POV - Frodo
In which Frodo and Bilbo hear a great deal on many subjects as they set out on their journey, none of it particularly reassuring, and Frodo wonders if there will ever be an end to it.
18 Rethe, 1390
Dear Cousin Frodo,
Ula is helping me write you a letter. Merle won’t help me. She’s being mean and won’t let me ride her pony. She let Tilly ride the pony. Ula says I can ride her pony when Feather is old enough. Ula’s nice.
I got sick and was very hot and Mama was sick, too, but that’s done now. We’re all better.
I miss you. Berry and Merimas miss you, too. When I get a pony I will come to see you and you can ride my pony, but not Merle.
20 Rethe, 1390
My dearest rascal,
Aside from the round of fever, this has been the quietest winter in Buckland that I can remember. I suspect it is because a certain Baggins cousin we both love dearly wasn’t here to lead children in pranks. I miss you both, my beggar and my rascal.
The scroll translation is marvelous, even more so as I can read this one, unlike the last few from Bilbo. Ula and I have done nothing for the last few weeks but pore over your work. I have a few notes here, mostly questions, but a few corrections. On the third page, in the second paragraph…
…Are you doing as I bade you and keeping a close eye on your uncle, making sure he stays put? Be sure to tell me at once if he talks about going on an adventure. I hope you are learning to make Bag End your home. Bilbo loves you even more than I do, and that is a great deal.
8 Rethe, 1390
It is a good thing that we sent all the youngsters home after Yule. A fever went through Brandy Hall and central Buckland starting 24 Afteryule and stopped only in the last few weeks. That’s why you’ve heard naught from us. There were a few deaths and a number of folk have been left weak. Gilda says they will recover, but will need much care until midsummer. Merry, Merle and Esmie all took ill, but they are much better and you needn’t worry about them. Having all of them sick seems to have sobered up Sara in a good way. The rest of the family was untouched.
The market is well underway. Whatever you did to light a fire under Gun to get my stone, thank you. It will be completed and ready for merchants by Harvest. Wili and Mac are already talking to farmers and some craftsmen for what will be sold there, plus a few tinkers and peddlers who have been going to Whitfurrows. Rum let me know he may have some leaf to send since Pal has pledged to sell his only at Whitfurrows. There’s already been some questions from dwarves who have walked by on whether we needed help building (I said no for now, but may change later if the work is going too slow) and what we’ll have for trade. A couple of Big Folk from Bree and a few hobbits are also asking. Hargo seems to have found his manners and is asking about a dock north of the bridge. Guess he doesn’t like Whitfurrows, either.
The cheating over roots has a lot of people looking sideways at Scary. The more I think about that, the more I think Odogar has a good idea, no matter if for all the wrong reasons. Maybe because of all the wrong reasons. Stop rolling your eyes at me, brother! You know how I mean this.
Given the trouble our various cousins are up to, I think I will attend the Free Fair this year. A Master hasn’t attended the Fair since Da did so after the Fell Winter, so I figure it’s overdue. Mac will come with me and maybe Wili. Prisca and Dilly may come, too.
Gilda sends her love to you both, as do I,
12 Rethe, 1390
The Mistress will be very angry with me if she knows I am writing, but I think you need to know what has happened here in Buckland. I trust your discretion on what, if anything, of this you choose to share with Frodo.
The illness that struck Buckland was fever rash and it was terrible. Gilda has told me to say nothing about this and I heard her tell the Master to speak less than the full truth. I think she fears one or both of you will try to come here if you know the severity. Please don’t. There is nothing you can do except perhaps fall ill yourself or stir up trouble that is best left alone.
Merle and Merry were struck by this and Merry came close to death. His fever was terrible and I truly did not believe he could survive. Gilda took a medicine described in one of your scrolls and made a guess, adding in other herbs, and gave it to him when we thought all was lost, and it brought him back. I mixed more of it at her direction and I believe we saved a number of lives. Some we could not. Esmie also became sick, perhaps from the fever, perhaps not, and she, also, was in dire straits until the Mistress did her healing. She is still very weak. You may not believe this, but Master Sara has not touched a drop of ale since the Mistress cured Merry. I think the shock of seeing all his family so endangered changed the man.
Gilda, too, fell ill, though she would beat me with her cane for telling you. Thankfully, it was a mild case, but she was bedridden and had a high fever for a few days. I took the opportunity to read over the newest scroll and found something in it that reduces tremors. I’ve been giving this to her along with her other medicines for a few weeks and I think it is helping. I just mix a bit in her tea. At some point, she will notice what I’m about and I will get a tongue lashing, but by then even she should see the good the medicine is doing and keep using it. If she won’t, well, I may be back to Bywater sooner than expected.
When we parted, we had exchanged some sharp words over things that had happened over Yule, though I think we had come to an understanding. I have thought more and I will keep Feather. You’re right. I will be needed and I will need her to take me to where I am needed. Forgive me for being so ungrateful to you.
Path to Needlehole, 25 Rethe, 1390
There had been a bit of drizzle when they set out that morning, barely more than heavy mist in truth. Mister Gamgee had been waiting for them where Hill Lane met the road to Overhill, just above Bagshot Row and had handed them some fresh baked turnovers, still warm from the oven and wrapped in a kerchief, in exchange for the key to Bag End. He wished them a safe journey and bade Bilbo to call upon his cousins up in Oatbarton. By the time they had arrived in Overhill, they had finished the turnovers, lost the drizzle, regained their appetites and were ready for second breakfast.
Much to Frodo’s relief, Bilbo was happy, almost boisterous, on the walk, pointing out all the sights, riddling Frodo on the names of things in Sindarin, imitating the whistles and chirps of the birds they encountered and generally being in a gay mood. It would take them the day to walk to Needlehole where they were to spend two full days with Posco Baggins and his family, then a gentle half-day meander to Nobottle where they would stay another two days with their Chubb-Baggins kin. After that, it was a long tramp of eleven or so days’ time up through Northfarthing, going to Long Cleeve, then Greenfields and back to Oatbarton where they would be Rufus Burrows’ guests for four days. The idea of being in close quarters with Bargo for four days was not particularly cheering. They would take two days for the long walk down to Scary, followed by two days with Odogar Bolger. The route home from that point was uncertain and would depend on how tired they were.
The Merry Finch was a merry, if snug, tavern at the center of Overhill, and the kitchen maids greeted Bilbo as an old friend. Without even asking, plates of eggs, potatoes and bacon were quickly before them, followed by others with toast and preserves. The meal was completed by tankards of the tavern’s ale. Frodo ate hungrily, which made the women in the tap room quite happy, though Bilbo merely nibbled at toast and bacon and sipped his ale. Widow Moss came out and sat with them while they ate. It was clear to Frodo that she knew Bilbo quite well. She was a tiny woman with silver hair who seemed frail, but her voice was strong. Frodo listened to her and Bilbo chat while he ate, learning that her name was Clara, that she still did most of the cooking for the tavern despite her advanced age, that her son Manny ran the tavern but was off in Frogmorton arranging for hops from Widow Grubb that day and would be sorry that he had missed Bilbo’s visit. Bilbo asked about business and whether she had seen or heard of anything new or odd.
‘Not really, Bilbo. We do see more folk out of the north, especially Long Cleeve, than before.’
‘And why is that, do you know?’ Bilbo’s voice was pleasant and his face mild, but Frodo had learned to recognize a certain set to his uncle’s shoulders and an expression in his eyes that indicated a greater interest than his demeanor would otherwise suggest.
‘Not really. Them that comes through, they have different reasons or none at all.’ The widow shrugged. ‘Bad roots this last winter sending people down this way, mostly, and no surprise at that. People have seen wolves more often than they like.’ She hesitated for a minute, frowning down at the table. ‘I’ve heard tell of cows that go dry and ne’er start again. Of sows that eat their farrows, or simply trample them.’
Frodo glanced quickly at Bilbo, whose face had lost its bland expression. This is what you and Uncle Rufus talked about at Wintermark. And with Widow Grubb, when you tried to walk off. And what Gammer talked about. He thought he preferred his kin’s infighting to these dark words and strange events.
‘Anything else, Clara?’ Bilbo gently prompted.
