2. On the King’s Road

POV - Bilbo

In which a journey is begun, a song is sung, news is shared, roots are discussed, the badger is fat, and Frodo sees ghosts.


Morning, 23 Foreyule, 1389

‘And there’s a penny for the load, and another for your troubles. No, no, I insist! It is Yule, Dunny, and you must humor me!’ Bilbo clapped the wagon driver on his shoulder and pressed the coins into the man’s hand. After a weak protest, the weather-worn hobbit’s face broke into a crooked grin, and he touched his forehead.

‘As you wish, Mister Bilbo. I won’t be sayin’ no to a Yule gift, sir,’ the driver replied, pleased at his good fortune.

‘And when you get to Brandy Hall,’ Bilbo continued, pulling an envelope out of his breast pocket, ‘ask that this be given to the Master or the Mistress, whomever is in, and be sure to wait for a reply.’ In it was a note for Rory to give Dunny another penny and a hot meal, though Bilbo doubted the man would be allowed to escape the Hall without a good dinner from Maddie’s well-run kitchen. The driver took the envelope, touched his forehead again, and hauled himself up onto the seat of the wagon. Some shouts of “Gee up!” got the dark bay draft ponies leaning into their harness, and the wagon bearing Bilbo and Frodo’s trunks rumbled out of The Green Dragon’s courtyard.

Bilbo rubbed his hands briskly together in the early morning chill and flashed a smile at Frodo. Dalin was inside, saying farewell to his dwarven traveling companions, as he would not be continuing with them to Belegost. The three of them would walk to Whitfurrows today. It made for a long tramp the first day, but they would arrive that much sooner in Buckland the next day, and would have time to rest and visit before Highday table. Frodo looked back at him with a wan smile, then turned to watch the door of the inn.

Three months, Wilwarin. It’s been three months exactly. Time had gone so quickly since their birthday, when he adopted Frodo. Bilbo gazed proudly at his nephew. Signing those documents was one of the happiest moments in his long life. It might not be his perfect heart’s desire, but it was as perfect as he would ever see. My boy. You are my boy, now. After those first few whirlwind days, things had become much more calm. Sometimes Bilbo wondered if it were too calm. Frodo had quite a reputation as a rascal in Buckland, but Bilbo had never seen a sign of it since moving to Hobbiton. Well, Baggins, isn’t that good? He hasn’t time to get into trouble. You said you’d see to that, Bilbo thought to himself. Still, he found himself worrying just a bit at the lad’s subdued demeanor.

There really were not any tweens Frodo’s age in the immediate area aside from the Gamgees’ oldest sons, Hamson and Halfred, and they were needed for work by their family. Especially with Bell feeling so poorly. Bilbo sent a worried glance back down the lane towards Hobbiton. Would that Hamfast’s pride allowed me to do more for them. The older boys worked like adults next to their father all day, and Bell took in mending. Her winter cough was much harsher this year than last, and Bilbo had tried to convince Ham to let him replace the small income she brought in with the work so that she could rest. The stubborn hobbit would hear none of it. The most he would concede was to have Bell come to Bag End on the days Ham tended the gardens, and sit in the warm, well-lit front parlor to do her work. The oldest girl, Daisy, had the task of dusting the smial and helping her mother, while Frodo entertained May, Sam and Marigold.

It was always a delight to watch the pack of them romping about, though they always had to be told to keep the doors closed. Marigold just needed a few toys and songs to keep her content, and usually she sat with Bell and Daisy. May and Sam were almost the same ages as Merle and Merry, and Frodo was obviously happiest when they were about. Frodo had been surprised at first that no one had taught May and Sam letters and figures, then set that as his own task. They were making great progress, especially little Sam. He misses his cousins so, Bilbo sighed to himself, looking back at Frodo.

Frodo shifted his weight slowly from one foot to the other, his breath a soft grey fog in the cold air. Bilbo watched him reach up and snug the lad’s Yule present from the Gamgees, a warm green scarf, more closely across his bare neck. That had been a surprise. A few weeks after they had returned to Bag End, Bilbo had gone to the barber shop to get his hair trimmed and to catch up on the local gossip. He had taken Frodo along, hoping he would be able to convince the boy to have a little of his shaggy mop trimmed. Buckland boys might not mind looking like half-wild ponies, peering out from under their own forelocks, but it was certainly not the fashion in Hobbiton. Bilbo was astounded when Frodo had firmly requested to have his hair shorn quite short, more closely-cropped than most young fellows would allow.

It was startling at first, but it suited the boy well. Frodo’s dark hair curled tightly across his head; it looked like lamb’s wool. Bilbo had not been able to resist stroking it just after it was cut, and was rewarded by a sullen glance and a ducked head. It took only a little thinking to understand why the lad would not want someone’s fingers across the back of his head. Bilbo had been more careful after that. The short hair made Frodo look older than twenty-one. He so closely resembled Drogo at the same age that it gave Bilbo a small shiver at times.

As he watched the lad stand there, Bilbo heard the inn’s door creak open and saw Frodo’s eyes widen in astonishment. Then the boy grinned broadly and looked at Bilbo. The dwarves had come out to see them off. 

Dalin’s scarlet cloak was in the center of a whirl of color. He stood more than half a head taller than the other dwarves around him. Dark green and light green, purple and blue, yellow and russet; the cloaks and coats of the other dwarves turned the courtyard into a festive gathering. Their beards were the colors of earth and of stone, brown and tawny and grey, and small metal beads woven into their braids caught the faint morning sun, making beards and plaits shimmer. Their great leather boots thumped loudly across the cobblestones, and their deep round voices echoed off the walls. Hobbit faces could been seen peering out of windows and around door jambs, watching the cheerful throng make its way over to Bilbo. As one, they stopped in front of the hobbit, and bowed deeply. Bilbo returned the bow.

‘At your service, Mister Baggins,’ they intoned together.

