19. Point

POV - Frodo

In which dragons battle, much is said, a bit less is done, and Frodo ponders what might have been.


2 Lithe, 1290


Me and Darron will be waiting for you at the dwarf tent. We need to get rid of Amy and go have some fun. Maybe we can go out to the horse races? Mama and Papa don’t want to go that far out, but maybe they’ll let us go if you’re there. You’re my best friend ever.



30 Forelithe, 1390

My dearest rascal,

Yes, I know I just wrote you, and you’ll probably be home by the time you read this, but I got a letter from Rory this morning and he mentioned you and I miss you all so much.

I remember when I was just your age going to the Free Fair. I went with a number of kin, including Mistress Belladonna, Uncle Bilbo’s mother. I was prenticed to her as Ula is to me. It was great fun, though I was so tired I slept in the wagon most of the way home.

When you are home, you must write me a long letter and tell me of all your adventures – what you saw, who you spoke to, anything unusual that you did. I hope you and the Beggar are going dancing each night. That is what I remember best.



Fairgrounds, Michel Delving, Late Morning, 2 Lithe, 1390

There was a long silence, unbroken by even a whisper. Frodo glanced over at Bilbo, who had a hand over his mouth and chin as though concentrating intently, but Frodo could see the small smile Bilbo was hiding. Widow Grubb shall now instruct you all on how a hobbit slays a dragon. Frodo gave his full attention to the crone.

Maud walked a few paces out into the circle, never dropping her eye from Odogar. She was barely Dilly’s height and her widow’s hump made her shorter yet, but she seemed as formidable as any elven warrior out of Bilbo’s tales. When she came to a halt, she drew herself up and spat in Odogar’s direction, getting a gasp from the audience at her discourtesy towards the head of a great clan.

‘That is what I think of you. You’re a lying, cheating, Dragon-fevered scoundrel!’

‘What is this slander, you foolish old woman?’ Odogar said. The madness that had seized him earlier had vanished, and now he appeared to be no more than an aggrieved fellow trying to make sense of undeserved blame. There was a collective growl from the Grubbs at their Maud being called foolish, though she only grinned at Odogar’s name-calling.

‘I’m talking about the shadow you cast on Eastfarthing, Bolger, when the root harvest failed last year and goodwives went begging for food!’

‘That is nonsense!’ he protested and was met with shouts of derision from various parts of the room.

‘The roots didn’t fail?’ the widow challenged. ‘There wasn’t a bad harvest in Eastfarthing south of the Road and down into the Marish?’

‘There was some spoilage around the Yale, and a fear elsewhere that the usual levels of rot were in excess.’

‘The harvest was bad south to Rushey,’ said Wiley Mead. ‘There was hardly a field of roots for two leagues around Stock that wasn’t more than half spoiled.’

‘The spoilage in the Yale was near complete.’ Griffo spoke without any hostility, but also without his usual pleasantness. ‘Anything not completely spoiled could only go to feed pigs. This was from east of Frogmorton to the River Road, and from the East Road south to the Green Hills. It was all in my account to you. Cousin Bertie told me the Bridgefields lost over half their roots, from the Scary Road to the River, and at least two leagues north.’ Frodo gave his cousin an appraising look. If you want a new Eastfarthing head, you’d not do much better than Griffo.

Hargo Bracegirdle stepped forward. ‘All of Girdley Island and the bank lost at least a third of our roots, and all the rutabagas. To my knowledge, there wasn’t a good field of untouched roots south of the Scary Hills and east of the Oatbarton Road. I wrote of this just as I wrote of the fever rash.’

Odogar’s look started to become fierce again, his stance threatening. ‘And when did you see fit to tell me of this? In accounts sent after Yule! Until then, I’d been told only by my cousin Gun that things were off near Whitfurrows…’

‘Another lie!’ snarled Maud. ‘You sent that stupid beast,’ she pointed a finger at Odovacar, ‘off to the Tooklands in late Blotmath to start dealing with the ugly Took to get more roots into the markets. He bragged about it when he stopped at the Toad’s Hole in Frogmorton, and Marta Hammerfoot, whose man owns the tavern, she told me when she came to settle her accounts for the week.’

‘I just said Gun told me before…’

‘And you had plenty of roots for the Whitfurrows market, at a pretty penny, just when no one had any of their own!’

‘Yes! The new market had roots from other places all ready for people when their own wasn’t enough. Isn’t that what a market is for?’ This got more sympathetic talk from the crowd.

‘Faugh! By your own whelp’s admission – and the cur shouldn’t be allowed to talk after he’s been drinkin’ – you just planned to sell as dear as you could, no matter who went hungry. The goodwives of Whitfurrows couldn’t trade for it neither. Your fancy market only takes coin.’ That raised a rumble of discontent. ‘You made money on the want of others!’

‘And the other green markets of the Shire give their roots away, right?’ he shot back. ‘I know of no market, not even the one in Frogmorton, that failed to place a price on the roots and the apples and the onions and every other good that was offered up. If you take me to task, then you do so to every person who sells their wares.’

‘You knew there was want and you saw naught but gold! When your cousin, Bilbo Baggins, heard of the failed harvest, he knew the right thing to do was to tell the Master and the Thain that people needed help. The Master made roots available for trade, not just purchase. Thain Ferumbras sent old roots for the livestock and new roots for the goodwives as a Yule gift, almost three dozen carts all told, and didn’t ask for a thing in return! He kept more good food arriving through the winter and into Astron, for trade as well as for coin.’ Maud shook her finger at Odogar. ‘You’re not the only greedy Bolger! Your no-good cousin Gun stole the cart of the Thain’s gifts to Whitfurrows and tried to sell it to line his own pocket!’

At this news, a growl of disapproval swept over the hall. There was a limit to how much greed decent hobbits would allow, and Gun had gone past it. It did not seem to make an impression on Odogar, who never took his eyes off Widow Grubb, his expression a mix of anger and madness.

