POV - Frodo
In which the Free Folk face their dragons.
2 Lithe, 1390
You had much wisdom to share at the party last night. Odogar is being won away from his madness by your reason, which serves to keep the Tooks from acting on their unfriendly plans.
You made mention of Rum’s suggestion, which I told Otho after supper. He says it is simply to try to distract you from what he and Pal plot, and I could not agree more! That man is untrustworthy in every way.
Otho had a brilliant suggestion to turn tables on the troublesome Tooks. Make YOU Thain! Odogar says he has no opposition to you filling that post and added that it should be made in charge of all the markets. We all three spoke to Wilcar of this last night and he is open to it as he is not to you taking part of Westfarthing.
I think there is a new item of discussion for the Moot today.
2 Lithe, 1390
I am here with my sons to support your claim for Eastfarthing at the Moot. Cousin Pal has kept me apprised of the plans, including Otho’s attempts to foil them all. Do not trust him; he is more Sackville than Baggins. Pal said he is certain it can be won from the Bolgers, and that the Thain has told him this is what you plan to do at the Moot.
2 Lithe, 1390
We need to talk. Posco is here. Lobelia is frightened.
30 Forelithe, 1390
Rory has written that the two of you have had a terrible argument about the rascal and he does not know how to mend the break between you.
Please, I beg you, stop. I cannot bear the two I love most fighting over this. The grief in my heart bows me down more than any illness of my body. This is my fault, love, not Rory’s. I should have made you do what was right, and I could have, but I was afraid. My tremors had started and I wanted that part of you with me to help me be brave. Don’t be angry with Rory. He just wanted to hold on to what he loved until that love found another.
I am sorry, Bilbo, and so is Rory. I will never see either of you again. Please, please, please, love, don’t punish me more.
Michel Delving, 2 Lithe, 1390
When Frodo got back to their room after his second breakfast, Bilbo was already there, sitting on the bed and reading letters. His own were in a stack at the other end of the bed. He did not bother to ask Bilbo what he and Uncle Rufus had discussed; it was either about the Moot or Bargo, possibly both, and Bilbo would tell him whatever he needed to know. Sorting through the stack, he saw a letter from Bargo and another from Tom, as well as more from his other cousins and some elder kin. With a sigh, he opened Bargo’s letter and quickly read it, then read it again more carefully. You almost sound sincere. He glanced up at Bilbo, who was watching him steadily. Frodo held out the letter to Bilbo who took it and read it.
‘Rufus told me that Bargo wrote you and that he had read the letter before it was sealed.’ Bilbo said this without looking up from the paper.
‘Do I need to write a reply?’
‘I wouldn’t.’ Bilbo handed the letter back. ‘Keep that in a safe place. You may need it someday if Bargo forgets his decency again. Also, I do not want you writing anything to Bargo or Bluebell that you do not show to me and send to Rufus to give to them.’
‘To protect you from any claims of impropriety. If they try to contact you without their father’s knowledge, I ask you to tell me.’
‘I will. I have no interest in communicating with either of them.’
Bilbo began to say something, then changed his mind and went back to his own letters. Frodo followed suit. Darron and Gin wanted to meet him later that morning, which he probably would not be able to do because of the Moot, and Amy wrote him a note telling him that he was going to go to the dancing at the Fair tonight, no excuses. There was a sweet note from Aunt Gilda, saying how much she missed him and how she wanted to hear of all his adventures at the Fair. I will, Gammer. Well, maybe not all of them. He considered Rum’s obvious dislike of his aunt and wondered if the distaste was mutual. He had just finished Tom’s weaselly note when Bilbo let loose with an obscenity that made Frodo jump.
‘Oh, I need this like I need a boil!’ the old hobbit fumed, glaring at the note.
‘What is it?’ Frodo asked. Bilbo ignored him, quickly rifling through the stack of unopened letters until he found one that he tore open and read. Bilbo retrieved the traveling desk and penned a short note, then hastened from the room. Frodo wondered if he dared try to read either of the letters that had so upset his uncle, but knew Bilbo would be back very quickly. I doubt you will remain in the dark for long, Baggins. As he expected, Bilbo was back in just a few minutes bearing an ewer of hot water which he set by the washstand. He opened and scanned a few other letters before folding them up and setting them aside.
‘There are things to attend to before the Moot, Frodo. We need to dress and be ready to go soon.’
‘Yes, sir,’ Frodo said meekly. Bilbo’s voice was steady, if a little brisk, and his expression calm, but the set of his frame and the sharpness of his motions gave away how angry he was by whatever he had just read. He had not shown this kind of anger since his fight with Uncle Rory back in Hobbiton. No, since Whitfurrows. That made Frodo shiver a little as he pulled off his shirt and went to the washstand. Behind him, he could hear Bilbo laying out clothes. Don’t be a brat. Be his good lad. Frodo stood quietly when Bilbo took a washrag and gave him a good scrubbing, and put on the clothes Bilbo had selected for him, being careful not to rumple or muss them. After Bilbo had pulled on his fine clothes, they neatened each other. If Bilbo picked and fussed a bit much, Frodo did not object. Doing this made Bilbo less angry, just as scrubbing away the dirt had done. Do this. It soothes you. When Bilbo was done, Frodo did the same in return, taking his time and knowing that his touches also calmed his uncle.
There was a soft tap at the door. Frodo answered it. A serving girl was in the hall and said, ‘Mister Bilbo has a visitor. He’s waiting in the front parlor.’
Bilbo slipped on his coat and held out Frodo’s. ‘And so the Moot begins, my lad.’
‘Who is it? Do you know?’
‘Otho.’ Bilbo collected the letters he had set aside and tucked them into an inner coat pocket. ‘Let’s not keep our cousin waiting.’
Otho was standing in a small front parlor, looking stormy. ‘How did you find out?’ Bilbo said without preamble. Otho glanced meaningfully at Frodo. ‘He stays.’
Otho stood several heartbeats without speaking, glaring at Bilbo, who waited. ‘I saw him and the rest in a wagon going past the inn this morning.’
Bilbo made a thoughtful sound. ‘I have a letter announcing his presence. I got it the same time as your note.’
‘Tell him to leave.’
‘Unfortunately, I cannot. He has a right to be here.’
‘Perhaps a thrashing to persuade him?’ Otho gave them a nasty look. ‘The pair of you seem to be… adept at such things.’
That got a ghost of a smile from Bilbo. ‘Yes. We are practiced in defending others’ honor. Still, I do not care to draw attention. He is here at Pal’s behest…’
‘What?’ Otho stared at Bilbo in confusion. ‘Pal? Why?’
Bilbo chuckled. ‘Because you and Pal and Odogar are set of lying, double-crossing fools who can’t keep straight what you want and keep enlisting the worst kind of allies. I warned you back in Thrimidge that you underestimated Pal’s duplicity. Even so, I will help with this. Wait here.’ Bilbo signaled for Frodo to stay and walked out of the room. Frodo did not say anything, completely in the dark on what was going on and not eager to stir up Otho’s resentment. For his part, Otho turned his back on Frodo and stared out a window. When Bilbo returned, he had Prisca, Wili and Falco with him. There were some nods of acknowledgement between them and Otho, but nothing you could call a greeting.
‘We Baggins have a problem,’ Bilbo said, ‘and that problem is Posco. He has shown up for the Moot.’
‘Oh, the fool!’ Prisca said. ‘He knows better!’ Wili and Falco also sighed and shook their heads. Otho was giving Bilbo a sharp look.
‘Why is he here at all?’ Falco asked. ‘I know he’s made noises about coming here to support a Baggins farthing, but I told him that’s not going to happen and just to send Ponto as usual.’
‘Pal told him to come,’ Bilbo replied. They all looked at Bilbo quizzically. ‘Pal has assured Posco that I am going to make a grab for Eastfarthing. They appear to have been in communication for some time. Given Posco’s reaction to the rumors of a new farthing under Baggins control last Rethe, namely uncontrolled avarice, I’m not surprised he is here.’
Prisca rolled her eyes. ‘That idiot. What do we need to do, Bilbo?’
‘Keep him as far away from the Bracegirdles as possible. There’s very bad blood between him and Hargo. If he can be kept silent, all the better.’ Bilbo pointed at Prisca. ‘You get to babysit your stupid brother. See if you can enlist Ponto and Porto to help. Falco, have a chat with Wilcar and make sure the Baggins are nowhere near the Tooks. I don’t want him and Pal talking during the Moot. Since the Thain is here, make them stand near the Mayor, and I’ll take us opposite. Otho,’ Bilbo turned to his younger cousin, ‘you need to have Lobelia stand with Hargo and you will be next to me. Posco is likely to be antagonistic to you since, according to his letter, Pal has been most uncomplimentary.’ Otho’s expression soured, though the others looked a bit amused by this tidbit. Bilbo turned to Wili. ‘I need you to stand with Odogar, not Rory.’
