POV - Bilbo
In which Bilbo and Frodo confront the unspoken secret.
7 Afteryule, 1390
I hope this finds you well and safely back in your smial.
I fear we must move quickly on the great plan we discussed at Yule. I’m hearing talk of building ferries across Shirebourn and Thistle Brook to bypass the Road entirely and bring all trade from Southfarthing up through The Marish, possibly using the Bucklebury Ferry to send things out east of the bridge. I now think Brandybuck has his sights set on seizing Eastfarthing from the Shirebourn north to the Stock Road along with The Yale and folding it into Buckland. Is there no end to the collusion between Rory and Rum?
We must be ready by the Free Fair to present the plan at The Moot. It won’t be accepted, not this year, but it must be made known. Who knows? Perhaps if there is enough support, we can get it agreed to this year. And that will be the greatest task, to line up support.
Obviously, each of us must secure the assent of our clans. The Bolgers are united on this, save for Wili who still stands beholden to Rory. I’m counting on you to encourage Prisca to make her husband see sense as Gun has had no luck with him. How stand the Baggins, particularly the Chubb-Baggins? I’ve warned Bertie to say nothing to Poppy until you could secure Falco’s support. Cousin Otho will, of course, support it.
I will speak with these clan heads: Brockhouse, Sandheaver, Goldworthy, Underhill, and Goold. You speak with: Burrows, Proudfoot, Goodbody and Boffin. I know they are in-laws, but your ties to Griffo Boffin are closer than mine, and you have better standing with the clan, given your mother and his marriage to your niece. I don’t recall them being especially close to the Brandybucks despite the maternal kinship. I’m not sure anyone can talk to the Bracegirdles. Otho is the only one who comes to mind. Do you agree?
Have you thought more on the boundaries? I’m beginning to think it should reach west to Nobottle and not stop at Waymeet.
8 Afteryule, 1390
Perhaps you have already heard; Uncle Flame died on 30 Foreyule. I didn’t say so in my earlier letters as I didn’t wish to darken your Yule. Uncle Gis and Aunt Petunia are the only ones left here now with a kind word for me besides Mother. In much better news, we have a new nephew! Eglantine safely delivered a boy yesterday. He’s small, but strong. They’ve given him some ridiculous name, but I call him Pip.
Dare I ask after the mischief you intend to do with the accounting of the gifts? Probably best that I don’t. I will send it today to Widow Grubb. Do you need more, by the way? I usually need four days to locate stores that Pal hasn’t squirreled away for his own purposes.
I did not think I’d ever encounter a more irritating fool than Pal, but I believe your cousin Odogar has achieved that dubious honor. Thankfully, I can find no discernible point of relation between him and me. His son, Odovacar, alas, has been joined to the Took family tree. Perhaps we can prune that branch?
Pal has been storming about trying to figure out who he loathes more – me, you or Rory. You’ve been making a habit of taking away his playthings lately, so I think it’s you. Though I’m jealous you have a new boy around. I hope you won’t make him as miserable as you have made me.
I have a new team and I’m taking them to the Free Fair for the show. Please say you’ll be there? I haven’t seen you in so long. I won’t even press you to go riding.
14 Afteryule, 1390
The weasel left a few toes behind, but wiggled from the full trap. Never fear, the roots have been retrieved from the cellar and are none have lost coin over it. Save the weasel. Pitt thought it great sport.
How much can your not-so-disreputable cousin get for us? Even at a dear coin, I fear we’ll need all Southfarthing can spare. The days are wetter and colder than they should be, there’s no good harvest news below the Road, and word is that Northfarthing didn’t get as strong a harvest as first thought. People are not eager to share. I worry about Rethe and maybe into Astron.
Remember to save a dance for me at the Free Fair, thief.
18 Solmath, 1390
I’m not sure how much more Northfarthing can send to the Road this winter. Roots are not as good out by the western Bounds as I had been told Blotmath past. Everything promised through Solmath will be delivered, of course.
I’ve been hearing some strange rumors, cousin, from a few people, but most directly from Cousin Cissy down in The Marish. She’s married to Prisca and Wili’s oldest boy, Bard, if you recall. It sounds like Odogar is up to something stupid again, and has been tossing your name about. Are you still planning to tramp up to Oatbarton for a stay this Rethe? I think we should have a talk.
There’s naught else important going on up here. Someone saw a wolf north of Greenfields, but it ran off, and someone else says they heard Elves singing. Every other odd thing can be traced back to a mug.
Dilly and Cissy are going with their men to the Free Fair this year, so we’ll probably join them and then let them take Bargo and Bluebell back to Buckland.
Bag End, Morning, 01 Rethe, 1390
Bilbo read the letter from Isenbrand Bunce, his stone merchant cousin up in Scary, lips set in a thin line. His warning to Gun that Rory might cancel the stone order had the desired effect of putting the Buckland order ahead of all the others and slowing down whatever construction Odogar and Old Will had been planning in Whitfurrows until the ground was nice and muddy. It also put the stone into Rory’s hands to use as the Master pleased. He had not been surprised to get a letter from Rory shortly after they returned to Bag End that there would be no need for dwarves in Buckland until at least next year. Bilbo was a little concerned that there had been no other news from Buckland since then. He and Frodo had finished the rest of the elven scroll translation by the end of Afteryule, but had not received questions and corrections back from Gilda yet. Give them time, Baggins. There were a lot of raw wounds to scab over when you left. And plenty other nonsense from his more ethically challenged relatives to deal with while he waited for letters.
