7. Baggage

POV - Frodo

In which we get immersed in Baggins clan business and its multi-generational baggage.

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25 Astron, 1390

Bilbo,

I trust this letter will find you and our nephew safely home in your smial.

I admit I am concerned that you have not written in over a week, especially after meeting with Odogar. I have heard a rumor that the meeting did not go well and that there was contest between you two. Given your words to me, I guess that you two are no longer in agreement.

Nor are we in agreement, though I trust we do not contest. I am more convinced than ever that you are the best hobbit to oversee the Shire. Let’s you and I talk directly with Wilcar Chubb. If I cede some of Northfarthing, he’ll be more inclined to let go your bit of Westfarthing, and then we’ll see what can be obtained from Eastfarthing. Ignore Odogar and Pal. Rory, too, for that matter. I would not ignore Otho as I think he’s being a bit of a weasel. Please do not dismiss my counsel out of hand. As Rudi said, it is for the free folk to decide.

Marco and I are off to Long Cleeve this week as I got word that the first stone is due in a ten-day. Do you know if there is something your cousin Brand Bunce particularly likes? I’d like to give him a gift for his help with the stone. I’ll be looking at trees and grass, too. They convince me more than arguments.

Rufus

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27 Astron, 1390

Dear Cousin Frodo,

I hope this letter finds you and Uncle Bilbo well. I am doing well.

I was startled at your sudden departure from Granite Bank, and I sincerely hope that I did not do anything to give you offense. Please accept my deepest apologies for anything I may have said or done that offended you in any way.

I received a letter from Uncle Falco this morning saying that he and Aunt Nora would like me to come to stay with them in Nobottle as soon as I can for they need my help to prepare for the Free Fair. Papa got one as well, asking for him to give permission for me to go, and he has. Rosa and Poppy are hiring a new housekeeper for Papa and I don’t wish to leave before one has been engaged.

May I call upon you and Uncle Bilbo on my trip to Nobottle? If you are tired of visitors, I understand and shan’t bother you.

Your Cousin,
Odogrim Bolger

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27 Astron, 1390

Dearest Little Cousin,

I am so glad to hear you and Uncle Bilbo are safely back home. I hear a rumor from Dilly that two people in Oatbarton are pained about your recent visit – one before you left and one because you left. Dilly also says that Asphodel wants to send that pair back to Buckland now rather than wait for the Free Fair. Something about not wanting them under a certain bad influence. I definitely will be back home in Halimath so you can tell me directly all you are too discreet to put in writing.

I can’t believe that you haven’t visited Ma and Da yet! You’ve been back there for months, you rotten rascal, and you haven’t paid a call, shame on you! Da is very much looking forward to meeting you soon. He likes Uncle Bilbo and I think you will get along. Ma is Mistress Gilda’s first cousin, if you didn’t know. They have a certain formidable glare in common. Knowing you, little cousin, she will have many occasions on which to use it with you!

Thank you for getting Tom back to the Hall. His parents were desolate until he came back. Uncle Bilbo’s letter to them was touching. I helped Tom write a reply and send it to Uncle Bilbo.

Mistress Gilda is very concerned about Uncle Bilbo because of things Uncle Wili and Aunt Prisca said. Is there something to be worried about? They don’t want to talk about what they saw in Scary, which makes me think it more than just fussing. When Uncle Wili goes back to Whitfurrows next month, I will also go. His elder brother is sick, and since the Mistress cannot travel so far, she is sending me.

My love to you and Uncle Bilbo,

Cousin Ula

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28 Astron, 1390

Dearest Bilbo,

We need to have a serious talk at the Free Fair. If you like, I can come see you now. That might be best. You may know how to tame dragons, but you’re not the most clever when it comes to kin. There are many things happening in Whitwell, only some of which I have any certain news about. There is something being said about a dwarf attacking the Master’s Heir, and your name is connected to it. I’m hearing nicer rumors, too, which makes me think the timing of this one to be no mistake.

When Car visits Pal, he also comes to the Great Smials to see Rosa’s kin. Andy is very good at telling me when his brother-in-law will be in the vicinity. I think I shall cultivate an interest in Car.

I like Widow Grubb. She is quite obscene. You have the most entertaining friends.

Rum

Bag End, Late Afternoon, 29 Astron, 1390

‘Read that again.’

‘Once the herbs have steeped a full two hours, strain them through fine cloth.’

Frodo carefully wrote the sentence in his neatest hand. ‘Next.’

Bilbo followed the words on the messy transcription with his finger, reading slowly and precisely. ‘Do not squeeze the cloth as this may allow debris and bitter leavings through.’

They had been preparing the final scroll transcription for the last five days. There had been no way to dissuade the more aggressive visitors the first few days, so Bilbo had simply allowed them to wander in, be foolish, and leave. Missus Gamgee had cooked so much food for the two of them that had there not been many people dropping by Bag End, much would have gone to waste. Interest in their walk up north vanished with the news that Old Noakes’s son’s wife’s sister’s middle son had fallen into Bywater Pool after having drunk too much at The Green Dragon and then had fallen asleep, covered with mud, on her best couch in the parlor. Bilbo and Frodo had raised tankards of beer in honor of the clever fellow relieving them of the burden of their neighbors' interest.

Since then, they had turned the dining room into a workspace for the scroll. Bilbo had told him a story of seeing a room in Rivendell just off the great library where nothing but transcriptions and copies were made. They had been sitting in the study enjoying their evening pipes, and it had made Frodo very happy to see his uncle become so animated and jolly while recounting all the details he could remember of the room – the long tables, the small writing desks, the shelves and stands full of paper and parchment, writing and painting implements of dizzying varieties, pots and vials and cakes of ink in colors that defied Bilbo’s attempts to describe them, and the beautiful elves working serenely at this task or that. Frodo had suggested that they turn the dining room into their own such room, and they had done so the first thing the next morning.

First to work on were all the corrections and suggestions Aunt Gilda and Ula had sent over the last month. For an entire day, they did nothing but read the original scroll and compare it to what their kinswomen had sent. Bilbo had pulled out his elvish books and very carefully studied the scroll, the revisions and various places in the books, doing his best to ensure that no nuance was lost or misrepresented. ‘It is vital that this be accurate, Wilwarin,’ Bilbo had said after he had spent almost an hour puzzling over a single phrase, ‘because medicines do not just heal; they can do harm if wrongly applied. A wrong herb, an incorrect amount of elixir, a touch in the wrong place, can make the patient worse, even kill them.’

When Bilbo was satisfied that they had understood everything correctly, then they worked on writing it all out, each taking different parts, which they would refer to when making the final copies. That took a day, and then they spent one more reading the entire scroll aloud, Bilbo reading it in elvish and Frodo repeating the same part again in the common tongue while Bilbo listened carefully to ensure they had not left anything out. For the last two days, Frodo had scribed the final clean copy, Bilbo reading each line aloud for Frodo to write down. A few pages had been wrong or smeared and were discarded, but it had gone reasonably well. Producing the fair copy took much longer than their rough scribbles when writing it out, and it would be another two, perhaps three days of writing. Frodo also had left empty spaces at certain points in the pages where Bilbo was going to try to reproduce the illustrations in the scroll. ‘They won’t be as good,’ Bilbo said, ‘but they’ll be close enough that Gilda and Ula will be able to find the match in the scroll.’

They just had to finish this last bit on a particular tonic and they would be through for the day. Four more sentences and it was complete, with nary a squiggle or a blotch on the page. Frodo set down his pen, carefully wiped any trace of wet ink from his fingers and stood to stretch. He had been sitting still for over an hour and moving felt very good. Bilbo remained in his seat, rereading the potion recipe Frodo had just transcribed. After a few minutes, the old hobbit smiled and said, ‘This one.’

‘This one what, Bilbo?’

‘I just found something interesting.’ Bilbo chuckled, still smiling. ‘Got you, girl.’

‘Your other annoying habit, right after answering with a question, is making obscure comments about other people that you do not explain.’

‘Is that so?’ Bilbo grinned but didn’t look up from the paper.

Frodo laughed and dropped a kiss on Bilbo’s forehead as he walked past. ‘Yes, my dear and obnoxious old cousin, it is!’ Bilbo mock grumbled at him as he left the room.

