1. Relent

POV - Frodo

In which the past arrives to inform the present with a troubling present.


Late Afternoon, Bag End, 10 Afterlithe, 1390

‘Here you go, Sam,’ Frodo said, handing over the trowel.

Sam acknowledged it with a grunt, eyes never leaving the recalcitrant weed he was battling in the kitchen garden. A quick thrust and twist was all it took for the determined lad to uproot the plant. He held it up like a hunting trophy, grinning, before tossing it onto the canvas between them and turning back to the hole from which the defeated weed had been extracted.

Frodo held out his hand for the trowel and went to work on another of the weeds. It did take some effort to dig down along the long taproot, using the trowel to cut away the hairy tendrils that clung to the soil and kept the weed from coming free with a steady pull. Toss it onto the pile and then go back into the dirt, feeling around for the tough strands of its minor roots, evicting them from their hiding places where they clung tenaciously.

“Weeding.” That’s what Bilbo had said he was going to do today, but he did not mean plants.

They had rested for three days after they got back from the Free Fair, doing little besides sitting in the garden, smoking their pipes and chatting with neighbors that happened by. Bilbo had not so much as opened a letter until the third full day back. Whatever he read left him neither pleased nor irritated and he did not share any of it with Frodo. On Highday the sixth, they had strolled down to Bywater in the evening for the dancing and to visit with their kin. Sage and Tulip had claimed both of them for several dances. Monday the seventh had been spent on the ledgers. They had missed working on them while they were gone at the Fair. The last three days had been for Bilbo’s weeding.

Frodo picked the root ends from the handful of dirt and added them to the pile on the canvas. Word of the Moot and the attempt to split the Shire had arrived in Hobbiton a few days after they had and Bilbo was walking about, talking to people, and uprooting noxious ideas and rumors before they had a chance to grow. Frodo had been told that he was to remain at home tending the garden and helping their neighbors along Bagshot Row while Bilbo went on his walks down the Hill and over the Water. His uncle was always quiet when he came back home and Frodo knew better than to pester him with questions or anything else that might raise his ire. He had not seen any more of the ferocious anger or deep sadness that had dogged Bilbo since their walk in the north, but suspected it was more that the old hobbit knew how to cover them up than that they had gone away.

When they finished weeding out the row, Frodo and Sam sat on the front porch bench and drank cider Frodo fetched from the wet pantry. Frodo watched the lane up the Hill for Bilbo, but there was no sign of him.

‘Ma and May are baking pies,’ Sam said, face alight at the thought of the treats. ‘Blackberry and whortleberry.’

‘Mixed together or apart?’

‘Dunno.’ Sam’s forehead wrinkled in concern. ‘Does it matter?’

Frodo chuckled, ‘Not a bit, as long as it’s them doing the cooking.’

Away, at the bottom of the Hill, Frodo saw a horseman turn off the Bywater road and head up the lane. The man dismounted just past the Grange and walked the rest of the way, leading his bay pony. When he got to Bag End, he stopped and smiled.

‘Hello, Frodo.’

‘Hello, Rum.’ Frodo left the porch, Sam trailing behind, and walked over to his cousin.

The Thain was dressed neatly but plainly, his long hair tightly braided as it had been the first time they met. Sam was staring, open-mouthed, at the tall, beautiful hobbit. Rum held out his hand to the boy, who took it. ‘Good afternoon, young man. I am Ferumbras Took. Who are you?’

‘Sam.’ He was still staring in awe at Rum, so Frodo poked him to remind him of his manners, making Sam flush bright red to the roots of his tangled mop of hair. ‘I mean, um, I’m, um, Samwise Gam… I’m very honored to meet you, sir. Samwise Gamgee, at your service and that of your family’s!’ With that, Sam tried to make a grand dwarven bow, the kind Frodo had shown him how to do, but Rum still had his hand and poor Sam nearly ended up falling on his head.

Rum laughed merrily and knelt in the lane, giving Sam a hug. ‘And I am likewise honored to meet you, Master Samwise, and am at your service. Are you a friend of Frodo’s?’

‘Yes! He’s my best friend and he’s teaching me letters and figures and elvish, and we’re weeding the garden until Mister Bilbo gets back and makes supper,’ Sam said in a rush.

‘Ah, that sounds like a good thing to do. I need to wait for Mister Bilbo. May I help you with your garden while I wait?’ Sam nodded. Rum stood and embraced Frodo. ‘It’s good to see you again, lad.’

‘It’s good to see you, too.’ I’m not sure Bilbo will be so pleased.

‘How long will Bilbo be?’ Rum said this over his shoulder as he started walking to the gate to the field across the lane, the pretty pony following him.

‘Not long, maybe an hour.’

Rum took the tack off the pony, checked her feet for stones, opened the gate, and motioned for her to go in. She nuzzled him and walked in. Within a minute, she was rolling on her back scratching the itchy spots the saddle had left. The Thain carried the tack and his saddle bags to the porch, piling them out of the sun, and asked, ‘Where is a bucket I can use to water Lark?’

‘There’s a washtub in the pasture already, but it’s probably dry.’

Rum retrieved the tub from the field, grimacing at the muck that had dried in it since it was last used. He picked it up and carried it to the end of the kitchen garden where the pump was. You don’t need to ask where anything is. It bothered Frodo that Rum was so familiar with Bag End. Rum pumped water into the tub and began scrubbing it out. Sam dashed off and returned within a minute with a scrub brush which Rum accepted with a smile. As soon as the tub was cleaned to Rum’s satisfaction, he carried it back to the field. He came back to the pump, filled the water bucket, and took it over to the washtub. Again, Sam darted away, this time coming back with a second bucket which he filled while Rum carried the first to the field. By the time the elder hobbit got back to the pump, Sam had the second bucket ready. Lark’s tub was filled and ready just as she finished scratching her itches.

The three turned to the task of weeding the kitchen garden. Rum did not hesitate to join in the dirty work and easily picked up and carried the canvas full of weeds so it would not get dragged over any of the rows of vegetables. Frodo felt shy around him and said little, but Sam chattered away, pointing out the things planted in the garden, telling Rum their names in elvish, if he knew them, dispensing wisdom on the best weeding techniques, and generally keeping the Thain entertained. Rum did seem genuinely amused at the pert young fellow.

They had finished another row and Rum stood, picking up the canvas. When he turned to put it into the next row over, he stopped. Frodo turned and saw Bilbo standing in the lane, a basket over his arm, regarding Rum with an unreadable look. His left hand was in his pocket, and his fingers moved, probably toying with the little carved dragon head Uncle Rory had given him on the trip home from the Fair. That was all Bilbo would say about it.

Almost a minute passed before Bilbo spoke. ‘You’ve dumped all your stuff in front of the door. It’s a bit difficult to get in. Why didn’t you put it away?’ While the words were said lightly, there was no humor in the old hobbit’s face.

‘I didn’t know where you wanted it put, or if you wanted it put anywhere, and did not wish to presume.’ Rum’s tone was also light and he smiled, but his hands clenched the canvas tightly and his stance was taut.

There was a long enough pause that Frodo wondered if Bilbo was going to tell their notorious cousin to leave, but Bilbo smiled slightly and waved a hand in the direction of the front door. ‘Put it in your usual room. Where else would it go? Just get it out of the way so I can start making supper.’

Rum’s smile turned into a grin. ‘Yes, Bilbo.’ He put the canvas down beyond the edge of the garden, and strode to the front door, placing a quick kiss on Bilbo’s cheek as he passed. Bilbo watched him go before glancing back at Frodo, his face once more expressionless. With a shrug, he slowly followed Rum.

It was only a few minutes before the back door just past Frodo’s room opened and Rum came out. ‘Bilbo said to stay out here while he puts supper on,’ he informed them. They were soon back to weeding, Rum humming happily to himself. Faintly, Frodo could hear the sounds of Bilbo working in the kitchen. Sam seemed to understand that something was not quite right and ceased his chatter but soon was humming along with Rum, content with the work before him.

‘Sam? Samwise, where ye be?’ they heard Mister Gamgee calling.

‘Here I am, Da!’ Sam said, jumping to his feet as he brushed dirt off his hands. Rum and Frodo also stood. ‘I’m helping in the garden.’

Mister Gamgee ambled into view. ‘Well and it’s close time t’supper, boy. Your ma needs you to fetch some water and tote a few things.’ When he saw Rum, he came to a halt and stared for a moment, brow furrowed, before slowly approaching.

Sam walked over and took his father’s hand, gesturing at Rum. ‘Mister Bilbo and Frodo have a guest!’

Rum followed Sam out of the garden. He gave the gardener a smile and held out his hand. ‘It is good to see you again, Mister Gamgee.’

Mister Gamgee offered his own hand, a bit startled at Rum’s recognition. Rum’s eyes crinkled slightly in amusement at the other’s befuddlement, though his expression was pleasant and respectful. After a minute, Mister Gamgee shook his head, cheeks turning red. ‘I’m, sorry, sir, I know I should know you, but…’

‘Ferumbras Took.’ Rum made a little bow as he said his name.

