn to my father that I shall mend my ways. I hope someday you will see fit to forgive me for the wrongs I have done to you.

Your cousin,
Bargo Burrows


2 Lithe, 1390


I am sorry we did not get a chance to speak last night after the others left, but I understand you needed to get your lad back to the inn so he could rest. Darron told me of the fight he and Gin Took had with the older boys.

I fear a greater fight will happen between much older boys today. The duplicity I witnessed last night was disturbing. Odogar may do as he pleases, but I will relinquish nothing. Not even to you. The only sound counsel was yours about the markets. Please consider the Mayorship. Pasco is completely in thrall to Pal and Otho.



Michel Delving, Evening, Midyear's Day, 1390

Bilbo sat on the stool next to the bed and stroked Frodo’s hair, being careful not to grasp or pull or twist it. My brave, fierce lad. Part of him wanted the little boy back, the child who needed him and found safety in his arms. He looked at a bruise on Frodo’s shoulder, and wished his boy’s passage to manhood was not so cruel. Not defending yourself, but another. Others need you. Bilbo doubted he would see the Rat again. Buckland had been left behind.

When the towel cooled, Bilbo peeled it away from Frodo’s back. ‘Another? I think the water is still hot.’

‘No, thank you.’ Frodo did not open his eyes and his voice was drowsy.

Bilbo took the towel over to the washstand and wrung it out before hanging it on a peg to dry. He used some of the remaining warm water to wash his own hands and face. As he dried off, there was a sharp knock at the door, making both of them start. Bilbo motioned for Frodo to stay in bed and went to the door, muttering imprecations at whomever was rude enough to bother them at this hour. This had better not be you, Rum. He opened the door a crack, putting his foot behind it so whomever was outside could not push his way in. When he saw who it was, he wished it had been Rum instead.

‘What do you want?’

Odogar stared at him, a look in his eyes Bilbo had not encountered since facing Orcs in the desolation before the gates of Erebor. There, he had his magic ring to shield him from their gaze and he had to grasp a fold of trouser fabric to keep from snatching it out of his pocket and vanishing again. His cousin smiled crookedly, lips parting on one side to show slightly yellowed teeth, increasing his resemblance to the goblins.

‘I need to talk to you. Alone. Before the Moot. Now.’ Odogar took a step as thought to enter the room. Bilbo held up a warning hand, pointing down the hall.

‘Go to a front parlor. I will join you in a moment.’ He waited until Odogar turned and walked away before shutting the door.

Frodo was sitting up in bed. ‘Who is that?’

‘Odogar. He demands to talk to me.’ When Frodo started to get out of bed, Bilbo shook his head. ‘I shan’t be long. I have no wish to talk to him and will make it as brief as I can. Stay here.’ He pulled his braces back up, neatened his shirt and slipped into the waistcoat he had just removed. As at his last private conversation with Odogar, Bilbo wished he had Sting. The sense only increased when he walked into the parlor and saw Odogar standing there, shoulders hunched, arms crossed, waiting for him with a hungry expression. Bilbo was reminded now not so much of an Orc as of the wretched creature, Gollum. Again he wished to slip on his ring and flee. No, you can’t leave Frodo. ‘What do you want, Odogar? Be quick. I have had my fill of stupid kin this evening.’

Odogar did not answer at once, but started walking around the room, eyes on Bilbo, like a hunter sizing up very large prey. ‘I found your counsel on the markets sound, cousin.’

‘Good. It is. Now you can go convince the others to build theirs up and increase everyone’s trade, and let me get to bed.’ He turned slowly so he was always facing Odogar, one hand tucked into his pocket so his fingertips just brushed his ring.

‘We need to have them united.’

‘Then why are you wasting time talking to me?’

‘Because you are the one to rule us all.’

For some reason, this made Bilbo shiver and he imagined the ring became warmer. ‘What nonsense is this, Odogar?’

‘Perfect sense, except to you. Why won’t you do what you’re told? And you’re not content with that! You spoil it for everyone with your sly words!’

‘I am not a child to be ordered about.’ Bilbo kept his tone calm, but firm.

Odogar stopped and stared at Bilbo a long while. ‘But I don’t know what will please you.’ Hearing Frodo’s words from their dreadful argument in Long Cleeve coming from Odogar’s mouth made Bilbo shiver again. ‘There’s nothing anyone can offer you to sway you to be reasonable.’

‘That is because I am already reasonable and cannot be tempted into wrong.’

‘You’ve been tempted before. And you’ve taken.’ Odogar gave a growl and began walking again, glaring at the floor before him as he made a slow circle about the parlor. ‘You have poisoned everyone against a new farthing. It could have been your own alone.’

‘I didn’t want a farthing.’

‘Others might have, but you ruined it. They were all in support of it before. In their first letters. You said so yourself in Granite Bank. They all wanted it.’ No, they wanted me. And to be rid of you. The ring was warm, gaining heat from his fingers, no doubt, and he stroked it lightly with his forefinger. They still want me. That had been the most gratifying part of all this, finding out how much his kin and others wanted him to protect them, as though he had become a sword or a shield against this kind of duplicity.

Odogar ceased his prowling and glared at him. ‘You think I haven’t heard the other rumors? That you would supplant me as head of Eastfarthing? The Grubb woman has been doing little since Astron but speaking of overthrowing me. That degenerate had the nerve to say so at table tonight.’

‘I want no part of Eastfarthing, either. If someone is stupid enough to even hint at this tomorrow at the Moot, I shall reject it. Eastfarthing looks to the Bolgers.’ Or they would were you not such a pack of idiots. Bertie is the only one of you with a lick of sense. ‘I don’t think there is anything wrong with how the farthings are apportioned now. You should put all of your cleverness to work strengthening the markets.’

With a sigh, Odogar straightened up, hands on his hips. ‘Bilbo, what do you think I am doing? I am trying to strengthen them, right now, by talking to you, you self-important fool! You accuse me of greed, but what of your own?’

‘How am I being greedy when I ask for nothing?’ Bilbo truly was perplexed.

‘You want us all to come to you, ask your wisdom, and conduct ourselves to your satisfaction. That’s what you ask for. How much more adulation can one hobbit demand? If we do something contrary to your counsel, you are not content to leave us to our folly, but must make us fools as well.’

‘I will thwart what does harm …’

‘… and resist what does good.’ Odogar started his slow perambulation of the room once more. ‘I come to you when I should have no more to do with you, and I tell you that what you propose is right, and you bid me go away instead of speaking on how you will work with me and Wilcar and Pal and Rufus and even your stupid Brandybuck cousin to make this happen properly! You are the one we need so that it will go well. You are our luck.’

I was chosen for the lucky number. He had said so to another dragon fifty years before to confound the creature, but it was not a lie. I was their luck. Perhaps I am still. ‘I heard a strange tale, Odogar, that you think I… have some kind of special power or magic.’

‘Something keeps you as you are and makes great changes around you.’ Odogar’s gaze on him was eager, his eyes bright in the dim parlor. ‘You changed us. Did I not admit this in Astron?’

I did not do that. I did not bring this upon the Shire. He gripped the ring tightly between his fingers. If I left, went South, perhaps the changes would follow and leave them be. Leave this mean place behind and find greater things. Bilbo studied Odogar. And leave them to you? No, I draw my friends out alive from their perils. ‘I recall you saying that I told stories of distant places and you found lessons in them.’

‘Yes! Yes, that is what you did!’ Odogar’s face was alight and he took a few steps towards Bilbo, who clenched his hand around his ring as though it were Sting’s hilt. Odogar backed away. ‘And you have been giving us more lessons this very evening, but you do not wish to learn from them yourself. Keep the farthings as they are – though you are right that Westfarthing is too large and needs to be changed – and focus on the markets and the roads. Run them together so they do not contest. And you must run them. Rule us in this, and make your luck ours.’

Odogar grinned and began to walk again, speaking about how Bilbo’s markets would make all prosperous, would remove want and need from the land, would make the Shire the center of all that was good, well-ordered and productive, the envy of all who came here.

