POV - Bilbo
In which the cousins go for a ride, Rory is the Master, Bilbo is saved by a bird, Esmie is foiled once more, and Rory gives Gilda to Bilbo.
Morning, 29 Foreyule, 1389
Bilbo closed the door to their room and hoped Frodo would stay out of trouble. Given Esmie’s flirtation with him right in the middle of the dining hall last night, Bilbo did not feel comfortable leaving the two of them unattended. Well, there’s not much Attercop can try during the day, he reassured himself, not with all she must oversee for Wintermark and Yule. Prisca will have an eye out in the kitchens, Gilda will keep her jumping, and I will be back by nightfall at the latest. He had been pleasantly surprised by how civil supper had been last night. Rory had cast a few hard looks his direction, but had spoken politely enough, and Gilda had been more cheerful than he had seen since he and Frodo arrived. He wished he had been able to hear what Wilwarin had said to the Burrows boy at the tween table; the bully looked fit to spit nails, but he had vacated his seat for Frodo without much of a fuss. Bilbo had also been pleased to see Frodo walking with Ula afterwards. Any girl Gilda took on as prentice was bound to be worth knowing.
He made his way through the waking Hall, and met the others at the door of the north kitchen. One of the kitchen lads was setting down a basket of warm bread and a crock of preserves on the counter near the door so they could take a quick bite before leaving. Butter, cheese, and some sausage was already there, along with a large pot of tea.
‘Here you go, Bilbo,’ Rory said, handing over a large mug.
‘Thank you, Rory.’ Perhaps today won’t be so bad, Baggins. Rory was being almost pleasant. Bilbo gratefully accepted the mug, and then gave Wili a playful elbow in the ribs to make some room for himself at the counter. Some bread wrapped around a few sausages, another piece slathered with butter and sour cherry preserves, and he was content. Saradas joined them a few minutes later, and breakfast was soon finished. Bilbo gulped a bit more tea, snagged a small hunk of cheese to gnaw on, and followed Rory out to the stables, Wili and Saradas right behind them.
A small, sandy-haired Hobbit with a weathered face and a very serious expression met them at the door to the stables.
‘How are the beasts doing, Tom?’ Rory asked.
‘Well enough, Master Rorimac,’ the fellow replied. ‘I’ve got Biddy and Dove saddled for you and Mister Baggins, sir.’
‘Good, thankee Tom! Bilbo, this is Tomfast Tunnelly, my Horse Master here since Mac went.’ Bilbo and Tom exchanged courteous nods, and then the Horse Master turned to lead them through the stable aisle to the paddocks. ‘Are we going to have enough room for all the guests’ animals?’ said Rory as they followed Tom. Tom shook his head, then shrugged.
‘Depends on what else shows up on the doorstep, sir. Meaning no disrespect to your kin and guests, of course.’ Tom’s voice was matter-of-fact, obviously not terribly concerned about respecting the human visitors. Rory chuckled.
‘Come see me tonight after table, if you will, and we’ll take a look at what has crawled in for supper. I think we’d better plan to move some of our own stock up to Mac’s barn, and maybe some down to the south stable. Saradas? Is there room?’
‘Aye, Rory, but it’s better suited for the dray horses.’ Tom shook his head.
‘We’ll be wanting to keep them close for the logs, Master Saradas, and moving folks about in the wagons tomorrow and after Yule.’ Tom showed no compunction about correcting the Master’s brother. ‘I’ll take Little Tom and we’ll go see to setting the south yards up for the older mares. They can all stay together. Drays can stay here, and two or three saddles. Fist had better go up to Master Merimac today. He’s going to bite someone or take down a wall, if he has to put up with too many more guests.’
I know how the poor nag feels. They came out the other side of the low roofed stable and into the paddocks. A stable boy was holding Sara and Mac's pretty grey mares. Another lad was bringing up Wili and Saradas' geldings from the tack shed at the side of the barn, the ponies snorting and nipping at each other in the crisp morning air.
‘I know you like Dove, Master Rorimac, but you should take Biddy,’ Tom informed his master. ‘She’s still a bit tender on her hoof, and you’ll know when to rest her. Also, she’s got a breeze up her backside this morning. I wouldn’t want her giving Mister Baggins a toss.’ They all had a laugh, mounts were sorted out, and the four Hobbits were soon riding south towards Standelf. Once he was used to Dove’s greater height, Bilbo had to admire her very smooth gait. Perhaps I should see to bringing a few more mares like this in from Bree, he considered. There were some good horse pasturage just south of Tookbank, and Rum always liked a fine pony. Perhaps, come spring, he could risk a small adventure over to Bree. Frodo would like that. Perhaps we can find out a bit more about these Grey Riders. Bilbo looked west, but the river fog was too heavy to make out the far bank.
‘Bilbo,’ Wili asked, ‘what have you heard back from Oatbarton?’
‘Nothing yet, but I expect something will come through in today’s post. Yesterday, I got a very nice letter from the Thain. He sends his Yuletide greetings to you all.’ Bilbo made a bow to his cousins, who laughed and bowed in return. ‘And he says he is ever so glad that he was alerted to the poor harvest up in Eastfarthing, and offers two dozen carts of last year’s roots at once, though he knows they will probably only be good for feeding to the pigs. He’ll also have a half dozen carts of this year’s harvest sent as a Yule gift from the Thain to the good folk of Eastfarthing, and says he will ensure that more will be available for a fair price the rest of the winter and early spring, assuming there remains enough for Southfarthing needs.’
