9. Forgive

POV - Bilbo

In which relatives arrive, old wrongs are unearthed, new problems arise, and most are in need of forgiveness.


11 Forelithe, 1390


I see you are becoming weary of importuning relatives. Please forgive me for pressing you so strongly on this matter. I will trust to your judgment.

Here is news you will care about. Repairs are nearly done to the Water Bridge. Thank you for the introduction to Mister Whitfoot. I had heard of the fellow, but had never met him. He was just the person to help figure out the undermined footing and how to shore it up. There’s an old broken dam on the Little Water half way down Bindbole Wood that he thinks he can replace. Too rotted for repairs. That he’ll do after harvest.

I went up almost to the Bounds in the north and looked at trees. There’s a few places badly touched by Bone Root and I had a stand of them burned. The smoke didn’t smell right and a few fellows got sick after the wind shifted and it blew on them. The ashes were covered with hay to keep them from blowing about. I saw two of the tall grey Big People with my own eyes. I think the smoke drew them. They didn’t see us. I don’t like them, but I can’t see how to keep them out.

The rest of the news is good. There’s enough rain, the air is warm, most every small beast born was twinned. People are putting in extra roots. I’ve had a few letters with Widow Grubb and your cousin, Adelard. What’s that other cousin of yours in Tuckborough I should talk to? And I don’t mean Rum.

While last in Long Cleeve, I rode down to Nobottle on the way home and stopped to talk to your cousin Falco, where I heard there is great discord in Scary. Odogrim won’t be going back. Your name seems attached to this.

I look forward to seeing you at the Fair. Bluebell can talk of nothing but having a dance with your lad there, so do be certain Frodo is in attendance.



13 Forelithe, 1290


I hear the Weasel of Whitfurrows got his balls snipped off, and by his own sister. He’s in a state with all his plans and no market to run. Pitt likes the little Bolger, the one married to a niece of yours.

The rumor keeps getting stronger and it’s coming from other places. You can count on the support of the mid-Shire, Bilbo. We’ve had quite enough of Tooks and Bolgers here about, though the Chubbs aren’t bad sorts. 

The spring is good, but so was the last, and people worry about the harvest. Until the news is good, they’ll presume it’s bad. Your worst cousin is the best. He’s already promised roots in exchange for a cozy place in my bed. We’ll see which one of us wears out first.

Remember, thief, you promised me a dance at the Free Fair. If you make good on that rumor, I’ll even give you a ride.



14 Forelithe, 1390

Dearest Bilbo,

I am enjoying all of these letters from you, even if you are avoiding my questions. I don’t hear from you for years and then it is like old times again. Or almost. A few more letters and I shall forgive you for being silent. Perhaps there are a few more habits we can start up. I miss hearing your stories.

I’ve not heard of any deformed creatures, beast or hobbit, in Southfarthing. I know I would have heard of any horse like that. I’ll ask about. Things are always strange near the Overbourn Marshes, but I have wondered about the seeps as well. Most stay clear of them.

There’s steady leaf trade, plus corn and cured meats, going south towards the ford. Mostly short Big People, Breeland types, but the tall ones like leaf, too. Your sad sack cousin is making a pretty penny on this, by the way, though not as much as Pal.

I heard that Odogar has lost his lad to you. Is that the story of your Buckland boy? I certainly hope he is prettier than his brother. Perhaps we can trade at the Fair.



17 Forelithe, 1390

I understand that you have collected another degenerate to your fold. Since you are responsible for his corruption, you are welcome to him.

There is no more need for you. Others who are true of heart have understood your perverse deceptions and have pledged their support. Even Wili knows you are not to be trusted. Otho and I will handle this business. I suggest you not show your face or your whores at the Free Fair.


Bag End, Afternoon, 24 Forelithe, 1390

Bilbo could tell that Frodo still had not forgiven him. The lad had not spoken to him for two days after the confrontation with Dudo and now spoke only when he needed to. He did not share any of the letters he received, not even those from Gilda. You may have pushed him too far, Baggins. He’ll come around. He’s doubting you now. A challenge would have been worse. That may still happen. Bilbo drew on his pipe and scowled.

The sun was bright on the garden before Bag End, and all about him bees were humming like a hobbit in a kitchen, industriously tending to the flowers. Before him was the long slope of the Hill down to the Water which sparkled under the late spring sun. Across the Water he could make out Hobbits going about their business in the town. Sometime today, or perhaps tomorrow, their Buckland kin were to arrive for a few days of visiting before they set off together to the Free Fair. Bilbo watched the lane to see when they approached.

Frodo was down in Bywater with Dudo and Tulip today. The first words the lad had spoken to him after his initial silent treatment was to curtly tell him they had best start their walk down as they were due for supper with his aunt and uncle. That meal was less strained than Bilbo had feared it would be. After that, Bilbo let Frodo take himself down to Bywater to visit with his various kin as he chose, though Bilbo always went to fetch him if Frodo would have been walking home in the dark. Dudo never again spoke to him about the adoption and Frodo did not repeat whatever exchanges the two of them may have had. Bilbo suspected Frodo knew there was more to Dudo’s request than just a wish to care for him.

The lad might not wish to speak to him, but neither would he leave him, aside from the visits to Dudo’s or Odo’s homes. Bilbo usually had to roust the youngster out of bed for breakfast, but Frodo had not slept in a single day for the last two weeks, joining him in the kitchen to help cook within a few minutes of when Bilbo stirred the fire and set the tea water on to heat. They had continued Frodo’s cooking lessons though with less chatter and horseplay than before, and now there were several dishes that Bilbo simply left the lad to do. He had to admit that less talk meant more attention and better food. The other day, the Gamgee children had been over for their letters and figures lesson and Frodo had cooked their lunch. This impressed May greatly, and she volunteered to teach Frodo how to make a pie. The three children had made a complete mess of the kitchen, but nothing burned and the cherry pie was delicious.

As sitting at his desk led him to reading letters from stupid kin which in turn led to brooding and a bad temper, Bilbo spent his time in the garden, planting and pruning, talking with Ham Gamgee and whatever other neighbors happened by. Little Sam had quite a green thumb, it turned out, and he and Frodo were often digging something up or putting something in. Frodo would teach the boy the elvish names of plants, particularly the herbs grown from the seeds sent from Rivendell. A dwarf had delivered a small bundle of seeds from Master Elrond not long after their return from the long tramp up north and they were growing quite well. Bilbo also took advantage of the delightful weather to go for jaunts about countryside, going up the Little Water, down to the Three Farthing Stone, and other rambles. Frodo always joined him without being asked, silently trailing a few steps behind. Things grew in the profligate profusion of spring, the hillsides cloaked in a shade of green untouched by the creeping gold of summer, fruit setting on trees, vines starting to bow down under the weight of berries, neatly tended rows of vegetables showing flashes of red, yellow, orange and purple when the breeze snatched up their leaves like edge of a lass’s skirt flipping up at a dance. No matter how closely he looked, Bilbo could find no sign of the Parting in the lands around Hobbiton.

In the evenings, after supper, Bilbo continued to avoid his study. He preferred the bench in the garden while watching the sun set, then retreating when a chill came to the night air to the parlor to sit on the couch and read some poetry. Frodo would join him on the bench, then follow him to the parlor and sit at his feet, though he would not offer a hand to hold. They went to the Highday dances and the local celebrations, and Frodo seemed to enjoy them. Give him time. He’ll talk to you again when you’re forgiven.

Down below, on the Bywater road, Bilbo saw two wagons come into view and he smiled. There was no mistaking the copper colored pair of Rushey Punches pulling the first wagon; that was Mac’s team. It was too far away to make out people’s faces, but the wagon behind Mac’s undoubtedly was Wili’s. Bilbo watched them begin the climb up the Hill past the mill yard and the Grange. He stood, took his pipe back inside, made sure there was water warming for tea and beer ready in the wet pantry, and went back out, walking down the lane to meet them where it joined the road to Overhill.

