POV - Frodo
In which accounts become important - learning to count, weighing conflicting accounts, keeping accounts, and, most of all, settling old accounts.
12 Rethe, 1390
Dearest Little Cousin,
I hope you and Uncle Bilbo are well.
I apologize for not writing sooner, but it has been very busy about the Hall from late Afteryule until late Solmath. Not long after the Yule guests departed, many of the Hall folk and others around Buck Hill and Bucklebury came down with a fever. It kept me and the Mistress occupied for this whole time, which is why you did not hear anything. Mistress Gilda will no doubt write up all the serious news of that time and send it to Uncle Bilbo, so I shan’t repeat it.
While we get our rest, we’re finally reading over your Elven scroll. It is wonderful! The Mistress grumbles that it is merely interesting, not really useful, but I can see she is delighted by it. We will send more about it in a few weeks.
The Hall is empty and lonely without you and the rest here. Given the sickness, it’s for the best that you’re somewhere else, but I do miss you, rascal. Bargo and Bluebell, not at all. I hope they don’t come back. I don’t know if I’ll be back at Harvest. I do wish to be home for Yule, by then for certain. I heard a rumor that Master Rory and Master Mac think to be at the Free Fair this year.
14 Rethe, 1390
Dear Cousin Frodo,
I miss you. Merry is being a pest. He was really sick in Solmath and Mama was sick, too, but they are both better now. Gammer says so and she knows everything but Mama still sleeps all day. Merry should sleep more so he won’t be such a pest.
I get to ride my pony every day it doesn’t rain. It rains too much! Her name is Pebble and she is a bay pony. Papa walks with me and we go to see Auntie Dilly and Uncle Mac and Berry. They miss you, too.
I try to read a little bit of your book each day. I’m going to have it all memorized for when you come back and we can talk elf!
Mistress Maddie says you probably aren’t eating enough so you need to eat more. I’m learning to cook from Maddie. I can make oatmeal and soup. If you’re hungry, I can come cook something for you. I can ride Pebble there.
I love you!
17 Rethe, 1390
Dear Cousin Frodo,
I hope this letter finds you and Uncle Bilbo well. I am doing well.
We had another Yule celebration here when we got back from Buckland. Papa was glad to have us all home with him. We made the smial as merry as we could, and went about visiting a great deal. Car and I have been doing some repairs around the smial that hadn’t been seen to. Papa’s been so busy doing farthing business he hadn’t time for this, so we took care of it. I know how to replace glass in a frame now.
I won’t be back to Buckland after all. The Master has been very cold to Papa, so there’s not much point, especially with all the others gone and you, too. There’s something about the Thain, too, that has angered Papa a good deal.
What do you know of your Baggins cousins the Chubb-Baggins? Papa is sending me to Nobottle to stay with Falco to learn about raising sheep. Bertie says they are good sorts, but he doesn’t live there. Papa says I will go home with them after the Free Fair. Nobottle isn’t too far from Hobbiton, is it? Perhaps I could come visit if I went to Nobottle. Scary’s too far for more than a Yule trip.
19 Rethe, 1390
Bargo would be ever so angry if he knew I was writing you, so we’ll keep it our secret, yes? Oh, I am SO happy you are coming here soon! I haven’t seen you in forever and I miss you.
Nothing of any importance happens here in Oatbarton. I am so bored! I keep asking when I get to go back to Buckland so I can be trained on the looms. Mama teased that she was going to roll me up in a rug and send me there on the next cart. Are you ever coming back to Buckland? Maybe I should stay in Oatbarton, though, if you aren’t coming back. I’ll be closer and no mean Ula to deal with.
Papa says I can go with him and Milo to the Free Fair this year. Sister Peony says there’s always dancing there. Will you be there too and dance with me? Maybe we can dance when you’re here in Oatbarton.
Please give Uncle Bilbo my love and save a kiss for yourself,
Bag End, Afternoon, 24 Rethe, 1390
‘Is that right, Frodo?’
‘Yes, Sam, that’s right!’ Frodo replied, giving the young hobbit a smile which was returned in kind. Well, aside from the big gap where Sam’s front tooth had fallen out. They sat at the table in the dining room where the light from the window was bright and worked on Sam and May’s lesson for the day. The morning had been spent racing in and out of the smial in an energetic game of tag. Nothing had been broken (though the umbrella stand in the front hall was a bit worse for wear) and all three of them were tuckered out enough to sit still for a bit of figures after the marvelous lunch Uncle Bilbo had cooked for them all. Bilbo had only shouted at them to settle down two or three, at the most four, times during their romping, but he had also joined in a few times, pretending to be a troll trying to catch a little hobbit from his dark lair when they thundered past his study.
Sam turned back to his slate, and began work on the last sums, sucking on his remaining front tooth as he tried to perform the magic needed to turn “3+4” into something else. May had already mastered the tricks of adding and subtracting and was chewing the end of her pigtail while figuring out how to serve three pies to eight guests. ‘I would bake more pies,’ was her sensible answer.
‘I would not say no to that!’ Bilbo cheerfully said from the dining room door, wiping his hands on a dishtowel. ‘More pie is usually the right answer, no matter the number of guests. And I wager your pies are very good, Miss May.’ She preened a bit under the praise. ‘You two, hurry and finish your lessons. Your mother will want you back soon.’
‘I’m done, Mister Bilbo,’ Sam quickly said, holding up his slate with “7” written almost legibly after the formula.
‘You got every one of them right today, Sam, very good!’ Frodo praised the youngster, who blushed and mumbled it ‘wasn’t nothin’.
May simply set down her slate and loftily announced “I need to go bake a pie.’ She gave Frodo a bright smile. ‘Then we can have half, each. You, Mister Bilbo, me, Sam, Ma, Da, Daisy and Marigold!’
