5. Assurance

POV - Bilbo

In which Bilbo once again confronts a dragon.


07 Astron, 1290

Cousin Bilbo,

I hope you are well.

I came to Bag End yesterday to speak with you, but your gardener, Mister Gamgee, said you were out and would not return for some weeks.

I have had letters from our cousins Otho, Posco and Falco, as well as from my son-in-law, Griffo. I am hearing rumors of changes that are not reassuring. I think we need to speak and soon. I have not seen my nephew since before Yule and I am concerned about him.

Cousin Dudo


08 Astron, 1290

Dear Mister Frodo,

Thank you for your letters.

My ma and da send you there regards. May and Daisy say hello.

All is good here. It has been sunny and the garden is growing. I write something every day like you told me to. I wrote a poem.

The cat was fat
But he caught the rat
and that was that

We are taking good care of Bag End. I always wipe off my slate after I use it.

Your friend,
Samwise Gamgee


10 Astron, 1290


The fear of want is over and we avoided most hoarding. There’s not much roots left save carrots and rutabagas, but they will do since milk is good again. I know there were a few scant tables in Frogmorton in Rethe, but none went hungry, not while I had beer and bacon to share.

I got a letter from your cousin Falco. My man always said he was a stout fellow, and I know it. Why don’t you spend more time with these cousins? They’re a sight better than any of the others along the road. He assures me you were up to no good in Westfarthing. Have you heard from your dwarf friend?

I’m hearing a strange rumor out of Whitfurrows, which I would like were it not for the messenger. Pitt likes it, too. Pretty much everyone who knows what a disreputable wretch you are approves. Perhaps you’ve heard it too? It should be a very interesting Free Fair this year.



13 Astron, 1290

My beggar and my rascal,

How are you, my dear ones? Well, I hope. All is wonderful here in the Hall. Three new babies have been born in the last week. Ula did the delivery on the third and will be a good midwife in time. And here is news. Our Dahlia has found herself a man, a good fellow from Rushey. Rory knows him well and approves, so they are set to wed in early Forelithe. Dilly is helping her make her dress for the wedding. Dilly is here about the Hall most days, now, and Merry and Berry are the new rascals…

…There is little else to say. Planting is underway, lambs are everywhere, and winter’s gloom is banished. You will laugh heartily, Beggar, but there is a tonic in your new Elven scroll that, after I adjusted a few herbs, has done me good. I promised I would take my medicine with good grace and I am, you can be assured of that.

Aunt Gilda

Oatbarton, 15 Astron 1390

Today was for discussing the problem of Odogar.

There had been no tramping about today. The morning Bilbo had spent writing letters, reserving the afternoon for serious talk. Frodo had joined him for that, acting as Bilbo’s secretary. He had not had any delicate responses to compose and wanted both that the lad should be aware of the correspondence and that the recipients should be aware of Frodo’s involvement in Bilbo’s affairs. Rufus is right, it is time for assurances. He had sat up for most of the night after Frodo had left, pondering the mess that Rory had made and the ways in which his own mistakes and hesitations had compounded that disaster. Let them see Frodo and see how good he is. He is his own assurance. Bilbo had made a careful study of Bargo at breakfast. The bully had a slightly swollen lip and moved stiffly, his grimaces indicating pain in his ribs and an arm. He also looked closely at Frodo while the boy sat and wrote letters, noting what looked like a bruise at his hairline above one ear and another on his left shin. He moved easily enough, if with care.

After a hearty lunch, they gathered in Rufus’s study. Milo and Marco were there, and Rudibard rounded out the group. Bilbo had to remind himself that Rudi was first cousin to Otho through their Sackville mothers, and to be careful if Otho’s name came up as he was not entirely sure how close they were. Tea rather than brandy was the drink all around, which Bilbo thought a good thing. They needed their wits for this talk.

Rufus wasted no time. ‘Odogar is up to something stupid and so is Rory, and I don’t doubt but that your Took cousins are adding their own cup of mischief, Bilbo.’

‘The Tooks are your cousins too, Rufus.’

‘Only Rum! I have nothing to do with the rest of that lot,’ Rufus teased back.

‘Let’s start with what you know,’ Bilbo replied.

‘Cissy’s telling me that Odogar thinks he’s going to create a new farthing,’ Rudi said, ‘and that you’re helping him do it.’ The Burrowses all gave him an expectant look.

Bilbo smiled. ‘Anything else?’

‘I should think that enough, Uncle,’ Marco said with a laugh.

‘What do you think of this and who have you spoken to?’ Bilbo countered.

‘I’m not sure what I think of it, and we’ve only spoken among ourselves. It sounds so wild, I half think Odogar is out to twist all our noses.’

Bilbo shrugged. ‘He may be, at that, Rufus. I admit I’m still unsure why he thinks this will do any good. Well, for anyone except himself. Have you talked to him directly?’

‘No. He’s not seen fit to write me, so I have treated it all as gossip.’ Rufus gave Bilbo a stern look. ‘You’ve not seen fit to write me, either, Mister Baggins.’

‘On this, I preferred to talk face to face.’ And avoid Asphodel’s snooping.

‘So why is he proposing a new farthing?’

Bilbo glanced at Frodo. While they wrote the letters this morning, Bilbo had identified a few of the questions in this meeting that, if asked, he wished for Frodo to answer. He wanted all four of these Burrowses to feel very reassured about Frodo’s fitness to be the Baggins heir. ‘Mostly because he is angry with Uncle Rory,’ Frodo said. ‘Remember, Uncle, how I told you at Wintermark that there was some argument between them? It’s more than just over the bad root harvest. Evidently that is simply the last and most public contest they’ve been having over who commands the Marish.’ When Rufus glanced at him for elaboration, Bilbo held his tongue, making Rufus look back to Frodo for answers. ‘Cousin Odogar is not doing a very good job of ordering things there, and Uncle Rory is being arrogant in his treatment of Odogar, going to Uncle Wili instead of him to discuss what needs to be done.’

‘You know this for certain?’ Rudi pressed.

‘I know that I have listened for years to my uncles discuss and decide what will be done with the Marish without a single good word for Odogar, or even any concern to inform him of what they do,’ was Frodo’s even reply.

‘And what do you think of this?’ asked Milo.

Frodo smiled. ‘I think they would both be better off if they would take Uncle Bilbo’s advice to be a bit more cooperative and much less prideful.’ That got chuckles and nods of assent all around. Bilbo could not have been more proud of his boy.

Rufus snorted and shook his head. ‘I can see him being out of sorts with Rory. I know Brother Rory’s high-handed ways all too well. Still doesn’t explain why he’s after a new farthing, though.’

‘Dragon Fever,’ Bilbo said firmly. ‘It’s of a piece with the Troubles we discussed yesterday.’

‘Is this some sickness you saw on your journeys, Uncle?’ asked Marco, worried.

Is it? Bilbo cast his mind back to the armies arrayed before the gates of Erebor, ready to destroy each other for the tainted hoard inside the hollow mountain. Yes. ‘In a way, Marco. In the contest for the riches of Smaug, the combatants would have butchered each other and left their people starving and bereft for the sake of that gold. The Lake-men, in particular, needed food and shelter from the coming winter, for the dragon had destroyed their homes in his final wrath, yet they were ready to battle an army of dwarves rather than secure a warm, safe place within the halls of Erebor. Cousin Wili, I think, summed it up best.’ He glanced at Frodo, who nodded.

‘The desire to turn everything into gold, and as dearly as possible, even if what you need is something else,’ Frodo said. ‘Cousin Odogar and Uncle Wili’s brother, Gun, are in its grips. So is the Thain’s heir, Cousin Paladin.’ Good boy. Get them questioning Pal, too.

‘What of Rory?’ said Rufus.

‘Rory’s just being an ass,’ Bilbo said smoothly. He was not inclined to offer any excuses for that cousin.

‘All too true about Brother Rory, but it explains nothing about a new farthing, Bilbo, though it certainly explains all of the nonsense over the root harvest,’ Rufus persisted. ‘What did Odogar say to you?’

‘He said much, but there is no sense to it, Rufus. That’s the problem!’ Bilbo allowed himself a true sigh of exasperation. ‘As for what he said, first he complained greatly about Rory interfering in the Marish and how he’d had his nephew Seredic talk with his wife’s kin, the Bracegirdles, up in Girdley Island. Then he rambled on about the Tooks and Brandybucks doing as they pleased with the south Shire and the Road…’

‘He’s not entirely wrong on either count, Bilbo,’ Rudi interjected.