‘Bilbo!’ Rory waved at him from the first wagon. Dilly sat between him and Mac, a large floppy straw hat on her head, and waved as well.

‘Welcome!’ Bilbo called out, waving in return. To his pleasure, he saw Frodo in the second wagon, sitting next to Prisca. They both waved at him and Frodo was wearing a true smile on his face for the first time in weeks.

‘Whoa, fellows,’ Mac told his team and they did as he asked, nickering to him. He clambered down and turned to help Dilly, but she was following Rory out the other side of the wagon. A look of hurt flickered across Mac’s face and he sighed before turning to Bilbo with a big smile, walking forward to embrace the old hobbit.

‘Uncle Bilbo, it’s good to see you,’ he said.

‘And you, Mac!’ Bilbo answered before turning to hug Dilly who had hastened over. ‘Dear Dilly, how are you?’

‘I’m well, uncle!’ She gave him a strong hug and a kiss on the cheek, before stepping out of the way so Rory could greet him. Bilbo noticed that though she stood next to Mac and he had an arm over her shoulders, she did not circle his waist as she usually did. Perhaps there is something to what Ula said. Bilbo hoped not. He did not wish these two to be at odds. He had no time for more thoughts as Rory grabbed him in a great bear hug and nearly lifted him off the ground.

‘Rory, cut it out!’ he laughed and worked an arm free to give Rory an affectionate clout on the head. Rory hugged him even tighter before finally letting him go. His cousin took him by the shoulders and gave him an intent look up and down before smiling and kissing him on the cheek.

‘The women are clucking for no reason, Bilbo. You and the lad look fine to me.’

‘As I have been telling you!’ Bilbo scolded in return, trying not to let his irritation show. ‘Now, will you please write Gilda and tell her all is well?’

‘She’ll ne’er believe me, brother,’ Rory said. ‘Dilly will tell her, won’t you, daughter?’

‘Of course, Papa Rory.’

Prisca and Wili came up next and there were more greetings. Frodo even managed to give him a hug and a kiss. So, perhaps forgiven? Or just an argument set aside? Bilbo did not care as long as Frodo was happy with the visitors.

‘Uncle, where’s the smial? And is there a place for the ponies and the wagons?’

‘Bag End’s up the lane, Mac. This cross is the last place two wagons can pass each other. That’s why I came to meet you here. The lane ends in front of the smial. You’ll have to back down to here, or else pull into this meadow,’ Bilbo gestured to his right, ‘using the top gate and turn there.’

Mac went over and climbed up the slope to look over the hedge. ‘Your field? Can I just leave the ponies in it?’

‘Yes, of course. I don’t have a barn nearby, but I do have one, a good sized one, back towards Bywater, about a mile.’

‘They’ll do fine during the day, but I should take them and the wagons down to the barn at night.’

‘I’ll help you. Mac. I know where the barn is,’ Frodo volunteered.

‘Thankee, cousin.’

‘I’m walking the rest of the way,’ Prisca said, looping an arm through Dilly’s, ‘as I and my poor bottom have had enough of wagons. Come, Dilly, you will love Bag End.’ Bilbo gave Prisca a playful swat on the behind as she walked past, earning himself a sharp smack from Wili, who was grinning.

‘Get your hands off my wife, Baggins!’ he teased.

‘She didn’t seem to mind, Bolger,’ Bilbo grinned wolfishly back, putting one arm around Wili’s shoulders and another around Rory’s. ‘It’s good to see you two. Come have something to drink and rest while the boys get the wagons sorted out.’

Ahead of them, the women exclaimed at the beautiful garden and waited among the blooms for the men to catch up. When they walked in to Bag End, both Dilly and Rory stared in amazement. That’s right, they’ve never been here. Wili and Prisca headed immediately to the kitchen, knowing that Bilbo did not stand on ceremony. They soon were all seated at the kitchen table, with beer or tea as they liked.

Bilbo asked about their travel and anything amusing that they had seen along the way. When they set out from the Hall, they had taken a slow route on narrow lanes through the Yale instead of by the main road, for Wili and Rory both had wished to see how things fared, and had spent the night with the Boffins in the Yale.  Yesterday had been a short trip at the end of the day up to Frogmorton, then all day today from there to Hobbiton.

In the front hall, Bilbo heard sounds of things being unloaded and the jingle of harness as the teams went past the smial to the upper gate. After a while, Frodo and Mac passed by in the hallway, calling out greetings as they carried trunks to the guests’ rooms, and came to join them once their labors were complete. The late afternoon passed merrily, the great news being that both Fred and Bard were to be fathers by the end of the year. When Bilbo and Frodo stood to fix supper, they were met with squawks of outrage by the women and shooed back to their seats while Dilly and Prisca bustled about and got food onto the table. Bilbo knew better than to protest. He had to admit to preferring his own cooking, but it was good enough and prepared with such affection he did not mind. Prisca would not be satisfied until Frodo took at least three servings of everything.

The sun was nearly set by the time they had finished and there was just enough light for Mac and Frodo to hitch the ponies back to the wagons and head off to the barn. The women claimed weariness and went to bed at once. Bilbo, Rory and Wili went to his study to smoke a pipe and wait for the young men to get back, Wili nodding off by the time his first pipe was done. He’s old, Baggins. Like he should be. Not unnatural, like you. Frodo and Mac were back reasonably soon, and Mac had great praise for the barn. Even he was yawning, though, and said he was too tired for a pipe. Rory, however, stayed in his seat and seemed to want to talk. When Frodo would have stayed, Bilbo shook his head slightly and motioned for the lad to go. Frodo did not seem to mind being dismissed and helped Wili get to his room so he could sleep.

‘So, you think I’m being an ass.’ Rory said without preamble, but with a bit of a smile.

For a moment, Bilbo felt some of the anger for Rory’s stupidity that had burned in his heart during the long northern walk to flare. No, Baggins. Not now, not here. Too many ears. He smiled in return and shrugged. ‘When do I not think this about you, Brandybuck?’

This got a snort and a nod of assent. ‘Too true, and you’re usually right.’

Yes, I damn well am right. ‘Let’s have that argument another time, Rory. I have a different question. Why have you and Gilda been lying to me about how sick people were from the fever rash? And I know it was that and not just an ordinary fever or ague.’

‘There was nothing you could have done, save worry, Bilbo.’

‘During, I can understand, but after?’ Rory shrugged. ‘How bad? The truth.’

‘A third of the Hall was struck ill.  Almost two dozen died and three times that number were ill for weeks. Esmie’s still weak from it, as are others. I thought I was going to lose Gilda, Merry and Merle. They all had the rash badly.’

‘I had heard from Wili,’ Bilbo did not think it wise to let Rory know how much Ula was talking to him about Hall matters, ‘about Merry, and some letters from the children have made it clear that Esmie is not well, though they don’t know how it explain it. I had not heard that Merle and Gilda were in danger.’

‘Merle, she had the fever, but it cleared up quickly. Merry, he came very close to death, and it was only something from one of those healer scrolls you made for Gilda that saved him. Then Gilda became ill herself and she was so tired and frail that the fever burned her up. Ula used the same medicine on her and after a while, it worked. Until it did, all I could think was… it was the end.’

‘Then I am very glad for those scrolls.’

‘I know you hate Sara, and rightly so, but if saw him with his wife and children struck low, even you would have pitied him, Bilbo.’

‘Possibly. I know I would have pitied them.’

‘I have even more to thank you for. I think Gilda’s told you about a new tonic that comes from the last scroll you got her, one that is making her feel better.’