For a moment, Bilbo saw what Odogar did. The towns bustling and industrious, every one of them filled and in motion as only Michel Delving could manage at Fair time. The roads, mended and well-kept, offering safe passage to the many people and beasts upon them. Farmlands buried under their own abundance, with barns bursting at harvest, fields and paddocks barely able to contain the growing herds, waterwheels spinning, irrigation waters spreading, trees bowed down with fruit. Every kind of trade and craft would flourish, lumberyards buzzing as boards were cut, forges burning through the night to keep up with demand for iron and steel, looms clicking and clacking as yards of cloth were woven, and gold clinking as it was passed from hand to hand until it ended up in a big bag. The riches of Erebor, the commerce of Laketown, the beauty of Rivendell, all became dim in the shadow of the Shire. Should I not help this come true? Shall I be the luck bringer for my own beloved Shire? Why not do for hobbits what I have done for dwarves and men and elves!

Beyond Odogar, Bilbo saw a motion and looked. It was just a reflection in the window of the parlor, one that overlooked the front court. With nightfall, the glass had become a mirror, and Bilbo saw his own face. The same face that a half century before had set out into the wild, that had looked upon desolation, mayhem and cruelty, that had watched good people die and evil creatures perish, that had seen dwarves, men and elves determinedly prepare to slaughter each other for the dragon’s hoard. He looked down at his too-young hands. As though my journey forever parts me from the Shire. It is curse, not luck.

Odogar’s dreams of plenty vanished and Bilbo recalled what was overtaking the Shire, parting it as he was parted. Withered orchards. Bone Root. Trees walking to defend, or to flee. Poisoned seeps. Rotted crops. Twisted babes. Twisted hearts. No, we do not need to be great, but we do need to remain good.

‘You keep saying I should rule, Odogar. I do not understand what you mean.’

Odogar’s expression became crafty. ‘I asked you to do something else, too, in Astron.’

‘I cannot remember all that we spoke of,’ most of it being ridiculous and offensive, ‘so remind me.’

‘You asked what you could do about Rum, and I said you should convince him to step aside. He is a great danger to the markets. Have you spoken to him?’

Bilbo had to look down lest Odogar see the smirk on his face. Oh, what we have spoken of… He allowed his smirk to become a look of disdain and raised his head. ‘I fear Cousin Rum only wants to talk about one thing with me, and it has nothing to do with being Thain. He is tiresome and obnoxious. I begin to remember why I have not allowed him in my company for years.’

Odogar nodded vigorously. ‘His behavior towards you tonight was disgusting. He is incapable of controlling himself!’

He has greater command of himself than you know. Greater command of you, too, I’ll wager. ‘I have made mention that perhaps he would prefer to spend all of his time with his horses and not bother himself with Shire business. Alas, he enjoys aggravating Pal too much to give up that amusement, as I warned you when you asked.’

‘Then it must be taken from him. The Thainship is too important to waste on a degenerate like him. That should be the purpose of the Moot tomorrow, to be rid of him!’

Bilbo feigned confusion. ‘But that is a Took matter. The Thain is their head. Pal would have to see to it and, seeing that he has the most to gain, should be quite willing to press the matter with the clan.’

Odogar shook his head. ‘No. Pal should not be Thain, either. The Thain is not always a Took. What started all of this was how to get the Road under the control of the families that understand it, Baggins, Bolger and Burrows.’

It was true that this was Odogar’s original argument at Wintermark. And the reason for your argument was to distract us from your failure to tend to the harvest to either side of the Road. ‘What has the Thain to do with markets? The Thain commands the Shire-moot and Shire-muster, not a market, unless it is one in Southfarthing.’

‘The Thain’s charge is to see to the safety and integrity of the Shire. We have more traffic upon our lands than before, allowed and not, and someone must see to it. The Bounds, the roads and the markets, where strangers will go and gather, should be placed under the authority of the Thain. Someone who is already always tramping about and understands strange things is the logical choice.’ Odogar’s expression was almost pleasant and his voice reasonable.

He’s not wrong about this, Baggins. Leave the Mayor to tend to Messengers and weddings, and have the Thain rule. Bilbo knew he would not agree to this if it was simply to be an inherited power of the Tooks, even as he thought Rum could do quite well with it. A Thain chosen for his abilities, that would be a good thing. ‘But, the Mayor already sees to the Bounds, and the Bounders and shirriffs. Why not just make him in charge of this as well?’

‘Posco is a weak-willed idiot who is firmly in Pal and Wilcar’s pocket,’ Odogar shot back. ‘It is your good fortune and deep knowledge that is needed for this office. We need someone lucky and clever, not a block-head or a degenerate.’

Pasco is an idiot. I think even he knows it, and he’d support you for Thain if only to keep you from becoming Mayor. Rum would relinquish it. He already wants you to be Thain, Baggins, as do the others. You already walk about. Bilbo looked again at his hands. Lucky Number. Lord of Burglars. Clue-finder. Web-cutter. Degenerate. He looked up at Odogar, whose mask had slipped, the pleasant look of a few moments ago replaced by greed. What will you make of the stinging fly?

‘And when you have displaced Rum with me, what do you intend to do with this degenerate?’ Bilbo chuckled at Odogar’s look of disgust mixed with guilt. ‘Do you really think I have forgotten how our last conversation ended, cousin?’

‘You know how to behave before others.’

‘No, I think you simply wish for me to wrest away the Thainship just as you wished for me to tear off a piece of Westfarthing, and then you will figure some way to hand it to someone else, like, say, Otho. Yes?’ Bilbo stuck his hands back in his pockets and smiled.

‘Not as long as you were bringing luck, no.’

‘I think I shall keep my luck to myself and leave the Thain where he is, keeping Pal’s greed under control just as I do to you.’

All pretense of friendliness vanished from Odogar and he once more reminded Bilbo of Gollum. He stalked around Bilbo, hunched and feral, his voice hissing. ‘I told you. I warned you. You have been asked to help. Nicely. You have been offered anything you could want. You had your chance. You will not be allowed to ruin everything with your disreputable, deviant ways. You will be made to do this.’

‘I spoil nothing but your greed. If you truly wanted the good of the Shire, and not just to line your own pockets, you would simply do what is right. I want nothing of this.’

‘I know what you want. Your whore. If you want to keep him, then you will do as you are told.’

Bilbo gripped the ring tightly. ‘I tire of this slander against my nephew and heir, Odogar. You will stop it.’

‘Stop the pretense, Baggins. If you…’

‘What pretense? You know full well that Frodo is Baggins and he is most certainly my heir.’

Odogar snickered. ‘The truth is out of Buckland now, Bilbo. He’s of no kin to you. He’s just a whore.’

‘And who tells you this?’

‘Otho let me know there was concern, though he’ll say naught anymore. Pal has a letter from Rory saying the boy’s bastard. Until you bought him, then Brandybuck changed his story.’ Odogar’s face twisted into a sneer. ‘Pal and Car both say Rum has confirmed that you’re besotted with him.’

That is what Rum said to Pal. Bilbo wished he knew more of what Rum was trying to do. ‘Rum is telling them what he wants to see. It’s less painful than to admit he has lost his own appeal. I have already told you the truth of Buckland. What you hear from Pal is his sister’s malicious gossip. You are letting those who bear you no good will fill your ears with poison so that you will shame yourself with mad ravings.’

He began to walk slowly towards Odogar. ‘Does it occur to you that the last thing you should do is anger me?’ Odogar retreated. ‘Do you remember what I warned you in Astron?’ Odogar had backed into the side of a chair and could not go further, though he leaned as far back as he could. If I had Sting, you would feel his bite. ‘You seem to think I do nothing but wait for you to act on your threats.’

‘What? What can you do? These rumors are already out.’