‘Not entirely, no,’ Bilbo conceded, ‘but his concern was not with the people of his farthing but with getting wealth from trade along the Road…’

‘Which benefits people…’

‘Yes, Rudi, it can, if done right,’ Bilbo was getting irritated at the interruptions, ‘and then said that influence in the Shire needed to shift away from the south and west and up to the north and east. And,’ Bilbo said with a raised hand to forestall whatever Rudi was about to say, ‘the way to do that, in his opinion, is to create a new farthing, Centralfarthing.’

The Burrowses sat for a moment considering. ‘That would shift things about,’ Rufus agreed, ‘but just where is he proposing to place this new farthing? Seems to me that all the land’s already taken up.’

At a signal from Bilbo, Frodo pulled out the map and laid it open on the table between the chairs. The rest craned for a view. Bilbo sipped his tea and waited for their response. Rufus spoke first.

‘He’s taken nothing of Northfarthing. Why not?’

‘Why would he?’

‘Because it is part of the center.’

‘It would reduce your authority. He’s not interested in that.’

Rufus gave Bilbo a look. ‘That, or he already thinks he’s in command of Northfarthing.’ Bilbo shrugged. ‘So, who runs this new farthing?’

‘According to Odogar, me.’

‘You sound less than certain.’

‘I am entirely uncertain.’

‘Hmm,’ and Rufus turned his attention back to the map. ‘Do the Road towns go with the new farthing or stay with Eastfarthing?’


Rufus shook his head. ‘This farthing makes no sense.’

‘None of it makes any sense, Rufus.’

‘No, one thing makes great sense.’ Rufus continued to study the map, then rose and retrieved a pencil from his desk. ‘However, the map will make more sense like this.’ He began to sketch on it. ‘Everything south of the border between Westfarthing and Northfarthing starting at Needlehole until you hit the border with Eastfarthing. Go south to the Water and run east to the Brandywine Bridge. All Road towns go with it.’ Bilbo’s eyebrows went up at the boldness of the mark. ‘From there, south to Stock and then back west along the Stock Road until the border of Southfarthing. Up to the Three Farthing Stone, turn west along the Road to Waymeet, then back up along the roads to Needlehole. That will fix it.’  Rufus set down the pencil and looked expectantly at Bilbo.

‘What is that?’ Bilbo could not make sense of the chunk Rufus had just cut out.

‘The only thing that makes sense in all of Odogar’s rambling is this – you, Bilbo, should be in charge of the Road, and this does it.’ Rufus looked at the map critically. ‘Actually, you should run the entire length of the Road, but you don’t need more land in Westfarthing. It would waste your time.’ Rufus looked up into Bilbo’s astounded face with a smile.

‘Rufus! How does this make sense?’

‘You are the only hobbit who understands what lies at either end of the Road, that’s why. We need you to take care of this.’

For a moment, Bilbo could only gape at him. He’s right, Baggins. You are the only one who understands this. ‘Rufus, I take care of the Shire in my own way. You know that.’

‘You’ve changed some of your ways before.’

‘This is changing other people’s ways.’

Rufus shrugged. ‘Things are changing. That’s why we’re talking now.’

Frodo leaned over the map, looking closely at the different markings. ‘Things change, Uncle, it is true, and I think this make a certain sense…’ No, Wilwarin, not you, too! ‘…but look at what you drew. Would Odogar agree to this division of his farthing, losing command of the Road and its trade, which is what he said to Uncle Bilbo he thought he should be in charge of?’ The lad looked up at Rufus expectantly, and Bilbo tried not to let out a sigh of relief.

Milo quickly said, ‘He’s already giving away the southern half of his farthing. This would take less of it, in truth.’

‘But it’s the richest and most important part,’ Frodo countered.

‘He was already planning to give up most of that anyway,’ Marco protested.

‘Not the towns, not the market by the bridge. Which would be taken from Uncle Rory, and I don’t think he’d like that,’ Frodo said thoughtfully.

‘Would you allow such a partition of Northfarthing, set out by someone else, Rufus? Split it apart, give it away?’ Bilbo asked.

‘Not sure who would want it!’ Rufus joked.

Would you?’


‘So why do you think Odogar intends this at all? Why would he do what you would not?’

‘Because he’s spreading the word that he’s going to do it. Though he might not like how I’d split it.’

‘Even taking Cousin Odogar’s borders,’ Frodo added, pointing to the map, ‘what about Westfarthing? Do you really think Wilcar Chubb would relinquish such a large part of his farthing? How would he see any advantage to losing some of his best lands?’

‘They’re not his.’ Rudi sat back in his chair and gave them all a sour look. ‘What you fellows are forgetting is that Odogar and Wilcar don’t own these lands any more than we own Northfarthing. These farms and towns are owned by free folk, and they can choose what seems best to them.’

See, Baggins? The people who already know you do good will be happier for you looking after their needs. Bilbo stared at the map, hand resting over his right pocket and the reassuring lump of his ring. No. It is still opening things up to mischief, and Odogar and Pal will try to exploit this for their own ends. So, not a new farthing. A new mayor, and tend the Road. He reached out and touched the new line running next to the Water. Don’t be a fool, Baggins, and don’t divide. Bilbo shook his head. ‘I trust the folk who live in these lands, but I do not trust Cousin Odogar.’

‘The fellow wants to give you a farthing and get you to tangle with Rory,’ Rudi said. ‘That is one very fast way for him to be rid of that thorn in his side. I don’t see you need to trust him; rather, you need to win over the folk of lower Eastfarthing. If he has been handling the root harvest as poorly as Cissy and Dilly have told me, they’ll be glad for a new master, even one out of Bywater.’

Frodo started to say something but was silent at a gesture from Bilbo. Bywater? You mean Otho as master, not me, not Frodo. He had been right to be wary of Rudi’s loyalties. ‘Then I would wish for the free folk of Eastfarthing, not Odogar, to ask for this. As long as it is his idea, I distrust it.’ He decided it would not be wise to make mention of Odogar’s double-dealings with Pal. For all I know, you’re privy to that, too, Rudi.

‘Neither do I, Bilbo,’ said Rufus, ‘but he may not be able to control this. Listen to what we’re saying now! We think it a good idea to have you in charge,’ no, you want me in charge, others want Otho, ‘and probably always have, but haven’t had occasion to speak it until now. If this is proposed at the Free Fair, then the free folk can consider it.’

Milo sat forward, face eager. ‘Uncle Bilbo, if Odogar is fool enough – and he is! – to propose this, then we’ll oblige him by taking it away and have a good laugh at his expense.’

‘Never laugh at a live dragon.’ Something in his face made the others sit back and look at each other anxiously. ‘Odogar is not proposing this to lose control of his own farthing. He is doing this to undermine others’ authority in their areas. Steal his treasure, he will breathe fire.’

‘Well then perhaps the answer is for him to lose what he does not take care of, Bilbo.’ Rufus was stern. ‘Perhaps it is not the lower farthing but all of Eastfarthing that needs to be placed under your authority.’

‘And I am nowhere near Eastfarthing, Rufus. The Baggins are in Westfarthing.’

‘Then bring your part with you!’ Marco said. ‘From The Hill east, just add that to Eastfarthing.’ Bilbo shook his head in exasperation.

Rufus picked up the map, studying it, then laid it back on the table and picked up the pencil. Quickly, he sketched an arc from where the North Road intersected the border between Northfarthing and Eastfarthing, down to Northfarthing’s border with Westfarthing at a point just south of the tip of Bindbole Wood. ‘If you would do this, Bilbo, I will gladly cede this portion of my own farthing. If you want to extend your claim to Needlehole and down, you can have the Bindbole, too.’

‘Do any of you hear what you are saying?’ Bilbo demanded. ‘I agree with Rudi that this is not a choice for us to make, declaring the fates of others – who shall command, who shall be ordered and by whom – as though this were some loot to be divided among victors.’

‘Please, Bilbo, you wrong me!’ Rufus said indignantly. ‘We are agreed that Odogar is determined to do mischief and has made a royal hash of things that left people in danger of want. I am old enough to remember the Winter and shudder to think of something like that happening again with the likes of Odogar in charge. It’s not just Eastfarthing that suffered bad roots this year. And I’m willing to say that Odogar’s not entirely wrong that the Master and the Thain have been a bit high-handed with the Shire for more than a few years. Why not propose this and let the folk decide who they wish to have in charge?’

It’s not your choice, Baggins, but it is your move. Odogar needs you to persuade. Very well, why not persuade them to choose the right hobbit? You’ve already won these four over. Bilbo looked at the map, then glanced at Frodo, who was also studying it. The best hobbit in charge. He glanced at Rudi who was not looking at the map, but at Frodo, and his expression was not approving.

‘I am not merely flattered, but deeply humbled at your opinion of me,’ Bilbo said honestly, ‘and your good regard means more to me than any farthing. However, there remains the little problem of Wilcar Chubb, if you remember. He will not be any more willing than you to allow others to partition his farthing. Even should we win his assent, there is the enormous problem of prying a farthing loose from its traditional headman. Do you want to set that precedent? What if someone should look at your sons or grandsons and think that the Goolds or the Grubbs are better suited to order Northfarthing than the Burrows?