The other Hobbits roared with laughter, and Wili’s gelding pranced and bucked a little at the excitement. ‘Poor Odogar,’ Rory said in mock dismay, ‘all that bargaining gone to waste!’
‘No, no,’ Bilbo laughingly protested, ‘not at all, Rory. You, see, we will just allow our dear cousin to take the credit for having arranged with the Thain himself a certain supply of roots for this winter. We don’t want to undermine him too badly, now, do we?’ He shared a wicked smile with the others. ‘Though having Odogar in our debt is rather nice.’ As the others agreed, Bilbo asked what had been bothering him for a few days.
‘Rory, what is the matter between Buckland and Eastfarthing? I agree with Wili that Odogar is suffering from this Dragon Fever, but it also seems a bit mean-spirited of him. Gun, too. They don’t want to be giving any trade to Buckland, coin or no coin.’
Rory growled and shook his head. ‘I got in an argument with Odogar, Harvest before last. Seems he thinks that the Marish should not be looking to Buckland. He went on about how Buckland wasn’t even part of the Shire proper, and that the Marish is answerable to Eastfarthing, seeing as how it’s a part of it, which means answerable to him. I told him the Marish has been answering to the Master since before our name was Brandybuck, and he could look north if he wanted more people to tip their hats to him.’
‘Be generous, Rory,’ Wili admonished. ‘Cousin Odogar lost his wife about then, and wasn’t all in his right mind. Besides, the Marish is a part of Eastfarthing, and it is right and proper that he be concerned for its welfare.’
‘Its welfare, yes, but not its mastery,’ Rory retorted. ‘If he cared for its welfare, he’d deal honest with me and with Buckland, and not try to shove us away. Eastfarthing’s too big with too many people and too much happening for it all to be under one eye. The care of the lower Farthing has always been split between the Master, the Thain, and Scary. It is how it has been done, how it ought to be done, and how it will be done. It’s a sad day when I can say cousin Rum is more in the right than cousin Odogar.’
‘Take some of your own advice, brother mine,’ broke in Saradas. ‘What you’re wanting to do with the commons isn’t how things should be done.’ They were drawing near the disputed meadow, morning sun slowly burning off the field fog that clung in the dells and hollows.
‘Saradas, the center meadow is the only open land around large enough to hold a flock of a hundred,’ Rory said patiently. Bilbo wondered just how many times the brothers had been through this argument. ‘And that’s too big a flock to control with just shepherds, given everything else around, so we’re going to have to put in hedges.’
‘More than just sheep need this meadow, Rory,’ came the equally patient reply. ‘That’s what’s always been done with the meadow, and what we ought to keep doing with it.’
‘Having a few odd animals grazing it now and then is not making good use of it, Sara! Land’s dear enough between the River and the Wood, we shouldn’t be wasting it.’
‘But it’s common land, Rory. It’s not wasted. Everyone needs to put stock on it at some time, and it’s the best way up to the orchards. Hedge it off, and folk will have to walk a half mile further to go around the farms.’
‘Well, do you need every inch of it?’ Bilbo interjected. ‘Can’t you put up a split rail fence along one side and give folks a passage through? If all you’re going to put on it is sheep, they won’t be so hard on the fence as cattle would be, or ponies.’
‘We could do that,’ Rory mused, but Saradas shook his head.
‘No! We shouldn’t be closing it all off and declaring it can only be for one thing. People want to make a few different uses of it, and the folks who haven’t got their own pasture need it for their animals, their cows in particular. If there isn’t any good graze close by, they won’t get any decent amount of milk.’
‘Rory, why do you want to put so big a flock together here in Buckland?’ Bilbo wondered. He could see the meadow now. It was very large and bounded on two sides by ancient hedges. They were almost as old as the High Hay itself, and only a bit shorter in height. ‘Buckland is not sheep country. If you want a big flock, you need to be out on the west downs, or the north moors.’
‘That’s what I keep telling him,’ said Saradas. ‘Just because you want it to be so, that doesn’t mean you should or can have it so, Rory.’
They stopped the ponies and dismounted, leaving the reins dragging. The ponies snuffled and nipped and bumped each other for a few moments, then settled down to graze. Rory did not answer his brother, but started slowly walking across the meadow, the other three trailing him. As they walked, the ponies followed at a distance, like a pack of dogs, cropping the grass as they came. Every so often, Rory would pluck a few blades of grass and evaluate the kind and quality. It was brown from the winter frost, but thick, and Bilbo could see that there were many green things growing in the meadow. A few bare sycamores dotted the large field, and crows flocked in one of them, their raucous calls filling the air. Some small weeds caught in the hair on top of his feet, and the wan sunlight made the light frost sparkle on the withered leaves. They wandered about for a good half-hour this way.
‘Cousin Odogar is right,’ Rory finally said, breaking the silence between them. ‘This is Buckland, not the Shire. We have always been a place apart, and now, with Dwarven-hearts and Dragon Fever, we are being cut off. We can’t do things as we’ve always done them.’