The gardener’s eyes went wide and he stared in astonishment for a few heartbeats before bobbing his head and vigorously shaking Rum’s hand. ‘Oh. Oh! Oh, sir, Thain, sir, my apologies for not recognizing…’ He stopped babbling and contented himself with another bob of his head.

‘Please, please, call me Rum, as you used to! I haven’t been up here to Hobbiton in years, Mister Gamgee, so no apologies needed,’ Rum assured him, patting him on the shoulder.

‘That’s what had me so turned about, Mister Rum,’ said the gardener, gesturing at Rum’s hair. ‘That’s how Miss Ta would braid hers…’

‘Yes,’ Rum smoothly interrupted, ‘and you’re used to seeing me with a mop like this.’ He reached over and ruffled Sam’s hair, getting a grin, then pinched his nose.

‘It’s good to see you back here, sir. You and your sister were always Mister Bilbo’s dear guests. He needs more happy young folk to pay calls.’

‘Well, I’m not so young anymore, but I’ll do my best to keep Cousin Bilbo in good cheer.’

Mister Gamgee’s look changed and became almost thoughtful. ‘No, not just Mister Bilbo’s guest anymore. The Thain.’ He nodded sharply. ‘We’ve heard of the Moot. Mister Bilbo spoke of what you did. Mister Proudfoot, too, and a number of others from around here who went to the Fair.’

‘That’s why I’m here,’ Rum replied. ‘It is my fault for being such a stranger to the good folk of the Shire and letting scoundrels do hurtful things. Cousin Bilbo has taken me to task for that, and I think it wise to follow his counsel.’

This put Mister Gamgee back on solid footing. ‘Yes, it certainly is, Mister Rum! Mister Bilbo knows strange things and he’s a bit odd and then there’s all those queer folk he knows, dwarves and elves and wizards and the like, but there’s no finer gentlehobbit than him and no one quicker to see through a barn wall than he does.’ He shook a finger at Rum, face stern. ‘You be sure to follow your cousin’s advice. He’ll steer you right as long as he don’t get carried off with those poems of his!’

Rum laughed and allowed as to how it was true, then told Sam to wash his hands at the pump. Rum and Frodo walked the Gamgees down the lane as far as the front porch. Bilbo sat there on the bench, smoking his pipe. Genial greetings were exchanged before Sam and his father set off for home. Rum sat on a porch step and looked at Bilbo, who ignored him and watched the others walking away. Frodo took a seat at Bilbo’s feet. The muscles in his uncle’s leg were tense and Frodo wished there was some way he could get Bilbo to stroke his hair or just rest a hand on his shoulder to relax him.

‘How long are you staying?’ Bilbo’s voice was mild.

‘I’m not sure. Perhaps a few days,’ Rum politely replied. ‘I would like you to explain your ledgers to me and I don’t know how long that will take. I don’t remember them that well. Ta was the one who worked on them with you.’

Ta again. Mister Gamgee knew her. She would have been visiting Mama as Rum was visiting Papa. Frodo was curious at this mention of her working with Bilbo. There were entries in older volumes of the ledgers that were not in Bilbo’s hand, and one hand showed up more than others. Frodo had wondered if they were done by Drogo, but had to reconsider.

‘Hmm, a day or two, probably. They are not too difficult to understand.’ Bilbo relaxed slightly. ‘You should stay through Highday. The summer festival in Hobbiton is then and it would be good for you to be seen at it.’

‘I’ll plan for that. I want to visit with Odo and Sage a bit while I’m here, too.’

‘Yes! That would good.’ Something approaching sincerity entered Bilbo’s voice and he finally looked at Rum. ‘Send them a note and let them know you’re here.’

‘I will. What have you been doing since you got back from the Fair?’

Bilbo’s leg tensed again. ‘Cleaning up after my kin. Speaking of which, you two should wash. Supper will be ready soon.’ With that, Bilbo stood and went into the smial. Rum watched him go in, then sighed and rubbed his face.

‘Has he been like this since you got home?’


Rum sighed again and stood. ‘That’s my fault.’

Frodo stood and glanced in the doorway. He heard Bilbo in the kitchen, but dropped his voice to a murmur anyway to be sure they were not overheard. ‘It’s more than you. He misses you. He does want you here, but the Fair has left him upset.’

Supper was simple – a bowl of bitter greens, fresh bread, butter and honey, squashes stuffed with sausage, herbs and breadcrumbs and roasted in the oven, slices of cheese and fruit, and a tart, yellow-green wine to wash it all down. Talk was mostly about the Highday festival. There was to be an archery contest, games for young and old alike, a small animal show, a huge amount of food, and dancing after sundown. Dessert arrived just as they were finishing. May Gamgee came to the door with a warm blackberry pie in a basket and her mother’s greetings to the Thain in a note Sam had written. There was just enough cream left over from the morning delivery to pour over the slices of pie on their plates.

While Frodo and Bilbo cleaned up after the meal, Rum took Lark down to the barn for the night. Bilbo said nothing as Frodo washed and he dried the dishes, but he was humming a little bit which he would not do were he deeply angry. They were waiting on the porch in the early evening dusk, pipes in hand, when Rum came striding up the Hill.

‘Barn looks the same, Bilbo,’ he said cheerfully, ‘and Lark said she’ll be right at home in it.’ He placed a quick kiss on each of their foreheads as he went into the smial and soon returned with his own pipe and a small leather pouch which he handed to Bilbo. ‘Here’s a present from Andy for the two of you, Longbottom Leaf from his own field.’

Bilbo smiled his first true smile of the day. ‘How thoughtful of him! We must certainly all enjoy a pipe of this tonight.’ He handed the pouch back to Rum, who took his time filling his own pipe.

‘Andy has only good things to say about you, Bilbo,’ he said while he put some shreds of leaf into the bowl of his pipe. Rum looked up, pinning Bilbo with his gaze. ‘Drida has only good things to say about you, too.’

‘And why is that? I do not recall having any words with her.’ Bilbo’s look was just as keen in return, but Frodo did not see any anger in it, only curiosity.

Rum handed the pouch to Frodo and fiddled with his pipe for a moment before answering. ‘She’s grateful to you.’

‘Again, why?’

‘For turning aside her father’s folly, rather than taking advantage of it.’ Rum sighed, his expression a bit sad. ‘She knows he’s not right in the head, not anymore, and it grieves her because she loves him a great deal. Drida thinks others have been using him shamelessly.’

‘She’s right, they have.’ Bilbo’s look now was sympathetic. Frodo held his tongue and tried to not do anything to interrupt the conversation. Make him happy, Rum. Remind him of all the good he is doing.

‘So, she’s grateful that you did not allow him to be made the sole owner of the mischief done, that you called out the township leaders and clan heads in Eastfarthing for their failings, and that you took Rory to task, too.’

‘That was my pleasure.’ Bilbo held out his hand for the leaf pouch and started making up a pipe for himself.

‘She’s also grateful that you made Car take his lumps. Her and Andy.’ Rum’s look was now amused. ‘Evidently you persuaded Odogar to put Car on a very short leash, one that will keep him in Scary. Rosa, too.’ Rum grinned. ‘Is that true?’ Bilbo smirked and nodded. ‘That may be what makes Andy and Drida happiest, keeping Rosa out of Tuckborough.’

Frodo was confused by this exchange. He knew the couples were also siblings (Odogrim had explained it to him, once), but did not understand how Rosa was involved in Car’s misbehavior. Maybe she was helping to arrange things with Pal. It also sounded like Bilbo was responsible for Odogar chastising Car, which made no sense either.

‘The best news is that Drida supports Bertie being in charge of Eastfarthing for now. She likes him and Poppy. She also thinks well of Griffo Boffin. She called him cousin.’

Bilbo thought for a minute, head cocked, then nodded. ‘Right, Jess was Dugo’s younger sister.’ He nodded again and puffed his pipe. ‘Good, that puts one of Odogar’s own children in support of Bertie and make it easier for Bertie to work with Griffo.’

Rum drew on his pipe, held in the smoke, eyes closed, savoring it, then let it out in a slow stream. Without opening his eyes, he said, ‘Andy says I have his support as long as I do what you think best.’ His eyes opened. ‘And as long as I conduct myself as you would.’ Rum snorted and drew again on the pipe. ‘I don’t think I’m quite ready to become an old maid,’ he said with a smirk and moved his lips in a rather provocative way on the pipe stem.