‘I am deeply concerned over any proposal to split things apart and shake things up given the Troubles. I am suspicious of any such proposals that are coming from those caught up in Dragon Fever.’

While Rufus and his sons seemed persuaded by this argument, Rudi sighed and shook his head. ‘I’ll not argue with you, Bilbo, that Odogar is acting more from his ire with Rory than any other reason, yet he is acting. Whether you approve or not, whether you accept his offer or not, he is determined in his course. Once he acts, then this is done and out for all to debate, and the free folk may find wisdom in what Odogar proposes. To fail to act may mean someone else seizing an opportunity, someone not so fit as yourself.’ This judgment won nods from his kinsmen.

‘Rufus, you said yesterday that you wanted my wisdom. Here it is,’ Bilbo said briskly. ‘The problem of Odogar will resolve itself in but a few years, and then our problem will be Odovacar. He is not so strong willed as his father and will no doubt look for guidance from a sympathetic and near-by relation, much as Wilcar Chubb relies on Cousin Falco.’ Bilbo smiled pleasantly at Milo. ‘I recommend that Milo make it his concern to become an excellent friend of Car, and also of Bertie Bolger, who is married to Peony’s cousin, Poppy. Indeed, I think it would be for the best that all the younger fellows of the Bagginses, Burrowses, Bolgers and Brandybucks be fast friends, and so blunt the contest between Rory and Odogar.’

‘Odogrim is supposed to foster with Cousin Falco starting after Lithe,’ Frodo volunteered. Rudi alone did not raise his eyebrows at the news. You already knew this. Odogar didn’t even say this to me. Who are you talking to?

‘What about Odogar now, Bilbo?’ Rufus challenged. ‘A lot of mischief can happen in just a few years.’

‘Treat his valid complaints with respect. Rory needs to back down over the Marish and quit being so provocative about markets on the Road. Rum and Pal need to quit using the troubles of other farthings as a place for them to indulge in their own stupid battles. If Odogar has no one to kick against, then he has no wrong to present and no argument to win.’ Bilbo looked each other hobbit in the face, including Frodo, until he won at least a small nod. Milo seemed most convinced, Rudi the least, but they all nodded.

‘Be that as it may, Bilbo, I still think the Shire needs you in charge.’ Bilbo growled and glared at Rufus, who smiled back. ‘I don’t think that the farthings can be rearranged, and I’m even willing to accept that they should not be changed, but I do think that it makes much sense to make you mayor and have you oversee the Road.’

‘By the time it is time to pick the next mayor, I may not be a problem. I’d be over one hundred.’ Bilbo did not look at Frodo as he said this.

‘Then perhaps we should move up the selection of the next mayor to this Free Fair, and expand the mayor’s authority,’ was Rufus’s imperturbable response. He chuckled at Bilbo’s exasperated expression. ‘I think I can more easily convince every other hobbit in the Shire than I can convince you that you are the best hobbit for the job, Bilbo.’

‘Well, you just go do that, Rufus, and I will cease being so contrary.’

Rufus grinned. ‘Deal! But only if you can promise more stone for my roads.’

‘I have promised you stone and I don’t even need to be Mayor to get it for you!’ Bilbo teased in return.

To his great relief, Rufus seemed content with the arguments set forth and changed the topic to where best to use the stone that Brand Bunce was collecting. The obvious choice was the overdue repairs on the Water Bridge in Long Cleeve, with Rufus promising to ride up there himself with Marco to inspect it and talk with the headman. The talk went next to timber for various projects and Bilbo pointed out that there was a distant relative of them both in Woodhall who helped get the Sun-return logs and would not be a bad fellow to talk to for some seasoned lumber. Talk then meandered for the rest of the afternoon, touching on roots and roads, wolves and wool, hedgerows and harvests, leather and looms. Soon enough, Bluebell appeared at the door to say that the family was gathering in the parlor and to claim Frodo’s arm for the walk down the hall. Bilbo watched Rudi watch the lad intently. Yes, he is my heir and there is not a damned thing any of you can do about it.

The gathering in the parlor was as large and boisterous tonight as it had been the first night they had arrived. Dozens were there and all, except Bargo and Asphodel, were delightful to speak to. Bilbo enjoyed watching Frodo enjoy himself chatting with the various kin and guests, though he never could quite get rid of Bluebell. Milo and Marco stayed near Frodo through the gathering and sat with him at table, which was also pleasing. What interested Bilbo a great deal was that Bargo had moved closer and seemed to be trying to pay attention to the conversation and not just glower at Frodo. For his part, Frodo smiled at his nasty cousin and said something to him every now and then, though they were too far away for Bilbo to hear what was said.

Bilbo declined Rufus’s invitation of an evening brandy after supper concluded, though he wondered if there might be something more to be discussed without other ears about, pleading the need to get a good night’s rest before they set out for Scary on the morrow. ‘Write me when you get home, Bilbo,’ Rufus said. ‘I am curious to know if you and your cousin are still in agreement.’

Once in Bilbo’s room, Frodo’s manner changed. Gone was the genial young hobbit who chatted so amiably with his cousins, replaced with a very sullen tween who glared at Bilbo. Bilbo said nothing and set about packing things into the trunk. After a few minutes, Frodo left the room, returning some time later with a crumpled bundle of his own belongings and dropped them on the floor next to the trunk. Frodo fixed a pipe for himself and sat with a huff before the hearth, back to Bilbo. Well, aren’t we in a lovely mood? Bilbo said nothing, tried not to show his annoyance at Frodo’s bad manners, and methodically packed their trunk. As he expected, it was not that long before Frodo let him know what was on his mind.

‘You said you were living another thirty years.’

‘And I intend to.’

‘Then, what was…’

‘Who was in the room?’ Bilbo said this sharply, though he did not turn away from packing.

There was a pause. ‘Otho’s maternal first cousin.’

‘And this matters because?’

A longer pause. ‘Rudigar did not object to the farthing.’


‘He said that the master of that farthing would be from Bywater.’ Bilbo looked over at the hearth and was pleased to see that his sharp lad had returned. Frodo was thinking. ‘That’s why you didn’t say anything about Pal.’

‘Correct. I also was certain to not accuse Odogar of anything except being foolish, or perhaps greedy, and of trying to protect his own interests in the wrong way. There is no word to indicate that we know of his duplicity. Nor did I want to raise concerns about the Mayorship. There was some good criticism of Rory as well.’ And I will not spare you from here on out, cousin.

“Mmm.’ Frodo say, lost in thought. Bilbo let him be and finished packing the trunk, then went over to the small table near the bed to prepare a pipe. ‘Oh, uh, I’m sorry, Uncle, I…’

‘Yes, you were being quite a rude little brat earlier, Frodo,’ Bilbo said smoothly, allowing a little ire to enter his voice. ‘I would have hoped you would know better than to take manners lessons from Bargo, even if you are a guest in his smial.’ He gave Frodo a baleful look over his shoulder.

Frodo ducked his head, face red. ‘I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.’

‘I have every faith that you will at some point.’

‘Like you always answer questions with questions?’ Apology was gone from the lad’s face. Bilbo chuckled and went back to preparing the pipe.

‘Do I really do that?’ He kept his back turned until he heard Frodo snicker. Bilbo sauntered over to the hearth, sat and took his time lighting the pipe while Frodo tried to look stern, but kept snickering.

‘You are very annoying, Uncle.’

‘And you can be quite a brat, so I say we’re well matched.’ Bilbo grinned until Frodo laughed and ducked his head. They sat for a while with the pipes, thinking their own thoughts. Bilbo’s were mostly how impressive Frodo had been in the talk. They are assured.

‘Do you have a plan, yet?’

Frodo’s question caught him a bit flat-footed. ‘A plan?’

‘Another question.’ The lad was smirking and Bilbo shook a finger at him. ‘Have you finished spying on this dragon?’

‘Not until I see him in his lair. I doubt we will be able to approach him unawares.’ Bilbo said nothing more until he finished his pipe. ‘I begin to wonder if there will be a chink in his armor.’

Scary, 18 Astron 1390

‘Oh, Frodo, I’ve missed you so!’

Prisca swept Frodo into a tight hug and Wili put his arms around them both, bestowing kisses on Frodo’s forehead. Wilifred Bolger contented himself with a few gentle whaps on the top of his younger cousin’s head, unable to get past his parents for a hug. Fred’s wife, Helga, took the opportunity to give Bilbo a hug while the others were occupied crushing Frodo with their affection.

