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On Merry Yule: 20. Trade
Morning, 3 Trewsday, Afteryule
Bilbo felt the soft thump of Frodo’s heart under his arm and listened to the lad’s slow, even breaths. What a miracle you are, Wilwarin. He hoped his arm was not pressing on any of the boy’s bruises. Prim had lived in fear of losing Frodo all the while she carried him. It seemed impossible that all would go well. After what he had heard yesterday afternoon, after the soiled cloths and basins of water and blood he had had taken from Ula at the door to Dilly’s room, it seemed an undeserved blessing to hold this child in his arms. The price that allowed him to hold his dear nephew was too painful for thought.
He had attended Gilda on her rounds, years ago when they were much younger, and had performed such duties before, sometimes for births, sometimes for deaths. It had always been sorrowful when there was loss, but now he tired of seeing death from the side of life. It is the old and worn who should die. It angered him that he was so helpless against loss. I’ve fought goblins and spiders and a dragon, but this is beyond even a wizard to battle. He let Frodo’s scent calm him, reassure him that, for this tiny moment, his world was safe beside him. Bilbo lay still with the patience learned over long years, and waited for Frodo to wake.
It was almost an hour before his lad finally stirred. Bilbo smiled and tenderly kissed Frodo’s cheek, then got out of bed to light the lantern and some candles. By the time he was done, Frodo was sitting up, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes and stretching.
‘Do you need to soak your back?’
‘No, Uncle Bilbo, I’m fine,’ Frodo yawned. Bilbo retrieved a pitcher of hot water from the hallway, and washed up. He dressed and looked over his letters from the day before while Frodo slowly got ready. Bilbo watched the lad out of the corner of his eye, noting when the boy grimaced or moved uncomfortably. His fingers caressed the ring in his pocket, and he let his thoughts wander for just a moment to teaching Sara a lesson. Bilbo sternly told himself to pay attention to his correspondence.
There was a short note from Ham Gamgee, written by Lob Tapman, wishing him and Frodo a merry Yule and asking as to when they would return so he could have Bag End ready for them. Bilbo smiled and wrote a quick note saying to expect them the evening of the sixth. There were a few pleasant notes from various relatives sending their Yule blessings, including one from Eglantine. I wonder if Pal knows you wrote me? He did not think he would be very high on Pal’s list of favorite old uncles after foiling the root harvest deal with Odogar. He saved two letters for last. One was from cousin Brand in Scary, assuring Bilbo he could get up to ten carts of stone for him to send anywhere in the Shire, if he did not mind it being delivered over six week’s time. The other was from Maud Grubb, reporting that the first few loads of Northfarthing roots had arrived in good shape and in good time for Yule tables. She told him that the Frogmorton market was now well-stocked, and said he was to stop by on his trip back and let her feed him a proper meal, as it was well known that no one in Buckland was capable of cooking. Bilbo penned quick responses to these last two, finishing just as Frodo was beginning to sigh with impatience and hunger.
They went to the small dining room, dropping off the notes in the Messenger basket. Rory and Hargo Bracegirdle were there, as were Wili and Prisca. Esmie had Merle and Merry with her, and was definitely out of sorts. Frodo greeted his little cousins with a kiss on the cheek and an admonition to behave themselves, but did not spare a glance for Esmie. What’s this, Wilwarin? Merle moved so she could sit next to Frodo and they were soon chattering about the poetry booklet he had given her for Yule. Bilbo sat on the other side of Hargo, across from Prisca. Esmie had not taken her eyes off of Frodo from the moment the lad walked in the door, and there was a thoughtful quality to her gaze.
Merry let out a cheer and lunged out of his seat as Dalin entered the room. The Dwarf laughed loudly and ruffled the child’s hair. Dalin was magnificent in a bright blue, Dwarf-sized, Hobbit-shirt, with full sleeves, gathers at the shoulders, and a high collar. The color set off the gold in Dalin’s beard and hair, and it was as if a bit of sun and sky had stolen away from the sunrise to break bread with them.
‘Mister Steelhand, is that your Yule shirt from Gilda?’
The Dwarf beamed proudly, ‘Indeed, Mistress Esmie, it is. I shall be the envy of Belegost.’
‘It is lovely,’ Esmie agreed, then shook a finger at Merry. ‘Now, little piglet, don’t you go getting your grubby hands all over Mister Steelhand’s fine new shirt,’ she scolded with a chuckle.
‘Mama!’ Merry protested, ‘I’m clean!’ Bilbo noticed the youngster did surreptitiously wipe his hands on his trousers.
‘He does no harm,’ Dalin assured her, slipping into the seat next to Bilbo, and patting the bench to let Merry know he was welcome to sit there as well. Merry accepted the invitation, careful not to touch the beautiful shirt.
Bilbo wondered if he should talk of the Eastfarthing plans with Attercop sitting there, then decided he really did not care what Esmie might tell Pal. Let her. I can always write to Rum and undo whatever mischief they plan. She was sipping her tea and watching Frodo out of the corner of her eye. It was so different from two days ago, when they had brought dinner to him and Gis. Frodo’s face had been flushed and the lad could hardly take his eyes off of her. That would be another conversation, later.
