In which Bilbo and Rory discuss the various aspects of exchange - financial, verbal, personal, cultural, existential - and end with the wisdom of the elves.
Midday, Buckland near the Hedge, 11 Halimath, 1389
The ride along the Hedge was going well. Bilbo, Rory, and Sara had set out quite early from Brandy Hall, before the sun was fully up, heading up the road to the North-gate. They had met Mac a few miles up the road near his farm, and had continued to the gate. It was time for the Master to be Riding Hedge before winter set in. After a two-hour ride north to the gate, they swung east and rode to the Hedge itself. Now, they were following the High Hay south, examining its condition, making note of where it might need tending, and talking with any Hay Wards they found along the way. They would only be able to cover half the Hedge today, and would do the southern half tomorrow.
Bilbo and Rory rode side by side, on their bay and chestnut ponies, while Mac and Sara ranged ahead on the matched greys Rory had given them two summers past. The brothers were an impressive sight on the pretty mares, and they handled the ponies well.
The ponies were not the usual Shire steeds, short legged and pot-bellied. These two had come from Bree, and looked more like full-sized horses. They were not more than a hand or so taller than the usual pony, but their legs were longer in proportion to their girth and their barrels were leaner. Their heads looked like those found on the elven horses Bilbo had seen so long ago in Rivendell, and their necks arched beautifully. They even carried their tails high. The mares were a valuable addition to the Buckland herd, and had produced two fillies last year. Rory was hoping to get a colt out of one of them next spring to be a good foundation stud.
‘If things are changing, as you say, Bilbo,’ Rory had spoken quite seriously on the trip out, ‘then we’ll need ponies that are more comfortable to ride and cover more distance in a day than these stout fellows.’ He had given his even-tempered gelding a fond pat on the shoulder, and the pony nickered to his master. Rory had a way with beasts that was almost magical. Horses followed him about like dogs, and dogs, even great fierce ones, would quickly wag and lick his hand. The half-wild barn cats would come out of their hiding places under the mangers and in the hay to twine around Rory’s ankles, purring and meowing. It was not unusual to look down and find one of the cats had dropped a dead rat at Rory’s feet in honor of the occasion.
‘A longer-limbed pony that isn’t too much bigger will more comfortable to ride, though not much use for a large wagon. They’re saddle horses, not dray nags.’ Their own sturdy ponies ambled along as the old hobbits were silent, each in his own thoughts. Rory sighed. ‘A nice pony for crossing the Shire is a good thing, brother. But how much further, really, would anyone want to go? Not beyond Bree, certainly?’ Rory looked over with curiosity, and some worry.
Bilbo shrugged. ‘That would depend upon the traveler and the times, brother. Bree isn’t all that far, truth be told, only a day’s ride on a Shire pony from the Bridge to the Inn. On a full-sized horse, it’s even closer. Set that horse to galloping, and it’s but a few hours.’
‘Well, yes, Bilbo, you could get there quicker on a bigger horse, but why would you want to go beyond there?’ Rory countered.
‘So why do those grey-cloaked fellows want to come to the Shire?’ Bilbo replied. ‘I don’t have an answer for you now, but they do want to come here, and at some point Shire hobbits might wish to go further than Bree. Roads out in the wide world rarely come to a clean end, the way the road to Standelf does. They mostly go through places and on to others, which means that the roads into the Shire started out in places we can hardly imagine, and might bring things we don’t want to think about.’
Rory snorted. ‘Well, aren’t you just full of wonderful thoughts today? Why should we concern ourselves with such things? These unending roads that go off to outlandish places have served us well for a long time, and without bringing much of anything to the Shire.’
‘Ah, Rory, there you’re wrong,’ Bilbo chided. ‘Every day sees marvelous things on our roads. The East-West road always has dwarves tramping along…’
‘But those are just dwarves, we know all about them. They’ve been here as long as the Shire, nothing new about them.’
Bilbo laughed and shook his head. ‘Rory, my dear ass, dwarves have been coming through here for far longer than the Shire’s been here! They’re the ones who built the Road. And the dwarves are rather new compared to the elves, who have been tramping these ways since the Old Forest wasn’t old at all.’