‘I don’t think Marigold will need a half of a pie,’ he teased her in return, ‘but I agree with Uncle Bilbo that I wouldn’t say no to more!’
Frodo oversaw the Gamgee children wiping the slates clean and putting them away in a basket in Bilbo’s study before walking them back to their smial on Bagshot Row, each holding one of his hands. And doing your best to make a wish with me like a chicken bone, he thought as the two pulled and jumped, obviously recovered from the exertions of the morning. He gave them each a big hug before they dashed inside, May shouting to her mother that she wanted to bake a pie. Missus Gamgee came to the door to thank him.
‘It’s no trouble, Ma’am,’ he assured her.
‘You leave tomorrow, yes?’ she asked warmly.
‘Yes, Uncle Bilbo and I set out for our tramp on the morrow. We go all the way to Needlehole and will visit with some cousins there.’
‘Ham will be waiting for you on the Row for the key, Master Frodo. You won’t be back until almost Thrimidge, or so Ham says.’
‘Uncle Bilbo wants to see how things are up north and we have a lot of kin to call upon, so it will be a long walk.’
‘Oh, I wish you were not gone so long, you or Mister Bilbo,’ Missus Gamgee said, a worried look on her face. ‘There’s queer folk up in the north and you’ll not get a good meal. You were so thin and worn after going off to Buckland at Yule. That’s out of the Shire!’
‘Well, we’re not leaving the Shire this time, Missus Gamgee,’ Frodo said, ‘and we’ll be staying with kin most of the time.’
‘You were with kin in Buckland, too,’ she scolded, ‘and they didn’t feed you none too well!’ She put her hands on her hips and gave him a stern look. ‘You look after your uncle and encourage him not to dawdle getting home. I know Mister Bilbo gathers wool quicker than a sheep if you don’t remind him to have his tea. Daisy and me will have Bag End all cleaned and aired out for you and the larder full by the time you’re back.’
Frodo tried not to let his annoyance of the mention of his Buckland kin show in his face. ‘Yes, Ma’am, I’ll do that. I’d best get back, or Uncle Bilbo will wonder where I am.’
Missus Gamgee smiled at him, ‘You don’t want to worry him. The children are going to miss you much while you’re gone.’
‘And I’ll miss them,’ Frodo replied truthfully. ‘I’ll try to send letters to Sam and May.’
They bade each other good-bye and Frodo slowly walked back towards Bag End. The irritation he felt at the mention of his Buckland relatives refused to leave. It was like a cold cloud that would not depart and allow his heart to be as bright and warm as the growing days of spring. Believe Bilbo, Rat. He’s smarter than any of them. There was no arguing with Bilbo’s logic from earlier this month, when his uncle had so passionately argued that he really, truly was Drogo’s son and thus Bilbo’s proper heir. It was almost enough to convince Frodo. He believes it and you should, too. But the unwillingness of his aunt and uncle to assert the same thing kept him from merely accepting Bilbo’s claim, no matter how much he wanted to join Bilbo in that belief. Mac could be excused for simply believing what his parents believed, but Gammer and Uncle Rory must know something. They had every reason to believe what Bilbo did, preserving their kinswoman’s honor, yet they didn’t. Why not? That was the answer he needed and Frodo knew he was not brave enough to ask it.
He can’t be everywhere and he doesn’t see everything. Bilbo had not seen Sara thrashing him at Wintermark. Bilbo had not seen Esmie trying to lure him into bed with her. But he figured out what she was doing before anyone else did. He knew she was trying. He was watching you and caught sight of her, Rat. If Bilbo had no reason to think that his mother was looking for another man, would he have noticed her flirting with some young fellow in the back halls, the way Esmie had flirted with him? If his parents had been in agreement, would not it have been simple for Drogo to take Bilbo somewhere else for a few hours? On that count, Frodo did share Bilbo’s opinion. They loved each other. His mother would never have simply fooled with another man. Whatever they had done, it was done for love of each other and no other reason. His aunt and uncle had never said a thing to contradict that, so it had to be true.
It did not matter, though, not to Bilbo. His uncle was convinced, not merely willing to go along with Gammer’s wishes, but completely convinced that Frodo was Drogo’s son. Frodo no longer believed that it was Gammer’s idea to bring him to Bag End. Bilbo has always wanted me here. When the old hobbit had said last Halimath that he intended to take Frodo back to Bag End, it was not just to get him out of trouble; it was to bring him home. Bilbo loved him just as he had loved Drogo.
If that was all that threatened his joy, Frodo could have banished the cloud. But there was the taunt Lotho had thrown at him that he would not, could not, make himself say to Bilbo. Your mother got tired of being married to a pervert, that’s why she shoved him in the river, but he made sure she died, too. That was a sickening twist on the tired old insult that first Bargo and then others in Buckland had thrown at him for so long. The rumor he had grown up on, that his mother had cuckolded his father and he tried to drown a straying wife, was ordinary, almost reassuring, compared to the dark whispers here in Hobbiton. Hints of Baggins money buying things that should not be for sale. A pretty young girl. A respectable veneer. Silence. It was like Sara’s sneer that Uncle Rory had sold Frodo to Bilbo for the gold Dwarf crown, except even worse. So much worse.