‘You should not blame Odogar alone, though he does bear the greatest fault in this.’ Bilbo’s head snapped around to look at Otho. Their duplicitous cousin had a calm, somewhat sorrowful expression on his face. ‘The Thain’s Heir, Paladin, wrote to me in Foreyule and asked me to intervene with my cousin, Bilbo, and persuade Bilbo to stop interfering with the deal Pal and Odogar had made to sell roots. He knew the harvest was poor, though perhaps not that it had failed, and he said to me that he did not inform the Thain directly of this news.’

‘And what business was it of the Thain’s?’ Odogar snarled before Pal could protest. ‘Or the Master, for that matter? I went to Pal because of the Master’s high-handed ways in the Marish – and it is as Bilbo says; he’ll meddle in the Shire but not let us ask of his own doings in Buckland! – and we made a perfectly good deal to bring in roots to sell, just as everyone else’s roots got sold!’ He turned his furious gaze on Maud and started walking towards her. ‘You are twisting this story about, old woman, trying to create fault where there is naught but plain deals.’

Bilbo walked into the circle between Maud and Odogar. Frodo would have followed, but both Otho and Dudo held his shoulders while Falco grabbed the back of his coat. ‘Don’t distract him,’ Otho whispered. ‘He can handle Odogar, but not if you’re in the middle of it.’

For a moment, it looked like Odogar might try to dart around Bilbo to lunge at Maud, then his attention was completely on the old hobbit. The contrast between the two could not be greater. Bilbo stood tall and dignified, a picture of calm, while Odogar was stooped and tense, shifting from foot to foot as though preparing to charge. Behind Bilbo, a few of the widow’s kin edged out and pulled her back to safety.

‘No, Odogar,’ Bilbo said firmly, ‘you shall not gainsay the words of so many. You let your greed rule you, not your heart or even common sense. I have said to both you and to Rory, as is my right as elder cousin to you both, that you must cease your foolish squabbles over the Marish, go to The Golden Perch, and discuss your differences as civilized people do, over a beer.’ This got some nervous laughter. ‘But you and Pal took advantage of people’s need to wring some extra coin from them. No one will begrudge a merchant his honest fee! What the two of you, and Odovacar as well, did about the harvest failure was dishonest. You sought to profit not by increasing all of our prosperity, but by exploiting others’ misfortune.’ For a several heartbeats, Odogar stared wildly at Bilbo, his hands clenching and unclenching, while Bilbo waited. Slowly, Odogar backed away until he stood before his clan. Only then did Bilbo return to his spot next to Frodo.

There was a long silence. Across the circle, Frodo saw Pal staring at him. No, not at him, at someone behind him. Posco. Just as he tapped Bilbo’s hand to get his attention, Pal gave a nod.

‘If Odogar hasn’t done right by the folk of Eastfarthing, maybe he shouldn’t be in charge of it.’ Bilbo and most of the rest of the Bagginses turned to look at the speaker. Posco was glaring at Bilbo, ignoring Prisca’s attempts to make him be quiet. ‘I have as much right to speak my mind here as any!’ he said, looking rather like a disgruntled toad. Frodo glanced over at Pal, who wore an unpleasant smirk. When he noticed Frodo watching him, he sneered.

‘Of course, you may,’ Bilbo said in a mild tone. Frodo turned back at the sound of Bilbo’s voice. His expression was forbidding, though Frodo did not feel the dread from earlier this morning. The old hobbit gestured for Posco to come forward. ‘Stand where people may see you.’ Posco edged forward, watching Bilbo warily, halting between him and Frodo. Beyond Bilbo, Otho stood stock-still, eyes to the front, refusing to look at his detested cousin.

‘Ye all heard Bilbo,’ Posco said, glancing about without really looking at anyone. ‘The Bolger, he’s done a bad job, and not just being stupid. Meaning to do it.’ These words unleashed a rustle of whispers as people agreed or argued. ‘Him and the younger, the Bolgers, they’re not fit to run their farthing!’ The whispers got louder, and most seemed in agreement.

‘That’s a bit far to say, Posco,’ protested Griffo. ‘This is just one thing after many years of good. Bertie’s doing a proper job of running the Whitfurrows market.’

‘The little Bolger, we don’t mind him,’ said Maud, looking and sounding feisty, ‘but the big ‘uns, they’re trouble!’

‘Let him run the market, then, but put someone else in charge of the farthing,’ Posco said. ‘Get it ordered right. Or,’ he glanced quickly at Bilbo, ‘not the whole thing, but less, smaller, so there’s less mischief to be done.’

The whispers turned into murmurs and quiet conversation as many weighed these words. Pal was back to smirking and did not seem to notice the Thain’s cool gaze upon him.

Menemac Goold stepped forward, shaking his head. ‘I don’t much like this talk of splitting things apart because there’s been a bit of foolishness. What would that mean, to break up a farthing? Have Bertie mind it until these two can show they’ve learned their lesson. Widow Grubb’s right, he’s a sensible fellow.’ Bilbo and Otho both nodded in agreement, as did Rufus, while people around the circle quietly debated the wisdom of entrusting a farthing to such a young man.

Up on the platform, Pasco waved for silence. ‘We’ve talked about a Market master. Most markets will lie along the Road because of the trade. Why not make a Centralfarthing that is just the Road and bit to either side, and make sure no greedy mischief can take place?’

‘A road farthing?’ Menemac sounded thoroughly confused.

‘Yes. From the Water in the north to the Stock Road to the south, Waymeet in the west to River Road in the east. That’s all the lands worst hit by the bad roots, plus where the most new markets will go in and need minding by an honest hobbit. The Thain already has a farthing to tend,’ Pasco gave Rum a slight bow, ‘so another would be needed.’

‘And the best hobbit for that is Bilbo Baggins!’ shouted Posco.

Pandemonium broke out in response to this, and nothing could be heard clearly over the roar of debate. Bilbo turned slightly, looking down at Posco, and the rest of the hall dimmed in Frodo’s vision, his uncle alone being distinct. He sensed more than saw Posco cowering between them. Their other kinsmen were pulling away, feeling the menace that cloaked Bilbo.