‘No chance of that, Bilbo, given what he said and did last night!’ Wili bristled. Falco nodded emphatically.
‘What happened?’ Otho asked. ‘I saw him this morning and he seemed distracted and unwell.’
‘He was here, deranged and raving, last night. He berated Bilbo and attacked his own son!’ Falco said. ‘His youngest lad, Odogrim, is with me and Nora and he tried to beat the lad right there in the hall because Bilbo told him he’d have nothing to do with his mad designs.’
Otho once more looked utterly confused. ‘Odogar? He did this?’ Everyone else nodded.
‘Wili,’ Bilbo said, ‘I’ve heard a bit more of what happened after Odogar left, and if he is unwell and ruing his outburst, it is good that he have some support from you.’ Bilbo looked about him. ‘Are you clear on what I ask?’ Nods. ‘Then I will see you at the Moot. Otho, if you will remain?’ Bilbo signaled for Frodo to stay as well. After the others filed out, Bilbo said, ‘I will speak to Posco briefly before the Moot starts and try to drum into his skull that he had best not cause any problem.’
‘I don’t understand why Pal told him to come.’
Bilbo cocked his head. ‘Really?’ Otho shook his head. ‘They’re first cousins. Alder’s mother is Rosa Baggins, Posco’s aunt. He’s of closer kin to Pal than he is to us.’
Otho thought a moment. ‘I had forgotten.’
‘What you also seem to have overlooked is that Alder and Posco were always thick as thieves, and that Alder regularly made use of Posco for his dirty work. My guess is that some of his own dirty work was known to Alder.’
Otho’s face became quite pale, red spots on his cheeks standing out sharply. ‘Would Alder have known of…’ The sentence trailed off.
‘Given Posco’s mouth, I think it likely.’ Otho nodded, his expression troubled. Bilbo gave him an odd look. Frodo thought it almost sympathetic. ‘I want you to think very carefully on what you truly treasure, cousin, what is irreplaceable and beyond price. I won’t give you a farthing, but I will give you that and for no greater reason than you ask it of me.’ With a nod, Bilbo turned and walked out, Frodo on his heels. He led them out of the inn and towards the fairgrounds.
Frodo tried to make sense of what he had just witnessed. Posco was disliked by the entire family and had been warned not to come here. The dreadful thing he had done in the past, for which Bilbo had him beaten and which Bilbo had threatened him over last Rethe, had something to do with the Bracegirdles, he was reasonably certain, and also Otho. Bilbo would give Otho what he truly treasured. Words from several months ago came back to Frodo. “I also know how much Otho loves his wife, and what he is willing to do for her sake.” The clues fell into place and Frodo came to an abrupt stop.
Bilbo walked a pace or two before he realized Frodo wasn’t beside him. ‘Frodo? What is it?’
‘Posco, he did something to…’ Bilbo sharply motioned him to silence before coming to stand very close to Frodo.
‘Say nothing aloud on this unless I give you leave,’ Bilbo murmured in his ear. ‘Remember what I told you in Needlehole. No one is to breathe a word.’ He gave Frodo a stern look until he nodded. ‘We need to make haste for I must speak to Maud before the Moot begins.’ Again they set out, walking swiftly, and were soon to the fairway. Bilbo walked down the row of food stalls until he found a gaily decorated beer stand. Two of the girls minding the stand waved at Bilbo, and Frodo thought they looked familiar.
‘Grandma’s waiting for you, Mister Baggins,’ one of them said, gesturing behind the stand. Bilbo squeezed between the beer stand and its neighbor selling fried cakes and went around the back where barrels of beer were stacked. Maud’s sons and grandsons busy were tapping new barrels, wrestling them into place on stands, and taking away the empty ones. A wagon holding empty barrels stretched across the back of the stand and Widow Grubb sat on the wagon seat, tallying coins. Bilbo lightly climbed up onto the seat next to her and gave her a hug, careful not to upset her stacks of coins. Frodo scrambled into the back of the wagon and sat on a barrel, leaning over the back of the wagon seat.
‘Maud, you bawdy old woman, I hear I’ve been replaced in your arms if not in your heart!’ Bilbo gave Maud a kiss and grinned at her.
‘Your worst cousin is much friendlier than you, thief! He came by last night with a bottle and a tale, and let me admire his tail for a while,’ she said gleefully. She glanced about before saying quietly, ‘He said the Bolger has been brought up short, but will stay in place. What’s the truth of that?’
‘Completely true,’ Bilbo replied in a similar tone.
‘I thought you were going to do something about this.’
‘I have.’ She gave him a skeptical look. ‘I have done nothing since we talked last Yule except do something about this.’
‘The worst cousin says you won’t.’
‘Remember how I told you I was putting together a puzzle?’ She nodded. ‘I’ve found more pieces. Things wrong north and south. Something’s building.’
‘If things are going wrong, we need you in charge! Ordinary folk, we’re ready for someone with a little common sense running things.’
‘You like the little Bolger, yes?’ The little Bolger? Odogrim? This made no sense.
‘He’s good enough. Pitt trusts him, says he’s doing right.’ Frodo thought quickly about who Pitt was. The smith in Whitfurrows, ah, Bertie. That’s the little Bolger.
‘He’ll be the Bolger in charge after this Fair.’ Frodo tried not to show surprise at the certainty in Bilbo’s voice. ‘The weasel’s been cut out of the market and Gun, well, he’s not going to be around much longer. The healers say that. Wili Bolger, Falco’s cousin on the Chubb side married to my cousin Prisca, he and his boys are also going to be looking out for the lower Eastfarthing from now on.’
Maud shook her head. ‘No, Bilbo, people want more assurance than that. They know you and what you do.’
‘And I need to keep doing that in the way I have always done it. Please trust me on this, crone. The push to rearrange things is coming from the people who caused the problems in the first place. They are double-crossing everyone and each other.’
‘So, be rid of them!’ she snapped.
‘And the moment I step into some important role, they will turn into wolves and do their best to pull me down so I can’t keep interfering with their plans.’
‘I’m not letting the Bolger get away with what he did! He brought want down on the goodwives of Eastfarthing! He’ll just try again on something else, like sick sheep or orchards failing.’
‘Oh, I’m not saying don’t take him to task for that.’ Bilbo smiled wickedly. ‘I’m counting on you to kick up a fuss at the Moot and demand some answers. Then I can be all reasonable.’
‘You got a plan?’
‘Yes, and you’re part of it.’ Bilbo took her hands. ‘For the last six months, I have walked all over, written more letters than I care to think of, spoken to as many people of every kind that I could, seeking out any sign or hint of trouble. I know with certainty that those who proposed the rearrangement of Eastfarthing are planning to double-cross me and each other as soon as they can, trying to claw back what they seemed to have given up, plus the extra that I was given because ordinary people trusted me to do what is right. They want me to betray you and all the hard-working folk of Eastfarthing. I won’t do this, Maud. I won’t let them drag hobbits into fighting each other, not with other things threatening.’
The old woman turned her head slightly to fix her good eye on Bilbo’s face. He held her gaze, showing no dismay at her ferocious glare. After a full minute, she sighed. ‘All right, thief. What’s my part in your plan?’
‘First of all, exactly what you just said – take him to task before all here at the Moot and let him know you’ll have no more of his nonsense. What I’d like you to also say is that Frogmorton owes its thanks to Thain Ferumbras for having immediately moved to send extra from Southfarthing for nothing, with good roots for people and less good for fodder so the pigs could be fed, too.’ Bilbo’s expression was serious. ‘You need to defend the Thain. Odogar, Pal and Otho know that they cannot wrest any of Westfarthing from Wilcar Chubb and that I will not help them with plans in Eastfarthing. Their new plan is to oust Rum as Thain by proposing me as his replacement.’
Maud shrugged. ‘You’d be good at it, Bilbo, but it would be a waste. Your worst cousin helped because he runs a farthing and can give things away, not because he ordered anyone to do something. You don’t have that.’
‘Exactly!’ This made Bilbo smile. ‘You understand. Rum can be a good Thain because he can call on all of Southfarthing as well as the largest clan in the Shire to make things happen. All I can do is write letters and wheedle.’
