20. Temptation

POV - Bilbo

In which Bilbo wrestles with the fallout of his actions in Yule and considers how to stave off temptation.


Fairgrounds, Michel Delving, Noon, 2 Lithe, 1390

Bilbo watched Frodo leave the hall with Blossom, Dudo and Tulip. Time for the true battle. The grand plans had been foiled and the conspirators would be out for revenge.

Off to his left, Odogar glared at everyone around him, but particularly at Bilbo. Hobbits were pointedly walking around Odogar as they passed, looking at him with disdain if they looked at him at all. Otho was standing with his brother-in-law and Lobelia, an arm protectively around her waist. Pasco had been chatting with Rory and Rufus as the two walked across the circle, but broke away to go over to Otho. Bilbo scanned the crowd for Milo, and saw him walking out the far door with Asphodel. To the other side, Wilcar had reclaimed Ada and the two were walking with Rum and Pal towards the Bagginses. Addy and Andy had their heads together back near where the Tooks were milling about. Bilbo tapped Griffo’s shoulder.

‘Yes, Uncle?’ the younger hobbit said.

‘Do you know either of those two Tooks?’ Bilbo motioned at Addy and Andy.

‘Yes. I’ve met them both.’

‘Go to them, tell them we’re all meeting again where we did after the horse show the first day, and they are to take you with them.’

‘As you wish,’ Griffo replied cheerfully and headed off to the other two.

Bilbo walked past Odogar and out the southern door of the building, Falco and Odo following after they exchanged quiet words with their wives and sons. Rory and Rufus changed direction and caught up to Bilbo a few paces beyond the doorway. They had picked up Wili as they passed Odogar. The crowd made it impossible to walk quickly, but Bilbo made steady headway until the throng thinned out. Most were heading east and north towards the fairway and the food booths, while they were going south and a bit west towards the horse arena.

When they were almost to the arena, Bilbo stopped to allow everyone to catch up. He was a little surprised to see Ada and Pal were still with them. Ada stayed next to Wilcar. Without any prompting, the rest made a circle around Pal who looked nervous when he realized where he was standing.

‘Well, Paladin, what have you to say for yourself?’ Bilbo softly asked.

‘I’ve got nothing to say to you,’ was the curt reply.

‘The less you say, the better, I think,’ Rufus mildly offered. ‘You have been saying too much of the wrong things to the wrong people for too long.’

‘What I say and who talk to is none of your business, any of you.’

‘When you pretend you are the Thain, and try to order the whole Shire to suit your fancy, then it is very much our business,’ Wilcar said in a tone far less mild than Rufus has used.

‘Until Baggins started interfering in everyone’s business, I was the Thain,’ Pal snapped, looking around the circle. ‘He,’ Pal motioned at Rum with his thumb, ‘hasn’t bothered himself with anything except scandal and perversity for years.’

‘Which simply demonstrates how little attention you pay to anything except lining your own pocket, Pal,’ Rum replied. ‘Cast all the insults you like at me. It does not change the harm you have done to the hobbits of Eastfarthing or how crudely you and Odogar have tried to thieve the eastern end of Westfarthing.’

‘As for who is Thain,’ Rory added, eyebrows bristling, ‘you knew by late Blotmath people were in want and you did naught and told no one. Rum saved lower Eastfarthing from hunger upon the receipt of a single letter explaining the problem. You tried to stop that from happening! That’s not what a Thain does.’

‘All that matters,’ Rufus said in the same mild tone he had used before, ‘is that we will do our business from now on with the true Thain, not with you. Word will be put out with other clan heads and town headmen warning against dealing with you.’

‘One correction, Paladin.’ Bilbo rolled his ring between his fingers, seeking some calm. Pal swallowed and backed away from Bilbo until he was standing right in front of Rory. ‘I did not interfere in anyone’s business. I simply refused to play along with your stupid, greedy scheme. Don’t blame me for your own bad deals. They would have failed regardless of what I did.’

‘And there are now no circumstances under which I would even consider relinquishing the Tooklands to Southfarthing.’ Wilcar crossed his arms and gave his brother-in-law a look of disgust. ‘The possibility that you might end up in charge of it, to the ruin of those who lived there, is not acceptable to me. Perhaps our sons may discuss it in fifty years or so.’

‘You may leave now, Pal. Just remember that you will be watched as closely as Odogar.’ Rum stepped aside and pointed towards the north. Pal stomped away. After he rounded a building and was out of sight, Wilcar sighed.

‘I fear I have no time to meet. Ada and I have a number of things we must see to as the Fair is shut down.’

Bilbo went over to Wilcar and embraced him, then Ada. ‘We shall speak later, if your duties allow. Thank you for your support to prevent this stupidity from getting any purchase.’

‘I am glad to have played my part.’ Wilcar grinned at Rum. ‘Too bad about your idiot heir. I was looking forward to being rid of the lot of you troublesome Tooks.’ Ada gave him a playful punch in the arm, which made him laugh.

‘If my “heir” keeps behaving like an Orc, I may take ten months and get myself a different one,’ was Rum’s tart reply.

Farewells and promises to meet later for dancing were exchanged with Wilcar and Ada and the two walked off. The rest continued around the far end of the horse arena and out to the stand of trees. Everyone quickly took a seat on one of the benches or else on the ground. Bilbo sat at the foot of the same tree he had sat against last time.

Bilbo said, ‘I won’t keep us here long. We’re all tired and hungry. I’m sorry Wilcar can’t be here. All we really need to talk about is what to do between now and the Harvest Moot in Winterfilth, in particular, what to do, if anything, about Odogar.’

‘I thought he was going to go at you, right there in front of everyone,’ Rory said.

‘For a moment there, so did I,’ Bilbo answered. There were uneasy looks and shudders all around. ‘Is there any doubt among any of you that he is not in his right mind?’ They all shook their heads.

‘What about Car?’ Odo asked. ‘Has he learned his lesson?’

‘Car is completely compromised,’ Andy said, stony faced, looking at the ground. ‘After… what Widow Grubb said that he had done in Frogmorton, and his other… antics in this, I wouldn’t trust him.’ Andy glanced sharply at Rum, before staring at the ground again. ‘He can be led astray too easily.’

Not everyone is as amused by Rum's methods as you are, Baggins. He hoped Andy was not so upset at what he had seen that he would refuse to support Rum. ‘He’s learned more than a few lessons, I’ll wager,’ Bilbo said, ‘but he cannot be allowed to do anything until he can demonstrate at least a year of continent behavior. We’ll need to do Bolger business with Bertie or with Wili. And that’s assuming that Maud doesn’t lead a full-scale revolt and have a new farthing headman chosen.’

‘Any suggestions on that if she managed it?’ Rufus asked.

‘I’m going to try to talk her out of it, but to keep pressure on Odogar to cede authority to Bertie.’  Bilbo looked over at Griffo. ‘You’re my choice if I can’t talk her out of it.’

Griffo gaped, then laughed and shook his head. ‘Uncle Bilbo, quit saying nonsense!’

‘I’m quite serious. The Boffins are respected, especially in the lower farthing which has seen the most harm and neglect. You’d do well.’

‘Well, I more than flattered for your high regard, but I think I’ll need to talk Widow Grubb out of it, too, if I’m the best you can come up with,’ Griffo said with humor and no false modesty.

‘If not Griffo?’ asked Wili, ‘though I share Bilbo’s judgment that Griffo is the best choice.’

‘Menemac Goold,’ Rory said, ‘and not just because I’m married to Gilda. He’s got good sense between his ears.’

‘But he’s old,’ Rufus added, ‘and Mericar’s not suited to head a farthing. He's a good fellow, but that's about it.’

‘Better choice than Hargo. If it's open, Hargo will push hard for it,’ said Rory.

Bilbo shook his head. ‘Not Hargo. I’ll just have to convince Maud that it’s best to stay with Bertie.’

‘I’ll agree with that, Bilbo, and not just because I’m Bolger!’ Wili added, with a grin and a wink at Rory. ‘I guess I think a bit better of Car than the rest of you. With all due respect, Andy, your sister Rosa has been doing quite a bit of pushing to get Car to deal with Pal when he was thinking it might be better for the farthing to talk to Rory. I’ve heard it myself and Bertie’s complained about it to me and to Fred.’

‘Milo mentioned it, as well,’ Rufus offered, ‘and Poppy’s confided in Peony that Rosa’s been snippy with her over Bilbo’s opposition.’

‘Poppy’s told me the same thing,’ said Falco.

Andy’s expression had grown steadily more sour at the news of Rosa’s inference while Rum busied himself with his pocket knife trying to clean something out from under a nail. ‘Rosa’s got her own mind about these things,’ Andy said shortly, ‘and hasn’t listened to anything I say since she turned tween. I don’t go poking my nose into her business and I thank her to stay out of mine.’

‘We needn’t go looking for someone to blame,’ Bilbo quickly interjected. ‘Car is responsible for his own choices, and hopefully he will mend his ways. As I said this morning to Wili and Rory, do not underestimate how much Car’s acquiescence to any of this is due to trying to placate Odogar. Imagine dealing with that man every day.’ This drew sober nods and few more shudders around the group. ‘I would bring Bertie in to our confidence as soon as possible, and make it clear to Car that he can regain our trust and earn our good regard. There is no advantage to anyone in division. And if I may refer to our discussion here but two days past, I don’t think it wise to encourage drastic change or inflame rivalries while we’re facing the Parting.’

