My Aragon Stories
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On Merry Yule: 5. Sensibility
Morning, 25 Sterday, Foreyule
Somewhere, in a deeply buried part of his mind, Bilbo knew it was too early to wake up. He lay in bed, only partly conscious, and let his senses wander. The fireplace ash was an itchy undercurrent to the other smells, but nothing could mask the scent and sound of Yule in Brandy Hall. Evergreen boughs hung at the intersection of every corridor and turned the tunnels into a forest. The baking had been underway for a week, and he could practically eat the smells coming out of Dora’s kitchen. Every pony harness had at least one bell on it, and Uncle Gorbadoc insisted that the Hall dogs wear a bell on their collars, too. He heard one trotting down the hallway now, snuffling and jingling.
Bilbo willed himself to go back to sleep. He did not have to get up to fetch Mother’s tea for at least an hour, and that was plenty of time for some more sleep. Drogo’s arm hung over him, dead weight, and… Bilbo’s brow wrinkled a bit. He breathed in again. That did not smell like Drogo. Dead weight. Dead… dead? His mind slowly pulled aside some cobwebs. Drogo’s dead. Mother’s dead. But this is Brandy Hall. He lay still until things made sense. That was Frodo’s arm, not Drogo’s, and he was a very old Hobbit, not a sleepy tween. But this was Brandy Hall, and Bilbo was captured by the scents of his youth.
What he smelled now, it was for years, the smell of, not precisely home, but of family. It took so long for Bag End to smell like home when he had finally gone back to live there. The sheets here in the Hall smelled of the soap that was used in the laundry, not like himself and his own bed in Hobbiton.
He made himself relax again towards the limpness of sleep so as not to wake Frodo. The boy lay pressed against his back, an arm over Bilbo’s waist, breath soft and slow. The warmth of another’s body felt very good. How long has it been, Baggins, since you’ve had another in your bed? Bilbo counted backwards, and was not terribly surprised to know his last lover was twenty years in the past. And far more than that with just a companion. Since Drogo himself, he mused.
The feel of another’s arm was what had woken him. Such a simple joy. What a comfort the weight and warmth of another brings to the heart. It pleased him to smell another Hobbit besides himself. I have missed this. If he concentrated, Bilbo could tell the difference between his own heartbeat, and the sensation of Frodo’s heartbeat making the lad’s chest tremble ever so slightly against his back. He did not much miss having a lover. The pleasure they gave him was probably greater in the memory than in the performance. But this was something he could wish to have again. It would be better if he could hold Frodo in his arms, wrap himself around his dear child and keep the boy warm and safe, bury his nose against the child’s neck and breathe in nothing but another Hobbit.
Why did you choose this, Wilwarin, to share my bed? Bilbo had been surprised that Frodo had so easily relinquished his own room. Because it was sensible, Baggins, why else? Bilbo was glad Frodo had chosen to share with him, if only because of how loudly Dwarves could snore. Waking like this, he was even more glad, but also more wondering. Given Frodo’s comments of the night before, and the boy’s shyness about being undressed in front of him, Bilbo knew Frodo could not help but think of the evil words of others. “Do you intend to lie with me?” Do you still wonder about what I intend, child? It has not been that long, in truth. Do you still doubt me, even just a little? Is certainty with Sara better than doubt with me? That thought made him tense a bit, and Frodo shifted a little behind him. Bilbo made himself relax.
For a split second after Frodo had volunteered his room to Dalin, Bilbo had been tempted to override his nephew’s offer. He had not really wanted to find out what Esmie would do with the fact that Frodo was incontrovertibly in his bed. More amusement yet of what she would say were it a Dwarf who shared with me, Bilbo wryly thought. If Esmie had to chose between which scandal she would rather spread… A picture of Esmie as a cow caught between two mangers of hay, unable to decide which one to take a bite from almost made Bilbo laugh. He sobered quickly, thinking what Esmie very well might do with this sleeping arrangement. Good thing Prisca is here. She won’t stand for such things to be said in the back halls.
Bilbo could not get back to sleep at that point and simply lay still until Frodo began to stir. He slipped out of bed, lit a lantern, and began to ready himself for the day while Frodo groaned and pulled a pillow over his head to block out the light. Bilbo gave him a playful swat, told him to get himself dressed, and left the room, confident Frodo would not appear for at least another hour.
Bilbo let himself out the Lane Door and enjoyed a walk down to the River and along the bank to the south, watching dawn turn into morning. He found a rock and sat on it, looking at the far bank of the Baranduin. He half hoped that some of the Grey Riders might appear again. Beyond the River Road, the Marish lay wrapped in tendrils of fog. Some faint sounds of harnesses and snorting ponies floated across the River in the damp morning air, and an occasional call from a farmer directing his team or greeting a neighbor punctuated the soft rush of the River. Soon Bilbo had to stand and walk again, for the cold would not let him stay in one place too long.
He was quite hungry by the time he got back to the Hall and made his way to the small dining room. Gilda was going over pantry stores with Maddie and Esmie; Mac, Sara and Dalin were chatting amiably; Merle and Merry were busy demolishing what was on their plates. All chorused “Good morning!” as he approached the table.
‘Good morning,’ Bilbo replied to all there as he went to kiss Gilda. ‘Where’s your good-for-nothing husband?’ he asked her, allowing Maddie to guide him to an empty chair and full plate.