‘Yes, she has. She said she’s being a good patient and taking her tonic.’

‘She’s better than she’s been in years, almost as good as when the tremors first started.’ Rory stared down at his pipe, moving it around in his hands. Bilbo saw a tear sneak out of the corner of Rory’s eye. ‘You didn’t just save her life, brother, you gave me back my wife. I almost didn’t come here now because I don’t want to leave her. I’ve seen what… will be and I want to have as much with her as I can now.’ Bilbo stood and held out his hands to Rory. The other came over and Bilbo hugged him. ‘Thank you, Bilbo.’

Bywater, 26 Forelithe, 1390

Each morning after breakfast, Mac and Frodo would walk down to the barn and bring the four ponies, Mac’s team and Wili’s team, back up the Hill to spend the day grazing in the field across the lane from Bag End. A big wash tub had been procured for the beasts to use for a water trough and they seemed quite content to crop the grass or stand in the shade of the big tree at the lower end of the field. The women had declared the kitchen conquered territory and the menfolk were only allowed in to be fed. Bell Gamgee had come by yesterday morning with her daughters and a berry cobbler, and was greeted by Prisca and Dilly like a long-lost sister. Bilbo noted how much Dilly doted on the little girls, and remembered Ula’s words that Dilly had hoped the baby she had lost would be a girl. Nothing would do but that the women go with Bell down to Bagshot Row and be introduced to everyone there and soon there was a constant stream of women and children between the Row and Bag End.

Bilbo had let Frodo show Rory and Mac about Hobbiton yesterday, thinking it would be good for all three of them. He and Wili had sat on the garden bench, out of the women’s way, and had spoken about Whitfurrows. The medicines Gilda had sent with Ula had done Gun some good, but Wili said they all knew it was but a balm to what ailed his brother. Bertie visited regularly from Budgeford, and Fred was often up there, learning how to run the market. Milo Burrows had ridden down from Oatbarton in Thrimidge and he and Peony had promised to come for a longer visit in the autumn when Poppy was due. Fred, Milo and Bertie were becoming fast friends. This was all good news as far as Bilbo was concerned.

Today they all were walking down to Odo and Sage’s home for lunch and an afternoon talk. The ladies refused a wagon, saying they had no desire to be rattled about, so Mac had warned the ponies to mind their manners and stay in the field. They nibbled his fingers and nickered back to let him know they would be good. The walk down the Hill and along the Water to the farm was pleasant and their welcome at Odo's farmhouse quite warm. The way Rory watched Sage let Bilbo know that he was not the only one who thought that she closely resembled Gilda. Over the enormous and delicious lunch, Rory thanked them for being so generous with Ula.

‘Gilda’s only had two prentices before your lass,’ he said, ‘and, though both nice girls, they can’t compare. She’s smart, she’s tough and she’s kind. Ula’s as dear to us as a daughter.’

Odo and Sage exchanged a proud look at this praise for their girl. ‘When Ula said she wanted to be a healer,’ Sage said, ‘I was worried because I knew from Gilda how wearing it was and I knew I couldn’t entrust my little girl to anyone better than her as prentice.’

‘There’s close to a hundred people at the Hall right now who owe their lives at least in part to Ula. She was Gilda’s hands and feet through the fever this last winter, tending people, mixing medicines, going about and making sure people were healing. She remembered something from one of the elf healing scrolls that Bilbo had given to Gilda, and brought it to the Mistress’s attention and it was just the potion needed to fight the fever. Gilda did have to change some of the ingredients in it, but it was Ula who remembered it.’ Bilbo was impressed at Ula’s resourcefulness and made a mental note to ask the girl what she would like to have from the elves in future scrolls.

‘How did the sickness start, Rory?’ Odo asked. ‘There was none around here.’

‘From the Whitfurrows market,’ Wili volunteered. ‘There was a big market in Afteryule and a lot of people were there, including both Small and Big People from Bree. There’s some that was sick, though none seemed too bad. Some Hall folk were there and others from Stock and Newbury, and they came home and got sick. Folk in Whitfurrows, Budgeford and Girdley Island, they saw it, too. The word is that it was even worse in Bree. Some dwarves who came through Whitfurrows in Thrimidge, they brought that news. They said there’s a lot of new mounds in the graveyard south of the town and a lot of folk still sick. They don’t have good healers there, like we have here.’

Odo frowned at that news. ‘So, the fever rash came from Bree?’ Rory and Wili nodded. ‘Hmm.’ It sounded like Odo had more thoughts on this, but he simply said, ‘We’re glad that Ula is doing so well, Rory, but we are going to have to steal her back come Halimath, just for harvest.’

‘She’ll be done with her prenticeship in a few years, and then you’ll have her back permanently,’ Rory said, but Sage shook her head.

‘No, then she’ll be a healer and she’ll always be gone.’ True. Mother and Gilda were never home. They might have a house and even a husband and children, but the healers of the Shire were always about, walking from farmhouse to smial to barn to inn, wherever they were needed to tend the sick. Knowing how well Gilda would have trained Ula, the lass was going to be in demand from Long Cleeve to Longbottom and from Waymeet to Whitfurrows. He was glad Ula had decided to keep Feather.

The topic changed to something else and then again several more times as they enjoyed the wonderful meal. Bilbo was cheered to see how happy and outgoing Frodo was and hoped the lad’s good temper would continue after this visit. We’ll have hardly a moment. We’re off to the Fair in two days and that’s going to take a week all told. When lunch finished, the women cleared the table and vanished into the kitchen to visit while the men went to the parlor to talk.

Odo lost no time to return to his concerns about the market. ‘Rory, I’ve been hearing news from various people about fights over the Whitfurrows market and the new one you’re putting in along the Road at the top of Buckland. If the market is bringing in strange folk and sickness, do we really need more of this? I mean, coin is good, but not if it’s going to kill us.’

Bilbo settled into his chair, interested to hear directly from Rory just what he thought about the mess with the markets. Rory shook his head. ‘It’s not clear that the fever rash came from Bree or if it was just in the market and the Breelanders caught it, too. They claim it came from Whitfurrows. People get sick at markets no matter where they are. If I understand Bilbo right, we don’t have much say in what shows up on our doorstep. The Road runs through the middle of the Shire. We’re always going to have people tramping up and down. Do we let them wander about, or do we get them to do their business and go?’

‘So, why two markets?’

‘If there’s going to be trade, then Buckland should have its share. Whitfurrows is Eastfarthing. I can do some trading there, but the market itself doesn’t answer to me.’ Rory looked over at Bilbo. ‘Though a certain ancient cousin of mine seems to think even a Buckland market shouldn’t answer to the Master.’

‘No, Uncle Bilbo says you shouldn’t be trying to use that market to fight with Odogar Bolger over control of lower Eastfarthing, not that it shouldn’t answer to you.’ Everyone looked at Frodo, who had his most imperious Old Took face on. Bilbo grinned at the lad’s nerve to chastise Rory in front of an audience. Rory glared at the boy, whose cool expression did not change. Rory finally shot a nasty look at Bilbo.

‘Does “Uncle Bilbo” have anything to say on this matter?’

Bilbo stopped grinning. ‘Perhaps, but I think Frodo understands the problem well enough. You’ve said yourself there’s few better at sizing up a situation than my lad. I myself am tired of trying to talk sense into the pig-headed lot of you. Let’s see if he has any better luck.’ Frodo gave him a quick smirk when Bilbo relayed Rory’s compliment, but was back to being the Old Took by the time anyone else looked at him. It was a little dangerous to put Frodo in a position of criticizing Rory’s actions in the Marish, but Bilbo figured he could interrupt if Rory got too incensed.

With a growl, Rory motioned at Frodo. ‘All right, since The Baggins won’t talk to me, what do I need to know, nephew?’