‘You know, Bilbo, I did write up my observations about the Parting in the Northfarthing report to the Mayor,’ Rufus said, looking tired. ‘He did not mention any of it at the Moot.’

‘He knows about it,’ Griffo said, looking concerned. ‘Uncle Bilbo talked about it at the clan meeting at Bag End.’

‘And Otho dismissed my words, if you remember,’ Bilbo said, ‘and Pasco believes almost anything Otho says. Even without that, Pasco dislikes talking of bad things and will always seize on the good news. In truth, I doubt he even read your whole report.’

Rufus laughed humorlessly. ‘No more than I expected, which is why I have a copy for you. I’ll send it by Messenger so you needn’t lug it home.’ Bilbo bowed his thanks. Rufus turned to Rum. ‘Are you serious that you’re going to conduct the Harvest Moot?’

‘Of course!’ Rum replied indignantly. ‘Didn’t you tell me to follow Bilbo’s counsel?’

‘Yes, but I didn’t know you were going to follow it so quickly.’

The look Rum gave Rufus was so like an expression Bilbo remembered seeing on his grandfather’s face, it gave him a small shiver. Yes, cousin, you are the right choice for Thain. ‘I have allowed others’ disdain for me to stop me from doing as I should, and the harm done is not to me, but to ordinary folk preyed upon by those like Pal.’ He gave Bilbo a sly look. ‘As long as I’m smarter than Cousin Grumpy, I might as well try to be more sensible, too. Someone needs to keep an eye on things while he’s wandering around reciting his poetry to rabbits and rocks.’

This was met with laughter. It was a relief to laugh in good humor over silly teasing and some of the tight feeling in Bilbo’s chest let go. ‘Well, Rum, I stand ready to help bring it about in whatever way I can,’ Rufus assured him. ‘I wouldn’t mind it in Bywater, but the other two locations are good and may please others more.’

‘No need to decide now,’ said Odo, ‘though I have a strong interest in it being held on my own doorstep.’

‘I could say the same,’ Rum grinned. ‘Rory, Wili, what does it take to get a market set up? I need to start planning one for Longbottom. It would be best to have it running by this time next summer so we can catch the summer traders from the south.’

‘First, you need someone to run it,’ said Wili. ‘They have to know who will use it and what should be sold in it. They’d best be trusted in the area, too.’

‘Well, that rules out most of my kin, who are either idiots or thieves or both,’ said Rum with a mock sigh. He gave Addy a smirk. ‘Unless you can come up with a better name, I’m going to put you in charge!’

‘Not me!’ Addy laughed. ‘I know how to grow things, not keep ledgers.’

‘So, tell me who should.’

Addy thought for a minute, then shrugged. ‘I can’t think of anyone right now, certainly not a Took. I’ll consider it on the trip home.’

‘I have a very… odd suggestion,’ Bilbo said. When they all looked at him, he said, ‘Otho.’

‘What? You can’t be serious! After what he’s done?’ said Odo. Rufus and Rory were likewise shaking their heads, but Falco looked thoughtful, as did Rum.

‘Why?’ asked Rum.

‘Griffo,’ Bilbo said, turning to the younger hobbit, ‘what did Otho do at the meeting at Bag End? Besides make an ass of himself.’

‘Told you everything you needed to know about Southfarthing,’ Griffo replied without hesitation.

‘Otho wants to be important,’ Bilbo said, ‘and he understands the southern trade better than almost any other hobbit in the Shire.’

‘And he’s just spent six months trying to maneuver you into giving him a farthing,’ said Rufus. ‘He may be smart, but he’s not trustworthy.’

‘He’s just spent six months being treated as a servant by Pal and Odogar,’ Bilbo replied, ‘and he would very much like to have something they don’t.’

‘Isn’t he going to want the Bywater market?’ asked Odo.

‘He’s also been a lying weasel, so he doesn’t get to pick what he wants, but only get what others allow him to have.’ Bilbo shrugged. ‘It’s a suggestion, that’s all. I prefer Addy myself, but Otho has ties down there and he’d run it well, if only to ensure his own wealth.’

‘Wouldn’t he just bring Pal in on it?’ Rory asked.

‘He and Pal had a very serious falling-out this morning. I suspect it will be… permanent.’ Given Pal’s association with Posco, Bilbo doubted Otho would ever be willing to do business with him again. ‘Griffo,’ he went on, ‘if you don’t want to head up a farthing, perhaps helping run a market in Frogmorton would be more to your taste?’

‘I know no more of that than of running a farthing, Uncle Bilbo,’ was the cheery reply.

‘Well, then you’ll have to call on some other fine fellows, like Milo, Fred and Bertie, to help you sort it out. Though, honestly, your Daisy ran Dudo’s mercer business for years.’

‘So, who gets the other markets, Bilbo, since you’re handing them out?’ Falco half-teased.

‘Oatbarton is Rufus’ business, Michel Delving is Wilcar’s and that leaves Tuckborough, Waymeet and Bywater. Wilcar’s going to want a say in who runs Waymeet.’

‘Too bad, he doesn’t get to. That’s Tooklands,’ was Rum’s smooth reply.

‘Pal’s going to expect it,’ Andy said.

‘No.’ Rum’s tone brooked no disagreement. ‘It’s either you, Andy, or one of Boulder’s grandsons.’

Addy waved a hand. ‘Actually, the right person in Waymeet is Willard Grubb.’ He grinned. ‘And I am absolutely saying that because I’m married to his sister and will never hear the end of it if I don’t!’ This made everyone laugh heartily again.

‘Willard is the headman there,’ Wilcar said once he stopped laughing, ‘and the Grubbs are more honest than not. Better than dealing with Tooks!’ he ended with a smirk.

‘Given what Maud has been doing, it’s a proper reward,’ Bilbo said sincerely, ‘and she’ll want a hand in the Frogmorton market.’

‘No to Otho in Bywater?’ asked Falco.

‘Never.’ Not after all the trouble you’ve caused, cousin. ‘It will be a reasonably minor market, being so far from any border. I need to consider it a bit more.’

Addy stood and dusted himself off. ‘Well, think all you like, Bilbo. I’d best go find Blossom and the flock and lend a hand, or at least see if I can steal some of their lunch.’

Andy also stood and offered a hand to Griffo. ‘Come along, cousin. Drida must be wondering where I disappeared to and she’ll scold less if I have someone with me.’ Griffo laughed and said he’d be glad to assist. Falco and Odo were already walking away, calling out their farewells. Rory, Wili and Rufus followed, Rufus talking about a market in Oatbarton.

Rum remained sitting and looked at Bilbo. ‘Well, Grumpy?’

‘I should get back to the inn. I told Frodo I’d meet him there.’

‘You know, I’ve never been to the Moot before.’

‘Really?’ Bilbo looked at Rum quizzically. ‘I thought you were at the Fair quite a bit.’

‘Not that much. Every few years with a new team. I never bother to stay for the Moot. They’re boring! Ta always went instead and then told me about it. Father took care of it before and I didn’t want to stand about with Pal hanging over my shoulder after. Uncle Flame usually did it for me for the first few years, but then he got too old and Pal got obnoxious and demanded to lead it, since I didn’t want to do it.’

‘And now?’

‘If you had been there before, I would have done it.’

Bilbo sighed and rubbed his eyes, weariness returning to his thoughts and weight pressing down again on his heart. ‘I’m sorry, love…’

‘You keep saying that, Bilbo, and I don’t think I believe you.’

‘I am sorry.’

Rum’s gaze on him was unreadable. After a long silence, he shrugged. ‘It doesn’t matter. I never wanted to be Thain before.’ He kept watching Bilbo. ‘Now, I do.’

Bilbo smiled a little. ‘I’m glad you do. You’re good at it.’

‘But I need you if I’m going to do this.’

‘You have my help. Whatever you want, just ask.’

Rum’s laugh was more like a sharp bark. ‘Not what I want. You already said I can’t have that. I’ll have to settle for what I need.’

‘You may have that, too. I want you to be Thain, Rum, because you are the one we need.’

‘Well, I’m the one you have for now, so you’d better want me.’

Rum’s tone was at the edge of surly and Bilbo thought it good to change the topic. He knew they might be there an hour arguing if Rum lost his temper. ‘What is the trouble between Andy and Rosa?’

‘It’s not what’s between Andy and Rosa that’s the problem.’ Bilbo’s hope of getting some gleeful gossip out of Rum was dashed. The man was angry. ‘It’s what’s between Rosa and Pal that is causing trouble.’

Bilbo had to stop and consider. Rosa had always disagreed with her parents on almost everything, and counted herself among the side of the Tooks who hated Bilbo. He could not remember having a pleasant exchange with her; coldly polite was the best he got. When he was at Granite Bank in Astron, he had not paid her much mind, any bad humor on her part overshadowed by Odogar’s unsettling behavior. Mostly, he ignored her as he did most of his hateful kin. ‘I take it she supports Pal?’