She snorted. ‘Just stories out of the bottom of this,’ and tapped Bilbo’s mug, ‘or tales that lads say in the dark to scare each other. A tree picking someone up and giving him a thrashing when he tried to chop it down. A snake with two heads, a pony with six legs. What I think’s true is that we’ve got more Big Folk tramping about up north than before.’
‘My cousin, Rufus Burrows – we’ll be going to visit him on our walk! – he says he’s heard of more Big People in the last year and definitely there’s been more than one wolf seen since Blotmath last,’ Bilbo said, his face pleasant once more, ‘so I’m not surprised you’ve heard word of it, too. May I bother you to fix us up a bundle of dinner and a bite for this afternoon? Frodo and I need to go all the way to Needlehole tonight and I doubt there’s any food between here and there as good as this. And probably not in Needlehole itself, for that matter!’ By this point, Bilbo was using his most charming smile, getting a small blush from Widow Moss in return. She left for the kitchen, promising a fine meal in just a trice. She also promised to send word to Bilbo of any other strange tales she heard from travelers.
Frodo tried not to let the unsettling talk at the tavern stay with him, but Bilbo was thoughtful rather than cheerful as he been earlier, though he did not fall into one of his brooding silences as he sometimes did after getting unpleasant news. Frodo did not like watching Bilbo think, so he took the lead on the footpath out of Overhill that led towards a northward curve of the Water. There, the path split, the left branch continuing north and west around Rushock Bog to Needlehole, while the other way turned sharply north and a touch east to follow the edge of Bindbole Wood and go past the headwaters of Little Water until the path met the road to Oatbarton. He and Bilbo had gone on a long tramp to Bindbole in late Winterfilth last year following that path. Today, though, was for the way to Needlehole.
About an hour out of Overhill, Bilbo started humming to himself. Not long after Frodo heard him begin singing his favorite walking song:
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Frodo quickly joined in on the verse, turning to look at his uncle. Whatever serious thoughts had occupied Bilbo after their meal were gone and his expression once more was happy. The old hobbit took a few quick steps forward so they were walking together once more and they continued to sing this and a few other happy songs through the rest of the morning, pausing only to sip some water from a skin or save their breath while hiking up a slope.
The land was rising as they walked, though more steeply towards the Wood than the Bog, and the Water sank into a shallow gully to their left. All about them, the land was shaking off the last grey of winter. Unlike the gently undulating lands along the Road between Hobbiton and the Brandywine, these hills were not farmed. There was some pasturage for cows and sheep and a few coppiced woodlands. Here and there, Frodo could see small orchards of apple, pear and cherry, their pink and white blooms like little stars on the nearly bare branches of the trees. There were few fences or even hedgerows between the Wood and the Water, though there were brakes of vines – blackberry, raspberry and stone bramble – creating thorny mounds more impenetrable than a rock wall. Birds flitted about in the brambles, safe from the keen eyes of the hawk who was circling far above them. Rabbits were all about, nibbling plants and hopping a few feet out of the way as the hobbits walked past, not unduly alarmed by their two-footed neighbors. Along the edge of the path sprang the last of the season’s bulbs, bright yellow, startling white, a red rich as rubies, delicate gems against the patchwork of green grass and brown dirt. Above, the sky was a brilliant blue, a few scraps of white and grey clouds casting shadows upon the meadows to either side of the Water, a darker scrim of them on the western horizon threatening to end the day as it had begun, with a drizzle of rain. South over the Water and up the slope of the far bank, he could glimpse the lane that ran west from Hobbiton, splitting north to Long Cleeve and south to Waymeet on the far side of the Bog. Upon it was the occasional cart or walker, too far away to call to and exchange a wave of greeting. The few cottages that could be seen were mostly on the southern bank of the Water, though the doors of a couple of old smials could be seen close to the Wood, just over the border to Northfarthing.
Frodo was in a much better mood when they stopped somewhat late for lunch at a high point on the path where a few flat rocks sat near an old well, inviting travelers to draw a bucket of water to slake their thirst and take a sun-warmed seat upon the stone to rest their feet and enjoy a meal. Frodo took their picnic blanket out of his pack and placed it on the largest, flattest rock, then drew water from the well while Bilbo laid out the food. Two rounds of bread were hollowed out, one filled with sliced mutton, the other with several cheeses. A small roasted chicken had been cut up, wrapped in lettuce leaves, and tucked into another round of bread. Scones, split and spread with butter well mixed with honey, filled a kerchief and there was a pouch with dried apricots and plums. They ate with appetite, though not too quickly. Frodo was pleased that Bilbo did more than pick at the food this time. The old hobbit’s lack of appetite worried him sometimes, though Bilbo never seemed to change in weight. He was always solid with a slightly rounded belly, though more lean than fat. He never changes, no matter what he does. Gammer’s words from Yule came back to him. “Can’t you see? He should be old and worn out. He doesn’t age and that is what is wrong.” Frodo stared at Bilbo, who was happily eating some mutton and cheese with a hunk of bread, gazing out towards the Bog. Aside from a few grey strands at his temples, a soft fold of skin where his neck met his jaw, and a few deep lines in his face, Bilbo looked barely sixty, a hobbit at the height of his maturity and with some years more before age began to claim him. That’s what’s wrong, Rat. That’s what’s unnatural about him. But he’s so handsome and strong, how can that be wrong? Gammer said he’s not so strong, Rat, and she knows healing. Frodo carefully turned away, pretending to be admiring the view down the Water back the way they had just walked so that Bilbo would not notice his dismay.
After a bit, he heard Bilbo fussing with the lunch leavings and turned back to help clean up. There was no change in Bilbo’s happy mood. Stop thinking. Just stop it. Gammer’s wrong and there’s nothing wrong with Bilbo. ‘Do we have time for a pipe, Uncle Bilbo?’ he made himself say in a tone that may have matched Bilbo’s heart, but was the opposite of his own.
‘I wish we did, lad, but we’ve dawdled enough today and must walk briskly if we’re to make Needlehole by dusk,’ Bilbo said apologetically. ‘The way up from the Bog is steep, and I’d rather not try walking it in the dark.’ They packed up the last bits of the meal and set out.
A breeze was coming up as the midday turned to late afternoon, and they saw clouds blowing in from the west. The land dipped towards the bog and the hillside was steep, with bits of the path eroded from the winter’s storms, so they had to tread carefully. In the bog below, they could see clumps of bilberry bushes in the soggy land where the ground became the Water, just starting to leaf out. The ground rose sharply up towards Needlehole, the Water chattering merrily in its course down to the silent bog. In a few places, the path had to cut sharply back and forth across the face of the hillside and logs had been set like steps into the dirt to make climbing easier. The difficult path did not allow time for stray, dark thoughts, for Frodo had to give his full attention on placing his feet so he would not slip.
They crested the last steep slope just as the rain started to fall and the lights of Needlehole could be seen. Casting their hoods up, the pair walked as quickly as they could to the village, squinting against the rain as it came down heavier with each minute. By the time they reached Needlehole proper, it was a steady downpour with a sharp wind that made their cloaks snap. Frodo followed Bilbo as they walked through the village and over the bridge across the Water, turning aside on a small muddy lane lined with low, neat houses, almost every one with some flowers before it. About a furlong past the turn, near the end of the houses, Bilbo stopped at one and knocked on the door.
The round, brown door was opened within a minute, and a hobbit woman exclaimed in delight, ‘You’re here! Finally! Posco, Posco! Bilbo’s here with his lad!’ She shooed them in the door, bestowing hugs and kisses upon them both while divesting them of their packs and cloaks. A portly and much older hobbit came walking down the hall to the entry, giving Bilbo a great embrace.
‘Cousin Bilbo, it’s been too long!’
‘It has been long, hasn’t it, Posco?’ Bilbo cheerily replied, neatly sidestepping the question of whether the time had been too long or perhaps not long enough. ‘Frodo, come say hello.’
Greetings were exchanged, Gilly and Posco insisted that Frodo call them “Auntie” and “Uncle,” and the travelers told to sit on a bench while some warm water was brought for their feet and hands. A younger man, Posco’s son Porto, accompanied by his wife, Melissa Bunce, appeared with a basin and some small towels and they soon were freed from the walk’s grime, though Frodo was shivering a bit from the damp. When they were done cleaning up, Gilly brought them to a large dining table in the kitchen where they sat with the family for a plain but filling supper, with lots of potatoes and carrots, a roasted spring lamb and much fresh bread. Even Bilbo looked tired by the end of the meal. Frodo could not help but notice how closely Posco looked at him over his ale mug or the somewhat searching glances Gilly gave him as she refilled his plate. Porto and Melissa were busy keeping their small son, Porter, from making too much of a nuisance of himself.