It was getting towards supper time, so Frodo set some water on to warm for washing up. He knew that Bilbo would soon be in the kitchen to start cooking. His uncle’s appetite was still not back to even his usual abstemious level, and Frodo could see that Bilbo had lost weight since a month ago. Frodo had found that the best way to make Bilbo eat something was to rummage in the kitchen, which would inevitably bring the old hobbit in to start cooking something, and to stay a long time at the table eating slowly, which made Bilbo sit with him and pick at his own plate until he finished. The kettle had not yet started whistling by the time Bilbo came bustling in, shooing Frodo off to go wash up as he started retrieving things from the pantry. Bilbo was humming happily as Frodo mixed some hot water with the cold from the pump in an ewer and left to go do as he had been told.

It felt good to scrub off the day’s ink and the water was refreshing on his face. He grimaced when he looked in the mirror. There had not yet been time to go to the barber after they returned and his hair was unruly. He ran his hand through the curls at the back of his head to see if they were long enough that someone could tangle their fingers in them. They were. He could not help the shudder that went through him. A haircut was definitely in order, preferably tomorrow. Bilbo had been as good as his word, not that Frodo had doubted it, and had not so much as patted his head or ruffled his hair since their talk just over a week ago. He also had been careful never to grasp or knead Frodo’s shoulders as he once would have. Frodo was surprised at how much more pleasant it was to be close to Bilbo now that he did not have to put up with those kinds of touches. He ran a brush through his hair to avoid the feel of fingers and went back to the kitchen to keep Bilbo company while supper was cooked.

Bilbo was humming loudly and cheerfully as he checked pots on the stove. Frodo came up behind him and gave him a firm hug and a kiss on the cheek, then rested his chin on Bilbo’s shoulder for just a moment before taking a seat at the kitchen table to stay out of the other’s way. These hugs made Bilbo happy and he liked them, too. They were normal. It was a Baggins hug, not something sneaky a rat would do.

In a moment, there was a mug of ale and some bread and butter in front of him to tide him over until supper was ready. With a smile, Bilbo went back to his cooking. Frodo tore off a strip of dense crust from the slab of bread, spread a bit of butter on one end, folded it back on itself and took a bite. He liked the contrasting sensation of the chewy crust and the creamy sweet butter. Methodically, he pulled all the crust off, bit by bit, and ate it this way, washing down each bite with a swig of ale.

Initial hunger satisfied, Frodo looked around the kitchen. He decided that Bag End’s kitchen was the best he had been in. It was spacious and always smelled delicious. During the day, there would be something cooking in it, whether bubbling on the stove, baking in the oven, or sitting in the coals of the hearth. The ceiling was not too low and the lamp hooks were set in just the right places to make every counter bright. He thought about the kitchens they had been in over the last month. Aunt Nora’s was closest to this and smelled very similar. The kitchen at Fair Delving was very large and reminded him more of the kitchen in Brandy Hall, except that it had no doors out and was lower and darker. The entire downstairs of Fair Delving was a bit low and cramped for his tastes. Aunt Tilda’s kitchen (Frodo found he rather liked calling Tilda “Aunt” though he would never call Gun “Uncle”) was neatly kept but a bit plain and had a certain smoky scent to it. The thought of the kitchen at Granite Bank made him shudder again. He wondered how Odogrim had lived there for months without complaint. And without a decent meal. The memory of the one supper served to him there still left him feeling slightly ill.

Through all this, Bilbo had not stopped humming or cooking. Frodo watched the old hobbit putter about, never at rest, yet with no wasted motion. This onion was chopped, that pot stirred, a little bacon grease sizzled in a pan, cream poured over a dish with something in it and popped into the oven, a pinch of salt tossed into the pan followed by the onions, spinach was swished in a bowl of water to rid it of mud and sand, and so forth. Frodo knew there soon would be a delicious meal for them both. And that made him curious.

‘Uncle Bilbo?’

‘Hmm? Yes, lad?’

‘How did you learn to cook?’

‘Like I learn everything, Frodo, with much practice,’ was the cheery reply, though Bilbo did not look up from his pots.

‘But how did you even start? I don’t know any man who cooks like you. Maybe a big roast on one of the outdoor spits, but that’s mostly just making sure the meat gets turned and doesn’t burn. You actually cook.’

‘Well, that’s a good question, Frodo,’ Bilbo answered, pausing at his tasks. ‘Let me see, when did this start?’ He went back to work, but was no longer humming. Frodo waited. ‘I really didn’t cook anything until after I came back here to look after Father. Mother was at the Great Smials. Father was so busy with the Mayor’s duties and there was no one here to look after him, not since Grandmother Laura died in 1316. When I got here, I acted as his secretary and I put the smial in order. Our meals were, frankly, abysmal. I could see why he was so thin.’ Bilbo never looked up from the stove and his hands did not falter or pause as he talked. ‘Sometimes Aunt Linda – that’s Ula’s grandmother, Linda Baggins Proudfoot – she would bring us something or we would go to her and Bodo’s farm just this side of Bywater and we’d have a meal with them, but Father hated to impose. But what she cooked was very good, so I made a point of going to see her. Her daughter, Cousin Lina, had just married Alder Took, so Linda was feeling a bit lonely, and she was happy to teach me all the dishes that she knew Father liked because, well, those were the dishes her mother, Grandma Laura, had cooked and had taught her daughters to make. Like the potatoes in cream in the oven right now! She taught me to bake bread, properly cook fowl and roasts, cook potatoes in a hundred ways, make pies, stir up sauces and all sorts of tasty things. Then I just kept doing that until I got good at it. Father finally put some weight back on.’

This made Bilbo hum again and he did not say anything more so Frodo figured it was the end of the story. He could tell from the smells that things would soon be ready and went to the dry pantry to get table settings. They might be eating in the kitchen for now, but Bilbo still liked having the table set just so for their meals. He was about halfway done when Bilbo started talking again.

‘After Father died, I went to take care of Mother in the Great Smials, and the kitchens there are like those at Brandy Hall, except there are several and they are all much larger, so I really didn’t need to cook, but sometimes I would make something for her to try to cheer her up. Then Drogo got tired of not seeing us and hopped a wagon and brought himself to Tuckborough…’

‘Papa did what?’ Frodo asked in astonishment. Bilbo flashed him a grin over his shoulder.

‘He got tired of getting ordered about by Aunt Mira and Uncle Gorbadoc, so he walked up to Stock and sweet-talked his way onto a wagonload of something going west and showed up on the doorstep of the Great Smials the next day. Uncle Gorbadoc was furious with him, but Mother laughed and said he could stay.’

Frodo laughed at the story of his father’s audacity. ‘How old was he?’

‘About your age, more or less. Mother put me in charge of him because she said he’d keep me too busy keeping him out of trouble to get into any of my own, and she was almost right. So, he and I were always going somewhere and we were often here at Bag End because Mother didn’t want to leave it all shut up, so then I had to cook for him.’ Bilbo frowned and shook his head. ‘He was always thin, too. No one had been keeping a good eye on him.’

As things finished cooking Bilbo put it into serving bowls and platters. Frodo jumped up and took the dishes from him as they were filled and put them on the table. There were the lovely potatoes in cream, spinach well cooked with garlic and sprinkled with salt and vinegar, onions and carrots cooked in bacon grease until they were brown and tender, more slices of brown bread with honey as well as butter, and a roast that had bubbled in a clay pot with wine and mushrooms all day, so tender it fell apart at the touch of the big serving spoon. They both loaded their plates. Frodo dug in at once while Bilbo poked and pushed and prodded before taking a small bite of some of the roast.

‘After Mother died, Drogo and I moved here more or less permanently. I was always cooking for my rotten little tween cousin who would eat everything that didn’t eat him first.’ Bilbo gave Frodo an amused look and Frodo ate a huge bite of potatoes and smirked back at him. Bilbo’s voice became thoughtful, his look inward. ‘And that went on for some years.’ He looked at his plate and began eating very deliberately, carefully studying each forkful of food or each slice of bread before taking a bite. Frodo watched but did not say anything, not wanting to interrupt Bilbo’s thoughts or his appetite. ‘He was like a little burr sticking to my shirtsleeve, starting about the same age as you. After we came back here, he’d be down in Bywater every so often to see his father and siblings, but mostly he was here, at Bag End.’ Bilbo’s plate was mostly empty and Frodo’s was bare, so Frodo served himself another hunk of the roast and then held up spoonful of it for Bilbo, who held out his plate. It was quickly followed by a spoon of the potatoes and a bit of the spinach. ‘He liked potatoes.’ Frodo took a bite of those and nodded. ‘It was only by chance that he wasn’t here that night Gandalf and the dwarves showed up. He was in Bywater. I’d half expected him for supper. And then I went off and he wasn’t along the way, so I couldn’t tell him that I was going. He showed up for supper that night and there wasn’t any ready.’ Bilbo shook his head and chuckled. ‘That was the first thing he scolded me for when I finally got back. The dwarves had eaten everything in the smial except for some bread and eggs and he had nothing left for supper.’