‘But you know better than to spread them.’ He took his hands from his pockets and deliberately neatened Odogar’s shirt and waistcoat. The other hobbit flinched from the touches. ‘Don’t you wonder why Otho suddenly has nothing to say?’ Odogar shook his head a little, but his expression was fearful. ‘He imagined that ridiculous Mad Baggins would let him get away with his calumny.’ Bilbo paused and locked eyes with Odogar, wearing his most charming smile. ‘He was… wrong. Consider, Odogar, what I said to Smaug just before I brought him to his death – I am the Luckwearer. Whatever harm you think to bring to me, I shall turn it to my own good luck and your misery.’ Bilbo laid his hands on either side of Odogar’s face. ‘And before I part you from your balls, I will take away your respectability and your gold.’ He laid a light kiss on the other’s lips.

Odogar shoved him, falling back into the chair as he did. ‘You wouldn’t dare!’

Bilbo laughed and walked away. ‘It’s already begun, cousin. You had best not push your luck.’ Behind him, he could hear Odogar following. Bilbo strode deliberately to the parlor door and left the room, turning to go to the common room. He did not want to lead Odogar back towards Frodo.

Ahead in the hallway, he saw Falco and Nora come around a corner, heading towards their room. A moment later, Fargo and Odogrim appeared behind them, talking to each other. Bilbo muttered an oath under his breath. He stopped and waited for the others to approach, Odogar stopping next to him.

‘Good evening, cousins,’ was Falco’s polite greeting. Odogrim’s cheer vanished when he spied his father. ‘Are you off to the common-room for a beer?’

‘No, Odogar is leaving,’ Bilbo said firmly. ‘I’m just walking him out. Don’t let us keep you.’ He motioned for the others to go by. With a nod and a smile, Falco started to pass by, escorting Nora, who was looking curiously at Odogar. Odogrim tried to stay to the far side of Fargo, but Odogar lunged forward and gave the young man a shove. Bilbo and Fargo stepped between the two.

‘What are you doing here?’ Odogar snarled. ‘I told you never to come near…’

‘He is here with me, Odogar,’ Falco said sharply. ‘Where else would he be?’

‘He knows he’s forbidden to show his face…’

‘You disowned me.’ Odogrim’s voice was cold. ‘You turned me out, and I’ll ne’er answer to you again.’

Odogar stared at his youngest, wild-eyed. ‘You mind your tongue, you degenerate!’

‘Then you mind yours, Odogar,’ Bilbo warned. ‘You have no claim on him anymore.’ He wondered if Odogrim had ever told Falco what had happened at Granite Bank.

‘He owes me obedience as his sire.’

‘No, I don’t.’ Odogrim’s face was red and Bilbo could see the young man was trembling. ‘I’ll speak no ill of you nor raise a hand to you, but that is all you are owed.’

Odogar lunged again and tried to strike his son, Bilbo and Fargo wrestling him away. Nora took Odogrim’s arm and pulled him to stand behind her and Falco. When Odogar finally wrenched himself free of the others’ grasp, he started to walk away then whirled about, face contorted with rage. ‘This is what you started, isn’t it, Baggins?’

‘No, this is mischief of your own making, Odogar. You’ve sat there brooding in your own lair for so long, you can’t see or hear truth anymore. Your madness is driving all your children away.’

There was a moment when something like doubt flickered across Odogar’s face and perhaps the faintest hint of remorse. Then he pulled himself up, his face so twisted in disgust and anger he scarcely looked like a hobbit, and he spat at Odogrim. The spittle fell on the floor well short of them. ‘Degenerates, the lot of you! Mother was right. You are all corrupted!’ He stormed down the hall, shouting over his shoulder, ‘and tell my double-dealing cousin Wili he can stay a Brandybuck!’

When Bilbo turned around, he saw Nora holding a weeping Odogrim while Fargo looked confused and Falco looked revolted. Falco gave Odogrim a comforting pat on the shoulder. ‘There now, lad, don’t spare any tears for that. Your father’s too mad to know what he’s about. Bertie and Poppy have said so. It’s late and you should be off to bed.’ He motioned for Fargo to help Nora take Odogrim away, and walked with Bilbo to the parlor. They stood a moment in silence while Falco studied his toes. ‘He sounds like Aunt Belba.’

Bilbo sighed. ‘Yes. He does.’

‘Him and Otho. All they see is that you are keeping them from getting what they want, not that what they want is wrong.’ Now it was Falco’s turn to sigh. ‘I think I finally understand why you are opposed to changing anything. It makes so much sense to have you running things, and then you see them for what they are, like picking up a feed sack and seeing rats scurry away.’ He looked at Bilbo. ‘Odogrim told me about being disowned, but wouldn’t say why.’

‘I know why, and it’s not worth talking about. Odogrim did something stupid in Buckland and Odogar somehow decided it was due to my corrupting influence. He was angry at me because I had finally told him I wouldn’t go along with his mad plan, and he took his rage out on Odogrim. Any actual wrong the poor lad did has been forgiven. He’s better off with you and Nora. Granite Bank was a horror.’

‘Well, we’re glad for him. Nora’s been sad with no one to mother, and he’s a good-tempered fellow. Fargo likes him.’

They walked back to their rooms and bade each other goodnight. Frodo was awake, sitting up in bed and smoking his pipe. He studied Bilbo’s face and wordlessly held out the pipe. Bilbo took it and sat on the floor, back against the bed, and drew deeply on it. Frodo rested a hand on Bilbo’s shoulder and he laid one of his over his lad’s. They sat like that until the pipe was done and Bilbo came to bed.

Michel Delving, Morning, 2 Lithe, 1390

Bilbo woke early, a little surprised that he had been able to sleep at all. Frodo was pressed up against his back, an arm over him, face tucked against Bilbo’s neck. I have brought you so much pain, Wilwarin. If he could have one wish it would be to take whatever harm and grief that had been inflicted on his lad because of his own stupidity and take it upon himself instead. If only… Bilbo turned over in his mind the many times when he could have done something differently, choices that would have protected Frodo from the myriad wrongs done to him. In truth, if he thought the lad would allow it, he would go to Dudo now and see if he and Tulip would take him. “I belong here, with you, and nowhere else.” No, you can’t hand him off, Baggins, like some mathom. You have created this mess and you shall have to find a way out of it.

The problem was he had no plan, only threats and bluster. And a lie. But would it be believed? He was not so sure, now that he knew of Rory’s letter to Pal, and that Pal was sharing it. Otho doesn’t need to speak as long as Pal will spread the slander, and he’ll be happy to do so. Would Rufus stay assured in the face of that letter? If anyone saw Frodo with him and even more so in the company of his Baggins cousins, they would not doubt that Frodo was Baggins, but the rumor thrived in letters and gossip where no one could see the boy they were so viciously defaming. They’ll do to him what they did to his father and all to spite me. He doubted the entire hoard of Smaug would be enough to dissuade his cruel cousins from savaging Frodo.

Next to him, Frodo stirred and sat up, yawning. Bilbo gave him a pat and got out of bed to make it easier for Frodo to do the same. In a moment he had found the lantern hanging near the door and soon had the candle lit. ‘How are you feeling, lad?’

‘A little sore,’ Frodo said around yawn, ‘not bad.’

‘It’s still early, you should get some more sleep.’

‘Uncle Wili’s ponies,’ was all Frodo said as he stood and went over to the chest of drawers. He was soon dressed in slightly dirty clothes, which made sense given he would be cleaning stalls. Bilbo followed suit. Frodo looked at him quizzically. ‘Why are you getting dressed?’

‘Uncle Wili’s ponies,’ Bilbo replied with a grin.

‘I can take care of them,’ the boy protested.

‘I know you can, but I need to speak to Rum and he will be there taking care of his own horses.’

Frodo looked at him a few heartbeats. ‘About Odogar?’

‘Are you ready for breakfast?’ Bilbo said, pulling up his braces and finding his roughest waistcoat. Frodo stood with his arms crossed and glared, then shrugged.

‘I might be. Did you know I got into an argument with Uncle Dudo last night?’

That got Bilbo’s attention. ‘What?’

‘Do you think they’ll have pancakes for breakfast?’ Frodo asked smoothly and opened the door. Bilbo pushed it shut.