‘Rory, I received some letters yesterday that you might find interesting.’
‘Do tell, Baggins. From whom?’
‘Still interested in building that market beyond the Gate?’ Hargo’s eyebrows went up considerably. Rory shook his head.
‘No, Bilbo, not beyond the gate. Perhaps a smaller one inside the Gate. It will still be closer than the Whitfurrows market.’ Dalin nodded approval.
‘That is wisest, Master Rory. You might wish to use some stone for building up the gate posts and the walls, as well. I saw it on my tramp west, and it is not a strong defense.’
‘What are you getting at, Rory?’ Hargo demanded. ‘What’s this talk of markets and stone walls?’
‘Troubles to the South and trade to the east,’ Frodo smoothly interjected. Bilbo sipped some tea, interested to see how the lad would present the situation. Rory shot him a curious look and Bilbo returned a wink. ‘You see, Mister Bracegirdle, Mister Dalin has brought news of far-away things that Uncle Bilbo and Uncle Rory think is worth paying attention to. It sounds as if trade is only going to increase along the Road as people travel more and understand that there are fine things to be had in the Shire, like Buckland cloth and Eastfarthing hides.’ Well done, Wilwarin! ‘But that also means strange folk traveling about, who might not be honest traders like the Dwarves or the folk from Bree. Mister Dalin has warned us to be very wary of things that come up from the South. So, it makes sense to have another market for trading right at the edge of the Shire, so honest folk need not travel so far and unsavory folk are not given a chance to walk in.’ Bilbo and Rory exchanged impressed looks over Frodo’s astute evaluation. Sharper than either of your own, Rory. He is going to be a magnificent Mayor.
Frodo paused, a thoughtful expression on his face. ‘Uncle Rory, is there a dock to the north of the Bridge on the River?’
‘No, Frodo, there isn’t.’
‘Perhaps there should be one,’ the boy suggested, ‘so that hides and finished leather could be moved down the River to a market instead of being carted overland along the River. That is,’ Frodo hastily amended, ‘if you would have anything to send downriver or would be interested in the Buckland market, Mister Bracegirdle.’
Bilbo had to fight to keep a grin off his face. Dalin was nodding again, no doubt going over some special Dwarven dock engineering in his mind. Hargo looked at Frodo with a long, appraising stare, then smiled thinly.
‘Mighty forward for such a young fellow, aren’t you? When you have enough experience to have an opinion, someone will ask for it.’ Hargo’s eyes on Frodo were not friendly. The lad’s cheeks colored a little, but he did not look away. Bilbo resisted the urge to give Hargo a good jab in the ribs with a stray elbow. Looking out for your brother-in-law, eh, Hargo? Too late. That is the Baggins heir you are talking to. And close kin to Master and Thain, unlike your own sorry nephew. Rory cleared his throat.
‘Frodo is as clear-headed a thinker as you’ll find, Hargo, regardless of his age,’ Rory sternly informed the other. ‘He might not know what’s the best course to take, but there’s few better at sizing up a situation. And he knows a sight more about goings-on outside the Shire than most, thanks to Bilbo.’ Frodo smiled gratefully at his uncle. Hargo looked angry at the correction.
‘And he should learn some manners to go with his cleverness!’ Hargo snapped. ‘Hamson’s right, Brandybuck. This one’s a smart-mouthed upstart with entirely too good an opinion of himself.’ Frodo was beginning to glower: his resemblance to the Old Took was remarkable. Hargo wiped his mouth and rose from the table. ‘I don’t discuss business with stray children, however clever. What other’s business with children is, I don’t much care.’ Hargo strolled out of the room.
Bilbo was not entirely sure how many different ways he and Frodo had just been insulted, but it was a rather large number. The casual viciousness of the attack left him speechless. Rory was half-turned in his own chair, staring at the now-empty doorway, equally astounded. Wili and Prisca were obviously horrified. Esmie simply continued to look thoughtful, as she had the entire meal. Frodo stared down at his plate, face very pale, though none of the fierceness had left it. Prisca reached over and put a gentle hand on Frodo’s shoulder. The boy shook it off, and left the room. Bilbo motioned Prisca to stay when she would have followed.
‘Leave him be.’
‘Leave. Him. Be.’ They continued their meal in silence. Bilbo tried to think where Frodo would go, and debated whether to try to find him. Stray children, eh, Hargo? I think Gilda will be interested in your remark. It was very handy, being a dear friend of a talented midwife. One found out the most scandalous things.
‘So, Bilbo, what of the stone?’ Rory asked, breaking the silence.
‘I can get you up to ten carts of it, whenever you wish.’
Rory scratched his chin thoughtfully, then turned to Dalin. ‘Mister Dalin, how much work do you figure needs be done on the Gate? I have some less than pleasant neighbors to keep out.’ Rory’s eyes flashed a bit. Dalin growled a little before he answered.
‘Three carts is what I would wish for working on the Gate. And you might use some more in spots along the Hedge. Masters Mac and Sara showed me the Hedge up near the Old Orchard, and there’s places that could stand some rock to fill up gaps and hollows. Winter’s not bad for stonework, if it’s dry enough.’