And people who should know better might believe it, even just a tiny bit. Not people like Sara and Esmie, who saw depravity in everything because it was a reflection of their own hearts, but people like Ula. The fact that she had given any credence whatsoever to the lie that Bilbo had beaten him at Wintermark because his uncle was jealous of her affections towards him just showed how dangerous these rumors could be. Bilbo knows about these rumors, too. He has to, given his words about Hargo Bracegirdle. Even before Sara had spoken his evil words about the Dwarf crown, Bilbo had looked Uncle Rory in the eye and said much the same thing. “If you give Hargo a reason to tell such a story, then I will care.” This made Frodo shiver in disgust. I should have said something even meaner about Lobelia! He was under no illusion that Lobelia was any less vile than Esmie, and would say or do anything to get what she wanted. Bilbo’s kindness towards her baffled him, and comparing her and her dim-witted husband to his own parents has left him just a little out-of-sorts with his uncle.
The one rumor that was not repeated here in Hobbiton, ironically enough, was the reason he was here in the first place, to get him away from the boys he had been fooling with. It made Frodo snort that this was the only rumor of events that had most certainly happened, yet it was of no account. That’s only because it hasn’t caught up with you yet, Rat. You can bet Lobelia and Lotho would love to spread it about if only they knew. Frodo suspected that the only one of the boys he fooled with who actually cared anymore was Bargo. He did not really want to know if Tom cared. He wished he had not cared so much about Tom.
That betrayal made no sense. It was for the gifts. No, because Tom had sought him out years before Sara had rewarded the boy with things he had stolen from Frodo, and Tom had betrayed him first to the other boys, getting Frodo to service them. Frodo knew that perhaps he had been too eager for Tom’s attention. That had been a very lonely time between losing his parents and when Tom had taken an interest in him. Bilbo had stopped visiting Buckland so often, though his letters had been regular, Merle and Merry had taken up most of Esmie and Sara’s time, and the rumors had started to spread of his own bastardy. Everyone else’s actions he could explain. Bargo was a bully and wanted to secure his standing in the Brandybuck clan. Odogrim and Hamson just wanted to get mouthed. There was something about Tom’s attentions from the start that were wrong, and he could not puzzle out the reason why. He wished he could talk to Bilbo about it. His uncle understood what lay in people’s hearts and he would listen to this tale of love without revulsion, but he also wanted Frodo to put the fooling and the foolishness behind him. It would displease him to know that Frodo still thought about Tom. It was enough that Bilbo knew Tom was special and had been sorry that they had to part.
There was no way that he could talk to Bilbo about Sara. There was no one he could talk to of that. Sara sought me out, too. He liked you the most of all, Rat. Well, parts of you. His big cousin had wanted things the other boys had not. Being mouthed he supposed he understood. The others said it felt wonderful, but only if he did it. Sometimes, Frodo wished he had let Tom mouth him out in the shed, if only so he would know how it felt. When Sara had shown up one evening and had asked things from him, allegedly for Esmie’s comfort, Frodo had not questioned the reasons. Stupid. That’s you to the core, Rat. Given what Bilbo had told him about Esmie’s designs on him, Frodo was angry with himself for having been so eager to do something for her, even if Sara has not been lying, which he probably had been. It wasn’t for his wife; it was for himself. As with Tom, that was what Frodo could not figure out.
It had started with mouthing Sara, taking much more time than the quick, brutal sessions out in the countryside or in Uncle Rory’s study. There was little chance of being found out in Frodo’s room and Sara said it had to be like lying with Esmie. Sara liked Frodo to start it with small kisses along his throat and cheeks and then use his hands to get the older man roused, though he was usually already hard by the time Frodo unbuttoned his trousers. “Work your way down, Rat,” Sara had commanded, and the first few times had ended with Frodo on his knees and Sara panting out a combination of praise and obscenities. The third time Sara had come to him, about a year ago, after the kisses and fondling, Sara had told him to undress and lie down on the bed. His cousin kept his own clothes mostly on, only undoing the front flap of his trousers to free his cock. That was what happened the next six months, Sara’s weight pinning him, his own hand grasping Sara’s cock while his cousin thrust against him, Sara’s hands in his hair and his tongue shoved into Frodo’s mouth like another cock. But then there would be strange moments, like Sara caressing Frodo while he stroked himself, or Sara playing with his hair, or sometimes Sara telling him he was beautiful. There was just so much wrong in it.
Only Bilbo held him blameless. Uncle Rory had apologized for striking him and for allowing him to be used by others, but he had never actually recanted his accusation that Frodo had seduced Sara. You broke him, Rat. Gammer told you. Her judgment left him uneasy. She accepted that he had not intended to do wrong, but said that he had seduced his big cousin, and something worse had happened, leaving Sara broken. He could have said no, just like Bilbo. But could he say no to you? You have this effect on people, Rat. Frodo knew he had not really wanted Sara to say no. It pleased him, kind of, that Sara always came to his bed, wanted the feel of Frodo’s flesh against his own. Sara said it was only me he wanted. “You’ve ruined me for anyone else, you know.” I don’t want any of them anymore, not even Tom. He knew that, after the encounter in the shed. He never felt any desire in return for Sara; he might like making Sara beg for more pleasuring, but he did not want to touch or be touched by his cousin, not the way he always wanted Tom’s touches. He knew Sara was baffled, even offended, that Frodo did not harden immediately at his touch and often not at all. I didn’t break Sara. You did something to him, Rat. You like breaking. There’s nothing to break here.
Things at Bag End were not meant to be broken. Bargains were kept. There was no possibility that he could seduce Bilbo. He never would. Even if you wanted him to. There was nothing wrong with Bilbo, not like with Sara, no fault within his heart to be split and soiled. Frodo could not help flinching at the memory of some of Sara’s claims, usually said after he had failed to get a response from Frodo. “Maybe I should send you to Mad Baggins. You’d better like it when he does this to you.”
