2. Headman

POV - Bilbo

In which goods are ordered, dinners are cooked, messages are delivered, and kin are criticized.


Morning, Bag End, 17 Afterlithe, 1390

“It needs to be grand.”

Those were Frodo’s first words when they got back to the smial after Rum departed. And so they were sitting in the study planning for a large birthday party. ‘It’s your hundredth, after all, Uncle Bilbo, so it had best be memorable,’ Frodo insisted.

In truth, Bilbo had not given it much thought. Until a few years ago, he had spent his birthdays in Buckland, celebrating them with Frodo and their Buckland kin, and that was less for his birthday than the boy’s. He had not even done that the four years before last year and might not have gone last year had not a dwarf delivered the Raven pipe. He did not like his birthday that much; it just reminded him of how old he was and how few of his dearest kin and friends remained. Frodo’s enthusiasm for the party was amusing and distracted Bilbo from other, stupid things, so he was happy to put aside all his other work and help the boy get it planned.

First was the guest list, and they had decided that the day after Rum left. ‘We must have a hundred guests, one for every year,’ Frodo declared, and it turned out not to be at all difficult to reach that number. Everyone on the Hill had to be invited, of course, and that was twelve people right there, not even counting the babies like Marigold Gamgee. Then were all the good folk of Hobbiton, Overhill and Bywater who regularly provided some service to them, like Cob Cleaver, or were just old friends, like Clara Moss. Every Messenger who had to walk the long slope up the Hill to bring them their piles of letters was immediately added, and Bilbo and Frodo agreed that every Messenger in the Shire, whether or not he or she could attend the party, was going to be given an invitation and a gift. That alone was a list of fifty hobbits, but they only counted those most likely to attend the party among the hundred. Just their neighbors brought the list to over fifty, and then there were friends and distant relations, like Maud Grubb and Isenbrand Bunce, who needed to be included.

Next was immediate family, and that posed a few problems. Frodo looked at a family tree with a frown. ‘There’s no decent way to invite Gilly and not invite Posco, is there?’

Bilbo sighed and shook his head. ‘I wish there was, for I don’t mind her, but I have no wish to lay eyes on him again.’ On the fourteenth, the day Rum left, he had received a thick envelope addressed in Ponto’s hand. Inside had been a letter, unopened, from Pal to Posco. Bilbo had not bothered to open it; whatever stupidity was in it could wait. ‘But the boys and their wives we should invite, and any older child.’ Frodo wrote names down in his neat hand. ‘Then there is Prisca and we’ll just lump Wili and their sons under that, even if they are Bolgers.’

‘The SBs?’

‘Yes.’ Bilbo did not dare not invite Otho, and there was no way that Otho would fail to bring Lobelia and Lotho.

‘I promise not to hit him,’ Frodo said in an annoyed tone as he wrote “Lotho Sackville-Baggins” on the list. ‘Of course Falco and Nora and Fargo and… Is Poppy a Baggins or a Bolger?’

‘For this list, a Baggins. As is Odogrim.’

Frodo nodded emphatically and added all the Nobottle-connected kin. By the time they had finished, the guest list was closer to two hundred than one hundred, but a large number of those invited would not attend. Bilbo had pondered a long while before instructing Frodo to put Pal, Esmie and Sara on the list. He was curious when Frodo insisted on including Bluebell on the Burrows side. He hoped Rufus would attend but suspected only Milo and Peony would actually show up. On a whim, he invited Amaranth, more to be sure she knew he wanted her there than because he thought she would travel from Buckland. He doubted anyone from there besides Prisca and Wili would appear and thought it just as well.

Today, they had to decide on gifts for their guests, and this left them both stumped. Frodo looked at the guest list in dismay, making Bilbo chuckle. ‘Now do you see why small parties are preferable, Wilwarin?’

‘You could give them all a poem.’

Bilbo laughed heartily. ‘Yes, I should! And if I truly like them, then I shall simply hand them the scroll and not make them endure me reciting it before all!’ That made Frodo giggle, which warmed Bilbo’s heart. Yes. A proper birthday party for you, lad. The last year has been entirely too serious. Not even one year, in truth. While Bilbo was glad that Frodo had left the worst of the Buckland Rat behind him, it pained him to see how stern, even cold, his lad often was, still trying to get out from under the shadow cast from the east. You should be carefree and merry, a happy tween lad whose only thoughts are of beer with his friends and flirting with the lasses. Frodo’s cheer over the party was the greatest reason Bilbo wanted to hold it.

They had one bit of luck. At the Fair, Bilbo had given a bit of thought to what Frodo would need to establish himself well with other young folk in the Shire and had sent an order with Bóin back to the Blue Mountains for a selection of small items that Frodo could give to his friends. He remembered how embarrassed the lad had been when he had no gifts to give his new neighbors at their birthday last year and had asked for these toys and other things to be delivered in early Halimath, which the dwarf had assured him would be no problem at all. Sometime before their birthday, they should get a few boxes filled with the gifts. And I’ll just have to send back an order for more, Bilbo thought happily. There were whistles, tops, dolls and other simple toys for little children, and pocket knives, looking glasses and small mirrors for older boys and girls. There would also be a few sacks of the kinds of beads Frodo had used to make the hair clasps at Yule, along with wire and better tools to craft such gifts. Bilbo was glad he had thought to ask for a number of silver necklaces. Boys might be satisfied with a simple knife, but young ladies liked beautiful things.

‘So, poems for those we never wish to see again. What for those whose company we like?’ Bilbo mischievously prompted, getting rolled eyes and shake of a finger from Frodo, but also a big grin.

‘What about a pouch of quality pipeweed for all the men?’ he said.

‘I would say one of those for everyone who is at least a tween,’ Bilbo said after a moment’s thought, ‘and for each man, a pipe holder like what Mac carved for us or a small flask of brandy. For the women, a bottle of pretty ink, something other than black, and, hmm, small flower vases?’

Frodo shrugged. ‘Some would like that.’ He thought a minute, then nodded. ‘I know. Uncle Dudo got some thread from a southern trader in Forelithe. It is silk and in many brilliant colors. What about some sewing samplers like Dilly gave Merle?’

‘Oh, there’s a good idea!’ Bilbo quickly wrote it down. ‘And I suspect the older girls will want that, too.’ He thought a bit. ‘Well, if the ladies are to get some nice thread and needles, and perhaps a length of lace, then the men should get a pouch for fixing things.’

Frodo grinned and bounced a little in his seat. ‘That’s perfect, Uncle Bilbo! Let’s see, what would Mac want?’ After a few minutes and various suggestions, the boy scowled. ‘That’s more a tool bag than a sewing sampler,’ he said. ‘It’s all too big!’

‘I think it’s the right idea, Frodo,’ Bilbo reassured him, ‘it will just take a bit more thinking.’

‘I wish there was more time between our tramp and our birthday,’ Frodo admitted. ‘I could make more nice things. I’m going to try to make something special for my best friends, so it’s not just what everyone is getting.’

‘That’s very thoughtful, Wilwarin. What are you thinking of?’

‘Hair clasps for May, Ula, Amy and Pearl.’ He was quiet for a moment. ‘Probably one for Bluebell, too.’

‘Give that to her through Rufus,’ Bilbo warned, and Frodo nodded. ‘And for the lads?’

‘A peg board game. For Darron, Gin, Sam and Odogrim. They’re not hard to make. The pegs are the tedious part. I don’t think Merry’s quite old enough for one of those, yet.’

‘Not quite yet. Another few years.’ Bilbo wrote a few things down, added some numbers and nodded. ‘Yes, this should do. We’ll have a few more of everything than we strictly need, but those can just be given away another time. We’ll have time on our tramp to figure out a few special gifts for close kin.’ Well, those close kin I don’t wish to strangle. Mac and Dilly needed something special, as did Rum, Rufus and Odogrim.

When Frodo finished his list, they stopped for lunch. After that, Frodo went to work with Sam in the garden while Bilbo strolled down the Hill to see to party business. He had stops in Hobbiton and in Bywater.

The stops in Hobbiton were to the butcher, the baker, the cheese monger, and a small woodworking shop. A large party like the one they were planning would need to be provisioned properly, for many more than those on the guest list would be invited. Any who were in want would be told that they should pop by and have a good visit and a mug of ale, since no business would get done that day. That they should bring their children and eat as much as they wished went without saying. The extra toys would get owners to treasure them and there might be more by Yule if a dwarf tramped by at the right time. Bilbo liked the idea of the sewing samplers and tobacco pouches, tickled that Frodo had come up with the clever gifts. There would be a lot of those to go around.