‘Would there be any Dwarves you know of who would like to lay stone for coin and cloth?’
Dalin nodded decisively. ‘Aye, Master, I know of two excellent stone masons who would be honored to do this work for a kinsman of Mister Baggins. They were companions upon the Road, and trustworthy. When I reach Belegost, I will tell them of your offer.’
Rory nodded his thanks.
A few minutes later, Sara walked into the small dining room, carrying Berry. Sara looked exhausted, and Berry looked sleepy and scared. Sara sat down heavily next to Esmie, briefly touching his forehead to hers, before sighing and trying to smile.
‘Look Merle, Merry, I brought Berry over to visit! He is going to be staying for a few days.’ Berry put his face into Sara’s neck and began to cry. Merle and Merry began to cry in sympathy. Dalin gave Merry a comforting pat, but for once the Dwarf’s magic did not work. Merry howled louder than ever and scrambled over to bury his face against his father’s arm. Merle was crying more quietly, and clung to Esmie. Rory came over and took the weeping Berry from Sara, crooning soft nonsense words into his grandson’s ear. Bilbo wished he could join the howling – it seemed the only appropriate response to the events of the last few days.
Almost as soon as it began, it was over. Berry quickly fell asleep on Rory’s shoulder, teary face and snotty nose buried in Rory’s shirt. Merry had his arms wrapped around Sara’s neck, alternating between hiccups and sniffles, and Sara held him tightly. Esmie rocked Merle in her lap.
‘Dilly?’ Prisca quietly asked. Sara shrugged a little.
‘I didn’t see her this morning, Aunt Prisca. Mama gave her a pretty strong draught last night so she would sleep. Mac said she was in some pain, but not too much. He asked if we’d keep Berry here until Dilly was back on her feet.’ Prisca nodded sadly.
‘Uncle Bilbo,’ Sara continued, ‘Mama asks if you would come by later in the afternoon and bring her back to the Hall. She wants to be back before sundown. Ula will stay and tend Dilly.’
‘Of course,’ Bilbo answered, rising from the table. Dalin gave him a worried look and he motioned for the Dwarf to leave with him. The two made their way back to Dalin’s room.
‘Mister Baggins,’ Dalin began slowly, ‘I know I am a guest of a guest in this Hall, but there are some strange things going on and stranger things being said. I think I can guess what has happened to Master Mac and Mistress Dilly. She lost a babe.’
Bilbo sighed. ‘Yes, Dalin, she lost the child she carried.’ He gave the Dwarf a quizzical look. ‘And what other strange things have come to your ears?’
After a long silence, the Dwarf said, ‘I have also heard that Master Frodo was badly beaten during the Wintermark festival.’
‘I have heard evil whispers that you were the one who beat him.’
‘Do you think I did?’ Bilbo stuck a hand in his pocket and toyed with his ring.
Dalin faced him directly and studied the old Hobbit, finally shaking his head. ‘Nay, Mister Baggins, I have seen you with the boy. You would sooner cut off your own hand than strike him. I’ve ne’er seen you as much as cuff him. There’s no Elven-heart about you.’ The Dwarf crossed his arms. ‘So, who did beat Master Frodo? There are accounts to settle.’
Let’s see how much you have been noticing, Master Dwarf. Bilbo shrugged. ‘Who do you think?’
Dalin scratched his beard. ‘Well, Mistress Gilda can flay one alive with her tongue and has no need of fists, so I doubt is was she. Master Rory is a stern man, but he’d not beat a child. It could be the young cousins about the Hall, save that none appear to believe it. They would look a bit more beaten themselves, too, had they fought with Master Frodo, I would wager.’ Dalin’s dark eyes glittered in the dim light cast by the door lamp. ‘The only one I have seen treat the young master poorly is Master Sara. He was full of spite over Master Frodo on the trip to collect the Sun-return logs, and said some less than honorable things about the lad. About your estimable self, as well. I held my tongue, then. It was not my place as guest to interfere in the affairs of my hosts. Perhaps I should have spoken.’
Bilbo considered his next words. It is not Dalin’s place to know the business of the Hall, Baggins. But this is the business of my smial as well. My child has been harmed, and I must defend him. He could well guess what kinds of hateful mutterings Dalin might have overheard from Sara. ‘It is a complicated matter, Mister Dalin. There is bad blood between Frodo and Sara. They were both spoiling for a fight at Wintermark, and Frodo got the worst of it. As for the rumors, people seek to discredit me because they know I can do things they would prefer be left undone.’
‘But why do you let the lies stand?’ Dalin asked, eyebrows bristling.
‘Because it is Hall business and it would not do to cause a scandal about the Master’s Heir, or my own, while there are people like Hargo Bracegirdle about.’
‘That man spoke wickedly of you, Lord of Burglars. I would gladly teach him a lesson for you. Or Master Sara, for that matter,’ was Dalin’s sharp reply. ‘One does not treat a Dwarf-friend with such dishonor. Not in front of a Dwarf!’
‘Stop your ears against the whispers, Mister Dalin, for nothing save the End of Days will prevent gossip within Brandy Hall. I have heard far worse said to my face than any of the rumors. But keep an eye on Sara. I do not trust him around Frodo.’