‘Well, Cousin Bilbo,’ Posco said as Porto helped Gilly clear the plates and Melissa carried their son off to bed, ‘I can see you and your boy are tuckered out from your tramp today, so I won’t keep you up, even though I’d love to hear what has been happening down the Water.’
‘Given the sound of the rain, Posco, I suspect we’ll have naught to do on the morrow but sit next to a warm fire and tell tales,’ Bilbo said back with a smile. Not Cousin Posco. Just Posco. Frodo wondered at how great of an ass this cousin was. He looked much older than Bilbo, even as he was probably substantially younger.
‘Come with me and I’ll show you to your bed, then,’ Posco replied. ‘Your trunk arrived at noon and is waiting for you.’
‘Excellent!’ Bilbo actually sounded pleased this time, rather than just polite. Posco showed them to a nice room at the back of the house with no hearth and a single large bed.
‘I fear our home is not so grand as what you’re used to at Bag End, Bilbo, and this is all…’
‘It is quite good,’ Bilbo firmly. ‘A full meal, a solid roof, a warm bed, and kind kin; that is all a hobbit could want. Thank you and ask dear Gilly to forgive us for being such poor guests.’ More deftly than Frodo would have believed, Bilbo moved Posco out the door, closing it with a cheery ‘We shall see you in the morning!’
Frodo went to their trunk which sat at the foot of the bed and opened it. Bilbo joined him and they quickly unpacked the small trunk. It would not do to try to carry all of their clothes about in their knapsacks, not when they were to make such important visits, so Bilbo had arranged to have the trunk carted to their major stops along the way. Kin of course would care for it and it was a foolish innkeeper who would not take good care of “Mad Baggins” belongings, not when Bilbo guaranteed a packed taproom for the evening. Frodo pulled things out of the trunk and laid them on the bed where Bilbo retrieved them and hung them up or shook them out before neatly refolding them and placing them in the small, worn wardrobe in the corner of the room. Last were the two nightshirts. Frodo gratefully shed his still slightly damp clothes, handing them to Bilbo to hang up, before pulling on his nightshirt and crawling into bed.
‘No pipe, Wilwarin?’
‘No, Uncle Bilbo. I’m tired and a little chilled. I’m going to sleep.’
‘That’s a good idea lad. I think I’ll join you.’ In just a few minutes, Bilbo was changed and sliding under the covers. Frodo waited until Bilbo had turned on his side and then snuggled up close, his arm over his uncle, quietly happy at the unexpected treat of sharing a bed. Bilbo took Frodo’s hand in his own and sighed contentedly. They both soon drifted off to sleep.
Needlehole, 27 Rethe, 1390
‘Uncle Bilbo? A new farthing?’
Posco’s eldest son, Ponto, looked at Bilbo in confusion. A quick glance showed that his father and brother were sporting similar expressions. They were all sitting in the somewhat cramped parlor of Posco’s house in the early afternoon, having just finished a plentiful lunch prepared by Aunt Gilly, Cousin Melissa, and Ponto’s wife, Lira Banks. Bilbo had asked the second cousins to gather so he could give them the news of what Odogar was up to.
Frodo’s opinion of Posco (he no more cared to call him “Uncle” than Bilbo did to call him “Cousin”) was not terribly good. He was nothing like his sister, Aunt Prisca, who was, now that Frodo thought about it, a great deal like Uncle Bilbo – charming, smart and very discerning about others. Posco was dull, loud, a bit coarse, though affable, and not very ambitious, though he did seem a bit too interested in Bilbo’s reputed wealth than was polite. Ponto and Porto, thankfully, appeared to have inherited their mother Gilly’s temperament, and were direct and open in their manner, though neither showed any of Aunt Prisca’s cleverness the way their sister Peony did. Frodo had met Peony when she was visiting Aunt Prisca and Uncle Wili in Buckland with her husband Milo, Aunt Asphodel’s son and Bargo and Bluebell’s eldest brother. The brothers reminded Frodo somewhat of Mac in their character, though they were nowhere near as big or muscled as his Brandybuck cousin.
Bilbo drew on his pipe and exhaled before nodding. ‘Yes, Ponto. Our cousin, Odogar Bolger, seems to think that four farthings are not enough for the Shire.’
‘Why not?’ Porto asked, looking completely befuddled at this point.
‘Well, I admit I’m having some trouble following the logic myself,’ Bilbo replied, ‘but it seems that he’s having a bit of a row with both the Master and the Thain and thinks it is just the thing to keep them from meddling in his affairs. And, since I have the bad luck to be a first cousin to all three of these fellows, they are all complaining to me about the others.’ Bilbo sighed and shook his head, a wry smile on his face. ‘I think they’d best be served by meeting for some beer at The Golden Perch in Stock and discussing it like the gentlehobbits they are alleged to be.’ This elicited a round of laughter from the Baggins cousins.
‘They’d be well advised to follow your wisdom, Cousin Bilbo,’ Posco added a bit too heartily, ‘as you obviously know business better than any of them, seeing as how prosperous you are.’
‘Mmm,’ was all Bilbo answered, making use of his pipe to avoid answering.
Frodo sat quietly, hiding behind his own pipe. He had not much cared for all the stares of these cousins that he had endured for a day and a half. He wondered what rumors they had heard and hoped to confirm by eyeing him so closely. Bilbo had been very careful to introduce him as Drogo’s son to each of them, though not stinting on Frodo’s relation to Milo Burrows through their mothers. He very much had not liked Lira’s calculating expression over second breakfast, nor how deliberately he had been introduced to her and Pontos’s daughter, Angelica. The girl was somewhere in between Merle and Merry in age, and completely disinterested in him, the only relative who was. He played the dutiful nephew, saying little and waiting on Bilbo.
‘But, still, saying he wants another farthing seems to be going a bit far,’ Ponto said, getting a vigorous nod from his brother. ‘And brother Milo wrote me a note the other week saying there was something else in the air about Mister Bolger, something big and with your name on it, Uncle. Is that this farthing?’
Frodo glanced at Bilbo, whose expression had sharpened. ‘Was that all Milo said?’
‘Yes, sir, it was.’ There was no deceit or guile in Ponto’s manner. Frodo liked that he was respectful of Bilbo without being fawning, as Posco tended to be.
‘What I’m going to say next needs to stay here with your three for now. On your honor as Baggins.’ Bilbo eyed them all sternly until he won nods from them. ‘Frodo, the map, please?’ Frodo reached into an inner pocket of his waistcoat and pulled out a folded piece of paper, handing it to Bilbo, who laid it flat upon a low table where their pipeweed and wine sat. The others craned to look at it. ‘Odogar spoke first to me about this last Yule, when Frodo and I were visiting Buckland and Odogar also was there. He said he wanted a road farthing created.’ Bilbo’s finger traced the map as he spoke. ‘All the eastern end of Westfarthing from Waymeet up to Needlehole and back to the border with Eastfarthing and down to the edge of the Green Hills. The northern tip of Southfarthing from the Three Farthing Stone to the Stock Road. All of Eastfarthing below the Road.’
‘The towns on the Road, too?’ Porto asked, tracing the red line Bilbo had carefully drawn on top of the existing farthing borders.
‘No, they would remain with Eastfarthing. The Yale, Stock, the Marish, down to Shirebourn, that would become Centralfarthing.’
‘It’d be bigger than Eastfarthing.’
‘It would be a fat farthing,’ Posco said, appreciatively, then gave Bilbo an appraising look. ‘And how does your name enter into this, cousin?’
Frodo recognized the set quality of Bilbo’s face, and knew his uncle was disgusted with Posco’s avarice. ‘Odogar seems to think that I can be purchased by promising me control of the farthing if I will throw my support to him and oppose the Thain and the Master, wresting it away from them.’
Once more the cousins were shocked into silence. Ponto found his voice first. ‘Well, it seems to me that Mister Bolger is the one losing the most here. He’d be halving his farthing. What are the others giving up?’
‘This end of Westfarthing, and that’s Wilcar Chubb’s to lose, not the Thain’s,’ Posco said quickly, ‘and it’s for us to gain.’