‘He and Wili are checking a lame pony. Where’s my rascal?’
‘Frodo? Still sleeping, I don’t doubt,’ Bilbo answered around a mouthful of eggs. ‘He was exhausted after last night.’ As soon as the words left his mouth, Bilbo would have given anything to be able to have called them back. Esmie did not look up from the ledger in front of her and Gilda, but the corners of her mouth curled up in a knowing smile. Sara shot him a smirk, and raised an eyebrow. Bilbo felt his own cheeks get a little red, and he attended to his plate.
‘It was an exhausting day, yesterday,’ Dalin agreed. ‘A child having to march so far for two days in a row, then being on his best behavior in front of many relatives; that would wear out even a Dwarf.’ Dalin nodded sagely, and poured himself some more tea. Bilbo wondered just how much of the family dynamics Dalin grasped.
Gilda was giving Sara an odd look, though Bilbo doubted the idiot noticed his mother’s gaze. Rory and Wili came through the other door before she could say anything, calling greetings and thumping Bilbo on the back.
‘Will Biddy be all right?’ asked Mac.
‘Oh, certainly,’ assured Wili. ‘It was naught but a loose shoe after all.’
‘Can you see to a new shoe on her before you go down to the village?’ Rory asked, leaning back to let Maddie set his plate down in front of him.
‘Of course, Da.’ Mac replied. Bilbo listened for a few minutes while the boys, Dalin, and Rory discussed where they should go in Bucklebury and to whom they should speak. Dalin is going to be a very busy fellow. The Dwarf sent Bilbo a slightly worried look, to which Bilbo replied with a smirk and a shrug. Dalin sighed and rose to accompany Sara and Mac. Bilbo waved a cheerful farewell.
Taking a bite of roasted potatoes, Bilbo realized this would be a good time to discuss the problems with the root harvest. ‘Wili, Rory,’ he began, ‘I had a rather interesting talk on the Road yesterday with a certain Farmer Haysend from around Whitfurrows.’
Both the other Hobbits nodded recognition of the name. Wili swallowed a bite before replying. ‘The Haysends are a good family. They’re actually down in the east end of the Yale and do quite a bit of business in Stock, as well as in Whitfurrows. Mistress Haysend and her girls weave some of the best cloth in Eastfarthing.’
‘Well, he struck me as a sensible fellow. Good chap, gave us a lift along the Road in his wagon at the end of the day and took us all into Whitfurrows to The Fat Badger. I hope he didn’t go out of his way for us.’ Bilbo was glad to hear that his information source was trusted by Wili and Rory.
‘Anyway, he filled my ear full of the doings in Eastfarthing. Sounds like cousin Odogar is being a bit of an ass. Then I ran into your brother at The Badger, Wili,’ Wili made a face at that news, ‘and he pretty much confirmed everything Farmer Haysend had said, except of course making it sound like a virtue instead of foolishness. Mostly I was reminded of what you and I and the boys talked about when we rode Hedge, Rory. There’s a great deal of business occurring along the road in Eastfarthing.’
‘Aye, and not enough of it coming along the River Road or through the North Gate, if you ask me,’ grumbled Rory. ‘Mac’s had the idea to set up a market just above the Gate on the Road east of the Bridge. See if we can bring some of that business to Buckland.’
‘Is that what you want the stone for?’ Bilbo asked, suddenly figuring out that little mystery.
Rory looked startled. ‘How did you hear about that?’
‘I have my sources,’ Bilbo archly replied. Frodo shuffled in at this point, yawning but looking only moderately scruffy. Merry and Merle mobbed him, while Maddie marched him over to the table laden with food – dragging the little ones along – pausing only long enough for him to give Gilda a peck on the cheek. Maddie shot a murderous look at Bilbo as she felt the boniness of Frodo's shoulder, and Bilbo knew he was in for a dressing-down later. He gave Frodo a small kick under the table to remind the lad to pay attention to what his elders were discussing.
Rory glared while Wili chuckled. ‘Yes, that’s what I’d like to do with it if it ever arrives. Cousin Odogar keeps trying to charge me extra for it.’
‘How much do you need?’
‘Six carts, why?’
Bilbo smiled evilly. ‘I think I can get you that stone in short order, Rory. Let me make an inquiry or two.’ His third cousin, Isenbrand Bunce, handled most of the stone trade out of Scary into Northfarthing and the northern regions of Westfarthing. It would not be too difficult to get a few wagons redirected. He made a mental note to get some reports from Brand to see what condition the stone trade was in. Perhaps I should walk home through the northern route, pay a call on Odogar, and see how things are in Oatbarton.
Which led him to the next topic quite neatly. ‘What has me concerned, though, with what I saw and heard is that the root harvest hasn’t gone well in Eastfarthing. It’s good here and Northfarthing, I know. Haysend was pretty incensed at how Odogar is handling it.’ Wili shot a narrow-eyed stare down the table towards Esmie, and Bilbo mentally slapped himself. Of course! She’ll tell Pal whatever we talk about. A surreptitious look at Esmie showed her absently pondering the pantry ledgers, which meant she was paying attention to their conversation. Bilbo glanced at Gilda, who raised an eyebrow. He flicked his eyes quickly to Esmie, and barely shook his head.