‘You don’t trust him in what way?’
‘I think he would gladly beat Frodo up again. He saw his wife flirt with Frodo, and he’s a very jealous man.’ Dalin gave him an unreadable look. You have heard differently and suspect otherwise, do you not, Dalin? The Dwarf sighed and crossed his arms.
‘What may I do?’
Bilbo rolled the ring between his fingers, and contemplated Sara’s fate. He would. If I told Dalin to kill Sara, I do believe he would. It was pleasant to think of Sara suffering at Dalin’s hands. No, Baggins. If you are going to want such a thing, then it is on your head to see it done. Not Dalin. You know you won’t be satisfied unless it is by your own hand. He knew such malevolent thoughts were wrong, but Bilbo did not much care. He was through with loss.
‘If they argue, let them know they are watched. That should be enough. If Sara lays a restraining hand on Frodo, insist he let go. If he causes pain, return it to him, exactly twice over. That is all I shall permit in my name, while you are my guest.’
Dalin bowed. ‘I hear and I obey, Lord of Burglars. I shall guard your kin as my own.’
Bilbo excused himself, and went to find Frodo. He did not have to search very hard. When he checked their room, he found a note on the table. “Went to the graveyard.” Bilbo pulled on coat and cloak, and set off.
The graveyard for the Hall and for Bucklebury was east, across the lane and up the slope about half a mile. Woods edged it to the north, and the land fell away south and west, with views of Buckland and the Marish. Bilbo paused at the gate to the graveyard and looked out across the Shire. The River cut through the land, a dark brown ribbon that glinted in the wan winter light. The Woody End was a dark line across the fields, and the Overbourn Marshes were wrapped in low fog.
He picked his way slowly through the yard. Trees dotted the meadow, and paths wound among the small mounds and marking stones. There was a recent grave to one side, earth still bare and dark. Bilbo did not try to be too silent. He did not want to startle Frodo. He followed a familiar path that curved its way to the highest point in the meadow, near the north woods, where the graves of the Masters and of their families would be found.
Frodo was kneeling next to his mother’s grave, pulling weeds from it. A spray of holly leaves and berries lay on the ground next to the boy, the flowers of Yule. Bilbo slowly walked, letting pebbles and leaves crunch under his feet. A pause and slight turn of the head told him Frodo knew he was there. He went to the other side of the grave and knelt. Frodo did not look up, but kept to his task.
The boy’s hands were dirty from pulling up roots, and Bilbo could see a few thin lines of blood where sharp grasses had cut Frodo’s fingers. There was no sign of tears on his lad’s face, and the anger had been replaced by an odd, stern calm. He did not think he had ever seen Frodo look less a Baggins and more like the Old Took. More of the child had been pared away by Hargo’s sharp words. He was reminded of Sting’s blade, sharp, shining, so strong, yet graceful and beautiful. Bilbo mourned the loss of the child, and wondered at the man being revealed.
‘Do you wish to do this yourself, or may I assist?’
‘You may help, if you wish.’
Frodo had already cleared most of the small mound. Bilbo pulled the weeds, leaving only meadow grass behind. Soon, his hands were dirty and nicked, too. There were two marker stones on this grave. It had taken three days to find Prim’s body, down near the Marshes. Drogo’s body was never found. No one knew what had happened, only that they had gone out on the River in a small boat one summer night after putting Frodo to bed. No one noticed anything amiss until a hungry and worried child had shown up in Gilda’s parlor the next day, looking for Mama and Papa. He himself had arrived at the Hall, wearing out a pony rented from The Green Dragon, just as they brought Prim’s body back. Three summer days and the scavengers had done terrible things. Bilbo was glad he had not seen Drogo like that.
It was not long before the mound was weeded. Bilbo gathered up the handfuls of roots and leaves they had pulled and scattered them. Frodo laid the holly across the center of the grave, then touched the two markers in turn. Bilbo stood behind Frodo, waiting for the lad to finish his thoughts.
‘How do you bear it, Bilbo? The wicked things said of you?’
This was not what Bilbo had imagined would be in his lad’s thoughts. ‘What else can I do but bear it, Wilwarin? To argue gives it credence. They must be countered quietly, if at all.’
‘But it isn’t true.’
‘Well, that depends on what wickedness is being spoken of, now, doesn’t it? I know who my true friends are by who would say such things aloud.’
Frodo stood up. Bilbo moved closer and put his arms loosely around the boy’s shoulders, and Frodo leaned back a little against his chest. Bilbo rested his chin on the other’s shoulder. Frodo was as tall as he was. The child would soon be gone.
‘Esmie asked me if you were the one who had beaten me, if I was in danger from you. I told her no.’
Were you in the dark, Attercop, or did you know full well? Bilbo found it difficult to imagine that Esmie did not know what Sara had done. If you knew, why were you asking? Were you trying to frighten him? If you did not know, did you really think that of me? She believes you do bed him, Baggins, even as she would wish to do. ‘Did you tell her who did?’
‘It matters not. She will be told the truth eventually.’ Bilbo hugged Frodo a little more tightly.
‘Were my parents good people?’