‘That Cousin Odogar is a temporary problem and you should stop letting him goad you into doing ill-advised things, like try to steal the business from the Whitfurrows market or treating the Marish as though it’s part of Buckland.’ Rory’s face was getting some red to it and Mac looked a bit surprised at the tone Frodo was taking, though Odo and Wili were grinning.

‘So, just leave Odogar to let people starve and run a crooked market?’ Rory challenged.

Frodo did not back down. ‘Of course not. It’s just that he’s not your business to deal with. The crooked market is a Bolger matter and Uncle Wili already has it under Cousin Bertie’s control and away from Gun and Old Will Brockhouse. Odogar’s problem is Dragon Fever, like Uncle Wili said back in Yule, and the best person in the Shire to take on a dragon is Bilbo.’

That, Wilwarin, was masterful. Bilbo was greatly enjoying this exchange.

‘I seem to recall that the Master had a bit of a hand in solving the problem of a bad root harvest. That’s not my business? I should just wash my hands of the Marish?’

With a shake of his head, Frodo replied, ‘That’s just being a decent hobbit, which I would hope the Master would be.’ Rory’s eyes narrowed at the allusion to Sara and Mac also gave his little cousin a stern look. You deserved that dig, Rory. ‘If Odogar – or any clan head, for that matter – does something that endangers the common folk for no good reason, that’s everyone’s business, but the person who can best judge how to handle it is Uncle Bilbo. As everyone who wants him to be in charge of a farthing seems to agree.’

‘I also recall a conversation the two of us had a few months back where you counseled me against having Wili in charge of my market,’ Rory countered. Bilbo could not recall hearing such a conversation between the two, then noticed that Frodo’s cheeks had spots of red in them and his expression was less Tookish.

‘No, you’d asked about the possibility of placing a market at the junction of the River Road and the East Road, which is Eastfarthing ground. For you to pick who runs your market, it has to be in Buckland. And you had asked before Odogar had proposed a new farthing.’

‘Still doesn’t explain why I shouldn’t run my own market.’ Rory’s tone was getting sharp, and Bilbo thought it a good time to intervene, but when he sat forward and drew a breath to speak, Frodo made a small motion with his hand to indicate he did not want Bilbo interfering. In a moment, Bilbo realized that there was something else being argued between Frodo and his uncle, and not just control of a market. Trust your lad.

‘You’re not listening.’ Frodo said patiently, which made Rory glower. ‘There is no question but that a market in Buckland must answer to the Master, Rory,’ Not “uncle”. No deference. This was a contest of power between the two. No snot-nosed little cousin here, Brandybuck. ‘…and that you would make all significant decisions about it. Right now, though, Odogar is making an issue about the Master and the Thain arrogantly interfering in Eastfarthing, which Pal and Otho are only too happy to exploit for their own greed.’ This earned vigorous nods from Odo and Wili. ‘If people see that you are not controlling the market directly, then Odogar’s argument loses power.’

‘I’m not running a Buckland market, Frodo,’ Wili tossed in, ‘I’ve got my hands full with Whitfurrows now, though Bertie’s the one in charge, and I’ve no call to say what should happen outside of Eastfarthing.’

‘So, a masterless market, then? If neither me nor Wili can have a hand in it?’ Rory said, condescendingly.

Frodo was back to looking like the Old Took. ‘Mac and Seredic can run it. You get along with Bertie and Fred, right, Mac?’ Mac looked a bit confused at his little cousin’s commanding presence.

‘Uh, well, yes… yes! Me and Fred, we’re as good as brothers. I don’t know Bertie that well, but we’ve never had a cross word. Seredic’s the same, ‘specially because of Hilda and Helga.’

Frodo smiled a little and nodded, looking around at everyone. Bilbo gave him a wink. ‘So, the Buckland market is run from the Hall, but in a way that Odogar has no call to complain about. The two markets will now be run to complement each other, since Bertie and Uncle Wili will keep Whitfurrows honest, and most Bree business will stay beyond the Bridge, so less opportunities for strangers and sickness to come into the Shire.’ A certain hardness came to Frodo’s face and he looked only at Rory. ‘If Seredic is part of it, then you’ll not risk Hargo favoring Whitfurrows for the leather trade. Though I hear he has already asked about building a dock near the bridge, as I suggested last Yule.’

Rory’s face went red, though Bilbo suspected it was due to embarrassment, not anger. Ah, no wonder there was no “uncle” in that exchange. He is my child, not a stray, and he was never yours. He doubted anyone besides himself, Frodo and Rory understood all insults answered with Frodo’s last words. You haven’t forgiven that uncle, yet, have you Wilwarin? Let this be a lesson to you, Baggins. You are anything but forgiven.

Wili laughed and shook an admonitory finger at Rory. ‘See? If even Hargo is following Frodo’s advice, we’re well advised to do the same. Though I doubt our nephew’s advice strays very far from Bilbo’s.’

Bilbo thought this an excellent opening for him to take back the conversation. He was not entirely sure that Frodo would quit goading Rory. ‘We share this opinion completely. Rory, you run the market. It’s your gold that built it,’ he couldn’t resist that last dig and was rewarded with Rory glancing down and turning a slightly deeper shade of red, ‘and you will say how it is ordered. There has never been a question about that. What we have, as I said to Wili mid-Astron, is an opportunity to fix up divisions between Eastfarthing and Buckland that have been a problem since you and Odogar starting butting heads when you became Master.’

‘No, Bilbo, what’s happening now is new,’ Rory protested. ‘Odogar is doing harm…’

‘…and that is for me to deal with, Master. Odogar is my cousin, I am his eldest closest kinsman, and he is consumed by Dragon Fever. This is a greater problem than quibbling over who the Marish looks to. And what I need from you, cousin, is a promise that you will not try to stir anything up. The Troubles are in Scary.’

Wili and Rory exchanged a look then both looked back at Bilbo. ‘Bilbo,’ Wili asked, ‘what happened in Scary?’

‘You were there.’

‘But you saw or heard something that the rest of us didn’t. I could see it in you, in Frodo, when you got to Whitfurrows. I didn’t want to press you at the time, you were so worn,’ Wili gestured with his chin at Frodo, ‘not that he would have allowed it.’

‘He needed to rest. He’d walked all night,’ Frodo snapped. ‘You were all just pestering Bilbo with stupid questions, and…’

‘Hackles down, lad. I’m rested now.’ Bilbo sighed, trying to bring some order to his thoughts. A dragon of ice lives in the center of a cave devoid of life and is lost in dreams of gold. But that did not really explain anything. Rory and Wili were exchanging another knowing look.

‘It’s that parting thing you talked about, isn’t it, Bilbo?’ Odo prompted.

‘Yes, I believe so. Frodo, tell Rory and Mac what we saw up in Northfarthing.’ The lad did, quickly and concisely describing the withered plants and trees, the accounts of deformed animals, the increased Big People. Rory’s expression became grim and this time the look he exchanged was with Bilbo. When Frodo ended, Bilbo gave him a smile and a nod.

‘I have a letter from Rufus – Rory, you definitely need to stay in close correspondence with your brother-in-law – just two weeks past, talking about more that he has seen. It is of a piece with what Frodo just described. Rum has written me about the poisoned seeps in Southfarthing. Otho and Pal may disregard them, but the Thain thinks they are dangerous. When we were in Scary, I walked about the smial after everyone else had gone to bed. The place may have been filthy, but there was nothing spoiled, and it, too, was of a piece with the Parting in the north. That’s why I sent Frodo on.’

‘You called it the Winter returned.’ Odo looked as grim as Rory.