That is what a good headman does, his father had told him long ago on one of their walks, he takes care of the stomachs and the dignity of the people who look up to him, the latter even more than the former. You have to be careful with generosity lest you shame those you would help. That was why his father had kept ledgers and why he did so as well. It allowed this help to be offered in quiet and unnoticed ways and kept less fortunate hobbits from being looked down upon or to feel themselves purchased. The families along Bagshot Row were his special charges, but Bilbo kept an eye on everything from Rushock Bog to the border with Eastfarthing (and, if truth be told, usually to the Oatbarton Road – as the Marish looked to the Master, so did that area look to the Hill), and from the border with Northfarthing down to the East-West Road.

Father had always said he wanted to be in a proper smial, up on a hill like they sat in Michel Delving, watching the Shire prosper at his feet. When Bungo Baggins had cast his eyes up the Hill from the ordinary Baggins house below the Water, thinking of a new home for his intended wife, it had been a sad sight. Not many wanted to live up so steep a climb, not when there was gentle land south and west and a pleasant village along the tumbling river. The bridge to the Mill and the Grange was solid, but the road beyond was in disrepair. The smials dug into the Hill were some of the oldest and meanest in the area. Most went to Overhill not by skirting the foot of the Hill, but by crossing above the Bywater Pool and taking a small cart track from there. Bag End itself had once been four tiny smials, dirty and low-ceilinged, with pitiful fields clinging to the steep slope before them.

The people who had lived in the old smials had been paid a handsome sum to move to fresh new cottages near the Bywater Road or in Overhill, as they preferred, and had been hired back to delve out Bag End. Mister Greenhand, Hamfast’s uncle, had been specially asked to plan the gardens. When Father was not sure how something would look, he would have it done up in one of the lower smials, “to give it a see” as he put it, and so they, too, became less mean and more comfortable. As Bag End took form, the Hill became a respectable place to live, though its distance from the village kept it a place apart. Mister Baggins liked to have the people who tended Bag End live nearby, and the small smials along Bagshot Row stayed workmen’s homes, no matter their pleasing woodwork and lovely new windows. When Bag End was finished and his healer wife moved in, the Hill became a happier place, for people were not so ill and children did not die so often.

All the folk of Bagshot Row called the Bagginses “Master” and considered themselves in service to the family, though in truth the Gamgees were the ones who did most of the work in the smial. The Rumbles looked after the old house over the Water and a prosperous farm south of the village, while the Twofoots did fine carpentry and any repairs called for at a Baggins holding, Father having paid for the sons to prentice to a master carpenter in Bywater. Every family had its contract, written up, witnessed, and signed in red ink, for the service they were to give and the pay and goods they were owed, redone every five years. Bilbo made sure to bargain hard before giving them everything they deserved and more, respecting their dignity. In turn, they gave him their absolute loyalty and complete discretion. Never would any of these folk say an unkind word of Bilbo, nor would they repeat anything about his business that he had not said they could. When Drogo and Prim had been here, when Rum and Ta came to call, they just waved at the happy young folk, pleased by what pleased Mister Bilbo.

They have more business at my birthday than most of my kin. They care for me more, and for Frodo. Until Frodo came here and he needed to take the lad about, Bilbo rarely felt a need to talk to his actual relatives in mid-Shire, even Odo and Sage. That’s why I didn’t recognize Ula in Buckland – I’d not seen her since she was a child. The people he loved most were in Buckland, and the people next closest to his heart were the good folk of the Hill. Ending his affair with Rum meant no more going to the Tooklands, his increasing attention to his ledgers and interests meant he was not about Hobbiton or Bywater that much, and when he lost Drogo and Prim, all he wanted was a dark hole, like the one where Gollum lived.

He might never have left Bag End after that were it not for the gentle care of these families. Bell Gamgee, Clary Twofoot, and Agatha Rumble traded off cooking for him. Hamfast saw to the garden and the others came and went, talking to him, tending things, and drawing him out of his grief. They were sad, too, for they remembered Drogo and Prim as the good people they were.

Bilbo liked sharing his good fortune with these kind, loyal friends, but they had their pride and it was not easy to give them all that he would wish. They had no patience for people trying to snag an undeserved piece of Mister Bilbo’s treasure, and would never stoop to such things themselves, so he had to be clever. He always bought too much food, especially from the butcher, and then would have to ask Bell or Clary or Agatha to cook something good with it lest it spoil and go to waste. No one who had survived the Winter could abide waste of any kind, and the goodwives would swiftly turn out a marvelous dish that was shared with all. All the scraps from the kitchen went to feed the Twofoots’ pig in exchange for a part of the beast in autumn slaughter, which Bilbo would immediately trade back to the Gamgees and the Rumbles for other things, such as mending or laundry or running errands. Now that young Samwise was doing daily work in the garden, he had argued Hamfast into taking more in-kind goods, like pipeweed, ale and flour, that a “growing lad” would need. When the contract next came up, he would be giving them more coin for Sam as well. When May started helping about the smial this year, Bilbo insisted on rewarding her with cloth from Dudo’s store, enough for a new ordinary dress and fancier cloth for a Highday and festival dress.

The baker, Bess Baxter, frowned and started counting loaves in her head when Bilbo told her about the birthday plans. ‘Mister Bilbo, it’s going to be hard to have good fresh bread for that many, let alone dainties,’ she said, giving her ovens a glare, ‘but we’ll figure it out.’

‘I have every faith that you will, Bess,’ Bilbo assured her, ‘and I leave it to you to tell me what you’ll need. If you must order about some Bywater bakers, then so be it!’ He knew better than to try to work with different shops at once. He told her to write up an estimate of the extra flour, salt, milk, eggs and other ingredients she would need, plus extra hands to prepare it all, and he would give her coin for the orders.

The butcher, Carl Cleaver, was very happy to hear about the party. He saw it as a grand challenge. ‘Well, now, sir, me and me boys, and the girls, too, they’re right proud to be asked to cook up for a crowd,’ his four sons, standing behind him in their white aprons, all nodded emphatically, ‘and there’s ne’er as fine a crowd as one for a birthday,’ more nods, ‘and no birthday so grand as your own!’ The vigorous nodding made Bilbo a bit dizzy. ‘We’ll scout the field to see where our kitchen will go, and I’ll get some steers and pigs going on extra feed to get ‘em nice and fat for the occasion! We’ll need a flock of chickens and a gaggle of geese, too.’ After confirming that the expected crowd for the party would be nearly three hundred people, Mister Cleaver said he would have the missus put together a list of what they planned to cook and what it would cost. Bilbo left him with five silver pennies so he could start feeding up the animals, getting more nodding heads.

Mavis Cutbank, the cheesemonger, did not turn a hair at the amount of cheese Bilbo wanted, and quickly had a short list of how many wheels of what kinds would be best. Things like greens and fruit were best left until just before the party to see what was growing well and ready to pick, and Bilbo knew with absolute certainty that no goodwife in the area would show up for the party without her signature dish and something sweet. There would be sweet pies and savory ones, tarts, cakes, preserves, bread puddings, platters of mushrooms (though he intended to have even more because running out of mushrooms was only slightly less terrible than running out of ale), stewed greens, salt fish, squashes stuffed with everything you could imagine, pickles of every shape, size and flavor, eggs prepared a dozen ways, dressed potatoes, and more; everything he had sampled at the festival would, ingredients allowing, be brought to their birthday. A few coins to pay for setting the cheese aside exchanged hands and Bilbo was off to the woodshop.

At the woodshop, Tim Bentbranch, the owner greeted him with a small nod and then turned his back on the old hobbit, intent on his task. Bilbo took a seat and waited, admiring the small jewelry box that took shape under the master craftsman’s hands. In less than half an hour, it was done, and Bilbo had Bentbranch’s full attention.

‘I hope you will be able to help me,’ Bilbo said in his most charming manner. ‘A few days ago, my nephew, Frodo, reminded me that I have a rather important birthday coming up and said I should have a very large celebration in honor of the occasion.’

‘How old ye be, Mister Baggins?’

‘One hundred.’

Bentbranch studied him closely. ‘Don’t look it.’

Bilbo tried not to get irritated. He liked being happy, especially as this pleased Frodo. ‘Yet, it is so.’

‘And how do you need my help to get older?’