While the winter may not have turned as savage as the Fell Winter, it was bad enough. The threat of frost was almost past and some fields were already being prepared for their spring crops, but there was some fear that want would still show its face ere warmth returned with full spring. Good roots were in short supply in more than just Eastfarthing. Maud warned about that.
Odogar and Pal were still trying to cheat people and scant tables throughout lower Eastfarthing and it was getting harder to counter them because the stores were being drawn down. Roots were simply more dear than usual, though their avarice made it worse. Rum had run out of his own supplies and was not quite clever enough to get more. He’s clever enough. He just doesn’t care. Bilbo suspected that the game had lost its amusement for the Thain and he had moved on to more satisfying distractions.
This meant that Bilbo had been forced to be doubly clever. Sheep from past Tighfield had been traded for apples from Long Cleeve, which then got sent for leaf down in Sackville (Cousin Otho has been quite helpful in that regard, mostly because it had been his leaf), which in turn made its way up to Greenfields which had not many people and very large amount of potatoes and rutabagas. Why didn’t Rufus know about this? Was he hiding it? Bilbo shook his head as soon as the thought came to him. No one told him and he didn’t remember to ask. Or didn’t think it worth sending carts. Cousin Bunce had been able to round up a few battered stone carts that needed repairs but were sound enough to haul a few hundredweight of vegetables down the long road from Greenfields. Be fair, Baggins. Rum got you the teams to pull the wagons. The Thain took his horses seriously.
With a frown, Bilbo picked up the latest letter from Odogar. The man was livid over the alleged plots of the Thain and the Master, but had not yet caught on to Bilbo’s role in confounding his plans. He also did not seem to have learned of the fact that there was a new heir to Bag End. When he does… There was no way that Odogar would remain in ignorance until the Free Fair. Bilbo had begun contacting all of the clan heads as Odogar had requested, not that he was not in regular correspondence with most of them, but these recent letters hinted at the possibility of big things happening at the Free Fair, all of it concerned with the Road. He wanted to get a sense of the different attitudes – who was wary, who was curious – and figure from there how to approach the subject of a new farthing. And make sure it will be soundly rejected come Lithe. He was not sure he could keep the charade going that long. Perhaps the disapproval will be strong enough beforehand that Odogar will reconsider. Somehow, Bilbo doubted his Bolger cousin would be reasonable.
Rory would say use the fool’s actions to do right and right a wrong. This thought made Bilbo scowl, and snort a bit about stupid kin. There is no right in this, Master. Only wrongs. He had been taken aback at Rory’s approval of Odogar’s plan. Dividing the Shire was a terrible idea, especially in the face of the Troubles. That was how Bilbo had come to think of everything wrong or out of sorts. The sickened land. The marching armies. The sense of dread. Where is Gandalf? I need to talk to him about this. He slipped his hand in his pocket and toyed with his ring. Perhaps he should tramp into Southfarthing instead of up north. Troubles came from the south and he needed to keep an eye on that.
Bilbo caught a motion in the corner of his eye and looked out his study window in time to see Frodo, well bundled against the day’s chill, cut through the kitchen garden to get to the back door. A moment later, he heard the door open and close, swiftly followed by the sound of the door to Frodo’s room opening and closing. Bilbo smiled, glad his lad had taken time for a jaunt this morning; it looked like rain would fall later today. He let go of the ring and wiped a few inkblots off his fingers with a handkerchief before sorting through a stack of paper on the desk. He quickly found Frodo’s adoption papers and re-read them. He liked doing this. It made him happy to see the date “22 Halimath 1389” on the document. Their birthday and the best present anyone had ever given him. Almost six months, Wilwarin. Half a year. That is how long Frodo had been his. Bilbo’s smile slipped somewhat when he thought about what had transpired over that time. It was easier now, since Yule and the disastrous trip to Buckland. He trusts me. Only me. The thought made the old hobbit tremble a bit. Frodo’s innocent declaration the day after their return - I would do anything you wished. I trust you. - had claimed Bilbo’s heart in a way that no one, not even Gilda, had ever done.
Frodo was more affectionate now than before Yule, though he still did not want quite as many hugs as Bilbo would have liked to bestow. No, Baggins, he’ll accept them. He just doesn’t return them. Bilbo grumbled to himself a bit on that thought, knowing it was his own fault that the lad was still shy. He did not try to seduce anyone. You’re wrong, Mistress. But he knew Frodo was wary of doing anything that might seem provocative, lest it anger him. To Bilbo’s delight, Frodo had continued to sit at his feet almost every night and permit himself to be touched. He was very careful not to trespass upon the lad, just giving the boy’s shoulder a gentle rub or stroking his hair a few times to show he understood the innocence of the gesture, but mostly lightly resting his hand over Frodo’s on the lad’s shoulder. He needed this time of happiness after a day of dealing with the stupidity and cupidity of his odious kin.
After they had rested from their Yule trip, Frodo had begun to explore the lands around Hobbiton and the Hill by himself, which Bilbo thought a good thing. Bilbo tried to be sure they went on a longer tramp to some specific place each week or ten-day – when the weather turned better he planned a long tramp into Northfarthing to talk to Rufus and take note of things – but mostly he tried to give his lad some room in which to make Hobbiton his own. It will be home, Wilwarin.