‘I’m tired of sitting here staring at words,’ Gilda announced. ‘Girl, help me up! Maddie, get these stupid ledgers out of my way. We need to look at the pantries. This doesn’t tell me a thing about whether what we have on hand is any good.’ Bilbo winked at Gilda, while Esmie struggled to help her mother-in-law get to her feet. Gilda smiled quite wolfishly at Bilbo. ‘And you, you wretched beggar, you had better have tea with me or I’ll never speak to you again.’ Bilbo nodded his acquiescence. Merry and Merle followed their mother and grandmother out after bestowing kisses on everyone remaining.
Wili let out a great sigh and ran his fingers through his hair. ‘I don’t know what to say. My kinsmen appear to infected with dragon fever.’
Even Frodo perked up at that description. ‘“Dragon fever”? What do you mean, Wili?’ asked Bilbo.
‘An overwhelming desire for every piece of coin you can lay hands on,’ Wili grimly replied.
‘Dwarven-hearted, do you mean?’ pressed Rory.
‘Nay. Well, that, too, but this is a little different. Dwarven-hearted folks, well, they’re just misers and greedy types. They’ve always been about, and as we get more Dwarves and more traffic on the Road, we get more of them. But dragon fever, that’s a desire to turn everything into gold, and as dearly as possible, even if what you need is something else. Cousin Odogar’s been bitten bad by it, and brother Gun, too.’
Yes, it is like a fever. Take all you can grasp and sell it, as though you can burn or eat coins. Bilbo nodded. ‘Yes, Wili, I think you’ve put your finger on it. It’s been nagging at me since the night at The Badger.’
‘It was very strange, Uncle Wili,’ Frodo added. ‘Your brother was talking about selling things away like coal that are needed right there. Even after Mister Dalin told him that the Dwarves wouldn’t need the coal, he wouldn’t hear of using it there in Eastfarthing.’ Bilbo could not have been more proud of Frodo if he’d tried. You were listening, and you understood. Let’s see how well you can explain it. ‘And, then, when the problem of the root harvest came up, he insisted that they needed to get them all the way from Southfarthing, instead of from here in Buckland, or just across the border in Northfarthing. Is that because the Southfarthing potatoes would cost less? They taste like mush, so it can’t be because they’re any better.’
Rory made an exasperated sound. ‘You have it, lad. Rum has more potatoes and other roots than they’ll possibly eat down there. I think they’ve still got roots left over from last year! He’ll trade for stone, maybe, but mostly for coin, and less in coin than Buckland will trade for stone or for hides. But they won’t trade very generously. I’d hate to be the goodwife having to serve a mash made from Southfarthing roots.’
‘That’s another thing,’ Frodo said, brow wrinkled in thought, ‘hides. Gun said there was going to be a tannery put in on the Water near Budgeford. It sounds like it’s going to be big. What about the downriver folk? Bucklebury will be fine, but Stock could be bothered by it, not to mention all the folks along the Water above the junction with the Brandywine. I thought there wasn’t supposed to be a tannery of any size south of Girdley Island or north of Standelf? The smaller rivers aren’t big enough to clean the water.’
‘That’s right, Frodo,’ Wili said. ‘The Bracegirdles’ tannery up on the Island should be where new work goes in, not down on the Water.’
‘Who owns the new tannery?’ Bilbo quietly interjected.
‘If it’s in Budgeford, Gun will have an interest in it, probably a good sized stake,’ Wili replied.
Well, I think I’d better put some money into that tannery after all, Bilbo decided, if only to be sure it doesn’t get built. He hated the idea of keeping some industry from getting underway, but perhaps he could get the Girdley Island tannery expanded, and have something else put in down along the Water between Budgeford and Bridgefields. Dalin had described how the Dale folk used a water wheel to drive things besides grist mills. There was a lumber mill that sounded rather interesting, and some ways the Dwarves and Dale folk had been spinning better, finer wool yarn.
‘Leave worrying about the tannery to me,’ Bilbo said, ‘and let’s figure out what to do about the crops, because that will be a problem soon. As I see it, Odogar and Odovacar are getting snagged into some stupid plan of Rum and Pal’s to get rid of their extra roots, and I suspect this is more Pal’s idea than Rum’s. The Thain doesn’t much concern himself with anything outside of Southfarthing. I don’t doubt but that Rosamunda has a hand in this as well. She and Pal have always been thick as thieves.’
‘Doing a fairly good impression of thieves, from what I can see,’ snapped Rory.
‘So? Let them. If cousin Odogar is foolish enough to spend good coin on withered carrots and sprouted potatoes, that is his business. He’s not the only person in Eastfarthing who knows how to buy and sell. Rory, you look to below the Road. Use Haysend, since you both think he’s trustworthy, to get word around that the Master’s got roots for trade right now. Wili, can your boys be spared to do some riding about and assure people there’s a Bolger behind it?’
‘Not both at once, but they can be spared,’ Wili assured him. ‘And Helga can talk to her Da up near Girdley. Hargo’s been none too happy with Gun or Odogar, and I think he wouldn’t mind sending a few Bracegirdle carts down to the Bridge.’
‘Hargo and Violet are due to visit Seredic and Hilda after Yule. Violet wants to be here when the baby is born,’ Rory offered. ‘I think Hargo wouldn’t mind being talked into having a few wagons sent up that way on the promise of some good harness leather.’