Well, Sara was, oddly, right. Frodo did like what Bilbo did to him. Bilbo taught him interesting things, spoke to him like he was smart and grown-up, doted on him with so much genuine affection it was embarrassing, said kind and loving things about his parents, never raised a hand to strike him, and promised that they would go on adventures once Frodo was old enough. What Bilbo would not do is what Sara and the others did. People should be saying that of you, Snake, not Bilbo.
Then there were the men he did not know how to talk about and did not want to think about. It’s not just Sara you’ve been breaking. After he and Tom had started fooling with each other, but before Bargo and the other two had begun regularly using him, he had attracted other attention. Frodo had noticed a farmhand who would watch him closely when Frodo was about doing chores, fondling himself as he watched. Someone else, he was not sure who, had followed him after sunset at Harvest when Frodo went to relieve himself, and had grabbed him from behind, shoved a hand down Frodo’s pants, and humped against his rump. He would not let go until he had spilled, groaning and panting in Frodo’s ear, breath smelling of hard cider.
It was not long after he had begun mouthing the older boys that the farmhand had exposed himself and motioned for Frodo to come closer. When he did, the farmhand took Frodo’s hand, made him grip his cock tightly, and started thrusting. The man gave him an apple afterwards, though neither said a word, and he seemed pleased by what Frodo had done. Every few months they would do this, and there were others. They couldn’t help wanting what you did. Most of the men wanted to be stroked or mouthed, though one or two wanted to hump against him like Sara or the unknown hobbit at Harvest. They were silent for the most part, just taking his hand and putting it on them or sliding a hand into his hair and pushing his face down to a waiting cock. None so much as stroked him in return, not that he ever hardened. You liked breaking them, Rat. He learned how to smile and stretch and pose himself alluringly, enjoying watching grown men turn red, breathe harder, fumble with their clothes at the sight. When he refused their silent entreaties, it made him feel powerful, but he was always quick to placate and accede if the man looked angry at the rejection. A few times, in dark back hallways, unknown hands had grabbed him and forced him to do things. Once, from the smell, he knew it was Bargo, but most were unknown. Usually, he would have a cock shoved into his mouth, as brutal as anything Sara would do. The worst was when someone much larger than him, an older man from the feel, had pinned Frodo flat, yanked down his trousers and tried to ram his cock into him. Frodo had fought back ferociously, though silently, and finally the other let him go.
As with Tom and Sara, Frodo could not figure out just why these men had sought him out. They looked at you and knew. They didn’t even have to ask. I’m good at it. The memory of saying those words to Bilbo when he had tried to seduce him made Frodo shiver in self-disgust. As if Bilbo is anything like them! But he is like them. He said so, that he lies with men. Men, not boys. If only he could figure out what he had done to catch their eyes and break their wills, he could be sure never to do it again.
With a sigh, Frodo did his best to push away this storm cloud in his mind and focus on the small adventure he was going to embark upon tomorrow. It was just a tramp about Northfarthing, with many stops to visit kin and other folk known to Bilbo. This was much more cheerful to think upon than what wicked people might think of his wonderful uncle. They were to depart early tomorrow morning, leaving the key to Bag End with Mister Gamgee on the tramp out, circling the Hill on the road to Overhill, then striking out for a slow amble through the countryside until they arrived in Needlehole to stay for a few days with Baggins kin he had not yet met, Posco Baggins and his wife, Gilly, and their two sons, Ponto and Porto. He could tell that Bilbo was not particularly pleased with this relative, though he never said a cross word aloud. Posco was his Aunt Prisca’s older brother, and she never had anything much to say about him, preferring to snort and roll her eyes if his name came up, though she doted on her niece, his daughter Peony, who was married to Milo Burrows. If Aunt Prisca and Uncle Bilbo both agreed that Posco was a bit of an ass, he probably was.
When he got back to the smial, Frodo carefully examined the front door of Bag End, looking for the dent Lobelia had put there the other day. Halfred, Mister Gamgee’s brother who lived in Overhill, was a carpenter, and he had fixed and repainted the door last week when the weather had taken a turn for the better.
‘Uncle Bilbo, I’m home,’ he called out from the front hall.
‘I’m in the study, lad,’ was the reply. He went to the study door and saw Bilbo gathering up a few bound books, a sheaf of paper and a handful of quills. ‘Put some water on for tea, Frodo, and join me in the dining room,’ Bilbo said with a grin. Frodo grinned back – it was time for the ledgers. Soon they had the ledger books spread out across the table, quills laid next to pots of ink in various colors, paper strewn here and there, and mugs of tea at ready.
A few days after Dalin had left to continue his journey to the Blue Mountains, Bilbo had bade Frodo help set things out in the dining room as they were doing now. When he asked why Bilbo wanted this done, the old hobbit had given him a keen, measuring look. ‘Well, Wilwarin, I think it time you understand in truth what the dwarven-hearted believe you will inherit from me. It is not precisely what anyone thinks.’
Frodo took a sip of tea and began to write out on a loose sheet of paper the last numbers they had entered in the ledgers at the close of Solmath. Each month, Bilbo had explained, he gathered all the reports and news and accounts that had to do with his “interests” (as he liked to call them) from about the Shire, and the last day of the month was for tallying the information. It was not just about things bought and sold, either. The ledgers tracked what people said about how things were across the Shire – where a family had suffered a sorrow, where there was a windfall harvest, who was building something, where someone needed help or had a good idea on how to make life a bit nicer. Many of these notes had inspired walks out to see things and chat with people who could be counted upon to tell an amusing tale of happenings nearby. They might not have been adventures exactly, but Bilbo’s tramps were the way that he saw Shire with a stranger’s eyes but a hobbit’s heart, and acted on what he saw.