‘That, I can manage on my own. What I need are some presents, for the lad has told me he shall invite a hundred or more people. What I would like to give,’ Bilbo fished in his pocket and pulled out the cunning pipe stand Mac had carved, ‘are pipe stands like this.’

The carver took the stand and examined it, nodding. ‘Simple enough. My lads can turn out a good number of these and pretty quick. When’s your birthday?’

‘Halimath. Twenty-two Halimath.’

‘How many?’

‘Enough for about a hundred and fifty presents. Best to make two hundred.’

Bentbranch nodded. ‘That can be done.’ The wood worker examined the stand closely again before handing it back. ‘I can put a brand on it in honor of your hundredth.’

‘That would be lovely. May I send you a design?’

‘Yes. Any other presents you need made?’

‘I’m still deciding on a few special things.’

Bentbranch stood and held out his hand. ‘I need to get back to my work, Mister Baggins.’

‘Thank you, Mister Bentbranch. What should I send you to start?’

‘A silver penny.’ Bilbo handed one over. ‘Another each week until we’re done.’

‘You will get it.’ With a smile and a nod, Bilbo left. He took his time strolling down to Bywater, letting himself be pleased by the lovely summer day. While most of the food would come from Hobbiton, most gifts and other things would need to be purchased in the shops of Bywater.

Bilbo always loved the smell of the leather goods shop. Delman Tanner’s family had run it for generations and whatever you could want, they could make, from a small pouch to a belt to a pony’s bridle. Saddles they left to the saddler next door, Ivy Codder, for those took more crafting, and they did not build furniture, though they would cover chair frames from the furniture workshop across the lane. Mistress Tanner understood at once what Bilbo thought to do for tobacco pouches.

‘Not to worry, Mister Baggins,’ she pleasantly assured him ‘we’ll have some fine pouches for you.’ With a few deft marks on a scrap of paper, she sketched a design for it that was the number one with his initials back to back and crosswise, looking like divided zeros so it all made “100”. She did not seem at all daunted by the idea of making a few hundred of them.

The stationer, Widow Dell, greeted him lovingly and nothing would do but that they sit and have a cup of tea before discussing any business. Edna Dell was a delicate woman who had inherited her small, neat shop from her father and had never given it up, not even when she married. Bilbo got all his considerable stationery supplies from her, and she would sometimes send up a roll of unusual paper she came across just because she knew it would delight him. She spoke about her newest granddaughter as they sipped mint tea and nibbled on the biscuits she had made that morning. When he spoke of needing invitations and place cards and paper streamers, she chuckled and said he was to leave it all to her.

‘I will even have some special invitations just for the young master to send to his own friends, for it is his birthday as well!’ she assured Bilbo. Edna had taken to the boy at once and always enjoyed talking to Frodo and filling his pockets with sweets when they stopped by. Bilbo thought she also liked the idea of Frodo becoming sweet on her eldest granddaughter but saw no harm in it. When he mentioned his idea of the ink as presents, Edna nodded and fetched a box filled with little crystal vials. ‘All my nicest colors, and tied with a pretty ribbon, yes?’

‘Perfect!’ he declared. ‘And I shall have some special fountain pens for you soon, crafted by dwarves.’ This pleased the old widow. When he had asked for the toys and trinkets, Bilbo had also ordered fountain pens, some very fine, most merely solid and serviceable. The plain ones were to be sold in a stationer’s shop in Michel Delving that he had an interest in. The fine ones would be for Edna to sell – or keep, as pleased her. With a kiss and a hug, Bilbo was off to his next stop.

Old Joiner had the most interesting shop in Bywater. There were tools and wood and metal and unusual devices and several fires going at any time. It was not really a lumberyard, nor a woodworking shop, nor a forge, and calling it a store did not do justice to the clever things Old Joiner could pull from a drawer, bin, shelf, barrel, bucket, hook or his own pockets. There were often dwarves about, and when Big People showed up this far inside the Shire, it was usually to get something from here. Old Joiner had always been old and no one knew any other name for him. He never went anywhere except his shop and no one was actually certain where he lived or who he was of kin to. But he was a polite and thoughtful fellow, always with time to have a pipe and talk about nothing for as long as you needed.

When Bilbo explained Frodo’s ideas for what should go into the gift for the men, the fellow nodded sagely and began a slow wander through the fascinating chaos of his shop. He stopped at one bin and pulled out a handful of something which went into a kerchief, then another item from a shelf joined whatever the first thing was, followed by a few things that clicked together, and so on until he ended at an upturned barrel. There, he pulled a small, neat piece of canvas from a back pocket and laid it across the barrel head.

‘Start with a stout square, two hands each side,’ his hands moved smoothly as he spoke, ‘and add a few oak pegs and a hickory wedge,’ these were folded into the canvas, ‘add a short awl, and capped cup of glue,’ the packet was given another turn, ‘put small tacks and nails, a few iron, a few brass, and two for a horseshoe, into a soft kerchief,’ packet was folded over, ‘and end with a braid of cords and leather. Tuck in the ends, and…’ Old Joiner held out his hand and there was a tight little bundle that just covered his palm, ‘…it’s ready for your pocket.’ He turned it over in his hand, studying it. ‘It’s a good thing to have on you.’ He handed it over to Bilbo. ‘Give this to the young master. ‘T’would be a waste for it not to have its own pocket.’

The shop owner turned and strolled to where a young fellow was tapping things out before a fire. ‘Bert, Mister Baggins will need a lot of your little nails.’ The hobbit grinned and nodded but did not leave off his work. They continued their perambulation, sometimes stopping to speak to one of the many workmen, sometimes pausing while Old Joiner pondered something. After a time, they ended up at the door and Bilbo found himself sitting on a barrel out in front, smoking a pipe that was simply there in his hands, as Old Joiner sat next to him and did the same. Down the lane, Bilbo glimpsed the sparkle of Bywater Pool, and a deep contentment replaced the bubbling happiness of earlier in the day. When they finished, Bilbo laid the pipe on the barrel seat and bade Old Joiner good day.

‘The bundles will be ready the Highday before your birthday, Mister Baggins.’ With a gracious nod, he returned to his shop.

Bilbo’s next call was to the wine merchant, and quickly had his order in for several barrels of the deep amber wine from an old vineyard out past Oatbarton. It was meant to be served slightly green and would be vinegar by Blotmath. If you took a glass from the barrel and drank it right off, it would make your face pucker, but decant it for an hour and it tartness mellowed and became the flavor of autumn. His parents loved it, and when he drank it, he could hear their laughter. Other wines, red and yellow, were also selected.

For a long minute, Bilbo debated going to Dudo’s shop to see the thread Frodo had described, but decided it was time for him to return home and cook a big supper for his lad. Frodo had grumbled about Dudo wanting the boy to forego the Southfarthing tramp and try to befriend Lotho instead. Bilbo suspected Dudo would have some sharp words for him over the planned jaunt and thought it best not to provide an occasion in which that could occur. He is mine and you can’t do anything about it! Besides, it would be best for Frodo to present the idea for the sewing packets to his uncle. The lad knew how to talk to Dudo in a way Bilbo could not quite manage. He’ll be up to Bag End for supper day after tomorrow. That’s soon enough.

Bilbo walked swiftly back to Bag End, for the afternoon was far gone and he needed to start supper. Frodo and Sam were sitting on the front porch thinking up silly rhymes to amuse each other and each gave him a hug, though little Sam trotted off afterwards to his own smial.

‘I’m so sorry I’m late, lad!’ Bilbo apologized as he trotted himself into the kitchen. ‘’I’ll have the chicken roasting in a trice.’

‘What about some new carrots to go with it? I’ll go pick some.’

‘Oh, yes, that will be just the thing.’ Frodo gave him a kiss on the cheek before heading to the garden. ‘And pick some greens while you’re there!’ Bilbo called out after him. He went to poke the fire to life and saw it had already been done and that it was nearly up to roasting temperature. It seems you are learning how to cook, Wilwarin. For some reason, this thought left Bilbo somewhat out of sorts. I should have minded my time better. By the time Frodo came back with the vegetables, Bilbo had stuffed the bird with a split onion, a split lemon, and a sprig of rosemary. He mashed some salt, pepper, garlic and butter together with his fingers in a little bowl, spread the paste on the chicken, and popped it into the oven to roast.

Frodo was already at work scrubbing up the carrots and washing off the greens. ‘I’ll take care of that, lad!’ he scolded gently.

