POV - Bilbo
In which the travelers set out for home, a weasel is found at the Badger, words are said, meanings are tangled, Frodo is shocked (as usual), and we finally meet the Widow Grubb.
Evening, 4 Afteryule, 1390
Bilbo sat next to Frodo on the bed, holding the lad’s hand and gently stroking his hair, until the child fell asleep. Had the lad not been so exhausted, he would have attempted to walk to Stock that night. All Bilbo wanted was to leave. We should have left immediately after Yule. Forgive me, Wilwarin, for making you stay. He wished he could curl up next to the boy and hold him, but there was one more task for the evening. Still, Bilbo was in no hurry to part from Frodo. He sat for a good half-hour, holding Frodo’s hand, humming softly.
He had been worried when Frodo was nowhere to be found at lunch. The walk to and from the farm, even if the lad had stayed a while to dally with Ula, should not have taken more than three hours. Bilbo had been even more anxious when he overheard Esmie complaining to Rory about Sara being gone to the farm again. He walked up to the farm himself that afternoon. Ula said Mac and Dalin had gone to Newbury, but had thought Frodo had returned to the Hall. She had no idea where Sara was. Bilbo guessed all four had gone to Newbury, and hoped Dalin would watch out for Frodo.
Quit putting it off, Baggins. Bilbo sighed, gave Frodo a soft kiss on the temple, and left to go see Rory and Gilda. He tapped on their door, then let himself in when he did not get an answer. They were not back from supper. He stirred up the fire, poured himself a glass of wine from the sideboard, and sat. They arrived within a half hour.
‘Beggar! What is the matter?’ Gilda quickly asked. ‘We missed you at supper.’
‘Has Frodo turned up?’ Rory added, helping Gilda to the chair opposite Bilbo. He stood behind the chair, leaning his elbows on the back of it.
‘He is back and is well,’ Bilbo reassured them. ‘He was chilled and exhausted from his escapades today, so we took supper in our room and I put him to bed. He’s asleep.’ The other two were clearly relieved at the news. Bilbo fixed Gilda with a cold stare. ‘You did very poorly, Gilda, countermanding me this morning. You knew that I did not want him wandering about, yet you ordered Dalin to take him to Newbury, didn’t you?’ Gilda stared back and did not answer. ‘Sara went along as well, and the two of them tangled again there in Newbury. I am still uncovering the whole story, as Frodo is too upset to explain clearly.’
Rory let out a frustrated growl and dropped his face into his hands. Gilda simply raised an eyebrow, waiting for more. ‘What harm was done?’ Rory asked, not raising his head.
‘Frodo is half scared out of his wits, but the harm done was all to Sara.’ Bilbo sighed himself. ‘The blame for this is squarely on Frodo’s head, Rory. He deliberately turned some name-calling into a fist-fight, by the sounds of it, and Dalin broke it up. Dalin says he shook Sara to give him a scare and make him stay away from the lad. What a dwarf considers a shaking and what you or I might consider it to be are not the same thing. Dalin also threatened to kill Sara if he went after Frodo again. The threat was believable enough that it has Frodo terrified.’
‘Did he break any bones?’
‘They didn’t say, Rory, but I think that would have been mentioned. We can call Dalin in and ask.’ Rory shook his head.
‘No, you’re right. They would have said something. Anyway, Dalin would not do any serious harm to anyone.’ Oh, but he would, Rory. He’s a dwarf, defending me and mine. ‘Why are our sons such fools, Bilbo? After what we’ve said to each of them, you would think they would know enough to ignore each other for just a few days.’
Bilbo drained the last of his wine. ‘I don’t know Rory. They could not have been alone for more than a few minutes and they were at each other’s throats. I am not allowing Frodo to leave our room until we set out tomorrow.’ He rose, walked over to the chair, and hooked a finger under Gilda’s chin, making her look up at him.
‘Don’t you ever interfere in my orders again, Gilda.’ She stared back, unimpressed. ‘If Sara had harmed Frodo in any significant way, Dalin would have done some very unpleasant things to him. My orders were as much for Sara’s sake as for Frodo’s, Mistress. Frodo is not yours anymore.’ Bilbo let his hand drop. ‘We leave at full light, if you wish to say good-bye. Unless you care to visit Bag End, you will never see him again. We are never coming back here.’
Rory walked him out, giving him a hug at the door. Bilbo toyed with the idea of interrogating Dalin about the fight, then decided it did not matter. It is over and done, Baggins. Wilwarin is unharmed and he’ll get over his fright soon enough. The full story can wait. Take your own advice and rest for the walk tomorrow. He was almost back to their room when he saw Hargo Bracegirdle come out of his own room. One last bit of unfinished business. Bilbo put on his cheeriest smile and hailed the other hobbit.
‘Hargo! Good evening to you.’
‘Baggins, good evening to you, as well.’
‘Good evening and good-bye, I fear,’ Bilbo said genially. ‘We shall be setting out for Hobbiton early in the morning. I wish we had been able to talk. You know, Gun and Odogar were making noises about building a new tannery on the Water, despite Rory and Wili telling them it would be best to expand the Girdley Island operation. Do be sure to get a word in with Rory about that sometime while you’re here.’
This news did not please Hargo. ‘They can’t build a tannery on the Water! The stream isn’t big enough to clean things properly!’
‘Well, that’s what Frodo said, too,’ Bilbo blandly offered. ‘I think there are better things to be done on the Water. And why start a new tannery when yours can expand? Anyway, talk to Rory – Wili, too – and do a bit of planning.’
‘I’ll have to talk to him tomorrow. I leave on Highday with Hamson and Harriet.’