‘“Us,” Posco?’ Bilbo’s expression was forbidding.
‘Us Bagginses, of course!’ Posco answered, too busy looking at the map to even notice Bilbo’s disapproval, though both Ponto and Porto had sat back, dismayed at the old hobbit’s anger. ‘When will this be done?’
‘It won’t.’ The coldness in Bilbo’s voice finally got through to his dim-witted cousin. Posco looked and sat back, nervous.
‘And why not? Why shouldn’t the Baggins run a farthing?’
‘Can’t do worse than Mister Bolger’s done with the last root harvest,’ Porto said, his voice a bit sharp, ‘and you’d do a darn sight better, uncle! Folks here know the good you do. You pretty much run this end of Westfarthing already, don’t you?’
‘No. The Bagginses look after Hobbiton, the Hill and Bywater, as we always have. There’s no call for anything else.’
Frodo could see Bilbo’s anger mounting and thought it a good time to distract his cousins. ‘Of course everyone knows the good that Bilbo and the rest of the Baggins do, have always done, in this part of the Shire. There’s no question that we’re well run in these parts. The problem is that Odogar is trying to avoid how poorly he’s minding his farthing by riling up everyone else.’ Frodo looked directly at Ponto, who seemed to have the most sense of all three. ‘I don’t trust that he actually wants Uncle Bilbo in charge of anything.’
‘I know he doesn’t want me in charge,’ Bilbo smoothly added, temper back under control. ‘Posco, what I see Odogar trying to set up is a deal with Pal and Otho, to take a tiny, insignificant bit of Pal’s farthing, and then hand over the rest of it to Otho when I finally die.’
That news had an immediate effect on Posco, who scowled. ‘Otho? A Sackville-Baggins? No, we can't allow that!’
‘Of course not,’ Bilbo was back to being charming, ‘it would be ridiculous, but that is who Odogar appears to be talking to, as well, which is why I have no faith in anything he’s proposing.’
‘But if you have it, it’s not like he can take it from you, can he?’ Porto asked. ‘I mean, Otho’s not your heir anymore.’ He smiled and nodded at Frodo.
‘He never was. That was never going to happen.’ Though his tone was light, Frodo knew Bilbo was not happy at Porto’s tenacity. ‘In any event, I have no quarrel with either Cousin Rory or Cousin Rum, I have no interest in cleaning up after Odogar’s mess in lower Eastfarthing, and I think Odogar’s only interest here is to try to pull a good chunk of Westfarthing under his control.’
‘So don’t take the butt end of Eastfarthing,’ Posco said, gaze once again on the map. ‘Take the center and stop at Frogmorton. Everything below the Water and above the Green Hills.’
Bilbo reached out and picked up the map, folding it and handing it back to Frodo, who tucked it into his waistcoat. ‘You don’t seem to be listening, Posco. No. There’s no call to take anything. Things are fine as they are.’
‘So why are you telling us this, then pulling it away?’ Posco challenged.
‘I’m warning you of the foolishness that Odogar may attempt at the Moot at the Free Fair,’ was Bilbo’s reply in an overly patient tone. ‘You’ve heard rumors, I’m giving you the story behind them, and making you aware of the double-dealing I think Odogar is up to.’ He gave them all another stern look. ‘There is no possibility that I will assist Odogar Bolger in this ridiculous, divisive nonsense.’ He kept them pinned with this look until they nodded and mumbled that he was probably right about Mister Bolger not dealing square.
Bilbo asked a question of Ponto about his farm he was only too eager to answer, which lightened the mood in the parlor. From the looks on Porto and Posco’s faces, Frodo doubted that these two had entirely given up the idea of Baggins-run farthing, but did not seem willing to risk Bilbo’s ire to pursue the topic. The rest of the afternoon went by with discussion of the farm (productive), the weather (decent), the neighbors (amusing) and other happenings about Needlehole. Frodo was relieved that nothing of note or oddness was happening in the immediate area and that none of the men had heard anything from anyone of something happening that was a bit queer. No wolves. No Big People. No birds falling from the sky or roots rotting in the ground. It was perfectly ordinary.
It was getting near supper and good smells were beginning to come out of the kitchen, making Frodo’s stomach growl in a most embarrassing way. The sons teased him gently about it, reminding him again of Mac, before excusing themselves to wash up and help Gilly and their wives with the meal preparations.
Bilbo also stood and Frodo followed suit. Posco leveraged himself from his chair and came over. ‘Well, Bilbo, no doubt you’re right about your Bolger cousin being up to no good, but you shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the idea of yourself at the head of a farthing.’
‘I assure you, Posco, I have examined it from every angle and know it to be complete nonsense,’ Bilbo airily said, waving a hand to dismiss the thought.
Posco turned to Frodo and put a hand on his shoulder, giving him another intent look, then laughed. ‘Well, Otho’s the loser in all this, I can see. Keeping up his streak.’ Frodo saw Bilbo’s expression change from genial to intent in an instant. Posco once again was paying no attention to the old Hobbit and would not let go of Frodo’s shoulder. ‘You know, Bilbo, little sister Prisca’s is a tattle-tale on us both.’ Posco laughed again as Bilbo’s face turned wrathful. ‘And who’s going to give you the thrashing, cousin, since you won’t have Dro …’
Bilbo lunged forward, grabbed Posco by his waistcoat and yanked the other hobbit away from Frodo, then gave him a powerful shove. Posco fell to his hands and knees and scrambled backwards away from Bilbo. Frodo was so shocked by Bilbo’s attack he could not move. The cold fear he had felt a few days before returned as Bilbo slowly advanced on his cousin.
‘You were warned, Posco.’ Bilbo’s voice was soft, barely above a whisper. Frodo could not see his uncle’s face, only the taut set of the hobbit’s shoulders, one hand in a pocket, the other flexing as though he wanted to make a fist. ‘You were told. Never. Breathe. A. Word.’ Posco continued to crawl backwards, terrified by whatever he saw in Bilbo’s face, until he ran out of room and cowered against the wall. When Bilbo reached him, he whimpered, and then yelped as Bilbo dragged him upright and pinned him to the wall. ‘A Baggins always keeps his word.’ Posco was shaking, trying to pull away. ‘I gave my word that you would suffer if you breathed a hint of a whisper of a rumor of your wickedness.’ By this point Posco was shaking so violently that only Bilbo’s grip on his shoulders kept him upright, and tears were running down his face. ‘Have you anything to say, cousin?’ Posco shook his head.
Bilbo let the other go and Posco dropped heavily to the floor. Turning around, Bilbo sauntered out of the room while Frodo stared at Posco lying in a heap, shivering. ‘Come along, Frodo, it’s time to wash up.’ Frodo followed, not knowing what else to do, and went with Bilbo to their room. He sat on a chair and watched Bilbo use the basin and a jug of tepid water to wash his hands and face, completely calm and not showing any sign that he had just attacked their host. When Bilbo finished neatening his shirt, he crossed his arms and looked at Frodo, waiting. It took Frodo a minute to find his voice.
‘Why what, Frodo?’
‘What you did just now to Posco.’ Frodo realized he was shaking slightly, though he no longer felt dread. ‘What was that about?’
‘Being the head of the Baggins clan.’
‘Roughing up an old man in his own home?’
‘Reminding a fool that he has promises to keep.’ Bilbo’s tone was unapologetic.
Frodo was silent, trying to puzzle out what Posco had said that was so terrible. He was looking at you, Rat, and Aunt Prisca told on Bilbo for something. Bilbo thrashed him before. And Otho is mixed up in this somehow. None of it made sense and Frodo shook his head. ‘I don’t understand.’
Bilbo sighed and looked down, thinking. ‘A long time ago, Posco did something that caused grievous harm to several others. I had him beaten for it. Severely.’ Bilbo raised his face and caught Frodo’s eyes. ‘I warned him that he was never to breathe a word, lest the words themselves repeat the harm to those he had injured. He knows if he lets slip his deeds, I will main him, even kill him.’ Bilbo’s voice was bitter. ‘I would gladly leave such tasks for Otho, if I could.’
The old hobbit gestured at the basin. ‘Clean up, lad. Supper will be ready soon, and then we should go to bed. We’ll be leaving quite early tomorrow morning.’