All the Eastfarthing Bolgers were gathering at the family smial, Granite Bank, in Scary ahead of the meeting tomorrow over Odogar’s plan for a new farthing. Wili, Prisca, Fred and Helga were the last to arrive today, just in time for supper. Odogar’s sons, Odovacar and Odogrim were already in Scary, and Car’s wife, Rosa was with him. Earlier today, Gundabard and his wife Matilda had arrived with their two sons, Gundacar and Gundabad. Bilbo wondered if they knew the younger one had the same name as an infamous home of goblins, and then decided the name was apt given the lout’s dull wit and mean temper, not to mention his rather coarse features. Bilbo was concerned about Gun, though; the hobbit did not look well. His color was pale, his breathing somewhat labored, and he was noticeably thinner than the last time Bilbo had seen him at Yule. He had little energy for talk though his wits were no less than usual, which is to say, little in evidence. He hardly resembled the jovial, foolish troublemaker of Yule. He is ninety-five, Baggins, almost as old as you are. That’s old. The sons did not seem to note their father’s weakness, though Tilda was obviously worried. Gun and Tilda were accompanied by their nephew, Bertie Bolger, and his wife, Poppy, whom they had collected as they passed through Budgeford.

He and Frodo had arrived very late well after sundown the day before, having walked the nearly fifteen leagues between Oatbarton and Scary in two days. Odogar has seen their weariness and had been quite kind in showing them directly to their rooms and assuring them that they should rest through the day today. They had slept late, read and written letters with just a pot of tea and some toast that Odogrim had brought to them to take the edge off their hunger, then had met Cousin Brand at a tavern to discuss stone. It had been a long talk of erratic directions and uncertain trades. Brand allowed as to how he was going to have be very clever with new purchases, for Odogar was requiring precise tallies of what was quarried and who received it. Bilbo said he would expand his interests in those who had been approved to receive stone since Brand had a freer hand to send more to existing customers than to new ones. They had only got back within the hour.

‘And you, Bilbo!’ Prisca seized Bilbo in a powerful embrace that belied her eighty-eight years. Bilbo laughed and swung her off her feet as though she were no more than an eight-year-old hobbit lass. Fred took advantage of the changing well-wishers to throw an arm around Frodo’s neck and start tickling him. Wili left them to their roughhousing and came to embrace Bilbo as well, while Helga joined Fred in teasing Frodo. Several boisterous minutes passed before they were done with the kisses, tickles, pinches, pats, and hugs. By this time, Fatty and Stella had discovered their beloved aunties and uncles from Buckland had arrived and were demanding their share of attention. Bilbo and Frodo gladly ceded their places.

Through all of this, Odogar stood nearby, silent and watching. Wili soon turned and greeted his cousin cheerfully, who was mild and genial in return, with no hint of the antagonism Bilbo knew lay between the two. They went over to Gun, who sat in a sturdy chair, and began chatting. Prisca was soon in a lively conversation with Helga, Poppy, Rosa and Tilda, though Tilda’s eyes rarely left her husband. The younger men gathered nearby, Fred getting questioned by his cousins about the trip up from the Marish. Gun’s sons had nothing to add to the conversation, but the other three were quite animated. As was Frodo. Bilbo moved to be closer to Odogar and Wili, though he did not really join the conversation. He thought it best to let the cousins interact with each other. Instead, he studied the smial.

Granite Bank was one of the most magnificent smials in all the Shire. Only Bag End rivaled it in luxury. It had been built about the same time as the Great Smials. Where it sat on a hill rising above Scary there had once been a granite quarry, abandoned long before hobbits had arrived. One of Odogar’s ancestors, Rudda, had begun the building. Slabs of stone had been laid over the pits and the front portion of the smial had been built of timber and earth above them. Behind, tunnels and rooms had been dug out of the hill, going around the great granite boulders that remained lodged in the earth, and all had been paneled in fine wood. The upper floor was four or five times the size of Bag End. The old quarry pits were used for storage. Below and beyond them were caverns, some dug by hands, some shaped by the earth, and the family said that no one had yet found an end to them. Bilbo remembered visits here as a child, before the Fell Winter, when his parents were still on speaking terms with his Aunt Belba, Odogar’s mother.

He did not recognize the place he now stood. The smial felt emptied of life. It was musty, grey, still. There were a few vases of flowers, but they had dried out some time before, perhaps as long ago as the previous summer. The curtains on the front round windows were wrinkled and faded. He doubted anyone had taken the carpets out and beaten them in years. The woodwork was dull and needed cleaning, and there were cobwebs in every corner.  Listening to the chatter of the women and the boasting of the young men, he learned that Car did not live in the smial with his wife and children, despite there being plenty of room. They lived in a cottage nearby. Only the youngest son, Odogrim, was here with Odogar. And that only since Afteryule. Bilbo gave the young hobbit a cold look. This was one of Frodo’s tormentors. The oldest, and an adult for at least a year. He suppressed his revulsion at the thought. To his amazement, Frodo stood right next to the man, smiling and talking without a sign that anything out of sorts had ever happened between them. They write to each other. Frodo had read Bilbo a few of Odogrim’s letters. They were polite, slightly formal, and gave hints of things not quite right here in Scary. Mostly the older fellow wanted to know about the Chubb-Baggins, seeking assurance that they would be good people to him. Better than you were to Frodo, that’s for certain. He seemed to want a friendship with Frodo which did not please Bilbo, though he had not tried to prevent it.

A few minutes later, Odogar said that it was time for supper and they left the parlor for the dining room. Odogar and Wili helped Gun to stand and then flanked the old hobbit, Wili giving his brother an arm to steady him as he walked. Prisca and Tilda moved to be near their men. Bilbo watched them all closely. For the first time, he thought Wili looked elderly, not just a bit aged. And you are even older than that. Jessamine, Odogar’s wife, had died a little over a year ago. She had not been that old, had she? Only eighty-nine, only a little older than Prisca. Wili looked troubled at Gun’s infirmity, but his tone was light and his words teasing.

Supper was unsettling. The meal was sitting out on the table when they arrived, and was barely warm. The food itself was carelessly prepared, some things with too much salt, others with not enough, the meat unevenly roasted, the wine at the edge of vinegar, the beer too bitter. The children were definitely unhappy with the food. There was enough on the table, but there was little left over, even given the poor appetites. The only good food was a savory bread pudding that Poppy had made and brought with her and a marvelous apple pie from Rosa’s kitchen. Both dishes were larger than usual and Bilbo got the sense that the two women routinely brought prepared food when visiting Odogar. The younger men aside from Frodo did not seem to mind the food, though Car did go get a different pitcher of beer from the kitchen. Frodo regarded the food with dismay and picked at his plate, eating little. Bilbo was glad the boy had eaten heartily at the tavern. The women took very little and ate each bite, but did not serve themselves seconds. Wili was too concerned with Gun to notice his plate and Odogar ate with the same absent-minded air he had worn since greeting Bilbo and Frodo the night before. Bilbo himself deliberately ate a small serving of each dish, even as he wished for none of it. He wondered who had done the cooking, for there did not seem to be any kitchen maid or housekeeper.

After the pie had been sliced and served, Bertie tapped on the table to get everyone’s attention. ‘I don’t mean to interrupt,’ he said with a big smile. The littlest Bolgers were too busy devouring their pie to be interrupted. ‘Uncle Odogar, I hope you will forgive me and Poppy for having made you wait, but when we heard the whole family was going to be here soon for a visit, it seemed best to deliver the news now.’ He turned to his wife and took her hand. She blushed a deep pink but did not stop smiling. ‘Come Winterfilth, we’ll be having a child.’

For the first time in two days, Odogar showed some kind of strong emotion. He let out a great shout, jumped to his feet and strode over to embrace the happy couple. ‘Forgiven? Of course you’re forgiven!’ At first, Bilbo was surprised at the excitement Odogar showed for his nephew’s news, then remembered how close Odogar had been to Bertie’s father, Del. As close as Drogo and I. Like Drogo, Del had died at much too young an age in an accident. There were many toasts and well wishes for the couple and their child-to-be offered by all, though few actually drank from the glasses.

At the end of the meal, Odogar walked with Bertie and Poppy, an arm around each, back to the parlor, paying no mind to the dirty dishes on the table. Most of the others trailed after them. Odogrim immediately began clearing the table and Bilbo wondered once again about the absence of even a kitchen girl to help. Without prompting, Frodo began to help his cousin. Bilbo made as though to assist, but Frodo caught his eye and shook his head a fraction. With a nod, he followed the others. It was not long afterwards that the younger men joined them and there did not seem to be anything amiss between them, so Bilbo surmised nothing besides table clearing had occurred. There was much merry chatter for almost an hour afterwards. When they broke to seek their beds, Wili once again assisted Gun and Prisca stayed next to Tilda.