‘You can do a bit more than that, thief!’ Maud leered at him and ran a hand down Bilbo’s thigh, making him laugh.
‘But that would only help me with the ladies and would make all the fellows jealous, not to mention take up all my time!’
‘Get your lad to give you some help,’ she said, leaning over to pat Frodo’s cheek, ‘though I’ll only deal with you.’
‘I thought you had a new fellow, pretty as his ponies,’ Bilbo teased in return, ‘and he can get you what you need.’ In a more serious tone, Bilbo said, ‘And there will be more to do, quiet things, between now and the next harvest. Rum has already pledged to it, as has Wilcar, Rufus Burrows, the Master, and a number of other disreputable cousins. We’ll keep an eye on our trouble makers, and we will be listening for rumors of the Troubles. I need you snooping.’
‘You be sure to come visit.’
‘I will, crone. I need to go threaten a few of my more reputable cousins before the Moot starts.’
‘And I’ll be there to threaten ‘em a bit more, don’t you worry, Baggins!’ Bilbo gave her another hug and a kiss, which she enthusiastically returned, and clambered down from the wagon. Frodo jumped off the side. ‘And we need to dance tonight, thief!’
‘Of course we shall, Maudie, in honor of our victory!’ With a wave, Bilbo walked away. He went so swiftly Frodo had to trot to keep up with him. ‘Now, if I were an idiot, where would I be?’ Bilbo muttered to himself, looking about sharply.
‘At the beer stall closest to where the Moot will be held,’ Frodo suggested, guessing Bilbo meant Posco.
Bilbo snorted. ‘See? This is why I need to have you about, lad. You’re the only sensible hobbit in the Shire.’ As soon as they came to an opening between the food stalls, Bilbo led them to the fairway and bade Frodo to keep a sharp eye out for their stupid kinsman. Two thirds of the way down the fairway, there was a wide lane going west and ending at the sewing building. Standing under a large tree was Posco, beer in hand, flanked by his sons. Prisca was also standing there, arms crossed, glaring at her big brother. Wili was nowhere to be seen. Posco saw them approaching and waved.
‘Bilbo, Frodo, good to see you, cousins!’ he called out. As in Rethe, Posco appeared to be oblivious to Bilbo’s disapproval, though Ponto and Porto looked intimidated by their elder cousin’s glower. ‘Let me buy you a beer, Bilbo, though, really, you’re the one who can purchase the rounds, to start celebra…’
‘When did you last speak with Pal?’ Though Bilbo did not raise his voice, there was no mistaking the anger in it. Posco gaped stupidly. ‘I asked you a question. When?’
‘I haven’t actually met with…’
‘Your last letter, then.’
‘On 30 Forelithe. Said I needed to be here to support you. So I…’
‘Everything Pal has told you is a lie.’ Bilbo’s voice was colder than snow. In his heart, Frodo felt a familiar sense of dread, icy and implacable, and the day dimmed, as though storm clouds had drawn a curtain before the sun.
Posco’s hand was shaking and a little beer slopped out of the mug. ‘But he said that you had assured…’
‘All that matters is that I assured you back in Rethe that this would not happen.’ Bilbo cocked his head. ‘And what were you doing writing to Pal without my knowledge on a matter so important?’
‘You said nothing after Rethe and never answered my letters, so I asked him if he knew what was going on. He sent me a letter in Astron saying that Otho was trying to get Odogar to cede the farthing to him, not you, so I told Peony to get her man to get his Da lined up behind you.’ Frodo flinched in the face of Bilbo’s mounting anger, even though the old hobbit said not a word. ‘Pal’s been telling me that the Thain…’
‘Ponto, did I not say at the meeting at Bag End in Thrimidge that I would have nothing to do with this mad plot of Odogar’s?’ The younger hobbit nodded emphatically. ‘I trust that you faithfully reported this to your father?’ An even more vigorous nod. ‘So why are all three of you disregarding what I have told you?’
‘To keep Otho from grabbing it!’ Posco hissed.
‘Otho is not grabbing anything.’ Frodo and Prisca both gave Bilbo a startled look. ‘He is doing as I direct him, to distract Pal and Odogar and get them to fight between themselves. It’s working very well.’ Frodo could not believe Bilbo’s bald-faced lie. Otho’s doing his best to cheat you of everything!
Bilbo took the half-empty beer mug from Posco’s hand and gave it to Porto, then grasped Posco’s arm. ‘We need a private word. Frodo, come along.’ Bilbo marched his quailing cousin to a narrow alley between two nearby buildings and shoved Posco against a wall. ‘I will only say this once, Posco, so listen up. If you say anything against Otho, if you approach him or any of his family, and I learn of it, I will count it as a breach of your oath, and my wrath will be merciless. Also, from this day forward, if you receive any communication from Pal, you will send it on to me unopened. Do you understand?’
Posco’s face was white and his teeth chattered. It was difficult to tell if he nodded or was simply shuddering too hard to hold his head still. Frodo kept his own arms crossed tightly across his middle, trying to keep himself from shaking. Always before, when Bilbo’s dark anger emerged, it has been indoors, in small spaces, usually at dusk or after sundown. His current fury was as bad as anything Frodo had felt before. He wondered how much worse it would be if they were in some close space.
Bilbo was satisfied with whatever it was he saw in Posco’s face. He led them back to the others and let go of his shivering cousin, who stumbled to the nearest bench, more falling than sitting on the seat.
‘Ponto, Porto,’ Bilbo said briskly, ‘your father now understands why I am so displeased. I expect the three of you to stand quietly and respectfully at the back of the clan. Prisca will stay with you. There are many things of great sensitivity to be discussed today. I fear Pal had led your father woefully astray in regard to them, trying to sow division among the Baggins. Be sure he does not succeed.’ He nodded to the younger cousins, gave Prisca a kiss on the cheek, and strolled off. Frodo did the same and hurried after him.
‘You’re being a dragon, not a hobbit, Bilbo.’
‘You said earlier Frodo that all our foolish kin need to face up to their dragons.’
‘I don’t like you being one. Odogar’s bad enough.’
Bilbo stopped, giving Frodo a look he could not really name. It was not angry or impatient, but it also was not kind. It was certainly stern and perhaps a bit sad. ‘I am trying very hard to be neither dragon nor dwarf. The only people I am certain of at this point are you, Maud, Rum and Rufus.’ A ghost of a smile touched Bilbo’s mouth. ‘I feel rather like Gandalf trying to get the dwarves, men and elves to stop fighting each other, at least until the real trouble has been dealt with.’ Bilbo started walking again. Frodo followed him in silence to the sewing building.
There were many hobbits milling about outside the building, chatting to each other, while others were walking inside. Everyone seemed to be dressed in their best. Bilbo was immediately hailed by several people as he and Frodo approached. Though he greeted all genially, dispensing handshakes and hellos to all, Bilbo did not slow to talk to anyone. Frodo just smiled and nodded, concentrating on staying close to Bilbo’s heels in the thick crowd.
Inside the building, all the tables, panels, racks and display stands had been cleared away, though the walls were covered by the contest winners of the last two days. Frodo saw Dilly’s shirts on display and smiled, touching the cuff of the shirt of hers that he wore. He was glad he had saved it for wearing today. The long building had doors open at either end on the short walls, and then pairs of doors on each side along the longer walls. Between the western doors, a small platform had been set up. At one side, there was a small writing desk, with a scrivener standing behind it arranging his inks and paper. Behind it, on the wall, a large blackboard had been set and someone was wiping it clean with a damp rag. People in the building tended to gather at the long ends, leaving the space directly in front of the platform open.
There was something different about the crowd that gathered, and it took Frodo a minute to identify why it felt strange. No children. None of the women had small children carried on a hip or holding a hand. No man was admonishing his children to behave. There were no packs of little boys dashing about getting dirty, no little girls chattering to each other or screeching at the boys, no tweens gossiping and flirting. He had never been to a gathering of any size that was not at least a third youngsters. Even Wintermark had a fair number of tweens. As far as he could tell, he was the only tween in the crowd.
Bilbo walked very deliberately to a position directly opposite of the platform and stopped, motioning Frodo to stand to his right.
‘This is where all the Baggins will gather, Frodo,’ Bilbo said quietly. ‘You are to stay just off my right shoulder, which is where the clan heir always stands if he is present. Otho will be standing to my left. In truth, it should be Falco, for he is the next eldest, but given the events of the morning,’ Bilbo sighed, ‘I will have to give Otho prominence.’
‘Besides stand here, what must I do?’