‘Throws herself right into it!’ Rum snorted. ‘The problem with Rosa is that she thinks she should have been Pal’s wife, not Tina. The problem with Pal is that he knows he’s better off having Tina as his wife because he can whistle up Rosa whenever he wants.’

‘So respectable.’

Rum gave Bilbo an odd look. ‘Respectable? What’s respectable about that?’

‘Exactly. When Rory told me why he would send Frodo to Pal instead of letting me take him, he said it would be so that Frodo would have respectable example of a good husband in front of him, and not some mad, depraved old beast like myself.’

‘There is nothing about Pal worthy of respect.’ Rum once again looked like the Old Took. ‘And that is why I am going to be Thain, whether I really want to be or not.’ He stood and walked over to Bilbo, holding out a hand to help him up. ‘I’m hungry and I don’t need to be Thain for the rest of the day. Let’s get something to eat.’

Bilbo stood and folded Rum into a tight embrace. ‘You are always Thain.’ Rum sighed and buried his face in Bilbo’s shoulder. They stood that way for a while until Bilbo patted Rum’s back and gave him a kiss on the temple before letting him go. ‘I need to get back to Frodo. He’ll be wondering what has kept me.’

‘All right, Grumpy.’ Rum gave him a swift kiss on the lips. ‘You go take care of our boy. I’ll see you both later.’ Bilbo watched Rum until he went out of sight beyond the arena, then slowly walked towards the south gate, not wanting to run into anyone who would wish to stop and talk.

Between the heat and his weariness, it took him the better part of an hour to return to the inn. He looked in the common room to see if Frodo was there and checked the parlors as well as he walked back to their room. The lad had already left. With a sigh, Bilbo changed out of his fine clothes and into more ordinary garb. He was tempted to crawl into bed for a nap. No, Wilwarin is waiting for you, Baggins. Neaten some things and go find him.

They would need to leave early tomorrow so it made sense to do packing now. Bilbo opened the trunk and started sorting through their things. Everything clean he laid to one side so it could be packed on top of the rest. Letters and other odds and ends he put at the bottom, setting aside the newest from today. Next was the dirty clothes that there was not time to send to the inns’ laundress and have it back and dry for tomorrow. He stuffed those into a cloth sack to keep them away from the other clothes. A layer of washed clothing was next and then their good clothes from today, folded just so.

Bilbo smiled at the memory of how fine Frodo had looked, a distinguished young gentlehobbit learning from his elders at the Moot. You were seen by many, and they will say good things about you. It surprised him to learn that Rum had never been to the Moot before. Rum had also looked very fine and had made a powerful impression on those who attended. Every inch the Thain. He had expected Rum to command attention because he always did, but Bilbo was pleased at how masterfully he had handled the assembly, and even more by how sensible he had been with his suggestions. The Harvest Moot was brilliant, something Bilbo had intended to suggest, but Rum had beaten him to it. Having it in Bywater would be convenient, but having it in Tuckborough would cement Rum’s position.

Bilbo looked for Rum’s shirt. He picked it up and held it against his face, seeking a hint of Rum’s scent. It was there, but mixed with Frodo’s. He sat on the bed, alternating between touching and smelling the shirt, remembering the feel of its owner’s flesh under fine linen. Even now, I am tempted. It was only Frodo’s presence that kept him from giving in to Rum, no matter that he knew they would end up arguing and parting in anger. A small part of him hoped Frodo would not forgive Rum and he could use that excuse to keep some distance from his old love. No. That’s cowardly. Rum needs you so he can be Thain.

That was another temptation. All through the Moot, there had been that soft voice, as alluring as Rum’s when he was trying to coax you into bed, telling Bilbo that he could, he should, surprise them all and take in truth what they offered. Almost, when he had turned back from dismissing Posco, filled with fury at the crude machinations of Pal, Odogar and Otho, almost then he had succumbed to that inner voice, just as he once had surrendered to Rum’s entreaties and had taken the young man as his own. And it would have ended up just as it always ends with Rum, in shambles. Except that was not right, either. It was more like Rosa’s illicit pursuit of Pal, with their forsaken vows and deceit on all sides. You are not wanted for what good you can do, but because you may be dismissed once they have taken their pleasure and fulfilled their desires. Even you are more drawn by commanding others than by doing what is right.

Again he sniffed the shirt, this time seeking Frodo’s scent. You. You’re my greatest temptation. Theirs as well. He had succumbed to this desire, to have his lad with him always, a mix of son, nephew and little brother when he was not any of those things. You’re doing to him what you did to Drogo, and they will try to do to him what they did to his father. For a moment, Bilbo thought he was going to start weeping and he buried his face in the shirt. He felt so stupid. Why did I tell Odogar last Yule I would help him? You think yourself so clever, Baggins, and you brought all of this about. He should start planning for them to leave. The talk of the southern traders earlier made him think that perhaps they could travel south with one of them and see if they could find one of the lands Uncle Gar had delighted in telling his young cousins about.

It took a few minutes to master himself and finish packing the trunk, carefully hanging their clothes for the next day on the pegs. Today’s clothes, their nightshirts, and a few toiletries would go in on the morrow and they would be ready to leave. Time to find Frodo, drink some beer, dance with Maud, and then sleep well to rest for the trip home. The thought of getting back to Bag End was soothing.

Bilbo left the inn and walked down the lane to the main road. About half way to the road, he had a prickling sensation on the back of his neck and turned around. In a shadow cast by one of the buildings was Odogar, looking only slightly less mad than he had at the Moot. Bilbo waited for Odogar to approach.

‘You ordered that.’

Bilbo smiled. ‘I warned you that you should not anger me. Back in Astron, I warned you.’

‘Did you order him to do that?’

‘I really don’t need to give orders. I just let Rum know what would amuse me.’ Bilbo chuckled. ‘After all your insults, this gave me a great deal of amusement.’

‘I’m going to ruin you and your whore.’

‘And here I thought Car was the stupid one in the family.’ Bilbo had to wrestle the desire to grab Odogar and pound him against the wall until there was nothing left of his deranged face. ‘What do you think is more scandalous? That a little boy was forced by a pack of tweens to suck some cock or that an adult, married man willingly, even eagerly, wanted another man to mount him? And consider that your sons were involved in both.’ He sighed and shook his head. ‘I don’t think anyone is going to give you a sympathetic ear.’

‘Pal said…’

‘Pal repeated what Rum wanted him to say. You and Pal have both been led about by the nose.’

‘Pal says he has a letter.’

‘I know there’s an innkeeper.’ At this, Odogar’s ferocity faded and he looked old and ill. Against his will, Bilbo felt some pity for the hobbit, consumed as he was by the same sickness that had claimed Thorin. And by the same dragon’s gold.

‘So I am ruined. You truly have turned all luck to yourself.’

Bilbo thought quickly. ‘Yes, now you see how it works. I can extend luck as well.’

A mad light returned to Odogar’s eyes. ‘How? What must I do?’

‘No more communication with Pal. That includes Rosa. She and Car must remain in Eastfarthing for at least a year, and they may not go anywhere near the Tooklands after that, unless I give them leave.’ Odogar nodded. ‘I will make requests for stone. They will be filled before any others.’

‘As you wish.’

‘Bertie will handle Bolger business and I will ensure that good business happens.’

‘You will share your luck.’

‘Yes, as long as I know that Bertie is dealing honestly, I will.’ Bilbo thought a moment, considering the malign heart of Granite Bank. ‘I have spoken to Wili and let him know that I dislike how Rory has used him to interfere in Eastfarthing business. You have legitimate complaints about Rory’s arrogance.’

For a moment, Odogar’s expression was normal. ‘I think you are the only one who knows this is so!’

‘And I have always taken your side in this, if you remember.’ Odogar shrugged, then nodded. ‘I told Wili to stand with you at the Moot, though you had said cruel things of him to me. I have said that Bard and Fred must give more of their time and regard to their Bolger kin, not to Brandybucks who are barely their cousins.’ A vigorous nod. ‘Be sure that Stella and Fatty are often visitors to Fred and Bard’s farms, and that the children look to the Bolgers, not the Tooks or the Brandybucks.’

Mention of the children did something to Odogar. He crossed his arms over his chest and shivered, and his eyes dimmed. ‘I want my son returned to me. Odogrim. Give him back.’

‘I can’t. He is his own man now. You cast him out when he tried to be a dutiful son, and wished him dead. If you want him back, you will have to humble yourself to him.’

‘You corrupted them both!’ Odogar hissed, crouching and baring his yellowed teeth. ‘Grimmy and Car, you ill-wished them and corrupted them, you and your little bastard.’

‘No, Odogar. It was you who did that. You are twisting everything about you.’

‘I’ll not stand for it…’

‘And your luck will only get worse if you defy me.’ Bilbo gave Odogar his coldest glare. ‘I told you I will take away your respectability. I can do that with a few well-placed words about Car. I can make sure your market fails and your quarry falls silent. It is your choice. If you choose wisely, I will let Odogrim know that it is my wish that he write to you. I wish you no harm, cousin, but if you wrong me, I will return it to you ten-fold.’

Odogar’s lips were pulled back in a snarl and he more staggered than walked past Bilbo down the lane. Bilbo followed a few paces behind. When Odogar scuttled around the corner to the main road, Bilbo stepped into a nearby doorway, checked to see if anyone was watching, then slipped on the ring. He was not sure what he was doing; he just knew that he needed to follow Odogar and prevent him from harming anyone.