‘Oh, yes, Wilwarin, yes! They were two of the finest Hobbits who ever lived. Your parents were generous and kind. They loved each other dearly and were the heart of Brandy Hall.’
‘I wish they had stayed in Hobbiton, with you. Then none of this would have happened.’
‘I wish they had, too, Frodo.’ Would that I could give you back to them, Wilwarin, that I could have all three of you with me.
‘Gammer says that I don’t belong here anymore. She says I belong to you.’
Bilbo thought before answering. ‘I would say that you belong with me, not to me. You will always belong to your parents, and to them alone. You’re not a thing to handed about, you know.’
‘Nevertheless, I am feeling a bit of a mathom.’
Bilbo took Frodo by the shoulders and turned the boy to face him. There was no self-pity in Frodo’s face that he could see. To the contrary, the boy was collected, if somewhat sad. “There’s few better at sizing up a situation,” that’s what Rory said, Baggins, and he’s right. ‘Is that what you wish? To belong to someone?’
Frodo shrugged, ‘Or to somewhere. I would like to stop being a stray child.’ For the first time, Frodo hesitated, uncertain. ‘I have been ungrateful to you, Uncle Bilbo, for what you have tried to give me. Gammer gave me quite a scolding yesterday for that. She said I had to think of Bag End as home, and of myself as yours.’
Why do you speak of gratitude, child? You are not a debt to be paid, like a bill come due. Is your affection for me so thin, duty, not love? ‘You know, Wilwarin, Bag End wasn’t always home for me, either. For a long time, it was a place of great sorrow. Once, I had to give up Buckland and Brandy Hall, too, and all my dear cousins, and make that strange smial in Hobbiton my own.’
‘When did it become home for you? How long?’
‘Not until after I returned from my adventures, really. Your father had been with your grandfather and your Aunt Dora while I was away, and came to live again at Bag End after I got back. I think Gilda and Rory insisted that he keep an eye on me and make sure I didn’t go off on any more adventures without them knowing!’ As he had hoped, Frodo smiled. ‘Bag End will be home for you, too, Wilwarin, just as it is for me, just as it was for Drogo. I promise.’
Frodo’s smile faded, and the lad shrugged out from under his hands, turning back to the grave. After a few minutes, Frodo walked away, Bilbo falling into step beside him. They walked back to the Hall, pausing at the lane. Frodo appeared to be thinking intently. Finally, the lad said, ‘I don’t like that wicked things are said of you because I am with you.’
‘Wicked things would be said of me regardless, Wilwarin. And I return your sentiments – I like it not that others would say evil things of you because you are with me.’ Frodo stared at the ground and did not answer.
They collected a tray of breakfast from the kitchens as they passed through, and went to their study. Frodo ate ravenously, as Bilbo expected he would. He took only a cup of tea and bit of toast for himself. They read over the scroll some more, but neither could concentrate enough to do any real translations. Rory stopped by just before dinner.
‘When are you leaving to get Gilda?’
‘You’re getting Gammer? May I come along?’ Frodo eagerly asked.
‘I’m sorry, lad, not this time,’ Bilbo firmly told him. Frodo looked a bit hurt at the refusal.
‘I am going to go to Bucklebury after dinner, Frodo, to talk to Mister Sandheaver about fixing the pig pens near the Ferry. I would appreciate your company.’
‘All right, Uncle Rory. I’ll go with you.’
Bilbo gave Rory a small smile of thanks. Sandheaver was the headman of Bucklebury. Having Frodo at his side was a vote of confidence in the boy, and the best way to put Hargo’s dismissal of Frodo behind them. Besides which, Frodo would probably be a great help in trying to get the headman to improve the holding pens. A great many animals came over the Ferry, and that number would increase if the southern ferry was built. Frodo would figure out a way to explain the situation so that Sandheaver had no choice except to put some effort into improving the pens.
‘I’m telling Hargo to leave.’
Rory grimaced. ‘I’ll not have someone in my smial who says such things in my presence.’
‘This is not wise, Rory. He’ll be Odogar’s best friend, now, if you throw him out.’
‘I thought you were Odogar’s best friend.’
Bilbo shrugged, ‘Only until Lithe. Then he’ll hate me more than he does you.’ Frodo was obviously confused by the conversation, but was following it carefully. A little more education for you, Wilwarin. See why I will accept the wicked words. ‘How will Saradas and Seredic take this, if you throw their guest out?’
‘Like Brandybucks. Hargo impugned blood in front of Mister Steelhand. The Master will not ignore such an insult.’
‘The Master should be thinking of larger concerns than a few hurt feelings. You have a chance of moving all of the unfinished leather trade out of Whitfurrows and over to your new market, as Frodo so nicely pointed out. If you throw Hargo out, you are going to have to leave the market in Big Sara’s hands to calm Hargo and get the trade going. You’re going to have much worse terms. Breelanders will want leather more than anything, and will bypass your market if the leather remains in Whitfurrows.’
‘Do you really care so little about what Hargo said of you? Of Frodo?’