This inheritance was very much not what Frodo had ever thought of when he considered wealth. Esmie wouldn’t have had much gold to grasp, he thought to himself with a smirk. It was not anything like the iron-banded box of jewels and coins that Uncle Rory kept, something that could be seized and spent. It was a web of connections and correspondence, contracts and promises, goods and trades, a little coin spent in many places over a long time, and many, many leagues of walking. There was a small box of coins and a few tiny, perfect gems hidden in a cunningly wrought compartment in the floor of Bilbo’s room, something Balin had crafted for him a few years after Bilbo had returned from his great adventure. There was nothing in that small cache to compare to the five gold Crowns King Dáin had gifted to Bilbo. Frodo suspected that one of the reasons Bilbo had given one of the Crowns to Uncle Rory was simply to be rid of it, for what could it do except incite envy, even Dragon Fever?
It was also the case that Bilbo had no need to hoard any gold or silver. ‘If I need something, I ask a dwarf, and the next one tramping through brings it to me,’ had been Bilbo’s simple explanation. The dwarves of Erebor held to the bargain of Thorin and considered Bilbo due a fourteenth share of the treasure, which was to say all the riches he could possibly ask of them for the rest of his life. The original chests of silver and gold had long ago been spent, and ten times their amount had come and gone as well.
The ledgers chronicled where it all had gone. A good amount was simply handed out to those in need and want, enough to keep them from misery and allow them a bit of dignity. Widows and orphans benefitted the most this way, not having to rely on the charity of less than kind kin. Bilbo made no great show of it and often managed to leave coin to be found with no sign of how it came to be in the bottom of a soup pot or lying under a few twigs beside a meager hearth. The news of these unfortunate folk usually came to his ears from people like Widow Grubb and Tolman Cotton, Famer Maggot and Dunny the carter, hobbits who were not kin and who judged Bilbo by his quiet deeds, not his great adventures nor by others’ dark rumors.
The bulk of the wealth, however, was spent to create more. There might not be any great Baggins’ land holdings the way that the Brandybucks possessed most of Buckland or the Tooks had extensive plantations in Southfarthing or as the other major clans – Bolger, Burrows, Chubb, Boffin, Bracegirdle and Sackville, to name a few – had extensive and well-known parcels, but that did not mean Bilbo did not own a great deal of property. It was just in bits and pieces and scattered throughout the Shire. Sheep meadows (and the sheep upon them), orchards, cornfields, vineyards, tilled land, fallow fields, a woodlot up in Northfarthing, a leaf plantation down in Southfarthing, some with cots upon them, others tended by the farmer next door; put all together, it was possible that Bilbo owned more land in the Shire than any other hobbit. Then there were the mills, the shops, the breweries, the mines, the looms, the lumberyards, the taverns, and the smithies that Bilbo had some part of. Almost none of these did he own outright, but merely had a small share in, often in the form of a loan to an eager young lad or lass who was thought to be industrious, but lacked the means to start. Bilbo would hear of a need or a wish and take a stroll to see for himself if it seemed worthwhile. A handshake later, and some stone would find its way to build a foundation, then lumber was bought to frame out the building, and soon an idea would be real. Unlike the gifts to the unfortunate, Bilbo expected something back from these ventures, though more often goods in kind to help the next interesting fellow he met in a taproom upon the road than coin or riches.
Finally, there was the trading. There were straightforward business propositions and deals, such as the arrangements for roots to be bought from one place and taken to another as quickly as carts and pack ponies could be found. The rest was done with a more subtle hand. Bilbo sent many letters each day introducing this farmer to that miller, a mistress brewer to a master barrel maker, letting some tinker know about broken pots, a seamstress of a widower with shirts needing mending, and other bits of news that became someone else’s good fortune. It was all done in the middle of other chatter, artfully slipped in so it seemed just a bit of kindness from an eccentric old hobbit. As a result, all the Shire had become wealthier and freer from want than it had been before his uncle’s adventures. Frodo had asked why Bilbo did all of this when he could just rest and enjoy his own considerable good fortune.
‘Because it makes me happy,’ Bilbo had replied, and had never given an answer beyond that.
They were doing the ledgers early this month as they would be walking about for almost a month starting on the morrow and Bilbo had not wanted the ledgers to sit that long.
‘Where do we start, Uncle Bilbo?’
‘With Southfarthing, I think.’
This meant leaf and grain, mostly, but lumber, too, as well as horses and cattle. It also meant Tooks, Sackville-Bagginses, and Grubbs, along with a host of minor relatives. Through the ledgers, Frodo began to see why Bilbo was so often disdainful of his kin. They squabbled with each other over ridiculous things. They usually took good care of their own lands, but paid little heed to the lesser folk among them. They were quick to collect what was due them and not quite so swift to render what they owed to others. They liked to be known as people who did generous things, whether or not it was strictly true. Few were knaves, most were decent and kind enough, and it was a rare hobbit who would flatly say no if you asked them for something. Bilbo seldom did business directly with their own kin or even with other gentlehobbits more distant from them. ‘They can take care of their own foolishness without my help, lad,’ Bilbo had said distractedly when trying to locate a new source of rutabagas for the Yale last month.
It took an hour to work through the needs of Southfarthing, and a bit less to take care of Westfarthing. Most of that was given over to arranging for pasturage for a flock of sheep for Uncle Rory, one of the few kin Bilbo did not hesitate to work with. Northfarthing’s need was for repairs to the roads and bridges, for the wet and cold of Afteryule and Solmath had caused much damage. ‘And all the stone going to those stupid markets in the east!’ Bilbo grumbled, glaring at a letter from the headman up in Greenfields. ‘Well, we’ll be tramping there soon enough and will find out what most needs attention.’