‘Very little and a great deal. You will not speak unless spoken to, and then only with my consent, unless you are returning a simple greeting. If you need to ask me a question, tap the back of my hand, otherwise be still. No outbursts!’ Bilbo looked at him sternly until Frodo nodded. ‘What I need you to do is watch and listen. Pay attention to what happens and learn all you can.’ The old hobbit surveyed the hall, which was rapidly filling. ‘This moot will be as large as any I have ever attended.’
There was no time to ask how large it would be because someone came up to say hello. Frodo was introduced to a rotund hobbit named Will Whitfoot, followed by another who was a Mister Sandheaver, and then there was a Took with several sons, and soon a stream of hobbits walked past, all wanting to give their regards to Mister Baggins. Falco and Fargo showed up with Wilcar and a host of other Chubbs, many of whom Frodo faintly remembered from the night before at Fat Bank. Where most people simply said “Hello, nice to meet you!” when Bilbo introduced Frodo, Wilcar gave Frodo a firm hug.
‘It’s good to see you, lad. Darron is very sorry that you won’t be available for fun about the Fair this morning, and hopes to see you later.’
‘It’s good to see you, too, Mister Chubb. I will look for Darron later.’ Frodo glanced at Bilbo to be sure he had not said too much and got a smile and nod from his uncle. Falco and Fargo hugged him and took up positions immediately behind Bilbo.
‘Bilbo, Frodo, there you are!’ Uncle Rory called out waving and walking towards them. He looked quite splendid in a fine linen shirt of Dilly’s and his best waistcoat and coat. Mac and Dilly were behind him, as were Rufus, Asphodel and Milo. Greetings were offered without incident, and Bilbo and Rory exchanged a few murmured words. The Mayor came up, offering an effusive welcome to Rory and saying he had to stand near the platform in a position of honor, being the most notable guest at the Moot. To the south, a bit more than halfway between where they stood and the platform, Frodo saw Hargo and Violet Bracegirdle and a younger man who he thought was their oldest son, Hugo. Frodo hoped Hamson was too badly thrashed to be walking about the Fair. Otho and Lobelia were standing near the Bracegirdles, chatting. For once, Lobelia did not look like she had been sucking on a lemon and Frodo was startled to see how pretty she was, closely resembling her nieces, Hilda and Helga, especially Hilda. Then she looked over at him and her expression went decidedly sour. Otho said some words, gave her a kiss on the cheek and walked over to them.
‘Otho, good to see you.’ There was nothing in Bilbo’s tone or demeanor to indicate that he had said anything but his most sincere sentiment. Bilbo gestured to the spot to his left. ‘Please.’
Otho scanned the crowd behind Bilbo, before nodding graciously and taking his place. Fargo leaned forward to say hello and chatted a bit with them. Uncle Odo, Aunt Sage and Cousin Baldo arrived within a few minutes and exchanged a bit of small talk.
‘Cousins, good morning.’ Just past Odo, Odogar appeared, Uncle Wili next to him. Behind him a few steps was Car, who stared at the ground and said nothing. Ododrida was also there, very determinedly avoiding looking at her older brother. Behind them were a number of men and women who shared a certain resemblance to Uncle Wili and Car, and Frodo guessed they were the Westfarthing branch of the Bolger clan.
‘Good morning,’ Bilbo replied in the same voice he had used with Otho. The other cousins responded in a like manner. Frodo wondered at their civility, given how viciously they had been fighting right through last night. He took the opportunity to study their faces. They were all first cousins, the only surviving sons of their parents, and their kinship was obvious. They all have what Bilbo said of me. Only Bilbo still had dark hair, ironic as he was by far the eldest, but their hair was otherwise alike, thick and curling in the same way. They even sported the same haircut, as though they all went to Cobb Cleaver to have it shorn. Their eyes were identical, down to how their wrinkles formed and their brows were shaped. Their mouths and chins varied a small bit, but not so much, and they all had small feet, except for Odo, who obviously took after his Proudfoot father in this regard. Bilbo was the tallest and Otho the shortest, but they were all near the same height, none of them stooped with age. What was most curious to Frodo was how many mannerisms they shared – a way of cocking their heads, gestures of their hands, a certain quirk of an eyebrow. The way they spoke was also close. Is this what I look like, sound like?
Within a few minutes, Odogar led his kin to stand to the left of the Baggins half way around the circle while Odo and Baldo moved to the right. Aunt Sage gave Odo a kiss and left to stand with men she resembled and who must be Goolds.
‘Uncle Bilbo!’ Griffo Boffin came up and gave Bilbo and Frodo each a big hug. Dudo and Tulip were with him, along with some other people Frodo didn’t know.
‘What are you doing here, Griffo?’ Bilbo asked. ‘Did you really leave Daisy at this time?’
‘She, Mama, and Aunt Dora all chased me out of the house,’ he replied with a grin. ‘I guess they were tired of a bumbling oaf messing up their neat nest.’ He motioned for the other to come forward. ‘Uncle, here are more Boffin kin of mine, some from Eastfarthing, some from Southfarthing, others from out here.’
While Griffo rattled off their names, Dudo and Tulip greeted Frodo and asked how he was. Somewhere behind him, Frodo heard Aunt Prisca calling out to Wili. Dudo looked up at the sound of the voice and froze. After a long moment, he nodded coldly at someone beyond Frodo. Must be Posco. Frodo did not turn to look. Once Bilbo directed Griffo and all the Boffins to stand in between the Baggins and the Bolgers, Dudo leaned over and murmured something in Bilbo’s ear. Bilbo’s look became stony.
‘I cannot bar him from attending,’ he replied very softly. ‘He’s been warned.’ Otho must have heard part of this, but stood facing ahead, staring at nothing. Dudo and Tulip greeted him before going to stand directly behind Frodo.
The building was nearly full apart from the open space in the center, yet more hobbits were coming in. The Chubbs stood opposite the Bolgers, and the Burrows were next to the Brandybucks near the platform. Otho greeted a group of people and motioned for them to stand just to his left, between the Boffins and the Baggins. ‘Sackvilles,’ Bilbo murmured in Frodo’s ear. Beyond the Proudfoots and the Goolds, Frodo glimpsed Maud talking to Aunt Blossom amidst another group and knew that must be the Grubbs.
The crowd near a western door parted and in walked Rum at the head of a large group of Tooks. Frodo wondered how there could still be room for that many more. Pal slumped along behind Rum, Ada on his arm, and Addy and Andy were close by. There must have been close to forty hobbits accompanying Rum, a number of them sporting the same silver forelock as their Thain. Rum looked even more elegant than he had the night he had shown up at the inn, and he came to a halt to the right of the platform, his kin spreading out behind him. He looked around the space and held out a hand to Rory.
‘Rorimac Brandybuck, cousin, how kind of you to visit the Free Fair!’ Rum said in a voice that did not seem loud, yet reached every corner of the hall. Rum walked out a few steps from the Tooks and Rory did the same from his side, the two meeting in front of the platform to shake hands and clap each other on the shoulder. After a few words, Rory nodded and went back to his spot. Mayor Goodbody leaned down from the platform and energetically shook Rum’s hand. Rum smiled and said something. Rufus Burrows came forward to greet Rum, and then Wilcar, and soon the head of each of the clans went to him give their greetings. Even Odogar walked over, though the look he gave Rum would have made other men cower. Rum just smiled charmingly. When Otho began to step forward Bilbo motioned him to remain where he was. Soon, everyone except the Baggins had greeted the Thain. There was a long moment of silence while people waited. Rum looked at Bilbo and raised an eyebrow.
Bilbo gave his cousin a bow. ‘Thain Ferumbras, good morning.’
‘And good morning to you, Mister Baggins, our most esteemed dragon killer.’
Bilbo smiled and bowed again. ‘I’m not here to kill any dragons today, just annoy them a bit.’ This received some laughter.
‘Oh dear, that means poetry, doesn’t it?’ Rum said in mock dismay, eliciting a roar of mirth from the crowd.
‘If that’s what it takes, so be it,’ Bilbo replied with a grin. He looked at the Mayor. ‘Pasco, you may start now.’
‘Oh, yes, of course, right away!’ the Mayor stammered. Rum sent Bilbo an amused glance before inclining his head to Pasco and moving to stand directly in front of the Tooks, Pal just off his right shoulder as Frodo was off Bilbo’s. Pasco pulled a small sheaf of paper from his coat pocket and scanned it before he began talking. ‘We have seen a year of joy and good fortune since the last Fair. There were at least two babes borne every day in the Shire this year! Weddings were many and I am proud to say I officiated at least once per week through the entire year, including one just yesterday. There they are!’ There was a cheer for the newlyweds who stood among the Chubbs, blushing and looking at each other shyly. When the cheers died down, the Mayor went on, occasionally reading from his notes.