‘Why did you argue with Dudo?’

‘Two can play these games.’

‘I am not playing games, Frodo!’ he snapped. The lad did not flinch. ‘I have no interest in discussing Odogar before I have had some breakfast or at the very least a cup of tea.’

‘Then we’d best get breakfast.’ Frodo opened the door and walked out. After a moment, Bilbo followed, glowering. The lad went to the common room and was greeted cheerfully by the serving lasses, who he flirted with as they seated the two of them and brought them tea. Bilbo drank his without comment. There were soon plates of food before them, including pancakes. Frodo dug in and ate heartily, ignoring Bilbo’s glare. He was almost done when Rory, Mac and Wili came in the room, calling out a cheerful good morning. Bilbo sighed and made room for them at the table.

‘What are you two doing up so early? Don’t you know these are farmer’s hours?’ Rory gently teased.

‘Just having a bite before going off to take care of the ponies, Uncle Rory, Uncle Wili,’ Frodo answered.

‘Now, lad, you don’t need to do that,’ Wili chided him, smiling. ‘I’m going to make Rory work for his keep, today.’ This got a laugh around the table.

‘You know we took Turnip and Biscuit on the picnic yesterday down the Drop, right?’ Frodo asked.

Wili nodded. ‘Addy told me. That’s fine. Those sluggards weren’t doing anything sitting in their stalls.’

Plates of food arrived for the new guests, plus another filled plate for Frodo, so there was not much conversation. Bilbo left his own food untouched, earning a stern look from Frodo. You have no idea the games I can play, Wilwarin. It was not long before everyone was finished and they headed out the door and north to go to Rum’s barn. Bilbo was tempted to stay silent all the way there just to aggravate Frodo, but knew he needed to tell the others about the visit from Odogar, if only so that Falco did not say something first.

‘Odogar paid me a visit last night.’

‘What did he want?’ asked Rory.

‘Everything. It was… unnerving. I truly think he has gone mad.’ Bilbo shook his head. ‘Wili, you remember how strange and extreme his moods were when we met in Astron?’

‘Aye. I’ve never seen anyone act so oddly.’

‘This was more bizarre. He went between being perfectly reasonable, to shouting at me, to ranting, to wheedling, to scolding and everything else in between, all the while pacing madly, all hunched over, his eyes wild.’

‘Bilbo, the truth – was he like that after the rest of us left Granite Bank that day?’ Wili pressed.

‘Somewhat, though he wasn’t pacing about then. This was much worse.’

‘He seemed reasonable at the party last night,’ Rory offered. ‘Maybe a bit irritable, but so were you and Pal. Nothing too strange, certainly not mad.’

‘Well, he was at the inn.’

‘What did he say, uncle?’ Mac asked.

‘He started by saying he thought my counsel on the markets was good…’

‘…which it was,’ Rory confirmed.

‘…and then harangued me for ruining all his other plans. Then he started telling me I brought good luck and had no right to not spread my luck to his endeavors. After that he rambled on about how I should rule, and how the Shire should be made great like one of those southern kingdoms Pal thinks exist. I asked him what this meant, and then he demanded that I help oust Rum as Thain and have me installed instead, with expanded powers over the roads and the Bounds. He said he wanted to keep Pal away from this, too, not just Rum.’ That got startled looks from Frodo and Mac, but Rory and Wili exchanged a knowing glance. ‘I told him I would not help him with any of this as it was all just him trying to grab things from the Tooks. This enraged him, and he spewed all kinds of threats and nonsense.’

‘I can imagine, Bilbo,’ Wili said sadly. ‘I’ve heard him rant about you.’

‘You haven’t heard the worst of the evening.’ They all looked at him in alarm. ‘As I was escorting him out, having had enough of his bile, Falco and Nora were coming in. Odogrim was with them, as was Fargo, and Odogar raved at Odogrim, then attacked him, right there in the hall!’

The others exclaimed in shock. ‘His own son?’ Wili asked. ‘Why would he do that?’

‘After we left Granite Bank, Odogar berated Odogrim for something and disowned him, turned him out. I know the argument and it’s incoherent, so not worth repeating. It’s just another sign of his madness. Last night, after trying to strike Odogrim, he cursed all the Baggins, spat at us, and also said that I could tell you, Wili, that you were double-dealing and could stay a Brandybuck. He stormed out after that.’

They walked along in silence for several minutes as this news was digested. Bilbo left them to their thoughts. Frodo moved to walk next to him and took his hand. ‘I recommend that you do your best, all of you, to not be alone with Odogar. I think him, frankly, dangerous. Car said to me at the party that he did not think his father was in his right mind. I have to agree. I begin to wonder if Car’s acquiescence to rearranging farthings has more to do with fear of Odogar’s rage than any true support.’

‘Maybe this is what we need, Bilbo,’ Rory said, thoughtful. ‘If he goes off on some crazy rant at the Moot, that would put a stop to everything.’

‘And what would he be ranting about, Rory? How the Thain, the Master and Mad Baggins conspired to cheat him out of everything. How perverted, unnatural, degenerate creatures are ruining the prosperity of the Shire. He’ll do his best to make the failed root harvest the fault of the people who saved Eastfarthing from his folly.’

‘And not a word of it is true!’

‘But it will be said, loudly, with a large audience, and the whispers and the rumors that followed would be used by Pal and Otho to push forward their own plots. A madman on one side, perverts on the other, and they will seem so reasonable.’ That left the others silent once more, thinking.

‘Can you play along, just to get through today?’ Wili asked.

‘No. That’s the mistake I made in the first place, to play along and see if he would come to his senses. I’ve told him no. If I back down from that now, it will only embolden him to push harder and for more.’

There was no more talk until they reached the barn. When they walked in, Rum was there in his usual stable attire kneeling in the center aisle next to one of the Rushies, rubbing something onto its foreleg. Mac trotted forward. ‘Something wrong?’

‘Oh, hullo! I figured you’d be along soon. Stone told me his leg was tender, so I was putting a balm on it.’ Mac dropped to his knees next to Rum and began feeling the pony’s leg, Stone reaching around to nibble on his master’s hair by way of greeting. Rory and Wili went over for a closer look.

Frodo tugged on Bilbo’s hand. The lad looked upset. ‘I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have been so bratty earlier. He didn’t hurt Odogrim, did he?’

‘No, Fargo and I stopped him. He gave Odogrim a shove, but wasn’t allowed to touch him after that. I think his words were more painful than his fists.’

Frodo searched Bilbo’s face. ‘If you weren’t here, if we just left, would that keep him from going off? Then he’d not be fighting with you, not directly.’ The lad made a sound of frustration. ‘They should leave you alone!’

‘We’re not running away from this, Wilwarin.’ Not yet, at least. ‘That’s why I need to talk to Rum. He may know something useful…’

‘He most certainly does.’ Frodo’s words were delivered sharply, but quietly. Bilbo glanced at the others, who were still gathered around the pony, then raised an eyebrow. ‘I told him he has until tomorrow to tell you himself, but…’

‘Do not betray a confidence. I will get this answer from him.’ Bilbo motioned that they should join the others.

‘Not too bad,’ Rory said, giving Stone a pat. ‘Rest today and he should be ready to pull an empty wagon tomorrow.’

‘I think I’m going to take them both to the field,’ Mac said, standing. Rum stood with him. ‘A little walking and some soft ground will do them good.’

‘I should take my boys there, too,’ Wili added.

‘We’ll need to be back for the Moot,’ Rory said, ‘but that gives us a couple hours.’ He went to the stall to retrieve Oak.

‘Frodo, I’d like you help Wili with his ponies,’ Bilbo said with a smile.

‘Of course, Uncle Bilbo,’ the lad quickly replied, with a smile that did not reach his eyes. When Frodo went towards the tack area to get the lead lines, Bilbo followed.

‘Be very quiet and listen carefully to whatever is said, Wilwarin,’ Bilbo murmured. ‘I’m always worried what fool ideas Rory will come up with.’