‘You will need Andy’s support if…’

‘I know that!’ Rum snapped, all seductiveness gone. Frodo groaned inwardly. Please don’t start fighting! Bilbo and Rum glared at each other. ‘I know exactly how tenuous my hold on my station is, Bilbo. As long as Pal believed himself to be as good as Thain, to be it, he could ignore me. It hasn’t helped that you ignored me, too.’ Bilbo ducked his head at that. ‘Pal now knows he won’t be left to order things as he pleases, so he’s going to do his best to oust me before the harvest moot, probably in late Wedmath when the family is gathered for Uncle Gis’ birthday.’ For several heartbeats, the two older hobbits looked at each other until Rum looked away. He toyed with his pipe, then sighed. ‘Which is why I am here, Bilbo. So that if I can avoid being sent off, I will be able to do what I should have been doing all along.’

After some silence, Bilbo asked, ‘Why are you so sure of this, what Pal will try?’

‘Andy, mostly. Odogar warned him and Drida that Pal…’ Rum glanced quickly at Frodo, ‘…had plans where both of us were concerned. And his first step is to oust me.’

Bilbo made no answer to this and his expression became the still mask he had worn when he first saw Rum. They finished their pipes in silence. After knocking the ashes out, they went back into the smial. Rum bade them both good night and went to his room. Bilbo fussed with a few things in the parlor and in his study before putting his pipe in its stand and heading to bed. Just as they passed Rum’s room, the door opened and their cousin stood there, a bundle in his hands, looking apologetic.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I completely forgot. I have a stack of letters for each of you.’ He undid the twine holding the bundle together and unwrapped the cloth. ‘Here are some for you, Frodo. The big one is from Blossom and the rest are from the children.’ Frodo eagerly took the stack Rum held out and began looking through it. Aunt Blossom, Gin, Amy, Gin, Pearl, Gin, Dottie, Marmalas, Gin…

‘Thank you,’ he said, glad that there was something if not precisely happy, then at least a bit less grim, on which to end the evening.

‘Even more for you, Bilbo,’ Rum continued, flipping through the remaining envelopes. Bilbo’s expression remained hard. ‘Addy and Andy, a few from Gis, one from Petunia, and, well,’ Rum handed over the stack along with the wrapping cloth. ‘I’ll let you sort through it. Oh, and this one, from Rory.’ Rum pulled one from the middle and placed it on top. ‘He didn’t want it to go by messenger.’ With another “good night” and kiss on the cheek for each of them, Rum went back in his room and shut the door.

Morning, Bag End, 11 Afterlithe, 1390

Frodo was woken by the smell of breakfast being made. He dressed quickly and hurried out, hearing Bilbo at work in the kitchen. Hopefully they would have a few minutes before Rum emerged.

Bilbo was bustling about the kitchen, humming loudly and happily. Bacon was sizzling merrily in one pan while potatoes and onions were slowly browning in another. A tray laden with butter, preserves and honey sat at the end of the counter next to a bowl piled high with blue and brown eggs. The bread basket held a loaf of bread from the baker’s shop down in Hobbiton and several of Bilbo’s own delicious quick breads; from the smell in the kitchen, Frodo wagered Bilbo had baked them this morning very early. The old hobbit was mixing up griddle cake batter, pausing now and then to stir the potatoes or turn the bacon. Bilbo turned and saw Frodo standing there, face breaking into a wonderful smile.

‘Frodo, lad! I didn’t wake you up, did I?’

For a moment, Frodo could not speak, so amazed was he at the sight of Bilbo’s joy. He had not seen his uncle this happy since some time in Thrimidge. No, since before then. He grinned back and shook his head. ‘No, Uncle. The smells woke me up and I had to come see.’

Bilbo held out arms for a hug which Frodo was all too glad to give him. ‘Good! Though you’ve spoiled the surprise.’ Bilbo turned back to the stove and deftly turned over potatoes with one hand while pulling bacon out of the pan and onto a waiting platter with the other, spoon and tongs flashing. ‘I wanted to have this all done and ready for you to eat as soon as you got up.’ The extra bacon fat got poured off into the grease jar at the back of the stove and some new rashers replaced those now cooked. Into the warm oven went the bacon platter.

‘But you need someone to help get this ready. We have a guest.’

Bilbo laughed and waved his hand in the general direction of the bedrooms. ‘Oh, Rum. He’s not a guest. If you want to help, get yourself a bite of bread and jam and then lay the table in here.’

‘Not the dining room?’

‘No. That needs to be set up for going over ledgers,’ Bilbo replied absently, placing a griddle over the fire hole at the back of the stove. Frodo cut a slice of still-warm quick bread, studded with nuts and raisins and flavored with wonderful spices, quickly ate it, then followed that with a slice of ordinary bread slathered with butter and the strawberry jam Aunt Tulip had sent home with them last Highday. Bilbo set a mug of tea on the table, giving Frodo a kiss on the temple as he did. Frodo set out three plates, mugs and silverware, ate another slice of nutty quick bread, and went to set out the ledgers in the dining room. He tried to be quiet as he went back and forth to the study so he would not disturb Rum. Bilbo might not call him a guest, but he was one, just as Aunt Prisca or Uncle Wili would be.

When he got back to the kitchen, the bacon was done and the potatoes close to done. Bilbo was making griddle cakes, turning them at just the right second so they were brown and a bit crisped, but not burned. Frodo considered eating another slice of the nut bread, but decided he needed to save room for everything else. He wondered if he dared beg a slice of bacon.

‘Not long now, Wilwarin,’ Bilbo said absently, as though he could read Frodo’s mind, and put a few more cakes on their platter before putting it in the oven to join the bacon. The potatoes were turned once more, then Bilbo spooned them into a big bowl that he set to the side, covered with a tea towel to keep them warm. ‘As soon as Rum is back, I’ll fry up the eggs.’

‘Back? Where is he?’

‘Getting his pony from the barn.’

Frodo nodded. Of course he would go take care of Lark first thing. Just like Mac. In Buckland, a good farmer took care of his stock before his own breakfast. He sipped his tea while he watched Bilbo and thought about how different things were here at Bag End from Brandy Hall. There, even young children had chores to do about the smial, necessary work to keep it all running and everyone cared for. You swept grates and floors, picked things up, carried things, washed pots, put candles into lanterns, and other simple tasks. Older children would help in the kitchen, in the fields and orchards, with poultry, sheep and goats, and in the laundry. Once he turned tween, Uncle Rory had said Frodo was old enough to help with the big livestock in the barns, but not near the bulls, boars, rams or stallions. Only the grown men were allowed near them, for they could be mean and dangerous. He was also doing repair work on sheds and fences, though mostly he held tools and fetched things for Mac or Seredic. He had not been sent to the Loom Hall, which Uncle Rory deemed too dangerous for such a young tween. He had been disappointed at the time because Tom worked there, but was now relieved that he had not spent more time in the other boy’s company.

I was being trained to be a farmer, not a gentlehobbit. The gardening he did here was nothing like the farming he had seen his various kin and neighbors perform in Buckland, or that he had done himself at their direction. There was no time in Brandy Hall for studying elvish. There was always a chore that awaited you, or a chair where you could sit and rest once a chore was done. Instead of poetry, there were songs and beer to amuse you in the evenings. Everyone dances, though. There was not much time for curiosity and fancies, but always time for some roughhousing and silly stories.

The sound of the front door opening brought him out of his thoughts. A moment later, Rum showed up in the kitchen doorway, hair in a loose braid, wearing worn clothes as he had in Michel Delving when working in the barn. ‘I’m back,’ he said, ‘but I’m a mess. Let me clean up.’

‘I’m about to start the eggs, so don’t dawdle,’ Bilbo replied with a smile just as nice as Rum’s. Frodo began setting food on the table as Bilbo skillfully cracked eggs into the skillet the bacon had cooked in. They sizzled in the grease, their whites making the yolks into daisies. Just as Bilbo put them onto a serving plate, Rum came in neatly dressed and with his hair tied back in a simple ponytail. He took the plate from Bilbo as they exchanged a kiss on the cheek and brought them to the table while Bilbo neatened a few things and took off his apron.

‘Good morning, Frodo,’ Rum said, giving him a strong hug and a kiss. By the time Bilbo came to the table, Rum had filled a plate and set it before him.

‘Thank you, brat,’ Bilbo said as he poured tea for them all. Rum smiled again and began heaping his own plate with the wonderful food Bilbo had cooked. Frodo lost no time following the Thain’s example. Once the edge was taken off his own hunger, he began watching the other two. For once, Bilbo seemed to have an appetite, eating heartily instead of picking at things. Rum ate like Uncle Rory, mixing all his food together, mashing his eggs into the potatoes so the yolks coated it all, layering bacon, butter and honey in the griddle cakes, using his bread like a knife to push it all onto his fork, and he took big bites, washing it down with gulps of tea. When Frodo got up to put more hot water in the tea pot, he saw that Rum had his feet around one of Bilbo’s, as though he was holding Bilbo’s hand.

After he had emptied his plate and refilled it, Rum said, ‘I saw Odo this morning, Bilbo. He sends his regards and said that we are expected down there for supper tonight or Sage will never speak to us again.’

‘That sounds an excellent idea.’