‘Yes. Rory, this is what the land is afraid of.’ Bilbo hesitated a long while before going on. He did not wish to say this in front of Frodo, but if Rufus had guessed, the others would, too, and it was best that he not try to hide it. Frodo must suspect it by now. He's heard you talk. ‘The unusual part of this is not that there is some kind of pestilence, like a spreading rash, but its absence. Things are barren, not dead, and new life can’t take root. It just goes on and spreads.

‘In truth, the first person to describe this to me so that I could recognize it was Gilda, last Yule. She told me that she had first noticed it a bit over thirty years ago, and she described things born too soon or wrong, where life could not take root in the world, and how sickness is harder to heal. Thirty years ago is when the first signs of the Parting were seen in the northern reaches. Ten years ago, her palsies came upon her, and that’s when we had a doubled winter, with cold and wolves, especially in the north. Two, nearly three, years ago, there was another surge in illness and cold and the blighted trees. That is also when Tilda first noticed Odogar behaving oddly.’

‘Yes, that’s when he started showing Dragon Fever,’ Wili agreed.

‘And when he started fighting so obstinately over the Marish,’ Rory added, thoughtful.

Bilbo looked at Odo, who was studying him much as Rufus had done that night in Oatbarton. You’ve guessed. ‘The first example of the Parting in the Shire could be seen, for those who had eyes, more than thirty years ago.’ When he had their attention, he smiled wryly and held out his hands. ‘It’s right in front of you.’ Odo and Rory nodded, as he expected, as did Wili after a moment. Mac just looked at him in confusion, but Bilbo trusted he’d catch on soon enough. A glance at Frodo made him want to cringe. The boy stared at him, horrified. You hadn’t guessed. You should have told him before, Baggins, not let him find out like this. The others did not seem to notice the lad’s dismay and in a few moments Frodo mastered himself, his face becoming mask-like to hide whatever he was feeling. Forgive me, Wilwarin.

‘Rory, this is why I need you to cease being so provocative towards Odogar,’ Bilbo said, ‘and why you and Wili and Rufus and your boys, and hopefully Odogar’s as well, need to try very hard to get along and run things well in Eastfarthing.’

‘Bilbo, this is why we need you to cease being so stubborn and agree to help get Eastfarthing out of Odogar’s hands,’ Odo interjected.

‘The worst thing to do right now is to divide…’

‘…and we’re being divided even now by three dragon-fevered idiots who seems determined to fracture the Shire for their own selfish desires,’ Odo smoothly countered.

Bilbo bit back his angry reply, toying with his ring in his pocket. They’re saying what they think is so. Don’t be harsh just because they share their hearts. Perhaps you should listen to them. If it keeps Odogar, Otho and Pal out of power, isn’t it worth it? No, they need to be turned aside, not replaced. He shook his head. ‘You know my reasons and my answer, Odo.’

‘Just as much as you know all the reasons we say you should. And I’ll even throw Otho’s words back at you – why won’t you do for the Shire what you did for dwarves?’

‘Stop nagging!’ Frodo heatedly said. ‘Why don’t you hunt these dragons down for yourself? As for Otho’s words, dragons lie. Bilbo already does everything he can for the Shire!’

‘Enough, lad,’ Bilbo warned, but smiled to show he wasn’t angry with the boy. ‘To answer you, Odo, what I did for the dwarves is nothing like what you’re asking for here, but it is instructive how Otho framed it – winning a kingdom. I have no wish for a kingdom, even if our cousin does.’

‘And I and others say that you are the best Hobbit to bring some order precisely because you are not interested in a kingdom, but in the good of the Shire,’ Odo said, folding his hands over his belly.

Being Mayor would probably do the trick. No need to uproot any farthing heads. And it would be for the good. Who else would understand the parting so well? Would know to speak with the wizard? Would be bold enough to go and travel wherever needed, even south, to get the wisdom to cure the Shire? Perhaps they know how to cure Bone Root or stop the seeps? Bilbo rolled the ring between his fingers, pondering the possibilities. Don’t give a final answer now. Just think on it.

‘I have always kept the good of the Shire foremost in my thoughts and my acts, cousins,’ Bilbo said mildly. ‘I care for things my own way, and I see little reason to change that. Even so, I don’t wish to ignore good advice. I will not act simply to keep a fool from trying to puff himself up, mostly because it is amusing to see him cut down to size. If there is great agreement that I need to change my ways and do my good more formally, then I may be persuaded. But I will not lend my name and voice to anything that forces division upon the Shire.’

‘That’s all any of us want, Bilbo,’ Wili assured him.

‘Bilbo, what is Odogar actually going to do at the Fair, do you know?’ Rory asked.

Bilbo shook his head. ‘I’m not sure. I’m not in his confidence anymore. Even when I was, all he wanted to do was present the idea of splitting the farthing at the Moot, and start winning support. That was before I knew that he was double-dealing with Pal and Otho. No matter what they may be planning, it has to be presented at the Moot.’

‘So, Odogar’s not going to ask you to take over the lower Eastfarthing? Otho doesn’t seem to think it will work unless you agree to it,’ Odo said.

‘When was the last time you heard Otho say such a thing?’

‘Day before yesterday, Bilbo. He’s always coming ‘round to talk about this plan.’

‘And Odogar said to me in the last ten-day that he didn’t need me to be part of it and actually warned me not to show up at the Fair.’ Bilbo was not that surprised to hear that Otho was talking with the other Baggins kin, though the recency was interesting, given Odogar’s rejection. ‘Wili, Odogar claimed that you knew better than to trust me. Has he said this to you?’

Wili sat silent, a little red coming to his face and he shrugged. ‘He’s said a lot of you to me, Bilbo, most of it unfit to be repeated. What I said back to him was simply what he wished to hear. I don’t bother to read his letters anymore. They are disgusting.’

‘It’s all right, Wili. I have all too good an idea of the slanderous things Odogar is saying of me. His last letter to me was nothing but that.’ I should take all of this away from you for your evil words about my lad, Odogar. ‘So, I really have no idea what these thieves are planning, except double-crossing everyone they talk to.’

‘What about Pal and his plan to grab everything in the south?’ Odo asked. ‘Does Rum support it?’

‘Yes, in part.’

‘And you want me to trust Rum?’ Odo was incredulous.

‘No, I want all of you to work with Rum. What he supports is taking the Tooklands into Southfarthing which, frankly, even the Old Took wanted, not that it ever happened, and is not that bad of a suggestion. My suspicion is this is Pal’s true aim. My other suspicion is that Otho is being played for a bigger fool than usual, and that Odogar’s true aim is simply to grab the Hobbiton area of Westfarthing, attach it to the part of Eastfarthing that allegedly will be going to Otho, and then retake control of a reunited Eastfarthing as quickly as possible.’

Rory laughed mirthlessly. ‘That at least makes sense of everything. Odogar and Pal started their conniving over the root harvest and they haven’t stopped since.’

‘Which is why we need to work with Rum. He can overrule Pal at any time and he will gleefully spoil Pal’s plans as long as he sees no advantage to himself in them. He will push to get the Tooklands into Southfarthing, and Wilcar might just concede it. That exchange is of no interest to me. That region answers more completely to the Thain than the Marish does to the Master.’ Bilbo gave Rory a look. ‘Rum would also be happy to talk about ferries so your idea of trade directly up into the Marish and Buckland from lower Southfarthing can be made fact. He’s already promised you leaf for your market, right?’

‘Aye, but that can come over the Stock Road.’

‘You have something to discuss, so be sure you do when you meet him at the Fair.’ And perhaps he will be kept too busy to talk to me. Bilbo doubted he would be that lucky. ‘What I want to talk to Rum about is signs of the Parting in Southfarthing. Whatever his failings, the Thain has a sense of the land and particularly of beasts unmatched by anyone else, even you, Rory.’