‘Leaving so soon? The baby was just born.’ Hargo shook his head.
‘No, though I wish I could. We’ll do the naming tomorrow evening. Violet will stay, of course.’ Hargo smiled broadly. ‘Quite a Yule gift, yes? The birth of our first grandchild!’ This was the opening Bilbo had waited for.
‘Really? I did not know Helga was expecting.’ Hargo looked at him askance.
‘No, Baggins, Hilda!’
‘As I said, if you’re expecting your first grandchild, congratulations are in order for Helga.’ Bilbo’s cheer disappeared and he dropped his voice quite low. ‘Before you go about sneering at “stray children”, Bracegirdle, you should remember that I am very old, with an excellent memory, and good friends with most of the midwives in the Shire. It would be terribly unfortunate should the “stray children” among your own kin become well known, would it not?’ Hargo’s face was reddening, his jaw clenched. ‘So I suggest you not give me reason to make mention of such unfortunate things. Do we understand each other, Bracegirdle?’
Bilbo smiled again. ‘I do extend my most heartfelt congratulations to Hilda on the birth of her son. She is a lovely girl. She has no idea does she?’ The anger and helplessness on Hargo’s face was all the answer Bilbo needed. ‘Good evening, Hargo.’ He left Hargo standing in the hallway, hands clenched.
You are a bastard, Baggins, to threaten such a thing. He slipped into their room. Only the door lantern was burning. Frodo slept. I threaten to do what others say baldly to my child’s face. He knelt next to the bed, studying the lad’s features. You are Drogo’s son. How many times have I seen him asleep, looking just like this? But Gilda is so sure… No! He is, Baggins. He is a miracle and he is Drogo’s son. And, if he isn’t, do you care?
‘No,’ Bilbo whispered, ‘I don’t care.’ It was enough for him that Drogo had claimed the child. He undressed for bed, not bothering with a nightshirt. Their clothes from the day he rolled up and dropped into his own trunk. Soon, the lantern was extinguished and he was in bed, arms around Frodo. We are never coming back. We are going home.
Morning came too soon. Bilbo dressed quickly upon waking and collected their breakfast. Maddie knew they were leaving and had promised to fill his pack with a good meal for mid-day. He would get it at the Lane Door when they set out. Frodo was awake by the time he returned and was dressing. A quick trip to Dalin’s room showed the dwarf was already prepared. Dalin joined them for the meal. The broke their fast in a subdued mood. Bilbo and Frodo double checked the room for anything left behind, then closed their trunks. Frodo pulled on his pack, and they retrieved Dalin’s trunk from his room.
When they arrived at the Lane Door, Dahlia was waiting with their noontide meal, while Rory and Gilda stood just outside the door. Bilbo’s pack was filled and hoisted into place. Dahlia gave each a quick kiss, even Dalin, and hurried off, wiping her eyes.
‘Give me a hug and kiss, rascal, then get on your way,’ Gilda commanded. Frodo embraced her a long time. She touched her forehead to his and they shared a whispered exchange. I wouldn’t take him away from you ever, love, but he cannot stay. Bilbo knew they would not see each other again. Rory took his arm and led him a few steps away.
‘I’ll see the trunks get sent off later this morning. Prim and Drogo’s things for Frodo, I’ll have those delivered in a week or so, once I know you’re home.’ Rory sighed. ‘Sara came back, late.’
Rory shrugged. ‘He’s got some marks, and he’s not talking. Nothing is broken, so I don’t think there’s much grounds for complaint. Dalin has to leave and may not come back.’
‘He’ll understand. Good-bye, brother.’ Bilbo and Rory shared a strong embrace. Frodo came over and Rory hugged him firmly.
‘You mind Bilbo, and write often,’ Rory admonished. Frodo smiled sadly and nodded. Rory hugged him again and kissed him.
Bilbo hugged and kissed Gilda. She gave him a wry smile. ‘I may yet surprise you, beggar.’
Bilbo caressed her cheek and laughed a little. ‘You have always left me gaping in amazement, my beautiful girl. I expect you shall do so again.’
Dalin bowed to Rory and Gilda. ‘I give my thanks for your hospitality and generosity to this poor, weary traveler, Master, Mistress. You are dwarf-friends, and shall be held in honor by all of Durin’s folk.’
Rory bowed his head to Dalin. ‘Safe be your journey and swift your steps upon the Road, Mister Steelhand. Write to me when you have news of your fellows who would work in Buckland.’
‘I shall Master Rory. Farewell, Mistress Gilda.’
Farewells made, the travelers walked to Ferry. Frodo kept looking back over his shoulder. When they crossed the River, the lad stood at the end of the craft, watching Buckland.
The sun was just up, the air held a sharp bite, and it was clear as elven-wrought glass in all directions. The sounds of the morning were sharp, but did not carry. Smoke rose from the chimneys of the farmsteads along the River Road, and figures could be seen moving between houses, barns, byres and out-buildings. The bare trees lifted slender branches into the delicate blue sky, the hint of breeze making the tips tremble as though from cold.
Bilbo made sure Frodo wore the gloves Esmie had knit and that he was well bundled. The boy trailed quietly behind him and Dalin as they strode down the road. Bilbo wished to make good time today, and rest in Frogmorton tonight. The further he could be from Buckland, the better. They paused in the Perch at Stock to warm their hands and feet. The mood was festive and the taproom was full, the weather being too cold for anything besides staying warm once animals were tended for the morning. The Perch had not changed much since he was a tween, and Bilbo doubted it would be any different when Frodo was old. Folk were curious about Dalin, having seen him pass through a fortnight before and having heard tales of the gold and scarlet giant staying with the Master and arranging to trade piles of gems for Buckland cloth. Some Yule cheer came back to Bilbo’s heart in the middle of these good folk; even Frodo appeared to be happier.