When they finally took up Eastfarthing, the afternoon was far gone. Bilbo was silent and thoughtful, smoking his pipe and looking at a map. Eastfarthing might be the smallest of all, save Buckland, but more happened in it than the rest of the Shire combined. Most of Bilbo’s interests were there. Eastfarthing was where most hobbits lived, where most business was done, and where most troubles came from. Frodo had tried to pay close attention to the contest between Bilbo, Uncle Rory and Thain Ferumbras on the one hand and Pal and Uncle Odogar on the other over the spoiled root crops of Eastfarthing. Bilbo had allowed the Master and the Thain to absorb most of the ire of the Bolger (as Frodo could not help but think of Odogar) while he did most of the actual work finding, purchasing and delivering the roots, aided by people like Widow Grubb and Farmer Haysend.
With a shake of his head, Frodo sighed at the stupidity on display before him. ‘I just don’t understand, Uncle Bilbo.’
Bilbo looked at him a long moment. ‘What is there to understand, Frodo?’
‘Odogar and Pal’s determination to be dwarven-hearted traders and let people go hungry.’
Bilbo’s gaze narrowed. ‘None have gone hungry. None that I know of.’
‘That’s what I don’t understand. If they were simply foolish, then you could see why things aren’t good, but they are doing things that they know are bad and which they are clever enough to avoid. You and Uncle Rory and the Thain have shown what should be done, but that only seems to increase their desire to do badly.’
His uncle sighed and shook his head. ‘You’re right, Frodo, it’s more than just foolishness or even some greed.’
Frodo thought about the ugly conversation between Bilbo and Gundabard Bolger he had overheard on the trip back from Buckland after Yule. ‘You said to Gun, when we were in the wagon, that there was some kind of plan.’ Bilbo thought for a second and nodded. ‘And you said you were trying to prevent it from happening.’
‘What kind of plan makes children go hungry? Who could plan that?’
Bilbo gave him another odd look before dropping his eyes to the map on the table. Frodo watched him run a finger along the map, tracing out something. ‘It’s not their plan to make children hungry. Children’s hunger is of no concern to them at all.’ Bilbo noticed his pipe had gone out, which made him grumble and fuss, rising to fix himself another. Frodo handed over his own and Bilbo left for the study where the pipeweed was kept. He was soon back with prepared pipes and bit of extra pipeweed folded up in a sheet of paper. They lit their pipes and sat silent while Frodo waited for Bilbo to collect his thoughts. The old hobbit looked for some time at the map, occasionally touching it here or there. ‘I have no… understanding of what Odogar and Pal attempt,’ Bilbo began. ‘The only time I have ever seen resentment like this is when the elves descended upon Erebor after the death of Smaug and wanted more than just the gold. They wanted vengeance upon dwarves for insults and battles old ere the Sun first showed her face.’
‘Like Dalin spoke of.’
‘Like Dalin spoke of.’ This thought made Frodo shiver. ‘What I do know,’ Bilbo continued, ‘is that Odogar has hatched a monstrous plan, done as much to harm his perceived enemies as to gain wealth and power for himself. He spoke of it to me at Wintermark and has been writing to me about it since.’ Bilbo looked up, his expression both angry and worn out at the same time. ‘He wishes to divide the Shire, carve out a Centralfarthing from its heart, and put me in charge of it.’
Frodo stared back, pipe forgotten. A new farthing? But, a farthing is four, not five. Divide and… Put Bilbo in charge. Frodo looked at the map on the table, Bilbo’s hand resting on it, his fingers spread out across the center of the Shire. He let his gaze travel over the rest of the table, over the scraps of paper covered with figures, stacks of letters and notes, the large bound ledgers themselves, tallying up the good that Bilbo had done over the last fifty years. ‘Good. You should be in charge. Of all of it.’
‘Frodo!’ His eyes snapped up to Bilbo’s face, which was aghast. ‘What are you thinking? How can you say that?’
‘Because of this!’ Frodo waved his arm at the work spread out upon the table. ‘Because you won’t let any child go hungry. Because you are the best hobbit in the Shire. Because you know mo …’
‘Enough!’ Bilbo snapped. His uncle stood up from the table and began slowly pacing the room, one hand on his pipe, one hand in his pocket, muttering things to himself under his breath. The afternoon had turned to evening without them really noticing and the room was dim. As Bilbo paced, Frodo thought the room had grown not just dim, but dark, and that Bilbo was drawing all light and warmth into himself. His heart was seized by a powerful winter’s chill. It was like the time in the back halls of Buckland, after Dalin had brutalized Sara, and Bilbo had been dreadful and dangerous to look at. But this was Bag End and dark things did not belong here. Frodo bowed his head so he would not have to see his uncle like this and shivered.
‘Frodo? What is the matter? Lad, are you all right?’ In a moment, Bilbo was kneeling next to him, no more a dark warrior, but just his loving uncle. Frodo shook his head, not wanting to speak and say something that might anger Bilbo again. ‘Oh, dear me, dear me, I am so sorry, Wilwarin!’ Bilbo said, stroking his arm, ‘I’ve done it again! It’s near supper and you’ve not even had tea and now you’re cold…’ Bilbo bounded to his feet, hugged Frodo fiercely, and scurried out. ‘Oh, Baggins, you idiot! Build up the fire, lad, and I’ll get supper going.’ As soon as Bilbo left the room, Frodo felt like he could breathe again, and the chill he felt was ordinary, what one should feel on a brisk spring evening and not the creeping, icy feel of a few heartbeats before. In the kitchen, he heard the clanking of pots and pans, the sound of water being pumped, the tread of Bilbo’s feet as he bustled about. ‘Push all those infernal ledgers to the side, no more of that tonight, Frodo,’ Bilbo called out, ‘and get washed up!’