When Bilbo held the door to his room open, assuming Frodo would wish to join him for a pipe, the boy shook his head. ‘Not tonight, Uncle Bilbo. I’m still tired from the walk. I’m going to bed.’

Bilbo tried not to let his disappointment show. He wanted to discuss what he had seen with Frodo and hear of what the lad had observed. ‘As you wish, Frodo. Sleep well.’ He gave Frodo a kiss on the cheek and went inside. He could not sleep, and sat before an empty hearth smoking one pipe after another. There was so much wrong in the smial, but he could not exactly place his finger on it. It was to be expected that a widower would neglect a home in his grief, but why was no one else caring for either Granite Bank or Odogar? Would he not permit it? Bilbo decided he needed to see the smial again. Once more, I am the clue-finder. He stood, pulled out his ring and slipped it on.

His vision blurred slightly, but his hearing got better, and what was dark before was now just a dim grey. He snuffed the lamp in his room before opening the door and walking down the hallway. First, the kitchen. It was a mess. The dishes from earlier were still piled in the sink, not even rinsed off. Pots and pans were set haphazardly about, also dirty, but showing signs that they had not been properly cleaned in some time. The counters felt soiled and sticky. It offended Bilbo’s sense of neatness and order. I have no wife and my kitchen has never looked like this! He had a great desire to heat some water and give the place a thorough scrubbing. He thought of Car going to the kitchen to retrieve more beer. His children know what this is like, yet it remains. Did Odogar and Odogrim do the cooking? The way the youngster had set to clearing the table indicated that he did this routinely. Now Bilbo wished he had spoken to Frodo about what he had seen here, if he had asked any questions. He went further on into the pantries. They were empty for the most part; no cheeses, a few cured meats, some meager cups of flour. He remembered these places filled to the brim, an irresistible treasure for hungry hobbit children looking to pinch a few things to nibble on until the next meal.

Leaving the kitchen behind, Bilbo went through the other front rooms. Dust was everywhere, coating things. More dead, dried flowers stood neglected in waterless vases. In the linen presses, the fabric was musty though he could find no moths. Someone had done some repairs fairly recently. Several windows showed signs of recent glazing, a few hinges on doors were new, though other doors still needed fixing and there was a new cushion on a chair seat. Even so, everywhere he looked, Bilbo found things retreating back to their bones. Has all this happened since Jessie died? The neglect looked more than a year old.

Bilbo walked down a hall that led to the back of the smial to a stone stairway with treads worn in the center from centuries of footsteps. Down he followed it, past the storage rooms, and into the caverns that ran beneath the earth. He had not set foot down here since before the Winter, when he and his sisters and a pack of whatever cousins were there that day would thunder down into the caverns for a game of tag and to tell scary stories. Like Aunt Belba, Granite Bank had a heart of stone.

The sense of being watched was intense, greater than he had ever felt before save when Smaug had cast his eyes about the treasure chamber, trying to spy him. But the feel of the caverns themselves was the opposite of the deep chambers were the dragon dwelt. Those had been consumed by heat, filled by the passion and fury of the dragon himself, the fire that burned within him keeping the spaces filled with heat as a hearth warms a room. These spaces were more like to the great chamber of Thror, even as they could not come close to the soaring majesty of that hall. It was not just the chill. That chamber had been filled with things past and gone, the bones of the dead, the benches and tables broken, cups and bowls scattered as they had been almost two hundred years before when the dragon had arrived and Durin’s folk had faced their doom. And all Thorin could think of, looking at that, was the treasure and the Arkenstone.

There was a cold upwelling in the smial that Bilbo felt not on his skin but in his heart. Now he knew what was wrong. It felt like Northfarthing. It was parted.

There was nothing spoiled in the kitchen, just dirtied, old. The flowers had not decayed, just dried out. Things simply sat in the various rooms, unused and unnoticed.  Odogar seemed ignorant of what lay around him, parted from a desire for things to be pleasant, to satisfy the senses. Desire devoid of appetite.

Bilbo continued to walk through the caverns. He wanted to take off the ring and be rid of the eyes upon him, but without it, he could not see in the dark. The last time he had been down here, so long ago, he also had felt something dividing his heart. The great parting in his own family. There was his father, Aunt Linda and Uncle Bingo on one side, Aunt Belba and Uncle Longo on the other. And now your children contest, and I am like Father trying to make you all behave. A thought he did not want to have demanded to be acknowledged. And what of your own parting? The sight of Gun and Wili tonight, so very old, had left him more shaken than he could admit. Wili’s my little brother. He shouldn’t be old yet. Or I should be. With a sigh, he retraced his steps to the living areas. Upstairs, he now thought it like the dark halls of Mirkwood, stuffy and still, with webs that would capture the unwary. He imagined each bedroom he passed to be something like the cocoons of spider silk that had encased the dwarves. Finally, he returned to his room, locking the door behind him, gratefully removing the ring. He was glad that there were no children being raised in this smial and thought that Odogrim would be best off out in Westfarthing. Though he went to bed, he could not fall asleep.

Scary, 19 Astron 1390

And today, I must be the web-cutter.

The farthing meeting was to be held in the morning for Tilda had insisted that she wished to return home to Whitfurrows that day, and Wili and Prisca said they would travel with them and spend the following day visiting. Fred and Helga said they needed to be to her parents’ home on Girdley Island by night. To Bilbo’s relief, Prisca and Helga had taken over the kitchen for breakfast, cheerily shooing Odogar off. He shrugged and left for the parlor with the tray of tea and cups they gave him. Bilbo had exchanged one long look with Prisca in the kitchen, then called Frodo and Odogrim to him, handing them a few coins while Prisca gave them a list of things to get from the market down the way. The youngsters were quickly back with fresh bread, eggs and bacon, milk and butter, honey and preserves. Bilbo told them to help the women however they could, and took some slices of bread with butter and honey to the parlor to serve with the tea.

Breakfast was simple, but hearty, and soon Car and Bertie were there with Rosa and Poppy. Bilbo was pleased the children had not been brought along. When dishes were cleared, Bilbo pulled Prisca to the side, ostensibly to talk about meeting up again in Whitfurrows the following night.

‘What is the matter with Odogar?’ she whispered.

Bilbo said a small fib. ‘I think he still mourns Jessie.’

Prisca nodded. ‘He wants not to change things as she had them, I see.’

‘I am concerned, though. Can you talk to the girls and find what they know?’

‘Of course.’ Prisca looked around the kitchen with irritation. ‘And I shall see that this it put to rights!’

Bilbo gave her some more coins, said to see the larder filled, then went to Odogar’s study with Frodo. Odogrim simply nodded to Bilbo and stayed to help with the kitchen.

Wili sat with Gun and Bilbo wondered if either were going to add much to the conversation. Gun was too ill and Wili too worried about his brother. He also doubted that Little Gun and Bad would have much to say. They only seemed interested in the food, not the conversation. That left Odogar, Car, Bertie, Frodo and himself and possibly Fred with anything of note to say. They started quietly enough with Bilbo giving an account of his walk through Northfarthing. He spoke of the roads and the bridges, mostly, saying he thought them important to mend this summer, and asked Car to keep careful track of any stone or other requests coming from Rufus. ‘Give him no reason to complain to his brother-in-law,’ Bilbo advised.

‘His coin is of no greater value than any other’s, Bilbo,’ said Odogar sharply. The dragon stirs. Bilbo nodded emphatically.

‘Correct, Odogar, if you were just talking stone, but his good regard is of worth, as well.’

‘You’ve secured that, haven’t you?’

‘He is assured that his best business is to be done with Scary, but he worries that Scary has little business to offer him.’ Bilbo hoped Car was not seized by his father’s tenacious obsession with wringing coin from every exchange. ‘If all coin is the same and you need to move your stone, then do so with advantage to yourself and Rufus. If he starts grumbling, Asphodel will get him to talk to Rory. You know that.’

You talk to Rory.’ Gun looked a bit better for having a decent meal in him. ‘You made sure he got all the stone he needed.’

Bilbo saw life coming back to Odogar’s face, as though waking from a deep slumber, and the man’s expression was keen. ‘No, Gun. Odogar made sure that Rory got all the stone he paid for. Rory told me he was going to back out of the deal, and I told you this so the sale would not be lost. Unless he has told me false, you also got extra coin out of him.’

‘True.’ Odogar looked like he was going to sink back into his own thoughts again. ‘What of the rest of Northfarthing?’ Bilbo gladly took that invitation to talk about what they had seen on their tramp, though he said nothing of the Parting as he had to Rufus. Wili already knew of Rory’s concerns and Bilbo was not certain any of the Bolgers could understand the importance. Gun was too simple, Odogar too much in the grips of Dragon Fever, and Car and Bertie he did not know well enough to judge. Car was obviously deep in his father’s counsels if he were running back and forth between Whitwell as Falco had said, and not to be trusted. Bertie, perhaps. He would be best handled by Poppy and Falco. Bilbo suspected that Odogrim wished nothing to do with whatever dark thoughts consumed his father.