Nobottle, 30 Rethe, 1390
Frodo vastly preferred the Chubb-Bagginses, hyphenated or not, to Posco. Their home in Nobottle was pleasant, with a hearth in every room and many windows. Falco, Bilbo’s cousin, was a cheerful, uncomplicated fellow who ran a store and had several large flocks of sheep here and there upon the White Downs. He dealt in feed, cloth, nails, lamp oil and other things that people needed, and was not hesitant to do business with dwarves, which pleased Bilbo very much. The folk of this northern stretch of Westfarthing looked to him as the headman of Nobottle and the farthing itself out to the Bounds since he was generally considered a sensible and fair fellow. The head of the Chubb family, Wilcar, often turned to his elder Baggins cousin for counsel, preferring Falco’s genial advice to the stern lectures Pal was partial to handing out, no matter that the Thain’s heir was his brother-in-law. Frodo felt no reluctance to call the elder hobbit “Uncle.”
Falco’s wife, Nora Headstrong, had been Prisca Baggins’ best friend in Needlehole when they grew up and the two had met when Prisca had brought her dear friend to a party at Bag End one summer which Falco also attended. Falco’s son, Fargo, was identical in look and temperament to his father, and also well liked in the area. He was married to Hazel Whitfoot and they had a little girl, Briar, who was not quite two. Falco’s daughter, Poppy, was wed to Odogar’s nephew, Bertie, and was good friends with her younger cousin, Peony.
The previous day had been spent tramping halfway out to Tighfield to inspect the nearest of Falco’s sheep flocks and arranging to buy another flock for Uncle Rory that would be pastured in the area. Falco agreed with Bilbo that trying to pasture wool sheep in Buckland made no sense. ‘That’s no land for flocks, Bilbo,’ he said. ‘Best keep the beasts here where they’ll be content, and send the wool east in a cart. Don’t know how anything can be content across the River and up against that dark forest, neither sheep nor hobbit.’
One thing Falco’s family shared with Posco’s, however, was a penchant for staring at him with sharp glances, looking back and forth between himself and Bilbo. They’ve heard something. Frodo wondered how much he resembled Bilbo, if the likeness that his uncle saw so plainly was quite as obvious to those who were not as determined to believe as Bilbo did. He made himself study Falco and Bilbo to see if they looked like kin. They did, much as Uncle Rory and Bilbo bore a strong resemblance to each other, though the common features were Baggins rather than Took in nature. He was right about the hair, Rat. Uncle Falco’s hair was mostly grey, but in texture almost identical to Bilbo’s dark curls. Bilbo was taller and had a more slender build than his cousin, but their overall proportions were similar and their faces when they laughed were alike. Even so, the looks were unsettling and Frodo looked forward to the long walk up north with no kin about to peer at him and make him wonder if he was.
Today there was a bit of rain falling, though Fargo had assured them it would be gone by morning when he and Bilbo were to set out for Long Cleeve. The four of them sat in Falco’s study, smoking their pipes and drinking some brandy while they discussed business and the happenings of Westfarthing. Births, deaths and marriages were recounted, often with some amusing tale of a nervous bridegroom or inebriated guests. Business was good and most people were comfortable, if not quite as prosperous as in the central and eastern regions of the Shire. Best of all, everything was just as ordinary here in Nobottle as it had been back in Needlehole.
‘No, no, cousin,’ Falco said with a shake of his head, ‘I haven’t heard of any odd things happening hereabouts, not this year. Poppy wrote me about the bad harvests out east, but we don’t really grow roots.’
‘Where they did get planted, closer to the North Moors, they were fair enough, but they’re never that good, no matter the year,’ Fargo added. ‘I know a few shepherds say they’ve lost sheep to wolves, which I don’t think likely. I think somebody’s sheep dog was getting itself an extra meal or two.’ His father nodded agreement. ‘Put a few of the guard dogs out and they’ll stop losing sheep.’
‘That sounds right. I remember Uncle Bingo saying the same,’ Bilbo replied. ‘What of Big People?’
‘Mostly on the East Road, where they should be. Lots of dwarves, but that’s not new.’ Falco’s face became more cheerful. ‘I hear there will be a good number of those folk at the Free Fair this year, Bilbo.’
‘Really? Now there’s splendid news!’ Bilbo did look very happy at the prospect of dwarves at the Fair. ‘There is a dwarf friend of mine, Dalin Steelhand, who I took as a guest to Buckland at Yule, and he spoke quite a bit with Cousin Rory and his boys about more trade to the Blue Mountains.’
‘Well, if he’s at the Fair, you’ll have to introduce us. I wouldn’t mind a bit more trade with them. They do better lamps than we can produce here.’
‘Of course, Falco.’
The other hobbit cocked his head to the side and gave Bilbo an appraising glance. ‘So, you’re going to be at the Fair this year, Bilbo?’
Bilbo’s expression became a little bland. ‘Yes. I thought I would.’
‘You don’t usually. Haven’t seen you there since ’78, and I think you hadn’t shown up there before that since ‘64.’
Bilbo nodded amiably, though his eyes were sharp. ‘I do believe you’re right, cousin. Frodo hasn’t seen it yet, so I thought it would be good to go.’
Falco was quiet for a few minutes, drawing on his pipe and watching Bilbo who sipped his brandy and smiled back. Bilbo won the waiting game. ‘Poppy’s been writing about some odd things, Bilbo.’
‘What has she written?’ Bilbo’s tone was serious.
‘That Cousin Odogar is a very distracted man.’
‘That could be.’
‘Who talks quite a bit about you.’
‘That must be rather dull for him.’
That got a cheerful snort from Falco. ‘You’re the only news in the Shire, most times, Bilbo! People half expect you to turn into a dragon.’
He did. Frodo pretended to be fussing with his pipe to cover the shiver he felt when remembering Bilbo’s attack on Posco but a few days ago.
‘Come, now, Falco, I haven’t done something excessively outrageous in at least four decades,’ Bilbo teased back.
‘So, it’s time for something to happen,’ was Falco’s firm response, humor gone. ‘What is it you’re planning, Bilbo?’ Fargo leaned forward in his chair, nodding. So, you’ve been getting letters from Poppy, too. ‘There’s something brewing for the Free Fair and it’s got Odogar Bolger in a state.’
‘What details have you heard, if any?’
‘Just that Car Bolger is spending a lot of time trotting back and forth between Whitwell and Scary. Bertie won’t say anything to Poppy about the business, only that she needs to tell me to expect to hear something from you. So, what is it?’
‘What’s your opinion of Odogar?’
‘He’s more like his mother than his father, and I never much cared for Aunt Belba.’
Bilbo took a moment to puff on his pipe. ‘Yes. Quite.’ The cousins exchanged an unreadable look. ‘Over Yule, Odogar was in Buckland and spoke to me. He had been making a total hash of managing the root harvest failure, and was more concerned about making some coin from the sales than being sure there was food on a goodwife’s table.’ The two exchanged another look, and Falco shook his head in annoyance. ‘He and Pal had been dealing with each other, and neither were talking to the Master. There was trouble in the Marish with not enough roots, so Rory went ahead and took care of it, then the Thain got involved…’
‘…to tweak Pal’s nose?’ Falco tossed out.
‘I think so. Anyway, this incensed Odogar, who said to me when we talked at Yule that he thinks there should be another farthing, cut from a bit of the others, right smack in the center of the Shire.’ Bilbo paused to let the news sink in. Falco’s eyebrows had gone up, but he was not shocked the way Posco and his sons had been. Fargo’s brow furrowed, then he began to nod his head. Bilbo stood, turned to Frodo and held out his hand for the map, which Frodo gave him. He knelt and laid it open on the floor between the chairs, Falco and Fargo kneeling beside him to get a look.
‘The red line marks what Odogar proposes to create.’ For a minute, none of the Hobbits spoke while the Chubb-Baggins examined the map.
Fargo sat back on his heels. ‘It’s not much of the center, Uncle Bilbo. Most of that’s Eastfarthing.’
‘Why?’ Falco asked, not looking up from the map. His mouth was drawn in a straight line and he looked very much like Bilbo.
‘His reason, or what I think is going on?’
‘He’s angry over Rory and Rum meddling in his deal with Pal, as near as I can tell, and angry with Rory more than anyone because of their contest over the Marish. His reason is to shift control of the Shire away from south and west, mostly meaning the Thain and the Master, and up north and east.’
