POV - Frodo
In which Frodo encounters more of Bilbo's past than he really wants to.
30 Forelithe, 1290
I wish you would put aside your dislike of me and listen to common sense. Terrible things are going to happen in Eastfarthing if Odogar continues as he has. Every single Baggins agrees that you need to do this, and we cannot fathom your continued opposition. Indeed, there is hardly a hobbit in Eastfarthing who would not welcome you.
Pal and Rum are convinced that they can bully or wheedle Wilcar into giving over the Tooklands, and they are determined to try to grab everything east over to the Marish. The tales of their contestation have been greatly exaggerated, not the least by themselves. I think they hope to persuade people that if even they agree, then it must be a good idea. If the choice is between the Tooks and the Bolgers, the Tooks will win.
We should talk, preferably before Wilcar’s party on Midyear’s. I’m at the White Chalk Inn or I will come to see you, whichever you prefer.
30 Forelithe, 1290
Tulip and I have arrived in Michel Delving, but are weary from the journey. May we see you tomorrow instead of tonight? We are at the White Chalk Inn, as usual.
Give our love to Frodo,
30 Forelithe, 1290
I’m in a wagon on the far side of the Fair. Come see me. If your worst cousin’s about, bring him along, too.
30 Forelithe, 1290
You had your chance.
Michel Delving, Evening, 30 Forelithe, 1390
The strange hobbit was very tall, well over four feet, and carried himself as though he was taller yet. When he moved, he was graceful but with a control that bespoke great strength. His feet were broad, well-furred and his nails neatly trimmed. His trousers were a little shorter the most men wore them, and showed off his sharply muscled calves. His torso was like Bilbo’s, solid and without much belly, and his shoulders were quite broad. As he walked past Frodo, Frodo noted the fine quality of the cloth and the impeccable tailoring of his clothes. Like Bilbo, there was a strangely ageless quality to his face, though he seemed a bit older than Bilbo, just at the edge of his maturity before age would deepen the lines and wrinkle his skin. His features were fine, almost delicate. His hair was a rich chestnut, wavy rather than curly, and long. It was caught in a sliver clasp at the nape of his neck and the tail end of it was braided in an intricate, tight weave, more cord than braid, bound with silver thread at the end, loose hairs cut bluntly so it looked like the braid ended in a tassel. There was no grey in his hair except for a shining silver forelock three fingers wide over his left eye, a few strands of it artfully free and trimmed so that they would not obscure his sight. When he smiled, his teeth were white and even, and he had all of them.
‘Rory, how good to see you,’ he said, walking over to clap Frodo’s uncle on the shoulder. ‘You look older than ever.’ Uncle Rory’s expression was halfway between irritation and alarm, and he did not answer back. Frodo quickly glanced around the room and saw most of the others had a similar look on their face. Except for Bilbo, who just looked irritated. He doesn’t worry Bilbo. The stranger handed Rory the bottle. ‘Here’s a welcome gift for you, cousin. Why don’t you pour some so we can all enjoy it?’
Not waiting for an answer, Silver-lock turned away and went to Aunt Prisca, took her in his arms, dipped her and gave her kiss on the lips before standing up again. ‘You look so lovely, Prisca,’ he said with a marvelous smile, making her blush and giggle. He shook Uncle Wili’s hand, and said, ‘I hear you’re going to be a grandfather twice over this year, Wilibald. Congratulations!’
‘Yes, yes, we are!’ Wili answered, pulling Prisca into an embrace and beaming at the beautiful, charming stranger.
‘Marvelous,’ he replied. Next, he embraced Odo and Sage together, saying, ‘And you also will have a lovely grandchild soon. When are Olo and Ida expecting?’
‘Late Wedmath,’ Sage said, ‘or maybe early Halimath.’
‘Will you daughter, the healer – Ula, is it? – yes, will she be home for that?’ Odo nodded and said they hoped she would be.
Frodo could hardly keep from laughing. He’s just like Bilbo, except more so. He had all of Bilbo’s mannerisms, but exaggerated; the charming smile, the flirting, the teasing insults, the pointed comments that showed he knew everyone else’s business. Silver-lock went to Dilly next, who shrank away from him, intimidated. His manner changed, his motions became gentler, his expression more kind and he held out his hands. She tentatively took them. ‘I don’t believe I’ve had the honor of meeting you, my dear,’ he said in a tender voice. ‘Who are you?’
He paused a moment, and Frodo saw his eyes narrow slightly as he thought. ‘Ah, Daffodil Burrows, yes?’