‘Bah, cousin, you and your infernal elves!’ Rory laughed. ‘Why don’t you apply some mind to things that are real?’
‘Elves are real! I’ve seen them! I’ve sung with them!’
‘Not that you show much improvement for having done so. Oh, they walk around, I’ll allow you that, Bilbo, but they don’t mean anything. They aren’t good for anything. At least a dwarf can fix a kettle for you, or trade you some silver for a night’s lodgings and traveling provisions. They’re real! These elves, though, they might as well be shadows.’
‘I can assure you that they are not,’ Bilbo retorted, disliking the slight to his beloved elves, ‘nor is the rest of the world beyond the Shire! Just because we don’t see or don’t understand, that doesn’t mean something isn’t there, or isn’t important, or won’t make itself be known, given the proper circumstances.’
‘Well enough, well enough, don’t go all testy on me, cousin!’ Rory groused. ‘As you like. I’ll concede that there are greater things in the wider world than I know of, and even that such strange things might one day arrive on our own doorsteps, though I can’t see how that’s likely. But why should we wish to go out into these rough places? Bad enough that they are there - what would any right-minded hobbit wish to see them? I ask you again, why would we want to go beyond Bree?’
‘Because it is worth going beyond Bree, Rory. There are marvelous things out there, not just dangerous ones. Elves and mountains and great rivers and vistas of things and eagles and, oh, everything! It would do us all a spot of good to have some lads, and even some lasses, go out and understand how small a place the Shire is. If you insist on thinking more practically, and you’re concerned about keeping nasty things away from the Shire, we’ve got to have some sense of what those things are, and how we might keep them from approaching. And of how to deal with what we can’t keep out. We can’t put up a hedge like this about the whole Shire, after all.’
Rory took a thoughtful look at the High Hay. ‘No, I suppose we can’t,’ he slowly replied, ‘though it might be worth trying.’
Up ahead, Mac and Sara signaled that they had found a good place to stop for the noon meal. Rory and Bilbo nudged their ponies into a brisk trot to catch up with the younger men. Within a few minutes, they had arrived and were tethering their ponies next to the mares. It took only a few more minutes to lay out their meal; meats and cheeses sliced and set inside hollowed-out rounds of bread, and some skins of pale amber ale.
Dessert would be the fruit they picked from the trees as they passed the orchards near the Hedge. No farmer begrudged the Master his choice of the crop, and no sensible Master failed to sample the harvest, and compliment a Buckland farmer on his fine orchard. Word had gone out that the Master was Riding Hedge, and the farmers were out watching for him, offering their opinions and advice along with a choice basket of apples, pears, quinces, and the late plums. Rory never failed to sample at least one fruit from each holding, and always allowed as to how the Mistress would be quite pleased to see a bushel show up in the kitchens at Brandy Hall. This week would be a busy one for the kitchens with all the harvest gifts needing to be cellared, stewed, salted, dried, or otherwise preserved. The next week would be busy, too, as the Mistress dictated notes of thanks to all the goodwives for the gifts, and praised them for the quality of their harvest. Yes, Gilda is going to be very busy this week. Bilbo wondered if there would be time the following week. I can’t leave until we’ve talked. He dreaded hearing Gilda tell him the reasons why they had to send Frodo away, and not to him.
Bilbo watched Sara take only a small swallow from one of the skins before handing it over to Mac. The hobbit glared a little resentfully at his old cousin, then dug into his food. Bilbo pretended not to notice anything amiss. Since their confrontation two nights before, Sara had been rather subdued. Bilbo knew that Sara and Rory had been closeted in Rory’s study early the next morning, and some raised voices had been heard. All the family meals had been quite decorous, though, for which Bilbo was grateful. The children chattered, the adults doted, and nothing unpleasant was discussed, just the fast-approaching Harvest rites and the prospects for a very comfortable Yule. If Bilbo noticed that Frodo had been sure to stay several places away from Sara, and to give all his attention to the children and his Gammer, and hardly speak with Esmie at all, well, he was too polite to make any mention of it. Needless to say, there has been no more singing.