‘Bilbo Baggins, at yours and your families’,’ he politely replied. Dalin extricated himself from the midst of the broad-shouldered mob and stumped forward. He grinned at Frodo and clapped the lad on the shoulder, nearly knocking the boy over in the process. Dalin’s huge pack sat on his back as though it weighed nothing.

‘My fellows wished to pay their respects to the Lord of Burglars,’ Dalin cheerily informed Bilbo. When standing with the other dwarves, it became obvious how very young Dalin was. His beard was barely two hands long when braided, and his face was nearly unlined. His cheer seemed more in keeping with a hobbit than a dwarf, though Bilbo knew how kind a heart could rest in a dwarven breast. The other dwarves murmured farewells to Dalin, some of them shaking his hand or thumping his shoulder before they turned to go back into the inn for first breakfast.

Frodo had recovered from Dalin’s greeting, and looked up at the dwarf with anticipation. Bilbo nodded a bit to himself, glad for Dalin’s presence on the walk. I haven’t seen Wilwarin act so lively in far too long. With a cheerful laugh, Bilbo turned to the lane. Dalin and Frodo fell in behind him, the dwarf shortening his stride to keep pace with the smaller hobbits. Within the hour, they had met the East-West Road, and were walking along at a comfortable pace.

Bilbo breathed in the crisp winter air, delighting in the scent of promised snow, of molding leaves, of the grasses, brown and sere, at the edge of the road. Even in the depth of winter, the Shire was beautiful. The dryness of the cold air made the Road a little dusty, rising in small puffs as their heels struck the surface. Bilbo had let Dalin and Frodo take the lead once they were on the Road. The ends of Frodo’s green scarf fluttered, mimicking the movement of the edge of the dwarf’s scarlet cloak. The two chattered amiably about the countryside, Frodo proudly showing off his knowledge by pointing to landmarks and telling little stories about the people who lived at the ends of the lanes that opened onto the Road.

Neatly-dug ditches bordered the Road, draining off water after rains and keeping the way passable even in spring. Beyond the ditches were often well-kept hedgerows or fences, and sometimes a low stone wall with hydrangeas growing up against it. In the proper season, blue and lavender blooms would envelop the walls. Sometimes there would simply be open land, a large pasture dotted by oaks and beeches. Not too many folk were out at this hour, and those who were looked warily upon the scarlet giant making his way down the Road. But Frodo and Bilbo (and Dalin, too) would wave and call out a genial greeting, and it was a churlish hobbit indeed who would not reply in kind.

Bilbo’s feet knew the way to Buckland as well as they did the way to his own kitchen, so he allowed his mind to wander. His eyes rested on Frodo’s green scarf and he thought about his old green hood and cloak – Dwalin’s, actually, he reminded himself, and found another reason to be pleased with their companion – that sat in a drawer in Bag End. How very different my travels have been since then, he mused. His last journey that began in the midst of a troop of dwarves in the courtyard of The Green Dragon seemed almost a dream. He remembered the little pony, Tea Biscuit, that Thorin had bought from Old Tapman for him to ride. The poor beast, dinner for a Goblin, he sighed. He hummed quietly to himself, and remembered the dark journey under the mountains, the hissing riddles with Gollum (surreptitiously patting his pants pocket to make sure his ring was still there), the frantic struggle to squeeze through the door past the Goblins. Ah, Balin, you do know what to give me, Bilbo chuckled. I wonder where you have gone off to? I hope a grand, but not too dangerous, adventure! How I wish I could meet you in Dale and we could go off together. I need another adventure!

Bilbo watched Frodo gesture at something, listened to his nephew and the dwarf share a laugh over whatever it was the lad had said. He was immensely pleased that Frodo was not the slightest bit afraid of Dalin and was enjoying the dwarf’s company. You are having an adventure, Baggins, of exactly the kind you told Frodo to expect. You promised him you would keep him safe and that is adventure enough. The Queen of Calamities is as formidable as any dragon. That thought was almost enough to sour the entire walk. Later, when your obligations are fulfilled, that will be time enough. Then you can live up to your promise to take him to Rivendell to see the library and meet the Master-Archivist! Bilbo’s mood lightened at once with that thought. And we shall sing with the elves, and visit with dwarves, and maybe Gandalf will put in an appearance.

Bilbo felt much cheered by this thought, and made up a new verse of his favorite walking song in honor of the fine day. He sang it to his companions:

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
And the best tramps begin at dawn,
With a stout walking stick in hand.
We’ll tread its way with merry feet,
And greet all fellow walkers there.
It does not matter whom we meet
The Road is here for all to share!

Dalin and Frodo laughed at the new verse and sang it a few times themselves. The two youngsters began making up new verses, some of them very silly indeed. Leaving them to their fun, Bilbo lost himself in memories of the Last Homely House.

Thus it was that they found themselves a few miles past the junction of the North road to Oatbarton and the East Road, at a public well and watering trough, stomachs growling, ready for lunch and rest. Bilbo had packed quite a bit of food, since he was not certain how much a dwarf would eat, and knew with great surety the amounts Frodo could tuck away into his slight tween frame. In truth, aside from a change of clothes and a few oddments, all that he had in his pack was food. Bilbo had made sure that his nephew’s pockets were filled with pears, apples, nuts and dried grapes before they set out, and was quite certain that Frodo and Dalin had eaten all of it. Frodo was carrying their picnic blanket, as he always did on their long walks, and spread it out without being asked. While Dalin and the lad went to refill their water bottles from the well, Bilbo laid out their dinner.