The two talked about what Rum had seen on his walk down and back up the Hill, mostly ignoring Frodo, though Rum did ask him an occasional question. Frodo felt a little jealous, watching them enjoying each other’s company, but mostly he was relieved that Bilbo was happy. Just like with Uncle Rory, angry one day, best friends the next. He forbade himself to think of what Rum might have done as a peace offering. When they went to the dining room to work on the ledgers, Rum put his hand on the small of Bilbo’s back, which Bilbo did not seem to mind. Frodo began to dislike Rum’s familiarity.

Bilbo motioned for Rum to sit next to Frodo and sat on the other side of the table. The joyful cheer of the morning subsided somewhat and the look on Bilbo’s face became serious. ‘What do you remember, if anything, of my ledgers?’

Rum’s expression also became more sober. ‘Almost nothing. Just that you did them every month or so and there were letters as well as figures.’ He flashed a quick grin. ‘I was usually off with Drogo and Prim while you and Ta did the hard work.’

‘As I well remember,’ Bilbo drily replied, fixing Rum with a stern glance. ‘Frodo,’ Bilbo said crisply, ‘please show the Thain the ledger and explain what you did with it this week.’ With that, Bilbo sat back and looked at him expectantly.

After a moment’s astonishment, Frodo swallowed and nodded. ‘Of course, Uncle Bilbo.’ He stood, opened the ledger to the most recent page and spread out various letters and notes upon the table. ‘As you said, the ledger gets updated every month, as close to the last day as we can manage. It was done late this time because of the Fair. I usually start by setting out the letters in the order they came in, and then divided up by the farthing they came from…’

For the next few hours, Frodo described how he managed Bilbo’s ledgers, explaining how they kept track of the letters coming in, what decided important news from mere gossip, what needed attention now and what could wait. Rum paid close attention and had many questions, often reading letters and offering details he knew of. Bilbo wrote some of this down, but otherwise stayed silent, sipping his tea, replenishing theirs, leaving when Missus Gamgee and Daisy came to tend the smial to speak to them about things, allowing Frodo to educate the Thain. When they got to the end, their lunch was ready. They sat around the dining table, careful not to spill anything on the papers, and ate the bread, cheese, pickles and ale Daisy brought in to them. Rum was thoughtful as he ate, studying the letters.

‘It’s what I already do, but it’s written down. With numbers,’ he finally said, glancing at Bilbo. The old hobbit smiled a little and raised an eyebrow. ‘You’re just keeping track of what people are up to.’ Rum’s expression became mischievous. ‘The nosiest old hen in the Shire, that’s what you are, cousin.’

‘Well, it starts with that,’ Bilbo said, ‘but it’s more than just gossip. I’m always looking to see what might be made better, particularly if the betterment can be spread about.’

Rum nodded and turned the pages in the ledger, looking at earlier months. ‘Why didn’t you know sooner what was going on with Odogar?’ He glanced sharply at Bilbo. ‘There should have been something.’

‘Yes, there probably was. Frodo, what was there and why did we miss it?’ Bilbo looked at him expectantly.

Frodo looked at the ledger, trying to come up with an answer that would not sound like an excuse. His mind was blank. Think of something, Baggins! Bilbo wouldn’t ask you if the answer wasn’t right there in front of us. Right in front of them. He looked at Bilbo’s hands.

‘Because it was like the Parting. We didn’t know what to look for or that we should even be looking. It was things that weren’t there, but should have been.’ Bilbo nodded, though his expression was not happy. ‘It was… in the stone that wasn’t available for other things. That Uncle Rufus wasn’t bringing in the timber that he needed for road repairs. Roots that didn’t get sent to market, or markets that ran out of them too early in the year.’ Rum nodding along with Bilbo at this, and began making notes on a piece of paper. Frodo looked at Bilbo, having run out of examples.

‘Most of all, Rum, I should have noticed that coin was going into Eastfarthing and not coming out as more,’ Bilbo said firmly. ‘I don’t know exactly where it has gone…’

‘Besides to Pal?’

‘I think I’ve tracked down most of that. It was a nice windfall for him, but not that much.’ Bilbo swallowed some ale, then shook his head. ‘Odogar swore that he didn’t hoard it, that he sent the gold back out, but I can’t find it. My cousin, Brand Bunce, said that he knows of nowhere it’s been spent. He also said Odogar only started asking for gold in Afteryule.’ He was silent a long while, then said softly, as though to himself, ‘When Odogar came to me at the inn on Solstice night, I saw things as he did for a short time, as he described them, all the industry and commerce he envisioned for the Shire. Everything moved, except the gold, which went into a single big pile, like Smaug’s golden couch.’ There was another long silence. ‘It wasn’t in the caverns under Granite Bank. I looked.’ Bilbo studied the back of his own hand, lost in thought.

Rum watched Bilbo think as he finished his lunch. He stood, gathered their dirty plates and cups, and took them to the kitchen. Frodo could hear him complimenting Missus Gamgee, charming her and Daisy as he charmed everyone. Bilbo did not move until Rum came back in, and then merely instructed Frodo to explain how things spent were tracked in the ledger. That took the rest of the afternoon. Again, Rum was attentive and had many questions, this time directing quite a few to Bilbo to explain why he took up some interests and not others. This was illuminating, both for the answers Bilbo gave and for how easily Rum tied things in Bilbo’s ledger to news they had heard at the Moot. He obviously understood how much of the Shire’s prosperity was driven by Bilbo’s quiet interventions. At the end, Rum nodded his head.

‘I need to do something like this for Southfarthing, Bilbo, but what I really need to do is just use what you already pull together. No point in both of us trying to record the same thing.’ He thought a minute, brow creased. ‘Do you think it would be worth trying to get Wilcar or Rufus to do this for their farthings?’

‘Yes, but it should come as your idea, and they should copy what you are doing.’

They decided that they should begin strolling down the Hill to Odo and Sage’s farm, taking their time. Rum told Lark to follow them, which she did. It was nice to walk after sitting down all day. The neighbors who were out waved hello and often walked over to exchange a few words. Everyone was dazzled by their marvelous Thain, who smiled and complimented and praised and flirted, reveling in their attention. They left Lark at the barn on the way by, Rum promising to tuck her in for the night later. Odo and Sage greeted them cheerfully and they were soon seated behind the farmhouse under an arbor roofed with grapevines, chatting with the family. Supper was a long, enjoyable affair, with many delicious dishes and plenty of wine, and it went on until well past sundown. As though by agreement, they did not talk about the events at the Fair, but spoke instead about Olo and Ida’s soon to be born child, some minor gossip from the Great Smials, and the Highday festival in Hobbiton. Through it all, Bilbo was jolly, happier than Frodo could remember seeing him.

Eventually, they made their farewells and began the long walk back to Bag End. Sage packed a bundle of dainties for each of them, and they were not allowed to leave without many hugs and kisses and promises of meeting up at the festival. Frodo, weary from the long day and a full stomach, dropped behind the other two as they walked along. After a bit, Rum took Bilbo’s hand and they walked like that, talking quietly until they reached the barn. Rum gave Bilbo a kiss on the lips and touched his cheek lightly before going to check on his pony.

A feeling of loneliness took hold of Frodo’s heart as he watched Bilbo. The old hobbit was humming absently, looking towards the barn. The starlight washed away all age from his face and the slight smile on his lips made him beautiful. He looked at Frodo and his smile broadened, and Bilbo held out his hand which Frodo swiftly seized. Bilbo kissed his forehead.

‘You did wonderfully today, Frodo.’ His uncle squeezed his hand. ‘You explained the ledgers better than I could have.’

Frodo knew it was more than a bit of flattery, but he did not care. He found he did not like the idea of Rum taking some of Bilbo’s ledgers any more than he liked Rum taking Bilbo’s hand. But he’s making Bilbo happy. For now. Happier than you’ve made him, Baggins. Frodo squeezed Bilbo’s hand in return and tried to smile.

‘You’re happy. I like seeing you happy.’

Bilbo chuckled, ‘Yes, Wilwarin. I am quite content.’

‘You seemed so unhappy yesterday. When Rum first showed up.’ That came out before he could think better of it.

The old hobbit’s face became more serious and he studied Frodo for a moment. ‘I’m trying, Frodo. As you asked.’

‘Trying what?’

‘To not be a dragon. To… turn aside foolish things.’ Bilbo sighed and pulled Frodo closer, putting an arm around his shoulders. He leaned into his uncle’s embrace, fighting back a sudden impulse to cry. ‘You’re right, Wilwarin. It’s not good for me to be such a grumpy old man. It’s summer, it’s pleasant, and I have you.’ Bilbo touched his forehead to Frodo’s. ‘I don’t need more than that.’

Frodo could not resist pushing a bit. ‘But you have more. Rum is making you happy.’

That made Bilbo snort. ‘For once!’ He hugged Frodo to him again before stepping back, but he did not let go Frodo’s hand. ‘Our rotten cousin is finally trying to be what I always said he should be, so that’s pleasing me, yes. But, mostly, I’m just trying to be happy.’