‘Him and you.’ Falco’s voice was matter of fact.
After a hesitation, Bilbo said, ‘Yes. Him and me.’
‘So, you’re supporting him on this?’
‘That’s not what Poppy says.’
‘I thought she didn’t know about this.’
‘She knows that Odogar is up to something and that he’s counting on your help. And you’ve got the map all drawn.’ Falco sat back on his heels like Fargo and looked at Bilbo. Bilbo shook his head.
‘No, cousin, I am not supporting Odogar in this foolishness. I’m trying to alert you to what he’s going to attempt. I’ve waited a while to see if a bit of time and less conflict with Rory would make him reconsider his plan, but he is only getting more stubborn about it.’
‘So how do you fit in here?’
‘I’m supposed to walk about, talk up my Baggins kin and anyone else who will listen to me, convince you all this is a good idea, and get you to approve it at the Free Fair. Then I’m supposed to conveniently die and allow him to put Otho in charge.’
This made Fargo laugh. ‘No chance of that!’
‘Putting Otho in charge?’
‘No Uncle. You dying. The rest of us will be long gone and you’ll still be telling stories.’ Bilbo scowled at the younger hobbit until the smile vanished from Fargo’s face and he swallowed nervously.
Frodo glanced at Falco and caught his uncle looking at him closely again then looking at Bilbo and then back to Frodo a few times before focusing on Bilbo. ‘And why would Odogar do that?’
‘He has Dragon Fever.’ Falco’s gaze snapped back to Frodo, who had not realized he’d spoken aloud. ‘It’s like being dwarven-hearted, except worse. No matter what needs to be done, all Odogar can see is selling things and getting gold. He took roots intended to be given away and he…’
‘We’re not sure who ordered that done, Frodo,’ Bilbo gently chided him. ‘That particular bit of greed I lay at Old Willfred Brockhouse’s door, if Widow Grubb is to be believed. And I tend to believe her.’
‘I know her. She’s honest,’ Falco said and Fargo nodded, ‘but Odogar evidently isn’t and I still don’t know why he’s doing this. Or just why you’re talking up your Baggins kin on this plan.’
‘I am not “talking up” anyone, Falco!’ Bilbo retorted and Falco held up a placating hand. ‘As for why he’s doing this, well, write to him yourself and see if you can get an answer. Maybe Poppy can help wheedle the reason out of him. I have no intention of helping Odogar create this farthing.’
Now it was Bilbo’s turn to stare. ‘Why would I?’
‘Because you’re the best hobbit for the job,’ Falco said. Fargo started nodding again and looked at Bilbo eagerly.
See Bilbo, I told you! Good people know you and know you’ll do right by them. Bilbo shook his head and stood, walking away from the others. ‘No. No, this is… no, you don’t understand! This is all wrong.’
‘Taking a piece of the Shire out of the hands of someone not fit to run it seems right to me, cousin.’ Falco moved to stand in front of Bilbo. ‘Listen to me. The last time you were at the Fair, we were ready to make you Mayor. That’s what should have happened. Pal interfered.’
‘And you don’t think he’ll interfere on this?’
‘Of course he will.’
‘And if he could block me being Mayor, why can’t he block this?’
‘Because too many people will want things run well, and this time you will have Odogar backing you instead of undermining you.’
Bilbo was quiet for a time, then spoke very softly. ‘Odogar does not intend anyone any good with this, save only himself. It will fracture the Shire when we need to be united.’
‘We need someone who cares about the Shire and not his own pocket. Or pride. And we truly need someone who can handle changing times, challenging times. We haven’t seen that since your father was Mayor.’
‘Well, then, if I have all this support, perhaps I should wait two years and run for Mayor.’
‘The Mayor has less say over things than a farthing head. And the Mayor is easier to replace.’
‘You’re not listening, Falco. This is not being done for anyone’s benefit except Odogar’s. And, if Poppy is right about Car being sent to Whitwell, I suspect Pal and Odogar are planning mischief.’ He put a hand on his cousin’s shoulder. ‘I understand your argument, Falco. I just dislike and distrust what Odogar is doing, and I think he will play us all false.’
Falco sighed and put his hand over Bilbo’s. ‘I fear you are right, Bilbo. I hate to think it of the man, but you’re rarely wrong on people’s hearts.’ The two came back to their chairs. ‘If you approve, I’ll take a trip down to Michel Delving soon to have a visit with Cousin Wilcar. He’s married to Pal’s oldest sister, Adalmira, and he might have heard something of what his brother-in-law is up to.’ I wonder if Adalmira is as conniving as Esmie. Frodo hoped not.
Bilbo nodded. ‘If you think you can speak to Wilcar without alerting Odogar, then I have no objections.’
‘I’ll say I heard from Poppy about Car meeting with Pal, which is true, and want to know what he knows. That should be enough.’
‘Yes, I think that will do.’
Long Cleeve, 04 Astron 1390
Frodo waited for his uncle to sit before seating himself at Bilbo’s feet before the cheerful fire in their tiny but very neat room at The Sweet Spring, the only inn in this part of Northfarthing. Even had he wanted to sit in a chair instead of here, there would not have been space for another bit of furniture. The inn was a smial carved into the hillside overlooking the headwaters of the Water, and had been run by the Longholes for as long as anyone could remember. The delightfully soft bed was set in an alcove at the back of the room, its feather-stuffed tick resting on a shelf of earth that had been topped with wood. When you opened the door of the room, there was just enough space between it and the bed to swing open and a small pad of leather had been fixed to the edge to protect it where it tapped against the mantle of the fireplace. The chair and a tall, narrow chest of drawers took up the opposite wall. There was no room for the trunk once they had unpacked it and filled the chest, so it had gone back to the storeroom where it had sat waiting for them the last few days. In truth, the room was smaller than a few of the pantries in Bag End, but it was clean and dry.
Tomorrow they were to set out on the next leg of their journey, a slow three-day walk to Greenfields. They would spend a day there and then walk south over three days to Oatbarton to stay with Uncle Rufus. And Bargo and Bluebell and Aunt Asphodel. Frodo wished they could take a bit longer to get there and perhaps leave a tad sooner than originally planned. Stop it, Rat. Bilbo needs to talk to the head of the farthing about Shire business. You can learn to live with problems of your own making. There was certainly going to be a lot to discuss.
Things were not normal in Northfarthing.
Most of the folk up north were Harfoot and there were not that many of them compared to the lands along the Road or even out on the Downs. Bilbo had explained that the Fell Winter had fallen most harshly in these northern lands, forcing many to flee south to escape the wolves and the ice and quite a number had never returned. Few chose to live north and west of Oatbarton. Much of the North Moors had been abandoned almost entirely and sheep were grazed there only in the summer. This gave the countryside a wild, though beautiful, appearance, with some orchards returning to woods, hedgerows spreading to become thickets, and tilled lands turning to meadows.
There might not be a continuous expanse of woodland like the Bindbole, but there were stands of trees all over, and they did not seem to be as welcoming to spring as those just a few leagues south. Some of the groves had dead branches, even dead trees, and leaves were not thick despite it already being Astron. Where the dead trees stood, there were no birds on the branches, squirrels on their trunks, or rabbits in the brambles at their base.
Here and there, Frodo could see brown patches in the feral meadows, the grass still as sere as if it were Afteryule, though he also saw a profusion of wildflowers and new grasses. The flocks that occasionally dotted the fields stayed well away from the dead spots. The animals clumped together and would start at the smallest sound.
The farms and cots that they did come across did well enough, however, and the people were friendly if you greeted them with a wave and a ‘Hallo!’ Most folk knew of Bilbo by reputation if not by sight, and here in the north, his reputation was quite respectable. Farthing headmen did not come out to the far reaches, though most of the farmers recounted tales learned from their grandfathers of Bilbo’s father, Bungo, walking about the north after the Winter, and approved of his son doing the same. Most whom they met had a word of thanks for Bilbo for some bit of good fortune he had sent their way, though he cheerfully brushed it aside and asked after their own news, which they were glad to share. They looked at Frodo with some curiosity, but only as someone they did not yet count as a friend, and there were no long stares or sidelong glances. Once introduced, he was always called “Nephew Frodo,” as though the introduction had been an adoption. Bilbo did not bother to explain their kinship to any degree beyond that, and most folk seemed content just to know that Mister Baggins thought him “a good lad.” Frodo liked this.