‘I’m almost done, Uncle Bilbo, and my hands are already wet,’ Frodo said quite firmly. ‘Would you cut up some bread and cheese?’

Again, Bilbo felt a bit odd at this, but did as the lad asked. The carrots were chopped up and tossed into the roasting pan along with a couple more halved onions and left to bake with the bird. Bilbo did not allow Frodo to do anything but eat the bread, cheese and butter, while he fetched some cooked potatoes and set to slicing them and mixing up a tart dressing. ‘The fire was already going when I came in,’ he said, hoping he did not sound peevish. ‘Was Bell Gamgee here?’

‘No. I did that.’ Frodo smiled.

‘I should have been home sooner and not left you to starve,’ Bilbo scolded himself.

‘It’s all right, Uncle, really,’ Frodo assured him, ‘I know how to get a chicken in the oven. You had important things to do for the party. Is everything in order?’

Bilbo wiped off his hands and pulled out the little packet Old Joiner had prepared. ‘Splendidly, Wilwarin! We shall have the grandest birthday ever! Here, this is what the men will get,’ handing over the bundle, ‘and wait until I tell you what Widow Dell is going to do for you!’

They spent the next hour waiting for supper to cook and talking about all of Bilbo’s arrangements. His earlier discontent faded away in the face of Frodo’s obvious excitement over throwing a big party. It’s good to not be such a grumbling old fool. By the time the meal was on the table, he was almost as giddy as his lad. Bilbo wanted to eat, finding the chicken savory and the carrots as good as you could ever want. The potatoes, slathered with sour cream and bits of pickle, were perfect especially when wrapped in a crisp leaf of lettuce, tasting rich and crunchy at the same time. Happiness had brought back his absent appetite.

‘You missed the messenger,’ Frodo said. ‘I put your letters on your desk.’

‘Did you get any?’

‘One from Cousin Griffo saying he had a room ready for us when we came to call, one from Ula with some Hall news and Dilly, too, and Merry, and…’ Frodo rattled off quite a list of letters from various kin and friends. Bilbo had noticed that the lad did not share many of his letters anymore, not even to read from them, and he wondered what was said. Ula sent letters every few days, as did Gilda, and two more had arrived from Gin. That friendship pleased Bilbo greatly. There had been a letter from Tom Tunnelly not long after they had returned from the Fair that Frodo had read quickly with a scowl, and Bilbo later saw the lad tossing it into the oven coals. There had been the odd letter from Bluebell, sent through Rufus, that thanked Frodo for the dances at the Fair and hoped that he and his uncle would visit Fair Delving again soon. Frodo scowled at that letter, too, but he did not burn it.

Letters might make him less than happy, so Bilbo did not venture into the study after supper, merely sending Frodo to fetch their pipes and the pipeweed pouch from Andy after they finished washing up the supper dishes. They settled into the bench in the garden and watched the stars come out. Crickets provided a steady serenade while fireflies darted about like stars that had tired of the crystal cold heavens and come down to share a pipe on a warm summer evening. If you listened carefully, you could hear the chatter of the Water as it splashed out of the mill pond, part heading into the mill race against the now-still water wheel and down the small spill way, the rest simply tumbling over the steps of the weir, continuing its eager course to Bywater Pool and the dam. The soft leaves of spring had given way to the stiff foliage of summer and the trees rustled loudly, adding their converse to the sparkling conversation by the mill wheel. Everywhere was the faint scent of dust. The Moon cast his radiance upon them, adorning the Water with diamonds. Beyond, windows of houses and cottages peeked through the trees, bright eyes upon the night, preserving the Sun’s golden glow even after she had gone to bed.

After the pipe, Frodo was yawning, so Bilbo gave him a kiss and bade him good night, taking the lad’s pipe so he could copy the Sun’s example and hop right into bed. He smoked another pipe himself, wanting the evening not to end, savoring the warm darkness and the feeling of calm it provided. When there was no more avoiding it, he knocked out his ashes and went inside, snuffing lamps and making sure the windows stood open to allow the night breezes to cool and freshen the smial. First the parlor, then the dining room, then the kitchen, then the study.

Bilbo put the pipes in their stands and told himself that he should do as Frodo did and go to sleep, but the stack of letters beckoned. He did not need to see the words to recognize Rum’s handwriting on the topmost envelope and guessed Frodo had placed it there for him to see. Part of him wanted to do as Frodo had done with Tom’s letter, as he had done for months after he lost Drogo and Prim, and toss the stack into a fire, unread. The letters Rum had given him, he should burn them, too, so no one would ever see what they held, particularly not Frodo.

They were not on the desk or anywhere in the study. He did not dare risk the lad coming across them while looking for something else. They were in the hidden compartment in the floor of his room with the gold crowns and the other bits of treasure Bilbo kept about. Once, after Bilbo had returned from his adventures, someone had taken advantage of one of Bilbo’s long tramps and had burgled Bag End trying to find the riches. Cabinets were opened and rummaged, drawers dumped over and checked for false bottoms, closets rifled, bags of meal and beans cut open, the bed ticks had been slashed and shaken out, and holes punched into the walls throughout. The ferocity of the hunt for his treasure had left him shaken, and some small and not particularly valuable family keepsakes had been taken, which broke his heart. Bilbo had known better than to keep the casks of coins and bags of troll spoils in his own smial and had quietly enlisted the families along Bagshot row to each take a part of the treasure and secure it in their own holes. He would not have cared if they took some for themselves, but nary a coin or gem ever went missing. The look on their faces as they surveyed the violence done to Bag End was a mix of disgust and shame. Every despoiled item, down to the last handkerchief, was accounted for and repaired or replaced. They would not accept a single coin from Bilbo to correct the damage.

‘You put this in our care, Mister Bilbo,’ old Greenhand had said, a then-young Hamfast Gamgee at his side, ‘and we failed you, master. Won’t happen again.’ The folk of the Hill kept watch over Bag End like the crebain had stood sentry on Erebor and never again did anyone approach the smial unnoticed.

Balin and Gandalf had listened, grim, when Bilbo told them of what had happened, and the next day Balin had crafted the secret compartment. Gandalf set a small spell upon it so it could be found and opened only by saying the right words. Bilbo had not taught those words to Frodo, and so the letters were safe. Much as he wanted to give them to the fire, he had to keep them until he had dug to the bottom of what so confused him.

It was right there in the letter that Rory had written to Pal. “He may be named Baggins, but he’s not. He’s a Wintermark bastard.” Bilbo snorted at the words. And you complained to me of people slandering your sister’s name a bare week after you’d written it down in a letter for anyone to read. What he simply could not understand was why Rory had said any of it at any time. Even if he had believed that Prim had lain with some unknown man that Wintermark, why would he add the weight of his own word to it and slander his sister and her husband? Bilbo could believe that Asphodel would spread foul lies because she had so disliked Drogo, though why she felt that way was another mystery, but there was no reason for Rory to have done anything except keep his silence about his nephew’s sire, especially as Prim’s reputation was at stake.

It was not like these kinds of arrangements did not happen now and again, with close kin politely avoiding questioning the arrival of an unexpected, but greatly desired, child. If the Winter had struck down too many women and girls, it also had gelded men and boys, no matter that their balls were still in place. His mother had explained that the high fevers and the tainted waters of that terrible season had left any number of hobbits barren, man and maid alike. It was understood that any woman who could have a child needed to have one even if her man could not give her one, and Wintermark became respectable again for a while. The further they got from the Winter, the less common such children became, but Bilbo knew that any number of uncles and cousins were much closer to a kinsman’s children than that, especially if there was a man without an heir and a wife longing for a babe. Better that than simply to be cuckolded.

Bilbo picked up Rum’s letter and looked at the envelope a while before setting it down. He wanted to be rested before opening that. It might be no more than a quick note to say when he was leaving for Buckland. It might be something spiteful and salacious. It might mention Frodo and, while he wanted Rum back in his life, he was not certain he wanted Rum near Frodo. There were just so many things that could go wrong, none of them things he had the wit to think about right now.

He sorted through the rest of the letters. They were either things he wanted to read, like the letter from Rum, but deserved his full attention, things that had news that was not pressing, like Dora’s letter and notes from his interests, and would wait until the morrow, or else were things he had no interest in reading, such as the wretched forwarded letter of Pal’s. That would be full of farthing trouble and he wanted no more to do with that, not until he was certain Frodo was protected.