‘Da, the Hedge is in excellent shape,’ Mac said, ‘better than last year. Clearing out the old growth in the dells was just the trick.’
‘Though I think I’m still getting blisters simply remembering clearing it out,’ joked Sara, and the brothers laughed. ‘But we’ll have some good hunting later this fall. The small beasts are coming through the bottom of the Hedge. We’re going to have furs to trade this year. We’ll have to get snares set out once the frosts start in earnest, and before everything with a pelt goes to ground for the winter.’
‘Where will you be trading these?’ Bilbo asked. Sara gave him a glance to see if Bilbo was teasing, then shrugged and answered.
‘Depends on how much we get. We’ll keep most of the rabbit and the badger, but if we get some of the wild cats, those’ll go to Whitfurrows to the market there. Some Big People will be along and they like the cat pelts.’
‘You won’t take them to Bree?’ Bilbo was surprised.
‘Don’t have to anymore,’ offered Mac. ‘The Big Folk have been coming regular to Whitfurrows since the market there is bigger than it used to be. It’s where they pick up leaf now. Not enough grown in the Bree-lands, so it’s said. They send a bunch south, and then they come east for ours.’
Bilbo was intrigued by the news of traffic from outside the Shire to the Whitfurrows market. He knew it had been expanded, but not that it was doing so well. ‘Well, sounds like you stand to do a good trade in furs. What else are the Big People liking? And are they getting it at the market?’
‘Well, the round Big People, the ones from the Breelands, they like the cat and also any rabbit we’ll spare. Then the tall Big People, the ones the Breelanders don’t much like, they’ll take whatever martin or sable pelts we can collect. They like ‘em as lining for their hoods and their gloves,’ Sara volunteered. ‘They like any really fine fur. Polite enough, I guess, but not very friendly. All dark and dour they are. There’s even some squinty-eyed folk from away south, but they don’t buy anything ‘cept leaf.’ He stopped to take a bite of his lunch.
‘They can get all of that in Whitfurrows, Uncle. And extra cloth’s been going out, and cured hides, and some cherry wood, too,’ Mac, said, while Sara nodded emphatically. ‘There’s not much from Eastfarthing that you can’t get at the market these days. And it’s just going to get bigger.’
Bilbo made a mental note to stop for a day or two in Whitfurrows on his walk home and explore this market more closely. I may need to get an interest in it. ‘And why is that?’ he prompted, keeping his tone light.
Sara finished his mouthful. ‘There’s lots more trade coming all ways and it’s all ending up in Whitfurrows. Bolgers are running it, though not Uncle Wili.’ Bilbo saw a look of irritation cross Rory’s face, and remembered the long-standing contest between the Bolgers and the Brandybucks over Eastfarthing below the Road and along the River. Perhaps your dislike of the Road has more to do with your dislike of your neighbors. ‘Esmie’s told me Pal’s sending leaf out east as well as south now, and now there’s some talk of wheat going out.’ He took another bite, letting Mac continue the conversation.
Bilbo was watching Rory, who was very busy peeling an apple in one long narrow strip. Bilbo could tell Rory was quite surprised as to what his dullard boys had picked up. Bilbo busied himself with picking out some good ham, listening avidly.
Mac was nodding at Sara’s words. ‘Big Folk from Bree are always at the market, trading stuff. The dwarves are getting friendlier, too, so it’s more than Whitfurrows. Bard Bolger, that’s Uncle Wili’s oldest, who’s married to Dilly’s sister Cissy, he was visiting his cousin, Bertie Bolger up in Budgeford, the one who married your cousin Poppy, and Bard said Bertie said Poppy’s Da said the dwarves out west are doing some good ironmongery in exchange for leather and corn from out in Westfarthing. Guess we have to thank you for that, Uncle Bilbo.’ Mac took a large bite of bread and cheese to emphasize the weight of this news.
‘Well, that’s interesting happenings, indeed, but why thank me? I’ve not been ordering up any ironmongery,’ Bilbo causally teased, feigning only passing interest to encourage the younger two men to keep talking.