After Bilbo’s recitation, Car and Fred took turns describing how things stood in Eastfarthing, with Bertie providing details about Budgeford. None of them mentioned the poor harvest. Frodo paid close attention, but said nothing. He and Bilbo had agreed that the lad would hold his silence and observe this meeting. Bilbo did not want him tangling with Odogar given the double-dealing with Otho. At some point, the ladies came in with a few trays of hot tea and fresh baked dainties. Even Odogar paid attention to this. Bilbo turned talk briefly to the new baby while they ate, trying to draw the man out and give him something solid in which to take pleasure.

Finally, there was no avoiding the central reason for their meeting. Odogar was fully awake, and looking intently at Bilbo. ‘So, cousin, what news? Does Rufus support our plan? You’ve written of your success with the others.’

‘Cousin,’ Wili broke in, ‘may I have some questions answered before you and Bilbo go deciding everything for the rest of us?’ Fred nodded in support of his father. ‘You may be clan head, but you need to win my assent before you go looking to Rufus, or even Bilbo, for that matter.’

‘Of course, Wili. Ask what you like.’

‘I’ve heard that you are splitting Eastfarthing in half and grabbing some from South and Westfarthing as well.’

Odogar smiled brightly, showing the most life Bilbo had yet seen in three days. ‘Yes, that is exactly what I’m doing!’ Car nodded emphatically, sporting a similar grin though Bertie’s face was neutral. You’ve been fighting with them over this, haven’t you? Gun and his sons looked pleased, though Bilbo was willing to bet they had only a vague notion of what Odogar had proposed.

Wili and Fred stared, probably more startled by Odogar’s glee than by the plan itself. ‘Why? For what would you do this?’

‘To break the stranglehold the Tooks and the Brandybucks have on the Shire, keeping us a mean, backwards place!’ Odogar’s cheer turned into ferocity.

Wili shook his head slowly. ‘I don’t understand you, Odogar. Any of it. It sounds madness.’

‘Not madness, foresight! Imagination! Daring!’ Odogar lunged to his feet and started to pace. ‘It’s all Bilbo’s idea!’ Before Bilbo could protest, Odogar rattled on. ‘He’s been out in the world, and he has told us all about it. I wouldn’t have thought to do business with dwarves and Breelanders beyond a few mugs of ale and some leather goods save for him telling me about the riches and greatness of the lands beyond the Bounds. Trade! That is what I am talking about, Wili…’

‘And I have heard this all too often from you, cousin!’ Wili retorted. ‘I’m ashamed at your dwarven-heart, always grubbing after gold!’

‘Wili!’ Bilbo broke in, trying to forestall an argument between the two. ‘That’s not what Odogar said. Please, listen more charitably.’

Wili was not going to back down easily. ‘So, he wants to be rich. Fine, don’t we all? Why don’t you try taking care of your proper duties first, like seeing to a bad harvest? You can chase all the gold you want after that, and none else will care!’

‘And had it not been for the chicanery of Pal, Rum and Rory, that would have been seen to and quickly,’ Odogar snapped. Bilbo decided that it would be best for the cousins to hash out Odogar’s duplicity, and stayed as silent as Frodo.

‘What of your own?’ Wili challenged. ‘You were perfectly happy to deal with Pal to get them, and for sale, not to help those in want. I heard word that someone,’ he shot an angry look at Gun and his boys, ‘was trying to hold back gifted roots and sell them dear.’

Bilbo thought it best to keep the focus on Odogar and Pal’s dealings. ‘Widow Grubb says it was Old Will Brockhouse trying to fatten his own purse, Wili, and playing everyone false. He was made to cough them up, so no harm done, and Maud is placated.’

Odogar waved Bilbo to silence. ‘To answer you, Wili, yes, I went first to Pal because of all the troubles I’ve been having with Rory long before this last harvest. And then Pal started doing his own double-dealing, selling me roots, then having Rum cart more in for nothing. Did you actually put your hands on what came out of Southfarthing?’ Wili glared at him. ‘Well, did you?’ Wili shook his head. ‘They were foul! Two-harvests old, many with green-rot, carrots and parsnips all sprouted.’ Odogar pointed in the direction of the kitchen. ‘I have taken naught into my own smial better than the worst sent by the Tooks. My pantry is as bare as the least shelf in the meanest smial. If any were brave enough to chastise me to my face on how I did, I would show them my own takings, so they would know that I shared their privations. I would give them what little I had, so that I would go without before they did.’

Bilbo was not sure what to make of this claim. He might not approve of Odogar turning to Pal before Rory to resolve the harvest failure, but he found he was more sympathetic to complaints about his Brandybuck cousin’s arrogant behavior than but a few weeks past. But he could have asked Rufus for help; Oatbarton is closer. It was simply not possible that Pal and Rum would have colluded, but Rum had said that much of what he sent was old and only fit for pigs. The trade between Pal and Odogar might have offended him for being hard-bargained when hunger threatened, but most of his own deliveries had come with a price, and one that became increasingly higher as the season went by. Knowing the barren cellars and pitiful kitchen on the other side of the smial, he did not doubt Odogar’s word on what he had done with his own food. That’s not right, either. A headman needs stores to share, know how to keep his cellars full so he may give unstintingly. You’ve always had plenty before. Where are you keeping it?

Odogar stood in front of Wili, arms crossed, face scornful. ‘I want for the Shire to never again have a bad harvest, to have markets that never close, to have people – dwarves, Big People, even those elves of Bilbo’s – always coming here to be amazed at our wealth and industry. What vision does Rory have? Little more than to be drunk on his Harvest cider once a year! That is what my gold is for!’

Is this such a bad vision, Baggins? How different is this than your own for the Shire? Isn’t this what you do with your gold? And he lies. He cares not about the good of the Shire, but about its magnificence, how to impress dwarves, not care for hobbits. But what if he were not in charge? Perhaps he and Rufus are right.

‘Odogar,’ Bilbo said, ‘one can agree completely with your vision and the need to look ahead with foresight, as you said earlier, but still not grasp how dividing the farthings will bring this about. Can you tell us? I must admit to being a bit perplexed on that point. Rufus, too, could not grasp the reason.’

‘For balance.’

‘What balance? How is four not balanced?’

‘There are five because Buckland must be factored into this. So, when there are four and divided two and two, then Buckland weighs in on whichever side is to the Master’s advantage. Another farthing will balance Buckland.’

Bilbo had to admit a certain truth to that. ‘But why then split Eastfarthing in twain? Take a little cut from the center about the size of Buckland and call it done.’ It could just be the neck of Westfarthing above the Road, just the Bagginses usual area. Bilbo shoved that thought away. ‘This is what makes so little sense to me, Odogar, the way you propose to sever Eastfarthing.’

‘So I won’t have to waste my time dealing with your miserable Brandybuck kin!’ Odogar snapped.

‘And you’re going to inflict them on me, are you?’ Bilbo made his reply as jovial as possible. ‘That is not friendly!’

Odogar was not amused. ‘Eastfarthing is about the Road, not the mud down in Rushey! That place is filled with backward folk who just want their cider and their burning logs.’

They resist your avarice, that’s the real problem. Bilbo sighed and fixed his cousin with a stern gaze. ‘I think the real problem here is you are confusing two problems and wish to solve them the same way.’

‘What, Uncle Bilbo? What problems do you see?’ Bertie was sitting forward, very deliberately holding Bilbo’s eyes and refusing to look at Odogar. You know this is wrong. He hoped that Milo would try to befriend Bertie. You need some support against these cousins. Prisca could help encourage some friendship from her sons as well.

‘First and foremost, there’s the problem of Rory meddling in the Marish and wasting everyone’s time with his second market just past the bridge. Addressing the Master’s overreach resolves most of the most pressing problems, but that can be done only by keeping Eastfarthing in one piece. You need to call upon Wili and his boys,’ Bilbo gave Wili and Fred a sharp look and they both nodded, ‘to be more attentive to Bolger responsibilities in these areas.’ Since Rory and Wili were already working together on the market, it would not be difficult to convince Rory to step back from direct control. Fred and Bard were well respected throughout the Marish, and having them report to Odogar through Bertie would be a good thing for all three young men. ‘The Master’s authority ends at the borders of Buckland. If he wishes for something beyond that, he needs to ask, and respect the decisions made. The headmen of areas where he thinks himself free to act need to understand that direction comes from Scary, not Brandy Hall, and that means clearing everything with them,’ he pointed at Wili and Fred, ‘not Rory.’ Bilbo doubted that any of this argument would sway Odogar in the slightest, but if it got the others to be more willing to work with their cousins, much mischief could be avoided.