He had wept in relief when he realized that Rum had given him Rory’s original letter, and had laughed in delight the next night when Rum told him the story of how he had not just thieved the letter but made Pal a fool. Now it’s just your word against mine and Rory’s as to what was in that letter. And your word won’t be worth much after Frodo’s showing at the Fair. Addy and Blossom would never hear a bad word about the lad, not with what he did for Gin, and Wilcar Chubb was similarly impressed. Rufus would be a determined defender as well, and not just to win their silence about Bargo. Asphodel may hate him, but I think you rather like the idea of Frodo as your son-in-law. He doubted Odogar could say anything hateful that would be believed, even were the man willing to risk Bilbo’s wrath and threat of ruin, and the rest of the family each had their own reasons to be circumspect where Frodo was concerned. Griffo was staunchly behind them and would bring the rest of his Boffin kin with him. That just left the Baggins clan itself, which was in hand, and the Tooks.

And that led to the second set of letters Rum had handed over, the more troubling set, from Esmie. There were seven. Rum admitted that Pal had others from her, but these were the ones folded up in Rory’s original letter and were probably those that directly mentioned Frodo, given that bundle. Two were from before Halimath, four were sent when he had been there, and the last was sent after Yule. There was no hint in them of her plans for getting her hands on his fortune, which made Bilbo suspect that Pal knew nothing of that. Afraid your brother would demand a cut of your wicked gains, Attercop?

What worried him in her letters were the claims that more had happened in Buckland than anyone was telling him, things that Frodo’s own behavior hinted at. Who was going to his room? “I figured I would have some man in my bed or beating me up no matter where I went. If it was Sara, he’d do both.” Undoubtedly Sara, but perhaps… others? Bilbo drew a shaky breath and set all the letters down. Esmie had been very clear that there were a number of men where Frodo was concerned. He wanted answers, but he had to be patient. When they had sat down two days ago to plan the guest list for the birthday party, Bilbo had meant to ask, but the sight of Frodo’s happiness kept him silent. He will tell you when it is time, Baggins. You know to trust him. It was another reason Bilbo had thrown himself into the party planning so wholeheartedly. Your lad has had enough grief and grimness. He deserves joy. Whatever wicked things had happened in Buckland would wait until after their birthday.

Not that Bilbo intended to wait to start asking his questions. The great mystery in Rory’s letter was the determined denial of Frodo’s paternity. The argument in the barn a few weeks past had answered a few things, and then there were Dilly’s words at the Fair, that Gilda had also denied a Baggins claim on Frodo. If he was naught but a Brandybuck, then he was theirs. Seen this way, Rory’s words made some sense, though only to immediate family and with a stern warning to keep it all quiet. That’s how such things were done. But you could see he was Baggins! As soon as he was more than a little baby, you could see his father in him. Others see it, though they think it’s from me. You’ve seen me and Frodo together for years. You had to know. The callous words of the original letter to Pal, the ferocity of Rory’s rejection of Frodo at Yule, Sara’s claim that Rory had known of how Frodo was being used and allowed it, these plucked at something in Bilbo’s thoughts, not yet strong enough to piece together into a story that made sense.

With another shake of his head, Bilbo turned away from the desk, set the window ajar, snuffed the study lamp, and went to bed.

Early Evening, Bag End, 19 Afterlithe, 1390

‘Uncle Dudo!’ Frodo jumped up from his seat on the porch steps and ran down the Hill lane towards his uncle, who was walking past the end of Bagshot Row. Bilbo stood and followed at a more dignified pace. By the time he caught up with them, Ham Gamgee and little Sam were also with them, chatting and walking up the Hill.

‘Dudo, it’s good to see you,’ Bilbo said with all the warmth he could summon, giving his cousin an embrace.

‘I’m glad to be here, though it is quite a hike up to the top,’ Dudo replied with a smile.

‘Just a little ways more, uncle,’ Frodo assured him, taking his hand. Sam immediately grabbed Dudo’s other hand, making him laugh. ‘There’s a bench in the garden for you to sit on.’

‘Let us not dawdle, then, my fine young fellows, for I am in need of a seat!’ Dudo teased. They walked ahead, Frodo asking his uncle what he had seen on the walk from Bywater while Sam skipped. Bilbo’s heart did a few skips of its own at the others’ joy.

‘That rascal, Sam,’ Ham said with a chuckle and a shake of the head, ‘always wantin’ t’be part of whatever the young master’s doin’, if it’s diggin’ up worms or singin’ nonsense songs. You tell him to git home when you’re tired of him.’ They spoke for a minute or two about some party business, then said farewell, and Bilbo strode after the others. Dudo was not sitting on the garden bench when he got to the top, and Bilbo could hear the boys’ voices back near the kitchen garden. With a chuckle, he headed inside, put a few mugs of ale and one of sweet cider on a tray, and went out the back door.

‘Here you go, a nice cool drink to wash away the dust of the walk,’ he said, holding out the tray.

‘Thank you, Bilbo. This is what I need more than a seat,’ Dudo answered gratefully, taking one of the mugs. Frodo quickly gave the cider to Sam before taking his own ale. They spent the next quarter hour or so walking around the gardens, admiring the vegetables and the flowers, and ended up at the front bench where Dudo sat to rest and admire the view. Bilbo sent Sam home for supper and Frodo back to the kitchen for more ale.

‘Any word from Tulip?’ Bilbo asked.

‘Yes, I get regular letters from her, two each day, usually. That’s why I’m a little late. I waited until the evening post for her letter. All is well. Flora is very impatient that she doesn’t have a little sibling yet,’ Dudo chuckled, ‘and I fear Tulip is a bit impatient with Dora, but Daisy is glad for her mother to be there. They can feel the babe shifting about and think it will be any day. By Highday, certainly.’ Frodo had returned with the refilled mugs and they were soon sipping. ‘I plan to go on the twenty-fifth unless the baby is sooner.’

‘May we go with you?’ Bilbo asked.

Dudo looked surprised at the request, but nodded. ‘Of course. I plan to be on my way by eight. You two should come down the night before and stay with me.’

‘That’s a splendid idea! We will do that.’

‘And we’re having supper with you tomorrow, remember,’ Frodo chimed in, getting a grin and a finger wag from Dudo.

‘Don’t think you can fool me, nephew,’ he teased, ‘you’re coming down to Bywater for the dancing, not the supper!’ Dudo and Bilbo both laughed at Frodo’s red face and shrugged shoulders. Dudo’s grin stayed. ‘And a certain Miss Orla Bunce was in my shop today with her mother, and they both asked if you were going to be in the square tomorrow night.’ Frodo turned slightly less red than a beet and mumbled something about seeing to supper before darting into the smial. Dudo guffawed and stood to follow. ‘He is such a popular fellow at the dances,’ he said happily as Bilbo gestured for him to go in. Dudo paused in the entry hall after brushing off his feet and his cheer faded a little. ‘And he should be where he is popular with the young ladies all the time and not just every other Highday.’ Dudo did not wait for an answer and went into the smial, calling Frodo’s name.

Bilbo made himself stand still, rolling Rory’s dragon head between his fingers in his pocket, willing his sudden surge of fury to leave him and go into this talisman. It was how he tried to control his anger, the kind that Frodo said was of the Parting. What made Frodo afraid of him. When he felt he could present a calm face, Bilbo went to the kitchen.

Frodo was too distracted trying to talk to Dudo to properly attend to getting food ready for serving, so Bilbo shooed him off to set the dining table, Dudo volunteering to help just as Bilbo had hoped he would. The old hobbit pulled a succulent pork shoulder roast from the warm oven where it had been sitting and quickly had it broken into large chunks on a pewter platter. A bowl of boiled potatoes also came out of the oven and was set beside the pork. Next were radishes, butter and salt and an assortment of pickles on a plate, a mound of greens stewed with a ham hock in vinegar and broth, a wooden bowl holding parsley and lettuce, and a dish of thinly sliced cucumbers mixed well with sour cream and dill. Frodo and Dudo were back and swiftly carried the food to the table. A wicker basket of bread, a small crock of butter, and a large pitcher of ale rounded out the meal.

Dudo’s words earlier had robbed him of his appetite, but Bilbo filled his plate and made himself eat so that Frodo would not think something amiss. The lad was demolishing his meal and Dudo ate heartily as well. It was several minutes before anyone had time for talk.