Unlike their walk to Buckland, they pushed their pace on the Road today. It was late morning when they happened by the farmhouse where they had dined before. The goodwife saw them from the window and hailed them. Bilbo asked if they could warm their hands at her hearth, and she gladly invited them in. Her belly seemed even more round than just two weeks past, and she insisted that they take off their cloaks and enjoy the sweet squash pie still warm from the oven. Several mugs of tea, a few slices of pie, and a number of other sweets later, they set out upon their way. Frodo’s pockets were filled with glazed walnuts and hazelnuts, dried fruit, and some Yule candies. The lad happily juggled a big slice of hot toast, smeared with honey and butter. Bilbo left another silver penny for the goodwife, along with his regards for her husband.
Within the hour, they were on the Road headed west. At this pace, they would have a cold lunch upon the Road, but make Whitfurrows for a late afternoon ale and a warm fire. As lunch approached and their stomachs growled, they looked for a suitable dining spot. They settled on a plot of earth in the lee of a stone wall to the south of the Road. There was a well almost two miles further down the Road where they could later refill their water bottles. Dalin had been collecting twigs and a few small fallen branches as they walked, and they soon had a fire to keep them warm while they sat.
Two cooked chickens, one stuffed with mushrooms and sausage, the other stuffed with fruit stewed in sweet wine, were the center of the meal, and there were several fine Buckland cheeses wrapped in leaves and nicely tied with knotted grass. Sweet and savory biscuits were wrapped in a kerchief, and small bread loaves had been hollowed out and filled with many delicious things, bound shut with more knotted grass – slices of meat, pickles, slices of beets and purple onions, butter, sausages, and tender cooked carrots, rubbed with honey, ginger and salt. Some tightly woven reed bowls and three beautifully carved maple spoons allowed them to dine gracefully. The mushroom stuffing disappeared most quickly, and Dalin asked only for a small bite of it. He seemed quite content with the fruit and wine stuffing, which Bilbo and Frodo were more than happy to cede to him. The chickens were consumed, and most of the rest sampled. Leftovers were bundled up for a mid-afternoon snack.
They did not pause for a post-lunch pipe due to the cold. Bilbo had laid a few stones in the fire, and they warmed his and Frodo’s pockets for a few miles. Dalin declined the rocks. Earlier than Bilbo had hoped, the outskirts of Whitfurrows drew into view. They hastened their steps and were soon walking into the common room of The Fat Badger. As at the Perch, the room was full and jolly.
‘Bilbo Baggins!’ Will Brockhouse called out from behind the bar, ‘and Mister Steelhand! Bless my buttons, but it is good to see you again, fine sirs! You as well, Master Baggins.’ Old Will bustled out from behind the bar and shooed a few men and a woman away from the table in the middle of the room. All the better to display us with, eh Will? The old hobbit let out a sigh. He had hoped to be sat nearer the hearth so they could warm more quickly. Bilbo had not missed the innkeep’s motion and hurried whisper to one of the barmaids, who hurried out a side door. Bilbo figured they had about fifteen minutes before Gun showed up.
‘What may I get for you gentlefolk?’ Will cheerfully inquired.
‘An ale for each of us and another all-round the room, Will!’ Bilbo heartily replied, dropping some coins into Will’s hand. A cheer went up from the room. Will jingled the coins without bothering to count them - though Bilbo knew the wily fellow could tell what he held from weight alone, no doubt - as though his hand was a bell, and called out for the maids to hop to it.
There could be no argument with the ale, however, which arrived in very large tankards accompanied by bread trenchers filled with a thick stew. Bilbo was not terribly hungry, but he sampled the meal to be courteous. Dalin and Frodo dug in. While they ate, Bilbo cheerily acknowledged the thanks called out from around the room as other patrons received their ales (but no stew, Will was a sensible proprietor). He noticed Frodo had stopped eating and was watching a corner of the room.
Bilbo paid no explicit attention, but managed to turn around in his chair to talk to someone at the next table, and took a look. As he expected, Tom Tunnelly was sitting with some other men and older lads who Bilbo thought were probably taking a break from the lumber yard. Tom was watching Frodo intently over the rim of his mug. One of the men poked Tom in the shoulder and sent him off to fetch things from the bar. Young Master Tunnelly did not look particularly pleased at being the errand boy. A glance back at Frodo showed his lad smiling unpleasantly into his stew. Bilbo wondered. He had thought the boys sweethearts, but perhaps he had misjudged.
‘Bilbo!’ It had barely been ten minutes. Gun rolled up to the table, belly jiggling at the speed of his walk. Bilbo did not bother to rise, nor did he hold out his hand. He had his fill of stupid, meddlesome, fawning relatives this Yule season. Gun did not appear to notice. He tried to push his way in between Frodo and Bilbo. To Bilbo’s amusement, Frodo braced his feet on the floor and would not move, though he smiled genially enough. Bilbo gestured to the seat on the other side of the table.
‘Have a seat, Gun.’
Dalin nodded his regards to the headman, but did not stop eating his stew. Bilbo noticed Frodo was almost through and pushed his meal over to the boy, who wordlessly accepted it. People started pulling up benches and stools, happy to have another show. Bilbo decided it was going to be fun to humiliate the Whitfurrows headman. The only problem is the fool probably would not notice it.