‘Excellent!’ Bilbo looked conspiratorially around the table. ‘I’m already working on getting a trader in Frogmorton connected to some farmers up in Oatbarton, and that will take care of most of north of the Road. Whatever Odogar brings up from Southfarthing, well, that’s good of him to spend his own coin to make sure there’s some extra roots about in case they’re needed.’ The older Hobbits laughed merrily at the thought of outfoxing their cousin.
‘You know, Bilbo,’ Wili said slowly after he had finished laughing, ‘Gis is going to be here for Wintermark, because he’s traveling with Rosa and Odovacar back to Scary to see the grandchildren, and Prisca and I invited them to come here for Yule. Can you have a chat with him and see what he can do up there? You and he are on good terms, right?’
‘Absolutely. I’d love to see Gis! Haven’t done more than exchange letters with him for a few years.’ No thanks to Pal. Bilbo terribly missed seeing some of his older Took kin since Pal’s ban on him coming to the Great Smials. He decided he’d write a letter to Rum, too, and see what sort of trouble he could put into the exchange itself. Rum ordinarily did not care how Pal ran the Farthing, but Bilbo thought he might be able to interest the Thain in doing a bit of Yuletide mischief if it would allow him to upset the plans of his priggish heir.
Bilbo exchanged a bit more chit-chat with Wili and Rory, then excused himself to go take care of letters before the Messenger came by at noon. Frodo was helping one of the kitchen girls pick up the table and flirting with her a bit, so Bilbo did not interrupt. He trusted the lad would keep himself out of Sara’s way during the day. With luck, the only time the two would have to interact would be at meals, and if Frodo continued his sleeping patterns, breakfast would not be one of those meals. I think I will be allowing him to sleep in.
The day went by swiftly, with letters and another stroll to the River and a quick bite in the kitchen for the mid-day meal. Bilbo did not really feel a need to eat more than three times a day anymore. Often a mere two meals and a nibble before bed would suffice. Sometimes he forgot that Frodo might need to eat more often than an old Hobbit, and would be roused from his studies by the sound of the lad rummaging about in the kitchen at Bag End. If Maddie knew that, she would cook me for dinner! Bilbo grimaced as he walked. Is that why Wilwarin is so thin? I really don’t feed him enough? He promised himself to be more conscientious about regular meals when they went back to Bag End.
Bilbo did have an appetite, but it was not for food and he could not quite figure out what it was that he hungered for. Adventure. I want an adventure, he thought as he wandered back to his room. It was close to tea time, and he had a present for Gilda. Bilbo rummaged in his trunk until he found the leather scroll case. I need to go to Rivendell again. That’s what has me feeling all itchy and unfilled. I need to sing with the Elves and listen to fine poetry. Bilbo tucked the case under his arm and made his way to the small front parlor where Gilda held court. And then on to Dale and Erebor. I wonder if Smaug’s carcass is still in the lake? I could take a look at those new mills they’ve set up. He knocked on the door and let himself in.
Gilda sat on a couch under a large, half round window. Ula Proudfoot knelt near her feet. There were various small pouches and baskets of herbs and other substances spread out on the low table before the couch. The lass scrambled to her feet when Bilbo stepped in, giving him a quick, cheerful curtsey, and carefully began gathering up the materials on the table. He now understood why Ula was in Brandy Hall.
‘Gilda, my dear girl, how are you?’ he asked as he stepped around the young Hobbit to take Gilda’s hand.
‘I’m not dead yet, so, well enough,’ Gilda cheerily answered. ‘Have you met my prentice, Ula?’
‘Yes, I have, though only briefly. Frodo introduced her last night.’ Bilbo turned to the girl with a smile and gave her a small bow. ‘I am honored to make your acquaintance once again, Miss Proudfoot.’
Ula smiled at him, but did not stop her table-clearing work. ‘Likewise, Mister Baggins.’ Not a beautiful girl, but handsome and self-assured. Frodo likes her quite a bit. Prenticed to Gilda… Bilbo stepped to the side to let the girl pass now that she collected all the healers’ herb from the table.
‘Will that be all, Mistress?’ Ula politely asked Gilda.
‘That will be all for today, child, though if you would take word to the kitchen that I am ready for my tea with this fool, I would be much obliged.’
‘Good day, then, Mistress.’ Ula dropped a curtsey to Gilda and unhurriedly made her way out of the room. Bilbo set his scroll case down, and gave Gilda a proper kiss hello. He sat on the couch next to her and they exchanged a good, long hug. When they parted, she reached a trembling hand up to stroke his hair.
‘You beggar,’ she teased, ‘When you visit, I never know whether to turn cartwheels or hide the silver.’
Bilbo laughed and took her hand to kiss it. ‘My beautiful girl, I have been a wretched fellow to stay away for so long.’
Gilda shook her head. ‘Save that I want to see my rascal again, I wish that you would not come to visit. ’
‘How can you say that, Gilda? Am I such a horrible guest?’
‘I wouldn’t have you see me this way, Bilbo,’ she replied matter-of-factly. ‘I’m an old, broken-down woman now. I don’t want to be remembered like this, not by you.’
‘The only thing I remember,’ Bilbo said as he took her face in his hands, ‘the only thing I will ever see, is the beautiful girl who danced with me at Grandfather’s birthday, and stole my heart forever.’
Gilda laughed merrily. ‘So, you are blind as well as a fool, is that it?’
‘I’m not blind at all. I see you true.’ He beamed at her, seeing truly the beautiful girl, but also the marvelous woman and the formidable crone. He loved them all. Bilbo picked up the scroll case and brandished it. ‘And I brought you a present!’