He went silent again, and they walked for longer. They stopped on a small rise about half way across the meadow. Rory stared at the ground for a few minutes, then raised a worried face to Bilbo. ‘I’ve thought a lot, cousin, of what you and I spoke of at Harvest. Change is here, and Troubles aren’t going to be far behind. We can’t just rely on good lads being brought up, Bilbo. We’ve got to do some things now, so there’s something for them to work with. So, we’ve got to change some things, too. It would be best if we could do as we’ve always done, but I don’t think we have that choice anymore. Buckland has to be able to shift for itself, when Troubles come.
‘We’re weavers here, in the Marish, the Yale. We have flax, but we don’t have wool sheep, not in any number. I got to thinking, when Odogar started getting stingy with the stone, and didn’t want to trade anything for roots, that I do not like being beholden to folks over the Road and across the River. I would rather not find out what mischief the wool merchants in Bridgefields might think to get into if they decide the coin in Needlehole or Longbottom is better than that in Newbury. If the Shire’s going to push Buckland to the side, well, then, Buckland will do whatever it takes to make shift for itself. If Odogar pushes hard enough, he might find the Marish and the Yale prefer to think of themselves as Buckland.’
Rory knelt down, and combed his fingers through the dry grass. He pulled up a hunk; the roots gave way reluctantly, and the earth was dark and rich where its blanket had been removed. ‘Gilda, the Mistress, she’s… she’s worried.’ Rory looked carefully at the roots, feeling them, pinching off one or two and tasting them, smelling the earth that clung to them, brushing his lips against it. Rory carefully set the divot back into the ground, and looked at the dirt ground into his fingers. He touched a fingertip to his tongue, then spat out a bit of grit. After a bit he nodded, as though the taste of the earth had answered an unvoiced question.
‘She’s worried,’ he repeated, ‘and so am I. There’s an ill wind that blows, and a wrongness in the very ground. Not here, not yet. Your Troubles are approaching, Bilbo. The land itself knows. So, it makes sense to me to gather what Buckland needs to Buckland.’
The other Hobbits squatted down near Rory, each in their own thoughts. The ponies slowly caught up with them, nibbling their way through the dry grass. Bilbo looked east, towards the Wild and danger. The Hedge was obscured by the west-leaning shadows of the Old Forest. You would put a Hedge up around Buckland, even if you can’t around the whole Shire, Rory. Things are wrong, not just changing, wrong. Elves know. Dwarves arm. Dark things crawl. Strange men ride in silence, bound for where and what we don’t know. Bilbo slipped a hand in his pocket, and caressed his ring. This is wrong, hobbit against hobbit. If we let it go on, it will be as though we are elves and dwarves, fingering knives and thinking of blood. If we’re fighting over potatoes and wool, what next shall we squabble about – water and air?
‘If Troubles approach, Rory, you will not be able to hedge Buckland about solidly enough to keep them out. They are like stoats and badgers and other small things that slip through the Hedge. The last thing any of us should do is turn our backs on cousins and kin, no matter how foolishly they have acted,’ Bilbo entreated. ‘We must not leave the Shire in the hands of the Dwarven-hearted. For whom would you make your cloth or build with stone?’
‘Good enough questions, cousin, but we must do something,’ Rory replied. ‘Dark times approach.’
‘Yes! Yes, you must, but think, Rory. This year, it was an Eastfarthing crop that failed. What if it is a Buckland harvest that fails next year? Do you wish to be cut off and dealing with it on your own? Could Buckland face a Fell Winter without the rest of the Shire? Remember how the last one started – with rotten potatoes in Eastfarthing. The answer is to lead and to try, not to hide. We’re going to need to work together to keep idiots like Odogar from doing harm to regular folk because he’s too blind to see what’s needful.’
‘And how are we to deal with the wool-merchants?’ asked Saradas. ‘Manipulating a fool cousin every so often is well and good, Bilbo, but Rory is right about not being caught up short. Maybe we do need to keep more wool sheep in Buckland.’
‘I think you need to own some wool sheep, but I think they need to stay where sheep belong, off in the north moors and the west downs, and you need to keep the commons for milk cows. They’ll feed your women and your babes better than the sheep. Have done with the wool merchants by buying up some good sized flocks off in the sheep pastures, and hire some trusty local lads to mind them. Find some third cousin who owns carts and hire them to bring the fleece to Buckland, but leave the sheep where they are. Frodo’s already pointed out why the tannery’s a bad idea on the Water, but Mister Dalin can tell you about building a mill for wool that will give you fine thread for weaving. You own the wool going in, you’ll own the thread coming out as sure as you own the flour from the grist mill, and you can weave what you like.’
Rory gave him a sharp look, then a small grin. ‘And I know just the fellow who can see that our money goes to honest shepherds and real sheep.’
‘Count on it, cousin,’ Bilbo assured him. ‘And if the women can spend less time spinning and more time weaving, there will be more cloth. It should be of better quality, too, so good to sell once our own have been clothed. Send it east, west, south. Sell it and trade it to more than hobbits to make our neighbors feel more kindly towards us. Dwarves will buy it or trade ironmongery for it. I’m not sure if the elves by the Sea would want it but they might, and we need their salt. Why should things go south from Bree? Talk to Rum and to Pal and see if Buckland and Southfarthing can send things straight south over Sarn Ford.’