Births were many, deaths few, new public buildings had been erected, roads had been repaired, dams, bridges and canals patched, businesses started, trade increased, harvests collected and livestock multiplied, at least according to Pasco. Frodo was a bit surprised at how much of the good that had happened in the previous year has been due in whole or in part to Bilbo and his interests, not that Bilbo’s name was ever mentioned. It was not that Frodo did not know about the many bits of business; that was all in the ledgers, after all. What made him curious was how little else there was being done in comparison to all that Bilbo alone did. At least half of the new businesses owed something to Bilbo, and much of the repairs and new buildings had been performed after he had arranged for this craftsman, that master stone mason, a roper, some carpenters, lumber from here, stone from there, and iron work from several smithies.
Frodo listened to Pasco’s words and watched the reactions around the room. Most hobbits nodded and smiled at the unrelentingly pleasant news, but others shook their heads, raised their eyebrows and even made faces at some of the claims, particularly that of good harvests. There was an audible murmur of dissatisfaction at that part of the report. Maud Grubb kept her one eye on Odogar, expression hard. Even so, no one spoke out or made a fuss as long as Pasco was talking. Behind the Mayor, the scrivener noted down what was said and a fellow with a small box to stand on wrote some of the more important numbers on the blackboard where all could see.
The report ended with a quick tally of the Bounders, Shirriffs and Messengers currently employed about the Shire. There were twenty, twelve and one-hundred of them, respectively. After his recitation, Pasco gave the crowd a small bow to let them know he was done and there was polite applause. ‘Now, free folk, say your concerns, but also your good tidings, for we are heartened against misfortune by our happier days.’
‘What’re we doing with outsiders at the Free Fair?’ said someone in the back behind the Bolgers. Some people stepped aside so the small, fat hobbit could come to the front. His face was brown and weathered from years in the sun and wind and his clothes were homespun, though neat and clean. He gestured at the Brandybucks. ‘Them’s not Shire folk. Meaning no disrespect, but this Moot’s for Shire hobbits.’ There were some loud murmurs of agreement.
‘Now, Cal, that’s mighty inhospitable of you,’ said someone among the Chubbs. ‘They’re not Breelanders or Big People or dwarves. They’re free folk, like us.’
‘But they’re from beyond the Bounds and they ne’er answer to Mayor or Thain,’ came another voice, this time from somewhere amidst the Goolds or the Grubbs. Frodo could not see over the heads to identify the speaker. There was some more murmuring, rising up to the level of conversation, as people argued for or against the Brandybucks.
Frodo glanced at Bilbo who was staring at Rory. There were some subtle changes to their expressions, then Bilbo nodded and glanced towards Uncle Rufus who returned Bilbo’s look for a few heartbeats, then nodded. Across the circle, Frodo saw Wilcar move to talk quietly to Rum, who said something back, before they both very slightly nodded and Rum looked at Bilbo. There was another subtle exchange, this time with a few hand motions, then Rum looked over to Rory, back to Bilbo and gave a quick nod before letting out a piercing whistle that silenced all talk. He smiled.
‘Perhaps we should ask our esteemed guests from Buckland if they even wish to speak, yes?’ He looked at Rory.
Rory inclined his head respectfully. ‘Thain, Mayor, we of Buckland consider ourselves to be free folk and of kin to the hobbits of the Shire. Once, our clan head was the Thain. Our wives come from the Shire, the Messengers who cross these lands also walk to our villages and smials, and we pay a tithe to support these Messengers. Our kin live to either side of the Brandywine, in Buckland and the Marish, and in all four farthings. What concerns the Shire concerns us, and our fortunes cannot be parted. I bid leave to present the news of Buckland to our kin, friends and neighbors, to give and receive counsel, and to join in the decisions that affect all of the free folk.’ He bowed his head again and stood, awaiting an answer.
There was more chatter. Frodo noticed that the less receptive voices came from the outer groups of people, the lesser clans and families who were mostly from Westfarthing. To them, these were queer folk from the outside, almost as strange as dwarves, and with no true business here in the Shire.
Up on the platform, Pasco waved his hands for the crowd’s attention. ‘Now, there, I don’t think there’s any call to toss out polite guests, and most certainly Mister Brandybuck is of close kin to more than a few here, so I don’t see why he shouldn’t be able to be part of…’
‘I do. I object.’ All eyes turned to Bilbo. ‘I think I count as close kin, as we are first cousins. You are mistaken, Mayor Goodbody. This is not Mister Brandybuck. This is the Master of Buckland, and Buckland is not part of the Shire.’ Bilbo gave Rory a cool look. ‘I believe there is no harm in allowing the Master to tell us of Buckland’s fortunes and it behooves any good leader to seek wise counsel. However, just as the Master would never allow the Mayor or the Thain or any other hobbit to decide things for Buckland, it is not acceptable that he should have any voice or vote in our affairs conducted here.’
‘I speak as the Master’s brother-in-law, and I find Bilbo’s judgment to be fair,’ Rufus calmly added.
‘Buckland does contribute to the upkeep of the Messenger Service,’ Rum said, ‘so I say it would be fair to allow the Master a voice in that, but naught else.’ He grinned at Rory. ‘I have so many cousins you can’t claim any special privilege with me, Brandybuck!’
This got a laugh including from Rory. Pasco again raised his hands. ‘So, is the Thain’s wisdom acceptable? That we will hear of Buckland, that the Master may ask for our wisdom, and may voice an opinion on the Messengers, but must otherwise stay out of our business?’ There was a loud “Aye!” from all sides, drowning out any dissent. Pasco gave Rory a shallow bow. ‘Master, if we may hear how Buckland fares?’
Rory inclined his head. ‘Of course, Mayor Goodbody.’ He faced the crowd, one hand on his hip, looking commanding. Frodo was proud of his uncle. This was the Master of Buckland, a gentlehobbit of distinction and leader of the several thousand hobbits who lived between the River and the Forest. Others answered to him, and there was no gainsaying the good fortune he brought to his lands. Rory spoke clearly and confidently about Buckland, the amount and quality of the cloth they had woven, the full barns, the busy paddocks, forges and looms, fields and orchards, all the fruits of their labors were accounted. He spoke also of the fever rash that had struck in Afteryule, and the deaths and illness that followed. There were some murmurs as he recounted this, and glances at the Mayor, for the fever rash had struck places within the Shire but no word of that had been in Pasco’s report. Rory ended with news of the market being built just inside the Buckland gate upon the Road. Frodo found it curious that his uncle made no mention of the root harvest or how he had helped those in the Marish.
‘Thank you, Master Brandybuck, for this news,’ Pasco said when Rory had concluded. “Is there counsel you wish to ask for of the free folk here?’
‘Yes, there is. As I said, we build a market at the north end of Buckland, just south of the gate to the Road. We have found most travelers and traders to be honest folk. However, in the last few years, we’ve had trouble with strangers, always Big People, wandering down into Buckland without any good business to conduct.’ This got mutterings around the room and shaking heads. Frodo remembered Uncle Rory talking about this with Mac, Sara, Uncle Sara, Uncle Wili and other hobbits over the last few years, not that he had paid much attention to the talk of the grown-ups. Now he wished he had listened more closely. ‘We’ve even had a few try to get past the gate or the High Hay at night. That’s a big reason why I want a market put in just off the Road – to discourage any from wandering about, even on good business.’ This got approval throughout the room. ‘Has this been happening in other parts of the Shire? What do you do when you find these Big People walking about?’
‘We’ve certainly been seeing it get worse up in Northfarthing,’ Rufus quickly added. There were some calls of agreement from various parts of the room as folk from Northfarthing made themselves known. Frodo thought he glimpsed the Greenfields headman, Billy Stubtoe, not far behind Uncle Rufus. ‘Every year for the last ten, we’ve been seeing more Big People in the north, both the round ones and the tall ones. There’s another kind, now, mixed in with them, kind of short, knobby and squinty looking. Long arms.’
Rory and Rum were both nodding, as were a number of the Tooks, including Addy. Frodo was surprised to see Otho was also nodding. ‘We’ve seen the squinty ones a few times,’ Rory said.
‘They’ve shown up in Longbottom and Sackville,’ Otho offered, ‘though only as part of regular trader groups. There’s definitely more Big People down there.’