‘Well, a Merry Yule to you again, Gun,’ Bilbo said blandly. ‘It was good to see you at the feast at the Hall.’
‘As it was to see you, Baggins,’ Gun jovially replied.
‘I hear that the root crop problem has been neatly solved,’ Bilbo went on in the same bland tone, signaling to Old Will to refill his ale. He did not offer any more coin. Gun looked a bit confused and uncomfortable. You have enough wits to know it was solved and not the way it was planned, but not enough to figure out what was done. Some smirks and sly glances around the common room let Bilbo know that not all of the folk in Whitfurrows were as dense as their headman.
‘Well, yes, that it was, Bilbo,’ Gun began uncertainly. Even Will was rolling his eyes at his brother-in-law’s ineptitude.
‘Well, as soon as I arrived in Buckland, I of course told my cousin Rory about the general shortages. He had a very stern talk with your brother Wili about not telling him more plain that there was help needed in Eastfarthing. Wili was surprised, for he said you’d never said word about the troubles. Gun,’ Bilbo said with mock sympathy, ‘I know you’re a proud man, but you have to tell kin when they should stand up and lend some help!’ There were a few snickers around the room. They knew that Gun and Wili had not one good word to say of each other. Bilbo shook his head sadly. ‘So Rory got a fire lit under Wili’s tail and of those two fine nephews of yours, and they set to work through the Yale, getting the Master’s Yule gifts distributed.’
Gun shifted uncomfortably. Bilbo noticed Old Will had not brought a tankard over to his brother-in-law. Bilbo knew that the two useless lumps Gun called sons probably did not even know there was a harvest shortage, let alone have done their duty to see to the care of their local folk. He took a sip of his ale and thought about how next to skewer Gun, and let the folk know who their true friends were.
‘But, even with the best will in the world, Buckland was not going to be able to aid all of Eastfarthing with the poor harvest,’ Bilbo said sadly. ‘That was obvious after only a day. So, I remembered that you had said cousin Odogar was trying to speak with Pal Took to get a supply sent up from Southfarthing. Difficult business, that, with a stubborn and willful Thain who doesn’t want to see sense, and Pal only able to do so much.’ Bilbo sighed, and shook his head at the foolishness of it all. ‘I greatly feared that all of cousin Odogar’s efforts might be set at naught due to his arguments with the Thain, so I wrote a note to that youngster, Rum, and I told my cousin he should be ashamed of himself, risking a goodwife’s table going bare because of his pride!’ Bilbo nodded decisively, while people around the room muttered dire things about arrogant Thains, and more quietly about arrogant headmen.
‘Well, it appears to have worked, and the Thain was suitably contrite enough to send a generous Yule gift to the goodfolk of Whitfurrows, and to promise to trade in good faith – no more of these proud airs! – for as long as it was needed and he had good enough to spare!’ Bilbo slapped his hand on the table to emphasize his point, and a cheer went up around the room. He sipped again. Frodo was sitting with his most innocent expression on, listening raptly and trying not to laugh. Now for the kill.
‘And then, it was masterful for Odogar to come down to Brandy Hall for Yule itself. You were there, Gun, you know what I’m talking about!’ Gun looked panicked, because he knew what a pompous, rude ass Odogar had been for the three days he was there. ‘Talking to cousin Rory, and to my cousin Sigismond Took, who was there on behalf of the Thain, and to Rufus Burrows, Rory’s brother-in-law, to secure a steady supply of roots for Eastfarthing from all around. There will be no bare tables this winter!’ Bilbo raised up his tankard in mock-salute to the north and to Scary. The room followed suit, laughing uproariously. Gun looked about for a tankard to use for a salute and could find none, Frodo having cleverly moved his own away from Gun’s end of the table.
Well, Baggins, what more mischief can be done with this silly oaf? Bilbo knew he was letting anger goad him, which was dangerous. No matter that he was tired of manipulative relatives, he needed to lay the foundations of his plan to hamstring Odogar’s attempts to fracture the Shire. Making fun of Gun in the common room of an inn might be amusing, but he needed to take his own advice to Rory to heart. Baggins, you must think of larger concerns. You can foil Odogar’s plans, but can you create something better to go in their place? Bilbo went to Gun’s side and spoke quietly.
‘The place where Odogar wishes to put the tannery, is it close?’
Gun nodded and quietly replied, ‘North, by Budgeford.’
‘We must be to Frogmorton by this evening, for I have to be in Hobbiton the day after, but is there a way we could quickly go up and see it? I have business to discuss that does not bear repeating in a common room.’ Bilbo gave Gun a meaningful look. People were craning their necks, wondering what the secrecy was about.
‘I can have a wagon readied and take you up to Budgeford, then quickly to Frogmorton, Bilbo,’ Gun assured him.
‘Do so! We will meet you out front.’ Gun waddled away at a quick pace, calling for one of the stable boys lounging near the door to accompany him. Bilbo kept his face serious, though he wanted to laugh, and signaled Dalin and Frodo to gather their things. Old Will wandered up, very curious.
‘My dear Will, Gun has just reminded me of some rather serious business that I need to take care of before the day is done,’ Bilbo told him, ‘and we must leave at once if it is to be done by nightfall. Our account is settled here?’
‘Of course, Mister Baggins,’ the innkeep assured him, face alight with curiosity. ‘So you’ll not be staying the night? If you have business in town…’
Wouldn’t you love to know what my business is? Well, you’ll just have to ask Gun about it this evening. Indirect rumors would be even better. Bilbo pulled a regretful face. ‘Ah, no, Mister Brockhouse, though I would fain spend the night in the best inn on the Road, I need to speak with someone in Frogmorton tonight and another in Hobbiton on the morrow, and must leave your kindly care.’ Bilbo grabbed the others hand in a firm grip. ‘You will keep an eye out that sensitive things are not too broadly discussed?’