‘Should that not wait for Yule?’
‘No, for it isn’t a Yule gift. It just happened to have finally arrived with Dalin. It’s a scroll from Rivendell,’ Bilbo informed her while prying off the scroll case cap. In a trice, he had opened the case, removed the scroll, and was holding it up for Gilda’s inspection.
Gilda smiled in pleasure. ‘Another healer’s scroll! How splendid! I must say I quite approve of your Elf friends. They’ve sent the most marvelous things.’ Bilbo unrolled a bit more, letting her examine the illustrations. ‘You haven’t translated it yet, have you?’
‘No, not yet, Gilda,’ Bilbo admitted. ‘I only got it the night before we set out, so I tossed it in the travel trunk and am going to do some translating while I’m here. There may be some things I cannot figure out, but I’ll make note of them and research it a bit more when I get back home.’
‘Well, we still have that Elvish book you gave Rory after you got back from your adventures, so I suppose you’ll want that to help you translate,’ Gilda considered. ‘What else will you need?’
‘A well lit room; not Rory’s study, for I’ll need for several days and I can’t kick him out for that long.’
‘Oh, you certainly can, if I say so!’ Gilda’s eyes glinted with mischief.
‘Well, I’d rather not overturn too many habits at Yule. I’d prefer to be on speaking terms with my cousin at the end of my stay.’
‘There’s the old dining room two doors off the Lane Door. I’ve been using it for storing a few things, but you should be able to clear off the table near the window. You’ll be able to see who arrives, and who you’ll need to avoid.’
‘Ever the practical one, Gilda,’ Bilbo solemnly joked. ‘Very well, I’ll go excavate my hiding hole after tea. I’m eager to get working on this.’
‘It is beautiful. What does it discuss?’
Bilbo swallowed before answering. ‘Tremors and palsies.’
‘Bilbo!’ Gilda snapped.
‘Gilda!’ Bilbo snapped right back. They glared for a moment.
‘I don’t want your pity.’
Bilbo exhaled angrily. ‘The last thing this is, Mistress, is pity! This is healing! This is the greatest knowledge of such healing as exists in Middle-earth. You are aware, your highness, that you are not the only Hobbit with such an affliction? If this knowledge will heal you, it will heal others as well. Ula can learn this and do good things with it, just as she will use all of your elvish scrolls.’
Gilda relented a little. ‘Very well, Bilbo, though it would have been more useful if you had asked them to write up a scroll on the croup! I’d rather Ula spend her time healing little babes with their whole life yet ahead than tending old dying ladies like myself.’
‘Well, perhaps this scroll will keep you from being that, and she can go tend babes and you can go tend other crones,’ Bilbo answered, not terribly pleased with her words. ‘What is the matter, Gilda? Don’t you want to be healed?’
‘There’s no cure for what ails me, Bilbo.’
‘You don’t know that!’ he cried angrily. ‘You haven’t read this scroll! You have no idea what it might say or what cure it might hold.’
‘Bilbo, love, don’t be so upset,’ she begged. ‘What ails me is what ails all of us at some point, if we’re lucky. I’m old, Bilbo. It’s the result of a long life. Live long enough, you’ll get there eventually. I’m old, and I’m sick, and I’m dying.’
‘I don’t want to hear that!’ Bilbo fumed and stood to pace. ‘This isn’t right! I’m tired of seeing my friends, my kin, those I love, die before me! You’re only eighty-six, Gilda. You’re not that old! I don’t want to be left alone like this. I don’t want to outlive you!’
‘Shh, shh, love, Bilbo, please, don’t fret so much,’ Gilda soothed. ‘You haven’t translated this scroll yet. Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps there will be something. And I swear I shall take on the treatment with good grace, if only to please you. But I don’t think there’s a cure in a scroll. There’s a deeper wrong at work than just palsied limbs.’
Bilbo looked at Gilda and saw something he never thought he would ever see in that face – fear. He stuck a hand in his pants pocket and took hold of his ring. Whenever things because unsettling, it reassured him to worry it between his fingers. The smooth, heavy metal seemed to draw off his concerns and leave him calmer. ‘Tell me what you mean, Gilda, about this deeper wrong.’
‘Can’t you feel it?’ Her voice was low, almost a whisper. ‘It’s all about. Haven’t you seen it? Perhaps not. Rory has a sense. He’s the Master. He knows dirt and the River, he can understand the beasts and listen to things in the wind. Not as good with folk as he likes to believe, but he knows the Delver’s mind. I’m a healer, and the very world around us is unwell, sick at heart. I first sensed this about a dozen years after you returned from your adventures.
‘Oh, things seem prosperous enough. And, in most ways they are. Crops have been plentiful, the weather’s been kind, there is peace and good trade on the Road, and has been since you came back. But small things are wrong in increasing ways. Calves and lambs and babes are too often born too soon, or die too young after they’re born. The mothers breed again well enough, and the lost little things are forgot. But more often it happens, and more often I see things cast from wombs, and these things are deformed. Not just from mares or bitches, but from goodwives, too. There’s dark things at work, and they cling to the newest, weakest lives.