‘Maybe for the Thain, but not for us. It’s easier to send out through to Bree,’ argued Wili, ‘else we have to go east to Waymeet and then through Tookbank. It’s good enough to leave the south trade with the Breelanders.’
‘Not if the River Road kept going south,’ Rory said thoughtfully. ‘Build some good big bridges over the Thistle Brook and the Shirebourn and we can skirt the marshes and go down to Longbottom. I’m willing to wager even Rum would like the sounds of this. It would make leaf trade to Bree easier.’
And speed the King’s Messengers on their way south. Bilbo smiled as the other three began speculating, though there was not much that he found pleasing in Rory’s news. Time is shorter than we think. Perhaps I should go to Rivendell sooner rather than later. But not until Frodo’s old enough to travel. Where is Gandalf? I need to talk to him. A tremendous longing to go somewhere, anywhere, filled him. South, I should go south. The wizard is probably there somewhere. A thought of riding Dove south seized his mind. Bilbo could imagine the little mare’s legs striding along, eating up the miles between himself and whatever it was south that called him. He rolled the ring between his fingers, then let it go and took his hand from his pocket. He had almost slipped it on in his dreams of flight.
‘When Hargo comes here, Rory, you and I should talk to him about expanding the tannery,’ advised Wili. ‘If we can get those bridges put in south of Willowbottom, then it would be easy to move cattle up out of Southfarthing. Between that and the pigs in the Marish, there’d be good reason to increase the size of it.’
They stood and wandered in the direction of the ponies. ‘Perhaps there’s call for a bridge below Budgeford on the Water,’ Rory said absently, ‘to help move stock from the River Road up to Girdley.’ The ponies drifted just beyond reach, nibbling the grass, but keeping an eye on their riders. Rory started digging around in his pockets and pulled out an apple. He took a bite of it, and Biddy raised her head and whickered. Motioning the others to stay still, Rory ambled roughly in Biddy’s direction, taking small, loud bites out of the apple. She came up and started nosing at his hand, so he bit off a large piece and fed it to her. The other ponies were now aware that a treat was in the offing, and approached for their share. Rory soon had all their reins in hand, and was laughing at their attempt to stick velvet noses into his pockets to find more apple.
Bilbo retrieved Dove’s reins, and Wili and Saradas collected their geldings. Rory was examining Biddy’s off rear hoof. He straightened up with a sigh. ‘Looks like I’ll be walking back. The frog’s swollen a bit and Tom will never let me hear the end of it if I lame her.’
‘I’ll walk back with you Rory,’ Bilbo quickly offered. ‘Biddy will probably be better mannered if Dove’s with her.’ Rory gave him a stare, then nodded curtly. Saradas and Wili bid them good bye and said they would tell Tom of the delay. The two cousins rode off, talking loudly about bridges and planning an after-Yule jaunt down to Willowbottom. Rory and Bilbo followed, leading the mares.
The sun was quite high and it was just past lunch, but Bilbo was not at all hungry. He knew Rory was waiting for him to speak, and he simply did not know what to say. Baggins, you owe it to Frodo to say something. He has been wronged and Rory must be taken to task for it. You’ve faced spiders, a dragon, and goblins, Baggins! Why are you waiting before taking on your idiot cousin? Reluctantly, Bilbo came to a halt. Dove took the opportunity to use his shoulder as a scratching post for her forehead. Rory also stopped, and was facing him, arms crossed.
‘You have something to say, Bilbo?’
‘Yes.’ Bilbo scrambled for some graceful way to open the conversation, and found none. ‘You have overstepped yourself, Rory. What you said and did to Frodo, you had no right to say or do.’
‘He spoke out of turn and foully to me. I had every right.’
‘No. Frodo is not, and never has been, yours. It is not acceptable that you, or any other of your smial, lay hand on him.’
‘You left him when you could have claimed him. That made him mine.’
Bilbo shook his head. ‘I did what I thought was best for him at the time, Rory, and you know it. You and Esmie argued that I should not take him, and I agreed to leave him. But you have failed to hold him safe. When I brought him back here for Yule, because I would not keep him from Gilda, he was badly used again, almost from the moment we came as guests into your smial. You struck him! And before that, you spoke to him about moving back to Buckland. He is mine and you had no right to speak to him of such things.’
‘I spoke to him because I was worried about him, Baggins!’ Rory snapped. ‘The lad was unhappy and spoke to me of you wanting to go off on adventures, do dangerous things! I was worried harm might come to him.’
That was news. Frodo, I can see that I need to question you more closely. ‘Nevertheless, Rory, he is mine and, worried or not, you know you should not have allowed him to speak such things without me present. And since you brought harm to him when you struck him, you are hardly one to talk. I told you this when I took him; you have allowed him to be ill-used when in your care. You have let a child and guest be violated in your smial. You have failed in your duty to me to keep him safe, and you shall never again lay hand on him. Frodo is mine.’
Rory’s face twisted in disgust. ‘On that, Baggins, we agree. He is yours, all right. When I heard what he had to say, all I could think was “Like father, like son.” ’
Bilbo smiled icily. ‘Really, Rory, you must not be so hard on yourself. I doubt you went about assaulting little boys when you were a young married man. Sara is not the slightest bit like you.’