Rum was soon back and they returned to Bag End. Frodo did not relinquish Bilbo’s hand on the walk back and Rum seemed content to walk beside them, humming to himself. When they got back, they sat on the benches in the garden and smoked their pipes in companionable silence, then bade each other good night and went to their rooms. Frodo lay in bed, thinking about the great change that had come over Bilbo. He wanted to believe he had caused it, not Rum. He’s not been happy like this since Long Cleave, when you were such a brat and made him so sad. Frodo wished again that he had said nothing, could somehow take back the words, go back to being… not that little boy, not the Rat, but someone who could sit with Bilbo and let him touch his hair and be all that he needed. He wanted Rum to go home now so he could sit with Bilbo.

He heard Bilbo’s door open and then the door to Rum’s room. Though he strained, he could not hear anything else, then there was some laughter, low voices and then nothing distinct, though he thought they were talking. He hoped the soft sounds he could just make out was talking. He wondered if this also had happened last night after he fell asleep, or this morning before he woke. If this was the peace offering. After entirely too long, the door to Rum’s room opened and shut and Bilbo went back to his own room.

Morning, Bag End, 12 Afterlithe, 1390

Frodo slept fitfully and was already awake when he heard Bilbo leave his room in the morning. In a trice, he was dressed and went to the kitchen to keep his uncle company. Bilbo made a bit of a face at him when Frodo appeared in the kitchen doorway and shook his head.

‘Frodo, what are you doing up? It’s early!’

‘Don’t know, I just did.’ He went to Bilbo and gave his uncle hug, getting one in return. Bilbo was smiling after that. ‘I don’t want you doing all the breakfast work.’

‘It’s nothing, lad, truly,’ Bilbo assured him, getting water for the kettle.

‘I can peel potatoes.’                                  

‘You can drink some tea, and I’ll join you. Then we can think about potatoes. The milk and eggs should be at the door. Go get them while I fix our tea.’ Soon, they were both sitting at the kitchen table, drinking tea and nibbling on slices of yesterday’s quick bread. It was a little dry but the tea solved that problem. Bilbo did not eat with quite the eagerness of yesterday, but it was still more than he had shown since before the Fair. When their mugs were about half empty, Bilbo gave Frodo a measuring look.

‘So, what is your estimation of our Thain, Wilwarin?’ Bilbo’s voice was clear, but low.

‘He’s right. He should have been doing this years ago.’ Frodo kept his expression stern and his voice slightly cold. This got a sharp nod and snort from the old hobbit. ‘He had your example in front of him the whole time.’ Frodo held Bilbo’s eyes. ‘And not just keeping ledgers.’

A little red came to Bilbo’s cheeks and Frodo did not understand the expression on his uncle’s face. ‘Yes, he did.’ Bilbo dropped his eyes and took a sip of tea. ‘Not all of my examples were… commendable.’

“He wanted me to love him and I didn’t. Maybe I seduced him. More than a few lay his corruption at my feet.” Bilbo’s words from barely two weeks before came back to Frodo, and he realized that perhaps Rum was not the only one doing some wooing with this visit. He remembered the sudden, deep kiss Bilbo had given Rum that first evening, making the Thain flee, so at odds with Bilbo’s claim to have no desire for anyone anymore. Rum wants Bilbo like Car wanted him. Like I wanted… Frodo took a big swallow of tea and shrugged away Bilbo’s words. ‘The way you have brought our cousins together to do what is right for the Shire is very commendable and is what the Thain should have done.’ No, Rum, I won’t be charmed by you. ‘What did you say to Rory and Odo? That they needed to work with Rum? Well, Rum needs to work with them, be the person we saw at the Moot, the person who can understand not just how our ledgers work, but why, and do for the Shire as you have been doing.’

This brought a pleased look to Bilbo’s face and he nodded. ‘Precisely.’ He ate a bite of the bread and washed it down with tea. ‘And today is for getting his ledger in order.’

Down the hallway, they heard the object of their conversation leaving his room. A moment later, Rum stood in the doorway, dressed for barn work. He gave them a grin. ‘It’s a lovely morning, cousins! What say you to a stroll down the Hill to fetch my girl while the day is still cool?’

‘I have breakfast to make, brat,’ Bilbo replied with a matching grin, ‘and don’t care to be smelling horse turds at this hour’. He stood and went over to the stove to poke the fire to life. ‘Frodo, why don’t you go? Breakfast will be ready for you boys by the time you get back.’

‘Yes, let’s go, Frodo, and leave old Grumpy here to his pots and pans,’ Rum teased. ‘We’ll be back in the hour, Bilbo,’ he said as he walked away. Frodo hurried after him. He would have preferred to stay with Bilbo, but it seemed that the old hobbit wanted him to go with Rum.

The morning was cool, the sun barely over the horizon and still wrapped in her morning quilt of rose and peach. The sky had not even a hint of cloud and the day promised to be hot. There were a few people about, but they stayed in their fields or before their smials, getting work done before the day was too far gone. Rum waved at anyone he saw as they made their way down the Hill lane.

Frodo tried to put aside his misgivings about Rum. Whatever the reason, whatever he did, Bilbo is happy again. Would you rather what went before? It took him several yards before he could speak. ‘You did it.’

‘Did what, Frodo?’

‘Made Bilbo happy again.’ Frodo made himself look at Rum. The sun caught the man’s forelock, making it gleam silver against his chestnut hair. ‘Thank you.’

‘I told you. I love you both.’ He sighed. ‘I gave him grief in Michel Delving. It is my fault he left so grim. He was quite rightly angry with me.’

‘But now you’ve made him happy.’

That got a humorless bark of laughter. ‘Happy? I’ve never made Bilbo happy. I have sometimes been able to provide him with some pleasure, but he’s never been happy with me. He’s always been disappointed with what I do, especially with what I do with him.’ Rum gave Frodo a sharp glance. ‘Being Thain, this is the most approval he’s ever shown me, and I’d rather not.’

‘Why not? You’re good at it.’

‘I am very good at a lot of things, Frodo,’ he replied in a slightly arch tone, ‘some of which Grumpy couldn’t even imagine. Besides,’ he went on in a quieter voice, ‘you’re what makes him happy. The only people who have ever made him truly happy are you and Drogo. The rest of us disappoint him.’

‘Bilbo’s happier than I’ve seen him since before the Fair. He is happy you’re here to see him.’

‘I’m not here to see Bilbo. I’m here to see you.’ Rum gave him a warm smile, not the dazzling one he used of the neighbors or the teasing, flirtatious smile he offered Bilbo, but something true and heartfelt. Frodo felt a bit ashamed at all the harsh things he had been thinking of Rum given the affection the other offered. Frodo held out his hand, making Rum smile like Sam coming up with a clever rhyme. They walked a few dozen yards before Rum dropped his hand, expression becoming serious.

‘Bilbo probably would prefer I leave you in ignorance, Frodo, but you should know the reason for my trip here. I don’t think he’ll tell you because he doesn’t want to burden you, but you deserve to know.’

‘If it’s a confidence, you shouldn’t say it.’

‘It’s something you already know about, though not all.’ Rum gathered his thoughts. ‘The night we met, when I argued so terribly with Bilbo, I spoke of a letter Rory had sent to Pal.’

‘I remember.’

‘That letter is what made Bilbo upset. Someone as hateful and ruthless as Pal in possession of a letter calling your paternity into question, that infuriated him.’ Frodo wanted give himself a slap upside the head for not understanding just how dangerous that letter was. He had only really considered what it said about Uncle Rory’s doubts and not how someone like Pal might make use of it. ‘Then, there were my own… stupid words about you and him.’ Rum sighed. ‘He told me I was not welcome here ever again, that he never wanted me to come near either of you. I couldn’t bear that, not when I had just got you both back. I followed Andy’s advice and conducted myself exactly as Bilbo would have.’ Rum gave Frodo an amused look. ‘I burgled the letter.’

What?’ Frodo stopped, mouth agape, while Rum grinned. ‘You stole Uncle Rory’s letter?’

The Thain laughed merrily and started walking again. ‘Let’s say I exchanged it for a better one. On the way to Whitwell, I cornered Rory and had a few words with him and made him write something else.’ Rum’s voice was not so cheerful now. ‘He’s done us all a bad turn when he tried to hide you away with Pal, and he needed to make amends. So, he gave me a new letter and I swapped it out for the awful one. After I did that, Rory challenged Pal about it, saying Pal had been deceiving people on what he’d written. Addy and Blossom were there, Mac and Dilly, too, and Pal got the letter, thinking he’d do some mischief but just ended up making a greater ass of himself.’

They were almost to the barn. Rum strode briskly into it and greeted Lark with a whinny which she returned. For a minute, he did nothing but scratch her forehead and exchange soft nickers. A barn cat was right there at his ankles, purring. ‘And that news, not me, is what has made Bilbo so happy. He’s been dreading what Pal would do for revenge with that letter, and now he’s defanged.’