‘To be sure, Mister Baggins,’ Old Will replied in a conspiratorial voice. Bilbo smiled with great satisfaction. The events in the common room would be all over the farthing by next Highday. He shook Will’s hand and left the room, the other two trailing. When they reached the yard, Bilbo took their shoulders and pulled them close.
‘Listen carefully. We’re going up to Budgeford with Gun. I need to talk to him about things that will make no sense and may even seem quite outrageous. Say nothing and show no surprise. I may, or may not, explain it all to you later.’ The dwarf and Frodo nodded, confused. A few minutes later, Gun drove up in a light wagon. Bilbo agilely hopped up to the bench next to Gun, while Frodo and Dalin sat in the wagon bed. He noticed that Frodo had sat himself up against the back of the seat, where the lad could hear everything, but where his own face could not be seen. Dalin sat over the back axel to make the load easier to pull. They were soon on the way north to Budgeford, ponies trotting at a good clip. They covered the two miles to Budgeford quickly. Gun turned the wagon onto a track leading west of town, and Bilbo began his questioning.
‘You are aware of the full… plan… are you not, Gun?’ Bilbo asked.
‘Oh, yes, Baggins. Odogar told me all of it.’
I rather doubt he told you all. ‘So you know of the trouble we are going to have prying loose the stranglehold the Tooks and the Brandybucks have on the Road?’ Frodo stiffened at these words, but did not turn around. Gun was too busy minding the ponies to notice the lad. Bilbo rested a hand on Frodo’s shoulder and gave a warning squeeze. ‘I know that Rory is suspicious. He saw me talking to Odogar at Wintermark, and I had a time explaining it away. He thinks I’m his best friend, and does not understand why I was talking to Odogar. I would like him to keep thinking that. Here’s some news. He will soon cancel his stone order and build his new stable of wood. He’s trying to tie the Woody End folks more closely to him, I fear.’
‘Well, we can move up the orders. If the stone is delivered, he has to take it.’ Gun chuckled. ‘Odogar saw that he paid dear! He’ll have his stone and we’ll keep his coin.’ Bilbo was tempted to give the odious slug a shove out of the wagon. He could feel Frodo tense up at news of the cheat.
‘Good, you do that!’ Bilbo encouraged. He heaved a mock sigh. ‘I wish I had time to pay Odogar a visit. Perhaps in spring. Well, you can be sure I’ll be writing him. Rory is very jealous of Odogar’s cleverness at having both him and Rum delivering carts of roots for nothing all over Eastfarthing. That is why he refused to speak to Odogar at Yule, I am certain!’ Frodo gave Bilbo a disbelieving look from the corner of his eye.
‘And well he should be!’ was Gun’s enthusiastic reply. ‘Odogar got the best of the deal, all the way around.’ No, he got the worst, for the ordinary folk know who did them a good turn. ‘They lost their sales, and we’re still doing a good business!’
‘What mean you?’
Gun grinned. ‘In Whitfurrows, we pulled a few of those Yule carts aside and cellared them up. Those roots will be for sale at a very reasonable price come next fortnight,’ he explained. ‘So some free roots are turned into easily bought ones, and the Thain gave the Bolger a fine Yule gift indeed!’ The fool laughed loudly and chirruped to the ponies.
Bilbo did not realize he had dug his fingers so hard into Frodo’s shoulder until the lad started prying them off. Frodo’s cheeks were very red; the lad was outraged. Bilbo hoped his own face was neutral. ‘Hmm,’ he replied, not trusting himself to say more. He suspected that the cellars in question belonged to The Fat Badger. Wili needs to know about this. Probably Haysend, too, and perhaps Smith Pitt.
When he could trust his voice, Bilbo went on, ‘In any event, Rory was not at all pleased to see Odogar getting on so famously with Rufus. That connection shall have to be handled more quietly and subtly. Nothing can be said where Asphodel might catch wind of it.’
‘No, no, of course not,’ Gun assured him.
‘It would probably be best to communicate with Rufus through me. Asphodel is going to be looking out for Buckland’s concerns in this, and Rory filled her ear full at Yule. She’ll be watching for letters. Be sure Odogar knows this. I will, of course, be writing him all this once back in Hobbiton.’ Gun nodded in great seriousness.
‘The thing that you are going to have to do, Gun, is get back in Wili’s good graces. I know better than anyone how annoying your brother can be,’ which is not at all compared to you, ‘but we’re going to need all Bolgers and Bagginses together on this if we’re to pull it off.’
‘I’ll do whatever I have to with that stiff-necked brother of mine!’
‘Wili is getting a bit tired of being treated as the poor relative at Rory’s table,’ Bilbo lied, ‘and Prisca is none too pleased with Gilda’s proud manner, either. She’s a Baggins, you know, Prisca is, and she looks to me for help,’ Bilbo chuckled wickedly, ‘and a few other things.’ Gun looked over in open mouthed shocked, which was approximately the expression on Frodo’s face as well. Bilbo grinned salaciously at Gun. ‘Come now, Gun. You know I have quite a touch with the ladies. In any event, Wili is tired of Rory’s charity and Prisca wishes she did not have to call on mine, so both would be interested in certain developments. Get Wili in on the Whitfurrows market. Show him what’s to be had by sticking to close kin.’