‘You even share the same smart mouth.’ Rory growled. ‘He’s no more than what could be expected, born all wrong as he was, just an unnatural bastard. Sired on another man’s wife by someone who has no business breeding, what else could he be?’
Bilbo was speechless for a moment at Rory’s words. Is this what you think of him, of me? Then fury rose and he snapped, ‘What else? How about a young boy with no sense of judgment who was trying to keep his much bigger cousin from beating him silly? What of Sara? Why are you ignoring what is as clear as the sun in the sky? What is wrong with you, Rory?’
‘Nothing! I’m trying to keep wrongness away from me and mine. This isn’t anything Sara would have done on his own. Sara was tempted and corrupted. He seduced Sara as you seduced me.’
Bilbo’s eyebrows went up and he stared in disbelief at his indignant cousin. Then he laughed humorlessly. ‘Oh, Rory, cousin, you are going to have to try that story on someone else. I was there, if you recall. You may claim whatever you like, but we both know that I never threatened you, never tricked you, never forced you to do a thing you didn’t wish to do. And when I came of age, it stopped. I remember you being rather disappointed with that news.’
‘As I said, you corrupted me.’ Rory had crossed his arms tighter and had a very obstinate expression on his face.
‘No, I did not! You’re not corrupted, you’re just stupid! You fooled with me a bit, got a whiff of a girl, and never looked at another boy. You are not corrupted, you ass. Would Gilda have married you if you were? Rory, I had no wish to tell you this. I had no idea that Frodo would say anything to you. Brother, I would never wish to rend your heart this way, but the truth is that your grown son forced himself on a child.’ Bilbo sighed in exasperation when Rory shook his head.
‘You’ll not explain it away so easily, Bilbo. Frodo may be young, but he knows exactly what he is doing. He admitted to me himself he’s done this for years. He knows how to tempt and he knows how to please. Sara was seduced into unnatural things. That’s the only explanation.’
‘Faugh! How about, Sara is a drunken ass who hardly knows to come in out of the rain? Or, Sara is jealous of a younger cousin smarter and more accomplished than himself, and with whom his own wife flirts shamelessly? The explanation is stupidity!’ Bilbo fumed.
‘No!’ Rory was looking not merely angry, but almost frightened. ‘It’s not just something stupid, it’s wrong, Bilbo! It is part of the wrongness, part of the Troubles. Sara’s not been kind to the boy, I’ll give you that, but it should have stopped with just giving the boy a thrashing. Not, not asking for this, and returning for more. If this wrongness can seize the earth and the air, why not a heart? Gilda said that it has touched you. It’s why you don’t age.’
I should just disappear. Bilbo began to turn back to Dove, who nuzzled his arm and then nosed at his pocket, looking for treats. I must find Gandalf. He was surprised to find his hand in his pocket, scrabbling for his ring. Dove nipped his wrist quite hard, demanding an apple, and he jerked his hand out of his pocket, making her shy back a few steps. The pain of his wrist cleared his mind. No, Baggins, you can’t run. Gilda said you shouldn’t answer what has come calling. And what would I be leaving Frodo to? He had not felt this helpless since sitting in the tunnel in Erebor after Smaug had smashed their only way out. Rock behind him, a dragon at the other end of the tunnel, and darkness all about. He carefully took hold of Dove’s reins just below the bit so she could not nip at him.
‘You’ve always been more than a bit unnatural, Bilbo, don’t deny it.’ Bilbo shook his head a little, not really listening, mastering the urge to run away. ‘You didn’t just fool with other boys. You sought out grown men. You’d go to The Golden Perch and turn some heads. And your son’s just like you.’
He’s not my son, but I can’t quite say that to you now, can I? He wouldn’t believe you if you did, Baggins. ‘No, he is not like me, Rory. You’re wrong about Frodo. And the problem is not Frodo, the problem is Sara!’
‘No, the problem is keeping this wrongness from claiming more of what is dear to me!’ Rory shouted back. Biddy and Dove both jittered back from their riders, snorting, eyes rolling. ‘It has claimed my wife, it is claiming my son, and it would seize the very ground on which I stand! All of it started after you came back from your adventures. You have brought change and trouble with you, you sired an unnatural, perverse thing, and he is corrupting my heir. I see that now. I wish he had gone sooner.’
‘As do I, Rory, though not for the reasons you say.’ Bilbo was shaking, and Dove was eying him warily, pulling as far away from him as the reins would allow. Bilbo closed his eyes and willed himself to be calm. Have I corrupted him? Does he do these things because of me? No, Baggins, be sensible. You’ve hardly been around him. Whatever wickedness has happened here, it is not because of you. There is wrongness and Troubles, but this is an excuse. There is no taint on that child. Talk to Gilda, see what she says. Rory has no choice but to defend his heir, any more than you do. Dove nudged his shoulder with her nose, curious at his stillness. Bilbo opened his eyes, and looked at his wary cousin.
‘Perhaps you are right, brother, perhaps I have brought trouble with me. There is a wizard I need to speak with on this matter. But you are wrong about my boy. He bears no greater blame than Sara, and I think a great deal less. He is not what you say! You will see. If harm has been done to you and yours, it was done by me and what I have brought with me, not by Frodo. He is as wronged as any other. The wrong is on my head, not his.’