‘The larger problem,’ Bilbo continued briskly, ‘is the outsized control that the Tooks have on the Road, and you have to include the Chubbs in that given the interconnections, though don’t underestimate your own connections. Given the proper… incentives… they may find their Bolger kin to be more advantageous to work with than the Tooks. They will not see any advantage to losing a large chunk of their farthing.’ Bilbo fixed a stern eye on Odogar, who looked wrathful. ‘Do you really think that Wilcar will simply stand by and see such a large swath of his own farthing taken, especially as he has no part in the argument between you, the Master and the Thain? Truly?’

‘You said Falco had given assurances…’

‘Of his own support, yes. He approves of increased Baggins influence in our end of Westfarthing, but he also says there is little chance of Wilcar acceding to that.’

‘Then we just take it. If he won’t make use of it, we will.’

‘And if you take Westfarthing against the wishes of its leader, would that not embolden the Master to claim part of Eastfarthing, or of the Tooks to seize all of Westfarthing below the road and out to the Drop and add it to Southfarthing?’

For one brief second, Bilbo saw a look of pleasure on Odogar’s face, before the other scowled, and Bilbo finally discerned the true nature of Odogar’s plan. You and Pal have this all planned. Bilbo would win over Westfarthing north of the road, whereupon it would be annexed to Eastfarthing, and Pal would take the portion below the road, consolidating all the Tooklands in Southfarthing. Bilbo had an unpleasant suspicion that the portion of Northfarthing Rufus would be willing to cede was already tallied as belonging to Eastfarthing.

‘You advise to do nothing!’

‘Not at all. I advise to concentrate on securing your hold on the lower Eastfarthing and preventing further encroachment from Buckland, and then to winning over Wilcar on questions of the Road. On that count, you will need my and Falco’s assistance more than any. Wilcar already chafes against Pal’s meddling,’ I know which Tooks are the problem, cousin, ‘and can be brought into accord by showing your success with the eastern markets. What I will not advise is trying to change borders without the consent of the folk living there.’

Bilbo sat back in his chair and smiled genially. Wili, Fred and Bertie all seemed pleased by the advice, while Gun looked indignant and his sons just looked confused. Car did not stop looking at his father. Odogar gave Bilbo a look he had not seen since Thorin learned he had given the Arkenstone to Bard. Fury and malice warred in the hobbit’s face as he glared down at Bilbo. There was a small motion to Bilbo’s right, and he felt more than saw Frodo move to stand next to his chair. Odogar’s gaze shifted to the boy and an unpleasant smile came to his face. Hair rising on the back of his neck, Bilbo stood and stepped to stand partly between Frodo and Odogar.

When Odogar gave his attention once more to Bilbo, his face was smooth and bland. ‘I fear I continue to disagree with you, cousin, but I cannot deny that your counsel contains much wisdom. You and I will need to speak more after lunch. For now, I believe that it is almost meal time and Gun and Wili need to depart immediately afterwards, so it is time to end this conversation. I assure you, you have given me much to consider.’

Bilbo’s heart was pounding and his sense of danger had not abated, no matter the other’s calm demeanor. Like Smaug engaging in a little chat while thinking to have me as a snack. The others seemed not to have noticed anything amiss and were filing out of the study. Once they were gone, Bilbo gave Odogar a slight nod and followed, being sure that Frodo walked ahead of him.

Lunch was delicious, though no one lingered given the need to depart. Frodo once more helped Odogrim to clear the table so that Prisca, Helga and Tilda could go at once and finish packing. As soon as his lad was done, Bilbo directed him to help Prisca and Wili with anything they needed. He watched Odogar leave the dining room and return to his study and knew the man expected him to follow. In my own time. Bilbo had no interest in another battle with Odogar so soon.

Instead, Bilbo went back to the kitchen to see what had been done. It was much cleaner though it still could use some work. There were various things cooking and baking, Rosa and Poppy bustling about tending pots and washing up the lunch plates. Why have you two not done this before? That was what mystified him. Poppy might be forgiven since she was down in Budgeford, but Rosa was just a few hundred yards away. He went past them to the pantries and was pleased to see the shelves holding edible things like fresh flour, many cured meats and hard cheeses. In his heart, he was still alarmed and angry at Odogar’s threatening look at Frodo, and kept worrying the ring between his fingers.

Going down the passage to a further pantry, he saw Odogrim walking towards him. I will not fail you again, Wilwarin. You threaten my child, Odogar, and I will do the same to yours. Not pausing to think too much Bilbo waited until the younger hobbit was almost past him before grabbing his shoulder and slamming him back into the wall, pinning him against it. He looked down on the shocked young man with a smile, the same one Odogar had aimed at Frodo, that made the other start shaking. Yes, you should be afraid. He let the cold from the caverns deep below seep in through the soles of his feet and chill his heart to calmness. Only the ring was warm.

‘I have heard a terrible story,’ Bilbo said in a soft tone. ‘A story about three older fellows making obscene use of a little boy not even a tween.’ Odogrim’s face went white. ‘This story makes me very angry.’ In his right hand, the ring felt heavier, thicker. ‘As long as I see you being a good kinsman and treating Frodo with respect, you are safe from my wrath.’ Odogrim nodded vigorously. ‘If I ever have reason to believe that you have made use of another child, maid or boy, or if you breathe a hint of slander against my heir,’ Bilbo let go the ring and grabbed Odogrim tightly by the balls, making him yelp and freeze, ‘I will geld you myself.’ Bilbo put his face next to Odogrim’s and whispered, ‘Do we understand each other?’ and gave the other’s balls a sharp twist and tug, then let go and walked away, not waiting for a reply.

He found Frodo in front of the smial handing a few things up to Prisca in the small wagon she and Wili had arrived in. ‘Prisca, where are you and Wili staying tonight?’

‘With Gun and Tilda.’

‘Would it be too much of an imposition to ask you to take Frodo? And our trunk?’

‘No, Bilbo, not at all, but why?’ she began. Frodo interrupted.

‘I’m not leaving you! Not with…’ He broke off, but his eyes were smoldering.

Bilbo ignored Frodo’s outburst. ‘I’m not sure what meals will be like once you ladies leave, Prisca.’

She sighed and shook her head. ‘Neither am I. If you are done with business, why don’t you come with us, too?’

‘Odogar has asked for a private conversation with me. It will take most of the afternoon, I suspect.’

‘Uncle Bilbo, I’m not going to…’

‘You will do exactly as you are told, Frodo!’ The boy ducked his head. ‘If you will give us just a few minutes, Prisca, Frodo will be ready.’

Bilbo motioned for the lad to follow him into the smial. He pointed at the door to Frodo’s room and said, ‘Collect everything you have, we’ll sort it in my room.’ The trunk had never really been unpacked so there was not much to put back into it. He laid out walking clothes for himself and pulled out a few things Frodo would need in the morning. Frodo came in and laid everything he had on Bilbo’s bed. Bilbo did not ask Frodo what he wanted, but quickly sorted things into the knapsack to be used in the next day, or else stuffed it into the trunk, not bothering to fold things or put them in neatly. All that mattered was getting Frodo away from this place as quickly as possible. Only when all was stowed and the trunk locked did Bilbo look at the boy.

‘Why? And please, no questions!’

‘I have only questions, but none are for you, Wilwarin. You saw Odogar’s face.’

‘Yes. I thought he was going to attack you. Please, Bilbo, don’t stay!’

‘I have a last bit of spying to do on this dragon.’ Bilbo hugged Frodo tightly before taking him by the shoulders. ‘You feel how… wrong… this place is, yes?’ Frodo nodded. ‘That’s why I want you, all of you, away from here. I will follow as soon as I can, but I must speak to Odogar.’


‘Trust me, Frodo. I will be all right.’ He kissed the boy’s brow and handed him his knapsack. They each grabbed an end of the trunk and took it out to the wagon. A few hugs and kisses, a wave farewell, and Bilbo watched Wili drive his team down the lane and turn south to Whitfurrows.

He took his time going back to his room, preparing a pipe, and gathering his wits. He wished he had Sting or at least the mithril shirt. He was not entirely certain Odogar would not attack. When there was no more avoiding it, Bilbo went to the study. Odogar sat, absently looking out the window. Bilbo took a seat opposite, lit his pipe, and waited. The pipe was done and cold before Odogar spoke.

‘You never intended to help me, did you, cousin?’

‘To split the Shire? Of course not. You should know me better than that. I was just waiting for you to come to your senses.’

‘I’m not splitting the Shire.’ Odogar turned away from the window and looked at Bilbo. ‘I’m uniting it.’

‘By breaking up farthings? That is an odd unity.’

‘By making it a great thing.’