‘I am thankful for this wonderful meal, Bilbo,’ Dudo said after a big swig of ale. ‘I fear I shall not have anything half so good to put before you two on Highday. I’m timing my departure for The Yale to coincide with the end of what Tulip prepared for me!’

‘In the summer, some ale and bread, cheese and ham, is more than enough,’ Bilbo replied, trying to keep his tone light.

‘Uncle Dudo,’ Frodo said around a large mouthful of meat, ‘do you still have any of the southern silk thread?’

Dudo’s eyebrows went up. ‘Yes, quite a bit. You remember it?’ Bilbo smiled, knowing what Frodo would discuss, and sipped his ale.

‘Our birthday is special this year with Uncle Bilbo turning one hundred,’ Frodo gave Bilbo a big smile, ‘so we need to have nice presents for all the guests. I was trying to think what ladies would like and I remembered a gift Dilly gave to my cousin Merle in Yule. It was a sampler with some threads, needles, a few buttons, and some edging lace.’

Dudo was already nodding enthusiastically. ‘Yes! Daisy always gives away something like that on her birthday. The ladies love them. You want the silk for these?’

‘If there’s enough and perhaps some lace, too.’

‘How many?’

‘There will be a lot of guests and then presents for some who are too far away to attend, probably a hundred and fifty. More if there’s enough thread.’

How many?’ Dudo looked dumbfounded at the number.

‘One person for every year of Uncle Bilbo’s years, and then there will be others who are my friends…’

‘…and then there will be a number who were overlooked or who just wander in,’ Bilbo added genially. ‘I want to be sure no one goes home empty handed.’

Dudo frowned. ‘Tulip had been planning to put on a birthday party for you, Frodo, since we missed it last year,’ he shot a stern look at Bilbo, ‘though not so large as what you’ve just said.’

‘But we must have a grand party for Uncle Bilbo,’ Frodo objected, ‘and this way all my friends and cousins will be sure to come. Their parents will come to see Bilbo and bring them.’

‘Well, yes, I can see that.’ Dudo took a few bites, then shrugged. ‘Very well, but you need to not do any more planning without talking to your aunt, first, if for no other reason than she’s very good at organizing a party. She’ll be back by early Halimath.’

Frodo had taken a very large bite of potato, so merely nodded. You’re getting clever at avoiding answers, Wilwarin. Bilbo decided to help. ‘That is an excellent suggestion. Frodo, be sure to have everything you’ve done so far written up so your aunt may go over it.’ A bite of stewed greens had followed on the heels of the potatoes, so Frodo was reduced to nodding. ‘Dudo, I’m curious about this silk thread. Where is it from?’

‘Not sure, exactly, but very far south. Big People in a hot land, according to the trader. The colors in them are amazing, so rich and bright.’

‘Where did you meet this trader?’ Someone who knew things in the south, that would be an interesting fellow to know. Bilbo felt for his ring through the cloth of his trousers. If we had maps, or better yet a guide, we wouldn’t go blindly.

‘I didn’t, Otho did. In Longbottom. They wanted leaf and cured meat and had a few different things to trade. Otho saw the bundle of thread and thought I’d want it, so he traded for it and then I bought it from him.’ I would have given it to you. Dudo sipped his ale, brow wrinkled in thought. ‘I have to say that the discussion of markets at the Moot made a good deal of sense to me, but only if we also have some Bounders to keep an eye on them.’

Frodo and Bilbo exchanged a look of amazement at the turn of conversation, then both looked back at Dudo with rapt attention. He looked amused for a moment, before becoming thoughtful again. ‘I’m a merchant, Bilbo, and very much want good trade and curious goods, but I worry at what I see on the Road. There are more strangers walking along it than ever before. I won’t let Daisy or Tulip travel down the Road by themselves as I might have even five years ago. I make sure either me or Griffo drives them. He’s seen more than a few Big People on the Stock Road these days, where they never used to go.’

‘Well, there are going to be more Bounders and soon, with what the Thain has planned,’ Bilbo said. The mention of Rum brought a tightness to Dudo’s face. ‘I think it best to have them in place before any more markets are built or expanded, and more strangers come calling.’

‘But the markets will pay for the Bounders eventually, yes?’

‘Yes, they will. It makes sense.’

‘Otho wants to set up the Bywater market in the next…’


‘No? But I thought that was one of the markets to be built?’ Dudo sounded puzzled.

‘It will not be set up in the next year, which I believe is what you were going to say,’ Bilbo raised an eyebrow and Dudo nodded, ‘and Otho will have nothing to do with it.’

‘But he is the one here who has trade connections and best…’


‘Why not?’

‘I suggest you ask him.’

‘I doubt his answer would be any more honest than yours,’ was Dudo’s irritated reply.

Bilbo shrugged, not wanting to continue this argument in front of Frodo, who was looking both displeased and somewhat anxious. ‘In any event, the Longbottom market will be the next new one, and there will be more Bounders. I’m curious, though, at what you first said. You wish the Bounders to keep an eye on the markets?’

‘If the problem is strangers and the markets attract them, I don’t see why they shouldn’t. Perhaps not the markets themselves but the main ways to and from them. If they have ponies, they can travel up and down the roads.’

‘Or each market could have wardens,’ Frodo offered, ‘since the Bounders are for the Bounds. A few stout fellows from the town whose job it is to watch where strangers go.’

‘I think that would be no more than prudent for the outer markets like Whitfurrows and Longbottom,’ Dudo agreed, ‘and probably any along the Road itself. But Bounders will be traveling over the roads anyway, so they might as well look out for market travelers who aren’t near any markets.’

‘Well, when we go to the Yale, I’ll be interested to hear what Griffo has to say about Big People on the Stock Road. Perhaps go take a look.’

Dudo’s expression grew stern again and he glanced at Frodo. ‘You can go take all the look you like, Bilbo, but you shouldn’t be dragging Frodo along where there’s dangerous folk about.’ Bilbo motioned for Frodo to be quiet when the lad began to protest. ‘I’m quite out of sorts with you Bilbo.’ When have you not been out of sorts with me? ‘I heard from Frodo – Not from you, as I should have! – that you are marching my nephew off on another long walk to strange places…’

‘Southfarthing is hardly a strange place.’

‘He’s scarcely recovered from the walk up north, and now you’re off on another one. And you don’t fool me for a second, you’re off to see about this parting business, things gone wrong, like you spoke of in Thrimidge, not visiting.’ Dudo sat back in his chair, arms crossed, glaring. ‘Do all of that you want, but not with him. Frodo should come back to Bywater with me and Tulip after we’ve visited with Daisy and stay with us while you do what you need to.’

Frodo’s face was getting red and Bilbo could tell he wanted to argue. He pulled the little dragon out of his pocket and rolled it in his hand, warning himself not to rage at Dudo. You’re angry because he’s more than a little right, Baggins. That is why you are going, to see the Parting signs, and it is another very long walk. ‘It is a tramp, at a gentle pace and in good weather, but the purpose of it is to see our kin.’


Bilbo allowed a little exasperation to show. ‘Well, to start with, everyone in the Yale! Frodo hasn’t yet met Dora, and then there are all the Boffin cousins. That’s the first stay, then to go to meet Prisca and Wili at their son, Bard’s, farm, south of Stock. They would probably be delighted to see you and Tulip, if you cared to come along, and perhaps you can bring Flora. Prisca told me that they’re gathering a whole pack of children on the farm for most of Wedmath.’

‘All my little Brandybuck cousins will be there,’ Frodo broke in, ‘and probably Fatty and Stella Bolger.’

‘So we’ll go there and stay a while,’ Bilbo continued smoothly, ‘and then will be a long walk to Longbottom where I intend to stay for at least a week with Addy and Blossom and have Frodo visit all of the Took cousins. We’ll travel by wagon with them to the Great Smials at the end of Wedmath for our cousin Gis’ hundredth birthday on the thirtieth. I will not let Frodo miss that. Gis is a double cousin to Frodo on his mother’s side.’

Dudo did not look convinced. ‘So, a wagon trip to the Yale and then visit with the others near Stock, then you can go on to muck about in Southfarthing and visit with your kin, and Frodo can come home. I’ll bring him myself down for the Took birthday.’

‘But I want to see Gin and Amy!’ Frodo burst out, ‘and all the others. They’re my cousins, too!’

‘They can come here for your birthday,’ Dudo countered, ‘just as you said they would. You can go for a visit next summer. Besides, why do want to see them? Your kin on your mother’s side have treated you poorly.’