It was difficult to keep up because Odogar was walking quickly and Bilbo had to be very careful not to bump into anyone else on the busy road. Everything about him was dimmed in the ring’s fog, which made it difficult to judge how far away from him someone actually was. He also tried to keep to the shady side because the bright light made him cast a very faint shadow which some quick eyed hobbit was sure to notice. There was no helping that animals smelled him and became skittish, snorting and shying away as they passed by. Luckily, most hobbits were too distracted by the strange figure of Odogar to pay much mind to anything else.

His cousin lurched along in the middle of the road, oblivious to the others about him, muttering to himself and making sharp motions with his hands, engaged in a conversation that Bilbo doubted made any sense at all. Again he was seized with a sense of pity. He and Odogar had never much cared for each other’s company, though most of that was driven by Aunt Belba’s hatred of Bilbo. Until this last year, their exchanges had always been civil if not particularly friendly. He had to admit that Griffo’s observation that Odogar had been a perfectly good farthing head until the mess with the bad harvest was true. The records in his ledgers showed Odogar was no worse than any other headman and probably better than most. Until that chance meeting with Farmer Haysend, Bilbo had no idea that there was anything amiss in Eastfarthing, or that Odogar was doing anything different than his usual competent job looking after his farthing.

At first, Odogar walked towards the fairgrounds and Bilbo feared he was going to try to seek out those who he thought had wronged him, like Widow Grubb. They were almost to the turn to the Fair when Odogar stopped and stood a long while, still muttering, staring at the Fair. Abruptly, he wheeled around and went north along the main road, Bilbo trailing him. Odogar turned aside on the road that ran west across the plateau and went to Rum’s house, going directly to the barn.

The Rushies and Wili’s ponies were gone and were probably with Mac at the field down the road. Pal’s ponies and the Shirebourns were there, and all of them became nervous as Odogar strode down the center aisle, peering into each stall, no doubt looking for Rum.

Bilbo heard the kitchen door open behind him and carefully moved out of Pal’s way before following the other into the barn. ‘Odogar, what are you doing…’

‘Where’s that degenerate?’ Odogar shouted.

‘Rum? Just missed him. He left about a quarter hour ago. What do you want with him?’

Odogar shook his head. ‘He’s ruined everything. He’s been doing Bilbo’s bidding all along.’

‘Well, what do expect from a pair of perverts like that?’ Pal smirked.

‘I thought you said Rum wouldn’t show up at the Moot.’

‘He never has before. He said he wasn’t going to bother this time, either, until this morning when he came out all dressed up.’ Pal drew closer to Odogar and gave him a narrow look. ‘And just what were you doing talking about the Thainship that way?’

‘Trying to get it out of the hands of that degenerate, which you don’t seem capable of doing,’ Odogar said with a sneer.

‘Don’t you think to be taking it,’ Pal warned. ‘This is a Took matter, just like Eastfarthing’s yours. Seems to me you have a big enough problem on your hands with that.’ Pal smirked again. ‘You should be more worried about Widow Grubb than some pervert. Sounds like she’s going to get Eastfarthing out of your hands.’

‘She’s no threat. I’ll just have Bertie go about and be his usual, cheerful idiot self and we’ll pretend he’s in charge.’ Oh, really? I don’t know if Bertie will want to play your games. Given Car’s irritation with his cousin and Bertie’s reluctance to join the plan, Bilbo rather doubted Odogar would be able to order things from his lair. And now that I know your new plan, I will foil this one, too. ‘The problem is Rum. If it weren’t for him, Bilbo wouldn’t have had any success. Right from the start, Baggins was calling on him to cause trouble.’

‘He won’t be trouble too much longer.’

‘You said he wouldn’t be trouble at all.’

‘Like you said, he’s just doing what Bilbo tells him to, and it only works because he can pretend he’s Thain.’ Pal smiled. ‘That is for the Tooks to decide, and they’ll be deciding against him later this summer. With Flame gone, and Gis going, he’ll not have support.’

Odogar shook his head. ‘And why is anyone going to change their mind? He’s already Thain. It’s going to have to pass from the Tooks to get rid of him.’

‘All the younger men have sons of their own. Sons who are going to start to attract the Thain’s attention. He’s already all over Addy’s oldest boy.’ Pal shook his head and snorted in disgust. ‘He’ll use any excuse to get alone with those boys. Addy may not care, but Andy does, and all of Boulder’s grandsons are going to want the pervert banished to his farm before he starts messing with their boys.’ Pal smiled. ‘And then we can teach Baggins and his whore a few lessons.’

Odogar swallowed and looked uneasy. Ah, you know what happens when I am wronged. ‘I don’t think that’s wise, going after Bilbo. Everyone who tries to get him for something, they end up losing. He can turn your luck bad if you cross him.’

‘Oh, nonsense! You don’t really believe that, do you?’

‘I believe it’s not a good idea to cross Bilbo. His good fortune never flags.’

‘Well, it’s going to come to a stop. There’s nothing he can do about it. He was warned to support Otho, he didn’t, now he gets to pay.’

Odogar shook his head and backed away from Pal, making Bilbo move quickly to dodge him. ‘Remember my words; if you try, you’re the one who will pay.’ With a nod, Odogar hastened away. Bilbo waited for Pal to leave the barn before following Odogar. I told you not to talk to Pal again. But he came here to find Rum, not Pal, and if he hadn’t, you wouldn’t know what Pal was planning. Bilbo growled in irritation and Odogar stopped, looking around for the source of the sound. Bilbo held completely still and hoped Odogar would not notice the faint shadow on the ground between them. After a few heartbeats, Odogar shivered and continued walking. Unlike before, he walked slowly, head down, silent. He returned to The White Chalk north of town.

Bilbo trailed Odogar to the door of his room and waited a short time to see if the other reemerged before leaving himself. What he had heard was what he had feared. Pal was going to try to take revenge on him and Rum, and he might just have the right tools to do the job. Given Andy’s looks at Rum earlier today, Bilbo did not doubt that Pal could sow fear about Rum’s intentions. And he is going to go after Frodo, using Rory’s letter and Esmie’s lies. Unlike his dealings with Otho and Odogar, Bilbo had nothing to threaten Pal with. I could let Dudo take Frodo. It would mean everything going to Otho, but better that than having his lad slandered with what Pal intended to spread. Frodo wouldn’t accept that. He would if he knew it was just until you could leave. Bilbo felt the gloom of the ring’s vision seeping into his thoughts and his very bones, making all grey and dull. And to think, this morning I had considered taking it all, being Thain, reclaiming Bagg Delving, ruling them.

Ahead of him, near the intersection of the north and west roads, Bilbo saw Addy and Blossom walking with the younger children. He started to hail them, then remembered he was wearing his ring. He ducked behind a wall, removed the ring, and trotted after them. Even after he took off the ring, his vision was a bit dim and he felt as though he walked in a chill and clammy fog.

‘Addy! Blossom!’ he called. They turned and waved when they recognized him. The children chorused a “Hello, Uncle Bilbo!” and gave him kisses when he got to them.

‘Hello, Uncle,’ Addy greeted him cheerfully. ‘We’re on our way to the Fair for the evening.’

‘May I join you?’ Bilbo asked.

Blossom laughed. ‘I never turn down another hand to help manage my monsters!’ She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek before urging the little ones to keep walking. Bilbo took up position just behind them to keep any from straggling.

‘When are you leaving to go home, Uncle?’ Addy asked.

‘Early tomorrow. It’s a long, slow trip uphill to Waymeet.’

‘We’ll be going early, too, and heading all the way to Whitwell.’ They spoke of the impending trip and how glad they all would be to be back in their own homes soon.

‘Are you still planning a tramp through Southfarthing this summer, Bilbo?’ Blossom asked. ‘If you are, you must come stay with us a few days.’

‘I think so,’ he said as cheerfully as he could. ‘I hope to be in the Smials for Gis’ hundredth birthday, so we’ll plan the trip around that.’

‘We’ll be there, too,’ Addy assured him. Bilbo smiled, but did not really answer, and soon Addy and Blossom were mostly talking to each other or the children. Bilbo preferred it that way. It took a while to reach the fairgrounds and thread their way through the crowd toward the main square.

‘Grandpa!’ Pearl said and darted ahead into Rum’s arms. He laughed and picked her up in a big hug.

‘There you all are,’ he said, keeping hold of Pearl’s hand after he set her down. ‘We were beginning to wonder if you’d got lost and fallen off the Drop.’ As they walked, Rum put a hand on Bilbo’s back. ‘Frodo is worried that you have been gone so long, Bilbo. I kept him company for a bit, and now he’s with the older children.’ Rum’s tone was light, but his expression was concerned.

‘Oh, I’m sorry! I got busy packing things and answering some letters,’ Bilbo fibbed.

‘That’s what Frodo thought had happened,’ Rum said, though his expression changed to one of disbelief.

It was only a few more minutes and they were to the main square where people were getting ready for the dancing. Frodo was there with his friends and he looked worried. He took Bilbo’s hand and gave him a kiss on the cheek.

‘Forgive me, Frodo, for being late,’ Bilbo said apologetically. ‘I got distracted by other things and lost track of time.’