Dilly’s face lit up. ‘Yes, that’s me!’
‘I am so glad to finally meet you!’ Silver-lock sounded completely sincere. ‘You are the lovely woman who sent Eglantine the beautiful embroidered bibs for her new babe, aren’t you?’
‘Yes, I did. You know about that?’
‘Of course! That was terribly kind of you. Eglantine was touched by your generosity and thoughtfulness, as was I.’ Eglantine. That was Pal’s wife’s name. Frodo looked sharply at Silver-lock. Was this Pal? No, too old. Pal is Esmie and Sara’s age. He also did not act at all like how others had described Pal to him. ‘And how is your little boy, Berilac, yes?’
‘Oh, I miss him so much!’ Dilly exclaimed. Silver-lock laughed and gave her a kiss on the cheek.
‘How could you not? Hullo, Mac,’ he turned to Mac and held out a hand, who took it and allowed his own to be shaken, looking dumbly at lovely Silver-lock. ‘Good to see you again. I saw that team of Rushies you brought from Buckland out there in the stable on my way in. Do say you have them in show tomorrow!’
Yes, of course, that’s why I brung ‘em. And for the pull.’
‘Splendid! My Shirebourns will have some real competition.’ Silver-lock continued around the room to Odogrim, who simply stuck out his hand, speechless. The stranger peered intently at Frodo’s cousin’s face and nodded. ‘You’re Odogrim Bolger.’ Odogrim nodded vigorously. Without another word to Odogrim, Silver-lock turned away and greeted Baldo, asking him if he was looking forward to being an uncle, which Baldo happily said he was. Fargo was next and was also agreeing how good it was to be an uncle, completely charmed by the beautiful hobbit. He knows everything about everyone. As soon as he heard a name, Silver-lock could tell them about themselves.
Frodo moved to his left, closer to Uncle Rory, wanting to see Bilbo’s face when Silver-lock greeted him. The smile the fellow wore when he looked at Bilbo was not nice. ‘And if it isn’t my favorite kinsman, Cousin Grumpy.’ Frodo could not help snickering at that and Uncle Rory guffawed. Bilbo just raised his eyebrows and looked unamused. You can't charm Bilbo. Silver-lock stepped very close to Bilbo, almost touching him, kissed Bilbo’s cheek and ran a hand over Bilbo’s rump. Bilbo’s face did not change expression. ‘We’ll talk later, dear.’
Those words brought red to Bilbo’s cheeks and he looked angry. Silver-lock just smirked and cheerfully greeted Uncle Falco and Aunt Nora, congratulating them on their impending grandchild. They exchanged a few sentences and then it was Frodo’s turn.
The first thing he noticed was that Silver-lock’s eyes were not brown like most hobbits’. They were some mix of green and grey, shifting color as he turned his head and light fell differently across his face. He also smelled… not so much nice as familiar. Horses. Pipeweed. Lavender. Silver-lock turned his charming smile on Frodo. I can do this, too. Frodo did not look away and smiled charmingly back. He did not feel intimidated, but he was curious what kind of games the stranger would play. He was not amused by how the fellow had handled Bilbo.
‘Hello, handsome.’ Frodo again had to fight the urge to laugh. Amy flirts better than you do. To his left, he heard Uncle Rory make a growling sound and over Silver-lock’s shoulder he saw Bilbo start to walk forward. This could get unpleasant very quickly. ‘You seem familiar, but I can’t quite place you. Who are you?’ Suddenly, Frodo knew who he was facing.
‘You can only be Cousin Rum.’ Rum grinned, delighted at being recognized. Frodo held out his hand. ‘Hello. I’m Frodo.’ He purposefully left off his last name. Let’s see if you know me.
Rum took his hand in a warm, firm grip, and his eyes narrowed slightly as they had when he greeted Dilly. Two heartbeats, three, four, and Rum’s eyes widened in shock. ‘What, Frodo...?’ Before he could protest, Rum took him by the shoulder without letting go his hand and moved him over next to a lamp. Uncle Rory was right there, hand on Rum’s arm, trying to break the man's grip, and Bilbo was also next to them, though he did not try to push Rum away. The Thain peered intently at Frodo, a smile coming to his face. ‘Of course you’re familiar!’ He put a hand on Frodo’s cheek. ‘You look just like him!’ Frodo looked over at Bilbo who still had not interfered and whose expression now was thoughtful. This reassured Frodo. Bilbo would not simply stand by if there was danger. Rum laughed happily. ‘Drogo and Prim’s little boy, all grown up!’