Frodo looked at Bilbo with dismay. You left him! You walked through Bywater and left him there! He had always thought Bilbo was by himself by the time of his adventures. The last few bites on his plate lost their attraction and Frodo stood and started clearing the table. Bilbo ate the last bit on his own plate and helped. Frodo soon had the dishes scraped off and in hot water, scrubbing them clean while Bilbo rinsed and wiped them dry. When they were done, they went to the study for their evening pipes. Frodo prepared their pipes and took a seat in his chair, knowing Bilbo would sense his unease if he sat against him. For some time, Bilbo sat quietly, a smile at the edge of his mouth, thinking about something. Without looking up, he said, ‘I think you have a question for me, or maybe more than one, lad.’

Frodo looked at the old hobbit until Bilbo glanced in his direction. ‘You didn’t tell anyone where you were going?’ That got a guilty look.

‘Well, I didn’t know what to say. It was so… odd. I couldn’t really explain to myself why I thought I had to go. I did write a short letter to Gilda when we stopped at The Fat Badger that night. I think I said I was off to burgle a dragon and didn’t know when I’d be back.’ He snorted in amusement. ‘I went to rob a dragon and left one behind to guard my own lair!’

‘What? Uncle Bilbo, I don’t understand.’ Frodo was truly bewildered.

‘Your father, Drogo. His name means “dragon” or “dragon-like.” He certainly had to be, facing down the Sackville-Bagginses while I was gone and keeping them from stripping the place bare. All I had to deal with were Orcs! Were it not for him, there would have been nothing left. Uncle Gar helped him. Drogo made sure the law was followed, though he couldn’t stop Uncle Longo having me declared dead after only a year, when it should have been five.’ Bilbo was chuckling again.

This was not good. Frodo did not want Bilbo thinking of adventures, particularly of the kind that involved skipping town on a young cousin and not coming back for months on end, leaving that cousin to deal with the ruthless kin he had just spent the last month being introduced to. He wanted to stop all talk of adventures and leaving. ‘Will you teach me to cook?’

That made Bilbo give him his full attention. ‘Teach you to cook?’ Frodo nodded vigorously. ‘Yes, of course I will, if you wish to learn.’

‘I do! All the good things you know how cook, everything that your Aunt Linda taught you and you fed everyone with.’

‘Yes, Wilwarin, I will. Why do you want to learn?’

So I can take care of myself if you leave. ‘It seems a useful thing to know how to do.’ Frodo thought about how to make the conversation become more serious. ‘All our walking about, we’ve had so many different meals, it’s made me think about good cooking, mostly because of the bad cooking.’

Bilbo looked at Frodo critically. ‘Bell Gamgee’s not entirely wrong that you’re doing poorly. You’re much thinner than you were a month ago.’

‘So are you, so you teach me to cook and then we can have good meals.’ Frodo wrinkled his nose, remembering where this strange conversation had its start. ‘I never want to face a meal like that one supper at Granite Bank ever again!’

Bilbo drew on his pipe and stared into the cold hearth. ‘That, lad, is a greater problem than not knowing how to cook.’

‘I know. Even so, I can’t help but think if Odogrim had known something about cooking, it might have helped. He was blaming himself for the bad state of the food, but didn’t have an idea of how to fix it. He was so lost.’

The mention of Odogrim brought Bilbo’s attention back to him. ‘You’ve had a letter from him, yes?’ Frodo nodded. ‘What did he have to say, if I may ask?’

‘Just that he was startled we left so suddenly and apologized for any offense he may have given, which is strange because he didn’t do or say anything much while we were there. The good news is he will be going to Uncle Falco soon and will soon be out of that dreadful smial. He asked to stop here on the way when he goes to Nobottle.’

‘Hmm.’ Bilbo did not leave off studying Frodo. ‘May I ask a prying question?’

Frodo wondered if it were perhaps better to talk about adventures. ‘Yes, go ahead.’

‘You don’t seem angry with Odogrim. Not the way you are with Bargo or even Tom.’

‘That’s not a question.’ Bilbo shrugged. ‘I’m not angry with Tom, not anymore.’ Frodo thought a bit. ‘I was never really angry with Odogrim, I guess. He was never as mean as the others. After his mother died, I felt sorry for him. He was nicer to me after that and sometimes made Bargo stop being so mean. I can’t say he’s a friend, or even that I much like him, but I don’t hate him. I am glad he’s going to Uncle Falco and Aunt Nora. He’ll be better for it.’

‘Yes, Frodo, he will be, and that is for the good. And if he is respectful of you and tries to be a good fellow, then it would be wrong not to show him kindness in return.’ Bilbo puffed his pipe a few times, then nodded. ‘Let Odogrim know that he is welcome to visit us on his way to stay with Falco.’

Bag End, Late Morning, 01 Thrimidge, 1390

Frodo stood still and let Bilbo fuss over him, neatening his waistcoat, adjusting the drape of the shirt sleeves, making sure his braces were straight and that he was the picture of a proper young gentlehobbit. His hair was short and neat as they had both gone to the barber the previous afternoon. Cob Cleaver, the barber, was full of gossip about the small doings of the goodfolk of Hobbiton (and Overhill and Bywater, for that matter), though always told with a kind heart and a reasonably restrained tongue. Someone had proposed to their sweetheart and there was to be a wedding come Afterlithe, several fair bairns had entered the world since late Rethe, a few fellows had too much ale and not enough sense, some wayward chickens had been caught before a fox appeared, and the dam at the end of Bywater pool was in need of repair. Bilbo asked a few roundabout questions concerning the dam and had spent the late afternoon writing letters to various people to ensure that the repairs were made this summer.

Yesterday morning they had taken apart their copy room and returned it to its proper condition for dining. They were to have guests today and it would not do to have Bag End look anything but respectable while they were here. When he and Bilbo had gone to the barber yesterday, Missus Gamgee and Daisy had descended upon the smial, dusting, sweeping and scrubbing to make it look its best, while Mister Gamgee had tended the garden.

When Bilbo finished his inspection of Frodo, he stood still for the same finishing touches in return. He was wearing not just a silk waistcoat but also a fine coat, and had his best cufflinks closing the crisp, clean linen cuffs of his impeccably tailored shirt. Only his lean frame detracted from an overall distinguished appearance. Bilbo’s stance was as upright as ever, but there was barely any curve to his belly, the waistcoat was loose, and his belt was fastened a notch tighter than usual. It made him look taller, not that Bilbo was not already taller than most hobbits.

A tap at the door let them know their first guest had arrived. Bilbo gave Frodo a look and a wry smile.

‘Ready, Wilwarin?’

‘Not really, but too late for second thoughts.’ That got a grin and a waggle of eyebrows, and Bilbo led the way to the door.

‘Good morning, Cousin Ponto! How good it is to see you,’ Bilbo cheerfully greeted the visitor. The hobbit at the door looked a bit daunted by Bilbo’s appearance, since he was dressed in much plainer clothes and was dusty from the road.

‘Good morning, Uncle Bilbo, Cousin Frodo,’ Ponto replied, shaking Bilbo’s outstretched hand, but also bobbing his head in a half-bow. ‘I put my pony in the field across the way, if that’s all right.’

‘Yes, yes, of course it is,’ Bilbo assured him. ‘Do come in. I expect the others any minute. In fact, I think I see them down the way. Frodo, would you please show your cousin in and get him settled? Thank you, lad.’ Frodo smiled and gestured for Ponto to follow him into the parlor, asking him how his trip from Needlehole was and if he would like anything to drink. Ponto did not say much, his attention being given to gawking at the beautiful interior of the smial. That’s right, Bilbo visits others. He doesn’t invite people here. Ponto had probably never been in Bag End before. Voices in the front hall let them know that more guests had arrived and a few minutes later, the troop of them joined them in the parlor.