‘Pal didn’t figure out what you did?’

‘Oh, he knew as soon as he started unfolding the letter that it wasn’t the original, but there wasn’t much he could do about it, not with people watching.’

‘You weren’t afraid you’d get caught?’

Rum turned from the horse and held Frodo’s eyes. ‘I told you, I swore to you, that I would do anything for you that was in my power to do. And I did.’ With a swift kiss on Frodo’s forehead, he went back to caring for Lark. He poured oats from a sack into a bucket and set that down a few feet away from the stall before letting her out. She was soon nibbling the treat while he got a dung bucket, rake and shovel to begin cleaning her stall. Frodo climbed up of the side of the stall to stay out of the way.

‘I didn’t just take Rory’s letter,’ Rum said as he raked, ‘I collected a few from dear little Esmeralda as well. She’s just as vile as I remember. I gave them all to Bilbo so he can dispose of them as he pleases. He needed to see them to trust what I was telling him.’ The straw and manure was soon in a pile and Rum started shoveling them into the bucket. ‘You should know what is in them. They said shocking things.’ Rum stopped and looked at Frodo. ‘You needn’t explain yourself or tell me anything. I just want you to know. Bilbo may ask you about what is in them. If there is truth to any part of it, I hope you have already spoken to him of it.’

In a minute, the stall mess was collected in the bucket and Rum carried it out back to the manure pile. When he returned, he pulled a few brushes from his saddlebag and set to work grooming Lark. Frodo took a brush and went to work on her off side.

‘The letter from Rory, he didn’t just call you bastard. He said you had unnatural tastes and were leading other boys astray and getting them into perverse habits.’ Rum snorted. ‘I know that’s not true. Perhaps he should have held his tongue, but when I spoke to Addy about what had happened to Gin, he said Bilbo had named the same bullies who attacked Gin as having done much the same to you in Buckland. Bilbo and Rory, the way they talked about the Burrows boy and the others, that also gave me some ideas.’ He glanced at Frodo who nodded.

‘Yes, that’s what went on. Bargo, Hamson and Odogrim. And… Tom.’ No, I won’t lie for you anymore.

Rum stopped brushing. ‘The boy hanging about with you and Gin?’

Frodo nodded again. ‘He was getting picked on, too, but that didn’t stop him from joining in when they went after me.’

‘Hmm.’ He returned to brushing. ‘Does Bilbo know of this? All of them? You’ve talked to him?’

‘I told him last Harvest. That’s why he brought me home so suddenly, to get me away from them. He knows all about it.’

‘Good!’ Rum hummed a bit, brow wrinkled. ‘That was all that was bad in Rory’s letter. The rest was from Esmie, and it’s probably lies, knowing her. She repeated Rory’s claims about you corrupting the other boys. She also said that you were servicing grown men regularly, and that you were lying with at least one of them.’ Rum gave him another brief glance. ‘If there is any truth to her wicked words, or even just that you know the lie, I hope you’ve talked to Bilbo about it.’

‘When were her letters? The same time as Rory’s?’

‘Two earlier, most just before or after his letter, a few later. Those claimed that Bilbo had taken you for his own…’ Rum’s jaw clenched. ‘I can’t even say that. Not now. I hope you can forgive me for ever saying such ugly things.’

She knew. All of it. The other men, too, not just Sara. If Bilbo asked, he did not know if he could lie. ‘Not… complete… lies. Exaggerated,’ Frodo said firmly, keeping his eyes on Lark. ‘Odogrim, he had come of age, so I guess he counts as grown. Bargo almost was.’

‘That’s her lie, then.’

‘And one grown man.’ That’s my lie. A rat’s lie. No, it’s… nothing. There’s only one that counts. ‘Sara.’

Rum gasped and stared at him in shock. It was the same look of horror he had seen on Bilbo’s face in Buckland when he let the secret out. It was several heartbeats before Rum spoke. ‘I know of two men named Sara in Buckland. Which…’

‘Her husband, Cousin Sara. Not my uncle. Big Sara wouldn’t do such a thing.’

‘What did he…’ Rum bit his lip, shaking his head. ‘No, you needn’t say anything, except, please, say that Bilbo knows of this!’

‘Some of it. About servicing the boys, yes. He knows… some about Sara. Uncle Rory and Aunt Gilda, they know about Sara. And Mac. Obviously Esmie knew. She knew all along. No one else.’

Frodo weighed whether to tell Rum any more. What you’ve told Bilbo. ‘Sara made me mouth him after he caught out the others using me. After that, if he found out I’d done something wrong, and Tom was always tattling on me, he said I could pick sucking him or getting a thrashing as my punishment.’ He shrugged again and hoped his voice was steady. ‘I picked what hurt less until I couldn’t stand the taste of him anymore and picked a thrashing. I had to put up with both that day and I didn’t get a choice after.’

‘That is disgusting,’ the Rum said, and his hands were clenched.

‘You want men to suck you. You told Car to do it. Isn’t that the same?’ Frodo challenged.

Rum glared. ‘No. I’d never touch a child. Were you even a tween when he started this?’ Frodo shook his head. ‘You’re not even twenty-five now – you’re practically a baby! And I’d never punish someone with my cock. Cocks are for fun or for breeding, not this.’

‘So, that’s what Bilbo knows.’

‘But there’s more.’

Frodo nodded. Let’s see if you can keep a secret. ‘Sometimes, he’d… come to my room.’

Rum waited. When Frodo refused to go on, he sighed a little and went back to brushing the pony. Several minutes went by. ‘Why won’t you tell Bilbo all of it?’

‘It makes him so angry.’

‘Not angry at you?’

‘No, but… horribly angry. In ways that… scare me. It’s... It’s connected to the Parting, that’s the only way I know to describe it. It hurts him, leaves him drained and worn. Worse than what you’ve seen.’ The look of concern on Rum’s face deepened. ‘Sara can’t hurt me anymore, so it’s done.’

‘I doubt Bilbo would agree…’

‘Which is why I’m not telling him any more than I have.’

‘Bilbo may not accept your silence. He good at puzzling things out.’ Rum held his hand out for the brush Frodo was using and took both brushes back to the saddle bag. ‘Bilbo and Drogo left the Great Smials after Aunt Bella died and came here to Bag End. After they left, an older cousin of mine took advantage of their absence to do some awful things to me. I had my own Sara.’ He came back and put his hands on Frodo’s shoulders. ‘Anything, anything, you wish to say, no matter how bad, I will hear it and in confidence. I will not tell Bilbo that you know about these letters.’ With a second kiss on his forehead, Rum began walking away, nickering to Lark who obediently followed him. ‘We’d best get back or Bilbo will worry something’s happened.’


The evening was like the one before, warm and long. Sam had delivered a basket of shortcakes and a bowl of the last strawberries of the season, drizzled with honey and sweet vinegar and mixed into a bit of whipped cream for their dessert, and nothing would satisfy Rum but that the lad sit and have it with them. The Rumbles strolled by as they sat in the garden after supper with their pipes and talked for a bit, and they could hear children shouting and laughing as they played some game down along the Row.

The day had been much like the one before, but this time Frodo worked with Rum to get the Thain’s own ledgers set to right while Bilbo watched. Rum did not have letters but he did not need them; they were all in his head along with everything he had observed. Most of the work was deciding what figures Rum needed to keep since he did not have anything like the interests Bilbo maintained. He questioned Bilbo closely on all that he did in Southfarthing.

‘Cousin,’ he said as he studied figures for a small lumber mill in Pincup, ‘I am going to require you to tell me all that you are doing down south and to let me toss in some coin here and there.’ He gave Bilbo a wry look. ‘It’s not right that you are taking better care of my farthing than I am.’

‘I will,’ Bilbo assured him.

‘And I’ve decided that Addy is going to run the Longbottom market, though I intend to be quite involved, at least at the start.’ His look was measuring. ‘Do you still advise a certain person be included?’

‘That depends on what happens between now and the end of the year,’ Bilbo replied. The two shrugged and went on, not explaining their exchange to Frodo. When they finished their work, Rum was pleased with what he had to take home. He was going to use reports from village headmen and those of the Tooks he trusted to keep an eye on how the farthing fared.

Rum stretched out his legs and blew an impressive smoke ring. ‘When I have a few months of reports, I’ll take it to Wilcar and see if he’d like to try something similar.’

‘Let me and Falco know if you’d like us to meet you,’ Bilbo said after sending one of his own off into the night sky.

‘Of course! Are you still planning to tramp about Southfarthing this summer?’

‘Yes, we are!’ Bilbo said cheerfully. Frodo smiled at the prospect of a long tramp with Bilbo while he was in a jolly mood. No brooding, no awful kin, no farthing battles, nothing to worry about. Just us. ‘Griffo said we must come to call. The baby is due any day and Frodo needs to see all his Boffin cousins in The Yale. I thought to go along the Stock Road, visit them, then go south to Willowbottom and look about to see if there’s a good place for a ferry.’