Billy Stubtoe walked to the front, next to Rufus. ‘Up north, we see mostly the round ones. They’re usually headed for the hills north and west to do some hunting. Not sure where they’re crossing the river, ‘cause they’re not coming up from the south like if they used the bridge, unless they’re walking up through the edge of Eastfarthing, then cutting over above Dwaling.’ People listened intently to the stout hobbit. ‘If we see ‘em, we tell ‘em to stay on the road and the cleared trails and get out as quick as can be, but they’ll try sneaking off when they think they’re not watched.’ Billy snorted at that. ‘A few walnuts and a sling usually sends ‘em scampering!’ People laughed and applauded. ‘But there’s too many. The Bounders catch a bunch, but more slip through. We’re finding at least one a week where I am, and there’s other headmen who find ‘em, too.’
‘I’ve see the tall grey people myself,’ added Rufus. ‘They’re none we want to tangle with. They’re always armed, though I’ve ne’er heard of them offering harm to any hobbit.’ He shook his head. ‘We don’t have gates, bridges, high hedges or steep cliffs to keep them out, and there’s not enough left in the reaches to keep an eye on them.’
‘I’ve seen and spoken with a grey person myself, Blotmath last,’ Addy said. This caused a stir given that he had spoken to the fellow. ‘All in grey, big bow and a sword. He was on a horse. I was with Malcolm Greenhand, and the fellow bargained for some of Greenhand’s cured leaf. Grim looking, but polite enough, and paid good coin.’
‘I saw Grey Riders on the River Road, just short of the Buckland Ferry in Foreyule,’ said Bilbo. ‘My nephew, Frodo, and I were on our way to Buckland for Yule, and we were overtaken on the road just before sundown. There were eight of them, trotting swiftly, and all bore both bow and sword. One had a spear.’ Frodo remembered the troop passing them in the dusk, looking huge and haunting.
Bilbo paused a moment, looking directly at the Mayor, waiting. The deep ford at Willowbottom. Frodo guessed that Pasco had completely forgotten his promise to Bilbo to send someone to investigate. I guess we will definitely be tramping that way in not too long. When Pasco did nothing but stare stupidly back, Bilbo sighed and looked meaningfully at Rufus.
‘We need more Bounders in the north,’ Rufus said firmly, ‘and it sounds like there might need to be more east and south as well, given what others have said.’
‘Just more may help some,’ spoke an older woman amongst the Boffins, ‘but what good are Bounders with the long distances of the north? Or against a Big Person on a horse? You get a pack of them, even the small ones, and you’ll not be chucking walnuts at them, ‘less you want to be beat up yourself.’
‘Then Bounders should patrol in pairs!’ called out someone beyond the Tooks.
‘And if it’s the north that’s getting the most tramping through, why don’t they see to it themselves?’ said Cal, the man who had objected to the Brandybucks attending the Moot. He looked at Rufus. ‘Get the older lads up there together and set them to walking the bounds. Don’t see that it’s Westfarthing’s problem.’
‘I’ll tell you how it’s Westfarthing’s problem,’ Falco said, stepping forward between Bilbo and Otho. ‘I know you, Cal Lightfoot. You’re from the lower plain and south. The Drop protects that end from tramps coming up from Sarn Ford. I’m the headman of Nobottle, and the North Moors slope down to the western reaches. We’ve heard of hunters coming down almost to the border. There’s sheep gone missing in that area. Not killed – missing. If we don’t help Northfarthing take care of this problem, it’ll be our problem next.’
‘Still doesn’t help for how to cover the ground, let alone big horses,’ the Boffin woman said.
‘How many more?’ Bilbo asked.
Rufus thought a bit. ‘Double them. Forty.’
The buzz of voices filled the hall. Most were astounded at how many more Bounders had been requested. Frodo looked at Bilbo who was still watching Rufus. Rufus raised an eyebrow. Bilbo shrugged, then nodded. That’s how many Bilbo thinks it should be. A quick look around the room showed the crowd about evenly split between agreeing to that number and disagreeing. The Westfarthing folk were not in support of it and they were the most numerous, but the others in the affected farthings very much wanted more bounders, and Wilcar Chubb seemed to be in agreement with the other farthing heads. On the blackboard, the increased number was written and, after some consultation with the Mayor, the anticipated increased cost, five silver dwarf crowns per year. When the amount was written on the board, the voices against increasing the Bounders grew.
Rum said something to Pasco, who nodded and went to the scrivener’s desk, retrieving a gavel from a desk drawer and pounding it to get silence. ‘Please, good folk, your attention. The Thain has something he wishes to say.’
‘Big People wandering about the Shire is not acceptable, no matter the farthing,’ Rum said sternly. ‘I have spoken to numerous headmen about this problem since Astron, and we need to have more. I think the number Rufus Burrows proposes is the smallest number we should consider. Patrolling in pairs only makes sense. As for the concern about distances, if the men can be found to do the riding, I personally pledge two good riding ponies, all their tack, and their upkeep for each farthing, for use by Bounders to follow the example of these Grey Riders and go on swift patrols of our bounds. They can cover the wide lands of the north and the south quickly and let others know where things are suspicious.’
This got some applause and thanks. Bilbo looked thoughtful, studying the figures on the black board. He nodded sharply before saying, ‘We do not need to decide this right now.’ He repeated himself twice as people realized he was talking and gave him their attention. ‘This has been proposed and we should give it due reflection. I believe the Thain’s generous gift makes the large increase worthwhile, and perhaps other ponies can be found. Let us attend to all our business and see if other things change the opinion of the Moot.’
‘I’ve got a concern, and I’m quite surprised this wasn’t a part of the Mayor’s report,’ said Sage from her place amongst the Goolds. ‘My daughter, Ula, is learning to be a healer, prenticed to my cousin, Mistress Menegilda of Brandy Hall. You heard the Master speak of the fever rash that went through the Hall. My girl helped cure it and she tended many from the surrounding lands.’ Sage was interrupted briefly by people voicing admiration and thanks to Ula for her healing. ‘She has told me and my husband that many places in Eastfarthing – from Rushey in the south to Girdley Island in the north – were struck by this same illness.’
‘Aye!’ said Hargo Bracegirdle, nodding emphatically. ‘We counted four dozen sick on the island and the bank, and a third of them died. All the newborn babes of that time died, too. Some Breelanders at the Whitfurrows market made them sick.’ Hargo glared at Odogar, who stood impassive, arms crossed. ‘And never was there word gone about that illness had struck and we should turn away strangers.’
‘If it was brought back from the market by those you knew, then any word would have been too late,’ Odogar said firmly.
‘But there was no word at all,’ said Griffo, amidst nods and words of assent from his Eastfarthing kin. ‘Had we not heard from Farmer Haysend that there was illness along the Road and even in Stock, we’d not have known to keep to ourselves for a few weeks. This was trouble because food was dear and some needed to go to town for supplies. Luckily, Frogmorton was free of the fever and had plenty of roots, thanks to the Thain.’
‘Pasco, why was there no mention of this in your report?’ Bilbo asked, sounding puzzled. ‘I remember the letters the Master and the Mistress sent to me at this time, and they knew it was all about. There must be a hundred or more dead in Eastfarthing.’ Odogar sent Bilbo an ugly look.
‘There, I, uh, I…’ Pasco pulled his notes out of his pocket and leafed through them as though trying to find an overlooked sentence. ‘There… was… there was nothing of this in in the Eastfarthing account...’
‘It wasn’t in the farthing report because it wasn’t told to me,’ Odogar said stonily.
‘Well, then, yes, that explains it!’ said Pasco, relieved. ‘I just wrote up the farthing reports for the Moot, and haven’t yet read all the township accounts.’
This explanation may have placated some, but Bilbo growled quietly, and there were a number of shaken heads and irritated expressions to be seen. Wilcar and Rufus were both glaring at Odogar, who scowled and stared at the floor. Bilbo would have sat up all night at least skimming the reports for signs of trouble. He knew of the fever rash and would have looked for accounts of it.
‘I wrote it up!’ Hargo said loudly. The headmen of Rushey and Stock also protested. Wili waved his arm for attention.
‘My brother, Gundabard, he was Whitfurrows headman at the time, but he now is too ill to write up his account and Bertie, my nephew Filibert, he only started paying mind to Whitfurrows in Thrimidge, after the fever rash had passed, so he may not have known to write of it. I know he wrote up Budgeford. He’s headman there.e’s headman there.’
‘Hargo,’ Rum said in a mild voice, ‘did you send notice to your farthing head at the time that you had the fever rash at the island?’
‘We were concerned with the fever!’