‘Well, because of your adventures, Uncle Bilbo, why else?’ replied Mac with a bit of confusion. ‘The dwarves are saying things about being busy because there ain’t no more dragon and people are trading things. That’s the same dragon as you keep talking about, right? The one you killed?’ A second huge bite followed the first.
‘Killed? Oh my, oh my, no, Mac. I never did anything like that!’ Bilbo laughed. ‘I simply spied on one and then got word to a Big Person, who’s the one who figured out how to take care of Smaug.’ Bilbo was secretly quite tickled that Mac thought he was responsible for killing Smaug.
‘Well,’ drawled Sara without looking up, ‘maybe it’s the same dragon or maybe it ain’t. Maybe you just heard about a dragon that got killed,’ a sharp, resentful stare, ‘but the dwarves seem to know your name right well, and it’s worth something in a trade to make it clear that you know who Mr. Baggins is. These queer folk, they seem to like you well enough.’ Sara attended to his meat.
Rory had a thoughtful expression on his face as he chewed his meal, then nodded a bit. ‘Yes, it’s true there’s more dwarf crowns out and about than I remember from some time past. Not just the copper and bronze ones, either. I’ve got two silver crowns myself, and I heard that The Green Dragon saw a gold one.’ He looked at Bilbo.
Bilbo smiled. Yes, you stubborn old goat, change is already here. Maybe now you’ll listen to me. ‘Well, as a matter of fact, yes, Lob Tapman got a gold crown last spring when a troop of dwarves took up most of the inn while they waited for some others to arrive. Put them up for almost a week, then sold them some pack ponies and some supplies. Got a gold crown, and a few copper ones, too. Not clear what he’ll be doing with them, except maybe trade with some dwarves going back the other direction.’
‘Well, I wish we could get a dwarf - just one mind you! - to come down into Buckland and do some mending work,’ Mac said, having finished his mouthful of food. ‘We’ve plenty to be done, and Ham and his sons are tied to the forge all day over in Newbury. His wife’s been giving him a new lad almost every other year, but even with his boys and a prentice or two, there’s more horseshoes and plows and axes to be made than they can handle here in Buckland. It would be nice if some friend of yours, some dwarf you knew was a good sort, could go around Buckland and do some metal or stone work.’ Mac took another enormous bite.
Bilbo tried to imagine Balin or Glóin, some noble dwarf lord and master smith, going around fixing the goodwives’ pots like an itinerant tinker, and failed. He thought of the ranks of weapons, the suits of armor stored in Erebor, of his own mithril coat with crystals and pearls sitting in the Mathom-house in Michel Delving. He compared the battle-axes of the dwarves with what a hobbit used to split wood, and knew that some changes would take longer than others, for which he was rather glad. Does a hobbit like you, Mac, really need to know what dwarven mail feels like? Or how a sword is grooved to let blood flow along it? How an elven arrow punches right through the leather breastplate of an Orc?
‘Why would dwarves want to go tinkering in Buckland if they’ve got all this dragon treasure?’ scoffed Sara. ‘Uncle Bilbo said there was a mountain of gold and jewels that they’ve got now. What do they need with work? They must all be gentleman-dwarves now, like Uncle Bilbo’s a gentlehobbit. Right?’ he challenged Bilbo, eyes sharp though he wore a friendly grin. ‘They travel back and forth, but they must be like lords and such, visiting their kin.’
Bilbo was finding this cousin of his rather tiresome, and did not like getting sidetracked away from the news of trade. ‘Well, most of the dwarves who I traveled with are considered heroes and lords, and are greatly revered by their people, so I doubt they would need to do any tinkering, but there’s always some of their younger fellows who need to make their way in the world. I might be able to find a good dwarf who wouldn’t mind a month of work. And sometimes a mountain of gold is worth less than a bushel of corn, if you live inside a mountain and can’t grow your own food. Dwarves mine and forge to have good things to trade for what else they need. They have some treasure, but not as much as you might think. It has a way of getting spent and getting less. What they store up, in truth, are weapons and things for battle.’
‘But don’t you still have a good store of that dragon treasure, Uncle?’ Sara asked as bold as can be, ‘or do these dwarf-folk of yours just bring you more whenever you need some? If you didn’t kill any dragon, whatever are they so grateful to you for?’