‘I’ll be a good and helpful nephew,’ the lad promised. They were soon on their way, leading the ponies.

Bilbo went as far as the barn door and waved them goodbye. He studied the house and thought he saw something move in the kitchen. He’d have to be careful to ensure Pal did not overhear their conversation the way he had eavesdropped on Pal the morning before. When he went back into the barn, Rum was already at work cleaning the empty stalls. This was something Bilbo had always admired about Rum. Thain or not, he was never reluctant to lend a hand when there was work to be done, and he would take on dirty work without complaint. Fort had taught his son there was no honest work that was beneath him to do. Bilbo went to the stall and stood so that he could see the doors at either end of the aisle.

‘Tell me, Rum, why are you saying to others that I am besotted with my whore?’

Rum did not stop raking. ‘Who says so?’

‘Odogar. He told me last night that both Pal and Car learned this from you.’ And I heard you say it to Pal.

‘Odogar was with you last night? When?’

‘About an hour after I left the party. He came to the inn and demanded to talk to me.’

‘Ah.’ Rum exchanged the rake for a shovel and began scooping horse turds and dirty straw into the wheelbarrow. ‘As for why I say such things, it is to stay in the confidence of Pal and Car, and I say it only to them. They demand to know if you are besotted, and I say that you pay no attention to me, so it must be true. They think I’m jealous, so they trust me to talk to you and try to sway you to their plan.’

‘And you aren’t jealous?’

‘Of your whore? Yes, but that’s Gilda. I can’t be jealous of Frodo. I do hope he’ll share.’

‘If you keep spreading this lie about Frodo, I will not share anything with you again.’

Rum pushed the barrow out of the stall and into the next. ‘You know I don’t believe it.’

‘It’s not what you believe. It’s what others believe. You know that.’

‘So, what did Odogar want to talk to you about?’

‘He said since I can’t see reason, I shall be forced. If I do not help him oust you as Thain and take the post myself, he will make sure that everyone knows that Frodo is a bastard I purchased from Rory for a gold crown and make obscene use of.’

‘I’m perfectly happy to let you be Thain.’

‘And the second I have it, Pal will pull out Rory’s letter about Frodo being a bastard and Odogar will say that you assured him that I’m besotted with the boy. Odogar will say this whether I accede to his demands or not. If I say yes, then I will have wrested the Thainship from the Tooks and he will defame me and my lad to force another hand-over. If I say no, then he will do it anyway to punish me for not taking it away from the Tooks. If I do help win anything, Odogar and Otho will team up and threaten to attack Frodo to make me concede it to Otho.’

Through all of this, Rum kept his attention on the stall floor, carefully cleaning it up. ‘What did you tell Odogar after he threatened you?’

‘That he had best beware of doing me harm and that I had already set plans in motion to counter anything he might try. I played on the idea that I have some kind of magic to warn him that anything he tries will turn to my luck and his misfortune.’ Bilbo sighed. ‘But I really have nothing, especially with that letter of Rory’s in Pal’s hands.’

Rum scooped up the last mess from the stall and pulled the barrow out into the aisle. ‘Nonsense, Grumpy. You are magical and you do have luck working for you.’ With a dazzling smile, Rum said, ‘Let me dump this and I’ll explain, though, honestly, I can’t believe you haven’t already figured it out!’ Humming happily, the hobbit pushed the wheelbarrow out the back door of the barn, returning with it emptied a few minutes later. He placed a kiss on Bilbo’s cheek as he went to the next stall in need of a cleaning. Bilbo followed.

‘When Odogar came back to The White Chalk last night,’ Rum began conversationally, ‘he had a note waiting for him at the front. It was from Car. It said that Odogar was to collect Andy and the innkeeper and come to his room because Car believed they’d been robbed.’

Bilbo stared and then started grinning. ‘And just what did Odogar walk in on?’

‘Oh, nothing much, just me mounting Car and Car obviously enjoying being ridden. It was terribly embarrassing. Imagine me being caught in bed with something that ugly and stupid! I’ll never live it down.’ Rum was smirking. ‘I doubt Odogar will be much of a problem after last night.’

‘You wrote the note, of course.’

‘Of course. Odogar didn’t even notice it was in a different hand than Car’s. I wondered why it took him so long to show up.’

Bilbo leaned against the stall and thought. ‘You’ve been planning this all along. You said you were cultivating an interest in Car. Was it for this?’

‘Not exactly, but for… use.’ Rum gave him a cool look. ‘At first, I was just trying to get information out of him about what Pal was up to. He was too stupid to explain anything. He was also insulting about me being a pervert, so it was fun to tease him to the point where he started to get interested. Then, in early Thrimidge, I was over to see the grandchildren when Pal waved a letter in my face. He read some of it to me. It was Odogar bragging about having thrown the little one out for being a pervert and claiming that “Baggins’ whore” had corrupted him.’ A certain stillness came over Rum’s face, one that Bilbo rarely saw. He knew it meant Rum was having to concentrate on staying composed. ‘After he read it, Pal said that is what a decent person does with a pervert, and that Father should have done this me, but only after he gelded me. He said it is what he would do to me if he could. So, I decided that Odogar should have another opportunity in which to be a decent person. Car was all too willing to oblige. He was begging for it.’

Bilbo reached out and touched Rum’s shoulder. ‘I’m sorry, love, that you had to hear that.’

‘I hear awful things like that all the time from Pal.’ Rum pulled away from Bilbo’s touch and concentrated on the stall. ‘Anyway, your plan has been set in motion, and the timing couldn’t be better. Odogar threatened you, you told him worse will happen if he tries to do you harm, and then he gets to see his own heir getting ploughed by another man, with witnesses so they can’t claim it didn’t happen.’ Rum finished his current stall and went to the fourth. ‘So, that removes one threat to our boy, and leaves Pal and Otho.’

‘Otho isn’t a problem anymore,’ Bilbo said, ‘not after night before last. He has one secret and one weakness, both of which he knows that I know. I have another he’s unaware of, but I can only use it to punish him if he decides to be trouble rather than keep him from doing harm in the first place. He was getting a bit cocky the other night, so I reminded him of what I could do.’

‘What do you know of him?’

‘It can’t get out, or he will go after me with no restraint and I wouldn’t blame him for it.’

Rum let out a low whistle. ‘That bad?’ Bilbo nodded. ‘Very well, then, that leaves Pal, or, rather, Pal’s stash of letters.’ The Thain turned away and began raking up the remaining messy straw. ‘It seems to me that the person whose help you need is Rory since it was his foolish letter in the first place.’

Bilbo thought back to the argument he had with Rory in the barn a week past and to his cousin’s sad apology last night. Your word is not to be believed, Rory. You’re sorry, but you’ll still say something stupid. ‘I don’t really want Rory to interfere. Each time he does, it gets worse.’ Bilbo sighed. ‘And that still leaves your words.’

‘Car doesn’t dare say anything, so it’s just Pal’s word that I said so. I’ll say he’s lying.’

‘That’s not much, especially with the letter.’

Rum finished the fourth stall and pulled the wheelbarrow out. He stood squarely in front of Bilbo, arms crossed. ‘So, it’s just the start of the plan, just enough to keep them quiet during the Fair. It would have been much easier had you confided in me sooner, Bilbo.’ Rum looked away, face going still again. ‘That you didn’t hurts more than anything Pal could ever say. You know me.’

Rum’s quiet rebuke stung. I’ve listened too much to those awful things. ‘Yes, love, I do know you.’ Bilbo put a hand on Rum’s cheek and made him look back. He wished that he dared kiss Rum to apologize. You know where that would lead to, Baggins. If only Pal was not about, he would be willing to risk it. ‘I know all of the dear, impetuous, bold, ill-conceived and infuriating things you do, and were it just me who would be affected, I’d give you your head.’ He gave Rum a quick kiss on the cheek and stepped away from temptation.

‘What matters is what is being said of Frodo. I could not, cannot, risk putting a single word of him into letters to you. Even if you had not been writing such salacious things, I would have been chary with what I wrote back. When I said Otho was getting cocky, what he said to me was that if I didn’t secure him a new farthing, or simply take over Eastfarthing from Odogar, the rumor to be spread was that I was sharing my whore with the Thain.’