The meeting of the Baggins clan had begun.

Frodo recognized fewer than half of them. Next to Bilbo was Otho and they were both speaking to a somewhat portly hobbit with greying temples. Falco and Fargo were energetically talking to two younger hobbits whose broad shoulders and sun-burned noses spoke of work outdoors, while an older hobbit who looked a great deal like Bilbo was talking to Uncle Dudo and three other younger hobbits who all looked very familiar. While the other hobbits were all more formally dressed than Ponto, none of them approached Bilbo’s level of elegance. The hobbit speaking to Uncle Dudo looked over at Frodo and came up short, staring intently at him. Bilbo noticed the break in conversation and started to walk over. ‘Odo, may I intro…’

The other hobbit strode over to Frodo, hand extended. ‘You must be Frodo.’ He grabbed Frodo’s hand in a firm grip, taking his shoulder with his other hand. ‘Pleased to meet you, son, I’m your...’ The hobbit stopped for a second, thinking, then half-turned to Bilbo. ‘Bilbo, what am I?’

‘A hobbit, though opinion varies.’ This got a laugh all around and a big grin from the hobbit who still had Frodo’s hand in a very firm handshake.

‘No, Baggins, am I uncle, cousin, what? I can’t keep these trees straight. What does he call me?’

‘Either will do, “uncle” is probably best. I’d just call you “stupid” and leave it at that,’ Bilbo said with a grin, and the rest roared, including the one being teased.

‘And Sage would agree with you!’ the other chortled, before giving his attention back to Frodo. ‘Let’s try this again lad. I’m your uncle, Odo Proudfoot, and these are my boys, your cousins Olo, Bolo, Ulo and Baldo.’ Each man smiled and waved a hand at Frodo as he was named. ‘I know you’ve already met my daughter, Ula.’

‘I’m glad to finally meet you, uncle, cousins,’ Frodo said, understanding why the four brothers looked familiar; they all resembled Ula in some way. Their father did not leave off his close inspection, which was becoming a bit unsettling. Odo shook his head a bit.

‘Ula said you were a little thing, but you’re tall enough.’ Odo gave his shoulder a firm squeeze. ‘You’re just skinny, like your Da.’ The older hobbit finally let go and looked over at Bilbo. ‘It’s like seeing Drogo again.’

‘What did I tell you?’ Uncle Falco said, with a smile. Frodo tried to control his surprise. You think I look just like my father. Like Bilbo says I do. Bilbo himself was beaming. ‘When they came to see me and Nora month before last, I half expected the pair of them to start with the pranks.’ That got a guffaw from Odo.

‘You needn’t remind me about Drogo’s pranks! I was on the receiving end of far too many of them.’ Odo gave Frodo another clap on the shoulder. ‘Good to have you here, lad.’ Odo shot a look over at Uncle Dudo, and while his smile was wide, his look was sharp. ‘Just like your brother, yes?’

‘I couldn’t really say,’ Dudo smoothly replied. ‘I didn’t see as much of my brother as the rest of you did. Given his penchant for pranks, I should probably consider myself lucky.’ This got a laugh and some assents, but Frodo could tell Dudo’s answer irritated Bilbo. Dudo gave Frodo a smile and a nod of his head. ‘Frodo.’

‘Uncle Dudo,’ Frodo replied brightly, with a cheer he really did not feel. The other younger hobbit who had not yet been introduced leaned over and offered his hand.

‘Frodo, I am very glad to meet you, even if a prank is headed my way,’ the fellow said with a pleasant smile. ‘I’m your cousin, Griffo Boffin.’

‘Very pleased to meet you, cousin,’ Frodo answered, immediately liking him. There was something forthright about him, and Frodo was reminded of Bard and Fred Bolger.

‘Frodo, lad, come here,’ Bilbo said, waving him over to where he stood with Otho and the other older hobbit. ‘Pasco, this is my nephew, Drogo’s son, Frodo Baggins. Frodo, this is the Mayor, our cousin Pasco Goodbody. He’s your Uncle Gis’ brother-in-law.’

‘Pleased to meet you, Mayor Goodbody,’ Frodo said pleasantly with a bob of his head. The other held out his hand.

‘Nice to meet you, lad. I’ve been hearing good things about you from these fellows here.’

Not from Otho, I’ll wager. ‘I’m honored, sir.’ Frodo suddenly realized that Otho had not brought Lotho. Too bad, it would have been an interesting contrast. Frodo had no doubt that he would make a better impression on almost anyone than his loathsome cousin. He smiled at Otho as he had to Dudo and nodded his head. ‘Uncle Otho.’

Otho politely nodded with a slight smile and turned back to the Mayor. ‘As I was saying, Pasco, the leaf trade has been growing steadily for several years, and…’ Frodo caught Bilbo’s eye, who simply motioned slightly with his chin to indicate Frodo should return to the other guests. Griffo seemed a good sort so Frodo went back to him and was soon chatting with this new cousin, Ponto and Ula’s eldest brother, Olo. Talk was cheerful and centered on the excellent news that both Griffo and Olo and their wives were expecting children to be borne this summer. After almost an hour of conversation, during which time Frodo spoke with the rest of Ula’s brothers and with Cousin Fargo, Bilbo said it was time for lunch.

The dining table was barely large enough to seat all fourteen of them and Frodo wondered how thirteen dwarves, Bilbo and a wizard had crowded into this space. Bilbo sat at the head of the table and Frodo at the foot. Bilbo put Pasco at his right hand as the guest of honor, since he was the Mayor, and Griffo Boffin at his left as the other clan head at the table. Otho was Frodo’s guest at his right hand, as he was the next highest-ranking hobbit at the table, and Dudo sat to his left, being Frodo’s uncle. Bilbo had not particularly liked that seating arrangement, but there was no other way to seat their guests without insult. Odo and Falco sat midway down each side with their sons and Ponto ranging between them. Frodo was glad that Fargo was just to the other side of Dudo. Bilbo stood and poured wine or beer for their guests as they preferred, then called to Missus Gamgee in the kitchen that they were ready for lunch. Soon, she and Daisy were bringing in platters of delicious food, placing them along the table so the men could help themselves and leaving more filled platters on the sideboard for when the first were emptied.

The meal was more pleasant than Frodo had expected it would be. Otho did not address a single word to him, but was otherwise polite and spoke quite a bit across the table to Fargo and Falco. To Frodo’s surprise, Dudo chatted with him through most of the meal, with an occasional interruption by Fargo and Ulo, who sat just past Otho. His uncle asked him about what he had seen on his walk about the Shire, where they had stayed, and who he had met. ‘Griffo will be staying with myself and your aunt for a week,’ Dudo said, ‘and I hope you and Bilbo will come down to Bywater for supper at least once while he’s here.’

‘Yes, we shall,’ Frodo assured him.

‘Tulip and I have seen so little of you, nephew, with all of your going about,’ Dudo said. ‘I have come up here a few times, but have always found you and Bilbo gone for the day, or even for a few weeks.’

‘Uncle Bilbo likes to walk about, and he wants me to be familiar with the ways about here so I’ll know them and not be lost,’ Frodo replied, a bit surprised to hear that Dudo had come to call and he did not know of it. Perhaps you’ve judged him too quickly, Baggins. ‘I am sorry we’ve missed you.’

‘Well, there will be much time in which to remedy that, Frodo,’ Dudo said with a smile. ‘You have been too long separated from your kin.’

‘Truly,’ added Fargo, who had been listening to the last of this exchange, ‘you should have been back with us sooner. Now you’re where you belong, with Uncle Bilbo.’

‘It’s a start.’ Dudo glanced up the table at Bilbo, who was talking merrily to Pasco about a wedding where the Mayor had recently officiated, and something in the look made Frodo uneasy. He looked away and ended up looking at Otho, who obviously had also been paying attention to the conversation. Otho’s expression was amused.

‘Yes, a start,’ he said, and turned his attention to his plate.

Much to Frodo’s relief, Bilbo called an end to the lunch a few minutes later, and the group went back to the parlor. Tea and pipeweed were distributed and the hobbits settled in for some serious discussion. Bilbo had carefully seated himself before the large window so that the light would be behind him. Frodo sat across from him and near the door where he could more easily leave the room to fetch anything a guest might need and where he could watch the faces of those to either side of Bilbo.