Three large crusty rounds of bread were stuffed with slices of roast, while a smaller roll had been hollowed out and filled with sweet butter. A cold roasted chicken sat primly on its wrapping towel, legs up in the air, flanked by a stone jar of pickled vegetables and another bread bowl filled with cooked and garnished potatoes. An array of cheeses decorated the space between the vegetables and the meat, and several tasty loaves of quick breads peeked out from their wrappings, one made of squashes, the other filled with dried berries and nuts. Bilbo was very proud of his talents as a baker; even spiteful cousin Lobelia would not refuse something from the oven at Bag End, though she rarely accepted it with good grace. Two tiny silk pouches, one holding salt, the other pepper, completed the noontide table.

When Frodo and Dalin returned, they exclaimed with delight at the food. Dalin dug into his own pack and laid on the blanket yet more items that he had brought from the kitchens at The Green Dragon: another chicken, this one stuffed with cooked apples and prunes; some soft cheese wrapped in leaves; plain bread; and a small pile of scones wrapped in a linen kerchief. A few things were packed back away for their afternoon snack, and the three began a much appreciated dinner. While wine or ale might have gone better with the meal, Bilbo had not wanted to carry them when water would suffice. There would be better drink that night in Whitfurrows.

After they finished eating, it was too cold to take a proper nap, so they simply sat and rested. Dalin had flint and tinder, allowing them to enjoy a pipe while they waited to go on. Bilbo watched Frodo smoke his dwarf pipe adorned with silver ravens. After some time of companionable silence, Frodo’s brow wrinkled a bit and he looked at Dalin quite intently. The dwarf said nothing at the scrutiny, but merely raised an eyebrow.

‘Dalin, why are you named “Steelhand” if you don’t want to be called it?’ Frodo ventured.

‘Because I have a good hand with steel, Frodo,’ was the reply. ‘I have a talent for making steel, and the forge master dubbed me “Steelhand” in honor of it. But it is not my name, as yours is “Baggins”.’

‘How long have you been traveling? Erebor is so very far away!’

The dwarf chuckled around his pipe. ‘Oh, yes, Master Baggins, it is very far away. I set out during early autumn, almost twelve weeks ago. We walked around the northern end of Mirkwood, which was quick going, and tarried a while on the western edge of the forest talking with the woodmen. Some of the party went back, for they had simply come so far to trade, then return.’

‘And the High Pass?’ inquired Bilbo, ‘How was that to cross?’

Dalin grimaced. ‘We didn’t see any Orcs, but we came upon some of the High Elves who had been hunting them, and they had engaged them. The prince who led the band said they are becoming more numerous, and somewhat bolder, up in the pass. I was glad for the escort down to Rivendell.’

Bilbo glanced at Frodo’s rather anxious expression, and knew it was too soon for any thought of adventures. ‘Are the Goblins increasing in the mountains, or are they moving over from Mirkwood?’ the old hobbit asked, remembering Dalin’s words of danger on the Old Forest Road.

‘Both,’ the dwarf grumbled. ‘The prince said they are more numerous on the western slopes of the mountains, and the woodmen say they are increasing in the southern depths of Mirkwood, and may even have ways beside the Old Ford to cross, down in the Gladden Fens that lie south of the ford. Thanks to the guard of Rivendell, they have no safe passage of the Road westwards of Bruinen.’

‘Why would they want to come down the Road?’ Frodo asked, rather nervous at all the talk of Goblins.

‘Because these are fat and easy lands,’ Dalin replied matter-of-factly, ‘and they would like to pillage such places.’ The dwarf looked unconcerned, though Frodo went a shade paler. ‘So it is,’ Dalin continued in a more serious tone, shifting his attention to Bilbo, ‘that King Dáin would like to speak with the wizard, and has contemplated sending an embassy to Lord Elrond to inquire about the increase of dark creatures in recent years. All along Durin’s Road, things are more dangerous. The army of Erebor has been enlarged, and King Bain and the Master of Esgaroth have required all able-bodied men to train with bow or sword. There is even thought that Belegost should rebuild its army here in the west.’

Bilbo’s brow furrowed in consternation at this news. Though he had not been conscious for most of the Battle of the Five Armies, he had seen enough of its aftermath to know war was nothing he wanted anywhere near the Shire. Knowledge of a standing army of dwarves to the west and armed bands of elves to the east did not make for comforting thoughts. And the Grey Riders ranging in between, along the roads of the Shire… The winter air’s chill seemed sharper of a sudden, as though the weak sunlight could not quite reach the ground where they sat. Bilbo thought it time they get on their way.

Within a few minutes, pipes and dinner were stowed, and they set out towards Whitfurrows with a determined step. The conviviality of the morning was replaced by thoughtful silence, and the journey went by slowly. They paused in Frogmorton to rest and drink a tankard of thin beer at The Toad’s Hole, and halted again an hour before dusk half way in between Frogmorton and Whitfurrows to eat the remainder of their lunch. As they sat on a stone wall near the traveler’s well, Bilbo heard a pony trotting down the Road. Within a minute, a rider came into view, bundled against the cold and heading east. Bilbo hailed the fellow, and he reined up, but stayed in the center of the Road.

‘Aye?’ the rider asked.

Bilbo smiled and hopped off the wall, gesturing for the other two to stay where they were. ‘Hello, good fellow! Are you by chance going so far as Whitfurrows tonight?’

The hobbit pulled his scarf down from his face, revealing a wind-chapped and friendly expression, though he did shoot wondering glances at the dwarf. ‘Aye, good master, I ride to the far side of Whitfurrows.’

Bilbo reached into a pocket and pulled out a few coppers, handing them up to the rider. ‘Would you be so kind as to pause on your way and tell Master Brockhouse at The Fat Badger that Bilbo Baggins of Hobbiton will be there this evening, and will require rooms for himself, his nephew and Mister Dalin Steelhand, who is traveling with us. Give him the coppers as earnest and keep one for yourself for your troubles.’ Bilbo knew that there would be some room whether he paid an earnest or not, but news of “Mad Baggins” and a dwarf would give Old Will a full common room, and would guarantee the best rooms at the inn for themselves that night. He also knew it would mean that Gundabard Bolger and his wife, Matilda, would probably be there, but it could not be helped. Gundabard was the eldest Bolger in Whitfurrows, which made him the headman, and most deferred to him, if they did not precisely listen to him.