‘So, I can’t have any of you, is that it? Either of you?’

‘As long as we’re in this fight, no, and I’m not sure it can be won. I think that will come down to how well you can handle Pal. If somehow we do win, it’s up to Frodo how much he wishes to see of you.’

‘But never again with you.’

‘I’m sorry, love. No. That ended a long time ago.’ And I don’t dare let it start up again. Bilbo held out his hands and Rum took them. ‘I’m what I said yesterday, old. At this point, Rum, I don’t want anyone anymore. I just want to raise my lad and be happy being near the people I love. And I do want you near, which is why you need to win over Frodo. He’s the one to say if you are welcome.’

‘I’m trying.’ Rum smiled. ‘He’s a good lad.’ His eyes flicked to the barn door behind Bilbo and he dropped his hands. ‘Pal’s coming.’

‘I think we need to remain in disagreement for now.’

‘Until after the Moot, yes.’ Rum pitched his voice more loudly. ‘Why not?’

‘Because I see no reason to change things from what they are now, Rum. Why is this so difficult for you to understand?’ Bilbo replied sharply. A moment later, Pal slumped up. Bilbo spared him an irritated glance.

‘I’ve told you that you don’t need to support Otho. He’s a double-crossing little bastard anyway.’

Bilbo laughed humorlessly. ‘Oh, trust me, I know exactly how deceitful he is. I’ve been dealing with him for eighty years. Look, Rum and you, too, Pal, you’re going to do better just by dealing with Wilcar directly on the Tooklands. Out of all the border changes proposed, that is the only one that makes any sense at all. I’ll throw my support behind that.’

‘Really?’ Rum looked honestly surprised at Bilbo’s words, as did Pal.

‘Yes, really. He’ll not give up Waymeet, at least not yet, but I think he can be convinced about the rest. What the two of you need to know is what Odogar tried to talk me into last night after the party.’

‘What?’ Pal said suspiciously.

‘To take over the Thainship to get it away from the Tooks.’ Pal shot a startled look at Rum, who looked incensed. As if you wouldn’t hand it over to me without a second thought. Bilbo had to pause to make sure he was in control of his voice so he would not sound amused. ‘He has some scheme to try to put all the markets under the control of the Thain as part of that. I think he believes he can seize that office and rule all the markets through it.’

As he had hoped, Pal started shaking his head. No, you aren’t about to cede something of yours. ‘That’s not going to happen. It does make sense to have the markets be in accord, but that’s not what the Thain is for. What did you say to him?’

‘That I wasn’t going to help him with any of his schemes, as he has known since Astron,’ Bilbo firmly replied. ‘And to cut off any more importuning from any of you, all I will support is expanding markets and annexing the Tooklands to Southfarthing, where they have always belonged.’ He gave Pal a cold stare. ‘I had best not hear any more threats towards me or mine because I will not support your greed. Feign innocence if you like, I care not, but understand that if anyone tries to bully me into supporting whatever mad plan you have cooked up, whatever you threaten will come back to hurt you in ways you cannot imagine.’ Bilbo turned his gaze on Rum. ‘You can continue to offer whatever bribes you like, but,’ he ran his eyes over Rum, then snorted, ‘there is nothing here that appeals to me anymore. Good morning.’

With a crisp nod, Bilbo left. He turned west on the lane before the house and walked until he came to the field where the others had taken the ponies. He waved and went to the tree where the hobbits were standing in the shade watching the beasts crop the grass.

‘I told Rum about my run in with Odogar,’ Bilbo said without preamble, ‘and made him aware of just how deranged he’s become.’

‘Did he have anything to say?’

It was difficult not to break into a smirk. ‘Not really. He’s going to talk to Andy. I have a few things to think about and some letters to write, and I need Frodo for that.’

‘Go on, lad,’ Wili said. ‘You’ve done enough with the ponies.’

‘We’ll see you at the Moot,’ Bilbo said and walked away, Frodo on his heels. Bilbo waited for Frodo to pepper him with questions, but the boy held his tongue. After five minutes, Bilbo asked, ‘And why did you argue with Dudo?’

‘It wasn’t really an argument. He pulled me aside when I was going to go with Darron to see Fat Bank, and scolded me for getting in a fistfight with Lotho.’

‘That’s not his business.’

‘He seemed to think it was. Anyway, Lotho had told a pack of lies about the fight, claiming I had got Gin, Odogrim and Tom together to ambush the other three and beat them up. I told him the truth of who picked the fight and why, and then said he should scold Lotho for falling in with bad sorts like Bargo and Hamson. I told him they’d been the ones beating me up in Buckland.’ Frodo gave him a glance. ‘Dudo apologized for having left me in Buckland and said you had faulted him for doing so.’

‘Yes, I had. When he got testy with me about adopting you, I pointed out he had not bothered to take care of you himself.’ Bilbo stopped and faced Frodo. ‘I had a very interesting conversation with Rum. He had a number of useful things to say. What useful thing did you believe he could tell me?’

‘That when Odogar was talking to you, Rum was meeting Car at The White Chalk for… fun.’

‘Indeed, this was but one of the useful things the Thain had to offer. How is it that you knew of this?’

‘Two things yesterday,’ Frodo said without hesitation. ‘In the morning, when I cared for the ponies, Mac had left for the field and I was there by myself. I was in the tack area when Rum and Car came to look at Thomas.’ Now the lad paused, thinking. ‘I understand what you mean, now, about how Rum seduces. He doesn’t. He lets the other seduce himself.’

Bilbo was simultaneously impressed at the astuteness of Frodo’s observation and worried at just what the lad had seen. ‘Yes, that is what Rum does.’

‘They started by talking about Thomas’s stud fee. Car ended up begging for… something… from Rum, dropped his pants, and Rum humped him. And then said he wasn’t impressed. Car started begging again…’ Frodo shook his head and looked down. ‘It was embarrassing to see. Rum turned him down but said he’d meet him later to talk about…’ the lad’s face went red, ‘…riding. Then, at the party, when I was going to go around, I heard people coming near and ducked behind some bushes. It was the two of them and Car was mad because Rum hadn’t met him later at the Fair. I couldn’t see anything, only hear.’ Frodo paused a long while. ‘They both said ugly things about you. And me. Then they arranged to meet at The White Chalk.’

‘Did they know you were there either time? Did they see you?’

‘Car didn’t know. Rum knew the whole time, both times, that I was there. We talked after Car left both times. I told him, after the second time, that I’d give him through today to tell you what he’d said and done. He said he loved us both and that was the truth.’

‘He did tell me what he’d said, and it is the truth. Though he did not bother to tell me that you were present.’ Bilbo considered asking Frodo for more detail on what he heard. It doesn’t matter now. Whatever he said was for Car’s ears. Too much prying might make Frodo wary of being so forthright in the future.

With a nod, Bilbo set out briskly. ‘And what of our less obnoxious kin, Frodo? Did you hear anything stupider than usual from Rory?’

‘Not really. He complained to Uncle Wili that Odogar had decent ideas, but wicked ends. I think he meant making you Thain or, well, anything that would have you in charge.’ Frodo laughed a little. ‘They aren’t exactly wrong, but I think they miss the point.’

‘And what is that, lad?’

‘That you were what they are, and that they could be you if they’d just face up to their dragons.’

Bilbo laughed himself and gently patted Frodo on the shoulder. ‘Precisely! If they would just be their best, they’d have no need to bother me about such things.’

‘They shouldn’t be bothering you at all,’ Frodo said sternly. They walked some ways further in silence, then Frodo took Bilbo’s hand. ‘Bilbo?’

‘Yes, lad?’

‘Is… what Rum did. Is it enough to make Odogar be silent?’

‘I don’t know. Were it any other, I would say yes. Car will be silent. There can be no excusing his behavior. It will be something to hold over him for the rest of his days.’ Bilbo sighed. ‘Odogar is just deranged enough that it might make him more likely to attack.’