‘Let me know if there is. I’d like a part of that interest!’

‘As you wish.’ Bilbo paused. ‘We could start our trip in Tuckborough. Be there for your birthday.’ He gave Rum a questioning look.

‘Don’t do that unless you want to spend it with Mother. I shan’t be about then.’

‘Really? Why not?’

‘As soon as I get home from this visit, I need to take care of a few things for her, and then Dickon and I are off to Buckland for the summer. Rory liked what he saw out of my lad and he has a few mares…’

‘The ones he mentioned at the Fair?’

Rum nodded, drawing on his pipe. ‘Yes, them. Definitely the Rushies’ dam, plus three others if they come in season while we’re there. Depends on what I think of them when I see them. One of his Bree mares didn’t take from the spring, so he’d like to see if Dickon can get something on her. There may be another mare or two. We’ll see. I’ll be back for Uncle Gis’ birthday.’

‘I’ll send you letters at the Hall while we’re walking about.’

‘I’m not Rory’s guest. I’m staying with Mac and Dilly.’

Bilbo gave him a sharp look. ‘Why not?’

‘I have no interest in spending any length of time where there are two conniving Took women in close quarters,’ was Rum’s disdainful reply, ‘and the rest of the family isn’t any better. I do intend to have a chat with Gilda about some healing to try with Mother. The pain in her joints is very bad.’

‘I’m sorry to hear that. Be sure to talk to Ula, too. She’s still a prentice, but she’s quite a sharp healer in her own right already. Won’t Rory be offended that you won’t be a guest of the Hall?’

‘I think Rory would prefer I not be present for more than Highday supper,’ was Rum’s acerbic reply, ‘and Gilda would probably be happiest if I skipped that, as well.’ Frodo really wanted to know why Rum disliked Aunt Gilda so much. ‘Besides, I like Mac. Drogo always liked him best of the Buckland horde, him and Amaranth. Dilly and Tina were best friends as soon as they met,’ he continued in a happier tone, ‘as I knew they would be! When Pip’s older, I think I shall take her and the children to go visit.’

‘Wili and Prisca will expect you to pay a call.’

‘Oh, probably. I’ll send a note when I’m there. I’d like to go up to Whitfurrows with Wili, meet Bertie, see the market.’

They chatted about the market itself, but did not mention Odogar or anything else disagreeable, as they finished their last pipes, then went to bed. As had happened last night, not long after they retired, Bilbo’s door opened and Frodo heard him go down the hall to Rum’s room. He could hear voices but could not make out the words. Sooner than the night before, Bilbo went back to his own room. Frodo thought he would prefer to hear other sounds, given what Bilbo now had in his hands.

Esmie’s letters. He’s going to figure it out, Baggins. All the ratty little secrets. He always does. He knows Esmie lies, he’ll not believe it. But then the hint in Uncle Rory’s letter, if Rum had spoken truly, of perverse habits. Did you know, Rory? Suspect? These secrets… aren’t. Frodo dreaded what Bilbo was going to ask, how angry he was going to be. It seemed there was no escaping the dragon.

Afternoon, Hobbiton, 13 Afterlithe, 1390

The festival had started after lunch and would go until everyone was too drunk and tired to have fun. Hobbiton did not have as large a square as Bywater, nor as many shops and stores, and had not even a single tavern to call its own. Those things were to be found along the Road. There were more people living in and about Hobbiton than down in Bywater proper, and so the summer festival was always held in the upper village under its long shady lanes, on the neat, close-cropped common south of the Bywater Road, and in the pretty little square adorned with streamers and just right for dancing. One very level lane had been turned into a bowling court, while quoits were on offer nearer to the Water. A few fiddlers and someone with a horn were playing lively tunes from the small bandstand on the square. A long row of tables under the chestnut trees held plates and platters and bowls and trays and stands and baskets of wonderful things to eat, each goodwife trying to outdo the next with the best from her kitchen. As soon as a plate was emptied, another serving dish of something delectable appeared in its place. The Green Dragon and The Ivy Bush had both carted up barrels of their best ale that morning, and the barmaids did a brisk business at the beer stands. There was also sweet cider, lemonade and cool teas for those who wished for less potent libations.

Bilbo had been in high spirits the entire afternoon. He sampled most of the dishes on offer, had several pints of beer, and played all the games, even a round of hop square with the children, never missing a hop or a box, even when he had to go on one foot backwards. No one was better at quoits than Bilbo, and there was quite a crowd at the bowling as people admired the old hobbit’s skill at rolling the large wooden balls at the small, white jack stone, somehow able to get them within a half-finger’s width or less without actually touching the jack. When he was not playing the games, Bilbo was talking, usually with a mug of something in one hand that someone had simply brought him. Frodo stayed near him, but said little, enjoying watching Bilbo command attention and be the focus of so much admiration. The folk of Hobbiton were proud of how their headman “Mad Baggins” had ordered the Moot, bringing good hobbit sense to bear on greed and foolishness, and had made all the farthing heads come to sober and responsible agreement for the next harvest.

In the late afternoon, Frodo stood with Bilbo under a tree at the edge of the common and watched Rum finish judging the animal fair. As soon as it was known that the Thain was there, it was immediately agreed that he should hand out the awards. While he might be notorious for his tastes, he was also known to have the keenest eye for good livestock in all the mid-Shire. The Hobbiton festival did not have animal competitions – that is what the Free Fair was for – but they had parades of their best stock and the most outstanding were given green and yellow ribbons to recognize their quality. Rum had dressed to perfection, looking both beautiful and dignified, and had conducted the parades with sober attention. He had praise for all the exhibits and no one felt stinted even if they did not take home a prized award of merit. The judging had also kept him busy and away from Bilbo throughout the afternoon.

Now he was judging the children’s parade. The little hobbits walked in a big circle at one end of the common, each with some beloved pet at his or her side or in their arms, and came to a stop. There were dogs, a few ponies, a couple of sheep, several chickens and rabbits, a sleepy old goat, and a garter snake carried by a mischievous, tow-headed boy. Rum went around the circle, stopping beside each child, kneeling down to speak to them about their animals, and always getting a smile and sometimes a hug. There was an award for everyone, and there was much cheering as Rum handed out ribbons for the prettiest eyes, the biggest feet, the longest drool, the fanciest tail and so forth.

On the other side of the common, Frodo noticed that Dudo and Tulip were standing with Otho and Lobelia. Lotho was probably still down near the quoits where Frodo had spotted him earlier. They had glared at each other for a minute before turning their backs and ignoring each other. Before they left Bag End, Bilbo had sternly told him that he was to avoid any argument with his cousin. While they applauded with everyone else, it was clear that these Bagginses were not pleased by the presence of the Thain.

When the judging concluded and the children wandered off, Rum came over to him and Bilbo. ‘That was the hardest,’ he offered. ‘How can you compare a chicken to a goat, let alone a snake?’

‘But you managed,’ Bilbo said, smiling.

Rum’s expression became sly. ‘I know who I wanted to give the prettiest tail award to.’ Bilbo’s expression lost its cheer and his gaze hardened.

‘Not amusing,’ he said softly. Rum swallowed and looked away. Bilbo dug in a pocket and handed a few coins to Frodo. ‘Lad, go get yourself some beer and bite to eat and bring me some beer when you’re done.’

‘Why don’t you come get it with me?’

‘I’m waiting for the wands contest to start. Go on!’ Bilbo gave him a smile and waved him off. Frodo sighed and walked away. That was the first sign of ire he had seen from Bilbo in three days and he hoped Rum would mind his manners.

‘Frodo!’ Dudo and Tulip were both smiling at him and motioning him to come closer. Lobelia looked as sour as usual, but Otho’s expression was bland. There was no graceful way to refuse the invitation, so Frodo put on what he hoped was a pleasant expression and trotted over. Dudo and Tulip gave him hugs and kisses (and, to his irritation, ruffled his hair), which he returned.

‘Frodo,’ Otho said quite genially, to Frodo’s surprise. He could not recall Otho ever directly addressing him before. Lobelia gave him a tight little nod, lips in straight line.

Luckily, Tulip still had him in a hug which prevented him from having to offer the Sackville-Bagginses his hand. He smiled and nodded in return. ‘Uncle Otho, Aunt Lobelia, good afternoon!’ He let Tulip hug him again and give him another kiss. He gave her his happiest smile. ‘I’m on my way to get something to eat.’

As he suspected, the declaration that a tween boy needed food brought out all of Tulip’s mothering impulses. ‘Oh, yes! You mustn’t go hungry. Let’s go!’ That quickly, Tulip had him by the arm and was marching him towards the food tables, Dudo a few steps behind them. Frodo thought it a terribly clever escape from the other two. When they got to the food tables, Tulip took charge of filling a plate for him and another for herself, and Frodo discovered that he really was hungry. By the time they were ready to find a place in the shade to sit and eat, Dudo appeared with beer for them all. Bilbo wants you to make them happy with you. Be a good nephew.