‘That will be all from you, Posco.’ Bilbo’s voice was still soft, but no longer mild. ‘You were told not to play into Pal’s hands. There will be consequences. Leave. Now.’ The last word was more growl than voice. Bilbo turned away and gave his attention to the babble in the hall. Frodo gave Posco a gentle push towards Ponto and Porto, who scurried up and took hold of their father, supporting him as they led him from the building.

The Stock headman was vehemently opposed to this plan. ‘We answer to the Master, not Hobbiton!’ Wiley Mead fumed. ‘I’d sooner join the Marish to Buckland as to some place on the other side of nowhere!’

‘Why go splittin’ anything?’ called out Hargo Bracegirdle. ‘Just put Baggins in charge of Eastfarthing, for a little bit ‘til things are squared away.’ This got a lot of agreement from a number of people. You just want a Baggins toehold into Eastfarthing and hope that Otho can grab it. Frodo was getting disgusted by the greed and conniving.

The Mayor gaveled the room to relative quiet. Behind him on the blackboard, the minder had written the possibility of a new headman for Eastfarthing and another of an entirely new farthing. ‘So, there are some things to consider here…’

‘Yes, but none that are for this Moot to decide.’

The dragon had receded and once more it was just his wise and kind uncle, sounding a bit weary. Bilbo smiled. ‘Let me be clear so there can be no misunderstanding. I am flattered that anyone thinks well enough of me to entrust me with such important things as markets and farthings, but I am not the hobbit you need. I have no wish to burden the end of my days with such serious things. I just want my pipe, my poetry and some patient friends to inflict it upon!’ This got a true laugh.

Bilbo walked a few paces out into the circle. ‘This talk of splitting, taking, grasping, pulling things and people away from our settled habits, I do not think this a good way handle foolishness. It is best that people acknowledge their wrongs, fix their mistakes and promise to do better. But in this, you have forgotten the most important thing; the farthings are not the possessions of a few headmen to be handed about like mathoms at a birthday. They are the responsibility of all the free folk who dwell within them.’

With a quick turn, Bilbo pointed at the Stock headman. ‘Whose fault is the poor harvest and bare tables? One might as well say shame on you, Wiley, for not asking about and sending word to help your people in their need!’ He pointed at Owen Eastbrook, the Rushey headman. ‘What of the spread of the fever rash? Is it not your charge to see that word was sent and an answer received? Shame on any who wishes to lay blame, but who did not lend your hand and heart to your neighbors in their need.’

‘But there’s no arguing that Odogar’s an idiot, Baggins,’ Maud cheekily answered.

‘Of course he’s an idiot. He’s my cousin!’ Bilbo said with a grin, getting another round of laughter, though Odogar did not look amused. ‘Truly, if you of Eastfarthing believe your headman to be failing you, don’t look to some elvish-spouting madman from the next farthing over to save you. Look amongst yourselves for another who will do better. You have a number right here to consider, and I keep hearing you say that the younger Bolger’s a good sort. But,’ here Bilbo looked at the Mayor for several heartbeats and then at Pal, ‘the decision can only be done by the hobbits of Eastfarthing, and without the various schemes of those who would continue this attempt to profit from other’s misfortune.’

Bilbo clapped his hands together. ‘Let me tell you a story.’ This was met with an equal number of cheers and groans. ‘When Smaug descended in flame and fury upon the unwary people of Esgaroth, their Master fled, abandoning them to their doom. They had none to call upon, and only their own courage and cleverness could save them. As quick as could be, they sent their weakest off in boats to escape the firedrake’s wrath. They were in the end saved by a single bowman, Bard, to whom I had sent word of the one weakness of the dragon. It was enough, though just, to let Bard fell the beast with his last arrow, and save them from destruction.’

‘But it was you who knew how to kill that creature, Bilbo,’ said Mister Greenbough, the lumberyard owner from Whitfurrows. ‘You told him how.’

‘No, I knew not how to kill the dragon. I knew only his weakness.’ Bilbo turned his gaze onto Odogar. ‘It was for another to do the deed and defeat the foe. It took us both and all the dwarves and every soul of Esgaroth to see this done. When the dragon was slain, a greater peril awaited, for winter arrived the next day, with their homes and stores destroyed. They pulled together and refused to set upon each other. They shared what little they had and now they have a greater town upon the lake and another place of plenty, in the Dale before Erebor, where once there was only the desolation of the dragon.’ Bilbo gave a small bow and returned to his place amongst the Baggins.

Frodo looked around the hall, trying to get a sense of what people were thinking. From the looks being thrown towards Odogar, he had very little standing left. Wilcar and Rum were exchanging quiet words near the Chubbs, Rum’s back to the circle, the sliver clasp at his nape reflecting a bit of light coming in one of the high windows. The Mayor looked lost, obviously uncertain what to say next, not that anyone was paying him the least bit of attention. Perhaps you know now which Baggins you should be speaking to. What Frodo found most interesting was that the Tooks had moved away from Pal, leaving him standing a bit apart from the rest of the clan. He was glaring at Bilbo, unmindful of the judgment of his kin. You have been found wanting, too, Pal. Around the hall, people were engaged in quiet conversations which added up to a strong, steady buzz.

Otho turned his back to the circle and spoke quietly to Bilbo. ‘What now?’ The other Baggins leaned in to hear the conversation.

‘We have yet to hear from the Thain. The other farthing heads and the Mayor have made their interests known, but he has not declared what he wishes done.’

‘He’s been speaking all along.’

‘Yes, but in answer to other’s concerns, not with his own.’

‘What of Cousin Odogar?’

‘Oh, I suspect he’ll remain in charge, but with every eye in the farthing upon him. He’ll have no chance for mischief.’