A rumble in his stomach let him know it was nearing lunch time and Bilbo wondered why Frodo had not started poking about in the kitchen. Carefully replacing the adoption papers in their stack where he could always find them, the old hobbit bustled into the kitchen to get lunch on the table. Baggins, what are you thinking, letting lunch go so late? If you’re hungry, Frodo must be famished! Bilbo scolded himself as he pulled things from the oven, collected bread, butter and cheese from a pantry, and set the tea kettle to boiling. ‘Frodo, lunch is almost ready, wash up!’ he called down the hallway. In a trice, the table was laid, the food set out and all was ready for the meal.
Except there was no Frodo. Bilbo stood very still listening for the sound of the boy washing up. Nothing. ‘Frodo?’ he called again. Nothing. Worried, Bilbo strode down the hall to Frodo’s room and tapped on the door. ‘Frodo, lad, it’s lunch. Is something the matter?’ Just as he was reaching out to open the door, he heard a chair being pushed back. Ah, woolgathering with a book, Bilbo thought in relief and put on his most cheerful smile.
And lost it again when Frodo opened the door. Frodo’s hair was mussed, he had a darkening bruise next to one eye, his lip was swelling, and his shirt had dirt and a bit of blood on it. The look in his eyes was apologetic. After his initial shock wore off, Bilbo resisted the urge to scold and simply asked, ‘Did you win?’
Frodo smirked. ‘Yes.’
Since it was unlikely the lad had taken any great harm, Bilbo let his ire show and Frodo’s expression became more penitent. ‘Are you hurt? Beyond what I can see.’
‘No, Uncle. A few bruises.’
‘And who did you fight?’
Frodo’s face went red and he stared at the floor. After a few seconds, he said, ‘Lotho.’
Bilbo sighed. This was not good. He suspected he knew the topic of their disagreement. ‘Where did you two tangle?’
‘And you came right home?’
Bilbo calculated times and distances and sighed again. ‘Wash up quickly. We’ll just have time for a bite before Lobelia shows up.’ Lunch was swift and silent. Bilbo had no appetite and took only a slice of bread with his tea, letting Frodo have most of the food. As he sipped his tea, he studied the marks on Frodo’s face while the boy ate. The blood on the shirt was from Lotho, he suspected, as Frodo’s nose was not bloodied nor was his lip split. Lobelia will be out for some in return. Just as Frodo finished the last of the meal on his plate, there was a ferocious knock on the door. I’ll bet Lobelia left a bigger mark with her umbrella than Gandalf did with his staff. Frodo sat up, alarmed. ‘Go to your room, Frodo, and stay there until I call for you. And change your shirt. Be presentable.’
Bilbo waited until Frodo was safely in his room before answering the door. Lobelia had her arm raised with umbrella in hand, ready to strike the door again. Bilbo took a moment to study the damage to the door. Definitely a bigger mark. Half-hidden behind Lobelia was Lotho, clothes muddy and face bloodied, looking mean. Bilbo did not offer any false courtesy. ‘Come in, Lobelia.’ Without waiting, he turned on his heel and walked ahead of the two, leading them to the parlor. He did not want them going any further into the smial than that. Bilbo positioned himself in front of the window, crossed his arms and waited for Lobelia to speak.
‘You need to rein in that Brandybuck, Bilbo Baggins!’ she snarled at him. ‘The little monster attacked my poor boy and thrashed him!’ She grabbed Lotho’s arm and pushed the boy forward to stand between them.
Frodo did give you a solid thrashing, didn’t he? ‘All the Brandybucks I know are presently in Buckland, Lobelia. You need to talk to the Master if they have done harm.’
‘You know full well who I am talking about!’ Lobelia fumed. ‘That no-good nephew of yours, Frodo!’
‘Two young fellows have a fist fight over something stupid. It happens all the time. This is nothing of any importance.’ He spared a glance for Lotho who started to nod, then shook his head vigorously when he caught his mother’s glare. ‘So you didn’t have a fist fight? I am confused.’
Lotho opened his mouth to speak, then thought better of it and looked at his mother. Ah, you don’t really want to be here. Bilbo had a flash of sympathy for the boy.
‘The problem is your hooligan ward, Bilbo, and you know it!’ Lobelia spat. ‘You need to do something about this!’
Still unwilling to acknowledge my heir, eh? ‘Well, first, let me find out what has actually happened.’ He stepped around the Sackville-Bagginses and walked to the hallway. ‘Frodo, come to the parlor.’ Bilbo resumed his place at the window and waited. In a minute, Frodo walked in to the parlor, looking calm and clean, if a bit bruised. Little monster, eh, Lobelia? Which of our boys better fits that description? Bilbo fixed Frodo with a stern eye. ‘Frodo, I want the truth plain. Did you thrash your cousin Lotho?’
Frodo kept his eyes on Bilbo’s face. ‘Yes, sir.’ Bilbo glanced at the older boy, whose face was beet red, though whether from anger or humiliation, Bilbo was not certain. You’d rather not acknowledge that your younger cousin is more than a match for you. He suspected Lotho would have preferred to plot some private revenge than be dragged here by Lobelia. He turned his attention back to Frodo, making his face as forbidding as he could. The lad swallowed and looked a bit less collected.