Gun did not reply to that, and they drove on in silence for a few more minutes until they reached the banks of the Water. He braked the wagon and they hopped out, walking towards the Water. Frodo shot Bilbo a worried look, and positioned himself slightly behind Gun. Dalin went to the edge of the river and stared at it, then found a branch and started testing the current.
‘So this is where you think to put the tannery?’
‘But, it is upriver of the village,’ Frodo protested, ‘and all of the run-off and offal would have to float right by Budgeford. No one would want to cross that.’
‘We’ll build a bridge,’ Gun hastily said. Bilbo shook his head.
‘The other person I spoke with this Yule is Hargo Bracegirdle. You could put a tannery in here that would not be as good as his, that would anger the folk all along the Water, and would make Hargo think twice about your intentions towards him. We’re going to need his support, lest he decide to sell his leather direct to Bree. But I have a better plan. That’s why I wanted you to bring Dalin up.’ Bilbo smiled and would not say more. After a while, Dalin came back, shaking his head a bit.
‘Unfortunately, Mister Baggins, the stream is not strong enough here to support a full spinning mill. It could drive a few stations, but that would not be worth the construction of the water wheel, not for spinning.’
‘What is this talk of a spinning mill?’ Gun was very confused.
‘This is how Eastfarthing will outfox Buckland,’ Bilbo said. “Well, it cannot go in here, as I suspected, so it will have to be put in on the Baranduin, the Brandywine, instead. You see, Gun, I have been talking to Mister Dalin, and have found out some interesting ways thread and yarn can be spun in great amounts. With a spinning mill, you can steal away the spinning trade from Buckland. Who would wish to go there? Bring your sheep to Eastfarthing. It’s closer, your wool can be spun quickly, and your old sheep turned into leather as well. You don’t distance Hargo, and you cut off Buckland. These mills are very expensive to put in, but I know where funds can come from.’ Bilbo raised a meaningful eyebrow at Gun, who nodded slowly back, obviously not understanding anything except the promise of coin.
‘I have seen all I need to see,’ Bilbo pronounced. He motioned for Gun to walk with him a few steps away from the other two. Frodo watched intently. The lad looked very confused and more than a bit angry at what he had heard said. Bilbo said quietly, right into Gun’s ear, ‘I can’t say any more of the plan in front of these two. It’s none of the dwarf’s business, and the boy is loyal, but I don’t want to risk him chattering. So, no more business to be conducted today. I know what course to advise now. Do your part, and become friends again with Wili. You’ll hear what is up later.’
Gun nodded vigorously. ‘I understand, Baggins. Silent, until it’s time.’ Bilbo smiled and clapped him on the shoulder. They all got back in the wagon and Gun set off south and west along a faint cart path. They joined the Road halfway between Frogmorton and Whitfurrows, and Gun insisted on taking them to the outskirts of Frogmorton. It was almost sunset. As soon as Gun’s wagon clattered out of sight, Frodo whipped around to face Bilbo, astonishment and disgust on his face.
‘Uncle Bilbo? What was all that? Aunt Prisca?’ the lad exclaimed.
Bilbo laughed heartily and clapped Frodo on the shoulder. ‘Wilwarin, do not believe everything you hear.’ He gave Frodo a small shake. ‘Think on what was said, lad, and on what you know the truth to be. See if you can figure out what Gun and Odogar are up to. In the meantime, we must make haste, good fellows, for Widow Grubb expects us for supper!’ He set off at a brisk pace, whistling a jaunty walking tune. The other two tramped behind, exchanging looks of bewilderment. In the hour, they were rapping on the widow’s door. An older, short, burly hobbit who smelled of beer answered.
‘Mister Baggins,’ the fellow greeted him courteously, ‘Ma said you would be here this eve.’ The fellow did not bat an eye at the sight of Dalin. ‘You and your companions are welcome in this house for as long as you wish to stay.’ The man stepped aside and motioned them into the tiny, cramped hall. Dalin had to step back outside to remove his pack, axe and cloak. A small, plump goodwife stood in the hall with a lantern, waiting to lead them on.
‘This is my wife,’ the fellow said. ‘Wife, take them in to see Ma.’ The woman smiled and gestured for them to follow. Dalin’s head brushed the ceilings, and he had to stoop low to get through the doorways. They were led into a large, low-ceilinged kitchen, with a fire place at either end and a heavy oak table before one of the fires. Another small, plump goodwife was busy at the stove, humming a contented tune. She was enough like to their guide that Bilbo suspected they were sisters. A few younger girls, all round, smaller copies of the older women, moved about with great energy but no hurry or worry, preparing this, trimming that, stirring, slicing, scooping, kneading, and making the kitchen smell wonderful. The older woman greeted them with a cheerful smile and nod of her head, but did not speak or cease her tasks. Their guide hung her lantern on a hook and joined the work at hand.
An ancient crone, wrapped in black and sporting a large eye patch, with scars reaching from the patch into her hair, surveyed the proceedings from her perch on a tall stool in the center of the room. Bilbo walked over and stood in front of her. She turned her one eye towards him with a disapproving glare. Age had narrowed her once-plump cheeks, and the skin on her neck hung in folds. Her shoulders hunched up, making a small hump on a back that had seen more than its share of burdens in the last ninety years. They stared at each other a moment, then her face broke into a delighted grin, showing off her snaggled teeth. Bilbo grinned back and embraced his old friend.
‘Maud! You wretched old woman, it is good to see you!’
‘Bilbo Baggins! A more disreputable hobbit has never walked!’ she laughed back. ‘What devilry are you up to now? Too much, I’ll wager!’