The boy gave him a look that said he was not appeased. ‘I hoped you had decided to take a nap.’

‘I wish I had.’ For some reason, he barely could feel Frodo’s hand in his own, as though he wore gloves. ‘But I’m here now. Have you had something…’

‘Rum gave me beer and supper.’ Frodo’s face showed some exasperation. ‘I suppose it is too much to hope that you’ve had some yourself.’

Bilbo pulled his hand away. ‘Have you seen Maud? I owe her a dance.’

‘No, I haven’t.’ Frodo walked back to his younger cousins and began talking to them again, ignoring Bilbo. It’s best that he is angry with you, Baggins, and keeps his distance. Frodo’s snub made him feel even more weary.

It was not long before the music started and the dancing began. Frodo started by dancing with each of his younger cousins, then asked his aunts, just as he had done two nights before. Bilbo let Prisca claim him for the first dance and worked his way through his older women kin while he waited for Maud to show up. It was odd dancing with Sage because of her resemblance to Gilda. He remembered a Fair, over sixty years past, when it was Gilda he held in his arms as he danced to these tunes and he had thought his happiness secured. Mostly, he tried not to think or remember or talk, and let the dancing hide him from even his own questions just as his ring hid him from prying eyes.

When the women stopped asking him to whirl them about, Bilbo got himself a beer and watched Frodo. His lad was merry, never lacking for someone to dance with, throwing himself into the final gaiety of the Fair. His new-found cousins stayed close to him, eager for his friendship and company. Leaving would mean leaving this. You can’t take him away from this, Baggins. He won’t have this if Pal has his way, either. Face it, Baggins, your stupidity took this away from the start.

‘There ye be, Baggins!’ Maud Grubb called out from somewhere behind him. Bilbo put on his most mischievous grin and turned around, sweeping the little widow into a bear hug.

‘You wretched old crone,’ he teased back, ‘I thought you’d abandoned me for someone prettier!’

‘Oh, I will, I will, you can count on it, thief,’ she said in return and gave him an eager kiss. ‘But I always settle the business accounts before goin’ off to please meself, and you owe me a dance!’ She gave his rump a squeeze and Bilbo returned the gesture, making her roar with laughter.

In a moment, they were out among the dancers, romping about. Maud was a terrible dancer, but she did not let that get in the way of her fun. They stayed off to the side so they did not trip anyone else and Bilbo had to pay close attention so he did not trip over her, but her good humor was infectious and her obscene patter was hilarious. It did earn some scandalized looks from the people around them, which just made Bilbo prompt her for even more outrageous jokes, which Maud was more than happy to provide. The grim mood that had gripped him since the Moot ended sulkily released its hold. It was only when the two of them were breathless and their shirts damp from the sweat of their exertions that they returned to the side.

‘Ah, thief, I haven’t had a romp like that since me man died,’ she said happily then added with a leer, ‘and we could do a bit more romping if you like!’

‘Oh, I think there’s someone else who’s hoping for that,’ he teased back, giving her rump another squeeze.

‘They all hope for a romp with me, but not many get the honor!’ she answered.

Not far off, Bilbo saw Griffo and Addy having an animated discussion about something. Much as he disliked breaking the ribald teasing, Bilbo knew he had to get Maud to put her support behind Bertie before others started thinking it a good time to stir up more trouble. And if you won’t, then I need to promote Griffo. ‘Speaking of those who might get to romp with you, thank you for your support of Rum at the Moot. And thank you for so neatly skewering Odogar. He’ll not dare poke his nose outside of Scary after what you said, him or Car.’

Maud’s lascivious grin was replaced by an angry sneer. ‘They’d best not look beyond their own smial, Baggins! Your one cousin, the goat in the back, he was right that they should lose the farthing and you should have it.’

‘And I’ve told you why that is not a good idea, crone,’ he said patiently, not wanting to antagonize her. ‘I won’t and now I’m afraid that others are going to try, specifically Hargo Bracegirdle.’

She shook her head. ‘Not him. He only cares about the River, not the rest, and he plays favorites. Not the worst, but bad enough.’

‘Deal with Bertie. You and Pitt both say he’s honest, and everyone else I talk to says the same.’

‘You could run things for just a little while, Baggins, until the next Fair. Say you’re training up the little Bolger. Hargo was right about that.’

‘He and Otho just want to get a Baggins claim going so that Otho can try to grab something,’ Bilbo said firmly. ‘And the person Bertie should be answering to is the Thain. That’s to keep Pal from trying to slither in there.’

Maud gave him an annoyed glare, then shrugged. ‘As you wish, thief, but it’s not just for me to decide.’

‘I know, but people trust your judgment. And, if you decide that Bertie is too tainted by Odogar, then I suggest Griffo Boffin as a good choice.’

‘Oh, aye, he’s a bright lad! Boffins are good sorts. The lower farthing would be happy with him.’

Rum strolled up just then, leaned down, and gave Maud a rather involved kiss. Bilbo wondered just how much the two had been joking about their lewd encounters, then decided he would prefer to remain in ignorance. ‘I have been looking for you, Maudie,’ Rum purred, ‘and here I find you ready to head off to a quiet corner with this lustful bastard who knows that you are mine.’

‘I’ll spread my favors as I please, Master Pretty,’ she archly replied.

‘It would please me if you’d favor me with a dance,’ Rum said with his most charming smile, making Maud blush and giggle like a tween. Just that fast, Rum was walking away with Maud on his arm.

‘Uncle Bilbo?’ Frodo was standing nearby, holding two mugs of beer. He held one out and Bilbo gratefully accepted it. They stood next to each other sipping beer and watching the dancers as they had two nights before. When their glasses were empty, Frodo gave him a long look. ‘Do you have any other business you need to take care of here?’


‘Then we should go.’

‘You don’t want to dance anymore?’ The boy shook his head. They bade farewell to their various relatives, agreeing on when they would depart in the morning, and walked back to the inn. When Frodo took his hand, Bilbo was relieved that he could feel the lad’s touch.

At the inn, Frodo got an ewer of hot water from the kitchen before they went back to their room. Bilbo gratefully laved his hands with some of it, washing away the last sensation of the chill. Frodo did not wash up for bed at once, but prepared their pipes and sat on the floor with his back against the bed. Bilbo joined him. When they were done, Frodo looked at his pipe, turning it about in his hands, tracing the ravens with a fingertip.

‘We found the children down at the stable,’ Frodo began without preamble. ‘They were near Rum’s team. Bluebell was with them. Harriet had been picking on her, and Amy didn’t like that, so she let Bluebell come with them. I left them and came back here and changed and ate something. I waited, but you didn’t show up, so I went back.’

‘When was that?’

‘Just before four.’

‘I got here just after four.’

‘Mmm.’ Frodo was still playing with the pipe. ‘I couldn’t find anyone at the Fair, so I bought some beer and sat to wait. Rum showed up and bought me supper. I think I know what will make him be good.’


‘My approval. Not just me, any of the children – Pearl, Gin, me, Amy – he wants us to think well of him. Trust him.’

‘Yes. I don’t think he wants his grandchildren thinking poorly of him.’

‘I told him he was forgiven and could write and come visit.’

‘Did you?’ This cheered Bilbo. ‘I’m glad you decided this. What made you forgive him?’

‘What he did for Gin.’ Frodo finally looked at him. ‘It’s his truest nature.’

Frodo did not say anything else. Bilbo was tempted to say they needed to go to bed and try to avoid any more talk tonight. He has been through a great deal these last few days, Baggins. Do not try him further. ‘I did not mean to be so long delayed. After the Moot ended, those of us who had met the first day agreed to meet again briefly. On the way, some of us gave Pal a warning that his behavior would not be tolerated anymore. He was unrepentant.’

‘After being called to account at the Moot like that? Even Otho told on him.’

‘He is a very stubborn Took. At our meeting, we spoke little, but agreed that we would work with Bertie in Eastfarthing, and that we will help Rum organize the Harvest Moot. It will not be left in Pasco’s incompetent hands. I spoke to Rum for a few minutes after that and he asked for my help.’ He gave Frodo a smile. ‘This is why it is good that you have forgiven Rum. He and I will need to meet and talk about the moot.’ When Frodo merely nodded, Bilbo went on. ‘When I left the fairgrounds, I went out the south gate to avoid people and walked slowly. You were gone when I got here. I spent a long while packing the trunk.’

‘You haven’t eaten since breakfast, have you?’

‘I have no appetite.’ Frodo began to say something, then gestured for Bilbo to continue. ‘When I left, Odogar was waiting for me. He fumed and threatened. I made it clear that he has no choice but to behave. When he stormed off, I followed at a distance, in fear of what he might do in his madness. He wandered about and ended up at Rum’s barn. I think he meant to attack Rum, but no one was there. I continued to follow him until he went back to his own inn. Walking back from there, I ran into Addy and Blossom and returned to the Fair with them.’ Bilbo did not think he needed to bring up the exchange between Pal and Odogar.

‘I can get you something to eat.’

‘I need sleep more than anything else.’ Bilbo patted Frodo’s knee. ‘It’s all right, lad. Honestly, I’ve had no appetite all day from worrying about what nonsense would happen next. A good sleep tonight and a big breakfast tomorrow and I will be fine.’