‘When things get sick, they are harder to heal. It is as though an extra burden attaches to the sickness. There are things that I now only use Elf medicine on which once I could cure with Shire herbs and some Hobbit-sense. Healing powers have to be stronger to do the same work. This wrong clings to the soul itself. Hearts become harder, greedier, more spiteful. You men talk like we women can’t understand what you say, but I know that with growing trade are growing troubles. I hear my boys argue about markets on the Road, and I know as well as Rory what it takes to bring coin down into Buckland. I also see the twisting of the hearts that follows these riches. It isn’t Dwarves. We’ve always had Dwarves about, sometimes suspicious folk, sometimes good fellows like Dalin.’
Gilda held her arms out in front of her. They shivered and twitched, a small, constant motion. ‘This, Bilbo, this started four years ago. I woke one night and knew something wrong had happened, that something evil had been thwarted, and was angered. This isn’t my limbs trembling, love. This is my very soul shaking in fear of what is wrong.’
Bilbo clenched his ring in his hand. It’s the Troubles. They’re already here. There’s no time left. ‘This is nonsense, Gilda,’ he weakly replied. ‘Just superstition. What’s this talk about great evil? Things are no better and no worse than they’ve ever been, and there will be something in that scroll that will help you. Old age can’t be cured, it’s true, but illness can. There’s nothing wrong.’
Gilda pulled herself up to her full height, and sent him a glare that would have done Smaug proud. ‘Nothing wrong? You fifteen-kinds of a fool, how can you of all people say there is nothing wrong? Bilbo Baggins, you are what’s wrong!’
‘What do you mean, Gilda?’ he demanded.
‘Bilbo, look at yourself. You don’t age. You don’t change. It is as though a cold breath follows you, keeping you frozen in time. This is out of balance, not right! The wrongness started after you came back from your adventures. It has attached itself to you.’
Bilbo closed his eyes and fought the urge to slip on his ring and disappear. You’re the Troubles, Baggins. You’ve been right all along. You need to leave; not on an adventure, just leave. He groped his way over to a chair, and sat down heavily. What could it have been? A dragon spell? He could no longer believe that Elf food had caused this, not if Gilda said it was a wrong.
‘So, I carry this wrong thing with me, Gilda.’ Bilbo tried to pick out a path through the whirling thoughts. ‘What should I do? What can I do? I’m afraid now, Gilda. I should go. If I’m a danger to you, to the Shire, I should. Go. If I were to leave, would you get better?’ He knew he was babbling, and he did not much care. ‘I can go with the Dwarves. That’s it. I’ve been wanting an adventure these last few years, as though something is calling me to go off again. Yes, yes, I should go. At once. After Yule. I can go to Whitfurrows and find a company of Dwarves heading East, or West – I’ve never been West, perhaps I should go West. I can go with Dalin…’
‘If something is calling you, then you must not answer, love.’ Gilda said with great sternness. ‘Besides, you cannot leave. You have my rascal to care for now.’
‘But, Gilda, if I am causing wrong things to happen, then I should not be near Frodo!’
Gilda gave him a measuring look. ‘Or, perhaps, you need him to help keep away what is wrong. He’s a wrong that’s been righted. I think you need that good influence on you.’
Before Bilbo could question her more closely on her cryptic words, there was a knock at the door to let them know tea had arrived. Soon, a delectable feast had been set out on the low table, and the maid sent back to the kitchen with a pat on the rump and compliments to Maddie. Bilbo looked at the food with dismay. He was not at all hungry.
‘What may I serve you, my dear girl?’
‘A cup of tea and a slice of toast. What was Maddie thinking? She knows I don’t take so much for tea.’
‘Well, we’ll have to do something with all of this, or she shall be quite put out with us.’
Gilda chuckled. ‘Do as I do and feed it to one of the Hall dogs. If you’re careful, Maddie will never know.’
Bilbo drank a cup of tea and thought about Gilda’s words, arguing with himself. There’s something true, even if not everything is known, in what she said, Baggins. I have to go. But I can’t go, I have to care for Frodo. He can be cared for by others, as he has been. Others haven’t cared for him; they’ve used him! You can’t leave him to them, not now. Gilda sipped her own tea, holding the thick stoneware mug in both hands, watching him over the rim.
‘What did you mean, girl, when you called Frodo a wrong that’s been righted?’
‘That you finally did right by him and claimed him. Finally! You should have done so years ago, Bilbo. It hardly seemed like you.’
‘I don’t understand, Gilda,’ Bilbo hedged.
Gilda sent him an amused glance. ‘Of course you understand, you fool. You finally took your son home where he belongs.’
Bilbo did not know how to answer. It had never occurred to him that Gilda would believe the lie. I should simply agree and let her think this. Why shouldn’t I allow her to believe as Rory does? He could not leave her thinking a lie. ‘Gilda. That isn’t true. Frodo does belong in Bag End, not Brandy Hall, but he is not my son. I have merely made him my heir. He is Drogo’s son.’
Gilda shook her head. ‘Drogo had no son. Had he been able to sire a child, he would have done so before Frodo.’
‘Not necessarily! It is possible that Frodo is his first and only child. Had Drogo and Prim lived, perhaps there would have been another.’
‘Bilbo, you know very well that Prim and I were like sisters. I spent a great deal of time helping them try to conceive a child. We tried everything we could think of on both of them.’ Gilda stared down in her tea cup for a bit, then gestured for Bilbo to refill it. ‘She and I had a talk about…’ Gilda considered her words. ‘About how she could bear a child for Drogo.’ Gilda looked him squarely in the eye. ‘I know they talked to you about it. And Frodo came of it.’