Rory had the decency to look abashed. ‘As you say, Bilbo. But it can’t happen again. You see that he stays away from Sara, and… I will see that Sara does the same.’ He scratched Biddy’s forehead a bit and she nickered and rubbed the side of her face on his shoulder. He took her head and scratched her in few places, then rested his own forehead against the pony’s. So low that Bilbo could barely make it out, ‘I’m scared for you, brother. So is Gilda. But I have to protect my own.’
‘And I have to protect mine, brother. You understand, don’t you?’ Rory nodded, then faced him. Bilbo sighed, and Dove leaned the flat of her face against his back. ‘Do you want me, us, to go, Rory? Go back to Hobbiton right now? I would not bring harm to you or yours. I would sooner harm myself.’
‘I’ll not turn you out, Bilbo. You or Frodo. You are guests and kin.’
Bilbo’s ire flared. ‘You disavowed him, Rory. You have let him be called bastard, and then you took his mother away, too. I doubt Frodo would count himself as kin to you anymore.’
‘I’ll not turn you out,’ Rory repeated. Bilbo noted with some small satisfaction that his cousin looked both miserable and repentant. ‘I will make amends to the boy, somehow. But you mind him.’
‘Well, brother, let’s get back so I can mind him.’ Rory nodded and they walked in silence for the hour it took to return to the Hall. Bilbo handed Dove’s reins to one of the stable lads while Rory talked with Tom. Maddie did not let him get through the kitchens without a cup of tea and some blackberry tart, and scolded his ear off about how scrawny Frodo was while he ate. He finished, bussed her on the cheek, and fled.
Bilbo peeked into their room, but Frodo was not there. Must be doing translation. Bilbo whistled as he strolled to the makeshift study. Frodo was not there, nor was there any sign he had been working there today. Frodo had not been in the kitchens or helping with the Wintermark preparations; Bilbo had specifically asked Maddie that when she allowed him to get a word in edgewise. He turned and hurried back to their room. Frodo’s cloak was gone. So was his pack. Bilbo quickly searched the wardrobe, and did not find any large amount of clothes missing, just one change of very warm, sturdy clothes. He might not have taken anything but food. Cursing Rory, Sara, and every inch of Brandy Hall, Bilbo pulled on his cloak and swiftly went to the Ferry. The ferryman assured him that he had been on duty all day and that Master Frodo had not gone haring off to the Marish for any mischief.
He returned to their room and sat, not sure what else he could do. He’s just off, Baggins. He’s off playing somewhere… Bilbo did not want to dwell on where Wilwarin might be, or with whom, and certainly not doing what. Rory and Gilda’s dire words chased each other around and around in his head, and he fingered his ring, trying to find some calm. What felt like an eternity later, the door opened and Frodo walked in, holding a heavy, twisted walking staff. Bilbo bounded to his feet.
‘Where have you been?’
Frodo froze, looking at Bilbo in alarm. After a second, the lad swallowed and meekly said, ‘Staying out of trouble, as you asked.’
Baggins! You’re scaring him. Now stop. Bilbo smiled and gestured for Frodo come in and shut the door. ‘I’m sorry, lad. I did not mean to startle you.’ Frodo smiled a little nervously and dropped an almost empty pack on the floor. ‘I came back and you were nowhere and no one could remember seeing you and, well, I was worried!’
Frodo pulled off his cloak and hung it up. ‘I told you I wouldn’t try to leave you.’ The boy threw a hurt, resentful glance his direction.
‘I know you did, but I was worried something had happened to you when I got back and you were nowhere to be found,’ Bilbo lied. ‘So, where were you? How did you keep yourself out of trouble? And we had best get washed up for supper!’ Bilbo began bustling about the room, setting out some clothes and ignoring Frodo’s annoyed looks. Finally the lad heaved a dramatic sigh.
‘I slept in late, then I had breakfast in the kitchen and Maddie told me I was going to starve to death like she always does, then I packed a lunch, and then I went off to walk in the woods north of the Hall. If I had known you would be back so early, I would have come back sooner.’
‘Well, that sounds like an excellent day!’ He gestured for Frodo to wash up. ‘What is the staff? It looks quite impressive.’
‘Oh, that?’ The boy’s voice was cheerier. ‘I’ve had that for a long time. I found it once when I was walking, and kept it out in an old abandoned shed in the woods.’
‘The one at the edge of the maple grove?’
Frodo gave him a curious look. ‘Yes, that one. How do you know of it?’
Bilbo laughed. ‘That shed has been there since your grandfather Gorbadoc was a little boy, lad! It was probably abandoned then, too. Your father, Rory, Wili, and I used to use it as a hideout when we were young. Planned all our best escapades there, we did!’
‘Well, that’s where I kept my things, like this staff, so I just spent the day there,’ Frodo replied, obviously pleased by the idea he was using their old hideaway.
‘Is that what you have in the pack? No, no, finish washing and then you can show me.’ This was more like it. The dark shadows of the day receded a little as Bilbo watched Frodo give his face a lick and promise, and open up the pack.
‘The flowers are from Merle.’ Frodo looked at a leather thong with a bead on it, and a bit of horsehair strung along it. ‘I made the bracelet and the ring, with some help.’ Then the lad grinned and worked open the neck of a leather pouch. ‘Look! Here’s the rock you gave me, with the seashell in it!’