They started much as the meeting with Odogar had begun, with Bilbo asking for their news and observations. Odo and his sons spoke of the lands around Hobbiton and news from the Road between Waymeet and Frogmorton. They said the weather had turned a bit too warm in late Astron for their liking. ‘The blossoms on the fruit trees fell sooner than they should have,’ Olo said with a small frown. ‘They should only be ending in the next week, but most are gone already. Orchard harvests will be light in mid-Shire come autumn.’

‘Aye, we saw the same in the Yale,’ Griffo added. ‘Last year was better than usual, so there’s a lot of preserved fruit, but fresh will be a bit thin after harvest.’

‘The weather, this is what affected the blooms? Nothing wrong with the trees themselves?’ asked Bilbo.

‘Yes, Uncle,’ Olo said. ‘Just the weather.’

Aside from the fruit trees, nothing seemed amiss at the center of the Shire. Griffo reported that planting had gone well from the Yale down through the Marish and around the curve of the Woody End. ‘Farmer Maggot came up to Stock a few weeks past and said the dirt was happy all along the river lands. So, signs are good.’

‘What of the Grey Riders? The horsemen who come through on the River Road every so often?’ Frodo asked.

‘They’ve been seen twice since Yule, Cousin,’ Griffo said.

‘Has anyone seen where they go once they get to the end of the River Road?’ Bilbo drew deeply on his pipe, eyes keen.

Griffo shook his head, ‘None that I speak to. They come over the bridge just as day fades and ride south into the dark.’

‘They head to Sarn Ford on the South Road,’ Otho said. That got Bilbo’s attention and he motioned for Otho to continue. ‘Southfarthing Bounders have seen them three times in the last two years. They follow paths through the lower farthing and cross the Bounds about four leagues east of the South Road. If they come from the north, over the Brandywine Bridge, it stands to reason they’re heading for the ford so they can head back north, probably to the Breelands.’

Frodo was reasonably impressed with Otho’s account. Bilbo was nodding thoughtfully. ‘Yes,’ he said after a few moments, ‘that would make sense, but how are they crossing Thistle Brook and Shirebourn? There’s no good fords on them and the bridges are all up in the hills. Foot bridges, too, not big enough for a horse. They’re too deep to ford after they join, unless you swim.’

‘I heard tell there’s a deep ford past Willowbottom,’ Griffo offered. ‘Too deep for most ponies and too strong for a hobbit without a rope, but a big horse…’ he shrugged.

‘Pasco,’ Bilbo said to the Mayor, ‘what about you send a Bounder or a Sherriff off to Willowbottom and see if anyone there’s seen these Big People on the horses.’ It was not really a request, more of a command, and Pasco nodded eagerly.

‘I’ll do that, Bilbo. I should have some news by the Fair.’

‘Good. Otho, what else of Southfarthing?’

It amused Frodo that the mayor of the Shire was taking his orders from Uncle Bilbo. Well, he should. Bilbo knows more about these things than Pasco does. Frodo had a sense that Bilbo would not be satisfied until he had tramped down to Willowbottom himself and looked at the putative ford. We’ll probably be going to see this path over the Bounds, too. He found himself looking forward to this new walk.

‘Well, a warm spring may not be so good for fruit trees, but the fields of Southfarthing like it.’ Otho started talking in detail about the condition of Southfarthing, with Bilbo paying rapt attention. Much as he disliked the man, Frodo had to admit he spoke authoritatively and intelligently about crops, roads and the general condition of the lower farthing. Fields were productive, livestock thrived, roads were a bit muddy, particularly between Whitwell and Sackville, but there was much traffic on them and most would be repaired as soon as planting was done and the weather dry. There were more Big People coming up from the south than in years past, but they were still rare and less common than those from Bree.

‘Anything… unusual or out of sorts?’ Bilbo asked when Otho had finished his report.

Otho nodded. ‘Yes. Some leaf fields near the curve of the Brandywine, they have circles in them where naught will grow and the circles get larger by a step or two every year. Also, there are a few seeps in the low areas south and east of Longbottom. They are like brackish swamps, not very big, but they smell and nothing lives in them. A few more show up every year.’ Otho did not seem very concerned by these things he described.

Falco and Fargo had nothing to add about Westfarthing from what they had spoken of in Rethe save that all continued to be well.

Frodo caught Bilbo’s eye across the room and he gave a slight nod. ‘Here is what Uncle Bilbo and I saw on our tramp through the north.’ He spoke as he had at Fair Delving to Uncle Rufus and his cousins, describing the fields with their dead patches, the stands of withered trees, the blighted livestock, and the increased number of Big People wandering through. He did not name the Parting – that was for Bilbo to explain. Odo and his sons exchanged looks as Frodo’s account went on, and Falco and Fargo were nodding, wearing matching dour expressions. Griffo and Ponto looked worried, Pasco just looked confused and Otho did not even pretend to pay attention, pulling something out of a waistcoat pocket and reading it. Uncle Dudo kept glaring at Bilbo as though he were the cause of the bad news. When Frodo ended Bilbo gave him a slight smile and a nod, letting him know he had done a good job.

‘And this, cousins, is what I deem the most important news we will discuss today,’ Bilbo said quietly, his expression sober. ‘Why are things failing? The first I heard of this was the rotted root harvest of last fall.’ Otho glanced briefly at Bilbo, but did not leave off reading his letter. They rest paid close attention. ‘After I got to Buckland, I spoke several times with the Master and the Mistress, and they told me of things that seemed well on the surface, but were wrong underneath. Rory said the very land itself was afraid.’

‘In Buckland, they also talk about trees coming alive and of ghosts,’ Otho said in a bored voice, not looking up, ‘and other superstitious nonsense. Next thing you know, they’ll be seeing dragons.’ At that, he gave Bilbo an amused look. ‘They entertain all sort of fancies in the forest’s shadow.’

‘And do their fancies create poisoned land in north and south?’ Frodo challenged. ‘What of the seeps in the south?’

Otho went on without acknowledging Frodo’s words. ‘Most of what you talk about, Bilbo, can be explained by a good farmer as poor husbandry. You have to tend things well and do your duties to them properly if you wish your lands to bear. As for the poor root harvest, some badly timed cold, wet weather explains it all. No need to look for shadows.’

‘And some would call the Fell Winter a bit more snow than usual,’ Falco said with some asperity. ‘It killed hundreds and maimed more. Nothing’s been quite right since then.’

‘I call myself a good farmer, Otho. There’s few better farmers in the Shire than Rory Brandybuck,’ Odo tossed in, ‘and no better healer than Mistress Menegilda. That’s why I sent Ula to be trained by her. If those two say the land’s afraid, I believe them.’

‘What is wrong, Uncle Bilbo?’ Griffo asked after giving Otho an irritated glance. ‘What’s the land afraid of?’

‘It is as though the Winter is working its way back in through the very bones of the earth, keeping life from taking root in wood, field and womb, and keeping it all in a state of barren waiting.’ Bilbo said this without heat, refusing to contest with Otho. He gave Frodo a stern look that the boy knew was an order to keep his lip buttoned and he nodded fractionally to let Bilbo know he understood. ‘It is slow and small, but it is also persistent and it spreads. There are people in the north who say they first saw signs of it almost thirty years ago. It became greater about ten years ago, and more again in the last two. It is a parting of life and form.’ Bilbo’s look became sharp and he turned towards the Mayor. ‘Pasco, you’ve been mayor for nigh on twenty years. Have you really not seen or heard anything of this on your walks about the Shire? As mayor, you go about everywhere, right? Tell me at least that you’re aware of the greater trespass of the Big People on our lands.’

‘I, I, I…’ Pasco stammered, red in the face and disconcerted by Bilbo’s sudden interrogation of his acts. ‘I… don’t… going up north, that’s… long, far trips are not… it’s not the mayor’s tasks to be digging around in the dirt! I have to see to Messengers and weddings!’

‘The proper concern of the mayor is the well-being of the Shire, as well as Messengers and Bounders and such. And the Bounders are concerned with Big People. Or they should be.’ Bilbo was not giving any ground to Pasco.

Falco spoke quickly while Pasco was fuming. ‘If things have been happening so subtly, Bilbo, it’s no wonder that normal observation would miss it, especially if the signs are mostly at the Bounds or in Buckland. I’ve seen naught where I am, nor have I heard anything out of the ordinary. There are few with your keen eye to spy out an odd patch, and fewer yet who have seen the dark threats beyond our borders. Things may not have been quite right for a while, yet it’s not always possible to say what’s wrong.’