‘You knew them?’ Frodo asked, not quite sure what else to say. Bilbo nodded a little, though he did not stop watching Rum closely. Rory had still not let go of the Thain’s arm, not that Rum seemed to be paying the slightest attention.
‘Yes!’ the Thain said. It was like when he had spoken to Dilly, all artifice gone from his manner. ‘They were my best friends. Your parents never scolded me, never shamed me, never made me feel other than their dearest friend, unlike the rest of my wretched kin.’ Here Rum paused and stared pointedly at Rory’s hand on his arm before giving him a cold look. Rory matched his look and did not take his hand away. With a soft snort, Rum looked back to Frodo. ‘They would never do that, for example. They showed me kindness and courtesy even when I probably deserved a good slap.’ Frodo reached up and pushed Rory’s hand off Rum’s arm, giving his uncle an annoyed look. ‘If there is anything you ever have need of, if it is within my power to do, ask and I shall, for love of them.’
‘I’ll remember that.’
Rum looked back to Rory. ‘I suppose I must thank you for bringing Frodo to the Fair, though you might have sent me a note first. Any note at all would have been appreciated.’
For some reason, this brought some red to his uncle’s face. ‘Don’t thank me. Bilbo brought him. He’s with Bilbo now.’
Frodo could not describe the look on Rum’s face at that news. There was hurt there so deep it made Frodo feel ashamed for seeing it and for one moment he was afraid the man would cry. Rum’s fingers on his shoulder dug in deeply for a split second, but relaxed before there was any pain. Just that quickly, the Thain’s face was composed again and he glanced at Bilbo.
‘Yes, Frodo’s been with me since last Halimath.’
Rum’s jaw clenched and released. ‘Since your birthday, I presume?’
‘Yes, since then.’ Bilbo’s thoughtful, measuring gaze did not change.
‘How delightful!’ and Rum was back to the exaggerated cheer he had worn when he entered the room. He took a firmer grip on Frodo’s shoulder and walked the two of them to a small couch nearby, only large enough for two. Bilbo took a seat across the room, seemingly unconcerned at Rum’s appropriation of Frodo. ‘Well, you certainly must visit me and soon, since you’re so near now.’
‘Of course.’ Frodo looked questioningly at Bilbo, who simply smiled and gave him a wink. He knew he was missing most of what had just passed between Rum and Bilbo. We will talk later, Bilbo. ‘How were you such good friends of my parents?’
‘Oh, your father and I were best friends for over fifty years,’ Rum cheerily said. Frodo glanced again at Bilbo, who nodded. ‘Rory, why don’t you do as I told you and pour a bit of brandy for everyone?’ Rory quickly did as the Thain asked, Mac and Fargo helping him pass out the glasses.
‘How did you meet?’ Frodo persisted, once he had his glass. Now that his initial startlement had worn off, Frodo was disinclined to simply believe this claim. Too many people he had never heard of said they were good friends of his father’s. He pretended to take a sip of the brandy.
‘Bilbo introduced us. I was only twelve, and I was out doing something one day…’
‘I believe you were throwing cow pats at some girls,’ Bilbo casually tossed in.
That made Rum grin. ‘Was not! I would never throw cow pats.’
‘Horse turds, then.’
‘Yes, that.’ This earned a guffaw around the room. ‘So, I was doing something and Bilbo comes up with this boy in tow and says “This is Drogo. He’s my cousin. He’s staying here now. You’d best get to know each other. Try not to collapse any tunnels or burn down a barn.”’
‘Yes, that is more or less what I said,’ Bilbo agreed.
‘And we didn’t.’
‘Not for lack of trying, I’m sure.’
‘And we were best friends from that day forward.’ Rum happily concluded.
Frodo thought for a moment. ‘In the Great Smials?’
‘Yes. Big brother Bilbo was supposed to keep an eye on us, not that he did a very good job. Then they left for Hobbiton, but Drogo always came to visit until he got married, and after that we were always visiting back and forth until he and Prim moved back to Buckland.’ Rum’s cheer seemed real now, not brittle. His expression grew thoughtful and he looked over at Dilly.
‘Dilly,’ Rum said, ‘I know what you must do. On your way home after the Fair, you and your fine man here must take a side trip to Whitwell and pay a call on Eglantine so she can meet you and thank you herself for your gift.’
‘I wouldn’t think of inviting myself,’ Dilly said seriously. Her initial shyness around the Thain had receded.