‘Will he say what you said he might?’

‘Possibly, in which case all we can do is be shocked and saddened at our unbalanced cousin’s uncouth raving while here, then…’ Bilbo shook his head. ‘The damage is not what he says here, but what others will say afterwards.’ He squeezed Frodo’s hand. ‘I will not allow them to do to you what they did to your father, slandering him because they did not dare attack me directly.’

‘I’m not leaving you. I don’t care what anyone says.’

‘I have some hope that what Rum did to Car in combination with what I said to Odogar may make our ice dragon back down. I told him I was magical, now, and that anything he thought to do to harm me I could turn back on him and in greater measure.’

When they came to the turn to go south to The Sheepfold, Bilbo kept walking east towards the hillside. Frodo gave him a curious look, but did not ask. Eventually, up against the hill, they came to an old stone wall with a garden beyond it, similar to Fat Bank, but smaller and unkempt, with ancient trees and a few flagstone paths mostly overtaken with creeping thyme. The bushes were buried under bramble, and wildflowers adorned every sunny patch. They squeezed through an iron gate, the hinges barely turning beneath a skin of rust, and walked along the middle path, the thyme becoming fragrant as it was crushed by their feet. All about them was the buzz and hum of insects about their business in the warm summer morning.

Beyond the garden, round windows were placed into the side of the hill, some of them cracked or broken, their frames weathered grey, the paint long since peeled away. At the end of the path, framed by a bower of wild roses, was a large green door. Bilbo looked carefully to the left of the door, until he saw a stone with a certain mark. Picking it up, he dug around in the dirt underneath, disturbing a few earthworms and pill bugs, and eventually found the key to the door. He wiped it off with a handkerchief and tried it in the lock. It took a bit of wiggling and effort, and he was afraid at one point that the key might snap before it turned the recalcitrant bolt, but at last it did release. The door swung in with a squeak and a groan.

The light from the windows was dim, but Bilbo could make out the high ceiling of the entry hall. Burrows led off to either side and straight back. Looking left and right, he could see patches of light where the doors of rooms stood open, allowing their windows to light the hallway beyond. He took the right-hand hall and followed it the length of the smial until it came to the open arch of the kitchen. There was a bank of windows to brighten the room, several cracked but none broken out. He rummaged in a drawer until he found a candle and some flint. It took a few tries, but he got it lit and placed it in a lantern. Holding it up, Bilbo went out the far tunnel and deep into the smial where no windows could reach.

The strongest smell was dust, followed by earth, but Bilbo could tease out the faint scent of hobbit, still clinging to the walls of the smial even though no one had lived here as their main home for two hundred seventy years. That was when Dargo Baggins had left their ancestral smial and taken his family to Hobbiton. It had been tended, more or less, for many years, and the family made use of it as they liked. Bilbo remembered coming here as a child in the spring and staying for several weeks before and after the Fair, sleeping out in the garden, playing tag and other games with his sisters and their multitudinous cousins. Sometimes the family moved back in when the weather was very bad, such as during the Long Winter. It had been too far to go to during the Fell Winter, by the time they had realized how harsh it would be, though Uncle Bingo and Aunt Chica had taken refuge in it with Falco and the rest of their children. Much like himself and his siblings, only Falco had survived.

As he walked through the tunnels, Bilbo wondered again why Dargo had decided to move his family from this magnificent home to the rather mundane house that was across the Water in Hobbiton. Fewer candles needed, that’s for one, and better air. Bilbo remembered his grandmother, Laura, insisted on staying in the old house when Father built Bag End, and always complained that she never understood her eldest son’s taste for “the heights” as she called the Hill. Father loved the view from the front porch of Bag End, no matter the hike to get up to the smial. Bilbo suspected he also liked the elevation as it discouraged the rest of the family from visiting too much. Father always preferred to live in a smial. He said he couldn’t feel a proper hobbit if he didn’t. When he was acting Mayor, Father would stay here when he traveled to Michel Delving to meet with Oscar Longhole and sometimes Bilbo came with him. They stayed mostly in the kitchen and the few rooms along that hallway in the front. For a time, Father had considered moving here to see if Mother would come back to him. She said the place made her feel like she was in the Great Smials. He had tried to sell Bag End to his brother Longo, but had been turned down, and so had ended up staying in Hobbiton.

‘Where are we, Bilbo?’ Frodo’s voice interrupted his thoughts.

‘Bagg Delving. It’s the Baggins’ great smial. Like Fat Bank or Fair Delving. Our ancestor, Dargo Baggins, moved the clan to Hobbiton in 1120.’

The boy looked about in amazement. ‘It’s enormous!’

‘Yes. At one time, most of the clan lived in it, with the others close by, just as the Chubbs do now in Fat Bank. Depending on the sizes and ages, about sixty Bagginses lived here.’

Bilbo set off down another long burrow, pausing to look at the rooms along it. Most were in decent condition; the smial was well made. He rolled his ring through his fingers. If I were the Thain, this is how a Thain should live, in a great smial. There’s naught wrong with it that a bit of work wouldn’t fix. He had to admit to himself that there was a not inconsiderable part of him that truly wanted the honor, the authority, of being Thain. Or Mayor, or the head of a farthing. I could bring this about. Today. At the Moot. It was just lying there, waiting for him to place his hand over it and pick it up. Odogar’s words of last night, that he wanted the others to come to him and seek his counsel and approval, Bilbo had to admit, was something that was more true than not and something he enjoyed. If I took it up, I could keep the rumors from happening at all. His kin would rally to him. Rory, Rufus, Wilcar, Rum and others would defend him and Frodo. Other Baggins would come back to live here with them in the old smial. It could be made hospitable quickly. My fortune could be used for my own clan’s benefit, for once. But there would be so few compared to the great families like the Chubbs or the Tooks. No matter, I would be Thain until there were many. Maybe Rory is right that there is a reason I don’t age, a good reason. Like the elves who persist and hold back the Parting.

Frodo bumped into him and he pulled his hand from his pocket to steady them both. What are you thinking, Baggins? This is not natural, not right. What the Parting did to him was not like the agelessness of Rivendell and the elves. It was of a piece with Mirkwood and the desolation of Smaug. Bilbo looked about him. You would turn this into Granite Bank. That thought made Bilbo shiver. He wondered if Granite Bank could be cleaned once its dragon died.

‘Why did you come here?’ Frodo asked, turning around to view the high ceiling of the dining hall where they now stood. ‘You said at Wilcar’s party that you were thinking of coming to Michel Delving. Did you really mean it? To come back to here?’

‘No. I have no intention of moving here. I just wanted to see what shape it was in. To see if it felt… wrong.’

‘Does it?’

Bilbo ran a hand over the wall and stood, eyes closed, listening for something. There was no parting here. ‘No. It has a hobbit’s heart.’

‘Not like Granite Bank.’

‘Nothing like that. That smial makes me fearful, as much as any place I had seen on my adventure.’

‘I shouldn’t have left you alone with Odogar in Granite Bank. You knew he was dangerous then.’

‘I had an idea that he was more disturbed than the others could see, and I did worry that he might attack me, but mostly I was afraid of the place itself. It’s like he’s its voice, speaking all of the wrongness I felt under my feet deep in the caverns below the smial. I think… my parting lets me sense this more clearly than others. Perhaps it attracts him.’ Bilbo did not want to say these frightening things to Frodo, but he needed the lad to understand the deep roots of what afflicted Odogar and not confuse it with the ordinary wickedness of people like Pal or Otho. ‘I saw this once before, in Thorin Oakenshield, when he wandered through the befouled halls of Erebor, consumed by lust for the treasure. He would not even pause to mourn the death of his people whose bones littered the halls, but ever sought to claim and guard the gold, as though Smaug’s wicked will had taken up abode in his heart.’