‘Oh, yes, I remember this! I found it when walking about the White Downs one day.’ Bilbo was glad that Frodo had kept it, but wondered where the other small gifts he had sent over the years had gone to. There was a silver whistle from Erebor, a little wood puzzle he had carved himself one winter, a pocket knife with the boy’s initials in the handle, a slingshot, and few other small odds and ends. Nothing very valuable, but all things dear to a little boy’s heart. Bilbo hoped that Frodo had given them as gifts to his friends, and not that Sara had taken them.
‘The egg doesn’t really belong in this nest, but I like the way they look together,’ Frodo continued. That was all he had. Just these few things. Bilbo promised himself to replace the missing items, and add a few others more appropriate to a grown boy.
‘Well, Wilwarin, we shall have to pack these carefully to make sure they make the trip home. Though you’ll want to use your staff for the walk itself. These will all look quite fine in your room.’
Frodo carefully put the treasures on the desk. Bilbo noticed for the first time the small stack of letters someone had set there sometime that day. He expected that there would be replies from Oatbarton and Frogmorton.
‘It didn’t go well, did it?’
‘To what do you refer, lad?’
‘The talk with Uncle Rory. You said this morning that you were going to have a talk with him.’
Bilbo did not answer Frodo, but began washing up. Frodo sighed again and began changing into his good clothes for supper. Bilbo did not say anything until he was washed, changed, had taken a washrag and scrubbed a few spots on Frodo’s neck that the boy had missed, and was almost ready to leave.
‘There is no way in which such a conversation could have gone terribly well, Wilwarin. Your uncle and I have arrived at a satisfactory agreement, which is no more than common sense – you and Sara shall have as little to do with each other as possible this visit, and when you must be near each other, you are both expected to mind your manners.’ He looked sternly at Frodo until the boy nodded and mumbled that he would behave. ‘Rory is sorry for what he said and did to you, lad. He knows he has overstepped. I expect you to allow him to make amends.’ Frodo would not meet his eyes and nodded sullenly. They went to supper.
Bilbo and Frodo exchanged a small grin when they saw that the Master’s seat was empty at the tween table, though all the youngsters were there. Bargo had taken a seat at the foot and was glowering at everyone around. Bilbo left Frodo to take his proper place and made his own way to the seat beside Gilda.
‘Well, my beautiful girl, how are you this evening?’
‘Well enough, beggar. Where is my translation?’ Bilbo kissed her cheek, and nodded to Rory, who nodded back but did not stop his conversation with Wili and Saradas.
‘The rascal and I are working on it, Gilda. I had to take the day to ride out with Rory and these other fine fellows, but I will have something for you to read tomorrow.’ They chatted amiably the rest of the meal about nothing of consequence. At some point, Prisca joined them and the two women talked around Bilbo, discussing how useless he was. He laughed and teased them in return, pinching Prisca’s bottom after some slightly bawdy teasing, and ended up holding Gilda’s hand by the end of the meal. Wili came over to claim his wife, bestowing a good-natured clout on Bilbo’s head as he passed by.
‘I saw you, Baggins! Trying to steal my wife again.’ Wili took the sting out of words and blow by kissing Bilbo on the temple before helping Prisca stand. ‘Any news?’
‘I have some letters, but have not had a chance to read them yet, Wili. I will tell you about them at breakfast.’
‘Bilbo,’ Rory called out, ‘will you please steal my wife? I have to go talk to Tom again before the evening is through.’
‘You need not ask me twice, cousin,’ Bilbo assured him. He gave Gilda a wink, which earned him a light rap in the shins with her cane. The two slowly made their way down the table. Up ahead, to his annoyance, he saw that Esmie had Frodo nearby, and the lad was watching her like a lovesick calf.
‘Men are all idiots,’ Gilda muttered, also seeing the pair. ‘Ula!’ the old woman barked at her prentice, who was on her way out of the dining hall. Ula hurried back.
‘Yes, Mistress Gilda?’
Gilda simply gestured at Esmie with her chin. Ula nodded and strode over to Frodo’s side.
‘Mistress Esmie, Mistress Dilly, may I help with the children?’ Ula politely asked, putting a hand on Frodo’s shoulder. He smiled at her and then was distracted by Merle. Bard and Cissy strolled up, Tilly skipping at her father’s side. Bilbo and Gilda arrived a moment later.
‘I don’t think we’ll need any help besides Frodo, lass…’ Esmie began, but Bard interrupted.
‘With these three little monsters, and Frodo more than half a rascal himself?’ the man teased, pausing to kiss his sister-in-law’s cheek, and ruffle his nephew’s hair. ‘He may look grown up, but I know he’s just trouble waiting to happen!’ Frodo blushed a bit, then started giggling as Ula tickled him. Merle and Merry swiftly joined her and soon all four youngsters were shoving, tickling and giggling. Berry and Tilly tried to join in, but were restrained by Bard. Cissy and Dilly laughed, though Bilbo thought Esmie looked a trifle angry under her pleasant smile. Ah, poor Attercop! Your webs keep falling asunder. Bilbo beamed at her; her look definitely soured. Ula stopped tickling Frodo and scooped up Merry.