The rider grinned and touched the brim of his cap. ‘Yes sir, Mister Baggins, I’ll do just that.’ With a nod to Frodo and Dalin, who waved genially, the rider was off at a canter. Bilbo knew they would see him in the common room when they arrived. They had another spot of luck to be overtaken by Farmer Haysend a bare mile down the Road, who gladly offered them a lift in his wagon, not the slightest bit disconcerted by the idea of offering a ride to a dwarf. He and Bilbo sat on the seat and Bilbo picked up the important gossip of the area, while Frodo and Dalin sat in the wagon bed with some harness odds and ends.

Bilbo did not have to do much besides interject the occasional “Really?” or “Is that so?” to encourage the farmer to talk. Farmer Haysend was eager to speak to someone about the doings thereabouts, and once Bilbo had steered the conversation away from loose livestock and the latest marriages, the fellow was a wealth of information. The gossip was all about the Bolgers, of course, and Bilbo enjoyed finding out what his relatives were up to.

‘The quarry up near Scary is busy as can be,’ Haysend said, ‘and my youngest boy is prenticed to a stone mason up there. Tad says they’re mostly cutting stone for the buildings east of Whitfurrows, plus the usual for repairing the bigger bridges. The Master was told he’d have to wait for some for the new stables he’s building, and he sent some coin up to get it done quicker.’ Bilbo nodded appreciatively, and wondered how Rory had taken to having to pay extra for the stone. He’s used to paying less by dint of being Master, though he always over-pays, so no one’s cheated. I wonder what his letter to our cousin Odogar said. And what’s he doing building more stables? He said nothing about that at Harvest. ‘The special building is the new tannery planned for down the Water in Budgeford.  Those Breelanders, they wear out their shoes so fast we can’t kill enough cows to keep ‘em shod!’

Bilbo laughed along with Haysend at the joke and made a note to himself to tell Old Shep Cotsman to cut some of the older cattle from their herd and send them for slaughter in Eastfarthing. If the trade was good enough, then he would set up pasturage here in Eastfarthing. Good thing, too. I need to get something settled out here near the River. Keep an eye on things. Maybe I need to look into that tannery…

‘Well, the amusing news is that Mister Odogar’s been puttin’ on a few airs,’ Haysend said with much relish, but no malice. Bilbo chuckled appreciatively. The foibles of the high family heads was a constant source of amusement in all farthings. ‘Seems Mister Odogar is thinkin’ that maybe he could get himself called “The Bolger” as if he were The Took! Imagine that!’ Haysend laughed, then suddenly got a worried look on his face. He turned to Bilbo, and said hastily, ‘Not meaning no disrespect to yourself or your cousin, Mister Bolger, of course, Mister Baggins, nor to your Took kin…’ Bilbo waved off the apology.

‘Please, Farmer Haysend, do not worry yourself! I know just how ridiculous my cousins can be,’ Bilbo soothed the flustered hobbit. Hmm, perhaps Odogar is getting a bit jealous of Rory. I wonder if that’s why he charged extra for the stone. The farmer gave him a grateful glance.

‘Well, sir, that’s decent of you. And I shan’t say no more on that since it’s not polite to talk down folk in front of kin.’ Haysend pondered his pony’s rump for a moment, trying to think of something interesting that would not insult some relative of Bilbo’s. Can’t be too easy a job, seeing as how I’m related to half the fools in the Shire. Bilbo took pity on the fellow and asked how the harvest had gone. Haysend pulled an annoyed face.

‘The orchard crop was solid this last harvest season, and my wife’s brother’s plum trees have never seen better, but the roots weren’t none too good. I’ve got taters that were rotted when they were pulled up, and the rutabagas and parsnips weren’t much better. Turnips, too. Too much rain just ‘fore the cold set in. There’s mold all over the leaves. Winter squashes are awfully small, and a lot are mush inside.’ The farmer’s face was grim. ‘I’m not the only one, neither. There’s bad rot all over the lower Eastfarthing, and I hear rumor that the north side of the Road’s not much better. There’s babes as will go hungry unless we cart things in from elsewhere.’

‘Well, the roots are good up in Northfarthing, near Oatbarton,’ Bilbo offered, ‘which should be an easy cart down to west of Frogmorton.’ Bilbo was glad he had bought up some of Ham Gamgee’s more distant cousins’ holdings just west of Oatbarton. Time for a “bumper” crop of potatoes and turnips to go south, he said to himself, and it is too bad they’ll have to be sold a bit cheap, but they might rot if they aren’t cellared properly. He thought there would be more farmers in Northfarthing glad to trade roots for the hides and cloth produced along the Road, who simply needed to know about what was needed. Pleased with having solved that problem, Bilbo continued, ‘And I know that the harvest was good throughout Buckland, orchard and root both, so there should be no problem trading down to there. Perhaps the Master could get a bit more stone.’

Haysend’s bitterness took him by surprise. ‘And don’t we know it, sir! I know what’s been grown along the River! But “The Bolger’s” gone sent his boy, Odovacar, to the Tooklands to talk to the Thain or someone about getting roots from down there. That’s not good growing land, and they’ve probably got green rot in ‘em. Why the Tooks? They don’t need anything we can offer ‘em in trade. They don’t want lumber or stone or hides. Cloth isn’t ready until Solmath or even Rethe. Why aren’t they just going to the Master? Mister Wilibald lives right there at Brandy Hall already, and he’d see things were done right!’ Haysend glared through the growing dark at Bilbo.