Bilbo looked east wishing he could look through the earth, across all the lands that lay between and spy again the summit of Erebor. A song tugged at Bilbo’s memory, one he heard just before another battle was to be joined, and he sang it,

Under the Mountain dark and tall
The King has come unto his hall!
His foe is dead, the Worm of Dread,
And ever so his foes shall fall.

The sword is sharp, the spear is long,
The arrow swift, the Gate is strong;
The heart is bold that looks on gold;
The dwarves no more shall suffer wrong.

‘That is what I fear, Wilwarin,’ Bilbo continued, still looking east. ‘I dread the Parting worming its way into our hearts the way it has into Odogar, and that we hobbits will make foes of each other in a fight over gold. Odogar spoke not of leading, but of ruling. He rails against the imagined wrongs done to him because of wealth denied to him.’

He sang a bit more of the song, the part that he did not want to think of, because it was less like Odogar and more like what he had just said to himself,

Now call we over mountains cold,
‘Come back unto the caverns old!’
Here at the Gate the king awaits,
His hands are rich with gems and gold.

And what would I be but that king were I to take up the Baggins seat as Thain? As he had last night, he held up one of his own hands and studied it. Perhaps the dragon to be slain is much closer than you believe. The dwarves spoke of the gold as enchanted, which is what had made him think that the Dragon Fever might be something caught from Smaug’s gold the way the fever rash spread from person to person in the stalls of markets and the tunnels of smials. I didn’t bring the Troubles, but I did bring the gold.

He turned away from his lad and walked back to the kitchen to put the lantern back in its place. Perhaps there would be a day when it was right to reopen this smial and live in it again, but not now. When there is a family with many children and cousins, in accord with each other and wishing to be here, then it will be right. He would see that some needed repairs were done over the summer. It would not do to allow the smial to fall into ruin. That would be wasteful. Bilbo locked the front door behind them and reburied the key.

When they returned to the inn, there was a mound of letters and Rufus Burrows waiting for them.

‘Good morning, Bilbo, Frodo,’ he said. The hobbit looked weary, but he managed a genial smile. ‘I know you must be busy preparing for the Moot, Bilbo, but I would like to have a bit of your time before then, if I may.’

‘Yes, of course, give me a moment.’ Bilbo borrowed pen and paper from Clyde and wrote a swift note to Maud, asking her to meet him before the Moot. He gave their letters to Frodo to take back to the room and told the lad to get himself second breakfast in the common-room. Bilbo led Rufus to a small parlor in the front. A serving girl was by within minutes with a tray of tea and food.

Rufus drank a cup of tea, eyes closed. Bilbo left him to his thoughts, waiting. ‘I cannot remember a more contentious Fair.’ His eyes opened slowly, gazing into his empty cup. ‘Cousin Odo and Sage came to call a bit ago.’ Bilbo wondered for a moment at Rufus calling Odo cousin, then remembered that Rufus’s mother was Odo’s father’s sister. We share Aunt Linda. ‘They told me that Odogar came here last night and attacked his own son. Falco and Nora told them. He had come to see you.’ Rufus looked up at Bilbo, and his expression was sorrowed. ‘Has everyone gone mad?’

‘I begin to wonder myself. Last night, Odogar tried to talk me into any part of any of his various plans. When I refused, he flew into a rage and threatened to blacken my name. I walked him out just as the others were coming in, and he tried to strike Odogrim before cursing all Baggins and storming out.’

‘He was almost reasonable at the party, too. What will he do at the Moot?’

‘I don’t know and I am dreading what might happen.’

‘You saw months ago what would happen and you warned us all, but no one could quite believe how badly it could go.’ Rufus sighed, shaking his head. ‘I will follow your lead in the Moot, of course. My main concern will be increasing the number Bounders for Northfarthing.’

‘And you have my support for that.’

‘The reason I’m here, though, has to do with a different unpleasant matter.’ Rufus set down his tea cup. ‘Bargo will be spending a long time on a farm owned by a cousin up beyond Greenfields. He’ll be there through the summer and probably through the winter as well. I have spoken to Addy about the full wickedness done to his poor boy yesterday. He had suspected as much. I apologized for not having kept a closer eye on Bargo. Bargo has been told to apologize to Gin and to Frodo. One of the letters in that stack is from Bargo. I read it before he was allowed to seal it, so I know what it says. I ask that Frodo not write directly to either Bargo or Bluebell, but send any correspondence to them through me. If either of my two attempts to write directly to him, I’d like to know of it.’

‘I will make your wishes known to Frodo and instruct him that they are my wishes as well.’

‘Thank you. I also spoke with Hargo and Otho, as my son is not alone in this wickedness. Their sons had lied to them of what had happened. They did not wish to believe my words and tried to cast blame upon the younger boys.’

‘I had heard something of that. I do not intend to speak to either of them on this.’

Rufus nodded. ‘I offer to you, Mr. Baggins, my apology for my son’s cruelty to your… nephew. I hold Frodo blameless in this.’

‘I accept your apology, Mr. Burrows, and bear no ill-will, only regret that such misfortune has befallen both of our lads.’

‘You are most kind.’ Rufus shifted in his seat, looking unhappy. ‘I… Bargo said something yesterday when I questioned him, something so shocking that I almost dismissed it as a lie, but I think he was telling the truth. I know not what to say of this, or even who I can speak to, if I should speak to anyone.’

He told you about Sara. Bilbo made his expression calm. ‘I will hear anything you wish to say and in complete confidence.’

‘Bargo claims that there was an adult who encouraged him and the others to do harm to Frodo, who himself did harm to the boy, and…’ Rufus looked distraught. ‘This is what I cannot believe. He claims the Master knew of and countenanced it!’

‘Parts of what Bargo told you are true.’

‘Which parts?’ Rufus demanded.

‘There was an adult who encouraged the tweens in their wickedness and who made obscene use of Frodo himself.’ No, I’ll not protect your secrets, Rory. You shall feel the bite of this wound. Bilbo looked Rufus in the eye. ‘It was Sara. I know this from multiple people, not just Frodo.’

Rufus exhaled sharply, expression grim. ‘That… that is beyond wicked! Is this why you claimed Frodo so suddenly? You knew?’

‘No, I was already determined to take the lad home, but I found out last Halimath when I went to get him.’

‘And what did Rory know?’

‘He knew of some of it, not all, and turned a blind eye when he should have asked questions.’ Bilbo thought a moment. ‘He knew that the boys were fooling, as boys will do, but not that anyone was being forced, though he should have suspected something given their ages. He knew that Sara was harsh to Frodo, but didn’t look more closely. I know from someone else that Sara claimed Rory knew and approved of what was done to Frodo, but he was lying. At Yule, Gilda wrung a confession from Sara.’ And Rory was striking Frodo and casting him out for telling the truth at almost the same moment. ‘In retaliation, Sara beat Frodo badly at Wintermark. Esmie has been spreading lies to distract from her husband’s depravities. The Master is still making amends to me for the harm he allowed to be visited on my child while in his care. I have very little patience with my Brandybuck kin right now.’

‘I find I share your sentiment, Bilbo.’ Rufus gave him a sharp look. ‘Anyone who attempts to speak such slander of you or your lad to me or my sons, any of my sons, shall find himself sharply rebuked.’

‘It is my hope that the slander will not be spoken. Some gossips will say anything of anyone, but those who have influence and who have been wont to speak it in the past have been, for the most part, warned away from such claims.’

‘Such as… Otho?’

‘Such as Rory, and down the line from him. The only ones I know of who will not be silent are Esmie and Pal.’

Rufus tipped his head and smiled. ‘Pal should know better than to speak ill of his kin, particularly when he is asking for a great gift of land from them.’

Bilbo smiled in return. ‘Yes, you would think he would be more sensible. Apparently, he thinks that threatening to do me harm is a better way to win my support than by politely doing me some good.’

‘I’m afraid I cannot allow such insult to be rewarded,’ Rufus said in mock sorrow.

‘Neither can I. And now, alas, I must bid you farewell, for I have things to attend to before the Moot, where several of my kin shall be deeply disappointed.’ And I shall be as Sting to the spiders who would cast their webs about me and my lad.


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