It took only a few minutes to wash up, pull on their nightshirts and go to bed.

The Sheepfold, Michel Delving, Morning, 1 Afterlithe, 1390

His appetite returned for breakfast and Bilbo ate almost as heartily as Frodo, pleasing the lad a great deal. The knowledge they were heading home made them both happier. Bilbo made an effort to be more cheerful around the boy, though from the way Frodo watched him he knew that his lad was still worried.

He, Odo and Odogrim helped the ladies get their trunks packed and carried out to the courtyard, ready to be loaded into the various wagons. Frodo had gone off with Wili, Mac and Rory to harness their teams up at Rum’s barn and bring them here, while Falco, Fargo and Baldo were busy hitching up their beasts in The Sheepfold’s court. The sun was just peeping above the eastern hills and shadows were long across the town. At the far end of the lane, where it met the main road, Bilbo heard wagons creaking along as Fair visitors headed north or south. Soon, Bilbo saw Rum and his Shirebourns coming up the lane to the inn.

‘Good morning!’ Rum called, waving an arm. Pearl sat on one side of him and Rory on the other. He expertly turned his team in the tight quarters of the court, backing the wagon to the front door so trunks could be loaded easily. He admonished Pearl to stay on the seat and out of the way before leaping down. Greetings and hugs were exchanged all about, with Rum managing to give Bilbo a quick pat on his bottom as he passed by.

‘Mac and Addy are waiting out on the main road for us,’ Rum cheerily said as he and Rory started loading the Brandybuck trunks into the back of his wagon. ‘There’s not enough room for everyone in here. Wili’s waiting for one of us to come out before bringing his team in. Frodo and Gin are with him.’

‘We’d best make some room, then,’ Falco said. He and the younger men loaded up his wagon while Nora bade everyone farewell and told them all that they were to come visit any time at all. Falco helped her up to the wagon seat, and he, Fargo and Odogrim offered their farewells. Bilbo was sure to give Odogrim a good hug and told the young man that he was to come visit Bag End before the end of the year. With a jingle of harness, Falco and his family set off down the lane. Odo, Baldo and Rum turned their hands to loading Odo’s wagon while Rory helped Dilly up to a seat next to Pearl. Bilbo and Frodo’s trunk was put into Odo’s wagon. As this happened, Wili’s team clopped into the yard, Frodo proudly handling the ponies while Gin and Wili gave him loud and conflicting directions and Amy scolded them both to be quiet. Rum had to go over and help get the wagon turned and backed as the close space was a bit more than Frodo knew how to manage, even if he had not been helped by his rascally kin.

Clyde Cotsman shook hands all about, thanking them for their business and company over the Fair. Stable boys lugged large baskets of lunch out the kitchen door, placing two in each of the waiting wagons. A small cask of ale joined the sets of baskets and they were ready for their journey. Bilbo ignored Rum’s unspoken offer of a seat and joined Odo, Sage and Baldo after boosting Prisca up next to Wili, earning a slap for pinching her on the bottom as he did. Frodo just rolled his eyes and told Turnip and Biscuit to “Hup!”

Mac and Addy were waiting along the main way, and waved for the others to keep going. To Bilbo’s surprise, Dudo and Tulip were also waiting, though they had a single pony and a small pony trap, not a full wagon, their trunk cunningly stored beneath and slightly behind the seat. Rum went first, followed by Odo, then Frodo, Addy next followed by Dudo, and Mac brought up the rear.

As they went through Michel Delving towards the East Road, Bilbo studied the town. While he liked the industriousness of the place, and very much enjoyed seeing so many hobbits living happily together, he did not like the lack of green and the closeness of the buildings. No, I would not like living in Michel Delving. Hobbiton is better. It might not have the grandeur of the Drop, but there was the Hill and the Water, and its gentle beauty offered a respite from the wider and wilder places of the Shire.

At the side of the crossroad where the northern road met the East Road, three dwarves stood, Bóin among them, expressions fierce, axes set haft down on the ground before them, their large, powerful hands resting atop the ax heads, the golden beads braided into their beards glinting in the morning sun. As Bilbo’s wagon passed by, they raised their axes, whirled them above their heads and then grasped the haft in both hands and bowed, foreheads touching their axes. They chanted something in their dwarvish tongue. Bilbo bowed in return. ‘At your service, and that of your family’s,’ he called out. The dwarves bowed more deeply yet, beards touching their knees, and kept up their chanting until the wagons drew out of earshot.

For a wild moment, Bilbo wished to leap from Odo’s wagon and run back to the dwarves, joining them in their journey West. The voice that called him this time was not in his head, not the whispering, enticing, seductive voice that urged him to take, seize, grasp, but a more like a thrill in his heart, a desire for waves and spray and towers glimmering on the horizon. It was like the first impulse he had felt that strange spring morning fifty years ago that had set him racing down the Hill without a second thought (or a handkerchief) and off to his great adventure. He was just about to jump down when he saw Frodo driving Wili’s team, Gin and Amy flanking him. Not yet, Baggins. When he’s older, then you will both take the West Road and see what adventures you may find. For some reason, this gave him a cold shudder, and he had to turn away.

The morning passed by uneventfully as they made their slow steady pace up the long grade from Michel Delving to Waymeet. They were among the many travelers going east. It made for a slower trip than usual as the pace was set by the slowest wagon ahead of them, and it was a bit dusty from the dirt kicked up by the long train of hooves and wheels. The slow pace made it easy to move between the wagons. If you tired of talking to the person next to you, you could just hop down and go forwards or backwards to find other company.

Mac did not sit in his wagon, not wishing to burden his Rushies with any unnecessary weight, and walked along, singing or whistling, the ponies obediently following behind him. Dilly joined him and they walked hand in hand for most of the morning. Rum also soon abandoned his seat, preferring to walk. By mid-morning, only the older women and the two youngest children rode in the wagons. Bilbo stayed with Wili, while Gin and Frodo were near the front, talking to Rum, Amy and Pearl having abandoned them to walk with Dudo and Tulip.

They were a league short of the first crossroad when they stopped for lunch. Bilbo quietly told Frodo to help Dudo and Tulip before going to Wili and Prisca. Wili was looking tired again and Prisca seemed concerned, so Bilbo shooed them off to the shade where Blossom and Dilly were laying down picnic blankets. Bilbo had unhitched the team and was going to lead them to the watering trough when Rum came over.

‘I’ll wager you haven’t checked their feet, have you?’ Rum said with a grin.

‘Ah, no, I haven’t,’ Bilbo admitted. Rum pulled a hoof pick from his back pocket.

‘Get lost, Grumpy, and leave this to someone who knows what he’s doing.’ With a smooth motion, Rum picked up Turnip’s foot and checked it, then moved to the next.

Bilbo glanced around to see if anyone was close enough to hear. ‘Frodo told me that you’re forgiven.’

Rum smiled but did not look away from his task. ‘Yes, he did.’ As Rum moved around the ponies, Bilbo followed. ‘He scolded me for hurting you.’ Rum glanced up briefly. ‘I’m not sure he trusts me yet.’

‘Then you still have work to do.’

‘Yes. With both of you.’

When he finished with the ponies, he and Bilbo walked them to the water trough and then gave them feedbags. Over near the blankets, there was a commotion. Rum took a look and then said something obscene under his breath.

‘Pal’s here.’ They exchanged a glance and headed towards the others.

Pal was standing, arms crossed, glowering down at Pearl, who wore a big smile rather like what Rum would sport when he was intent on irritating a relative. She reminded Bilbo of Ta at the same age. Blossom was standing nearby and Addy was walking over from where he had been taking care of his ponies.

‘You were told to stay with your mother,’ Pal said sternly to his eldest. ‘You left her to take care of all three babies by herself!’ That made Pearl’s confidence waver and she looked a bit guilty.

‘Pal, really, Tina needs someone more responsible than a fifteen-year-old to help her with the other children,’ Blossom sighed, ‘and she has the cook and the Bankses to call on, not to mention the Bunces!’

‘She’s got no call to be skipping off.’

‘Well, don’t blame Pearl, blame me for that!’ Blossom said, getting exasperated. ‘We stopped in as we went by and Fire wanted her best friend to come to the Fair, so I wheedled Tina until she let me take her.’

‘The girls always want to be chattering to each other,’ Addy said affably, ‘and she wasn’t any trouble.’

‘That’s not the point. She did not have my permission…’

‘…and she’ll be home tonight so stop being tedious, Pal,’ Rum said firmly. ‘You haven’t exactly been asking permission yourself lately.’ His smile was unpleasant. ‘You will need my permission in the future.’

Pal did not reply and held out his hand to Pearl who took it without complaint but also without any eagerness.

‘It’s lunch time. Do you have lunch for her?’ Blossom asked.

‘She can share mine.’

Addy shook his head. ‘Not enough for either of you, then. Come here, we’ve got plenty.’ Pal and Pearl followed him over to where the meal was set out. Addy asked Pearl what looked best to her, filled a small reed plate with what she pointed to, and wrapped it all up in a napkin for her to take. He walked off with them, talking.