Rum and Wilcar ended their conversation with some nods and Rum went back to the Tooks. He pointedly ignored Pal and waved Addy to come stand to his right. This made Bilbo chuckle softly. Ada took Pal’s arm and pulled her brother a few steps back.

‘Pasco,’ Rum said briskly, ‘those last two items can be erased from the board as they are nothing for the Moot to decide upon, as Bilbo explained. It is for the free folk of Eastfarthing to sort out this matter as they think best.’ When Pasco stared at him stupidly, Rum sighed and motioned for the blackboard tender to do as he had asked.

‘As for the questions about the markets, it strikes me as premature to appoint anyone to anything for overseeing them. By the close of this year, we shall have only two, and one is not even in the Shire, but in Buckland. They will both be well run. For now, Otho’s wisdom that the great markets need to be run by those that set them up is best.’ Rum inclined his head to Otho, who returned the gesture. ‘I recommend only that the next market should be set up to the south as that is the next greatest route of trade in and out of the Shire.’

‘And we know who will not be in charge of it,’ murmured Falco. ‘A certain heir who has made a hash of things.’

‘Undoubtedly,’ was Bilbo’s bland reply.

‘But there is a problem here, one that took us by surprise last year, and which must be addressed. We have forgotten the cause of so much discontent.’ Rum’s tone was serious. ‘We know not what the coming harvest will be and until we do, we live in uncertainty. We must not allow ourselves to be taken unawares by another bad harvest and find ourselves like the pitiful folk of Bilbo’s tale, facing winter’s bite with naught in the cellar.’ This got assent from all around, and the faces around the room were as serious as their Thain. ‘This time last year, all looked well, just as it does now. But this year, our stores are drawn down. We have no extra, for we needed it last winter. What if there is another bad harvest come Blotmath?’

Here Rum turned and gave Pal a scornful look. ‘We certainly cannot allow what happened last year to be repeated, with a few people knowing the danger and caring more for their own pockets than a goodwife’s table.’ This drew some jeers at Pal’s expense. ‘What I propose,’ Rum said briskly, addressing the hall again, ‘is we shall have a Harvest Moot in late Winterfilth, and that harvest tallies from all farthings shall be presented. If we are going to have a serious problem, we will know early.’

Hargo Bracegirdle waved his hand to speak. ‘Where do you propose holding this?’

‘As close to the center of the Shire as possible. Bywater, Waymeet or Tuckborough are the best places.’

‘And who shall meet? Most farmers will still be tending their harvests, getting it put away,’ Uncle Odo said. ‘They’re the ones who will know what they’re picking, digging up and cutting down.’

‘All farthing heads, or their deputies,’ here Rum sent an amused look in Odogar’s direction, ‘and all township heads where there are five hundred people, they must attend and must come with all the tallies they can gather. Smaller townships should try to send someone or at least their tallies. I think it good if the Master or someone of the Hall also be present.’

‘Buckland will send its news,’ Rory gravely assured the Thain.

Rum drew himself up to his full height. ‘It is not acceptable to me that a single child of any farthing go hungry if there is food to be had and enough to share. We shall not see a repeat of last year’s greed. I shall take the burden upon myself to see that this is done.’

This was met with a loud cheer, applause, and general acclaim as eminently sensible and proper. Words of praise for their Thain were voiced in all corners of the hall. Wilcar did not wait for Pasco, and directed the blackboard minder to write the Thain’s proposal down.

By this point, the Mayor seemed to have remembered that he was supposed to be running the meeting. ‘Very good! Very good,’ he exclaimed. ‘I think these the greatest matters that we have to discuss today, but is there more that someone wishes to speak of?’

‘Yes,’ Rufus said. ‘What is the condition of our bridges? You spoke generally of them at the start, Pasco, but I know that there is not a single bridge of size in Northfarthing that did not need some significant repair this year. I’m having a hard time getting enough stone or lumber to do all repairs in a single season, and then we get into harvest and winter, and there’s either not enough hands or not enough good weather, and there’s yet more to fix. Before we start doling out stone for markets, however needful, should we not ensure that the bridges needed to get to these markets are in proper repair? I might add that the fords need tending, too. I’ve got one across the Little Water that’s dug out and nigh unusable, and others along the Water that could stand some work. Who else has a hard time keeping up with the bridges?’

There were a lot of voices on this matter and it turned out that, for some reason, stone and lumber were more dear than in years past, though it was not certain where it was going, just that it was harder to get. Dark looks were aimed at Odogar whose expression was as hard as the slabs dug from his quarries. There was also a question of just how many bridges there were and of what kind and who was responsible for them. Otho suggested that a tally of those be brought to the harvest moot. ‘Counting bridges cannot be that much more different than counting bushels or barrels,’ he said, ‘so why not bring a list of all that can be counted?’

Talk of bridges led to talk of dams and waterways and water mills, and Wilcar urged all to check these carefully and ensure that gates and spillways were fixed while water levels were low. ‘The winters of the last few years have been wetter and a bit colder than before,’ he noted, ‘and this wears out wood and fittings more swiftly.’ He also hinted that better mechanisms might improve the durability and usefulness of these things, noting that there were several interesting exhibits in the mechanics barn that could be put to good use.

Discussion turned to livestock and the sheep fair that was to be held in Afterlithe in Nobottle. Falco and some other fellows from Nobottle and Tighfield were organizing this. There was some mention of wolves in the north, but none seemed too alarmed. Congratulations were offered to the various award winners for their champion animals, and Mac’s Rushies got a special round of applause for their magnificent performance in the weight pull. What interested Frodo was the lack of any news of things wrong that hinted of the Parting. Is this because there isn’t any, or because none speak of it? He knew it was so and did not think that it would be missed by those who knew the land or beasts. He hoped it was because it was not widespread, not that people were hiding it.

It was well past lunch by the time the general talk died down. People were tiring out and Frodo could hear several stomachs rumbling in protest of the missed meal. Pasco studied the list on the blackboard before holding up his hands for attention.