This is not like Odogar. Bilbo could not explain why his cousin would pursue such a foolish course of action. Of course, it sounds like he’s making a right fool of himself in other ways, as well, so perhaps not so great a surprise. But this isn’t stone trade or getting people to nod their heads at you. This is a goodwife’s table and a child’s supper that are being held in trade. Bilbo could not help but remember how the Fell Winter had been preceded by a harvest of rotted potatoes in Eastfarthing, and suppressed a small shudder.

‘Farmer Haysend, I will speak myself with the Master, and with his sons, about the root harvest in Eastfarthing when I visit over Yule,’ Bilbo promised, ‘and you shall have no need to worry about whether there will be enough this winter.’ Not if there’s a damned thing I can do about it.

‘Thankee, Mister Baggins,’ Haysend solemnly replied. ‘You’re a proper gentlehobbit, you are, and I’ve heard naught but good of you from good folk.’ Bilbo turned aside the compliment with questions about stray chickens and nervous bridegrooms, and they chatted amiably the rest of the way to Whitfurrows.

As expected, The Fat Badger’s common-room was packed. Old Will Brockhouse himself was at the door to greet them, with a stable boy nearby to carry their packs to their rooms.

‘Mister Baggins, always a pleasure, my most estimable hobbit! And Mister Steelhand, how good to see you again, sir! Master Baggins, what a fine fellow! Please, please, do come in and have a bite before you retire!’ Old Will was beaming from ear to ear. He did a good business with the dwarves on the road, and Bilbo knew Dalin and his companions had stayed here on the way west. But where an entire troop of dwarves would not raise an eyebrow in Whitfurrows, a single dwarf in the company of “Mad Baggins” was an event indeed, and The Fat Badger would do a great deal of business. Bilbo bestowed a slightly maniacal grin on Old Will, handed his pack to the stable boy, and plunged in through the door.

A raucous shout greeted them as they waded into the room, Old Will scolding people out of the way and guiding the three travelers to a central table. Bilbo was gratified to see one of the kitchen maids approaching the table from the other side, bearing a great tray of food, while Mistress Brockhouse herself was drawing up tankards of ale. The horseman offered a cheerful salute from his seat at the long bar.

As they reached the table, Bilbo tugged gently on Frodo’s sleeve. ‘Stay close to me, lad, and say nothing this evening. Listen to what’s said and watch carefully.’ Frodo nodded a little, too distracted by the wooden bowls crusted over with dumplings and the wooden trenchers filled with potatoes and carrots to pay his uncle much mind. Bilbo wondered where the potatoes had come from. Dalin swung into a seat on the opposite bench, nearly filling a spot that could have held three hobbits. Old Will waved away the overly curious, giving the travelers some peace in which to eat their supper.

‘Bilbo! Bilbo Baggins!’ Bilbo looked down at his almost finished meal and sighed. Gundabard had arrived. He looked up with a bright smile and rose to shake the headman’s hand. This was one of the few Bolgers he was not closely related to through either blood or marriage, and Bilbo was rather glad for the distance. Wilibald, Gundabard’s brother, had grown up at Brandy Hall with himself, Rory and Drogo, while Gun had been brought up by Uncle Rudy and Aunt Belba in Scary after their mother, Winifred Chubb, had died in the Winter. How Wili ended up with such a dunderhead for a brother… Bilbo sighed. He had been happy to introduce his beloved cousin, Prisca, to Wili at Harvest in 1335, and they had wed the following year.

‘Good to see you, Baggins!’ Gun exclaimed as he mistook Bilbo’s hand for a pump handle. Bilbo smiled genially, then gasped for air as Matilda seized him around the neck in a crushing hug.

‘Oh, Bilbo, how nice to see you,’ she squeaked. Tilda was Old Will’s sister and their name was about all the siblings shared. Where he was broad and bluff, she was tiny and frail. Many had shaken their heads, saying Gun would be looking for a new wife after the first babe, but Tilda had managed to deliver two sons with relative ease. Gently prying her fingers off the back of his neck, Bilbo bestowed a light kiss on Tilda’s cheek.

‘How nice to see you both again, Gun, Tilda,’ he replied, pitching his voice a little louder to be heard over the general hum of the room. Bilbo motioned Frodo to scoot in next to Dalin and allow the arrivals a place to sit. Dalin was chatting genially with a hobbit Bilbo didn’t know, but, from the look of the grit and old burns on his hands, had to be the town blacksmith. The smith had brought his own tankard over, and he and Dalin were discussing fire while the dwarf inhaled his supper.

‘So, what is the news in Whitfurrows?’ Bilbo politely inquired.

‘Never better!’ Bilbo wondered if Gun knew it was possible to talk in anything less than a shout, and suppressed a wince. ‘Everything is growing, including my belly!’ This was greeted with confirming shouts from around the room. Benches and stools started to scrape on the floor as people dragged seats forward to attend to the headman’s talk with Mad Baggins. ‘Can’t keep up with the demand for stone, that’s for certain,’ murmured assents came from around the room, ‘and the market’s needing expanding. We’ve been seeing so many Big People around here we’re all getting cricks in the neck from staring up at the sky!’ General laughter followed this assertion. Old Will quit pretending to tend the bar and claimed a seat directly at the table.

‘Aye, Mister Baggins, the traffic on the Road is strong, even at this time of year,’ confirmed Old Will, ‘and not just dwarves, like our fine Mister Steelhand, here. We’ve been getting all kinds of Big People, from the Breelands and maybe even further than that.’ General affirmations followed, though not all were enthusiastic. Bilbo cocked his head to the side and smiled encouragingly. Old Will did not need much more encouragement.

‘Like brother Gun said, Mister Baggins, we’re holding market every other week now, ‘stead of each four- or six-week, because of the Breelanders. They’ve always got dwarf coins now – and a good thing too, if I say so, Mister Steelhand, it’s a might good thing that we have good dwarf Crowns for business – and they like what comes from Eastfarthing. Most things these days are hides from harvest slaughter, and then cloth after Yule.’