Frodo was very still and the color left his face. After a moment he said, ‘Some of them, older cousins, yes, and I will not return to Buckland because of that, but these others haven’t, not the children, and I want to see them.’

‘I’m not saying you shouldn’t see them ever, Frodo,’ Dudo said in a reasonable tone, ‘just that you already know them and you can see them later. You should be making better friends of your Baggins cousins here in mid-Shire.’

‘I am making friends with my Baggins cousins.’

‘Let me be clear. You need to make friends with Lotho.’ To his credit, Frodo did not make a face or a rude noise, as Bilbo suspected he wanted to do, but his jaw was set and Bilbo started to say something to prevent an argument. Frodo simply held up a finger, warning that he was not ready to cede the conversation. Bilbo held his tongue. ‘Frodo, I’m not blind. I know that Lotho has not been friendly to you and you two have some bad blood with that fist fight at the Fair,’ and the fist fight by Overhill and probably several other scuffles I don’t know about, ‘but it is not right that you should be at odds. You’re not going to resolve your arguments if you are always somewhere else. You need to interact more with Lotho, setting that good example we both agree he needs, and it is difficult to do if you are up here and he is in Bywater.’ Dudo glanced briefly at Bilbo. ‘You should be in Bywater, too.’

‘I come to Bywater regularly, and have for several months. I intend to continue that.’ Bilbo was amazed at how calm Frodo was. He himself was grasping the dragon head so tightly the fang tips jabbed into his palm. Any moment now, he expected the Old Took to make an appearance and was rather looking forward to Frodo dressing down Dudo as the boy had done to Rory.

‘But you do not come to Bywater and make any attempt to see your cousin.’

Frodo cocked his head and studied his uncle for a long moment. ‘Nor will I make any attempt to see Lotho until he has apologized.’

Dudo’s and Bilbo’s eyebrows both shot up. ‘Apologized?’

‘Yes, apologized,’ Frodo said firmly. ‘Lotho needs to apologize to Gin Took for ganging up with two much older boys to thrash him. If Lotho wants to be treated well, then he needs to apologize for having been a bully and a hooligan, and he needs to mean it. He can’t be allowed to think he can get away with cruelty.’ Frodo leaned forward and folded his hands together, chin resting on his interlaced fingers, and looked at Dudo very directly, but with no anger or upset visible in his face. Even his shoulders were relaxed. ‘If I got into a squabble over something with one of my cousins, if I misbehaved, called someone a mean name, slapped at them, Papa always said I had to apologize before I was allowed to rejoin them, because that is what a decent person does. He apologizes for having been unkind.’

Bilbo could not breathe, looking at his lad sitting there just as father would do, every motion a perfect copy, speaking with his father’s voice, as though Drogo had come back to life. A quick glance at Dudo let him know he was not alone in this shocked recognition. Dudo swallowed and nodded.

‘That… That is what Papa… my father, your grandfather… what he taught all three of his children.’ He sighed, nodding again. ‘Very well, you’re right, Lotho should apologize to you…’

‘To Gin. Gin is the one he wronged.’

‘Yes, to Gin.’

‘The apology he owes to me,’ Frodo continued and he no longer resembled his father so much, ‘is also owed by his parents.’ The boy sat up straight and now was wearing his Old Took face. ‘When I first came here, Otho and Lobelia said disgusting, wicked things about me and my parents. I don’t care to be in their company unless they have the decency to apologize. My reluctance to be more often in Bywater has everything to do with their despicable words about me. It is not just my Brandybuck kin who have treated me poorly.’

Dudo’s face got very red and Bilbo could see his shame at Frodo’s chastisement. Bilbo let him stew in his guilt for a few heartbeats before gently clearing his throat. ‘You asked why I will not have Otho be a part of a Bywater market. This is why. If he is willing to defame a kinsman, and a child at that, to satisfy his own greed, then he shall be barred from good fortune for however long he persists in his wickedness.’

‘I have not heard such words from him in many months, and he has said he was no longer certain of that tale.’ Dudo kept his eyes fixed on his plate.

‘He is silent because I have threatened him, not because he has had a change of heart!’ The wooden fangs dug in as he clenched his fist. Let it go, Baggins. Give it over. He imagined his anger flowing out in the blood drawn by the talisman, the little charm lapping it up into its own cruel heart, a stone beneath the surface of a lake half a world away. Be calm, as your lad showed you how to do. ‘As long as Otho refuses to admit his… error… and withholds a sincere apology from the one he has wronged, he will have no part of any market anywhere in the Shire.’

‘You can command that?’

‘No, but I can ask it, and those who have the power will deny him for love of me and of Frodo.’ Bilbo sighed himself. ‘I do not set aside Otho’s knowledge and talents lightly, Dudo, but he cannot be allowed to pretend he has done no wrong, any more than Lotho. He owes an apology to Frodo.’

Dudo did not reply and concentrated on finishing his supper. Once the meal was done and the dishes cleared away, that was not much else to say, so they walked Dudo down to the foot of the Hill and the Bywater Road. He stood a long while there looking at Frodo, then gave the lad a strong hug and kiss.

‘Come a little early tomorrow, Frodo, before supper, and we’ll go look at the thread for the birthday presents. I think I have just the lace to go with it.’

Frodo smiled and gave him a hug in return. ‘I will, uncle. I will.’

Late Afternoon, Bywater Road, 20 Afterlithe, 1390

Frodo had been silent the whole day. Bilbo had taken note of his lad’s inward gaze at breakfast and had kept himself busy tending to things to give Frodo time to think. The boy had not needed reminding to get ready for the walk down to Bywater and so they were on the road to the town, walking slowly in the warmth of the waning day. Shadows were long and even the insects were napping. They stopped at the barn to slake their thirst from the rain barrel. Frodo took several slow sips before handing the dipper to Bilbo.

‘I don’t think he’ll stop.’

Bilbo paused, then drank a full dipper of water. ‘Who?’

‘Uncle Dudo. He is determined that I should be down here in Bywater and not with you.’


Frodo’s look was hurt. ‘Why did you say he could have me?’

‘That’s not what I said and you know it. I said only that he could try to win you over.’

‘The only thing that matters to them, any of them, is taking me away from you!’ he snapped. Bilbo waited, playing with the dragon head. ‘When he believed Otho’s lies, my dear uncle was glad to leave me up on the Hill with you. My aunt can’t be bothered to so much as write me a letter. Rum was happier to see me than Dudo and Tulip were.’ Frodo scowled down the road towards Bywater. ‘And now we’ll be spending weeks with people who don’t like you and could not care less about me.’

‘Griffo likes us both and you’ve not met Daisy. And then there’s Griffo’s mother, Reed, who is Rufus’ sister…’

‘And none of them gave a damn about me until the last three months! I don’t know them, I don’t want to know them, and I’d rather just go to Longbottom.’ To Bilbo’s consternation, Frodo looked near tears. ‘Addy and Blossom and Gin and Amy… even Rum is more decent to me than my closest kin!’

Bilbo sipped some more water before taking a seat on a bench near the barn door. Frodo sat next to him, looking angry and miserable. The change in the boy from yesterday left Bilbo bewildered. Where was his fierce, brave lad who put Dudo in his place last night? After a few ragged breaths, Frodo said, ‘And if I did go with them, left you, they’d just ignore me again. I’m just… a mathom to them.’

Bilbo took Frodo by the shoulders and gave him a stern look. ‘You are not going anywhere. Unless you have changed your mind?’ His own heart was pounding. Are you thinking of leaving me? Frodo shook his head. ‘Then I don’t understand your words, Wilwarin.’

‘I hate always having to be nice to people who are so mean and rude to you. And to me.’ Frodo hung his head. ‘And if I’m not, they’ll just get worse.’ Very quietly, he said, ‘I already have one aunt who hates me. I don’t really want to meet another.’

‘Dora doesn’t hate you, Frodo, of that much I’m certain,’ Bilbo said gently, ‘and but a few months ago, Falco and Odo and their families had paid you no mind, either, and it turns out they love you very much.’

Frodo stared at his toes. ‘How do you know about Dora? She seems just as nasty as Asphodel.’

‘Oh, no! Dora is nothing like Asphodel!’ Bilbo scolded. ‘She’s… she’s… more like Gilda than Asphodel. A tough old woman, but not hateful, inclined to scold, yes, but…’ He sighed in exasperation. ‘Dora is as she is for good reason, Frodo.’