‘Did you call each other names? Were you also provoking? Out with it!’
‘Yes, sir.’ Lobelia and Lotho started to look pleased.
Bilbo used his coldest voice. ‘Have I not made clear to you, Frodo, that I disapprove of brawling?’
His lad hung his head. ‘Yes, sir. You have.’
‘You will apologize, now, for having struck your cousin.’
Frodo took a deep breath, raised his head and looked Lotho in the eye. ‘I apologize, Cousin Lotho, for having struck you. I know better than to brawl and I am sorry.’
Bilbo shot a nasty look at Lotho and snapped, ‘Well?’
Lotho stared back, mouth gaping, for a moment. ‘I, uh, I, I…’ he glanced at Lobelia, who was staring angrily at Bilbo, knowing she had just been outfoxed. ‘Apology accepted, Cousin Frodo!’ Lobelia turned her stare on her bumbling son. You shouldn’t have said “cousin.”
‘Frodo, go to your room and do not leave it until I give you permission.’
‘Yes, sir.’ With a quick bob of his head to Bilbo and another to Lobelia, Frodo left.
Bilbo turned his cold eyes on to Frodo’s tormenter. ‘And now for you, Lotho.’ Bilbo held up a hand to forestall Lobelia’s protests. The boy quailed before Bilbo’s contemptuous look. He was a pale, lumpish boy who did not seem a bit like a Baggins. There was none of Frodo’s presence in him, or even Lobelia’s, though he was certainly just as petty and jealous as his mother. A sneak and a bully who can be cowed. ‘Where were you two fighting?”
‘Other side of the Hill.’
‘In public? Where any could see the two of you behaving like a pair of sots from The Ivy Bush?’ Lotho nodded. ‘Who insulted first?’
‘I di…don’t remember!’
‘And who threw the first blow?’
‘Me. ‘Cause he was rude!’ For the first time, a little fire came to Lotho’s face.
‘And on what did you argue?’ Bilbo knew this could be a dangerous question, but counted on the boy’s cowardice and embarrassment to keep the worst from being said.
‘You didn’t ask him that!’
Bilbo was surprised by Lotho’s challenge. Perhaps there’s something of Lobelia in you after all. ‘No, I didn’t, but I will, and I will compare what the two of you say. It sounds like you picked a fight and then got the worst of it.’
‘He didn’t fight fair! Just like a Brandybuck. I told him he’s a Brandybuck, not a Baggins, and he should go back there,’ Lotho snarled.
‘And not take up space in Bag End?’ Bilbo pleasantly added, to which Lotho started to nod, then stopped as Bilbo gave him Smaug’s glare. ‘You, Lotho, are a bad-mannered child and deserved your thrashing. Go wait in the front hall.’ When the youngster left, Bilbo turned his attention to Lobelia. She was radiating fury. He said nothing, waiting for her to make the first move.
‘He should go back.’
Bilbo was curious as to how strongly Lobelia was going to pursue this line. That depends on whether she has spoken to Odogar or to Hargo. ‘Why? A Baggins belongs in Hobbiton.’
‘He’s no Baggins.’
Odogar. Hargo would have warned her about a certain secret no longer being so secret. Odogar was determined to pursue his plan for carving out Centralfarthing, and knew he would need Bracegirdle support, no matter what he said in his letters. He planned to gain it by dangling this prize before them. Perhaps he knows about me naming Frodo my heir, but thinks I can be shamed into changing my mind. Lobelia already believed Bag End was rightfully hers and probably fully believed the rumors about Frodo’s bastardy. A Baggins heir with ties to both Buckland and the Tooks was the last thing either would want. Perhaps Odogar has been sending letters to you, too, Lobelia.
Bilbo had some sympathy for Otho and acknowledged to himself that Otho’s claim to head the clan was stronger than Frodo’s. Without the adoption, Frodo was, at best, the fifth in line to be the Baggins headman, while Otho was second. Otho was not a bad sort, and a better hobbit than those immediately around him. Most particularly your wretched son and his scheming mother. Bilbo hardened his heart.
‘I don’t understand, Lobelia. I mean I do understand you think I’m a very wicked hobbit for having returned to prevent your in-laws from appropriating Bag End, but I don’t understand your words about Frodo.’
‘You are the definition of “wicked,” Bilbo!’ Lobelia sneered. Bilbo sighed at the old jibe. ‘Wicked, unnatural, disreputable, unrespectable…’
‘Yes, yes, Lobelia, all that and even more you cannot comprehend, but what has this to do with Frodo?’
‘That he is not in any way a Baggins.’ She gave him a smug look. ‘You thought you could keep that secret in Buckland, didn’t you Bilbo?’ Her eyes traveled around the room, admiring the woodwork. ‘It would not be fair for Bag End to go to some Wintermark bastard out of Buckland. This smial has seen too many perversities.’ Her gaze snapped back to his and did not waver. ‘The rumors will get worse until the truth is known by all if you do not change your heir to Otho.’
Bilbo forbade himself to slap the miserable woman. Another nasty spider who needs to be caught in her own web. Bilbo began to suspect that Odogar knew full well about Frodo being named his heir. He just doesn’t think it will matter, not with Lobelia to do his dirty work. There was no doubt but that she was the source of the rumors here in the central Shire. Otho knew better. It was time for Lobelia to know better, too.