‘You know me far too well, Maud. But we’ll talk of this later. Here, here are some more footpads for you to know. Every ne’er-do-well on the Road is a friend of yours, old woman, so I thought I’d bring a few more ‘round. The hulking brute is my good friend, Dalin. If you need some heads broken open, he’s the dwarf for you.’
Dalin grinned broadly and bowed with a flourish. ‘Dalin Steelhand, at your service, Widow Grubb! Skulls cracked, necks hewn, ribs crushed, and enemies disposed of, at your command.’ Maud cackled appreciatively and slapped her knee.
‘Well, well, and me old man always said a dwarf was the best for bad business! Unless you sell beer, and then they’re best for good business.’ She fixed her eye on Frodo. ‘And who is this little ghost? A stray pup you found along the Road?’
‘This is my nephew, Frodo Baggins. He used to be in Buckland, but he is living with me now in Hobbiton.’
‘No wonder he’s starving, if he’s from Buckland! They live on air and fancy across the River.’
‘And mushrooms,’ Frodo added. This sent Maud off in another gale of laughter, and she waved the boy closer. She took him by the shoulder and peered intently at him, then shook her head.
‘Good thing you’ve got him, Bilbo. Stole him away did you? He doesn’t look a Baggins, all pinched and drawn like that.’ Frodo’s face did not change expression, but his shoulders tightened. Bilbo could have strangled Maud for those words. ‘You’ve a good task before you if you want people to believe he’s a Hobbiton boy.’ Frodo’s face became a mask of cool politeness. ‘And we’ll start right soon by feeding him up. Hurry up, girls, we’ve guests for table tonight!’
‘Yes, Ma,’ all the other women chorused.
‘So, Baggins,’ Maud went on, no longer interested in Frodo, ‘I hear you’ve been up to no good as usual.’
‘Dealing with my relatives is never a good thing, Maud.’
The door on the far side of the kitchen opened and several small and stout hobbit men came in. Greetings were called out and Maud left her stool, stiffly moving to the side of the room. The accident that took her eye had had not permanently harmed her in any other way, but age was taking its toll. Dalin picked up her stool without being asked and moved it to the side of the room, earning a grin and nod of thanks from Maud. The travelers stood with her while her son and grandsons efficiently moved the table into the middle of the room and set stools, benches and a few finished log sections in place. Another pack of hobbits came in from the first entrance, some of them lankier or taller or slighter or otherwise different from the round, solid Grubbs. These were the brewery hands. The men all smelled of beer.
The widow and the guests were seated; one of the girls brought round a basin of warm water for them to use for washing their hands and their faces. The women had all found their voices when the men folk came in, and conversation was impossible to follow. Bilbo grinned at Maud and enjoyed the show. He did not think anyone actually said anything comprehensible, but all knew what needed doing and the cacophony was cheerful.
Silver was laid, tankards were set out (already filled), wooden plates clattered down on the table, and pitchers and platters appeared like magic. A few dogs slipped in the door, and lay before the far fire, waiting for their portions. The cats mewed beneath the table, twining around feet and trying to trip people who walked by. Bread and pickles were set out for the guests to sample along with their beer while supper finished cooking. By the time all was on the table and everyone was being served, there were probably thirty at the meal. The food was plain and a bit bland compared to the delights that came out of Maddie’s kitchen, but it was good solid fare that filled you up and satisfied belly and heart. Spoon-bread with molasses, pot-roast and gravy over potatoes, carrots and turnips with butter and cream, mushrooms and salt-pork, and dense, brown bread. A sour cherry fool and more cream finished off the meal.
Maud pulled her pipe out of a pouch at her waist, and would not hear of the travelers using their own pipe-weed while under her roof.
‘No traveler goes without in this house! We’d best stay here, as the parlor ceiling is too low for Mister Steelhand.’ They puffed on pipes while the kitchen was cleared of all but the dogs gnawing bones.
‘So, how is my root business doing, Maud?’
‘What kind of a ninny is your cousin?’
Bilbo grinned. ‘Can you narrow that down a bit, dear crone? I have so many cousins who are ninnies.’ She chuckled and blew a smoke ring.
‘Odogar, of course. The only one of your cousins who I care about.’
‘Ah, Odogar! Yes, he is a great ninny. He thinks to make coin from people’s misfortune.’
‘He’s old. Can’t we arrange for some kind of accident? What about your dwarf here?’
‘Age will solve all problems, eventually.’
‘Not in your case.’ Maud surveyed him critically. ‘You’ll be a problem for another century the way you’re going.’ She drew on her pipe and slowly exhaled, never looking away. ‘Odogar, he’s a problem now. I’ve heard bad things for a time, but naught seemed so bad that it should cause concern. Foolishness, pride, a bit of a dwarven-heart, which is a good in a dwarf, but not to be admired in a hobbit.’ She glared at Dalin to see if he would object. The dwarf nodded genial agreement.
‘Are people receiving enough? Is there still need?’
‘Things are well for Afteryule, Baggins, but we’ll be needing more come Solmath. I worry most at Rethe, when all start wondering about bare cellars, and perhaps the roots won’t be given so generously.’
‘I will count on you to keep me informed, Maud. I can get just about anything sent in, but I need to know. You should have written me before!’
Maud gave him a mocking sneer, ‘If you had a better cousin, I’d have no need to say anything, Baggins! This should never have got so bad. What’s wrong with him?’