‘Enough of that!’ snapped Rory before Bilbo could respond. ‘I’ll have no cheek from you, Saradoc, especially not a kinsman and guest. You just apologize right now!’
‘Now, now, Rory, don’t be so hard on the lad,’ Bilbo soothed, though in truth he felt like dealing the impertinent whelp a good whack on the back of his head. ‘You know what stories of gold and adventures do to the young folk, drives all sense out of their heads.’ He smiled benignly at Sara, who looked like he had just bitten into a green quince. Mac snickered and poked his older brother in the shoulder. ‘As for my own “treasure,”’ Bilbo rolled his eyes and laughed heartily, ‘it’s not getting any larger! I got a little reward but mostly a great deal of thanks for spying on Smaug.’
Rory was still not happy with Sara, and ordered him to get the ponies ready for the riding. Not very long after, they were off again, the brothers up ahead, the elderly hobbits trailing. Rory rode along in silence for a while, then sighed.
‘I’m sorry, brother. Sara has few manners.’
‘Think no more on it, Rory. He’s no more irritating than many who pry into my business, and a great deal less annoying than most.’
They rode along for a few hundred yards. Bilbo could tell Rory wanted to talk a bit more and just bided his time.
‘It’s not all right. He talks quite a bit about the dragon treasure people think you have; too much for my tastes. It’s not right for a grown hobbit in his position to be hankering after what’s not his.’
Bilbo shrugged. ‘It’s an attractive thing to think of, Rory, and I truly meant it when I said Sara’s not being so bad about it. I think he’d be rather disappointed if he could actually see my so-called treasure.’ He smiled over at Rory, who was giving him a disbelieving look.
‘Bilbo, I know my figures, and I know what things cost. I also know you spread that treasure about in a generous way. Whatever you claim, it’s more wealth than any I’ve ever heard of a single hobbit commanding. Even if you haven’t a penny of it left - and I know you’re too sensible to have spent it all! - what you had was a great deal.’
Bilbo met Rory’s gaze and held it for a bit, then shook his head and sighed. ‘You’re too crafty for me, cousin. Yes, it was a great deal, more than I would ever need, so what’s the harm in spreading my good fortune about? I have kept enough to be comfortable for the rest of my life, even if I live as long as our grandfather. In the end, what does it matter?’
‘It matters how you used it, Bilbo. I know plenty of hobbits, one of them riding up ahead of us, who would have thrown that gold about and used it to impress folks and intimidate others. Who would have used it to buy some respectability,’ Bilbo shot him a hard look and Rory smiled back. ‘But you didn’t, and I love you all the more for it. Not that I’m surprised, mind you. I could’ve told anyone what you would do. Anyone who really knows you would have known what you’d do. You may be mad, but you’re not that unpredictable.’
‘Thank you, I think,’ Bilbo replied, already in better humor.
‘Though, sometimes I think it would’ve been better if you hadn’t killed that dragon, Bilbo,’ Rory went on in a serious tone, ‘and not just because you could’ve gotten yourself killed.’
‘Rory, I didn’t kill Smaug! I just spied on him!’
‘You helped kill him, and spying on nasty beasts is no small task. But what I’m getting at, brother, is whoever put a sword through the dragon…’
‘Arrow. Bard of Esgaroth put an arrow through him.’
‘… whoever put a sword through him,’ Rory repeated, ‘it doesn’t matter; the fact is the dragon’s dead, and dwarves and Big People are going up and down the Road, and there’s a sight more gold and silver and gems then we’ve ever seen before, and some of our young folk are too much attracted by these baubles and bits of coin.’
Bilbo turned in his saddle to watch Rory. His cousin had dropped the reins of his pony onto the animal’s neck and was turned towards Bilbo, one hand on hip, the other braced on the pommel. The pony ambled along with no direction, following the grey mares.
‘Some hobbits, most of them young, but not all, they have dwarvish hearts now. They don’t look at a treasure the way you do, Bilbo. They grab it, cling to it, count it as dear as something that lives and breathes. There have always been misers and greedy folk, I know, but this desire is greater. Ever since you came back, with your treasure and your tales, it’s as though there’s a want that can’t be filled in some hearts. They don’t think of the adventure, and never pay any mind to the dangers you faced.’