Bilbo put on a charming smile. ‘Lobelia, where are my manners? I have been back from Buckland for these many weeks and I have yet to offer up my congratulations!’
‘On your first grandchild. Hilda’s boy. Doderic, isn’t it?’
Lobelia’s face went white and for a moment Bilbo was afraid she would faint. Then her gaze became steely. ‘What are you babbling on about, Baggins? That is my grand-nephew. You really are mad!’
‘No, Lobelia, I know all about your bastard daughter. I’ve known since before she was born. And, unlike the baseless rumors you fling at Frodo, this is backed up by an unimpeachable source.’
‘Who? Who says such a thing?’ she hissed.
This time, Lobelia did end up on the floor, though she did not faint. Her legs gave out and she sat with a thump, hands over her mouth. Bilbo let the shock settle in, then knelt on the floor facing her. After a few minutes she shook her head. ‘You lie.’
‘Otho didn’t tell you.’
Bilbo found it interesting that she did not deny the child or even that he knew, just who would have told him. ‘Otho wasn’t the first to tell me, but he was the first to confirm. He’s the one I believed.’
‘Why would he tell you? You lie!’
‘Clan business.’ Bilbo spoke firmly. ‘This is what a clan head is supposed to deal with.’ She watched him, color starting to return to her face. ‘The midwife who attended you when you carried Hilda was trained by Menegilda Goold, and had let the Mistress know that some wicked fellow by the name of Baggins had dishonored a sweet young lass, though she said naught beyond that. The Mistress told me that I needed to bring this knave to heel and make him restore the lass’s honor, as that is the duty of a clan head. But I did not know who he was nor who the lass was, and I began asking a few trusted people some delicate questions.’ It was Prisca who had supplied her brother’s name as the likely kinsman. ‘The first name I heard was Posco’s, though I knew not the lass, so I asked Otho to visit me on a serious clan matter, as I had heard that Otho had been around the fellow about the time he would have been fooling with the young lady.’
Bilbo had not been prepared for the explosion of anger from his young cousin when asked about Posco’s wicked deed. Otho had stormed about Bilbo’s study, castigating his kinsman for having so crudely used Lobelia. He told Bilbo that he had already confronted the man and had promised to do him violence should Posco breathe a word about his dalliance with the girl and demanded to know who had let slip the secret. When Bilbo had told Otho the greater news, that Posco’s fooling probably got a child on Lobelia, he had been forced to call Drogo to help him wrestle the enraged young hobbit to the floor, lest Otho storm out and try to kill his cousin. Only the argument that to do so would make Lobelia’s shame known to all had kept Otho from doing as he wished. Quiet inquiries had found out another girl Posco had shamed and Bilbo decided it was time to put an end to his libertine ways. He, Otho and Drogo had gone to Needlehole, confronted Posco with his misdeeds, beaten him severely, then made him wed the second girl to preserve her honor, though Drogo had been ready to do so if she rejected Posco. For some reason, the silly thing was sweet on her straying beau and gladly consented to the match. Otho would hear of nothing concerning Lobelia save that she was his. Bilbo had always admired Otho for his loyalty to Lobelia.
‘Otho confirmed to me that Posco had said crude things of you and had been warned to say nothing else. I took him and Drogo, and we paid a visit to Posco. He was beaten soundly and told that even worse would be done to him if tried to retaliate against you or your family or anyone else involved. He was not told about Hilda.’ Bilbo cocked his head and gave Lobelia another charming smile. ‘I think it interesting that the father of the young man you are so maliciously defaming was one of the few people your husband trusted to help defend your honor in similar circumstances, don’t you? That I have walked about all these years with your deepest secret in my possession and have never used it to your detriment, no matter how vile you have been to me and mine?’ He let his voice turn to ice. ‘I tire of protecting your honor when you so easily impugn mine and Frodo’s.’
Bilbo stood and walked back to the window. Lobelia pulled herself to her feet and stared at him a long minute. ‘And if I say another word, you’ll defame me, my daughter, her child, and my husband, is that it, Baggins? Is that your bargain?’
‘No, Lobelia. That is the bargain you would strike. I am not dealing with you.’
‘Then what are you going to do? Who are you dealing with?’
‘If the rumors keep spreading, you’ll find out.’ Bilbo turned his back to her. ‘You may go, Lobelia.’
After a moment, he heard her leave the room. He watched her and Lotho hurry down the path to the lane and continue down the Hill before going to his study and preparing himself a pipe. He knew he needed to speak to Frodo, but he did not know exactly what he wanted to say or to hear. He’s heard this since his parents died and people thought it amusing to torment a little child with few protectors. Bilbo sat and smoked, not wanting to understand the obvious thing but unable to remain blind, given Frodo’s own words. Wilwarin doesn’t think he is Drogo’s son. The worst part was Bilbo was not sure he could convince the boy otherwise. Though tempted to smoke another pipe, Bilbo knew it would be cruel to make Frodo wait longer. He knows what we will talk about, Baggins. He has been waiting for this conversation for months.
Bilbo walked to Frodo’s door and tapped. It opened at once. Bilbo took a moment to size up the boy. The bruises stood out quite strongly now, even in the dim hallway, but Frodo did not appear to be in any discomfort. His face was unreadable. ‘I think we need to talk, lad.’ Frodo nodded once. ‘It may be a long talk. Are you hungry? I would not have you hungry while discussing serious things.’