‘I think I prefer letters where Cousin Rum is concerned,’ was Rory’s dour reply. This was met with rolled eyes and words of agreement from Mac, Odo and Wili. Would you prefer to deal with me through letters? Bilbo held his tongue. You’re an unnatural when it suits them, and their beloved cousin when they need your help. He glanced over at Frodo and saw the lad watching the others with a thoughtful expression. Perhaps I should stay home from the Fair. Just a nice, quiet summer. Listen to Frodo. Let them do this battle for themselves. Bilbo stood and Frodo was instantly on his feet and at Bilbo’s side. The others looked up at them.

‘Unless you can come up with new problems, there’s nothing left of this conversation that interests me.’

Rory nodded and stood, followed by the others. ‘I say we’re done here for the day. There’s a lot to think on, and we’ll have a few days between now and the Fair to speak of anything new.’

‘When do you leave?’ Odo asked.

‘Day after tomorrow, travel for two days, and have a full day in Michel Delving before the Fair proper,’ Bilbo replied.

‘Any objections to me, Sage and Baldo traveling with you?’ The rest all voiced approval at the thought. ‘Very well, we’ll be harnessed up and ready to leave by eight.’

After hands shakes all around, they wandered to the kitchen to collect the women and walk back to Bag End. It took almost an hour to sample all the dishes, submit to various scoldings, and determine who was going to carry which bag or basket or bundle of marvelous food from Sage’s kitchen before they could get on their way. The walk home was slow, for the afternoon was warm and there were many hobbits out on their own business or sitting before their homes, and each offered a genial greeting which needed an answer and a bit of conversation. Through the walk, Frodo was pleasant to anyone who spoke to him, but did not start conversations or speak in such a way as to encourage more talk. There were many letters awaiting them all when they arrived at the smial and the rest of the afternoon was taken up with reading and replying to the missives. Bilbo doled out extra pens and ink from his study and stayed there to read his letters. Frodo sat on the floor in a corner doing the same. The lad said nothing and made no indication that he wished to speak or had anything of concern on his mind. Thankfully, almost all of the letters Bilbo received were pleasant and he shared bits of them with Frodo.

Supper was simple and mostly made up of the food Sage had sent with them. The sun set before they were done and Mac and Frodo had to take the ponies down to the barn in the dark. The evening was so lovely, they stayed out in the garden and waited for the boys to walk back, chatting about the upcoming drive to the Fair. Wili cuddled Prisca and the two teased and kissed, as in love now as they were when they met over fifty years ago. Rory sat at Bilbo’s feet and they handed a pipe back and forth. When Mac and Frodo appeared at the garden gate, Dilly jumped up from the bench and ran forward to embrace Mac, which pleased the man very much. They continued to sit outside, enjoying the mild weather, until it was quite late and people were yawning. Frodo gave everyone a kiss goodnight and headed to his room at once. Bilbo made sure their guests were to their own rooms before snuffing lamps and candles and heading to bed.

He had his braces down, his shirt undone and was starting to unbutton his trousers when there was a soft tap at his door. He refastened the buttons on his trousers and opened the door, unsurprised to see Frodo. He gestured for the boy to come in, quietly closing the door behind them. It was only then that Bilbo realized there really was not any place for two people to sit in his bedroom. The room was quite small. It was a child’s room and had been Bilbo’s for as long as he could remember. He had never needed anything besides this small space. His clothes were in a chest of drawers built into the wall or else hanging neatly on a few pegs. The rest of his clothes were in the closets at the end of the hall. If he wished to sit or work, there was the rest of Bag End. There was a small shelf set into the wall above the head of the bed to hold anything that needed to go into his pockets. The bed was a bit large for the room, big enough for two, because he and Drogo had always shared it. Even when it had just been the two of them at Bag End and Drogo could have had his own room, it never occurred to either of them not to be together.

‘Yes, lad?’

‘Are you too tired to talk?’

‘No, though we’ll need to be quiet so we don’t disturb the others.’ Bilbo went over to the bed and sat tailor-fashion against the head of it. Frodo stood next to the bed. ‘What is it?’

Frodo shrugged, not raising his head. After a bit, he shrugged again. ‘I didn’t know. I should have seen it, but I didn’t.’ He looked up then and Bilbo could see the boy was afraid. He patted the bed to get the boy to sit and Frodo sat on the edge, facing him. ‘Stupid, that I didn’t see it.’

‘You have seen that I don’t age. You have said so to me.’

‘Gammer told me that you were sick, but I didn’t believe her. At Yule, she told me.’

Bilbo had to school himself to stay calm and mild. What now have you said to my boy, Gilda? Why can’t you and Rory shut your damned mouths and quit tormenting the lad! ‘What did she tell you?’

‘That you don’t get old and that’s what’s wrong. She wants me with you to keep you here where you’ll be safe and not go, not leave the Shire. She’s right, you don’t change. I mean, I knew, but not that it was wrong, just that it was you. I didn't want anything to be wrong. I'm stupid.’

‘Well, then, we’re both stupid, because I didn’t know it until she told me at Yule. I thought it was, perhaps not me exactly, but just something… I don’t know! Maybe… something I ate on my adventures. I feel like I’m ninety-nine, no matter what I look.’ Tell him the truth, all of it. ‘Gilda said “It is as though a cold breath follows you, keeping you frozen in time.” I knew she was right, but I didn’t understand it. I didn’t want to understand it any more than you did. Then you remember what Rufus said at Wintermark, that there was no pest or rot in the dead orchards. When we walked in the north and I looked at things, that’s when I realized that whatever affects me is of a kind with what we saw there.’ Frodo looked less afraid, so Bilbo went on. ‘The private talk I had with Rufus, it was about this,’ well, it started with this, ‘because he had made the connection immediately. Pay attention to what he says. He may not be inventive, but he is extremely observant.’

‘He was worried that you were too old and me too young.’

‘Yes, but he also worried that I did not look old when I should. He wanted to know how I was affected by it. I had to say, apart from how I look, I don’t know. I don’t think there is any more I can know until I talk to Gandalf or, if he doesn’t appear, the elves.’

‘Until you can, what?’

Bilbo shrugged. ‘Stay here, take care of you, try to keep our stupid cousins from making a hash of everything, and be patient.’

Frodo looked at Bilbo intently, the fear replaced by thought. ‘Is this why you want me with Dudo? So that there is someone to take care of me and you can leave to see the elves?’

‘No! Nothing of the sort!’ Bilbo reminded himself to keep his voice down. ‘I said I don’t want you to go.’ He reached out and took Frodo’s hands, trying to pull the boy closer to him, but Frodo leaned back, so he let go. ‘No, Wilwarin, that is the last thing I want.’

‘He said you already agreed he could have me. Is this why? So you can go and find out what this is?’

You’re getting too clever for your own good, Baggins. ‘What, precisely, did Dudo say to you?’

‘That you agreed I belonged with my real uncle, but I had to want to be with them. And I don’t, but I will if that’s what you want so you can go to the elves. I don’t want you sick.’

‘That is not what I said, though it is probably what he wanted to hear.’ No, Baggins, it is what you said. Just tell him the truth. Not all of it, not yet. ‘Dudo was angry with me that I simply adopted you without consulting him, and he said he would make a public issue of it if I didn’t relinquish you. I was afraid of the things he would say, things people like Otho would eagerly seize upon to harm us both.’ Frodo made a face at that and nodded his head. It’s true. That’s exactly what would be argued. ‘I said the only thing I could think of, that I would not keep you from him if he could win you over. And I meant that. You know I will not force you to remain with me if you are unhappy and wish to be with someone else.’ Bilbo held out his hands again and this time Frodo took them. ‘And to remove your doubt, I intend to wait for the wizard to show up, but only until you are old enough to come with me to the elves. I will go nowhere unless I can take you with me.’

‘Doesn’t Dudo expect me to stay here and be his nephew?’