‘If you can’t say what’s wrong, then perhaps there is nothing wrong.’ Otho laughed a little and shook his head. ‘If you wish to scare yourself with shadows, go ahead. That’s not what I’m here to talk about.’

‘Yes, you’re quite right, Otho. We should get to business,’ Bilbo said briskly. ‘So here it is. Odo, Dudo, Griffo and Pasco, I don’t know how much of this you know, so ask whatever questions you have. Last Yule, I spent time trying to keep Odogar Bolger and Paladin Took from using the failed root harvest to make themselves a great deal of coin. I helped the Master and the Thain get their extra roots distributed early on to prevent any panic or hoarding, though a good deal of what got carted in from Southfarthing was not in much better condition than the rotted crops in Eastfarthing and was only fit for pigs. Odogar showed up at the Buckland Wintermark celebration and proposed to me that he and I should create a new farthing made up of pieces of East-, South- and Westfarthing, and have it under my control. The reason he gave, as far as he could state a reason, was to break the hold of the Chubbs, the Tooks, and the Brandybucks upon the Road. Evidently, his answer to how to handle a poor root harvest in Eastfarthing is to sell coal to Bree.’

Bilbo paused a moment to see if there were any questions. Falco and Odo were exchanging a knowing look. So, you two have been talking. This reassured Frodo; these were the uncles he trusted. Griffo was giving Dudo a curious look. Dudo has told you a different version of the story. Otho’s no doubt. Pasco looked alarmed and Otho looked amused. Dudo was glaring at both Bilbo and Otho. The younger hobbits were exchanging looks, but seemed content to let the elders argue this out.

When no one spoke, Bilbo went on. ‘Odogar asked me to speak to the people in this room and get a sense of whether you would support this. I thought it was an idiotic idea from the start and waited to see if he would come to his senses. I then began getting word that he was in communication with Pal and Otho on something. I’ve spoken with a number of you, as well as with Rufus Burrows and his kin, and I have spoken to Odogar. I told him I would not support him in this, and asked about his dealings with Pal and Otho. He acknowledged that he didn’t think I would help him and so was working with them as well. He couldn’t explain why he was doing so, and I hope that Otho will be able to enlighten us all as to that part of the story.’

‘I will, after you’re done, Bilbo,’ Otho said amiably.

‘Very good.’ Bilbo though a moment and sighed. ‘What I saw at Granite Bank was a very sick-at-heart hobbit, still grieving the loss of his wife, and consumed by greed. I believe Pal is manipulating him for his own purposes. I told Odogar I would no longer pretend to have any interest in what he was attempting, that I thought it wrong, doing nothing to resolve some valid complaints about Rory being high-handed over the Marish, and that he should stop what he is doing. If any of you have any interest in continuing with this foolish plan of Odogar’s, then you will need to work with Otho, as I wash my hands of the entire mess.’ Bilbo gave Otho a bright smile. ‘I am curious to hear what you’ve been doing in Whitwell for the last few months. I hear you spend quite a bit of time there now meeting with Pal and Odovacar.’

‘Yes, I do,’ Otho said in an equally pleasant tone. Frodo could hardly believe the fellow’s nerve. ‘I mostly agree with Bilbo’s judgment of this. It is a mess. Odogar is consumed with greed and he cannot see what he is doing. He did very poorly with the root harvest, and it probably would have been a disaster without Bilbo’s intervention.’ Frodo looked at Bilbo who was listening carefully, hands steepled before his face. He kept his eyes on the old hobbit, trying to discern Bilbo’s judgment of the words. ‘What Pal did, offering to sell roots when Odogar and Car asked him to, wasn’t wrong, though Odogar’s decision to ask him and not, say, Rufus, was poorly done,’ Bilbo nodded his head fractionally, ‘but it became a battle between Pal and Rum, and they lost sight of what good they could do in their inane contest with each other.’ Bilbo nodded in truth. ‘I became aware of this when I got a letter from Pal just before Yule asking me what you were doing in the middle of this, Bilbo, and also asking if I could get you out of it, but you weren’t here. You were wandering about, as usual.’ That made Bilbo snort in amusement. ‘I’ll wager you’ve spent more time in Buckland than all your days in Bywater.’

Bilbo’s eyes narrowed slightly but he just grinned. ‘Nicer company.’ This earned a few chuckles and Frodo spared a look at Otho. He looked a little annoyed at Bilbo’s jibe but not particularly angry.

‘By the time you returned to civilized lands, the contest between Thain and Heir was over and roots had been provided.’ Bilbo’s face was bland and he looked thoughtful. That’s not true. The root problems lasted until Rethe. Are you lying or do you really not understand what was going on? Frodo thought a lie was most likely.

‘So, that’s what has happened,’ Falco interjected. ‘What are you doing now, Otho? You’re down in Whitwell quite a bit.’ Bilbo smiled sweetly and cocked his head at his cousin’s question.

‘Making sure Odogar can’t do any more harm, and that means getting as much of Eastfarthing out of his grasp as possible.’ Bilbo’s smile faded and he nodded his head. So, you collude with Pal to rob Odogar of half his farthing, and you want Bilbo to do it for you. Stealing another treasure from a dragon. ‘The challenge is to get Odogar to split the farthing at the only logical location, which is along the Water. He wants to keep to the Road to himself. What Odogar believes will happen, that parts of West- and Southfarthing will come with that portion, that won’t happen. There is no possibility that Pal will cede a square foot of Southfarthing for any reason.’

Odo shifted around in his seat. ‘All right, I’ll bite. Why should any of this happen? Odogar’s old. Older than me. Why is there any call to break up anything? We just all promise to keep an eye on him, stop any foolishness before it starts, just like Bilbo did over the roots, and let him live out the rest of his befuddled life. There can’t be that much left to it.’

‘Because I don’t trust Pal.’ That made Bilbo’s eyebrows go up for a moment before his look became bland again. ‘He is as or more greedy than Odogar. What Pal wants to do is fold everything south of the Stock Road into Southfarthing, and he’ll use the root harvest to argue for it. That is what he will present at the Free Fair. What’s most disturbing to me is that he maintains that Rum will support this annexation, but only if there is also a push west to the Whitwell Road and up to Waymeet, so that all of the Tooklands are part of Southfarthing.’

Amid the exclamations of astonishment and outrage, Bilbo raised an eyebrow and fractionally shook his head, a ghost of a smile on his lips. No. That’s not what Pal is saying. Or perhaps he has, but that is not possible. Frodo tried to remember what he had heard Bilbo say of either the Thain or Pal. They hate each other. They would not agree. If one wanted something, the other would spoil it out of spite.

‘And what makes either of them think that Wilcar Chubb will simply stand by and let his farthing be cut up that way?’ Falco demanded. Bilbo nodded slightly.

‘Because he’s Pal’s brother-in-law and Adalmira is pushing hard for this,’ Otho replied. ‘He’ll object until he gets tired of the argument, then he’ll allow it just to get peace in his smial. It’s not that much and it’s not like the Tooklands pay him any mind as it is.’ Frodo saw Bilbo shrug slightly. True. ‘To keep this from happening, we need to remove temptation by taking the portion of Eastfarthing Odogar is offering. Don’t let either of them have it.’

About the room, Frodo saw some heads nodding. Bilbo simply looked amused. Otho seemed to take heart at the agreement and went on. ‘In truth, Westfarthing is too large and Wilcar knows it. It could stand to be reapportioned, but that conversation has to happen with Wilcar. What is very certain is Southfarthing cannot be allowed to grow larger. Eastfarthing is probably fine as it is, in truth, but needs to be run by someone who is in his right mind. Pasco, we need the mayor’s support for this.’

‘Yes, yes, of course,’ the Mayor said, nodding vigorously, ‘this needs to happen and soon, and…’

Bilbo broke out laughing, slowly clapping his hands. ‘Otho, you have outdone yourself!’ He sat back in his chair, chuckling and shaking his head. ‘Oh, my, the selflessness with which you and Pal work together to relieve us of Odogar’s folly.’ In a second, all mirth was gone. ‘Here is the real problem. There is no agreement among thieves. I’ve listened to every argument, not just yours, and they are all the same. There is only division over how to divide the spoils, not an idea of how to solve the real divisions. Quit trying to take advantage of one person’s greed and grief to advance your own.’