‘I shall write her a note on the morrow letting her know you are here. I know she will send back an invitation,’ he assured her. ‘I’m happy to go with you to make introductions.’
‘Wouldn’t it be for Pal to invite guests to his smial?’ Rory asked.
‘It’s a house, not a smial, and I may bring whomever I please to see my grandchildren,’ Rum smoothly replied.
Everyone looked at him, trying to understand what he meant. But Pal’s not your… Frodo could not understand the claim. Bilbo let out a bark of laughter.
‘Oh, you are not doing that!’ Bilbo’s expression was gleeful and Rum grinned wolfishly.
‘Of course I am! It drives him mad, so it’s all to the good.’
‘When did you start that?’
‘When he started insisting people call him the Thain’s heir. If he’s my heir, then those are my grandchildren. Don’t you think “Grandpa Rum” has a nice ring to it?’ Bilbo snorted. ‘But, Dilly, you must come see my grandchildren! They wanted to come to the Fair, but their mother could not travel so far for so long with Baby Pip and Pal didn’t want to be bothered with the girls.’
‘Pearl’s here,’ Frodo said. That got Rum’s full attention.
‘Where is she? You have her here?’
‘She’s with Addy and Blossom and their girls. Evidently, she invited herself when they drove by in their wagon.’
This made Rum smile happily. ‘That’s my Pearl! Where are they?’
‘The North Inn.’
‘I’ll look for her. Mac, how old are your ponies?’ For the next several minutes Mac and Rum enthusiastically discussed the Rushies, with Rory and Wili throwing in comments. They also talked about the Breeland mares, and Rum was very interested by them. ‘If you get another filly from one of them, send me a note,’ he said, ‘I’m interested in good brood mares. By the way, I noticed the stables here are a bit crowded with all the travelers and your lads don’t look so happy at the close company.’
Mac sighed and shrugged. ‘Not happy with it myself, but every place is full. Do you know if there’s some place I can take them to graze?’
Rum shook his head. ‘Not close to the fairgrounds. We have a house here with its own stable, and it’s half empty. There’s no field, but there is a small paddock. Why don’t you come ‘round tomorrow morning early and take a look? I’ve got space for two more teams and not be crowded. It would make it a bit easier on the ponies who have to stay here.’
Mac and Rory agreed it would be a good idea, so Rum gave them directions. After that, he asked Rory about the market inside the gate, though he did not inquire about any of the contestation about it. Rory chatted amiably about it, then Wili talked about the Whitfurrows market. Rum suggested Rory and Wili speak to several Southfarthing merchants who would be at the Fair who might want to bring some goods to one or the other market. Falco volunteered news on the trade between Michel Delving and the northern reaches of Westfarthing, and the conversation continued for almost an hour.
Through it all, Frodo observed carefully. Rum could get information out of almost anyone, though the questions did seem reasonable and sincere. When he was talking, he obviously liked being the center of attention, but he was also quick to listen closely. His demeanor was more ordinary as he talked than he had been when he greeted people, his appearance less perfectly beautiful, but more appealing. What he did not do was address a single question or comment to Bilbo, and, aside from the mirth he had shown over Rum calling Pal’s children his grandchildren, the old hobbit did not speak up. He simply watched and listened. It looked like he was sipping his brandy, but Frodo noticed the level of the glass did not go down appreciably, even though others drank freely and had their glasses replenished at least once. Rum’s glass did not empty, either, though he was always gesturing about with it. Frodo had set his own down on the small table next to the couch, not trusting himself to be able to hold it and not drink it. If Bilbo was not drinking, then it was not wise to do so.
Frodo was starting to feel sleepy and knew he would soon be yawning. He looked over at Bilbo, who must have seen his weariness, for his uncle set aside his own brandy and stood. Frodo immediately stood, as did Rum. The rest of the men followed suit. ‘I’m afraid that, however pleasant the company, these old bones need to rest,’ Bilbo said with a smile. ‘Come along lad.’ Frodo smiled all about and followed Bilbo out the door. They were a few steps away from the parlor when the door opened again and Rum came out and walked up to them, laying a hand on Bilbo’s shoulder. Bilbo did not halt or even look around.
‘We need to talk, cousin.’
Rum tugged on Bilbo’s shoulder, making him stop and turn towards him. ‘Oh, no. We’re talking now.’
‘I will come over with Mac and Rory tomor…’
‘No. Now. You have had six months in which to meet me in a time and place of your choosing, and you didn’t, so I’m choosing, and it is here and now.’