‘Of course! But after?’ Rum pressed. Frodo glanced at Bilbo and saw him hide a smirk behind his hand. Otho did not seem to have much sympathy for his brother-in-law, either.
‘Perhaps. I can’t remember. I know I said it at some point.’
‘Mmm. And you, Owen Eastbrook and Wiley Mead, did you two inform your farthing head?’ Rum’s tone was still mild, but with a growing edge. ‘You’re the heads of Rushey and Stock. They both saw the fever rash.’
‘I told the Master,’ said Mister Mead, ‘like I always do.’ Rory nodded, confirming his words. ‘The Mistress, she sent medicines and a special potion, and that stopped it. In the Marish, we look to the Hall for such things.’
‘Pity the Master did not see fit to inform the Mayor or the Thain of either the illness or the cure,’ Rum said sharply, getting some mutters from the outer crowd.
‘Pity the headman of Eastfarthing failed to do anything at all,’ was Rory’s equally sharp reply.
‘Pity the rest of us for having to deal with you pig-headed fools!’ Bilbo snapped, getting a loud cheer from the whole room along with some derisive hoots aimed at Odogar and Rory. ‘The Mistress of Buckland learned her leechcraft from my mother, Belladonna Took, and I know from her that the first thing to be done when a contagion strikes is to spread the word so people can avoid it.’
‘There’s not always someone to spare when the sickness starts, Baggins,’ said Hargo.
‘Surely my esteemed Bolger and Brandybuck cousins know how to write a letter and give it to a Messenger?’ Bilbo smoothly countered. This got some jeering laughter from all corners.
‘But even that might be dangerous, Bilbo, if it’s something as contagious as the fever rash,’ said Rum. ‘What if the Messenger catches the illness?’ Many nodded and agreed with the Thain, and Frodo caught sound of a few stories of when such things had happened. ‘I remember a story Uncle Isengar told me of Big People in the south using flags and other ways to warn of plagues and such because the messenger riders were usually the first to fall ill. I think he wrote a letter about it. I shall find that and make it known what he saw. It may be just a curiosity, but perhaps there are things we may learn.’
‘But aren’t you overlooking the obvious?’ said Hank Hornblower, someone Frodo recognized from Bywater. He was a friend of Uncle Odo’s and often stood with them during Highday dances, talking and drinking. ‘This illness came from Bree! Outsiders brought it to the market and we caught it. There’s another reason for keeping these Big People out. I say we need more Bounders and maybe a few big gates!’ This got a cheer almost as large as what Bilbo had just received.
‘The Road is for all to use,’ said Pal, Rum nodding, ‘not just Shire folk. We don’t need to let ‘em off the Road, but we can’t keep any from it.’
‘Illness is everywhere people gather,’ Otho added. ‘There was a pox that afflicted Sackville last summer after a large Lithe celebration, and there were no Big People there. Keeping strangers limited to the roads and to markets won’t keep us hobbits from getting sick.’
‘Better to train up more healers,’ said someone back near Aunt Nora who stood among the Headstrongs. ‘Can’t have too many of them!’ This was generally acknowledged to be a good idea.
‘Yes, this is true. Even so,’ Rum went on, ‘perhaps fewer would have been sickened had word been sent in good time to alert people to the presence of the fever rash. If I recall, that does tend to hit the eastern lands more than the others, probably because we get so many Big People that direction and Whitfurrows has always drawn a crowd, with hobbits, dwarves and Big People all meeting there.’
‘Perhaps the answer is to figure out how to send word more reliably when these kinds of illness are seen?’ offered Griffo. ‘It was good we had Farmer Haysend to tell us, but that was mere happenstance. It would have been better to have had word direct from the Hall or from Scary.’ Griffo gave Rory and Odogar stern looks.
Rum nodded. ‘I think that if there are certain kinds of illnesses, those that are contagious and especially those that may kill many, then the healer must ensure a message of some kind is sent to the headman of the nearest large township, to the head of the farthing and to the Mayor. These three need to see that word of this is carried to the places near the sickness and to have warnings posted and read in town squares. Perhaps even with some of these southern flags, if they make sense.’ This was greeted with agreement and applause from the crowd, who thought it a very sensible thing.
‘Good boy,’ Bilbo said softly, a slight smile on his lips as he watched Rum graciously acknowledge approval of his advice. Frodo tried not to be jealous of Bilbo’s attention to the beautiful hobbit. He’s just doing what he’s supposed to, what a Thain should do! At the front, the hobbit at the blackboard wrote down the Thain’s suggestion about spreading word of illness right under his pledge of eight ponies for the Bounders.
‘I have not so much a concern as an idea of how to take care of several problems and turn them into good fortune,’ Wilcar said in a cheerful voice. ‘In my youth, I remember that the sight of a dwarf or a Big Person in the Shire was an unusual one. After our esteemed dragon-killing gentlehobbit, Mister Baggins,’ he gave Bilbo a slightly comic bow, which Bilbo returned with a flourish, ‘returned from his adventures, we saw not only an increase in incomprehensible poetry,’ this got a great laugh, ‘we also saw more travelers, more trade, and more trouble, in about that order.’ There was general agreement this was true, though some argued that it was naught but trouble. Frodo glanced at Bilbo, whose expression was grave, much as he had looked this morning in Bagg Delving.
‘We have just heard of two ways in which trouble arrives on the Road – strangers who wander about and get into mischief, and how contagions may come with travelers. While we need beware of troubles, let us also acknowledge the good that has come. How much richer is the Shire now than fifty years ago? Many times! Think of the exhibits in the mechanics barn. We have learned interesting things from our dwarf neighbors and have turned that into improvements that make our labors more productive and our lives more comfortable. What about the textile display yesterday? We have more kinds of cloth to buy and to sell than ever before. Our livestock improves, the call for our leaf, grain, and other food increases, our forges are always clanging, our lumberyards are emptied as soon as the boards are hewn, and our mills turn through the day.’
‘Indeed, all of this is due to the greater traffic upon all the main roads of the Shire,’ Otho said. ‘As for troubling things that may accompany the good, there is little in life that brings happiness or contentment unmixed with some irritation or burden, and what we consider troublesome the folk of other places say is no bother at all. The Shire is a lawful and well-ordered place compared to lands beyond our borders, and traders are eager to ply their wares here rather than deal with the mean and rude places to the east or the south, such as the Breelands, which are full of scoundrels and ruffians!’
Bilbo nodded emphatically at his cousin’s words. ‘I must agree that the troubles we face in the Shire are much less than those in more distant places, and it is no accident. Even in our plenty, we are moderate and generous. We do not pursue treasure for its own sake, as I saw too often in far-off places, nor do we raise up lords and rulers, nor war upon our neighbors.’
‘Some of our neighbors might not feel so kindly towards us,’ said a voice from the back off to Frodo’s right.
‘As we have heard from both the Master and the headman of Northfarthing,’ Wilcar agreed. ‘There are scoundrels and ruffians who would like to perform their mischief here, but we cannot worry over much of what the occasional bad apple will do. More Bounders will help, and I support doubling them. What I also think is that we need more than just the markets at Whitfurrows and Buckland. I say we need fairly large regular markets, not just fairs every so often, in all the major townships, comparable to the two I just mentioned.’
‘How is making bigger markets deeper in the Shire and attracting more outsiders going to keep these rascals out?’ protested Hank Hornblower. ‘Aren’t you just inviting them deeper into our lands?’ There was a quite a bit of chatter about this for several minutes, and most talk seemed to be in agreement with Hank, not Wilcar.
‘It’s not into the Shire, it’s along the roads,’ Pal argued, ‘and it’s keeping the travelers on the roads going to and from the markets, not allowing them to wander about looking for business. Their business is in one place – a market. Then they can leave.’
‘So? Just put a market at the point each road crosses into the Shire and keep ‘em on the borders!’ shouted Cal Lightfoot, the hobbit who had objected to the Brandybucks being allowed into the Moot. His proposal got a lot of cheers and applause, and Pasco motioned for it to be written on the blackboard.
‘But what of our trade with ourselves?’ asked Rum. ‘Griffo Boffin said that when he heard of the fever rash at Whitfurrows in winter, he needed to go to Frogmorton for roots. I just happened to have sent some there, so they were available, but the green market had none from nearby and no one knew to send more in.’ There was muttering around the room at this comment and many hateful looks at Odogar. ‘In Tuckborough, we have no idea what is available in Oatbarton or Michel Delving, even if they have much and we are in need of it. Some merchants know to trade with each other, but others would do well to bring things for a large number to see. Also, perhaps trade with strangers can be kept to the outer markets, and I think that wise, but then their goods must move in where they are available to more Shire-folk.’ Bilbo was smiling and nodding at this account, obviously pleased at Rum’s explanation.