‘Really, Bilbo? That’s all you see? We should just leave Odogar to rule his farthing into ruin?’ Otho shot back.

‘It will be Car soon enough, as I told Rufus. And if Pal is being as avaricious as you say – and I do not doubt you are reporting his plans correctly, though you perhaps underestimate the depths of his duplicity – then the last thing to do is to stir it up with seizing things that are not yours.’

‘Says the hobbit who stole a dragon’s treasure,’ Otho sarcastically replied, making Bilbo laugh again. ‘And what if Car is no improvement on his sire?’

Bilbo gave Otho a stern look. ‘Then the free folk of Eastfarthing will need to select a new headman. That is their decision to make, not ours, as your cousin Rudibard lectured me but a few weeks past.’

‘Seems to me, Bilbo, that the free folk could do a lot worse than to pick a new headman,’ said Odo, ‘and they could not do much better than to pick you.’

‘Which is what Rufus and I keep trying to get into that thick skull of his,’ Falco added.

‘And with the Mayor’s support, it would be the least disruptive option,’ Otho said. Bilbo gave him a disbelieving look. ‘Yes, Bilbo, I am arguing that you should be in charge of Eastfarthing. Preferably the whole thing, but if nothing else the lower half, to keep Took mischief and Bolger madness to a minimum.’

No. I will not participate in this.’ Bilbo’s voice was firm. ‘If one of you wishes to volunteer to do this great deed, go right ahead. I shan’t stop any of you. I told you at the start, I wash my hands of the entire thing.’

Odo shook his head. ‘It won’t work without you, Bilbo. It’s more than just being the clan head. It needs to be you. People know you may be as mad as the day is long, but you do what’s right.’

‘Thank you, I think,’ Bilbo said with a grin, but quickly sobered. ‘Then it won’t be. I will have naught to do with this.’

‘You told Rufus you would, if you got enough support,’ Otho challenged.

Frodo was getting very confused. Why does Otho want Bilbo to be even more powerful? Bilbo shook his head in exasperation and stood. ‘First of all, that was a joke. The joke was that if Rufus could get the entire Shire to agree to it, then I’d do as he asked…’

‘Most of them will be at the Fair,’ Pasco said cheerily, ‘We can ask them, then.’

‘…and I have already said I want nothing more to do with this plan. If you want a farthing so badly Otho, then do what you need to win over their assent. This meeting is at an end. You now are informed of where each other stands and very much where I do. Make your choices accordingly.’

Otho shook his head in disgust. ‘You will go racing off into the wild without a second thought to go win back a kingdom for some dwarves. Why won’t you do the same for Hobbits? You don’t even have to go anywhere to do that!’ With an aggravated sigh, he turned and stalked out. Pasco vacillated between staying and running after Otho and finally gave Bilbo a bob of the head and said, ‘I must be going!’ and dashed after Otho. Bilbo walked out of the parlor and into the front hall at a more sedate pace, the rest trailing after. Dudo and Griffo were nearest to him when he opened the door.

‘I do apologize, cousins, for the rather abrupt end to our otherwise enjoyable day,’ Bilbo said not looking or sounding the slightest bit apologetic. Griffo held out his hand.

‘Well, I can’t say I’d not rather be answering to you, Uncle Bilbo, than to old Odogar, but I do think this is all a right mess and probably best not to stir it up any more.’

‘That is the truth, Griffo,’ Bilbo allowed, and gave his cousin a hug. ‘Look for me and Frodo later this summer. We will come to visit you in return and perhaps get to hold a new cousin. Now, isn’t that a nice thought!’ Griffo agreed that it was.

Dudo stepped forward and shook Bilbo’s hand. ‘Thank you for your hospitality, cousin. I shall be very demanding and require you and Frodo to be my guest within the week, for Griffo is staying for a few more days and you should visit again before he must go home.’

‘We will!’ Bilbo assured him.

Dudo gave Frodo a hug. ‘Don’t keep your aunt waiting too long, young man!’ Dudo gently scolded, ruffling Frodo’s hair. Frodo steeled himself not to flinch away.

After Dudo and Griffo set off, Odo and Falco shooed their sons and Ponto out the door before them, resulting in a long line of handshakes, hugs, kissed cheeks and punched shoulders before the six younger hobbits left to go help Ponto catch and saddle his pony. The three older cousins looked at each other and laughed.

‘Otho never changes, does he?’ Falco said, shaking his head.

‘No, he never will,’ Bilbo answered.

‘So determined to have his way, he’ll even do you a good turn, Bilbo,’ Odo teased.

Bilbo scowled and shook his head, ‘There is no good in any part of it, and even less truth.’

Odo nodded. ‘If you’re walking down to Bywater, you and the lad stop by and we can have a serious talk about this, whatever you call it, with the land…’

‘The Parting.’

‘…that. You’re right that news was most important. Otho has no sense of such things.’

‘That’s another thing Rufus and I have been talking about,’ Falco offered, ‘and that’s the main reason I’m not going to give up on the idea of you being in charge of things. Maybe not as a farthing head, but as a new mayor.’

‘Pasco isn’t going to give up his post any more than Odogar will relinquish his farthing.’

‘But you’ll consider it?’ Falco pressed.

Bilbo hesitated, then shook his head again. ‘I do things my own way. If we can get Pasco to listen, that will be enough. I should not have been so sharp with him. Now he’ll dig in his heels and listen more to Otho.’

‘Well, Cousin Pasco will be riding back to Michel Delving with me and Fargo the next two days. I think we can talk a bit sense into him.’ Falco gave Bilbo a long look. ‘I think you need to talk to Wilcar directly.’

‘You’ve been talking too much to Rufus,’ Bilbo scolded, but smiled.

Falco shook his head. ‘No, I know what Rufus is pushing for, and you’ll not do it, so I shan’t ask again. If you change your mind, we’ll all know it. We need Wilcar to listen about the Parting, separate from this farthing nonsense. He has a sense of the land and he’ll understand what you mean. There may be no prying fools out of their chairs, but that doesn’t mean we can’t walk around them.’

Odo sighed and crossed his arms. ‘Was Otho telling the truth about Pal’s designs on grabbing Eastfarthing? Sounds a bit outlandish.’

‘More outlandish than Odogar handing over half of his own to me?’ Bilbo asked. Odo chuckled and shook his head. ‘I don’t think Pal would have come up with it on his own, but once said, I’m sure he’s all for it.’ Bilbo looked away, thinking. ‘Yes, we’ll need to get a few more people together at the Fair. It’s time for some real work. We’ll need Rory and Rum.’

‘Well, I can see the Master, but Rum?’ Odo did not look convinced and Falco was shaking his head.

‘There are plenty who know the land, who can sense the earth and plants, but animals are also being affected. And hobbits. I have… knowledge of a few things I may not yet speak of. Do you, either of you, know anyone who knows animals better than Rum?’ They shook their heads. ‘The best I know of are Rory and his younger son, Mac, and they are not as good. Rum can get any animal to do what he wants. He just looks at the beast and it does his bidding.’

Odo gave Bilbo an unreadable look. ‘And that’s kind of the problem, Bilbo.’

Bilbo was quiet for a minute, studying the other two. ‘I once watched Rum tame a horse. It was an unruly brute, but in less than an hour he had it following his commands, as docile as can be. I asked him how he had tamed it so quickly. He said there are only two kinds of animals; those who you tell to do something and those who you ask. Those you tell can be ordered to do anything for they cannot order themselves, and they will serve any master. They desire to be ordered about. Those you must ask will be loyal, for they are in command of their own hearts and obey out of love. A true master always knows the difference, and treats the animal he faces accordingly.’ He gave them each an embrace. ‘We will talk more another day.’

They bade Bilbo and Frodo farewell, called out to their sons that they were leaving and walked down the hill, deep in conversation. The younger men soon departed, Ponto leading his pony, and they waved as they passed by the door. Inside the smial, Missus Gamgee was in the kitchen washing the last of the dishes and getting something put into the fire for dinner while Daisy tidied the parlor. Frodo went back to his room and changed into more ordinary clothes. By the time he was changed, Bilbo was also in his usual attire and was sitting out on the bench in the garden, smoking his pipe and gazing out at nothing. Frodo joined him. They did nothing the rest of the afternoon except sit and smoke.