Bilbo cast his mind back to things Sara and Mac had spoken of during Halimath, as well as thinking of the evening’s news from Farmer Haysend. ‘And leaf? I’d heard tell that Breelanders were buying leaf from Eastfarthing.’

‘That they are,’ one farmer broke in from a few benches back. ‘We get it sent up from Longbottom through Waymeet and store it in some of the stone sheds Gun’s been getting built at the edge of town. Can’t figure why they’d be wanting to buy what they can raise for themselves, but that’s so and that’s that!’ 

‘I heard they been sellin’ the good stuff out South,’ broke in another voice, though Bilbo could not see past Dalin to know who it was.

Old Will nodded emphatically. ‘You said it, Soreshanks, they’ve been parting with it. And the southern squinty-folk, all funny-lookin’, I’ve seen them a few times myself right here in market!’

‘But most it’s dwarves,’ said the farmer, ‘and there’s plenty o’them tramping the Road all the year round, now times.’ The hobbit smiled and raised his mug to Dalin to show he meant nothing ill, and the dwarf nodded back.

‘And we always are glad to see dwarves,’ Gun loudly interjected, right in Bilbo’s ear. ‘Fact is, we’re probably going to need some good dwarf help in Eastfarthing not so long from now.’ Bilbo and Dalin exchanged curious glances, and focused on Gun. The headman grinned and patted his own round belly. ‘Looks like there’s a seam of coal up near Dwaling, soft and black, and there’s going to be some call for expert mining to get it out.’

‘There’s true coal?’ questioned the smith, very excited. ‘That’s news indeed, Mister Bolger. My smithy could use that, and I know Ham Hammerfoot down in Newbury wants it. There’s a number of good sized forges in this part of the Shire, maybe even in Bree, who’d be glad for coal.’

Gun pulled a face and shook his head. ‘Nay, Pitt, it’s going to be going to the West dwarves. They’ll pay a good penny for it. Anyway, if we have their help mining it, seems right they should have plenty for their own metal works.’

‘But Belegost has plenty of coal,’ Dalin rumbled, ‘and I doubt the quality of Shire coal will be better, meaning no offense. If it’s the same, there’s no point carting it out. Best you use it around here to improve your local smithies.’

‘Then it can go to Bree,’ Gun tartly replied, ‘where we’ll get some Crowns in exchange for it and not chickens and nails.’ Pitt, the smith, shot the headman an unpleasant glance, and took a slow draught from his mug. 

‘But, Gun, really, shouldn’t the coal stay close and be used for Shire folk?’ Bilbo gently remonstrated, rather shocked at Gun’s cold calculation. ‘If the dwarves got part in payment for their work, that’s just fairness,’ strong murmurs of agreement rose from the hobbits around them, ‘but something that important should stay close. For our own good!’ From the unhappy looks he had seen around the audience, Bilbo had the uneasy feeling that many good things were being traded out of Eastfarthing upon the Road in exchange for coin, things folks thought were needed at home. It also sounded as if there was a good deal more trade happening out here near the River than anyone in the central Shire had imagined. I’m going to have to talk to Rory about this. Perhaps Mac knows some more details. Odogar’s trade with the Thain - or someone in the Tooklands - was looking less like foolishness and more like calculation. He was not the only one in the room drawing that conclusion.

‘And what about the root crops?’ Bilbo could make out Farmer Haysend’s face on the other side of the room. ‘We’re going t’need a lot more taters this winter than’s been grown this year. Why’re we talkin’ down south to them Tooks when the Master’s just down the River Road and actually knows about taters? Them’s strange folk down south, and they don’t know ‘bout growing roots. Leaf, yes; taters, no sir!’ This pronouncement was met with laughter and a few cheers and hands slapped on tables.

Obviously his own assurances about speaking to Rory had not lessened Haysend’s anger at the foolishness of the farthing’s high family. Sounds like Haysend’s questioning a bit more than “taters”. Bilbo could see Gun was not pleased with Haysend’s blunt words, and could not resist adding to the greedy fellow’s discomfiture.

‘Indeed, I should wonder why not trade such things closer to home, and from where they’re best?’ Bilbo cheerily volunteered. Gun’s face became a touch redder, though Old Will grinned and shot a not entirely friendly glance at the headman. Ah, not so pleased with his brother-in-law, Bilbo realized, and understood that Gun might not be as generous to his wife’s kin as would be wise. ‘After all, my cousin, the Master, is a fair and generous fellow, and takes good care of those that care for him.’ And charging him extra for stone and making him wait is not taking proper care.  ‘Though that’s not to say my Took cousins aren’t fair or generous, mind you, and I’m sure the Thain will do better than his word,’ and that you’d best remember who you’re talking to, you addle-pated excuse for a pickling barrel, ‘but why go so far when Buckland is right across the River?’ Bilbo smiled genially at Gun, and knew he had made an enemy. Why doesn’t he want to trade with Buckland? Wili might know.

‘Eastfarthing business is done where Odogar sees fit to have it done,’ Gun snapped back.

‘But surely cousin Odogar would not want potatoes from Southfarthing,’ Frodo piped up. Bilbo started a bit at the sound of his lad’s voice, and looked over. The resemblance to Drogo had faded, and the Old Took seemed to be sitting next to Dalin. Frodo’s voice was pleasant, but there was a hardness around his eyes and a set to his jaw that Bilbo had not seen since the lad backed Sara down at Harvest. ‘I grew up on potatoes from Buckland, and I have had the misfortune to sample some from Southfarthing while in Hobbiton. Those from Buckland are much better. Perhaps my cousin does not know this? I shall ask Uncle Rory to send some straight away so our cousin Odogar will know which would be best.’ There were murmurs of support, and more than a few chuckles at how neatly the boy had put the headman in his place. Bilbo had to suppress his own amusement at Frodo’s deft demonstration that he was a much closer relation to Odogar than Gun was – as well as being nephew to the Master of Buckland. Ah, Wilwarin, you will be quite formidable once you’ve been properly trained.