‘Have you any word from Griffo and Daisy?’ he asked before taking a big bite from a chicken leg.

‘It will be soon!’ Tulip said happily. ‘Tomorrow, I’m going there to stay until Halimath.’

‘Leaving me to fend for myself!’ Dudo teased her, stroking back a lock of her hair. She smiled at him and fed him a strawberry from her plate.

‘Then you need to come to Bag End and have supper with us while Aunt Tulip is gone,’ Frodo said quite seriously, but then amended, ‘until Wedmath, that is. Then we’re going on a tramp, and we’re going to The Yale to see Daisy and the new baby!’

‘And where else are you going?’ Dudo asked.


‘For how long?’

‘Most of the month. Uncle Bilbo’s cousin, Sigismond Took, he turns one hundred on the thirtieth and Bilbo wants to be at the Great Smials for that.’

From the look on Dudo’s face, he did not like that news. ‘It’s not right that you should be dragged all over the Shire for weeks on end.’

‘But I want to see the Shire,’ Frodo protested, trying not to sound sharp.

‘You went tramping to Northfarthing already this year, and you were completely worn out when you got back.’ Dudo scowled and glared in the direction of the common. ‘And not a word to us this time, either!’ There was really nothing Frodo could say that would improve anyone’s temper, so he applied himself to his plate. Tulip started chatting about the trip tomorrow and the last few letters from Daisy and if Frodo was going to stay for the dancing that night, which he admitted he was, enduring a little good-natured teasing from his aunt and uncle. Through it all, Tulip fed bites of her meal to Dudo and they exchanged a few kisses. The affection between them was sweet to watch, making Frodo wonder if this was how his parents had been with each other and, if they had, why anyone would believe the wicked tales.

After he was done being fed his mid-afternoon snack, Dudo returned to his concerns. ‘What you should be doing this summer, Frodo, is setting a better example for your cousin.’

‘Do what for whom?’ Frodo was confused.

‘What you said at Fat Bank. Lotho has not been mixing with the best sorts, and neither have you, for that matter, and you should be getting on better with him. He needs your good influence.’

Frodo had to be careful lest he start laughing and spit food all over. ‘Well, I think he’s still mad at me for hitting him at the Fair. It might be best to let that go by a bit more.’

‘Hmm.’ Dudo considered that. ‘Probably so. But it’s still not right that you’re going to be away for so long.’ Dudo nodded to himself. ‘If Bilbo wants to go tramp about, that is his business. You should visit with your cousins in The Yale and then come back to Bywater with me to wait for Bilbo’s return.’

Frodo ate several bites more to get his anger at Dudo’s interference under control. ‘I think it’s for Uncle Bilbo to say where I go and where I stay.’ He swallowed the last bite and added, ‘And he asked me to bring him a beer when I finished getting myself something to eat. I need to go do that.’ He stood and offered Tulip a hand to help her up. To his relief, Dudo did not protest or suggest something truly obnoxious, like finding Lotho.

The common had been ringed with white ropes to warn people not to walk across, for the wands competition was on. A few posts had been set up further down and some boys were putting tall thin slats into the notches cut across the tops of them. There were bushel baskets full of the staves at the side. At the top of the common, several hobbits stood with bows, and there were bushels holding arrows near their feet. Bilbo stood among them, laughing and joking with the other men and the one woman who were participating in the contest as they waited for the wands to be ready. Frodo brought over the mug of beer.

‘Ah, there you are, lad! I was just in need of a drink,’ was his uncle’s merry greeting. Bilbo took a few gulps from the mug before handing it back. ‘You may have the rest. Too much more and I’ll be hitting my feet, not the target!’

Frodo looked about for Rum. He was standing about halfway down the row and waved Frodo over. When he got there, he realized that Rum had company – Uncle Odo and Otho. He had only time to exchange a quick hello before a bell was rung to indicate the start of the next round.

Bilbo had never looked so fierce and powerful as he did drawing the bow and letting fly one arrow after another. To Frodo’s eyes, even Rum’s commanding presence paled compared to Bilbo now. The muscles in his legs tensing as he braced, his torso turned just so, the way his chest and shoulders pulled his shirt tight as he drew back the bowstring, sleeves rolled up to expose hands and forearms strong and sure, the cords of his neck tautly standing out, his face a study in composed concentration; Frodo had no difficulty picturing his marvelous, brave uncle facing down any kind of dark creature. You should be Thain. You would protect us all from anything dangerous. Frodo glanced at Rum. He watched Bilbo the same way Bilbo had looked at Rum during the horse show and it left Frodo feeling a bit ashamed, as though he was spying on a couple trysting.

Though he did not hit the target every time, Bilbo struck more of the wands than he missed and many more than any of the others could do. When he was announced as the winner, he was widely applauded and it was considered right and proper that the headman should be the best at such things. Bilbo himself waved off any praise and immediately took the silver penny purse for winning over to the beer stands and said for each tavern to serve up that much beer for whomever was standing about. This also gained him a great deal of praise. Through it all, Rum, Odo and Otho stayed near, as did Dudo. Bilbo was in his shirtsleeves, the linen a bit damp and clinging to him from his exertions in the heat of the afternoon, coat and waistcoat tossed over a shoulder, beer in his other hand. He did not look anything like one hundred years old. It was as though he had just returned from his adventure a half-century before, youthful, handsome and very desirable.

The sun was declining, more food was getting set out under the trees, and musicians were on the bandstand tuning their instruments. It was time for dancing and Bilbo was the one everyone wanted. Even the beautiful Thain could not compete. The old hobbit romped and spun and circled and dipped, flirting outrageously with all the ladies, though always a proper gentlehobbit if some little lass shyly asked for a dance. Frodo snorted beer out his nose when he saw Bilbo snag Lobelia away from Otho for a fast turn about the dance floor. She looked offended, but she also managed to keep perfect step with him and Frodo had to admit that she was a very good dancer.

It was quite late when they finally bade farewell to their kin at the foot of the Hill lane and wearily (and rather drunkenly) made their way up the Hill to Bag End. Bilbo dropped his coat on the floor and flopped onto the couch in the parlor with a loud sigh of contentment. ‘That was the most fun festival in years,’ he announced to no one in particular. Rum walked over and crawled onto the couch, laying down across Bilbo’s lap. Bilbo smiled and put his arms around Rum. ‘See, love? Aren’t you glad you stayed?’

Rum stretched his face up and got a kiss. ‘Yes. You were right.’ With a sigh like Bilbo’s, he cuddled up against Bilbo’s chest. Bilbo hugged him and nuzzled his face into Rum’s hair.

The two did not seem to notice Frodo standing there in the parlor doorway. He watched them cuddle for a few moments before going to his own room. He was tired and drunk, and quickly fell asleep.

Morning, Bag End, 14 Afterlithe, 1390

All three of them were hung over the next morning. Bilbo did not hum and Rum did not smile. Even his forelock looked a little dingy. Frodo ate his eggs and potatoes slowly, not wanting to upset his slightly queasy stomach. By the time they were to walk Rum down to the barn to collect Lark and get on his way, they were much restored, though Rum’s usual gaiety was subdued. He carried his saddle bags over his shoulder and walked without saying much, though he always smiled and waved at the neighbors as they passed.

In the barn, Rum saddled his mare and secured the saddle bags behind the cantle. He turned to Frodo with a great smile and opened his arms for a hug. ‘I am sorry to have to say farewell so soon, but I’ll see you again in Tuckborough next month.’

Frodo embraced him strongly. ‘Yes, I’m looking forward to it.’

Rum stepped back. ‘I’ll introduce you to all your…, well, all your Took cousins who you would want to meet, and show you how to avoid the rest.’

He turned to Bilbo and just stood there, looking at him. When Rum did not move, Bilbo came to him and embraced him. The Thain did not raise his arms, but pressed his face against Bilbo’s neck and leaned into his cousin. Bilbo held him tightly. They stood like this a while, Rum shaking slightly. It was only when Bilbo stepped back and took Rum’s shoulders that Frodo realized Rum was weeping. Bilbo pulled out a handkerchief and wiped away the couple of tears that had dropped.

‘Don’t do this again, Bilbo.’

‘Do what, love?’

‘Hide away. Push me away. Just… yell at me if I’m being a brat, all right?’

‘If you will…’

‘I can’t and I won’t and you know it.’ The look they exchanged was sad, then Bilbo smiled a bit and shook his head.

‘I know. You won’t. You can, but you won’t because it is not you, you rotten, wonderful, impetuous brat.’ Bilbo gave him a gentle kiss on the lips followed by a playful clout on his head. ‘I don’t want to see you around here again until it’s my birthday and then you’d best be the first one here. Now, on your way before it gets too hot!’

That brought a smile back to Rum’s face. He led Lark out of the barn, gave them each a quick hug and kiss, and was soon trotting down the Bywater Road, singing.


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