It was good to sit and consider what he had just seen. He suspected Bilbo was doing so as well. Mostly he considered the people, since the news and the arguments about a new farthing were things in which he was already well versed. Frodo knew that he had made good friends today. All of Ula’s kinsmen were trustworthy and smart. He could see where her temper came from and knew he wanted to go often to Bywater to see these kin. And they think you look like your father. For once, the intent looks and close examinations did not leave him wanting to slip away.  Falco and Fargo continued to be people he liked, and Ponto was not bad once separated from his obnoxious father. Odogrim will be well taken care of. Perhaps he could walk to Nobottle as well. Griffo was clearly someone he would write to regularly. They want me here. His Brandybuck kin had never made him feel welcome like this; he was always just there, one of many children dashing about. So many Bagginses in one spot and they all agreed that they needed to have him right here, with Bilbo.

Not all. Otho did not much care for him, not that he ever did. It was Uncle Dudo who made Frodo wonder. Last fall, when Bilbo had taken him down to Bywater to visit with his father’s kin, Dudo had scarcely paid him any mind at all. You still looked like a snot-nosed brat then. This made Frodo a little irritated. Do you really care about me, or do you just see Bilbo’s gold? There was also the strange words Dudo and Otho had said near the end of the meal. What start? On the other hand, Dudo did not seem to be completely in accord with Otho, given the glares he had been throwing at the other during the discussion. I don’t think he likes you near either Bilbo or Otho.

He found himself agreeing with Uncle Dudo on that point, not being near Otho. The man was up to no good. He was smart in a way that Posco was not, and he was not at all deranged like Odogar, but there was no indication from him that he was looking out for any interests besides his own. Dwarven-hearted people would find his arguments persuasive. So why does he keep coming back to Bilbo? It was not just that Bilbo was the clan head. All the secret dealing with Odogar and Pal showed Otho would not hesitate to go behind Bilbo’s back to get what he wanted. It’s like the way Esmie flirted with you when she obviously could have no interest. Bilbo holds the key to what he really wants. This tickled at his thoughts, that there was something odd about the day. Not wrong, precisely, just… curious.

They did not go back inside until it was almost dusk and the air lost the warmth of the day. Still Bilbo had not said a single word. When they went to the kitchen, his uncle did start his usual humming as they investigated the delicious things Missus Gamgee had left for them. Frodo set the table while Bilbo collected supper and soon they were eating. Bilbo asked if they should set the dining room back up for copy work and they talked of the scroll for the rest of the meal. When supper was done and the dishes put away, they went to the study. As Frodo handed Bilbo his pipe, he could tell from the way the old hobbit sat in his chair that he wanted Frodo to come sit at his feet, but something nagged at Frodo’s thoughts and he went to his own chair to think some more. It finally took shape. When Frodo looked up, he realized that Bilbo was watching him and probably had been the entire time he had been sitting there.

‘I was wondering when you would come back. You’ve been lost in that thought for the better part of an hour.’

‘You’re the only kinsman who has taken an interest in me when there was nothing to be gained.’

Bilbo did not answer for a few heartbeats. ‘I gained much. I have you now.’

‘I don’t remember a gift or a visit or even a letter from any Baggins kin except you in almost ten years.’

‘Do you still doubt?’

‘Maybe a little. But I’m being persuaded by these kin.’

‘And what do they do that persuades when my own words do not?’ Bilbo’s tone was testy and his look resentful, which confused Frodo. You want me to be persuaded! No, he wants you to believe him. If you doubt him, you don’t trust, and that wounds him. Frodo doubted his next words would please the old hobbit.

‘They wouldn’t want your estate going to someone that isn’t Baggins, let alone have that person named your heir. Otho wouldn’t be so dismissive of me if he was certain the claim could be overturned; he feels a need to insist. Even so, given the absence of any regard in almost a decade, it leaves me feeling odd.’

‘That’s a bit harsh, lad. Are you really saying that Odo or Griffo only looks at you as someone who might be wrongly inheriting something?’

‘I’m saying they only bothered to take a look when you made them look, rather like people at Brandy Hall who ignored me until they found I had a use for them after all. Uncle Odo is a good fellow, and I think his affection is real, but would there have been any if you hadn’t brought me here, or if he had looked at me and doubted? I mean, I’d much rather have their good regard than not, but if I were still in Buckland with just your visits, would it occur to them to ask after me?’

Bilbo drew on his pipe. It was a long while before he answered. ‘Probably not.’

‘And yet they are all supposed to be my father’s good friends. Well, except for Otho.’

‘Why do you still doubt? Why doesn’t the agreement of your new-found kin reassure you? They don’t think you are an imposter, so what gives you pause?’

‘It’s not so much doubt as a question. These other kin are content, so why aren’t Uncle Rory and Aunt Gilda convinced?’

‘Because Rory is as stupid as a fencepost!’ Frodo was completely unprepared for the burst of fury from Bilbo. His uncle glared at him, red patches on his cheeks, clutching his pipe so tightly Frodo was surprised it did not break in his hand. ‘He is wrong!’ Bilbo got to his feet and began pacing, one hand in his pocket while he gestured about with his pipe in the other. ‘Consider this, Frodo. Rory is so stupid that he thought you were the one seducing the other boys, leading them astray, rather than simply asking you what was going on, the way I did. Believe you me, I gave him an earful about that!’

‘Why not believe it?’

‘Why not? Because any reasonable person would have taken one look at the ages and sizes of the boys involved, and immediately thought that a pack of older boys was picking on a lone younger one, as is usually the case!’

‘I can hold my own…’

Now you can, yes, taking them on one at a time. Could you have done this two or three years ago? Or even now, all together?’ Frodo shook his head. ‘My point, Frodo, is that Rory believed a stupid, idiotic thing of you for no good reason, though probably helped along with some artful suggestions by Esmie.’

‘She had to know about Sara, what he was doing.’

Bilbo snorted in derision. ‘Count on it. Rory believed the worst rather than the common-sense explanation and he didn’t bother to ask the one person who could have instantly cleared up the matter.’

But that doesn’t explain Aunt Gilda. Frodo thought it best not to bring that up given how angry Bilbo was. He needed to say something to placate Bilbo, take the edge off his wrath. ‘I don’t doubt…’ Bilbo was looking at him and it was difficult to talk under his fierce gaze. ‘I don’t doubt you, or what you’ve said. I’ve just heard for so long… it’s hard to not think that way.’ This was right. Bilbo’s stance started to relax as his anger lessened. ‘I don’t believe… that Mama deceived him or… that Papa… would have…’

Bilbo came over to Frodo’s chair and knelt, setting his pipe aside and holding his hands out. Frodo took them. ‘In Oatbarton, you said that Bargo was the first to say that…’ Bilbo had to swallow before he said the next words, ‘…that your father killed your mother.’ Frodo nodded. ‘Don’t ever believe that. I think that lie is Asphodel’s invention, though why she would say something so foul, I don’t know. They loved each other.’

‘I can remember that. I know they did.’

‘Don’t ever doubt that they were good people who loved each other and loved you. The day you were born, Wilwarin, you should have seen the joy on their faces!’

‘You were there, right? You told me you were.’

‘Yes, I was.’ Bilbo was smiling now. ‘I sat with your father, me and Rory did, while your mother labored. We got him good and drunk and we still had to wrestle him down a few times when he heard Prim cry out. When Gilda finally let us come in and see you and your mother, he cried for joy and held the two of you in his arms.’ Bilbo’s smile became a mischievous grin. ‘And then he passed out because, well, he was completely drunk! Prim was so worn out that she fell asleep, too, after laughing at him. I didn’t mind because that meant I got to sit there in the rocking chair holding you and watching over them while they slept.’

Frodo smiled and squeezed Bilbo’s hands, but did not say anything, wanting to hear this memory and wanting Bilbo to be happy remembering it. ‘I could hold you in one hand, you were so tiny! But I kept you in both arms, all cuddled against me. Gilda kept coming by to check and see if I wanted someone else to hold you so I could get some sleep, for it was very late, but I couldn’t put you down or leave them. I was not about to let anyone else, not even Gilda, take you away.’ The old hobbit’s expression sharpened. ‘And I will not let that happen. I will not allow you to be parted from them.’

‘Or from you.’

‘Never that. You are not baggage to be handed about, not a mathom. You are where you belong, which is where you started. With me.’

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