Frodo met Gun’s angry stare with a slight smile. The tension was broken by the sound of a huge yawn, and all eyes in the room went to the dwarf. Dalin put a hand over his mouth and looked sheepish.

‘I beg your pardons, fine masters and mistresses,’ the dwarf said in his baritone rumble. ‘I fear that your kind attention and cheer has finally worn this poor traveler out.’ Dalin sent an apologetic glance to Old Will and Gun, and a sly wink to Bilbo. Bilbo did not waste the opportunity to get away from the angry headman.

‘And I, too, feel weariness overtaking me, Mister Brockhouse,’ Bilbo said, ‘so it is time for all three of us travelers to retire.’

‘Then you must come and spend the night in our home, Bilbo,’ Tilda chimed in with her squeaky voice. ‘I insist that you be our guests tonight.’ Gun glared at his tiny wife, who refused to look at him.

‘Tilda, you are generous beyond words, but I have already promised your esteemed brother that we would patronize his inn this night, and would never forgive myself were he to have turned away business because of us, and then lost us as well,’ Bilbo smoothly replied.

‘Oh, dear, of course not,’ Tilda quickly answered, giving her brother a nervous glance. He smiled back genially, while Gun looked as though he could not decide between being pleased that unwanted guests were not going to arrive on his doorstep and being disappointed that he had not done some mischief to Old Will’s business. Bilbo decided that he did not envy Tilda trying to negotiate around these two.

‘So you’ll be joining the Master and the Mistress for Yule, then, Mister Baggins?’ Old Will jovially asked.

Bilbo knew he should simply agree, but something in the look he had seen on Tilda’s face made him rather put out with her brother as well as with her husband. ‘Well, that, of course, to spend the Yuletide with kin and friends. However, we have mostly come for the Wintermark.’ He stood and gestured for Frodo to also rise, listening to the whispers and sounds of disapproval slither about the room.

Old Will looked quite uncomfortable. ‘Wintermark, sir? That’s not a proper celebration.’ His opinion was echoed with mutters and hisses of “Not right,” “Not proper,” “Foreign,” “Ill fortuned,” and so on. Dalin had risen from his seat and looked a bit confused. Frodo looked greatly annoyed, which is to say he looked precisely like the Old Took. Bilbo gave Old Will a slightly feral grin.

‘Not proper? What mean you? Wintermark is one of the oldest celebrations we have in the Shire, and the great families who know their history all respect it. Though perhaps none so well as the Brandybucks.’

With that, Bilbo gave first Old Will, then Gun, then the room a small bow, placed a small kiss on Tilda’s cheek, and cheerfully sauntered out of the room, Frodo and Dalin right behind him. A kitchen maid met them at the door and showed them the way to their rooms. Whatever any of them were thinking, they were quickly asleep and did not stir until woken for first breakfast the next day.

The day was more clear and cold than the previous one, and Bilbo was glad that their journey would not be as long. Thankfully, Old Will was nowhere in sight as they breakfasted. The kitchen maid was giggly and spirited as she served the meal, flirting with all three of them and accepting a kiss on the cheek and a pinch on the rump from Bilbo. Frodo rolled his eyes and shook his head at Bilbo for that, but smiled engagingly enough himself at the hobbit-lass when she returned to refill their tea. She giggled at him, and bestowed another kiss on Bilbo. Their packs were waiting for them by the common-room door, and Bilbo’s had been filled with food for the journey.

They did not push themselves very much, but walked just briskly enough to hold off the cold. Dinner was at a small farmhouse off the River Road, just south of the junction with the East-West Road. The goodwife had hailed them so cheerfully from the yard Bilbo risked asking her if they could share the cottage fire while they ate. She agreed, but said they would have to wait until her man was back from the far field. They did, and enjoyed a fine warm meal, sharing all they had carried from The Fat Badger. The couple had no children yet, only having been married at Lithe, but her round belly said they would be blessed in the new year. Bilbo left them some silver pennies as a Yule gift, and bade the goodwife to write him when the child was born.

Bilbo loved the walk along the River Road. It was the favorite part of his journeys to Buckland, and he never failed to walk along it and down to the Bucklebury Ferry. The land was higher on this side of the River, and the view from the River Road down upon the Baranduin (he never called things by anything but their elvish names if he could find them out) was far better than that from the Buckland side of the River. Trees bordered the west edge of the road in dense thickets, shading a traveler in the warm afternoons. Stock was a busy, merry place, and the goodwives were always ready with a cheerful shout and a wave. Children followed after them all through the town, enthralled by the dwarf in his huge scarlet cloak. The three turned and waved as they left, much to the delight of the children.

Frodo was very cheerful and animated the entire walk, and was becoming positively giddy as they drew nearer the Ferry lane. Bilbo watched carefully, noting the changes that came over his lad. Even in the swiftly failing light, Bilbo could not help but see how happy Frodo was. Wilwarin, why do you flutter about so lightly? He knew the answer, of course – Frodo was going home. That hurt to see, for he had hoped Bag End would have become the boy’s home by now. Not for the first time, the old hobbit wondered if he had done the right thing in taking Frodo so suddenly away from Brandy Hall. He had to leave. He couldn’t stay, not around Sara, and you couldn’t let Esmie take him to the Great Smials. But to part him so hastily from his cousins and from Gilda… Bilbo tried to stop the fruitless argument in his head. Frodo was tugging on Dalin's arm and pointing out things across the River. Any minute now, Buck Hill and Brandy Hall itself would be visible. Will you ever dance about like this, eager to catch the first glimpse of Bag End? Bilbo sighed a bit to himself, then came to an abrupt halt, whirling about to face the way they came. Frodo and Dalin stopped and trotted back to see what the matter was.