The meal was subdued, with the children unsettled by Pearl’s departure, and Rum and Blossom both obviously irritated at Pal taking her away. After everyone had eaten, they settled in for a nap while the horses rested. As Bilbo expected, Gin and Amy immediately lay down next to Frodo and the three were quickly asleep. Rum knelt beside Bilbo.

‘You look worn out, Bilbo. It’s bothering our boy. Get some sleep. I’ll watch over you all.’ Bilbo lay down and closed his eyes. Though he was weary, sleep did not come. Thoughts kept stomping about in his head, refusing him his rest. Rum sat near him, humming. Bilbo felt Rum rest a hand on his shoulder and gently knead it. Slowly, his thoughts slowed and walked more gently, and he was able to drift off to sleep.

Rum woke him with a gentle shake about an hour later. Frodo had rolled over in his sleep and was curled up against Bilbo’s side, one arm over him as usual. Rum cradled Pearl in his arms, humming softly. Rory was sitting nearby, whittling something. He gave Bilbo a smile but did not stop his carving. Bilbo carefully extricated himself from Frodo’s embrace and sat up.

‘Rested?’ Rum asked quietly.


‘Wili said you were looking like you had after Scary.’ Rory’s voice was also quiet. ‘You didn’t look well last night.’

Bilbo glanced down to make sure Frodo was still asleep. ‘I ran into Odogar in the afternoon. Dealing with him, it leaves me drained. Feeling as old as I really am.’

‘What did he want?’

Bilbo shrugged. ‘Who knows? It was all ranting. I followed him after he stormed off. He wandered about and finally went back to his inn.’

The children began to stir so there was no more opportunity for talk. When Pearl woke, Rum took her back to Pal. As soon as the older children were awake, Bilbo sent them off to help with the ponies. Rory remained, carving the little piece of wood.

‘You never did give me that thrashing, brother.’

‘Still too tired.’ Bilbo sighed and rubbed his face. ‘Tell me, Rory, did you really give Pal a letter last Halimath saying you were sending him your kinswoman’s bastard son?’ Rory’s hands stopped moving for a few heartbeats and Bilbo saw a pained look cross his cousin’s face, then he went back to his whittling, giving no answer. ‘Pal has been sharing this.’

‘Claim him.’

‘I can’t, Rory. Or, I could, but it wouldn’t matter, because you have already spread the word that he is bastard without making mention of who sired him, and you’ve said you needed to send him away because of his unnatural tendencies. Odogar told me in Astron that Pal had told him this. The rumor they now spread is that I bought a little bastard pervert from you for a gold crown and you’re saying whatever I tell you to. I fear that no one will believe either of us.’ Bilbo sighed again and stood. ‘When Pal and Odogar take their revenge on us for spoiling their plans, it will be by attacking Frodo.’

‘Longbottom market is to buy off Otho?’

‘No. That will be his reward if he helps stop the other two. I will unleash something else on him if he adds to the harm. Several somethings, in fact, and he knows it. It’s why he behaved at the Moot.’ With a nod, Bilbo started to walk off. Rory caught his hand as he passed and pressed the bit of carved wood into it before letting go. Bilbo stuck it in his pocket without looking at it and kept walking.

The afternoon passed very slowly as they traveled up the last hills to Waymeet. Bilbo walked with Odo and Sage, not wanting the company of any of the rest of his kin. Rory stayed back with Mac and Dilly. Pal had joined their group, putting his wagon behind Rum’s and telling Pearl she had to stay on the seat in his wagon. Fire joined her and the two girls chattered and sang and sometimes Pal would join in on the songs as he walked next to his team. It was odd to hear him doing this, given how surly he was with everyone else. Frodo stayed back with Gin and Amy near Addy's wagon, which Bilbo thought just as well.

It was early evening when they came to a halt in the field next to The Wandering Goat, and everyone was weary. The Rushies, the Shirebourns and Pal and Addy’s teams were simply tethered to hitching rails at the edge of the pasture since they would continue on to Whitwell after supper. The other teams were taken to the inn’s stable to spend the night. Bilbo was grateful for the stablehands who took Wili’s team because neither he nor Wili were in any shape to care for the ponies. The common-room was crowded with inn guests and ordinary travelers, the noise too loud to try to hold a conversation. Bilbo found that his appetite had not stopped for supper but had continued on its way home. He sat between Rum and Frodo and picked at what was probably a perfectly decent meal, not that he could taste any of it through his gloom.

He had thought all afternoon, but came up empty handed for something he could use against Pal to force the man’s silence. Bilbo doubted that there was anything solid to be found about his dalliance with Rosa. Rory’s damning letter combined with Esmie’s lies would neatly echo the lies of decades past, and there was not much Bilbo could do about any of it. Bilbo glanced at Rum who was chatting with Rory and Mac across the table about the ponies in Whitwell they needed to go look at. None of this was helped by your salacious gossip the last few days. He decided he did not really care for any of his kin except Frodo. Who would be better off without you darkening his reputation. Bilbo finished his beer and excused himself from the table.

He fixed himself a pipe and walked out past the wagons in the field to watch the sunset. Bilbo pulled Rory’s carving out of his pocket and studied it. It was a small dragon head. It did not quite look like Smaug, but it was close enough. The bared fangs had sharp points on them and the expression was fierce. And all it took was a small patch, bare of scales, but a few handbreadths of soft skin, to bring you low. Bilbo reached up and dug into the hair on the back of his head, feeling for the scars where Smaug’s breath had burned away his hair and scorched his scalp. He could not wear his hair as short as Frodo did because it never grew back right and there were bare patches where nothing grew at all. The live dragon you’ve been laughing at, Baggins, is yourself, thinking yourself too clever, too strong, to be brought down by something so inconsequential as a hobbit. He turned the dragon head around, letting his fingers learn all the crannies and curves, before putting it back in his pocket.

About a half-hour later, he heard a familiar step behind him. Rum walked up and stood beside Bilbo, admiring the sunset. ‘The others will be out soon. We should be to Whitwell ere midnight.’


‘Is that really all you have to say, Grumpy?’ Rum teased.

All the worry, weariness, irritation and hopelessness of the last few days welled up in Bilbo’ heart. ‘Go away, Rum, before I give you the thrashing I promised to Rory.’ Bilbo gave him a hateful look. ‘What the two of you have done…’ He shook his head and returned his gaze to the sunset. ‘I begin to remember why I haven’t talked to you in sixteen years. Just… go away.’

Rum stepped in front of Bilbo so he had to look at him. ‘I need to see to a few things in the Smials and then I will come see you.’


‘When I come,’ Rum continued as though Bilbo had not spoken, ‘I want to learn how you keep your ledgers, for I think I need something like them if I'm to be a proper Thain. And I will also keep a much better eye on Pal.’ Rum smiled. ‘The only solution to a troublesome Took is a worse one.’

‘I am old and tired and done with your enticements, Rum.’ Stop it. All of you. Just leave me and Frodo be. ‘Don’t darken our door.’

‘I know what is weighing so heavily on your heart, dear Bilbo,’ Rum said softly, ‘and I rue adding to it. Please, trust me.’

Bilbo bit back a cruel reply. You don’t need a fight. You need to get your lad home before worse happens. He shrugged and walked off, looking for Frodo.

The boy was with his cousins, bidding them farewell and promising to come visit later in the summer. Bilbo joined in the hugs and kisses, telling Blossom that he would write with the days they would be in Longbottom once he had figured out the rest of his trips. He doubted they would actually do the tramp, but there was no point in alarming anyone. Next, they bade farewell to the Brandybucks.

‘Since you will be delayed, I’ll send Gilda’s scroll on by Messenger,’ Bilbo said to Rory. ‘She’s waited long enough for it.’ He hoped Rory had enough sense to know this meant they were not to stop at Bag End on their way home.

‘As you wish,’ Rory answered, not quite meeting Bilbo’s eyes. Yes, you should be ashamed of what you’ve done.

‘Goodbye, Uncle Bilbo,’ Dilly said, giving him a hug that he did not really return. You knew my boy was being harmed and you never breathed a word of it to me. She smiled uncertainly at him. Mac gave him a strong hug and handshake, evidently not noticing Bilbo’s distant manner. Dilly and Rory joined Rum in his wagon while Mac stayed with the Rushies. Soon, they, Pal, and Addy were on their way in the warm summer evening, heading for the crossroads to Whitwell. Bilbo, Frodo, Wili and Prisca stood at the edge of the pasture and watched until they were out of sight. Prisca took Bilbo’s arm as they walked back to the inn.

‘You’re tired and cross and don’t need our company,’ she said forthrightly, ‘so Wili and I are not going to stop at Bag End tomorrow, but will stay with Odo and Sage.’

Bilbo felt a bit embarrassed that he was relieved to know they would not come to call. ‘As you wish, Prisca, though you two are always welcome.’

‘I know, Bilbo.’ She gave him a kiss on the cheek. ‘Besides, I have two grandbabies on the way and need to get back.’

It was too early to retire, so they collected Odo and Sage and went to the town square to sit and chat and let night spread a cool cloak over the land. There was not any dancing tonight, but there was beer, and Bilbo drank more than he should have. He needed Frodo’s shoulder to hold on to for the walk back to the inn. Their room was spacious, with two beds and two chairs, much nicer than the tiny room they had in Michel Delving. Frodo led him to one of the chairs and made him sit. A few minutes later, there was a pipe prepared and lit, ready for smoking. Bilbo drew in a deep breath of smoke and held it before letting it out in a thin stream. Just like the smoke from Smaug when I first spied him asleep on his gold. Part of him was amused at comparing himself to the evil creature, but it also unsettled him.