‘No, Uncle, I’m fine. I don’t think I can eat until after we talk.’ Bilbo led them into the study. Frodo pulled his pipe out of his pocket and handed it over for Bilbo to prepare. When he would have sat at Bilbo’s feet, the old Hobbit indicated for Frodo to take the seat opposite him at the other side of the hearth. Though he longed to be touching Frodo while they talked, Bilbo knew it was better to be able to see the lad’s face clearly and directly.
‘I have some questions for you, Frodo,’ Bilbo began, ‘though I do not require any answers. Do you have any for me before I start?’
‘Are you angry with me?’
‘With what I presently know? Not really. I doubt anything you say will give me reason to be angry with you.’ Frodo nodded but said nothing. Bilbo sighed and began. ‘First, I’d like to understand this fight today a bit better. How did you and Lotho meet?’
‘I was walking on the other side of the Hill, just walking. I’d gone to Overhill and was coming back. Lotho was walking to Overhill. I don’t know his business. He never said.’
‘Did he start with the taunts?’
‘Yes. But I was rude back to him.’
Lotho told the truth on that, then. ‘Who struck first?’
‘He did, so I taught him not to do that again.’ Frodo’s words were delivered calmly, and his expression was definitely that of the Old Took.
‘And what did Lotho say?’
Frodo drew on his pipe a few times before answering, but looked more like he was recalling words than avoiding speech. ‘He said well, if it isn’t Frodo Baggage. I greeted him as Loathsome Sackless-Baggins as cheerfully as I could.’ Bilbo could not quite keep a straight face at the jibe. ‘He replied you’re no kind of Baggins, you’re a Brandybuck.’ Frodo sounded bored, but his expression remained sharp and he gripped his pipe tightly. ‘I said I’m as much a Baggins as you are, plus half a Brandybuck, and that’s better than a Bracegirdle any day.’ At this point Frodo looked away. ‘And then he started calling me a bastard and babbling on about Wintermark and I said it didn’t matter what I was before because I was adopted now. He kept at it and I said something rude about his mother.’
'What did you say?'
‘When he called me a Wintermark bastard, I said it takes one to know one. He said he didn’t understand, and I said obviously, since he was too stupid to count. He still kept whining, so I pointed out that it took nineteen years for his mother to find a stud for him.’ Frodo met Bilbo’s eyes again. ‘I said I was wrong about him being a Wintermark bastard because at Wintermark people choose others they like and she probably had to pay someone to lie with her.’ Frodo touched the swelling on his lip. ‘I guess I deserved that.’
For a moment, Bilbo could not say anything, speechless at Frodo’s vicious words to Lotho. No more vicious than he has had said of his mother. ‘No, I can’t blame him for taking a swing at you. I’d have done the same for half the insult.’ Frodo did not respond, but sat there, not looking away. Bilbo pondered which way to go with the conversation. ‘And you’ve heard the full insult before. More than once.’
‘A lot more than once.’
‘You remember Hargo’s insults at Brandy Hall?’
Frodo nodded, his frame taut. ‘And what you said to Uncle Rory, after.’
‘Yes, I wanted to be sure Rory could no longer claim ignorance of what was being said and done to you in his smial.’
‘One would think he would care more about his sister’s reputation than that.’ For the first time, Frodo sounded bitter.
‘You have listened to others’ speak foully of you and your parents. You’ve been given no choice save to hear this. It hurts me – shames me – that I cannot stop them from being so cruel to you.’
‘There’s nothing you can do, Bilbo. It’s not your fault. People will say and believe what they want so they can get what they want. You’ve told me this. It hurts me more to hear the much more wicked things said of you than what they babble about me.’
Bilbo looked at Frodo curiously. ‘More wicked? Someone insults me at their peril; I know how to fight back. I think it monstrously wicked to attack a child with such words.’
‘But they just call me names for things I can’t help. They say you do harm to others, and that’s not true!’ Frodo snapped.
Best to confront this directly, Baggins. It was so hard to say the next words. ‘But what they say to you is true?’ A shrug. No more dancing around this, Baggins. Speak plain. ‘Do you believe you are Drogo’s son, Frodo?’ He watched his lad swallow, then give a very slight shake of his head.
‘No, sir. I don’t.’ Frodo looked down and let out his breath, sounding like a sigh of relief, then sat up straight and looked Bilbo in the eye. It was as Frodo had been at the graveyard in Buckland, sad but collected.
‘Why are you so certain, Frodo?’
‘Twenty years without a child, then one?’ He shook his head. ‘Too many people seem certain that there is something to it. Isn’t that the point of Wintermark, to get children?’
‘You think this is what your parents did, your mother did?’
Frodo sighed again and nodded, looking down. ‘I do. But not… not the bad things, the hateful things. You said my parents were good people, so it wouldn’t be something that, like, Esmie would do. Trying to cheat.’ Frodo was quiet for a while. ‘I believe that if Mama… wanted a baby, they would… figure something out.’ Another long silence. ‘Papa was always weak. From the Fell Winter. I was too little to know, but I’ve been told.’ Frodo toyed with his pipe. ‘If my father was a good hobbit, he’d make sure his wife had a baby. No matter what.’ A shrug and Frodo looked up again. Bilbo tried to make his expression as calm as he could so Frodo would speak truly from his heart, though he wanted to weep and rant how none of it was true. ‘If they hadn’t died, no one would ever have said anything and they’d have a baby.’ Frodo’s expression became sharp. ‘You knew, didn’t you? There’s no way you couldn’t know.’