‘It doesn’t need to be a great thing, only a good one.’

‘You are turning the others against me.’

‘To the contrary, they are all too eager to support this. The only disagreement is where to draw the lines.’

Eagerness came to Odogar’s face. ‘Who supports this?’

Bilbo snorted. ‘Let me see. Posco, Falco, their sons, Rufus and his sons, and his cousin Rudi.’ Whom you have already been talking to, so you know full well he supports you. ‘I’m to speak to Dudo and Odo upon my return to Hobbiton, and probably Cousin Pasco. They will see advantage and will probably say yes. Maud Grubb is in support, and she’s worth a great deal.’

‘What about Griffo Boffin?’

There really is no end to your ambition, is there? ‘He’s your nephew, just like Bertie. Why don’t you talk to him yourself?’

‘I’m not close to those in-laws. They never approved of the match.’

I doubt Aunt Belba approved of the match, given Reed. ‘I will ask him to come to Hobbiton.’

‘So, what of the boundaries? Do they object to it being extended to Nobottle?’

‘They have no agreement on boundaries at all. There’s no limit to what they want. They want to cut things up into little pieces, not just one new farthing, and order things as seem best for themselves. Not a one of them agrees with how you would divide things.’ But they are all agreed that you must not be in charge. ‘As for me, I begin to think it all foolishness.’

‘Don’t you want to be in charge?’ Odogar sounded genuinely puzzled at Bilbo’s reluctance.

‘Not really, no.’ Except, I do. I could do very well with this. Bilbo shook his head to be rid of the ridiculous thought. ‘I have my own ways to care for things. If there are problems, then fix them with some reasonable discussion and some good beer, not by ripping things apart!’

Odogar sat back in his chair, hands steepled before him, and regarded Bilbo with a slight smile, very like the one he had worn when looking at Frodo. ‘Others are not so timid as you, cousin. They don’t share your… ways’

‘If you wish to call sober counsel timidity, go right ahead.’

‘You have no business standing in the way of those with greater vision than yourself.’

I have seen so much more than you, Odogar, in dark caverns, upon vast plains, high in crags and deep in valleys. All you see is gold. ‘How am I standing in the way?’

‘By speaking so slyly and making virtue seem vice and turning vice into virtue. It is unnatural how easily you do this!’ Odogar glared. ‘’Do you think I can’t see you trying to trick people into new thoughts?’

‘Such as?’

‘Taking away assurance.’

‘I don’t understand.’ You mean Frodo. Making him my heir instead of leaving it to Otho.

‘This will go forward, Baggins! There is too much at stake to leave the Shire in the hands of people such as Rum.’

So, that’s your real target. And myself, of course. ‘So, what do you want me to do about Rum?’ Bilbo tried to make his tone very matter-of-fact.

‘Convince him to step aside.’ Bilbo nodded. Yes, this is starting to make sense. The secret dealings with Pal. The fury about what Rum and Rory were doing. ‘You will help with this? I’ve heard rumor you have… influence… with him.’

You mean I bed him. Bilbo almost laughed. I can bribe him with a horse more easily than with my body. ‘And why should I do that?’

‘You just asked how you could help, and I told you! The last thing the Shire needs is that degenerate mishandling everything, ruining good business because it doesn’t amuse him.’

Odogar did have a certain point there. Rum was easily bored and did not like the tedious parts of tending a farthing. That’s why Pal can get away with his mischief, because Rum doesn’t care to pay attention. ‘I sincerely doubt anyone will convince Rum of that. He gets too much enjoyment from outraging people, and how can he do that so well if he’s not Thain?’

‘As with the rest, you won’t even try,’ Odogar growled.

‘I didn’t say I wouldn’t try. I’m just saying it will do no good.’

‘There you go with your twisted words again! I’m sure you will try a lot of things with him.’ Bilbo was tempted to taunt Odogar with some slightly obscene jibe, but decided he no longer got much enjoyment from outraging people, so contented himself with a raised eyebrow. ‘You’re so worried about division and upset, Bilbo, yet you will not pledge your help to guarantee a smooth path from what was to what most assuredly will be. I know you are always about doing things and spreading your gold to gain good regard. Come out of the shadows and do this good openly.’

‘I am he who walks unseen.’

‘Well, time to stop your deviant ways!’ Odogar shook his head. ‘Why are you so recalcitrant? You understand what is to be gained by turning attention to the Road and what we may make of it, better than any. People will look kindly upon a new farthing under your command. Put your words behind it and stop your opposition!’

‘I see not that what I say matters. I have been skeptical of this plan, but those I speak to are more than willing to be convinced. They are the ones you must talk to, not me.’ You need me to be part of this. Why? You know I will oppose it, so why are you wooing me? This was the part Bilbo could not understand.

‘People trust you and know your counsel is sound.’

‘And my counsel is to not do this, but I am ignored, so you need me not.’ There is always the Mayorship, after all.

Odogar made a sound of frustration. ‘Be contrary! If you will not help, then other Baggins will.’

Ah, Otho is not as persuasive as you would hope. Or perhaps you don’t trust him to let you order him about? A different thought came to him, and he almost laughed at the deviousness. You tell Otho that he will inherit when I die, but you were waiting for me to die without naming an heir, and then seize Centralfarthing back to yourself, leaving Otho hanging. I have foiled both your plans. Bilbo decided it was time to call Odogar’s bluff. ‘You’re working with Otho, too, aren’t you? And chatting with Pal.’

For almost a minute, Odogar did not answer. ‘I’m leaving nothing to chance.’

Bilbo laughed. ‘No, I suppose you aren’t. Well, perhaps you should stop writing me and just work with our dear cousin Otho. I suspect he is far more interested in a farthing than I am.’ Frodo will be Mayor, after all.

‘And you’re working with Rory! I’d forgotten how close you two are.’

‘No, Odogar, no.’ If only you knew how out of favor Rory is with me at the moment. ‘I talk to, and fight with, all of my cousins equally. There are a lot of you and you are a contentious lot. I don’t like seeing you scrap and get into pissing contests with each other. It does no good for anyone, and it’s disastrous for the Shire.’ Bilbo chuckled and stood. ‘Do as you like, cousin. Go huddle in the corner with Otho and spin your webs of deceit. I’ve given you my honest opinion – use Wili for lower farthing business and treat him a bit more respectfully so he won’t keep running to Rory, and make yourself agreeable to Wilcar and he’ll probably be happy to work with you and Pal to sell everything that isn’t nailed down. As for me, I need to get on my way.’ With a nod, Bilbo turned away.

‘And don’t you take chances with your heir?’ He turned and looked back at the other hobbit, who was sneering.

‘What do you mean?’ Bilbo affected nonchalance, hand on hip, the other in his pocket holding his ring.

‘There are questions about his origin. It’s very far from Hobbiton.’

‘From whom do you hear this? And I want a name, not a rumor.’


‘And when did you hear this?’ If you have violated our agreement Otho, you will not withstand the storm I shall release.

‘In Afteryule. I wrote him about this and he warned me of the adoption. Children are begotten in a most unnatural way in Buckland, with little assurance.’

That was before Bilbo and Otho had met in Rethe. Safe for now, cousin. ‘Otho is more than a bit self-interested in spreading doubt. I take no chances with my heir. I know with absolute certainty that he is Baggins, if that is what you are getting at. Look at him next to me. There can be no doubt.’ With another nod, Bilbo again tried to leave.

‘Right down to certain unnatural tastes, or so I’ve heard. I guess you would be certain.’

With a few swift steps, Bilbo was in front of Odogar’s chair, hands on the arms, leaning down over the man. ‘And who did you hear this from?’ he asked in a whisper.

Odogar stared back, red coming to his face, through whether from fear or anger Bilbo couldn’t tell. ‘Pal.’

Who learned it from Esmie, who learned it from Sara, who… ‘No. Three older tweens, among them your own son, forced themselves on a child. Ask him yourself, if you have the nerve, and he can tell you what fate awaits him, or any member of your clan, who slanders my heir. Even you.’ Something in his face must have broken through Odogar’s Dragon Fevered brain, for he turned pale and shrank back in his chair.

‘If you want to try to take over the Shire and make it your little kingdom, go right ahead, cousin. I shan’t stand in your way. Indeed, I shall enjoy watching you make an ass of yourself. But if you try to harm my child in any way, you will wish you were only facing a dragon. Of that, I can assure you.’ Bilbo turned on his heel, scooped up his pipe from the table next to his chair, and walked away.

‘If you aren’t prepared to risk him, you should stick with Otho.’

Bilbo did not pause or otherwise show that he had heard Odogar’s last words. He went to his room, changed out of his nice clothes and into the rougher walking clothes, stuffing the others and the pipe into his knapsack. He was soon walking briskly south towards Whitfurrows.


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