‘Friends, neighbors and esteemed visitors, we are almost to an end of our Moot.’ There were many cheers at this news. ‘All that remains is the decision on whether to increase the Bounders, and what to collect for the tithe on them, the Shirriffs and the Messengers. Let us start backwards – is there any call to change the number of Messengers?’ The consensus was there was no need to change them. ‘We presently collect a copper penny a head through the townships, plus a silver penny for every hundred of a township. We have about two copper crowns left for the year. If we keep the Messenger numbers the same, I see no reason to change. Is this acceptable?’ A loud cheer of “Aye!” filled the hall. Frodo knew that very few people actually paid in a penny, but gave goods to their clan and townships heads or wealthier kin, who paid the pennies for them. The Shirriffs were in the same state as the Messengers, but were only paid for by the townships in silver pennies. Some grumbled that they neither wrote nor read any letters, nor did they need the Shirriffs’ help to corral stray cows or drunken menfolk, so why should they pay the tithe, but they were ignored.

‘What of the extra Bounders?’ Pasco asked. ‘We now ask a silver penny per house or smial, a copper crown per township and a silver penny per mile of bound for each farthing. This is almost five silver crowns each year when all is added up. We would need to double that to double our Bounders.’

People looked doubtful. ‘That’s a lot of coin,’ said a Grubb. ‘If you don’t have coin, you have to pay in goods to one who does. What if harvest is bad and you don’t have stuff to trade? Messengers were dear in Eastfarthing this spring.’

‘Well, what of money from these markets?’ Cal asked, giving Rory a calculating look.

‘There’s only one market in the Shire right now,’ Griffo said. ‘We don’t know what it brings in and can spare, and it’s just the one.’

‘Bertie can speak to that at the Harvest Moot,’ Bilbo smoothly said. ‘We cannot wait upon the markets to increase the Bounders, for these strangers and ruffians wander about now. It will be years for all the markets to finish being built.’ He looked about. ‘Last Yule, King Dáin of Erebor gifted me with a gold dwarf crown for my service to them in regaining their lost kingdom.’ There was a gasp of amazement at this, as much for the reason as for the coin. ‘I pledge that as earnest for whatever costs the Bounders incur for ten years.’ He grinned. ‘It’s not like I can spend it at The Green Dragon for a round of ale!’

A roar of laughter and shouts of thanks met this offer. When Pasco asked for a vote on the increased Bounders, it was met with approval. Pasco thanked everyone for attending and gaveled the Moot closed, to another great cheer. Otho offered Bilbo a polite “Good day” and hastened off to Lobelia. The other Baggins cousins stayed close and Griffo soon joined them, as did Odo. Across the hall, Frodo saw others slowly making their way towards Bilbo, stopping to shake hands and exchange greetings, but never stopping their advance.

‘This is a bit public, Bilbo,’ said Falco quietly.

‘Yes. I think we should go to where we met before.’ Bilbo glanced at Frodo, whose stomach let out a loud and emphatic gurgle. They both started laughing. ‘But not before I see to a certain tween’s hunger! You must be famished, lad.’

As much as he wanted to go to whatever meeting Bilbo planned to hold, Frodo had to admit that he needed lunch even more. ‘I can get myself something to eat, Uncle Bilbo, if you need to go.’

‘May I take him, Bilbo?’ Aunt Blossom cheerily asked as she arrived next to them. ‘I suspect Addy isn’t going to be available for a while and I need to locate my ravening horde. I promise to feed him lunch.’

‘We’ll go, too, Bilbo,’ Tulip assured him, giving Frodo a loving hug that managed to squeeze every bruise along his shoulders. Dudo added to the misery with a strong pat in the middle of his back right where Bargo had pounded him most viciously.

‘Is this all right with you, Frodo?’ Bilbo asked, having noticed the Frodo flinching.

‘Yes, it is,’ Frodo reassured him. ‘I promised Wilcar I’d go look for Darron when the Moot was done, and I bet he’s with Gin and the rest.’

‘Very well. But, after you help Blossom and get a bite, I’d like you to go back to the inn and change out of your best. I know how dirty you and the others will be by the end of the day. If I don’t see you back at the inn, I will look for you here with the others.’ Frodo nodded. Bilbo gave him a few coins, bade him to mind his aunts and uncle, and shooed him off to get something to eat.

It was slow and crowded to leave the sewing building, and the air was hot. Frodo’s feet were stepped on several times and few bothered to apologize for their clumsiness. He and Dudo did their best to keep Blossom and Tulip from getting jostled too badly in the swarm of hobbits headed down the main walk and towards the fairway. Blossom’s brood was nowhere to be seen. ‘Oh, drat!’ she said. ‘Where are the little monsters?’

‘How did you get here this morning?’ Frodo asked.

‘Rum brought us in the wagon.’

He smiled. ‘I bet they are in the stables with the ponies.’ If Darron and Gin were at the dwarf tent, he would just run over and get them.

Blossom laughed and kissed his cheek. ‘You are brilliant! And hungry. Let’s get a bite to eat as we walk. Bilbo will never forgive me if I let you starve.’ They braved the long lines and eventually had some meat pasties in hand. Frodo wolfed down three by the time they reached the stable. As Frodo had predicted, the youngsters were with Dickon and Thomas, sitting on the ponies or in the wagon, Odogrim leaning on a stall wall, keeping an eye on them. Amy and Pearl waved from their perches on the ponies’ backs when they saw them approaching. Frodo was not particularly surprised or pleased to see Tom with Gin and Darron, but there probably was no polite way to keep the little sneak away. What did surprise him was Bluebell sitting on the wagon seat next to Dottie and Flame, holding a napping Evie. The boys dashed over to say hello, and Frodo was amused to see that Gin and Tom were still wearing the shirts Rum had provided the day before. Tom immediately claimed one of Frodo’s hands, though he would not look at Frodo or say anything. Gin and Darron took turns regaling Frodo with stories of their morning adventures, interrupting each other every few words.