‘Shall we go?’ the lass asked brightly. Bard hoisted Berry under his arm, while Frodo took Merle’s hand, though the two kept breaking into giggles. Dilly linked her arms through Esmie and Cissy’s and the ladies swept ahead, though not before Esmie threw one last, hateful look at Bilbo, who grinned wolfishly and gave her a little bow. He and Gilda made their way slowly out of the hall and down the corridor towards the Master’s quarters. They nodded polite greetings and said words of good-night to the various kin and guests who crossed their paths. Bilbo only dared to speak after they entered her rooms.
‘Nicely done, Gilda.’ He helped her over to the couch, then sat at her feet. He was not going to leave her before Rory was back.
‘I have not been Mistress for these many years for nothing, beggar.’ She snorted and shook her head. ‘The day I find some man who can think from somewhere besides his pants around that woman, I shall die of shock.’ Bilbo loudly cleared his throat and raised his eyebrows at her. Gilda laughed. He never tired of hearing her laugh. ‘Very well, beggar, you do not, but you are rather exceptional.’
‘My carnal indiscretions have not only been with men, Gilda, as you of all people should well know,’ Bilbo snapped. He found himself getting very tired of his perversity being thrown in his face. ‘I have bedded more than enough women in my years to know their charms.’ She gently stroked his hair, more a pat than a stroke due to the trembling of her arm.
‘That was not my meaning, love, as you of all people should well know,’ she tenderly chided him. He took her hand and held it gently, brushing his lips against the aging skin. ‘You’ve never been one to fall for any one’s false charms, man or woman, which is what makes you so exceptional.’ She sighed and squeezed his hand. ‘How bad a fight did you have with Rory?’
‘Very bad, my girl. He called me a few things to my face I have not heard in years.’
‘He’s more than a bit of a fool, love. He’ll be sorry, later.’
‘He was sorry right away, Gilda. But he also spoke of things, dark things, the same that you told me of before. He said I brought wrongness with me back to the Shire, that it had claimed you…’ Bilbo felt his throat close off. Not you Gilda. Please, let me not have caused this. Her trembling hand cupped his cheek. ‘I could not bear it if I have done you harm, Gilda,’ he whispered.
‘You have done naught to me. I am just an old, sick woman, like any other.’
‘But you said I brought this wrongness to the Shire, which means I brought it to you!’
‘For such a clever fellow, beggar, you are quite an idiot,’ she calmly replied. ‘My soul shakes at an evil that has been set loose. That is not your doing! You did not make me ill, as though you carry a plague. We are both afflicted by this thing, whatever it may be. You brought it where I could see it, so that I would know it when I saw it again.’ She let out a great, exasperated sigh. ‘And I don’t doubt but that Rory said it all wrong.’
‘Rory never has been too quick with words,’ Bilbo allowed.
‘And you should have been quicker with your own to me,’ Gilda admonished. ‘Why didn’t you tell me, Bilbo?’
‘Yes, about Sara!’
‘Rory said our rascal had corrupted him, seduced him. That I had passed this taint to Frodo.’
Gilda was silent a while. Bilbo turned and rested his arms on the seat of the couch, and watched her. Eventually, she shook her head. ‘My poor rascal. He did no such thing.’ She patted his head again. ‘My poor beggar. You need someone who will treat you kindly, and love you as you deserve. You should have married, you know.’
‘Yes, Gilda, I know, but I would have to have killed Rory first, and that would have been terribly messy.’ They both laughed.
‘So, why didn’t you tell me?’
‘I did not know how to tell you. I only found out myself the night before I took him away. I had already determined to go, and then Frodo blurted this out. I could not believe what I heard, and my only thought was to get him to Bag End as fast as I could. Once there, I could not tell you. I did not dare write it down where someone might happen upon it. It would have been disastrous for such word to get out, even as a rumor! Then too I had promised Frodo I would not speak of it.’
Gilda eyed him sternly. ‘You let the will of a young boy rule you in this? Bilbo, you should have told me straight out. This was not a secret to keep, though you were right not to write it down. It is unfortunate Frodo told Rory, particularly the way he told him.’ She shook her head, but she was smiling a bit. ‘My rascal is an impetuous fellow, like you, love.’
Bilbo took her hands again and kissed the backs of them. ‘You don’t believe me, do you?’ he wryly asked.
‘No, beggar, I don’t believe you. You should claim what is yours.’
‘I would if it were so, Gilda. You know,’ Bilbo said softly, ‘he is the child we would have had, my girl, had you agreed to be mine.’
‘Any child of yours would be like that, which is why I know he is yours. We did have this child, Bilbo, though in a most unconventional manner. You gave him to me, and now I have given him back.’ He rested his head on her thigh and she worked her fingers into his hair. Would that he were mine and you as well, Gilda. But none of it is as I would have it. So they sat for some time until Rory came in. Bilbo rose and kissed her good night on the cheek.
Bilbo went to give Rory a kiss on the cheek as well, but his cousin took his face in hands and placed a gentle kiss on his lips.
‘With my own wife, brother,’ Rory said quietly. ‘You’ll not wrong me. You never would.’
‘No, brother, I never would.’ Bilbo kissed him on the cheek, and sought his own bed.