‘Thank you, lad, for the pipe.’

‘You’re welcome.’ Frodo sat in the chair opposite, watching him closely. ‘I have a suggestion.’


‘Why don’t we walk home tomorrow?’

‘We’ve been walking all day.’

‘I mean overland, not next to the wagons. I’ve had enough dust.’

Bilbo smiled. ‘That is a wonderful suggestion, Wilwarin!’

Countryside, Noon, 2 Afterlithe, 1390

With a happy sigh, Bilbo settled in to enjoy his lunch. They had stopped on the foot path from Waymeet to Hobbiton at a well that stood near an old sycamore tree. Under the tree was a simple table of a few wide, roughhewn planks set upon tree stumps with two matching benches. Frodo had cast their picnic blanket over the table and adorned it with an assortment of tasty things from the kitchen of the Wandering Goat. Cool water from the well was all they needed to wash down the fresh bread, pickles, slices of meat, and several marvelous cheeses. He actually wanted to eat the meal.

Frodo had written a letter to Sam, sent with the morning Messenger, to tell Ham Gamgee that they would arrive that evening. They had started out not long after the sun rose for Bilbo wanted to take his time on this last jaunt. The morning walk was exactly what he needed. The countryside lazed under the summer sun, shadows sharp, the land smelling like bread baking, the delicate greens and bright flowers of spring transformed into darker tones, with gold and grey grasses nodding their heavy heads and trees sporting fruit in place of their long-fallen blooms.

They had climbed the high ridge out of Waymeet by midday and now sat near the crown of the long downslope to the Water. Here and there, where there was a fold in the hills, a brook would wind its merry way, chuckling to itself as it dodged past the turns of the land, washing clean the stones in its bed and tickling the toes of trees that bordered its impetuous path. Cows and sheep cropped grass or rested under trees, chewing their cuds, while their masters walked in nearby fields examining their crops. Goodwives near their cots hung out laundry for the breeze to caress, toiled in their kitchen gardens, or sat on a porch, hands busy with some bit of needlecraft. Few that they passed called out a greeting, but most doffed a hat, raised a hand, or at least opened an eye and flicked an ear to acknowledge the travelers’ passage.

There was nothing left of the lunch to pack when they were done, only a few napkins and other wrappings. They sat on the slope beneath the tree, gazing out across the rolling lands towards the glimmer of the Water north and west, resting a while before their afternoon sojourn. Bilbo fancied he could make out the Hill through the noontide haze.

‘What next?’ Bilbo was pulled out of his reverie by Frodo’s voice. The lad was sitting with his knees drawn up, arms crossed over them, chin resting upon them. He, too, looked home. ‘It seems so… ordinary. Not like there has been a contest going since Yule.’ Frodo looked at him. ‘Is it done?’

‘Splitting the farthings, that’s done. That won’t happen now,’ Bilbo said. ‘Odogar has lost control of Eastfarthing, and he remains the head in name only.’ Bilbo let his gaze turn true north. ‘That, the Parting, that remains.’ Gandalf, I need to talk to you.

‘What’s to be done about that?’

Bilbo returned his attention to Frodo. ‘Nothing, except do what we’ve always done. Take care of the land. Take care of each other. That’s what we all agreed at our meeting.’

Frodo considered this. ‘The Harvest Moot, the one for Winterfilth, it’s really about the Parting, isn’t it?’

‘Yes.’ Bilbo shook his head. ‘Ironically enough, had it not been for Odogar’s greed, many of us wouldn’t have spoken and the greater signs might have gone unmarked.’

Frodo also shook his head and sighed. After a bit, he said, ‘When will Rum be coming to meet with you?’

‘He won’t. I told him not to.’

‘What?’ The boy sounded incredulous. ‘Bilbo, I am completely confused. You said, just day before last, that you were glad I had forgiven him, so tha…’

‘I changed my mind.’ I don’t want any of them near you.

Frodo turned to face Bilbo. ‘Don’t you need to talk to him about the moot?’

‘He can write. I’ll go see him at some point. I don’t want him coming near. It’s that…’ There was no way to explain how Rum’s mere presence could set off more rumors of everything awful. ‘I don’t need the aggravation. We always end up with one of us infuriating the other. It’s best not to start.’

‘You miss each other.’

‘No, I don’t. Not after what he said of you.’ Bilbo scowled and looked away. ‘I got what I needed. He can go back to the Smials and sulk for another sixteen years.’

‘I don’t understand how you do this.’

‘Do what?’ Bilbo matched Frodo’s tone and glare.

‘You’re someone’s best friend one hour, and then you’re not even speaking to them the next!’ Frodo said hotly. ‘I mean, with Uncle Rory, I can never figure out if you’re angry with him or not. I don’t even know what you’re always arguing about. You hit him! The day before we left for the fair, you hit him! Why would you hit him?’ Frodo’s anger was subsiding, and he looked at the edge of tears. ‘That’s not like you. Except, maybe it is. Who else have you hit? Why Uncle Rory?’

Bilbo sat there, dumb, for some time. He wanted to protest that he had not hit Rory, only slapped him, but he doubted that distinction would matter much to Frodo. ‘Rory is… the one who keeps… who started the rumor… that you’re not Drogo’s son. He…’ Bilbo tried to collect himself so all of his fury at his stupid cousin would not come hurtling out at Frodo. ‘I’ve found out that just after your parents died, he started telling other family members that Drogo wasn’t your father. Saying it as truth.’ Frodo’s face took on a fierce quality. I am not the only dragon in the family. ‘Rufus told me in Oatbarton what Rory had said to him and Asphodel. I asked Rory to tell me who he had spoken to, and he did, but I know that he lied and has told others than just who he named. And then I find out from Rum about that letter to Pal! That’s why I am so angry with him.’

‘Why is he doing this?’

‘I don’t know!’ Bilbo said in exasperation. ‘He can’t explain himself.’ He sighed, feeling every one of his years. ‘He’s seen you now with all your Baggins kin and knows how wrong he is. They know who you are. And your Took kin, aside from Esmie and Pal, they know it, too.’

‘Rum recognized me immediately, even before I said my name. He saw my father in me.’

For a moment, Bilbo was tempted to forgive Rum. ‘Yes, he did.’

Frodo was silent a while. ‘But it’s Uncle Rory and Aunt Gilda. They both think it. They want to think it.’

Tell him now, Baggins, before someone else does. He knew he should confess the lie he allowed others to believe. You’re going to use that lie. He needs to know. Not yet. Don’t cast him into doubt. ‘I can only think of one thing, Frodo. I think they didn’t want to let you go, him or Gilda. If you weren’t Baggins, then you only belonged to them.’ Bilbo held out a hand to Frodo who took it. ‘When I think of how you’ve been used, what you told me about Bargo tormenting you, and I wonder if Sara would have tried what he did if Rory had not spoken so… I just want to make Rory… hurt for hurting you.’

‘Uncle Rory’s not Sara. I don’t want you hurting him.’

Frodo took a firmer grip on Bilbo’s hand and fixed the old hobbit with the same look he had shown just over a week before in Bilbo’s room, when he had declared that they would not be parted. Bilbo wished he could hold his ring and be grounded by it, but Frodo was grasping his right hand and he could not reach it. He laid his free hand over the little carved dragon head Rory had given him yesterday.

‘Your anger, it’s not right. This is what frightens me about you.’

‘I would never harm you, Wilwarin! Never!’

‘You would never mean to. But I distrust this anger. I think it’s… not you. It’s of the Parting.’

‘I’m not angry with you, lad,’ Bilbo pleaded, not really knowing why he felt a need to beg and get forgiveness. ‘It’s others who…’

‘You’re angry because of me, on my behalf, because others wrong me. I know. Still, it is awful to see in you. When it fades, it leaves you tired and sad. What the anger does to you scares me more than the anger itself.’ Frodo hitched himself closer to Bilbo and laid his head on Bilbo’s shoulder, who pulled his child into his arms and held him tightly. ‘Please. No more. Just… forgive them.’

‘I will try, Wilwarin. I will try not to be a dragon, and just be your silly old uncle.’

They sat together for some time. When they started walking again, Frodo stayed at his side, holding his hand when he could. It was evening when they reached the outskirts of Hobbiton and the declining sun turned the Hill the colors of a dragon’s hoard. The younger Gamgee children greeted them boisterously in the lane and skipped and ran and sang next to them as they trod the last steps to the door. A fine supper waited for them in the kitchen and they smoked several pipes on the bench in the garden as night settled in.

After a long hug, Frodo bade him a loving goodnight and headed for his own room. Bilbo retired, but was unable to sleep. He tossed and turned for a while, then grumbled and got out of bed to get himself a drink of water, though it was not thirst that kept him up. He missed the feel of Frodo next to him. On his way back to his room, Bilbo went into the study and lit a candle. He pulled the adoption papers out from their place in the stack, and read them over and over. Mine, you are mine. We will not be parted.


Comments may be left here