When they reached the wagon, Blossom gave Bluebell a curious look. The girl looked worn out and miserable, her eyes red and puffy from crying, dark circles under her eyes, her hair pulled back in a slightly ragged braid, not at all like her usual fancy hair style. Amy slid down from her seat on Thomas (or was it Dickon?) and hurried over to the wagon. She scampered up to the seat and sat next to Bluebell, putting an arm around her. Gin and Darron stayed close to Frodo and Odogrim, eyeing Bluebell warily.

‘Mama,’ Amy said very seriously, ‘you must let Bluebell stay with us today. She was with Harriet, who was being a beast and making her cry, so I gave Harriet a shove and told Bluebell to come with us, ‘cuz Harriet’s mean! She got Evie to sleep, too, and he likes her, and so do me and Flame and Dottie, so she has to stay.’ Amy gave Bluebell a hug and kiss on the cheek, which set Bluebell to sniffling. Dudo pulled out a handkerchief and handed it to her.

‘I let her come with us, Aunt Blossom,’ Odogrim said. ‘The other girl was being mean and I didn’t think it right to leave a young girl walking about by herself.’

‘Of course, you couldn’t do that,’ Blossom assured him, ‘and it’s good you had someone a bit older to help you with the little ones. She gave Bluebell a cheerful smile. ‘I hope they haven’t been too much trouble to look after.’

‘Oh, no ma’am, not at all,’ Bluebell said. ‘They’ve all behaved themselves.’ She smiled shyly at Amy, who gave her another hug and kiss. And last night you hated her. Frodo decided he would never understand how girls thought.

‘That’s good. I may have to keep you about, if you can get this pack to mind their manners!’ This got a true smile from Bluebell. ‘The Moot is finally done, and I suspect your parents are wondering where you are. We should go find them.’

Bluebell looked like she would prefer to stay out in the stables, but sighed and nodded. Dudo held out his arms to take Evie, who was still sound asleep, his pudgy cheeks sticky and dirty from whatever mischief he had been in that morning. The mention of the end of the Moot reminded Frodo of something.

‘Tom,’ he said, freeing his hand from the other’s grasp, ‘I saw Mister Greenbough at the Moot. He did some talking about building markets. He’s probably looking for you now to help him.’

‘Oh, yes, you’re right! I should go help him with setting down the morning business,’ Tom replied, very serious.

‘And I need to go back to the inn and meet Uncle Bilbo,’ Frodo said to the adults. The children were soon rounded up, though Pearl protested that she should stay with the ponies and wait for her grandfather to come back. Blossom was unmoved by the argument. They bade good bye to Tom at the post office, for he spied Mister Greenbough there, and walked Frodo most of the way to the east gate before saying farewell and promising to meet again later.

Frodo walked slowly back to the inn. It was strange. The Moot had come and gone, and everything seemed… normal. Watching Odogar waver back and forth between being a hobbit and being not so much a dragon as something much smaller and more ugly, like a troll or an Orc, had been unnerving. Aside from that, there had not been anything amiss. Well, Posco being an ass, but Bilbo took care of him. Frodo shivered despite the heat at the memory of Bilbo’s anger over the idiot’s meddling. All the conniving, all the double-dealing, all the underhanded tricks and deceptions had come to naught when they had to be presented before everyone at the Moot.

In some ways, Frodo felt a little ridiculous for having been so anxious over what would happen. Bilbo has worn himself out with worry, but nothing came of it. Only because he worked so hard to ensure that this would be so. That was the point of all his work. He had stopped the plan and made Odogar and Pal look ridiculous in the doing.

Even so, there were plenty who would have been willing to let some part of Odogar and Pal’s mad scheme come true. Hargo’s suggestion that Bilbo mind things in Eastfarthing for a short while had been a popular suggestion, and Frodo knew that had Bilbo not so firmly rejected it, it might well have been agreed to. If Bilbo had said he would do so, he would have dedicated himself to the work, walking all about the farthing, listening to questions, writing letter after letter after letter to get this, that and the other thing in motion, and caring deeply for what had been entrusted to him. No one would have wanted him to be done. The farthing folk would wish to keep him.

That was the true danger, and Frodo felt even more ridiculous for having forgotten how Bilbo had always warned of this. The plan was never to have Bilbo run the farthing properly. It was always to have Bilbo win it and then snatch it away. Remember how Odovacar spoke of you and Bilbo to Rum. This made Frodo wonder. “He throws his support to Otho or he loses his whore.” Rum might not have meant it, but Otho and Pal certainly did, and they had lost their chance at the farthing due to Bilbo’s sensible arguments and quiet counsel. He doubted that they had learned a lesson from their failure.

When he got back to the inn, Frodo took his time changing out of his good clothes and into more ordinary things. For a few seconds he was tempted to pull on Rum’s shirt so he would match Gin and Tom, but remembered that Bilbo did not like it on him. He knew it was petty, but Frodo liked that Bilbo did not want Rum’s scent on him. You’re the one he wants to hold, not Rum. He knew he should not be thinking such things, that they were too close to what Bilbo did not ever want to hear from him, but he could not help the thought. He took care to shake out his good clothes and hang them up neatly the way Bilbo would want him to do it.

After Frodo finished changing, it was midafternoon and he was hungry again. He had only had the early breakfast and the few pasties for a late lunch. He went to the common room and was quickly waited on by several serving girls. He enjoyed their flirting as it kept him distracted from his own thoughts. Frodo took his time eating, hoping Bilbo would show up, but there was no sign of the old hobbit. With a sigh, he headed back to the Fair.

There was a good deal of traffic along the main north-south road, most of it heading away from the fair grounds. There were no more significant contests to be judged, aside from the horse racing just west of the grounds, and people were eager to begin their journey home. The wagons and carts that passed him were loaded with whatever they had brought to the Fair three days before and a number had a few animals either on lead lines or being herded along behind. In the distance, the west road leading to the Drop had an almost unbroken line of wagons upon it. Once at the fairgrounds, Frodo saw that the various exhibits were being dismantled, animals led away, stalls and booths packed up. By nightfall, there would be little left besides the food stalls near the fairway.