Bilbo locked eyes with Rory. ‘I recall a certain conversation on the road to Standelf.’ Red crept up Rory’s neck and finally his cousin looked down. ‘No, Rory. I care what you say. I care what my gardener says. I could not care less what Hargo Bracegirdle says. If you throw him out, then you will give him insult, and, worse, you will give him a story to tell. I can hear it now. “My first grandchild about to be born, and Brandybuck threw me out. Why? Because I told Baggins’ upstart whore to shut his mouth when the brat was showing off. With a mouth like that, I’d have rid myself of the brat, too. Looks like Old Rory got a good price for him. Brandybuck’s putting in a new market, you know. Guess he can afford it now.” If you give Hargo reason to tell such a story, then I will care.’
Bilbo smiled genially into Rory’s shocked expression. ‘There are worse things than to have someone sneer a bit in your face. The worst he can do now is make an ass of himself saying he told a child to shut up. That insult was to me and mine before it was an insult to you, Master. It will be answered, rest assured, but in a manner such that Hargo cannot puff himself up. Or do more damage.’
Rory turned to Frodo. ‘Go wash up for dinner.’ Frodo looked to Bilbo, who indicated he should leave. The boy obviously did not wish to miss any of the conversation. When he had left, Rory rounded on Bilbo, very angry.
‘Why did you say that in front of him?’
‘It is no more than he has heard almost every day since we arrived. Frodo needs to learn how to deal with such words. I do him no favors by pretending it is not said.’
‘Have done with these lies and claim him!’
‘I have claimed him, Rory. He is my heir and his parents’ honor is preserved. Isn’t that what we agreed to?’
‘It is not enough.’
‘It is all I will permit. Can’t you see, Rory? It does not matter what I claim. Those who are determined to make mischief will do so. Esmie knows the truth,’ or what passes for truth in Brandy Hall, ‘and she has said to my face she believes I lie with the boy. I invite you to figure out how to convince her otherwise. Now, if you will excuse me, I think I shall wash up, too.’ Bilbo picked up his coat and cloak and left.
He did not, however, go to wash up. Bilbo went out the Lane Door and walked down to the River. He waited until dinner was through, sitting on a large rock, watching the River go by, then collected the pony trap. Rory might have been shocked by his words, but Frodo had nodded. You have heard these stories far too often, child. I don’t know if you can be shocked by them any more. You know how people think. I shall have to teach you how to fight back. It was good that Hargo’s words had not made Frodo cry, but had made him angry, followed by the stern self-collection in the graveyard. Frodo would need to learn to keep his sharp tongue and quick wit reined in. The prenticeship would start in earnest. And you will be a leader to reckon with when all is done, my lad.
The trip to the farm went quickly. Mac came out of the tidy farmhouse as Bilbo rattled into the courtyard. Bilbo hopped down from the trap and embraced Mac. The young Hobbit looked tired, but not as haggard and distraught as he had been the night before.
‘Have you come for Mama, Uncle Bilbo?’
‘When she is ready to return, yes, I will take her.’
Mac patted the pony’s shoulder and told her to come along to the barn. The stout little mare snorted and obeyed, following Mac as though on an invisible leash. Bilbo tagged along. As Mac walked in, a chorus of soft sounds rose from the stalls and pens as the animals greeted their master. He responded with the same sounds, reaching out to stroke a nose, scratch a forehead, pat a back as he walked down the center aisle. The cart pony stopped at his hand signal, patiently waiting to be unharnessed. Barn cats slipped out of shadows to rub against Mac’s ankles and twine themselves through the pony’s legs while Mac worked. Mac crooned snatches of song, animal sounds, loving insults, and gentle lectures to the pony (and the cats) as he unfastened buckles, removed traces, led the mare out from between the cart shafts, brushed and curried. When he was done, he pointed to an open stall door and the mare went in, eager to sample the hay in the manger.
‘Do you want to see your filly, Uncle Bilbo?’ Mac politely asked when he finished hanging the tack up. When Bilbo said yes, Mac pulled the cart out of the far barn door, then led his uncle over to some small paddocks.
In one was a beautiful yearling filly. She was darker grey than Dove, smaller and stouter, but still taller and more elegant than the average Shire pony. Her head was a perfect, delicate wedge, slightly dished in profile. Bilbo could tell from how she trotted across the paddock that she was going to be a magnificent saddle mare. Mac produced some chunks of carrot from his pockets, handing a few to Bilbo.
‘Her name is Feather, and she’s as fine a filly as can be found in the Shire,’ Mac said with no small pride. ‘Her sire is Da’s stud, Fist, who has a regular horse in his pedigree a few generations back. She’s first rate.’ The pony gently lipped at Mac’s fingers.
‘Mac, would you send Ula out here? I need to talk to her for a few minutes. You know how Gilda will never let anyone know how she is. I think I should talk to Ula first,’ Bilbo said with a smile, scratching Feather’s forehead. Mac said he would and trotted off. Not long afterwards, Ula walked up.
‘Good afternoon, Uncle Bilbo.’
‘And to you, lass. Tell me what I should know of Dilly and of Gilda.’