‘A regular market can provide word of news from other places, too, and not just weeks old gossip in a tap room,’ said an older hobbit standing at the front of the Goolds.
Frodo tapped Bilbo’s hand and motioned at the man with a tilt of his head and a raised eyebrow. Bilbo leaned over and murmured ‘Menemac Goold, clan head, Sage’s brother, Gilda’s first cousin. Rum’s first cousin, too, mother’s side.’
Sage took up her brother’s argument. ‘A large regular market would be the place to post news about some kind of sickness to beware of.’
‘There would need to be several built and it would take time.’ Wilcar held up his hand and ticked off a count as he named them. ‘We already have a Whitfurrows market. Michel Delving, Waymeet, Bywater, Oatbarton, Frogmorton, Stock, Longbottom and Tuckborough should all get one. That’s to start.’
‘Expensive to put up.’ This was from Wilbur Greenhand, who was standing near the Bracegirdles. ‘It takes lumber and stone to build a solid market, and that takes coin.’
‘But it also earns coin,’ Uncle Wili quickly added. ‘Run it right and there will be coin to pay for its upkeep and its debt.’
‘Perhaps that is how to pay for the extra Bounders,’ Rum mused. ‘If the markets that attract travelers and traders each give a small bit, then they could easily cover the cost of more Bounders to keep these outsiders doing their proper business where it belongs. They need to be built to bring in coin first, of course.’ Pasco once again motioned for this proposal to be written on the blackboard. There was quite a bit of conversation about the good sense of having these new businesses pay to protect the Shire from the strangers they would attract.
‘They also need to be run by honest folk,’ added Griffo. ‘We should look upon these like the dams and granges, or even like the roads and bridges. They are for the good of us all.’
Menemac Goold waved his hand for attention. ‘This is all good, and I do not object in the slightest to better trade and safer roads, Wilcar, but aren’t you overlooking that most of these towns already have a market? We needn’t build new ones, unless there isn’t one in the first place.’
‘But they are not properly run,’ Otho said patiently. ‘They do well enough for the immediate town, but they take no notice of what is happening the next town over, and, except for greens, they often aren’t held more than once a month and not always on the same day even then.’
‘The green market in Whitfurrows is open every day, and the larger market each Friday, Saturday and Highday,’ said Wili. ‘On every day, Tad Strongback, who runs a dairy up in Budgeford, his boys cart down cheese and butter. They used to go round the houses and deliver to those who knew to send ‘em a note, but now everyone knows just to come by the stall in the market when they get their greens for the day.’
‘Remember what else these larger markets are for,’ added Rum. ‘They are to be a place for things we don’t already have at hand to be shown, much like the Merchants Row on the other side of the Fair, and for doing business that is not immediate buying and selling. Think of a southern trader coming to Southfarthing to buy leaf. He can go to the Longbottom market to find leaf farmers, compare their offerings, do some haggling, and strike some deals. He needn’t go tramping from farm to farm hoping to find someone who will do business with him, nor do the famers need to wonder whether the Big Person coming down the lane is an honest trader or a ruffian up to no good.’
Frodo was impressed by how smart and reasonable Rum’s arguments had been throughout the Moot. How did you let Pal get away with all his nonsense with Odogar? The longer he listened to Rum speak, the less he understood why anyone would not want him to be Thain. He was going to have a lot of questions for Bilbo after this was done.
‘Any innkeeper or tavern owner worth his salt will welcome these markets,’ Clyde Cotsman said, walking forward between the Baggins and the Proudfoots. ‘People away from their homes, be they hobbit or another of the Peoples, they’ll be hungry, thirsty and in need of a clean, warm bed. We’ll be buying more food for our kitchens, beer for our taps, and linens for our beds, just to start. We’ll need to increase the hands to serve our guests.’
‘What matters is that these markets are run properly.’ Otho waited until he had people’s attention. ‘These are not the usual green market or seasonal fair. They must be run with attention to the other markets. They need to not be in conflict or competition with each other. Whomever runs a market in a particular township will need to work with the others and their markets. As Griffo said, these are like the roads themselves, for the benefit of all.’ He gestured to Rory. ‘And I hope that the Master will be agreeable and see that the Buckland market be in accord with those of the Shire.’ Rory nodded his head to acknowledge the wisdom of the request.
‘I would go further than that,’ said Odogar, his gaze fixed on Bilbo. Bilbo’s look in return was stony. ‘I say that there should be one person who oversees all of the markets just as the Mayor oversees all of the post offices and Messengers.’
‘Why not the Mayor?’ replied Menemac. ‘If we’re already going to use markets that exist, why not use an office that already exists? He already oversees all the rest.’
‘And that is almost too much as it is!’ Pasco called out in a joking tone. ‘Please, no! Do not go inventing more tasks for me.’
‘With all due respect, Pasco, you would be the wrong hobbit for the job,’ Odogar said, but politely and with a small bow of his head. ‘You would not ask a farmer to oversee a lumber yard, nor a weaver to build a dam, would you? A hobbit to manage these special markets would need to be well-traveled, familiar with every corner of the Shire and at least some places beyond, undaunted in dealing with Big People or dwarves, and someone who understands the many faces of trade and commerce.’
A buzz went around the room and there was no disguising that the name spoken most often was Bilbo’s. Many were looking at him, and most expressions that Frodo could make out were pleased as they looked at his uncle. Bilbo himself looked tired and irritated, and his gaze never left Odogar.
‘Indeed, I will propose something completely outrageous now,’ Odogar continued, and his expression changed, turning into something like the wild, savage look that had come over him in the last minutes of the meeting at Granite Bank. It made Frodo both want to hide behind Bilbo and to place himself between his beloved uncle and this mad creature. Two dragons, facing off. Frodo had never heard a story of dragons fighting each other, but knew, had such a thing occurred, mountains would have been laid low, forests burned to the ground, lakes boiled dry, plains scorched into wasteland in the doing. ‘I propose that one of our ancient offices should be turned to this task. The Thain should oversee these markets.’
‘I would love to!’ said Rum with a bright smile. Pal sported a look Frodo was more used to seeing on Lobelia’s face, but he managed to nod. ‘It’s not like there have been any invasions lately…’
‘But that’s exactly what we’ve been talking about!’ Odogar snapped. ‘The Shire is attracting all too many… unnatural things and dangerous people, but you have done nothing about it.’
This claim made the Moot fall silent for a moment, and then all started speaking at once, some agreeing, some saying Odogar was not seeing it right, others saying that the Thain should do this, and yet others loudly protesting having Tooks in charge of the markets. It went on a few minutes until, for the second time that day, Rum let loose a piercing whistle. He gave Odogar a scornful look.
‘I believe you know very well what I have done to keep dangerous people from having their way with the Shire.’ There was no hint of humor or salaciousness is Rum’s words. Frodo glanced at Car and saw him staring at the floor, face scarlet. ‘Please, do go on. Why should the Thain do this?’
‘It is simple. The Thain’s charge is to defend the Shire. The Bounds, Bounders, the roads and the main markets, all these must be run together to do this.’ Murmurs began again, and many seemed swayed by this argument. It made sense to Frodo. Pasco motioned for this to be written on the blackboard.
‘Why not include the Shirriffs? Do they not also see to the defense of the Shire?’ Rum’s voice was quick, clear.
Odogar shook his head. ‘They see to affairs between hobbits, and belong rightly to the Mayor. The Thain sees to what is outside. Unwelcome.’
‘No.’ Otho had his arms crossed and was casting a cold look towards the Tooks. ‘This simply gives the Tooks a meddling hand in all other farthings’ business. An office to care for the markets and probably the roads makes sense, though each township should retain mastery of their own market. The Thain cannot be handed the markets if the Thain is merely the clan head of the Tooks. Ferumbras is right. There hasn’t been a reason for the Thain’s authority since 1147.’
‘So, it should not be the Tooks,’ Odogar quickly added.
‘So, the Thain should be in charge of the markets, but not if he’s the Thain.’ Rufus Burrows scratched his head. ‘I’m not seeing any sense here, Odogar.’
‘The Thain shouldn’t be a Took!’ Odogar fumed.
‘And who should be? You?’ Maud Grubb stood before the Grubbs, her one good eye fixed on Odogar. ‘If there’s anyone who needs to be parted from his office, it’s you, you lying weasel!’