Very faint, Bilbo heard the sounds of horses’ hooves, many of them, upon the River Road.

‘Off the road,’ Bilbo ordered in a low, curt voice, seizing Frodo’s arm, and hustling the tween into the thicket of trees to the west. Dalin wasted no time in joining them, tearing off his bright cloak, exposing a plain leather tunic over a dark green shirt. He tossed the cloak down behind a bush, and then they froze in the trees as the Grey Riders appeared around the turn and trotted towards them.

Four pairs of horsemen were moving swiftly in the evening gloom. Their tall horses’ smooth strides made short work of the distance. The steeds were of dark colors, without any white markings that Bilbo could see. The riders themselves were well wrapped in dark grey cloaks and looked as tall as trolls. They sat their horses well, with straight backs and still hands, though they looked side to side, observing the land as they passed. Bilbo fancied he saw a pattern to the looks. Each wore a silver clasp at his throat though they moved too quickly to see more detail than that. At each Rider’s hip was a sword longer than most hobbits were tall, and every back bore a great bow and a quiver of black-fletched arrows. The right-hand foremost Rider also had a spear held upright, its butt in a cup on the stirrup. Their faces were proud and weathered, but noble, and those few whose hoods were down had long black hair braided against their necks. In a rumble of hooves, they swept past the three travelers. Soon, not even the rumor of hoof beats remained.

Dalin retrieved his cloak and pulled it back on. Warily, the three made their way back to the edge of the road.

‘What was that?’ asked Dalin.

‘Ghosts!’ replied Frodo, voice cracking a bit in nervousness.

Bilbo looked askance at his nephew. ‘Ghosts?’

Frodo turned, wide-eyed, and nodded his head. ‘Ghosts! Ghosts of the High King’s knights. Mac told me. They rise out of the river fog and haunt the River Road.’

Bilbo looked down at the road and pointed at something dark. ‘What’s that?’

Frodo looked and shrugged. ‘A horse turd.’

‘Have you ever heard of a ghost horse taking a dump?’

Frodo looked a little chagrined, then started snickering, ‘No, Uncle Bilbo, I don’t think I have.’

‘So I think we can say those are real horses, and real horses are afraid of ghosts, so those are real riders, not ghosts,’ Bilbo scolded, but he and Dalin were laughing a bit, too. ‘Honestly, Frodo, haven’t you heard Rory or Mac or Sara talking about the Grey Riders before?’

Frodo squirmed a bit. ‘Umm, maybe?’

‘Well, pay more attention! Your cousins know quite well they aren’t ghosts!’ Bilbo admonished.

‘Well, what are those Big People doing on our road, anyway?’ Frodo retorted, obviously stung at being chastised. ‘They shouldn’t be here! In Buckland, they wouldn’t be allowed inside the gate, not after sundown, and not a big group of them like that!’

Bilbo chuckled and shook his head a bit, and resumed their walk towards the Ferry. The other two fell into place beside him. Across the River, the lights of Bucklebury could be seen as darkness closed in.

‘Frodo, this isn’t “our road” as you put it,’ Bilbo began. ‘This road was here long before hobbits ever lived in the Shire. Come now, you know that the East-West Road has been here as long as there have been dwarves to walk upon it, which was longer ago than when the Sea set its shore where it now rests. We hobbits are newcomers here.’ Frodo watched his uncle curiously, wanting to know more, but still piqued enough that he was not going to ask. You are as stubborn as Drogo, Wilwarin. Bilbo gave the lad an affectionate clout on the head before continuing.

‘If it were the High King’s ghostly knights, it would be proper, as this is one of the High King’s roads, my lad. It is our charter and our duty, as hobbits of the Shire, to maintain the King’s roads and bridges, to speed his messengers on their way, and to acknowledge his lordship. These were, indeed, still are, the King’s lands. We merely hold them in trust until he shall come back and claim them once more. The original charter is a beautiful thing, Frodo, lovely enough to belong in the library of Rivendell! It sits in a leather case in the Great Smials, and is so ancient and delicate that it is only brought out when a new Thain is pledged, for him to swear upon. I saw it, in 1339, when my cousin Fort pledged as Thain. Just before I went off on my adventures!’ he concluded cheerfully. They were at the turn to the Ferry, and it was completely dark.

‘As for these Grey Riders,’ Dalin broke in, ‘there was one similarly dressed and of like mien when Bain became King of Dale. He was accompanied by the wizard, Gandalf and an elf prince of Rivendell, and all met with King Dáin in the days afterwards. I was a door ward in that time and saw all number of odd folk go in to pay their respects to the King Under the Mountain. A dour fellow with strongly grizzled hair, he was, but tall and stern, and the same cast to his face as these Riders we saw. Maybe we were foolish to hide if they are friends to the wizard.’

Bilbo thought about that for minute. ‘Well, that is interesting, and perhaps says that we can trust these fellows. Even so, I think it prudent to stay well out of the way of any band of armed horsemen, no matter if they have right-of-way upon the old roads or not, friends of Gandalf or not, ghosts or not. They’d probably ride us over before they even noticed we were standing in the road.’ Dalin grunted agreement, and picked up the pace towards the Ferry.

They tramped on in silence until they reached the Ferry, and poled the barge across the River, carefully tying it off after they landed. Frodo’s eyes were trained on Buck Hill, while Dalin whistled a soft tune as they covered the last bit to the Hall. Bilbo was lost in thought. So, these Grey fellows have something to do with Gandalf. I clearly have to have a word with the old conjuror on all this. The sense of unease he had felt after talking of armies and Goblins at dinner the day before returned, worsened by the dark. His eyes found Frodo walking ahead of him, the young hobbit trying to curb his impatience and not simply race ahead to the Hall. How inconsequential all the bickering at The Badger really is, Wilwarin, when faced by what haunts the King’s Road. For this I’m raising you, lad. Perhaps it would be more kind to leave you here after all.


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