‘Dilly is doing as well as could be hoped. Her pain is almost gone, though she does ache. The bleeding has dwindled off this morning. She needs to stay abed for a few more days.’ Ula paused, leaning on the top rail of the paddock. ‘She was so hoping for a little girl child,’ she said softly. ‘Mistress Gilda is well enough,’ Ula continued in a stronger tone, ‘though she needs to get some sleep. I’m glad you’ve come to fetch her. She should go back at once, but she insists that she needs to do a few more things. Can you convince her to leave at once?’ Bilbo laughed heartily, making Feather skitter back a few steps.
‘Me? Make Menegilda Goold do anything she does not wish to do? You have confused me with a wizard, my dear!’ Bilbo chuckled. Ula laughed with him. Time for a talk.
‘Ula, I have another Yule gift for you that was not prepared in time for giving on Yule Day,’ Bilbo said, holding out his hand. Ula gave him a suspicious look, but held out hers. He dropped a chunk of carrot into it. She looked at it a moment and grinned.
‘Let me see. Where is the rest of the stew? Or perhaps you are giving me a garden?’ she teased.
‘No, neither stew, nor garden, Ula.’ Bilbo gestured at Feather. ‘I’m giving you a pony.’
Ula stared in astonishment, looking back and forth between him and Feather, who had noticed a carrot being exchanged and was coming to investigate.
‘Why? Why are you giving me such a gift? This is far too fine a horse for me.’
‘To the contrary, she is barely sufficient for you. I would have preferred to give you her dam, Dove, but that pony was out of my reach.’
‘A few reasons. First, call it my way of saying thank you for watching over Gilda. She is a cantankerous crone, but she is weak, and needs more tending than she’ll admit to. I can see you are both a good prentice and a loyal girl. Second, you are going to be needed in many corners of the Shire, and you need a good saddle horse to carry you. Gilda has told me how much you have been learning and how well you understand healing, even the Elvish scrolls. You know things other healers don’t, and you will be needed to teach as well as heal. Rory and Gilda gave you a good bag. Sara and Esmie gave you a warm cloak. I’m giving you a sound mare to take you where you need to go.’
If Gilda was right about the Troubles spreading, Ula would be vital. No one but Gilda knew as much, though some things could only be taught through experience, and Ula had the humor and the toughness in her character to stand up to the rigors of being a Master Healer. Gilda had already arranged for him and Frodo to make copies of the Elven scrolls just for Ula.
‘And, third, a thank you from me for taking care with Frodo.’ Ula’s head snapped around from marveling at the filly. ‘Gilda told me about Wintermark.’ Ula turned bright pink and looked furious.
‘Here! Take it,’ she snapped, holding out the piece of carrot. When he refused, she dropped it on the ground. ‘I will not accept this gift from you, Mister Baggins, nor any other. I am not to be bought.’
‘I would not demean you or my nephew with such things, Miss Proudfoot,’ Bilbo quietly replied. ‘There are any number of girls or women who would have taken advantage of his youth and ignorance to satisfy themselves, and to bind his trusting heart to them. I think you know of a few. The Mistress assured me that you did no such thing.’ She crossed her arms and glared. ‘I hope that you did this because you are truly fond of him, and not simply because the Mistress asked it of you.’
She dropped her eyes to the ground, turning more pink. ‘He’s a sweet boy, and a fine one. But I’d not have done it without Mistress Gilda’s asking.’
‘Then you’re not fond of him? She thought you were.’
Ula shrugged. ‘He’s like a little brother, so I’m fond of him in that way. Do I fancy him? No. I let him kiss me and get a few squeezes in. Just enough to show off in front of the other boys. But I’m not sweet on him.’ She gave him a worried look. ‘Does Frodo think that there’s more than that? I’d not lead him wrong. I didn’t see any harm in a few kisses and a cuddle.’
You did a sight more than that, girl. The Mark doesn’t spread that much with just a few kisses, and you were painted with his blood. Bilbo thought it would probably be impolite to point this out. ‘I will not pretend I approve of any of it, not even a kiss and a cuddle. I had an argument with the Mistress on this point. She should not have asked you to flirt with Frodo if you were not already intending to do so. If you’re not sweet on him, then I will thank you to leave him be.’
Ula gave him a scornful look. ‘I told you Mister Baggins, I am not to be bought. I give my kisses where I see fit. I was given good reason to flirt, so I did. I heard no complaints from him. If I wish to give him more, well, I think that’s for him and me to decide. And if I don’t, all the treasure you’ve ever had isn’t enough to change my mind.’
Bilbo smiled at her. ‘You’ve told me what I need to know. Forgive me for prying into your affairs.’ He stooped and picked up the carrot, holding it out to her. ‘Since we have established you cannot be bought, either to do or to not do, I insist on giving you Feather. She is what the next great healer of the Shire is going to need, along with medicines and a stout cloak. By the time you end your prenticeship, she will be old enough to ride. If you believe you cannot keep her, give her back to Rory. I want you to have her.’
Ula offered the dirty bit of carrot to Feather, who deftly plucked it from the girl’s outstretched hand. The girl stroked the pony’s soft muzzle, thinking. ‘I don’t know, Mister Baggins. This doesn’t feel like a proper gift.’
‘You needn’t do anything with her for some time. She can stay here with Mac until you are ready. In the mean time, may I count on you to come up to the farm regularly to make friends with her and help Mac train her? Whether or not you wish to have her, I think she will make a good woman’s mount.’