Frodo cleaned off the table completely and put it all carefully away in the study before washing. He knew how messes irritated his uncle. Ablutions done, he laid the table neatly as he knew Bilbo preferred before going into the kitchen to help prepare the rest of the meal. Very quickly there was bread and butter, some sausages and greens, a pot of stewed apples and mugs of ale on the table. Frodo ate a lot, amazed at how hungry he was once food was in front of him. Bilbo kept dashing back into the kitchen to bring more for his hungry child – a few slices of cheese, a cup of nuts and dried fruit, more bread, some honey to go with the butter. After washing up the dishes, they ended up in Bilbo’s study, a large fire in the hearth and Frodo sitting at Bilbo’s feet while they smoked their pipes.
‘I am sorry, lad, for being so sharp with you earlier,’ Bilbo said quietly. Frodo turned so he was facing Bilbo. His uncle reached out and stroked his hair a few times. When Bilbo touched him, especially when he was able to touch Frodo’s hair, Frodo knew it made Bilbo happier and calmer. He did not really like having his hair touched, but Bilbo never grabbed or pulled at it or try to hold him by it. All he did was stroke it and gently rub his fingertips against Frodo’s scalp, which was actually kind of pleasant. Please him, Rat. You’ll both be better for it. He leaned into the gentle touch just a bit, which made Bilbo smile. ‘I just… did not expect to hear that from you.’
‘You know I think you the best hobbit of the Shire. After all, you’re the Lord of Burglars!’ Frodo teased. This made Bilbo chuckle, as he had hoped it would. ‘I see you doing so much good, and then I see their greed, and I can’t help but think that people would be much happier were you to see to problems with bad harvests and strange things on the Road instead of them, that’s all.’ And it would keep you here, with me, in the Shire. That thought made Frodo happier.
‘I should hope that I can behave myself better than Odogar or Pal,’ was Bilbo’s slightly grumpy reply, ‘that’s not much of a fence to leap. And you have not heard the full plan. I suspect it does not really involve leaving me to do good deeds and continue to show them up as fools.’
Frodo knew he had to be careful so as not to trigger Bilbo’s sharp temper. ‘So, what is this plan of theirs?’
‘First off, I don’t think it is theirs; this is Odogar’s doing. Pal is not a part of it. Indeed, the reason Odogar gave me for this mad scheme is he wishes to undercut Took, Brandybuck and Chubb control of the Road and the trade upon it.’ Bilbo’s expression turned a bit sour. ‘There is no part of it that wishes to do good for anyone save himself and perhaps those clan heads who wish some part of that mastery with him.’ Bilbo’s hand dropped from Frodo’s head, and Frodo took it in his own hand so that Bilbo remained touching him. ‘Odogar might not have spoken so to me had he realized at the time that Otho was not my heir, but you were. He baldly said Hargo would not continue to support your Uncle Rory since Otho would at some point run a farthing.’ Bilbo squeezed his hand and smiled. ‘Too bad for Odogar that I know who the best hobbit is.’
‘He must know by now.’
‘That you are the best? He should!’ Bilbo airily replied, and Frodo rolled his eyes, but blushed a bit at the compliment. More soberly, Bilbo said, ‘I see not how he doesn’t know and I intend to find out if he does. I don’t think it will change his plans.’ The old hobbit cast a glance at the ledgers in their stack. ‘He knows I have influence and that people will trust what I tell them. He needs me to woo them over to the idea of a new farthing. Once it exists, he has no more use for me and will do whatever he must to secure the farthing for someone he can order about. That is what I think about it.’
‘Does Cousin Odogar recall that two of his children are married to Tooks?’
Bilbo cocked his head and gave him the look that Frodo knew he was to be tested. ‘And what think you about Odogar and Tooks?’
‘That his claim to want to reduce their power is at odds with his very public friendship with the Thain’s Heir and his own children’s marriages.’
‘So, his fight is…?’
‘With the Thain, not the Tooks, and most of all with Uncle Rory over the Marish.’
Bilbo hesitated, ‘Yes, in some ways. I do agree that the real source of this is his feud with Rory, which has been going on for over a year, indeed, probably longer, about control of the Marish. As long as he neglects the people who live there, they will continue to look to the Master for their welfare. He has no idea how to win their loyalty. But he is also driven by a desire to command, and in this he speaks truly when he says he wishes to wrest control of the Road from the Tooks and the Chubbs. So, Wilwarin,’ Frodo knew the test was not over, ‘what will happen if we do not oppose this ridiculous plan of Cousin Odogar’s?’
Frodo drew on his pipe and thought, though he did not let go Bilbo’s hand. It’s Dragon Fever, but for more than gold. Resentment like an elf against a dwarf. One more thing gone wrong. Divisions that will never heal, only grow. That was Bilbo’s concern, to keep the wrongs from spreading. ‘If the Shire can be split once, then why not split it again? What is to keep it from breaking into smaller pieces with each grievance?’
‘You understand it rightly, Frodo.’ There was no hiding the pride in Bilbo’s face. ‘That is the most important reason to oppose this foolishness. Think if a wife stormed out every time a fool husband drank too much or forgot the milk out and it spoilt? Should he not take his scolding and should she not promise to keep a closer eye on him? If there is contest over the ordering of some part of Eastfarthing, then Odogar needs to meet and talk it out with the Master or else mend the failing in himself so that people will not look first to Buckland.’
‘What is the argument about the Marish? I don’t understand it.’