Bilbo cast a quick look at Frodo and shook his head. ‘I’m sorry, no. This is not…’
‘…a good place or time? Too bad! I am perfectly happy to have this argument right here in the hallway.’
Bilbo stared at him coldly, then shrugged. ‘Come along. No point disturbing everyone else.’ Rum did not let go of Bilbo’s shoulder until they were in the room, as if he was worried Bilbo would escape. Bilbo motioned for Frodo to go sit on the bed in the alcove.
‘If you think keeping him here will keep me quiet…’
‘I know you better than that, Rum.’ Bilbo turned his back on Rum and went to the washstand to wash his hands. ‘So, have your temper tantrum, and then go.’
‘Why? Why did you not tell me he was with you? I have been asking you…’
‘You have been writing me obnoxious, salacious letters bordering on the obscene. You know I won’t answer you when you write such things.’ Bilbo was taking his time washing and sounded bored.
‘And just let me find out like this?’ Rum was furious.
Bilbo turned around, wiping his hands on a towel. ‘What is there to find out? Why are you so shocked?’ he snapped. ‘You have been taunting me about my “Buckland boy” since Afteryule.’
‘I didn’t know it was Frodo!’
‘Why not? What other boy would I possibly bring back from Buckland?’
‘I didn’t know he was alive!’ The hurt Frodo had seen earlier returned to Rum’s face and the man was trembling. Bilbo gave him a questioning look. ‘I thought he’d drowned. With them.’
Anger left Bilbo’s face and he put the towel aside. ‘What? No, no… how did you not know?’ He walked over to the Thain.
‘Because none of you would talk to me!’ Rum was shaking in fury. ‘None of you would tell me anything. Rory didn’t even bother to tell me directly. He wrote to Mother and said I was not to come near.’
‘Rum, I’m sorry…’ Bilbo began and the Thain grabbed a handful of Bilbo’s waistcoat and gave him a ferocious shake. Frodo started to come off the bed to help Bilbo, but the old hobbit waved him back.
‘I wrote Gilda, and she said it best I just forget, and no one else even answered, and you, you bastard,’ Rum lashed out and hit Bilbo on his chest hard with his fist, ‘you didn’t answer me! I wrote you and wrote you and you didn’t answer!’ Rum was starting to cry and was shaking so hard Frodo did not know how he kept standing up. ‘Did you think this was funny? Just keep the stupid pervert in the dark?’ He punctuated the end of each sentence with another blow on Bilbo’s chest.
Bilbo did not try to avoid the blows, but he did grab Rum’s wrist and pulled the enraged hobbit in his arms, speaking soothingly. ‘No, no, Rum, sweetheart, no. That’s not what I did. Shh, shh, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Please, Rum, shh, I’m sorry, love, that’s not what happened, shh.’ Rum did not resist and let Bilbo hold him. Bilbo put light kisses on Rum’s neck and the side of his face, never stopping his murmurs of apology.
‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ Rum said, still angry, but not trying to hit Bilbo. ‘Years, damn it! Not a word from you!’
‘I know, I know, I was a wretch to you, I’m sorry. I thought you did know.’ Rum shook his head. Bilbo took his sleeve and wiped Rum’s face. ‘That’s not what happened. I wouldn’t do that to you. I’m sorry.’ He took Rum’s face in his hands and kissed him lightly on the lips, then again more strongly, and several more kisses, each longer and deeper than the next until Rum finally kissed him back. ‘Forgive me, love, I’m sorry.’
Frodo did not expect his own reaction to this. At first he had been afraid for Bilbo and had stood to come over and pull Rum away from his uncle. When Bilbo calmed Rum with his touches and apologies, Frodo realized that this must be one of Bilbo’s lovers. The kiss sent a stab of jealousy through him. He wanted that kiss for himself. He did not want men, but he loved Bilbo, and Bilbo was his, not anyone else’s. He did not care that they were talking about him; he wanted to grab Rum, shove him out the door and lock him out. Frodo retreated to the bed.
After Bilbo broke off his kiss, Rum was still trembling, but no longer enraged. They stood there, faces touching, Bilbo gently stroking the other’s back. ‘Will you listen to me?’ Rum nodded. ‘I wasn’t ignoring you. I didn’t read anyone’s letters, not just yours. I couldn’t bear them. I just threw them in the fire. For months. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. It wasn’t you. I’d never do that to you.’ Finally, Bilbo stepped back, looking at Rum with concern. ‘I’m sorry. I had no idea.’ With a kiss on the cheek, Bilbo retrieved the towel he had just used, wet a corner of it and brought it to Rum, who wiped his face off. ‘All right?’