They had not stayed strictly upon the road from Nobottle to Long Cleeve, which is one of the reasons their walk took three days. Bilbo led them on paths that wound among the low hills and small stands of trees, past fields and farms, splashing through small streams and even all the way over to the Water. There were enough folk scattered across the land that they never had a cold meal and their two nights on the road had been spent in warm (if somewhat lumpy) beds. Bilbo always left several pennies with each goodwife for her hospitality and would not allow them to say no to his gift. The evenings usually saw a few neighbors come by, for news of the eminent Mister Baggins’ stay spread seemingly by magic, and Frodo enjoyed watching Bilbo tell tales and sing songs to the adults and the children alike. As for himself, the goodwives considered it a personal affront if they saw Frodo without a filled plate before him, or a handful of sweets or some toast slathered with butter and preserves if they were not at table.
After children had been sent to bed, however, the men would sit with Bilbo, smoking their pipes and talking of less happy things. There was nothing horrible and most was just the ordinary bits of bad luck that happened in the usual course of things – a horse gone lame, a fall from a tree, some grain spoilt by mice. But there were also the dead trees, fields where the corn would not grow, things born with too many limbs, or too few. The wolves appeared more often, sooner in the fall and stayed later in the winter, and they were themselves ragged. Big People could be seen passing through, usually the round ones from Bree on their way to hunt in the hills beyond the moors but sometimes the tall Big Folk who wore grey. Those kind were seen more often, not that they did much save walk swiftly and look mean.
The younger folk sometimes asked of life in the lower farthings, casting concerned looks upon their small children, and wished to know if the land was less fickle, the animals stronger, the climate more gentle as they had heard it might be. Bilbo assured them that it was, and gave them the names of friends of his to write to who might know of a farm with just a widow who needed some strong hands to help her, or of a craftsman looking for a good, sober-minded prentice.
Here in Long Cleeve, the talk was of the poor root harvest and the bad state of the roads and bridges. Unlike the stops in The Fat Badger, Bilbo had not made any pronouncements about what he could or would do, and made no mention of kin, but instead listened respectfully to each tale. When they retired, he would spend a while carefully writing down what he had heard, sometimes asking Frodo how he remembered this or that account. People up in this corner did not blame Uncle Rufus for the root harvest the way the Eastfarthing folk were aggravated with Odogar, but neither did they think it would do much good to ask him for help. ‘We’ve always cared for our own up here at the top,’ a woodcarver had explained when asked why they did not send word to Oatbarton. On the subject of the roads, they were a little less forgiving, but still not greatly incensed. Bilbo showed only genial interest when speaking to others, but in the evenings he would scowl and grumble a bit about Rufus needing to look up more.
Bilbo sighed and gave Frodo’s hair a brief rub, before dropping his hand to the boy’s shoulder and kneading it gently. Frodo relaxed into the touch, wanting Bilbo to be soothed. That had been the best part of this adventure, that they so often shared a bed. Aside from the stay with Falco, where their room had two beds and Frodo had not dared to ask Bilbo to share his, they had always been presented with a single bed for the night. All he had to do was say he was tired, pull on his nightshirt, and climb into bed to get Bilbo to also change clothes and come rest. He wished that they were not wearing nightshirts, wanting the sensation of touching skin as he remembered from the night at Widow Grubb’s house. To ask would upset Bilbo, perhaps even anger him, which Frodo absolutely did not want to do.
‘Wilwarin?’ Bilbo’s words startled him a little.
‘Yes, uncle?’ Frodo tipped his head back until he could see Bilbo’s face and made himself smile to get one in return. Bilbo obliged and even ruffled Frodo’s hair.
‘How are you liking this long tramp?’
‘Very much. It’s tiring, but there is so much to see. It’s very beautiful up here.’
Bilbo’s look became concerned. ‘We can go more slowly, lad, if you are too tired. We’ve no call to hurry anywhere.’
‘It’s a good tired,’ Frodo assured him, ‘just enough to make me sleep well.’ This seemed to satisfy Bilbo.
‘As you wish, but I will keep an eye on you and we may pause a while if I think you are weary.’
‘I’ll agree to that.’ Bilbo did not look away and he did not resume kneading Frodo’s shoulder.
‘And how do you find the other part of the journey?’
‘What other part?’
‘Meeting more of your father’s kin.’ When Frodo did not answer, Bilbo prompted, ‘Are you feeling more a Baggins?’ The words were said teasingly, but the old Hobbit’s look was keen.
Do I feel this? Not really. He did not feel more accepted, just more exposed. Frodo was not sure what Bilbo wanted to hear, so tried to answer in a similar light tone, ‘Aside from Posco? I think they are all nice enough.’
‘They like you, Frodo. Especially Falco – he told me he thought you a bright lad!’
‘I think I liked him best, though Aunt Nora was dear as well.’
Bilbo’s smile faded a bit as Frodo did not say anything else. ‘But?’
For a moment, Frodo thought to lie a bit and say that he had not enough time to feel that he knew them well. He can smell deceit, Rat. That will anger him more than the truth. ‘I feel a bit like a horse up for sale, to be honest, with all the staring. Or like I have dirt on my face.’
‘You’re new, Wilwarin, and they’re curious to know who you are.’ Bilbo stroked his hair a few times. ‘I wish it weren’t so, but I’m afraid you’re going to continue to get stared at as the news gets out that I’ve adopted you as my heir. They want to take your measure.’
‘What are they looking for?’
Bilbo’s look was odd. ‘What do you think they look for?’
Frodo sighed in exasperation. ‘You’re doing it again, Bilbo.’
‘Asking questions instead of answering them.’
‘I want you to think abo…’
‘And I’m tired and would just like some answers! I’m tired of games!’ Bilbo pulled back, startled. Well done, Rat! Pick a fight right before bed. You’ll be sleeping on the floor. Frodo sat forward so he was not touching his uncle, wrapped his arms around his knees, and hid his face. A minute or so went by, and then he heard Bilbo’s chair creak as the other stood, followed by a rustle of cloth and the sound of the other sitting next to him before the hearth. Frodo turned his head a bit so he could look at Bilbo. The old hobbit sat, tailor-style, elbows on his knees and chin resting on his interlaced fingers. There was no sign of impatience or irritation in Bilbo’s face. Frodo sighed and dropped his face back on his arms. ‘And when I think about it, I think they wonder if I am a Baggins.’
‘You still doubt.’ There was no question in Bilbo's words.
‘I still doubt.’ He wanted to say more, that he did not doubt his parents' love or that Bilbo loved and wanted him or that he wanted to be with Bilbo, but could not figure out how to say it. It was a long time before Bilbo spoke.
‘I don’t know what more I can say to remove that doubt, Frodo.’
Frodo shrugged. ‘Even if I didn’t, there’s still rumors.’ He sighed again and sat up. Bilbo had not moved. ‘There will always be a rumor, won't there?’
‘Yes, lad, there will. But it shouldn’t be so persistent a rumor, now.’
‘Why not? The more people who see me, the more who will wonder.’
‘You should want for people to see you, Frodo. This isn’t Buckland, where too many took the lie as truth and saw only your resemblance to your mother’s kin. Of course,’ Bilbo’s tone was brisk and matter-of-fact, with no hint of reassurance, ‘what they really saw was not so much your Brandybuck bloodline, but the Took.’
‘Yes. That’s what you get from your mother. That’s what people see. You, Sara, Mac – you’ve never seen him, but if Pal stood next to you three, someone could confuse you all for brothers.’ Bilbo looked at him critically. ‘You all bear a striking resemblance to the Old Took.’
‘Yes, really.’ Bilbo said firmly. ‘Anyway, now you are with me, you are meeting people who have never seen you before and may not actually have remembered you exist. Buckland is a long way off. Most of them, Frodo, don’t know the rumor. They see a fine young hobbit who looks a great deal like his odd old cousin, who, I remind you, is also a mix of Baggins and Took, and they remember your father and they are impressed.’
‘Until they talk to Lobelia, who will say…’
‘That won’t be a problem anymore.’
Bilbo’s voice was cold and Frodo had to look away from his gaze. ‘Why not?’