The boy shrugged. ‘I don’t care about her reasons. She’s no one to me. Hardly any Baggins is.’

Bilbo wondered, given Frodo’s mood, if they should go back home and he would send a note to Dudo in the morning. No, Baggins, there’s no good in running away. He needs to know them. And you can help. ‘Well, you should hear her reasons because she doesn’t deserve to be judged by her reputation any more than you do.’ Bilbo took the dipper back to the barrel, taking another swallow of water, thinking of where to start his tale.

‘Your grandparents met at Bag End the day my parents were married. My Uncle Rudy, Rudigar Bolger, Odogrim’s grandfather, was courting my Aunt Belba, and the whole family had been invited to the wedding.’ Frodo sat up straight, listening attentively. ‘They were so young! Fosco was your age almost exactly, just twenty-two, and Ruby only two years older than that. They weren’t even old enough to be courting. They fell in love on the spot, as they told anyone who would listen, and according to Mother, they danced with no one save each other at the wedding.’ That put a grin on the boy’s face. ‘In fact, Fosco had the cheek to ask her father for Ruby’s hand that very day! Everyone laughed, but Fosco was serious. He asked every year after that until Adalgar relented and gave his blessing. They wed on Fosco’s thirty-third birthday, having courted for eleven years.’

Bilbo grinned at Frodo’s delight at the story. This is your story as well, lad. ‘They settled in Bywater, in the house Dudo and Tulip are now in, living with his parents. This,’ Bilbo pointed at the barn behind them, ‘was your great-grandfather Largo’s farm, and he and Fosco worked it. Dora was born in 1302, the same year as your Uncle Rory and Aunt Gilda. Dora and my younger sister, Berra, they were fast friends, and we children were always down here at the barn, playing. Your grandfather, Fosco, I think he would remind you a great deal of Odo or Addy, in his manner, and Ruby, she and Aunt Linda…’

‘Who taught you to cook!’ Frodo said eagerly.

‘Yes! That aunt, well, she and your grandmother were always in each other’s kitchens or parlors. Who knows, maybe some of those dishes Aunt Linda taught me she got from Aunt Ruby? When Mother wasn’t doing healer work, they would visit for teas and parties at Bag End.’ Bilbo let himself be lost for a moment in the memory for those marvelous celebrations. ‘And when Ruby and Linda had their babies, Mother midwifed them. Dora, Drogo, Dudo, Lina, Odo – Mother’s hands were the first to hold them. She delivered so many of my cousins.’

It was tempting to end there and say the rest would wait for after the visit. Bilbo sighed and glanced back towards the Hill. ‘During the Fell Winter, as soon as it was clear that it would be dangerous, which we knew by mid-Winterfilth, Fosco and Father insisted that we all be together in Bag End, along with Grandma Laura, because a smial was easier to keep warm than a house and because we had room. The Proudfoots’ house was filled with their kin, and Largo and Tanta had their daughter’s family with them in Bywater.’ Easier to defend than a house, too. We’d already heard stories about the White Wolves up in Northfarthing.

‘Mother and Ruby were both pregnant, I’ve told you that,’ Frodo nodded, face solemn, ‘and, to our sadness, Ruby died giving birth to Dudo. It… broke your grandfather to lose his wife. He was only forty-seven. They should have had many more years. Uncle Fosco mourned so deeply, we feared he would die of grief. Mother was grieving also for her lost child, and could barely attend to Dudo. Father was caring for us all, keeping us warm and fed, and I took care of the younger children, my sisters and your father.

‘Your Aunt Dora sat with Fosco every day, holding his hand, telling him stories, making him talk to her, refusing to let him go. He lived, but he was never quite right again. It was as though he was the child and she the parent. As a little child, only nine, she was old. When the Winter finally ended, they went back to Bywater, and Dora never stopped caring for her father.’

‘You said, at Yule, that Fosco took Dora and Dudo, but not Papa.’

‘Drogo was too much for them and he was sick and Mother did not want him to leave.’ Bilbo sat next to Frodo, who took his hand. ‘Aunt Linda, she had lost a baby, like Mother, so she took over nursing Dudo. Your great-grandfather, Largo Baggins, he died that spring, and that also was a grief to both Fosco and Dora. Your Uncle Rufus’ mother, Biba Proudfoot, was Bodo’s sister, and their little girl, Reed, was sent to stay with Bodo and Linda, for Biba had died in the spring. Linda and Reed were often with Fosco and Dora, at Father’s urging. Dora never saw other children, really, just Reed and Dudo, and she rarely left Fosco’s side. When her grandmother, Tanta, died, she was just twenty, and she completely took over tending Fosco and Dudo, and would accept no help, except from Reed, who had moved into the Bywater house, even though Linda and Bodo tried to get them to come live at their farm.’

Bilbo stopped and looked at Frodo, whose expression was sad. ‘So, you see, Wilwarin, Dora has her reasons for being so stern. She lived through terrible things as a girl and went from being a young child to an old woman in the space of a season. I know it stings that she does not give you more mind, but I ask you to be kind to her and patient.’ He gave Frodo a wry look. ‘And be very glad she does not write you so much. She has had a lot of practice telling other people what to do and thinks it her duty to keep us all minding our manners.’

That got a chuckle from Frodo and smile. ‘As you wish, I will be a good nephew.’ He thought for a moment. ‘Reed is Griffo’s mother, right?’ Bilbo nodded. ‘Is that how Griffo met Daisy, through Dora?’

‘Yes! Reed was Dora’s dearest friend and she stayed a very long time with Dora in Bywater, for she could not bear to be parted from her, and Aunt Linda also wanted her to stay, for her own daughter had married away.’ Bilbo chuckled. ‘Oh, but did Reed turn the boys’ heads! Dora could have as well, had she wanted, and she had a few fellows who asked after her, but she always snapped at them and ordered them off. She only wanted to take care of Fosco. Let me see, who tried courting Reed?’ Bilbo made a show of pondering while scratching his chin. ‘Well, there was Posco,’ they both made a face at that, ‘and Falco, who hadn’t yet met Nora, and Odo, though she was a bit close of a cousin, and Drogo…’

‘What? Papa? No!’ Frodo said. Bilbo grinned at his confusion.

‘Oh, yes, he most certainly did! He was in his late tweens and as popular with the girls as you are, always at the Highday dances, and she flirted quite a bit with him. I think Dora encouraged it.’ Bilbo leaned over and said in a conspiratorial whisper, ‘I even had to break up a fist fight between him and Otho over Reed one night. He was winning quite handily.’

Bilbo ignored Frodo’s look of look of glee and pondered again. ‘Hmm, even Dudo was trying to catch her eye. Then she went back home and riled up all the boys at that end of the Shire. I remember Rory writing me a letter about her and Wili tried his luck, but then I introduced him to Prisca,’ Frodo started snickering, ‘and I know Hargo Bracegirdle was in that mix somewhere, and Big Sara and Gorbulas…’

‘Is there any boy she didn’t flirt with?’

‘Not many. I’m just naming our stupid cousins who were all mooning over her. Finally, she settled on cousin Dugo, Aunt Donna’s son, and married him.’

‘And when did Dora move there?’

‘After your grandfather died. Dudo and Tulip had been married for a while and they had Daisy. Fosco left the house to Dudo, and Dora was not happy that Tulip took over running it, so she was always visiting Reed, and often took Daisy with her. That is her soft spot, you should know. Daisy is as dear to her as a daughter. When Dugo Boffin died, Dora simply packed up and moved in with her childhood friend and has been taking care of Reed ever since. All Dora wants to do is take care of the people she loves best.’

Frodo sat for a minute, mulling the story over, before nodding. ‘You’re right, I should not judge her by her reputation. Now I do want to meet her.’

Bilbo stood and began walking towards Bywater. ‘You should be kind to Dudo and Tulip, too, even though they are being rather obnoxious.’ Frodo gave him a less pleased look. ‘Like your own parents, they have only one child. None of the others lived for more than a few days.’ Bilbo held out his hand, which Frodo took. ‘I think both your aunt and your uncle are wary of offering their hearts, having lost so much, but you are winning them over. I doubt Dudo will be so quiet where Otho is concerned from now on.’ Though he won’t think any better of me or try any less to take you away. Sometime this summer, he was going to have to tell Frodo of his plan. Not yet. He took up the dragon head in his free hand. ‘He won’t ignore you, any more than Falco or Odo, and he will stop when he accepts that you want to be with me.’ I will give him no choice.


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