He wandered about the fairway first to see if he could spot any of his cousins, but did not see them. He headed to the dwarves’ tent next, figuring that Darron and Gin, and probably Amy, would know to wait for him there. He hoped that Tom was being kept busy by Mister Greenbough. The dwarves were packing up their wares like most of the other merchants in the row, though they did not plan to leave until early the next morning and intended to go all the way to Greenholm on the western bounds in a single day. Bóin greeted Frodo pleasantly and said that none of his young friends had been to the tent all day. Frodo thanked him and went to the stables. Rum’s team and wagon were gone, which probably meant that he had taken the family back to the inn to nap through the heat of the late afternoon.

Strangely, Frodo felt a bit relieved that he would not be seeing his boisterous cousins. The only company he really wanted right now was Bilbo’s, and he considered returning to the inn. No, Bilbo told you he would meet you here, so find a place where he can find you. He went to the Grubb’s beer stand and bought himself a mug, then found a relatively quiet bench in the shade where he could sit, sip and think.

It was not so much thinking as an unhurried meander through what he had seen and done at the Fair. So much had happened over the last few days, and he felt like it should all fit together somehow. Seeing the Drop. Meeting his cousins. Meeting Rum. Bilbo kissing Rum. The horse show. Dilly’s triumph with her shirts. Watching Rum and Car. The story of his parent’s romance. The attack on Gin. Walking through Bagg Delving. The debate over the farthings. The Moot.

After a while, he thought he understood. It’s a story of what might have been. So many small choices, so many things that might have been other than they were. The Fair allowed him to see what would have happened had he not chosen to go with Bilbo and instead had submitted to other’s desires for him. I’d still be covered with bruises. They might even be from Bargo. He might still be servicing Bargo, this time in some remote corner of the fairgrounds, still believing the story he had told himself about himself. After watching the man for a few days, he was certain he would have had bruises from Pal. There would still be Esmie and Sara. They would be the ones with Uncle Rory at the Fair, not Mac and Dilly. He would still be called “Rat” and he would leave the door to his room unlocked, not because he knew he was safe, but precisely because he wasn’t.

Could I have chosen otherwise? Almost, he had refused to make a choice, tempted by Esmie, afraid of Bilbo, wanting to be good so his family would love him again. Even after Bilbo had promised he would not make use of him, touch him or be touched, Frodo had wavered. I wanted… some touches. He had wanted Tom. And Esmie. Had he left Bilbo’s room without a decision, had he seen or Esmie or Tom the next day, been touched by them, touched in return, he probably would not have chosen Bilbo. It was Bilbo’s promise to protect him from Sara that had won him over, made him determined to ruin all the plans others had for him.

That wrenching evening, that one, fateful decision, made this a very different Fair than it otherwise might have been, and not just for himself.

If he had refused Bilbo, obviously he would have gone to Pal and the last nine months would have been terrible for him, but what of others? Otho would still be the Baggins heir. None of the other Baggins kin would have paid Frodo any mind. He would not have been at Wintermark, and Bilbo might not have gone, either. The root harvest failure would not have been noticed, at least not so soon. Rum would not have been told. Would there even have been a scheme to split a farthing had Odogar not been thwarted in his plan to sell roots dearly in his new market? Frodo suspected that Maud Grubb would have tried to do something once she knew the harm being done, and she no doubt would have written to Bilbo, but she had known something in late Blotmath and had said nothing as of late Foreyule. Would Bilbo have tramped up in Northfarthing in the spring and observed the Parting?

By the time he finished the mug of beer, Frodo had come up with almost two dozen things that would have been different, and probably not for the better. He considered getting up and getting another beer, but it was hot, his seat shaded and he had a good view of anyone coming towards the main square. Bilbo would be along soon, so it was best to wait.

He had been waiting about a half hour when he saw Rum walking towards the square. Rum saw him at about the same moment and hastened over.

‘Hello, Frodo,’ he said cheerfully. It did not look like he had changed clothes since the Moot, though he no longer had on a coat.

‘Hello, Rum. Did you take everyone back to the inn?’

‘Yes. Blossom wanted them all to nap.’ He motioned at Frodo’s mug. ‘Where did you get that and would you like another?’

Frodo held out the mug. ‘The Grubb’s stall, four down on the left, and yes, please, I would.’

Rum soon returned with the beer, then left again for a few minutes to get some food, roasted sausages tucked into rolls of bread with pickles and mustard. They were delicious.

‘Where’s Bilbo?’ Rum asked, washing down a bite with a swig of beer.

‘I don’t know. I expect he’ll be along in a few minutes.’

‘Hmm.’ Rum looked down the walk. ‘We talked with him for about an hour, maybe a bit longer. He should be here by now.’

‘He probably got delayed at the inn. There were a lot of letters and notes waiting for him.’

Rum rolled his eyes. ‘He’s probably writing a reply to every one of them, knowing him. He should be here, having fun with us!’

Frodo studied the Thain carefully. I would have met Rum sooner. Going to Pal would have meant going to Rum, and that was the one part of being sent to the Great Smials that seemed to have given Uncle Rory pause. Rum would have tried to protect him, of that he was certain, but Frodo doubted that he would have trusted what Rum wanted from him, not as he trusted Bilbo. He was not certain he knew what Rum wanted from him. As with Bilbo, he had heard so many rumors about this notorious cousin. Even Bilbo had been wary of him where Frodo was concerned. Unlike the rumors surrounding Bilbo, which simply were not true, those surrounding Rum had a certain truth. But what is true about them? While he had seen Rum do obscene things with another man, and it was clear Rum had no reservation about saying shocking, outrageous things, Frodo had also watched him be deeply caring to the children many times over the course of the Fair. There could be no doubt but that he had acted perfectly proper in the Moot. It is not acceptable to him, any more than it is to Bilbo, that an innocent should suffer due to the greed and selfishness of others. Frodo realized that Rum was studying him in return. The man said nothing, just raised an eyebrow.