Bilbo did not look away. ‘Yes, we talked. Nothing came of it.’ He could tell she did not believe him.
‘Ah, Bilbo, my love,’ she said sadly, ‘you are loyal to a fault.’
‘Meaning that you think I’m lying now, when there is no point in lying anymore, is that it? Since there is no point to lying, perhaps you will see there is no lie? I think I would know were it true, and I would not lie about this to you, Gilda. Were it true, I would tell you. It is not true, so that is what I say. It’s a matter of honesty, not loyalty.’
‘Then why did you say this to Rory?’
Bilbo sighed. ‘I didn’t say it to Rory. Not flat out. I simply kept saying Frodo was “mine” and let him draw his own conclusions.’
Gilda was silent for a while, thinking his words over. ‘I do not believe that Drogo could have sired a child, but Frodo exists, and a child must have a sire. If you didn’t sire him…’ Gilda was silent again, then sighed. ‘It would be for the best if it were you, Bilbo. Otherwise, he’s just another Wintermark bastard.’
‘Gilda, please don’t use that term about my boy. Anyway, aren’t you the one who told me that a child conceived on Wintermark will be born in Winterfilth? Frodo’s a Halimath baby, like myself.’
Gilda shrugged. ‘So, he was conceived in Foreyule. It does not change my opinion.’
‘He is Drogo’s son, whatever you care to believe, Gilda,’ Bilbo said very firmly. ‘Why are you so eager to make a cuckold of my cousin, and a whore of your sister-in-law? They were true to each other and finally, beyond hope, they were blessed with a child. Why do you want to deny that?’
‘Because every child should be able to say who his father is. Frodo deserves the truth.’
‘And he knows it!’
‘Frodo knows enough of breeding to understand that not all males can sire. He is sensible enough to have heard the rumors around the Hall. He’s been in a few scuffles over other boys’ taunts.’
‘Gilda, I fail to see how my claiming, wrongly, to be his sire is supposed to help. It is a lie on top of lies!’ She simply watched him over her tea. ‘Tell me this, Gilda. When I say to you that I did not sire Frodo, do you believe me?’
Bilbo thought her answer came just a bit too quick, but, then again, Gilda was someone who knew her own mind. ‘Then why should I say what is untrue?’
‘If the alternatives are the lie that you sired him at his parents’ request, or the truth that his mother lay with who knows what man without his father’s knowledge, which is kinder? The truth is that he is your heir now and no one is going to contradict you openly, but that some rumors will be easier to repeat and to bear than others. Your duty is to protect him.’
This was going to take some thought. The one thing that will not be believed is the truth. You argued it yourself to Rory. It is easier to make people believe a lie than the truth. But what if Gilda has just said the truth, that Frodo is not Drogo’s? No, no, that cannot be. Prim would not have changed her mind. If she had changed her mind, she would have come back to me. Bilbo set down their tea and took Gilda’s hands in his own.
‘Gilda, dear girl, I only wish to say this once. What I do, or do not, say to Frodo is no concern of yours. In public, the only thing I shall countenance being said is that Frodo is the son of Drogo and Primula Baggins. Within these halls, the only thing that shall be said aloud is that he is their son. I am counting on you and on Rory to be sure that my wishes are obeyed.’
‘The Master and the Mistress shall see that it is done as you request, Mister Baggins.’ He could see that she disapproved, but would do as he asked.
‘Give me time to consider all the possibilities, Gilda, that is what I ask for.’ He dropped her hands, and returned her mug to her.
‘All right, love, but don’t take too long. The older Frodo gets, the more difficult his questions are going to be, especially if he has no answers in the meantime,’ Gilda softly replied. Then she cocked her head, and her face took on a more familiar expression, one of curiosity. ‘So, beggar, tell me this. Why did you wait so long to claim him, and when you did, why in such a rush?’
This was dangerous territory. Gilda would not be satisfied with half-answers, but he had promised Frodo not to speak of certain things. Well, I can talk about Esmie. Gilda will enjoy taking on her daughter-in-law. It is for the Mistress to run the women’s side of the Hall. ‘I told you when we left, Gilda. It had to be Frodo’s decision. He had to be ready to leave, and he had to want to leave with me.’
‘Rory said it was because he was being bullied.’
Bilbo nodded, ‘That was part of it, yes. But he needed to decide what he wished to do about the bullies. Or else remain a child and let others decide for him.’
‘How was he being bullied?’
‘Frodo spoke to me in confidence, which I shall not violate,’ Bilbo replied.
Gilda sized him up. ‘Is he like you or like Rory? Which side of the family does he take after?’ Bilbo gave her a quizzical look. ‘Is he messing with the other boys because he likes bedding boys, or because he just wants some practice until he’s old enough for the girls?’
‘You never have been one to mince words, Gilda,’ Bilbo said weakly. She smiled wickedly. ‘Neither, in truth. It really wasn’t his choice to do any of it, as far as I can tell. I think he is more like Rory than myself; he seems rather to be taken with the girls. In any event, he needs to grow up a bit more before such things should even be asked.’
Gilda nodded, satisfied. ‘And what was Sara doing to him?’
Bilbo slowly sipped his tea, mulling over all the answers he could possibly give, and not violate his promise to Frodo. ‘I’m afraid I cannot say, Mistress. You will have to ask Sara.’