‘Of the nonsense and slander people say? Of course, I knew, just as I am all too aware of the wicked things hateful people say of me. I pay it no …’
‘It’s what the people who love me say that I listen to.’ Frodo’s voice was as sharp as his expression. ‘Do you think I’m stupid? That I don’t know the difference between something Bargo says and something Uncle Rory says?’
‘No, Wilwarin. I do not think you are stupid.’ Bilbo drew on his pipe and realized it had gone out. ‘So, who loves you and what have they said?’
‘Uncle Rory and Gammer. And Mac.’
‘They’ve told you that you aren’t Drogo’s son?’
‘It’s more that they don’t say I am when they should. Uncle Rory only calls me his sister’s son. He never mentions my father’s name. When I was first being called a bastard, I asked Gammer if it was true. She paused a long time before saying it wasn’t, and then never called me Drogo’s son after that. Mac, he’s never called me a bastard, but he’s heard Sara do it and doesn’t correct him. If Sara was lying, Mac would slap him good.’ Frodo frowned. 'No, Mac has said so. At Wintermark, he did. He called me a little nothing bastard.'
Bilbo sat back in his chair and started mentally cursing his miserable Brandybuck kin. This is your fault, Gilda! You could have asked Prim. You could have uncovered the truth and told Rory but you were too in love with the idea of me being hopelessly in love with you. For one wild moment, Bilbo considered lying and saying Frodo was his son simply so the boy would have something to cling to that no one could call into question. No, Baggins. Don’t do that to him or to Drogo. He glanced at the lad. And there is one more question to ask.
‘What of me? You said I knew, that I had to know. What do you think I think, why I’ve done what I’ve done? If you aren’t Drogo’s son, and I knew this?’
Frodo held out his pipe to be refilled. Bilbo took it and his own to the leaf jar on the sideboard. ‘At first, I thought you were a liar, saying anything you could think of to bring me here.’ Bilbo stopped so he would not risk dropping the pipes because his hands were shaking. ‘I thought you were the wicked person Esmie and Sara had said, that you would take an unwanted, embarrassing bastard somewhere far away and do with him as you liked. But that is not you. They are the liars.’ Bilbo sternly told his hands to behave and let him finish the pipes.
‘So, why take you at all?’ He was not certain how he kept his voice so steady.
‘What you said the night I decided I would come here.’ Bilbo turned around. ‘You said you wanted a son. I don’t have a father. No one else can claim me. You might not want to keep me, but no one would ever want to take me away. And it makes Gammer happy. You want her to be happy.’
Bilbo walked over to Frodo and took his lad’s face in his hands. ‘No! That is not why I took you!’ He knelt, not letting go of his child. ‘I love you, Frodo. That’s why I want you here, with me. I love you more than anyone, and I am never letting you go!’
‘But I’m not even a Baggins,’ Frodo protested.
‘Listen to me. I am one of the people who loves you. No one loves you more than I do, and I have always said you are Drogo’s son, haven’t I? Do you want to know why?’ Without waiting for an answer, Bilbo took Frodo’s hands and pulled him to his feet.
‘Come here.’ He moved so that they were both looking in the mirror over the fireplace mantle. It was magnificent, made by the dwarves and brought from the Blue Mountains. There was nary a flaw in it and it filled the room with reflected light. ‘Look at yourself, Wilwarin, and then look at me.’ He put his fingers in Frodo’s hair. ‘This is Baggins hair. It’s just like mine. It doesn’t look like Rory’s or Mac’s or Big Sara’s. It’s not like Esmie’s, not Took hair. It’s not from your mother.’ Bilbo gestured again. ‘Your eyes, they are the same as mine, the same as Drogo’s, the same as my father’s and his father’s and all the way back to Balbo Baggins. That chin of yours is straight from your grandfather Fosco. Next time you visit Dudo, take a good look. He has it, too.’ Bilbo pointed at their feet. ‘Sadly, not all of our features are so handsome. Small feet. You don’t find that in Buckland.’
Bilbo turned Frodo to face him. ‘I say you are Drogo’s son because you are. He lived with me for years and years and there is no one, save your mother, who is more familiar with what he looked like than me. You. Look. Exactly. Like. Him. You are so like your father it leaves me speechless at times. I look up from my supper and I think it is fifty years ago and I’m taking care of my little brother again, for that is what we were to each other. That is what you look like.’
Bilbo started pacing the room, getting angry. ‘How can I be the only person who sees this? You’d think Rory had never seen his own brother-in-law! And I am so tired of hearing that word, “Wintermark,” used anywhere around you! You weren’t even born at the right time of the year to be such a babe! You and me, both of us, are Halimath babies, which means our mothers got us in Foreyule!’ He came to a stop and glared at Frodo, who had retreated behind his chair. ‘Not a Baggins? Nonsense! You look ten times more a Baggins than Lotho!’
‘I’m not from Wintermark?’