‘He probably does.’

‘So what do you want me to do about him?’

What would be best? Bilbo suspected that Dudo would be content with regular visits from the lad as long as Otho did not keep stirring things up. Things will be stirred up one way or the other after the Fair. Either you will be in charge, in which case Otho will demand that Dudo claim Frodo to remove him as your heir, or you will have foiled their plans, in which case… he will probably do the same, just to spite you. There was only one answer to that challenge. ‘I think that you should be a good and caring nephew who respects his uncle and conducts himself in a way to make that uncle proud of him and gladdened by his company.’

‘I think one uncle is rather put out at me right now.’

Bilbo chuckled and gave Frodo’s hands a squeeze. ‘I think so. That was quite masterful today, Wilwarin. You gave Rory the scolding I was going to, so I got to enjoy the whole thing!’

‘You approve?’ His lad smiled.

‘Completely! Though I am curious about one thing you said.’ Frodo raised his eyebrows. ‘What discussion did the two of you have about Wili and the market? I don’t remember hearing that.’

The smile disappeared and Frodo’s cheek reddened. ‘It was when I tried to get Uncle Rory to let me come back. It started with how I was doing in Hobbiton, and he praised my thinking on the tannery and the root harvest problem. Then he tested me on whether I understood the problem of putting a market run by the Master on Eastfarthing land, which I did, and that brought up which Bolger could run such a market, and that’s how Uncle Wili’s name came into it. You know how it all ended.’

Bilbo nodded. ‘You called him “Rory,” not “Uncle.”’

Frodo tipped his head a fraction and wore his Old Took expression. ‘I was speaking as your heir, not his kinsman. He threw me away and he will not get me back.’

‘I think he knows this now.’

‘He also needs to know that I am not that little boy anymore. All of them from Buckland need to know this.’

‘Trust me, after today, Rory knows. Less than a year ago, he thought to pack you off to Pal without a word of explanation to you. Now, he’s having you explain Pal to him.’

Frodo smiled and ducked his head, blushing a little at the praise. ‘Maybe. I think he thinks I’m just repeating what I’ve heard you say.’

‘On some of the politics, obviously you were saying what you have heard me explain, but you can repeat it because you understand it. Working in the insults he has offered you and showing him his stupidity, well, now he knows better. You are anything but that little boy.’ Time for a taste of your own medicine, Baggins. Frodo’s words today had not just been aimed at Rory. ‘Tell me, Frodo, what is it that you want me to know? What have you to say of the idiocy of this uncle?’

The look on Frodo’s face was not the Old Took. That expression was cool, collected, disdainful. This look was ferocious and beautiful, the one he had glimpsed in the harvest sunset, under the stars at the fire jump, and again, a dragon in shadows, recounting the cruel treatment by Bargo. There was no child in this face. Bilbo became acutely conscious of the fact that he was partly undressed. Frodo’s grip on Bilbo’s hands tightened.

‘That you never need to send me away. That I’m not going to leave you, especially not to face danger by yourself. That I will always defend you. Don’t try to send me away, and I’m not just talking about Dudo. Don’t let anyone else try to claim me because you think it’s safer. I belong here, with you, and nowhere else.’

This was different than what the lad had said after Dudo asked for him. That had been angry and hurt. There was no anger in this. It was a different passion, harder to describe, more akin to love. He was not sure he had been forgiven, though he rather doubted it. Bilbo did not hear a request or even a demand in these words; he was simply being told what would be.

‘I will remember this, Frodo.’ Bilbo held his boy’s eyes until the lad nodded and relaxed his grip on Bilbo’s hands. ‘Now, unless you have more you wish to talk of, I think we both need our sleep.’

Bywater Road, 27 Forelithe, 1390

‘Mac’s been telling me about this barn of yours, Baggins. I thought you weren’t a farmer?’ Rory teased over breakfast.

‘I can assure you that I am no kind of a farmer, Brandybuck,’ Bilbo joked back. ‘Odo and his boys work both farms, though my barn they mostly use for storing extra equipment and for the hayloft. You should walk down with the boys when they go to get the ponies and see it for yourself.’

‘How about you walk down and give me the tour and quit making Frodo do all your work,’ Rory shot back, but he had a big grin on his face. ‘I’m not taking my old bones up and down the Hill without some company.’

Bilbo knew an order when he heard one. He wondered what it was Rory wanted to talk about privately. ‘Very well, I’ll shuffle along with you, you old goat,’ he mock-grumbled. Not long afterwards, they set out with Mac and Frodo down the Hill. The morning gave notice that a hot afternoon would follow.  They all had straw hats on to ward off the sun as she climbed swiftly up into the perfect blue sky. At the edge of his senses, Bilbo could catch the smell of tall grasses starting to dry. Insects buzzed and clicked while birds flitted through the bushes, chirping to each other. Beneath their feet, the lane was getting dusty as the damp of spring retreated before the still heat of summer. Haze clung to the hills beyond the Water and the green forests of the Tooklands was a dark smudge to the south. By the time they reached the barn, Bilbo was thirsty and gladly drank a few dippers of water from the rain barrel.

The ponies whinnied when they saw Mac and eagerly came out of the stalls as soon as he opened the doors, nosing at him for the carrots they knew he had in his pockets. Bilbo had noticed this morning that Dilly was once more cool towards Mac. As soon as they had checked the ponies over for any sign of trouble, the boys took them back up the Hill, each one of them sitting sideways on one on the Rushies and talking while Wili’s pair ambled behind. After they left, Bilbo and Rory walked around the farm, Rory stopping every so often to touch, smell and taste the plants or the dirt. Sometimes he would pick up stones and roll them through his fingers, head cocked as though he could hear them speaking. They ended up back inside the barn, out of the strong sun. Rory took some hay from one of the ponies’ mangers and a few grains from a feed bucket and sampled each, his gaze inward and thoughtful.

‘You know, I could have packed second breakfast,’ Bilbo said dryly as Rory picked a few more grains from the feed bucket, earning a snort from his cousin.

‘Better than any breakfast!’ Rory said as he chewed the last of his gleaning. He finished the grains and nodded. ‘This is a good farm, Bilbo. There’s no fear in the earth or the stone. The plants are content and eager to grow.’ He looked east as though the barn wall were a window. ‘I’ve been feeling the land as we’ve come through. It’s not happy in the east, not like here. It stopped being wary this side of Oatbarton Road. I’m guessing if I went north and east, I’d find it worse.’

‘I think you would. You might plan a visit to Rufus after harvest.’

‘If Gilda’s still well and naught else needs my attention, I just might.’ Rory looked at him. ‘So, you did bring the Troubles.’

Bilbo did not look away. ‘I don’t think so.’

‘Why not? You and it show up about the same time. ‘Course, some would say you’re nothing but trouble.’ Rory smiled a little at the joke, but his look was keen.

‘I’ve been doing a lot of thinking since Yule and especially since the walk up north.’ Bilbo looked at his hands. A younger man’s hands. The hands of my adventure. They touched so many things, were touched by so much. Everything about me was changed by that passage. Gilda’s right. I’ve seen this before. I know what to look for. ‘Gilda said that I brought it where she could see it.’ Bilbo looked at Rory again. ‘It’s like her tremors, a sign of something larger. I told Rufus I saw things on my adventure that… weren’t exactly what we see here, but of a kind with it. I think that the Troubles were already here, possibly before I even left. The book you gave me at Yule, the one with all the different papers bound into it?’

‘Yes, I remember.’

‘The dates in it, if I read them aright, are from the years between hobbits coming to Bree and when the Shire was founded. This was a time when there was cold and evil coming from the north and east, when the tall Big People were assailed and dwindled. There’s a title of land in the book that I think lies just north of the Shire. Things were described in some of the pages that sound similar to what we’re seeing now, similar to things I saw out there in the east. The Troubles were here before we hobbits ever arrived. One could almost say that we’ve been keeping them in check. All the Shire is the High Hay.’