‘I can do that much, Uncle Bilbo,’ Ula shyly agreed.
‘Good, then I am off to round up a Mistress.’ Bilbo gave her a small bow, and headed to the farmhouse.
Gilda was in the kitchen, hobbling about and brewing things. She let him give her a kiss, then threatened to beat him senseless if he did not stay out of her way. For the next hour and a half, Bilbo helped Gilda make several draughts, mix some powders for potions, and measure herbs for poultices, teas, and washes. He was surprised at how much he remembered from so long ago. Ula came back in not long after he did, and recited Gilda’s directions over and over until Gilda was satisfied Ula understood what she was supposed to do. Only then would she allow Bilbo to write things down. The girl seemed surprised at Bilbo’s help, but knew better than to question Gilda.
Finally, no more could be done, and Mac went to reharness the pony. Bilbo lovingly wrapped Gilda up in his cloak. Soon they were rattling their way back to the Hall.
‘Dilly will be all right, Gilda?’
Gilda sighed. ‘Some things cannot be known until they happen, beggar. She cast out the child cleanly, and she’s not developed any contagion or fever. I think she will heal. Whether she will still bear children after this has happened, only the Delver knows.’
Bilbo put an arm around Gilda and pulled her close to him. ‘She has the finest healers in the Shire tending her, my girl.’ He could feel tension in her shoulders and recognized the furrow in her brow. Others would not have known that one line from the rest of the wrinkles, but Bilbo knew it meant trouble. ‘What is it, Gilda?’
‘Troubles.’ He waited. ‘They have come to Buckland. Until now, all of the wrongness has been across the River. The babe that Dilly cast forth…this was not Sun-blighted. Those children are easy to see, all small and shriveled like a fruit left in the sun. This one…’ Gilda tapered off. It was several minutes before she began again. ‘It was deformed. Too many limbs and its head strangely set. I did not let anyone else see it. The Master will need to know, but no one else.’
Did I affect this child? It would have been conceived when I was here at Harvest, and cast out when I came for Yule. Bilbo shifted uncomfortably on the cart seat.
‘It is not your fault, love,’ Gilda’s voice broke into his thoughts. ‘I know what you think. Think of Mister Dalin’s words – there is evil at work all through the world. Are things dark because a candle went out, or are they dark because there is darkness everywhere?’
‘Rory told me something interesting at Sun-return,’ Bilbo began. ‘He said that he had ordered Sara and Esmie to produce another child in the coming year.’
‘I wish my husband would bother to inform me when he takes over supervising the breeding season in the Hall,’ Gilda grumpily replied. ‘Producing children is not quite like producing piglets.’
‘So he didn’t tell you.’
‘Perhaps he thought you would write me a note at some point.’
‘Probably he did, so you would bite my head off, not his,’ Bilbo agreed. They both laughed a little. ‘What are you going to do about Esmie, Mistress? She seemed none too pleased at being told to play brood mare.’
‘You spoke to her before you spoke to me?’ Gilda snapped, incensed. Bilbo chuckled.
‘That’s how I knew to talk to Rory. She was angry about being ordered to do so, and blamed me and Frodo for her predicament. I offered to do my part to make amends,’ he added in an off-hand manner, ‘but she did not seem very appreciative, even when I offered to waive the stud fee.’ Gilda let out a whoop at that, and laughed heartily. Bilbo grinned. ‘So I decided I would ask Rory if he had truly ordered her or if she was exaggerating. It turns out she wasn’t.’
‘So that’s where you picked up that pretty hand-print,’ Gilda crowed.
‘Yes, dear girl. I wanted to see if she would actually agree to cuckold Sara. And she did.’
‘With you, right there at Wintermark?’
‘Well, at least we’d know who the sire was.’
‘So, you’re certain she’ll cuckold Sara?’
‘I would, were I her. Are you certain you won’t?’
‘The only man who deserves that spider in his bed is Sara, Mistress. But what do you intend, with Rory’s command to them and Dilly’s loss?’
‘I don’t know, Bilbo. I need to talk to Rory, and give him a piece of my mind first. I prefer that my grandchildren actually are mine.’
‘Why are all the boys being sent home?’
‘Only for a while. They’ll be back, come summer.’
‘It doesn’t work that way, Gilda.’
‘So I told Rory. But he thinks if there are no distractions about, Sara will figure out what a wife is for.’
‘I think Sara knows that quite well. Sara was not turning to Frodo because he did not know how to breed his wife.’ Bilbo thought to press his luck. ‘What did he say, Gilda? Did Sara explain to you what he did? Why?’
Gilda stared ahead. ‘He said Frodo seduced him.’
‘Nonsense!’ Bilbo snapped.
‘A great deal of sense, beggar.’
‘Are you telling me that a frightened child under threat of a beating seduced Sara?’
‘I am saying that Sara believes himself seduced. I am saying that Frodo wanted Sara to be pleased with him and made himself agreeable.’
‘Nonsense!’ Bilbo growled again, and they did not speak again for the rest of the trip back to the Hall.
Characters introduced this chapter:
Sandheaver – OC. Headman of Bucklebury.
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