Bilbo puffed a while. ‘I wish I knew, Maud. He is consumed by more than mere greed or foolishness. He wishes to control and possess all that he can in ways that aren’t right. I can’t really say more, yet. I am deeply concerned, and not just with Odogar. He is one part of a great puzzle. There’s things wrong all over in small ways, and they are coming together in larger ways. The Master and the Mistress, they say it is in the very earth and air, running in the waters. Dalin has brought word of dark and dangerous things on the move in the wide world, even as there is greater peace and trade on the Road. There is something at work in the world, something great, I think, that is more than just Big People and their wars. In the south, there is something in the south…’
Bilbo’s voice drifted off, and he toyed with his ring. All the weariness of the last few days washed over him. The sense of needing to run, to go as quickly as possible, came back. A murmur in his mind, a stray thought, urged him to find out what was so hurtful, and understand it. Gandalf would know what the matter is. He must be in the south. That is what keeps him. Fish throwing themselves out of a lake, Orcs and goblins multiplying, hobbits turning on the helpless and using them for their own desires, Grey Riders going south. All Bilbo could think of was how deep and dark things seemed, and how he needed to stop such wrongness before it consumed what he loved. You were right, Rory, how can we keep this darkness from claiming more of what we hold dear?
‘Uncle Bilbo?’ Frodo’s worried voice brought him out of his reverie. The lad had a very light hold of his arm and looked concerned. No, frightened. Bilbo blinked a few times and wondered why it was dim, then realized he was not sitting at the table under the lamps anymore. He was almost to the hallway door. Frodo quickly took his hand off the old hobbit’s arm as Bilbo turned back to the table. Dalin had stood up and was watching. Maud eyed him closely.
‘Forgive me, Maud, I am afraid my mind wandered a bit,’ he weakly joked. ‘I may look young, but I am becoming as befuddled as any old fool. I’m so tired, all I could think of was bed.’
Her look clearly said she knew he was lying. He did not want to say anything more in front of Frodo. The lad had been upset too much in the last few days. He’ll think I was walking off and leaving him. Well, weren’t you, Baggins? Stop dreaming of the south. The wizard will show up in his own time, and you need to care for Frodo. He wished Frodo would lay a grounding hand on his arm again. Maud took a long draw on her pipe, and slowly blew a stream of smoke to the ceiling.
‘You didn’t really answer my question Baggins – what of Odogar? Then you can stagger off to bed.’
‘He is possessed by Dragon Fever and hungers after gold, Maud. That is the simplest explanation. Beware that he and Gundabard are conniving to steal the root harvest deliveries. Gun said so, bold as can be, when we spoke to him earlier today. They have saved things out the Thain meant as a gift and intend to sell it cheaply later. I suspect Will Brockhouse to be working with them on it, but I may be mistaken.’
‘Nay, he’s a weasel, that one is. I check his accounts double, for he is always trying to get out of his true debts.’ Maud pulled herself off her stool and walked over to the fire. She stared at the flames for a while, then spat into it. ‘This is foul news, Baggins. I’ve some to give away, but not so much as what the Thain sent. What I have needs to stay for the goodwives of Frogmorton, too.’ She pondered the flames, drawing on her pipe. The fire cast her shadow on the far wall, hunched and brooding. She shook her head and cackled. ‘Maudie, Maudie, you foolish old hen, stick to what you know!’
The widow heeled about and began to pace energetically across the room. ‘Baggins, that Thain, he’s your cousin, right? I mean one you actually talk to.’
‘We write to each other. That is how I arranged for the Yule gifts.’
Maud walked towards them, then back to the fire, off another direction, then back, talking rapidly, words as abrupt as her motions. ‘Well, thief, you write to him again! You tell him to send Old Widow Grubb his accounts for the gifts. I’ll have my brother’s wife’s sister’s daughter in Whitfurrows to get an account of what has been distributed there. We’ll find out what’s missing, and set her man to asking loud questions at the Badger. Pitt will like doing that. I think we’ll find those missing Yule presents in a big hurry!’ She grinned up at him. ‘Bolger, badger, weasel, I don’t much care – we’ll flush the vermin from cover and have a few hides for the wall!’ With a delighted cackle, she pushed her way past the hobbits. ‘Come along, sleepyheads, time for Old Maudie to tuck you into bed!’
The three travelers exchanged amused glances, and followed the widow. She grabbed a lantern from a peg and led the way through a series of corridors. Dalin was nearly doubled over in the tiny back hallways. Even Bilbo was having to duck in places. She stopped at a round door and rapped it with knotted knuckles.
‘This one is for you, Master Dwarf. We’ve not a single bed long enough to hold ye, but the girls have made you a nice nest on the floor. You’ll sleep better there than in the hayloft.’ Dalin squeezed past the hobbits and opened the door. There was a chamber just large enough to contain the mound of bedding on the floor and the stripped bedstead. Dalin’s pack was on the bedstead. A banked fire made the small room cozy.
‘Thank you, Widow Grubb. I shall be quite comfortable,’ Dalin rumbled. He sat down in the doorway, feet in the hall, and pulled off his boots. His unshod feet were barely larger than a hobbit’s and were covered in thick green socks. Dalin scooted back into the room, dropped his boots on the bedstead and closed the door. Maud led the way to a door on the other side of the hall.
‘And here is for you two,’ she said, rapping the door. Bilbo opened it and found a very nice room, larger than Dalin’s, with a wonderfully comfortable feather bed. A chair was set before the fire. Time to finish up another pipe. Their packs stood against the far wall.
‘Thank you, crone. This will be perfect.’
‘Well, we haven’t a room with more than one bed except for the children, so you two will have to share.’ Maud leered at him. ‘Of course, if you like, Baggins, you can always come keep me warm. Get tired of him, I’m next door.’ She chortled and went to her room, closing the door behind her.