‘Just… trust me on that. Oh, she’ll be trouble, her and Otho, but not on that count.’ Frodo nodded, not wanting to see Bilbo angry. Just say you’re tired and go to bed. You’ll both be happier. You know how to make him happy, how to please… Frodo shut his eyes. Just leave it, Rat. ‘Lad?’ You should sleep on the floor. ‘Frodo.’ You know what will always be said. He shook his head a little to chase the stupid voice away. It can’t be left in Buckland. Gammer said it's something about you. ‘What is wrong, Frodo? Please, talk to me.’ Bilbo put his fingers into Frodo’s hair to rub it and Frodo could not help flinching and pushing Bilbo’s hand away. He heard Bilbo take a sharp breath, followed by a very long silence.
‘You said you trusted me.’
It was the sadness in Bilbo’s voice more than anything that made Frodo look up. His uncle was looking down at his own hands and seemed every day his ninety-nine years, old and bent.
‘No! Bilbo, no, I do! I do trust you! That’s not…’ Frodo made a sound of frustration and bowed over his knees again, thumping his head with his fists. ‘You are so stupid, Rat! Stupid, stupid, stupid…’
Bilbo took his wrists and held his hands still. ‘Don’t call yourself such things, Wilwarin.’ What Frodo most wanted was to crawl into Bilbo’s arms like a little child and just be held. Bilbo might even allow that touch. Isn’t that just more seduction, Rat? It won’t work. He never would. Maybe he can be broken. Stop trying. Frodo made himself relax so that Bilbo would let go. ‘You’re not stupid, Frodo.’
‘You’ve said different before.’
There was a touch of irritation in Bilbo’s voice, ‘I said you have done stupid things, not that you are stupid.’ Frodo glanced over. Bilbo looked quite exasperated, but his expression softened. ‘Sara called you “Rat” and I hate hearing you call yourself that.’ Frodo nodded, then shrugged. ‘There is something else that seeing all of these kin is making you think, yes?’ Words were dangerous, so another nod. ‘You can say anything to me, Frodo, anything at all. I will hear it.’
‘The other rumors.’
‘That you were fooling with other boys?’ No, worse. The worse rumor. ‘That will take care of itself, Frodo, especially as young ladies start paying more attention to you.’
‘No, not that. Only Bargo cares about that.’
‘Then I am ignorant of what …’
‘I told Baggins’ upstart whore to shut his mouth when he was showing off. Looks like Rory got a good price for him.’ No, Rat, you are definitely stupid. It was like when he smarted-off to Uncle Rory about Sara, not meaning to but unable to keep the words in. Frodo swallowed and made himself look at Bilbo. ‘That rumor. What people think you do. With me.’
Bilbo just sat there, mouth a little open, then dropped his face into his hands, shaking his head. ‘That rumor is my fault, not yours, Frodo.’ When he raised his face, he once more looked a very tired, very old hobbit. ‘It’s… it’s one reason, a great reason, why I left you in Buckland for so long. So such vile things wouldn't be said. Stupid to think they wouldn't, I suppose.’
‘That’s why I picked that last fight with Sara. He was being disgusting! That’s when I told him I’d bedded Esmie, to make him shut up. I sang your song to him.’
‘A mistress fair with fiery hair,’ Frodo smirked which made Bilbo snicker. ‘I sang that to taunt him, then I hit him. For what he said about you.’
‘What did he say, precisely?’
‘That you had beaten me for fooling with Ula because you were jealous. That I was your whore. That my price was the gold Dwarf Crown. That Uncle Rory turned a blind eye to you beating me because of the crown.’ Bilbo’s look was one of revulsion. ‘I told him, just before I hit him, that the reason I hated him was not because he used me, but because he had made me afraid of you.’
Bilbo made a sound and turned his face to the fire, thinking. ‘Dalin should have done him more harm.’
'It's not only Sara who thinks it or says it, you know that.'
'Sara has much more than that to answer for.' Something in Bilbo's tone made the hair on Frodo's neck stand up. His voice was soft, threatening, as it had been in the dark passage in Brandy Hall at Yule and in Posco's parlor but a few days before. Bilbo's right knee was almost touching Frodo. His right hand was on his hip, near his pocket, his fingers holding something through the cloth, and his left arm lay across his other knee, closest to the fire, fingers moving slightly as though grasping something Frodo could not see, then turning his wrist in odd motions. He no longer looked old.
'Hurting Sara won't stop this rumor.'
'No, it would not, but it would very much please me.' Bilbo still had not left off the study of the fire. 'And I would not “hurt" him.” In the warm, close room, Frodo picked up a different scent, somewhat familiar, and knew where he had smelled it before; when Sara had come to his room and had lain on him, Frodo's face against the curve where Sara's neck joined his shoulder, this is what it smelled like. 'I would kill him.' Frodo looked at Bilbo and realized that, for the first time, he saw desire on his uncle's face, in his form. In all the flirting, touching, kissing and courting that he had seen Bilbo do before, even with Gammer, he had never seen this kind of want. You and your smart mouth, Rat. Frodo cast about for some way to distract Bilbo, bring back his fussy old uncle to argue with. Bilbo looked away from the fire and right at him. Frodo forbade himself to shake or cower under that gaze.
'And are you, still?'
'Am I still what?'
'Afraid of me?'
If you touched him, right now, Rat, you'd break him, like you broke Sara, like you broke the others. He’d want you. Frodo sat as still as he could, wanting someone he recognized to return to Bilbo’s face. He knew he had to answer and chose the simplest explanation. ‘Sometimes. When you’re being a dragon, not a hobbit. Like with Posco.’ Right now.
‘I would never do you harm.’ It was Bilbo again, though there were still signs of him being touched by whatever pleasure he had taken in thoughts of killing Sara. ‘You doubt my word about your father. Do you doubt me on this, too?’
With a sound of aggravation, Frodo got to his feet, being very careful to not touch Bilbo. ‘I just told you I trust you!’ He began to rummage through the chest of drawers to find his nightshirt, getting more frustrated as he couldn’t find it. Very good, Rat. That will please him, another mess of yours to clean up. Finally, he found it and tossed it onto the bed before starting to strip off his clothes. Would I do this if I doubted? Frodo did not bother to keep his back turned to Bilbo, casting his soiled clothes in a heap by the door. The old hobbit had stood up by this time and was looking at the hearth, his back to Frodo. After pulling on the nightshirt, Frodo turned down the covers on the bed. ‘I’m tired.’
‘Then you should rest, lad.’
‘Are you coming to bed?’
‘Perhaps in a bit.’
‘Why not?’ Frodo demanded.
‘Enough, Frodo,’ Bilbo said sternly. ‘I’m not pleased by your tone …’
‘I don’t know what will please you!’ Frodo knew he was going to cry. ‘You won’t let me please you. All I have now is you. I just want…’ and he could not say more because there was no having what he wanted. An end to the gossip, to living in dread of what new evil would come to his ears. He hugged himself tightly, trying to keep his tears at bay. ‘You must come to bed.’
‘Wilwarin, you’re breaking my heart.’ Bilbo stood very close. Frodo hugged himself tighter and dropped his head on his uncle’s shoulder and let Bilbo embrace him. ‘I will do whatever you want, Frodo, but I am unsure what it is you want.’ Frodo wanted to return the hug, but did not dare, so just pressed himself closer against Bilbo. ‘I will come to bed. Is there something else you want?’
‘Just you. I want you to be my uncle like when I was little and no one wanted anything else of me.’ Frodo shook his head. ‘I said that all wrong. I am stupid!’
‘No, Wilwarin. You are many things, but you are not stupid. And what you said made perfect sense to me.’ Bilbo held him, humming softly and kneading Frodo’s back, until Frodo finally relaxed and let his arms drop, though he knew better than to try to grasp Bilbo. ‘Will you get in bed, lad, and start warming it up while I change?’ Bilbo did not wait for an answer, but gently turned Frodo around and helped him under the covers. Frodo lay quietly, watching Bilbo put the room in order for the night, neaten the disarray in the drawers, bank the fire, and change into his own nightshirt. The room was very dark after Bilbo snuffed the lamp. When Bilbo got in bed, he did not turn over on his side with his back to Frodo as he usually did. Instead, he gathered Frodo into his arms against his chest, as though he were a little child instead of a lanky tween.
‘In your own head, when you argue with yourself, do you call yourself “Rat”?’
‘It would please me a great deal if you did not. Just call yourself “Baggins.” It’s what I do.’