‘But it’s worse now.’

‘Yes, it grows worse.’

‘So what’s to be done?’

‘Ride the Hedge.’

‘Hmm.’ Rory turned away and walked over to where the teams’ harnesses hung on pegs on the barn wall. He started checking the leather for signs of wear or damage. Bilbo came over and watched, waiting while Rory thought. ‘Maybe you’re not sick.’

‘Failing to age is wrong.’

‘But it’s not the same as being sick. Maybe it’s so you’ll be around a long time.’ Rory glanced at him. ‘Maybe it’s so we have someone here to help us ride our Hedge and know what to look for.’

‘I don’t want a farthing.’

‘I know. I don’t want you to have one, either. You don’t need to be tied down by that. Mayor wouldn’t be bad since you already walk everywhere.’

‘Maybe I just need to do what I’m already doing. Which also started when I came back.’

‘Maybe you do.’

Rory kept examining the tack. Bilbo hummed absently, thinking about the things he saw in the north. Yes, Rory should go up there. I could go with him. We could talk to Rufus. This brought to mind something else Rory had talked about with Rufus, and Bilbo could feel himself becoming angry. Perhaps it is time for a talking about a different kind of parting, namely you from common sense.

‘Rory, we haven’t had that conversation yet.’

‘Which one?’

‘Where we talk about how much of an ass you are.’

That made Rory chuckle. ‘I thought that was the only conversation we have, Bilbo.’

‘I had a very unpleasant conversation with Rufus and your name came up in it.’

‘Well, that should teach you to bring up my name in a…’

‘He told me he would not support Frodo as my heir because he had been told Frodo was bastard.’ Rory’s hands stopped moving though he did not look away from the harness. ‘What exactly did you tell him and Asphodel?’

‘What I thought was true.’


‘Because I thought it was true.’

‘You told Rufus I wouldn’t be returning for the boy and when he asked why, you led him to believe that Frodo wasn’t Baggins.’ Some red came to Rory’s cheeks and he shrugged. Bilbo’s anger flared at Rory’s avoidance and he stepped forward and grabbed Rory’s shoulder, shoving him around so they faced each other. ‘Do have any idea the harm you have done to Frodo?’

‘He seems to be doing well enough.’

‘Doing well enough?’ Bilbo was aghast. ‘You slander his parents and him with this claim within, what, a week or two of their deaths. My lad has been in fistfights since he was twelve trying to defend his mother’s honor, with no help from her kin, and now I find it was you who started this.’ He laughed humorlessly. ‘And here I’ve been blaming Sara and Esmie.’

‘The rumors were already going before…’

‘No, damn it! It’s not that there were rumors. There are always rumors of scandal. You attested to it before your sister and brother-in-law, that is what gave it such power.’

‘Well, what was I supposed to say?’

‘Nothing! How about nothing? All you had to do was shut up!’ Bilbo started pacing, too enraged to keep still. ‘Why couldn’t you have just repeated what I said, what was incontestably true, that I had left the boy until he was older and did not need so much care?’

‘So what did you tell Rufus?’

‘That I say he is Drogo’s son and that I know with absolute certainty that he is a Baggins. He couldn’t understand why you would say something so foul of your own sister.’ Bilbo stopped in front Rory, glaring. ‘Do you know what the worst rumor is?’

‘I don’t listen to them.’

‘Of course not! You just spread them. Let me enlighten you. My lad has had to listen to people tell him to his face that his father murdered his mother for being an unfaithful whore, with himself as the proof of her wanton ways.’ That made Rory look away. ‘That rumor started with Asphodel and was brought back to Brandy Hall by her wretched little brat, Bargo.’

‘No one said that where I could…’

‘But they said it to Frodo, and they said it to him over and over! Every possible, awful, savage thing was said to him, with no care for what this did to him, and he listened to this for ten years. I asked him, in Rethe, if he thought he was bastard, and he said yes.’

‘Well, strictly speaking, he is.’

The force of the slap sent Rory spinning around and onto his knees. Bilbo grabbed Rory by the shoulders, hauled him to his feet and slammed him into the barn wall, pinning him there. ‘No.’ Bilbo kept this voice soft and menacing, and enjoyed the fearful look that came to Rory’s face. ‘He is not. His father claimed him from the moment he was born and that is all anyone needs to know. It’s words like those you just now spoke that have tormented my lad and made him doubt. He said it was what you and Gilda said that convinced him the rumors were true, that you would never call him his father’s son.’

‘And why should we when his own father won’t?’

Bilbo snarled in fury and slammed Rory again against the wall. ‘What went on between myself and them is none of your business! Prim bore him, Drogo claimed him, he is their son.’ He wanted to hit Rory again, make him hurt, slam him against the wall until something broke as badly as Rory had broken Frodo’s heart. Baggins, you need answers. With another snarl, he let go of his wretched cousin and walked a few paces away. When he looked back, Rory was sitting on the ground, shaking. ‘Explain. Explain to me how you could have told Rufus and Asphodel what you did. Not just that Frodo was bastard, but that he wasn’t Baggins. I can almost understand the first claim, given your stupid words just now, but not the latter.’

‘Because of what Gilda said.’ Bilbo’s eyebrows went up. ‘You know she worked with them, tried everything she knew, to help them have a baby. Last thing left to try was… another sire. Best would be one of his kinsmen so the baby would have a Baggins look.’ Rory glanced up at him quickly, then back at his own hands. ‘Of course, she’d have suggested you. And you came and stayed, and you kept coming back, but there wasn’t a babe, and none of his other kinsmen were about. Then, Prim was pregnant after you’d been there that Wintermark, but when I asked Drogo about it, he got all mad and told me the boy was his and his alone, and you had nothing to do with it.’ Another glance. ‘So, if you didn’t and none of the other Baggins men did…’ Rory trailed off with a shrug.

‘Frodo looks like his Baggins kin. You could see that.’

‘I said it to Gilda at the time, what Drogo had said, and she said he couldn’t sire and that you were just stubborn enough to stick to your rules and not sleep with another man’s wife. Then you left Frodo without really trying to argue me out of it. I figured they’d found someone else.’ Rory felt his face where Bilbo had slapped him, working his jaw. ‘Gilda says you denied it to her at Yule and that you’d lied to me in Halimath, so I don’t know what to believe.’

‘What you can believe is that your words have harmed all three of them.’

‘And your silence continues to harm them.’

‘Who else, Rory? Who else did you tell you thought Frodo bastard?’

Rory looked away. ‘Just close kin.’


‘Rufus and Asphodel. Sara. Mac.’ That explained why Frodo’s older cousins treated him so viciously. Sara would have told Esmie, who told Pal, who has told who knows how many, but most likely Otho, who has spoken to Odogar. ‘Amaranth. Saradas.’ Who told Seredic, who told Hilda, who told Hargo, who told Lobelia. No wonder Otho and Lobelia are convinced Frodo isn’t a Baggins.

‘Does Gilda know what you’ve said and to whom?’

‘She’s convinced now Frodo is yours and won’t hear anything else.’

Well, at least there’s someone who considers him a Baggins. ‘Here’s what else you can believe. Prim conceived Frodo in Foreyule. The only men near her at that time were me and Drogo. Pick who you like, I don’t care. It no longer matters; Frodo is mine now. All you need to know is that I will fight tooth and claw to protect his honor and that of his parents.’ Bilbo walked over to Rory and crouched down in front of his cousin, fixing him with a malevolent stare. Rory quailed back against the wall. ‘And know that I will never forgive you for the harm you have brought down upon him.’

Bilbo stood and walked off.


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