‘Is he why you ran? They had been fighting worse in the last few months.’
Bilbo lied with a partial truth. ‘No. Esmie was the reason, though I knew that Sara was becoming more harsh. I had an argument with her just before Harvest that convinced me I needed to leave with Frodo at once, if he would go with me.’ He hoped Gilda would follow after Esmie’s role and leave aside the question of Sara.
‘He didn’t want to go with you?’
‘This is the only home he had known, Gilda. He loves you and Rory dearly, and his little cousins. He didn’t want to leave! It took a good deal of convincing to get him to come with me.’ And he still loves it more than Bag End. Well, that will change. After this visit, we will have a long time for Wilwarin to make Bag End home. I did. He will.
‘You have left him almost too long, beggar,’ she chastised him. ‘He’ll not give over his heart as easily as he might have were he more of a child.’ Gilda went silent again, then nodded. ‘And he no longer wishes for childish things. Has she bedded him?’
Bilbo thought a while before answering. ‘Rory didn’t seem to object very much to the idea.’
‘He’s a bit too fond of her himself.’ Bilbo’s eyebrows did their best to touch the ceiling, and Gilda snorted at him. ‘Calm yourself, Baggins! Rory doesn’t even pinch the kitchen girls – unlike yourself! – but he’s not above a little wishful thinking.’ Bilbo began to speculate a bit about the nature of Gilda’s disdain for her daughter-in-law. ‘What did she say of you to him?’
Bilbo shrugged nonchalantly. ‘That I would take him to Bag End and debauch him.’
Gilda’s eyes smoldered. ‘I think my daughter-in-law is a mischievous Took with entirely too much time on her hands. I shall have to correct this matter.’
Bilbo smiled genially. ‘I believe cousin Prisca would be quite happy to assist you in this matter. She also seems to think that Esmie’s talents need to be applied closer to her own bed.’
‘I am very happy with the grandchildren I have,’ Gilda mused, swirling her tea gently in the cup. ‘I can’t say I would be upset if Merle and Merry were all I saw from Sara.’ She sipped. ‘Esmie usually gets a rather serious cough and light fever from the winter damp off the River in Afteryule. Poor thing. There’s some Elf medicine I can use for it, though it is very strong.’ Bilbo stared at Gilda, a bit shocked. She gave him a cold look. ‘Make sure you keep Frodo out of her bed during this visit. It won’t be a problem afterwards.’
His dismay must have shown on his face, for she said, ‘Think no more on it, beggar.’ Gilda watched him over the top of her mug. ‘This is a Hall matter for the Mistress to decide.’
He bowed his head to her. ‘Of course, Mistress.’ Bilbo refreshed his tea and tried not to show how shaken he was at Gilda’s threat. She was a midwife and knew everything there was to know about bearing, or preventing, babes. There was no doubt but that she could carry out her plans. A part of him felt like warning Esmie. She reaps what she sows, Baggins. The Queen of Calamities would still use Wilwarin could she but snare him. But Gilda seeks a vengeance that goes beyond a threat to her rascal. That is for the Mistress to do, Baggins. Leave the Spider to her fate.
Bilbo cast about for something else to discuss. ‘Gilda, when Frodo and I left in Halimath, we were able to gather together a trunk full of Prim’s linens to take to Bag End. I know Drogo and Prim had some other household items that should now be Frodo’s, but I’m not sure what they are exactly, and I’m not certain where I would find them. We had to hunt about for the linens, and I found all the best had somehow ended up with Esmie.’
Gilda’s eyes lit up. ‘Well, I have their will and I know exactly what was in their estate. I do believe that I shall have a talk with the Master and that we shall make a Yule present of delivering all of it to Frodo, so he needn’t worry about making such arrangements himself. Or bother you with them.’
‘I would be very grateful, my girl, if you would. The lad has little enough of them left to him. It galls me to think others have taken any of it away.’
‘But now he has all of you, and you will be enough.’
‘I hope so, Gilda.’
‘Whomever he belonged to before, beggar, he is yours now,’ Gilda said kindly, ‘and however he came to be, it is no mistake that he is with you.’
‘As usual, my girl, you leave me befuddled.’
Gilda smiled into her cup. ‘Something so close will call you quite loudly, Bilbo. No more adventures for you until my rascal is of age, you beggar!’
Bilbo laughed a little ruefully. ‘Wilwarin is more than enough of an adventure, dear girl. I need not leave the Shire to be thoroughly exhausted.’
They both laughed, then Gilda told him to find a Hall dog to clean up the rest of their tea.
Minor Characters introduced this chapter:
Maddie – OC, Head cook at Brandy Hall
Brand – Isenbrand Bunce, OC. Bilbo’s third cousin. Stone merchant in Scary, Eastfarthing.
Rum – Ferumbras Took III, Thain. Bilbo’s first cousin, once removed.
Pal – Paladin Took II, Heir of the Thain. Esmie’s older brother.
Gis – Sigismond Took. Bilbo’s first cousin.
Rosamunda – Rosamunda Took Bolger. Gis’ daughter, wife of Odovacar Bolger, Bilbo’s first cousin, Frodo’s second cousin.
Hargo – Hargo Bracegirdle, OC. Head of Bracegirdle clan, brother to Lobelia.
Violet – Violet Bracegirdle, OC. Wife of Hargo.
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