Bilbo did not know quite how to answer this. Rory watched him for a while, then said, ‘I’ve been thinking, brother, about what you’ve been saying, even as I’ve teased you about your mad words and crazy ideas. Change isn’t always wolves and Orcs, is it? You’ve talked about the Troubles coming. I say that, just maybe, some troubles are already here.’
Bilbo nodded. ‘Yes, but not merely trouble, Rory. Change isn’t simply bad, though I think it is always rather dangerous.’
Rory grunted his assent, and sat forward, picking up the pony’s reins. The gelding shook his head and moved out a bit faster. ‘But some things don’t change, Bilbo, and they never will. Like jealous relatives and gossipy old hens. And when you came back, you set so many tongues wagging and tales going and rumors flying about. Just like you, Baggins, to stir everything up and be the center of attention. The things that were said!’
Bilbo groaned. ‘I know, I know, don’t remind me. There were times when I thought I should have to depart again if I was to find any peace from the busy noses and wagging tongues!’
‘It was said by some unfeeling folk, that you were going to buy yourself a fine young wife with all that wealth,’ Rory went on in a too-innocent tone, ‘and some were pretty darn sure that Esmie would be the one.’
‘Well, some were pretty darn wrong, now, weren’t they,’ Bilbo grumbled.
‘Esmie among them,’ Rory equitably agreed.
Bilbo yanked his pony to a halt and grabbed the reins on Rory’s gelding. ‘Just what do you mean by that?’ he demanded.
‘Just that Sara and Esmie are fairly like-minded on some things,’ Rory answered, not the least perturbed by Bilbo’s ferocious manner. ‘I don’t think you understand how much they’re alike, sometimes.’ He cocked his head a bit and raised an eyebrow. ‘I don’t think you’d see her going off with any lad, cousin. She likes her comfort too much to risk it. Has a touch of the dwarf in her heart.’ He scratched his chin thoughtfully. ‘Though that was a mighty clever tune. It’s kept Sara sober for almost two days.’ The two of them stared at each other, then burst out laughing.
‘You damned Baggins, always causing trouble!’ Rory chuckled, reining his pony around and starting out after the brothers.
As they rode, Bilbo gave some thought to what Rory said about Esmie. It was true, after he came back from his adventure, that any number of young women had been suggested to him as a suitable wife, some of them much younger than himself. Gilda is the only one I wanted. If not for her choice, I wouldn’t have gone on an adventure. Bilbo glanced at Rory. Might as well say you caused all this trouble, Brandybuck. He quickly chastised himself for that unworthy thought. There had been a few flings, though more done from boredom and an excess of beer than any real desire, but Bilbo had never found any woman whom he wished to make his wife. Not exactly true… He made himself return to Rory’s words. Esmie had been a child when he returned, the last of Lina and Alder’s children, and all three of her elder sisters had been suggested as a possible wife for him as each girl reached her late-twenties, by others if not by Alder. He supposed someone had mentioned Esmie at some point, and, casting his mind very far back, he remembered her flirting with him at Pal and Eglantine’s wedding in 1370, but so had any number of other girls and his attention had been given to someone else. Those were not memories he wished to unearth, so he gave himself a little shake and began humming something to distract himself.
They went along for another few hours, looking at the High Hay, talking to the farmers, occasionally conferring with Sara and Mac when they saw something that needed tending. Finally, the sun was declining and they were riding west towards Brandy Hall.
‘Did you mean what you said when you said that the dwarves were storing up battle things?’
‘Yes, Rory. They have many weapons, much armor, and make even more for the elves and for men.’
‘Why? Why are they doing this?’
‘Because they know change is coming. They think there’s war on the horizon. Then again, that’s what all dwarves always think.’
‘What do you think?’
‘I tend to believe the elves, not the dwarves, on matters like this.’
‘And what do they think?’
‘They are fleeing these lands entirely.’
They rode in silence the rest of the way back to Brandy Hall.