Baggins, you hold the key. Don’t blame Gilda. It was dangerous to say this, given the other rumors and especially with what Rory and Gilda had probably wanted to say to Frodo. But they were far away in Buckland and Frodo needed his hope secured now. ‘No, you are not,’ Bilbo firmly replied, ‘any more than I am.’ Bilbo went back to the sideboard and completed preparing their pipes and sat, patting his leg to get Frodo to sit at his feet, not across from him. The boy swiftly complied, sitting to face Bilbo, a look of hope on his face. Bilbo composed his argument carefully.
‘Think for just a second, Frodo,’ he began. ‘How can someone, anyone, show they are the child of this father or that one? What is the proof most people could provide?’
Frodo pondered the question. ‘That his parents are wed. That he has brothers and sisters, other kinsmen, who look like him.’ Bilbo smiled brightly and tugged a lock of Frodo’s hair. ‘That his father was near when his mother conceived. That his father claims him.’
‘Hmm, let me see. Drogo was married to Primula, you look like me and other Baggins kin, your father most definitely claimed you, and…’ here Bilbo gave Frodo a direct look, ‘your father was very much with your mother at the time you were conceived.’
‘And you know this how?’
‘Because I was their guest in Brandy Hall from early Foreyule until nearly Solmath and I was with the two of them almost every day of that time.’ Bilbo smiled. ‘I even have letters with the invitation to visit, and afterwards talking of the fun they had with me at Yule in Buckland.’
Frodo’s look became intent. ‘And they were together? That whole time?’
‘Well, I was not with both of them for every minute of every day, but I was much in their company, especially the evenings, and I recall no night in which they slept apart. There was no rumor of any rift between them, and you know how quickly that would have been said in the back corridors!’ Frodo nodded emphatically. ‘I know quite well that none of the three of us went to Wintermark that year because we were in the Hall, preparing things for the revelers’ return.’ The look of relief on his lad’s face was so great at this last bit of news that Bilbo cursed himself for not having presented it sooner. ‘The only man I ever saw at any time, in any place, going off somewhere with your mother was your father. And you know yourself how closely I pay attention to anything that doesn’t seem quite right.’ That made Frodo’s face turn a bit red, but he nodded. ‘If Prim had spent a long time in the company of a man other than Drogo or myself or one of her close kinsmen, I would have known and investigated.’
‘Yes, you would have known,’ Frodo fiercely said. ‘You would have found it out. You know these things. That’s why you’re so certain!’
‘Yes, I most certainly would have known. Mostly, Frodo, what I know is how much your parents loved each other. They would never forsake each other, not even for a child. They were faithful and true, and you are their reward.’ Bilbo stroked Frodo’s hair. ‘And it grieves me so much that I have only you and not them as well here with me now.’ Bilbo snorted. ‘I could not provide half so much proof of my own paternity as what I just said of yours, Wilwarin! I doubt most of the good folk of Hobbiton could give such an account.’
The look of joy on Frodo’s face was worth any risk of a rumor hinting at a different reason for his long stay that winter in 1367. They sat together, Bilbo gently rubbing Frodo’s hair – Baggins hair – while the lad sat at his feet and watched the fire in the grate. Rumors will still be spread, Baggins, no matter what you two believe. This was true. People would repeat the lie simply because it was shocking and not give any thought to how it hurt. It should be less now that its main source will dry up. He would need to have a little chat with Otho, the sooner, the better. To threaten Lobelia directly would only strengthen her determination to spread the rumor as quickly and with as much exaggeration as possible, daring him to do harm to Hilda. He would allow Otho to do the persuading. Otho would have killed to protect your secret and your honor, Lobelia, and he will be respectful of those who helped him do this. This made Bilbo frown a little. Nineteen years? It took that long for Otho and Lobelia to have their own child. Just like Prim and Drogo. Bilbo studied the crown of Frodo’s head with its mass of dark brown curls. He tapped the boy on the head.
‘Frodo, you asked earlier if I was angry with you. I am not angry, but something you said leaves me feeling a bit disappointed. I had thought you better than this.’
‘I am displeased that you flung the same insulting rumor back at Lotho that you yourself have struggled with. I’m not angry because he picked the fight and the topic and you weren’t given a choice of what to answer, but you did not need to repeat the slander. He is your kinsman, even if he is an obnoxious one, and no more deserves such slanders than you do. You of all people, should know better than to attack or shame someone for something they have no hand in.’ Frodo looked away, embarrassed. ‘Further, I want you to consider that just as your parents loved each other and refused to engage in some dalliance because it was an easier way, this too may have been Otho and Lobelia’s choice. Just as I know how much Drogo loved Primula, I also know how much Otho loves his wife, and what he is willing to do for her sake.’ This argument did not seem to convince Frodo, though he nodded dutifully. You will learn how strange love can be, Wilwarin.
‘Finally, Frodo, I need you always to think. You do not have the luxury of being a stupid ox like your cousin. You are my heir. What you do and say reflects on me and on the rest of the clan. You must be a person of discretion, someone to be trusted. Do not fling harsh words about or try to bully people for foolish things you know they have done.’ Bilbo smiled grimly. ‘Save that knowledge for when you really need it and then use it to your advantage. Do this not for your own comfort, but to prevent others’ wicked trespass against those they would like to torment.’
Frodo looked back at him, thinking. ‘You said to Uncle Rory that Hargo’s insult would be answered.’
‘Yes, I did. It has been answered. It was answered before we left Brandy Hall.’
‘I let him know I know a secret that he does not want anyone else ever to know. He will never say such wicked things of you again.’