‘I’m not certain I do either, lad. It’s actually a contest that has very deep roots.’ Bilbo squeezed Frodo’s hand before rising and digging in the stack of ledger papers, soon returning with the map he had been using earlier in the day. ‘Look here, Frodo. The southern reaches of Eastfarthing, especially the Marish, have been claimed by the Thains, the Masters and the Bolgers as rightfully answering to them probably since Buckland was founded. It’s closest to Buckland and the folk are Stoor and all intermarried, so that’s, I think, the natural affinity. Until Buckland was founded, though, it was closest to the Road and to Eastfarthing. There’s no southern exit, unless we can get Dalin’s ferries set up on Thistle Brook and Shirebourn, so there’s little reason not to look either north or east if you’re there.’
‘But why does the Thain want it, then?’ Frodo asked, confused. ‘Tuckborough is nowhere near the Marish.’
Bilbo laughed. ‘Indeed, Tuckborough isn’t even in Southfarthing, where our illustrious Took cousins say they order things! That fact alone should show you how deeply ridiculous this nonsense about farthings and mastery all is.’ This was better. Bilbo was getting to tell tales about their idiot kin, but in a way that would make him laugh and not brood and become all dark. ‘But the Thain should be interested in the Marish, or rather, Stock. Can you tell me why?’
Frodo studied the map. ‘Because of the Stock road?’
‘Precisely, Wilwarin! You see things clearly.’ His answers were making Bilbo very happy indeed. ‘That is the only good road out of Tuckborough, and it’s the fastest way to cart things to the East Road. Because of the hills, there’s no safe, quick way to take a large cart any other direction out of the town. There’s narrow tracks to pack things west, and some winding lanes that will go north to the Road. The ways are steep, twisting and slow. All serious trade goes east to Stock, then up the River Road or over the Bucklebury Ferry and up through Buckland.’
Bilbo looked at the map again and frowned a little. ‘If you look, you’ll see that there’s no substantial north-south running road across Eastfarthing below the Road itself until you get to the River Road. The rivers below the Green Hills prevent any other roads from going in below the Stock Road. That’s why the news of the failed root crops took so long to get out. That’s why folk in that end of the farthing look to the Master first – it’s easier to get news to him than up to Scary. That’s also why the Thain hears things so quickly. Scary may be closer as the crow flies, but the road to Tuckborough is faster for a hobbit to walk than any path north.
‘That’s the root of the contest, and there’s really never been much heat to it. For why Odogar and Rory are growling at each other, that’s a little easier to explain. They are almost the same age, as were their own fathers, Gorbadoc Brandybuck and Rudigar Bolger, who’s your great uncle, since his sister married your grandfather. And then there’s the Took side, Uncle Summer, his son, my cousin Fort, and his son, Cousin Rum. Gorbadoc was already Master and Uncle Rudy had been the heads of their clans for some time when Uncle Summer finally became the Thain, even though Summer much older than either of them. The Old Took had lived so long, you see, all his sons were old by the time he died! Summer and Gorbadoc worked well together, seeing as how Gorbadoc was married to Summer’s youngest sister, Aunt Mira. Uncle Rudy was content to let them keep an eye on that part of Eastfarthing, as there was much he had to attend to in the upper farthing after the Fell Winter, and Gorbadoc was his first cousin, being the son of Rudy’s paternal aunt, Adaldrida. When Uncle Summer died, Cousin Fort took over and continued good relations with Gorbadoc, and neither paid much mind to Uncle Rudy or Cousin Odogar, no matter that Rudy’s mother was Opal Chubb, and so he was actually brother-in-law to the Old Took through their wives.
‘Uncle Rudy died in 1352 and Odogar became head of the farthing, but neither the Thain nor the Master gave him any regard, despite him being of relatively close kin to both. They traded through Stock with each other and had naught to do with business north of the Road. When Uncle Gorbadoc died and Rory became Master, even though Odogar was older and had been a clan head for longer, again the Thain and the Master were not interested in the concerns of upper Eastfarthing and acted as though Odogar had no good say in the lower farthing. When Cousin Rum became Thain, well, he doesn’t give anyone much mind and mostly fights with Pal. This has left Rory with a free hand in the Marish for the last ten years, still ignoring Odogar. When he wants to talk to a Bolger, he talks to Wili, not Odogar, though Wili is less close of kin, being the grandson of Salvia Brandybuck.’
Frodo thought he was following all of that. It was only three generations of four lines and not terribly complex. ‘So, you think Odogar is angry with Uncle Rory and the Thain for not respecting him, and he’s using the division between Rum and Pal to get the Thain’s Heir to deal with him, not the Master?’
‘Yes, exactly.’ With a snort, Bilbo added, ‘Not that Rory is doing himself any favors by being so stubborn. He doesn’t want Odogar nosing about in the Marish, even if Odogar wasn’t being such an arrogant ass about it, and won’t give an inch. Wili’s too eager to help just so he can twist his own brother’s nose.’
‘And Odogar thinks you’re on his side in this?’
‘I’m not sure I know what my cousin thinks, and I’m not sure I really want the truth,’ was Bilbo’s soft reply, and he gazed into the hearth.
This was not so good. Too much thinking on the bad deeds of others would not improve Bilbo’s temper. ‘Well, it doesn’t matter what he thinks, does it, Uncle?’ Frodo said with a smile, once again taking Bilbo’s hand. That garnered a smile in return. ‘All that matters is what you think and what your plan is.’
‘I do not have a plan, Wilwarin, not yet,’ Bilbo replied, his look becoming sharp. ‘I’m still spying on this dragon. Odogar is too clever to put his intentions plainly into a letter. All I’ve done so far is write letters to a few people to feel out their opinions on the matter. Much of our tramp about the Shire is to speak more plainly on what Odogar plans. He’s not the only one who prefers not to write things down.’ Bilbo looked down at the map and placed a finger on Scary. ‘And I think we shall end our tramp with a visit to dear, deceitful Cousin Odogar.’