‘Did you tell Bilbo, like you said you would?’

‘Yes. When you went off with the ponies this morning, I told him. I explained what I said to get into Pal and Car’s confidence. He accepted that, but said if I even so much as hint at it, I’ll never see or speak to either of you again.’

‘I don’t think you can say anything that would make him more angry than that.’

‘Did it make you angry?’

‘Yes. It’s a horrible lie and it hurts Bilbo so badly.’ Frodo did not drop Rum’s gaze. ‘I don’t like people who hurt him.’

‘I’m sorry. It was stupid. I thought…’ Rum looked away and was silent for a bit. ‘I thought I was helping. It was…’ He shrugged. ‘I won’t. Never again.’

‘What is it you want from me, Rum?’

Rum did not answer, but sipped his beer and kept his eyes on the people walking past. They sat for a bit, finishing their beer. When done, Rum held out his hand for Frodo’s mug and left. Frodo was surprised when the man returned with more beer. He had thought their conversation at an end.

‘What do I want?’ Rum said quietly, still not looking at him. ‘Your trust. I don’t deserve it, but I want it.’

You’re another brother who isn’t. Rum was part of the odd family that Bilbo created from cousins that did not quite fit, whose stories were not quite what other people wanted to tell, who Bilbo loved even when they did things they probably should not have. Frodo suddenly knew what would make Rum be good.

‘Gin, today, when I saw him, he was wearing your shirt.’

That made Rum look at him and chuckle. ‘Yes, I saw.’ His expression became serious. ‘Is he all right?’

‘Yes, he is.’ Frodo smiled slightly. ‘And you’re forgiven.’

A look of equal parts relief and delight came to Rum’s face. ‘Truly? I may write you, visit you?’

‘As long as you make Bilbo happy and don’t hurt him, I’ll share.’

‘That’s what you want of me?’

Frodo was careful with his words. ‘I want that for him. For me, well, you know what I want. But if you are just going to make him sad and angry, the way I’ve watched almost every other kinsman do to him since Afteryule, then…’ Frodo shrugged.

Rum nodded. ‘I promise. I miss him. I’ll be good.’ He smiled. ‘What stories do you most want?’

‘About my mother. And your sister, since she was my mother’s best friend.’

‘I will tell them. And you should know about Ta. You would have liked each other.’ Rum looked about, frowning. ‘Where is Cousin Grumpy? He really should be here by now.’

‘He may be over by the main square.’

‘Yes, let’s head that direction. If nothing else, we may find someone who has seen him.’

They stood and walked over to the main square where there would be an evening of dancing to close out the Free Fair. The crowds were a bit thinner than the previous evenings because of people leaving the Fair for home, but there were still plenty of folk from Michel Delving itself happy to celebrate into the night. They were there only a few minutes before someone shouted Frodo’s name, and soon Amy, Gin and Darron had joined them. After greetings were exchanged, Rum excused himself. Frodo knew he was going to keep searching for Bilbo.

‘Did you have a good nap?’ Frodo asked.

‘We didn’t take a nap!’ said Gin indignantly. ‘You should have come with us! We went to Fat Bank with Darron.’

‘I wish you had come, Frodo,’ Darron added, ‘since you didn’t get to see it last night.’

‘Well, I’m sorry I didn’t, but I had to do as Uncle Bilbo said.’ Frodo made a face. ‘I don’t think there’s time now to go there. We’ll be leaving early tomorrow.’

‘You’re all leaving tomorrow, aren’t you?’ Darron asked.

‘Yes,’ Gin said, Amy nodding. ‘We are going all the way to Whitwell tomorrow and stay with Uncle Pal and Aunt Tina for a few days, then two more days to Longbottom.’

Darron’s expression was sad. ‘And just after I make all new friends, you’re going to go.’

‘But we’ll write and you need to come visit us and we’ll be back for the next Fair, right Frodo? So we’re just going to go, but we do have to get home, and I know that Mama and Papa would always want you and your parents to come pay a call, so that’s what you should do.’ Gin looked at Darron expectantly.

‘Can you come home with us to Longbottom now, Frodo?’ Amy asked.

‘No!’ he said with a laugh. ‘I need to get back to my own smial. I know Uncle Bilbo is planning for us to walk about Southfarthing later this year, so I expect we’ll pay a call then.’

This was a cheering thought to everyone except Darron, who grumbled that left him still alone in Michel Delving.

It was not long before some of their elder kin began to appear. Wilcar and Ada were the first to show up. They had been on the grounds since the Moot, overseeing the Fair’s closing, and had only a bit of time to spare before they went off to continue their work.

‘No, I don’t know where Bilbo is,’ Wilcar said in reply to Frodo’s question. ‘We met after the Moot for a short while, then I had to leave. Someone else would know better where he went.’

Falco and Nora showed up with Baldo and Odogrim, and said much the same as Wilcar. ‘I suspect he lay down for a nap when he got back to the inn,’ Nora said, ‘and is probably still sleeping.’

Wili, Prisca and Rory did not know where Bilbo was, either. They had just come from the inn and had not seen him there, but they had not knocked on the room door, assuming he and Frodo were already at the Fair.

Just as he was ready to excuse himself and go back to the inn to look for Bilbo, Frodo saw the old hobbit walking from the direction of the north gate, talking to Addy and Blossom and helping herd the younger children. Rum was with them, holding Pearl’s hand and chatting with his granddaughter.

At the center of it all is you, Bilbo, the master story teller. You give us different, better stories to tell about ourselves, and then you let us choose.

It took all of Frodo’s will not to race over to Bilbo and start scolding him for being gone for so long. When Bilbo drew close, Frodo was glad he had not. The old hobbit was obviously very weary, and lines were showing strongly in his face, making him look old. When Frodo took Bilbo’s hand, it was chilled, much like it had been the morning he had found Bilbo dozing on the couch in Whitfurrows.


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