‘Right enough. I may have to go beat up Rory.’
‘Let me know when you do. I’ll come help.’ Bilbo took the towel from Rum, tossed it over his shoulder and started neatening up his cousin, Rum standing docilely. ‘I’m at a loss for how you didn’t know, why no one else told you.’
‘It was the most awful summer.’ Rum did not look very beautiful now. His face was blotchy and his expression weary and grieved. Bilbo kissed him again on the cheek but did not leave off his fussing. ‘First Father, then them, and then Uncle Hi. Mother was distraught and Alder was trying to force the others to pass me over and make him Thain. And you didn’t write or visit.’
‘I’m so sorry. I should have, I know.’
‘If it weren’t for Flame and Gis, Alder would have won. They pulled in every favor ever owed to them, and probably threatened to tell a few secrets, too. After that battle, no one in the Smials was talking to anyone, I had no wish to talk to anyone in Buckland, and you might as well have vanished on another adventure.’ Bilbo gave Rum a contrite look, did a last bit of neatening, and took the towel back to the washstand. When he turned around, Rum had his arms crossed and was looking at Bilbo sternly. ‘Bilbo, why won’t you tell me about your big secret here?’ Rum motioned towards Frodo with his chin.
‘It’s no secret.’
‘Well, it was kept secret from me. I had no idea.’
‘You must have had some ideas. Who did you think Frodo was when you walked in the parlor?’
‘The boy Rory was going to send to Pal last Halimath.’ Frodo and Bilbo exchanged a look.
‘You knew I was supposed to be sent to Pal, but you didn’t know it was me?’ Frodo asked. Rum shook his head.
‘What did you know about that, and from whom?’ Bilbo asked quietly. Frodo recognized the tone of voice that Bilbo used. It sounded calm and polite, but he knew it covered up deep anger. From Rum’s expression, it appeared that he also recognized that voice. He backed away from Bilbo a step, a flicker of uncertainty on his face.
‘Well, you should have told me! I’ve been asking you…’
‘…and you know I will not indulge you in your rude and obnoxious games!’ They were back to glaring at each other, which, oddly enough, made Frodo less uncomfortable than when they were being nice. ‘Who told you what, and when did they tell you?’
They stared at each other for a long moment, then Rum rolled his eyes and sighed. ‘Tina told me.’
‘Who is Tina?’
‘Eglantine. I talk only to her for anything that involves Pal. He doesn’t bother to lie to her, like he would to someone else, because he thinks she’s stupid and obedient. She is neither, but she’s not very brave. Whatever he tells her is exactly what is true, but he also doesn’t tell her anything more than what she needs to know to do as he wants.’ Frodo was very glad that he had not gone to Pal. ‘In mid-Halimath, she sent me a note asking me to meet her at Rosie’s farm outside of Tookbank.’
‘Which Rosie is this?’
‘Pal’s middle sister, Rosamira. She hates Pal.’ Rum thought a second. ‘Actually, we all hate Pal, but she really hates him. Anyway, when I met Tina, she said that Pal had told her to prepare a room for a long-term guest. Rory had written him and asked him to take in a kinswoman’s bastard son who had turned tween and had become unmanageable – running wild, getting in fights, the usual tween silliness.’
Uncle Rory really does think I’m bastard. He and Aunt Gilda must know something. For a moment, Frodo felt doubt try to worm its way back into his heart. They’re wrong. I’m Baggins. I look like my father. Rum saw that and recognized me before he knew my name.
‘Esmie was to bring him within a week or so. Tina wanted to know if I knew who this could be since Pal had not bothered to give her a name and told her she didn’t need to know when she asked for one.’
Bilbo was leaning against the wall next to the washstand, looking at the floor and thinking. ‘Are you sure this letter was from Rory, not from Esmie?’
‘Tina said that’s what Pal told her. He had no reason to deceive her.’
Bilbo looked up, eyes keen. ‘What did you make of it?’
‘It made no sense to me. The first thing I thought was that Amaranth had surprised everyone, and they kept it quiet.’
‘Aunt Amaranth?’ Frodo said, offended. ‘How can you say that about her? She wouldn’t…’
Rum smiled wickedly. ‘She most certainly would! Amaranth has always been more adventurous than anyone gives her credit for being. If she decided she wanted a baby, she’d have had one.’
‘Good guess, but it couldn’t have been kept that quiet,’ Bilbo added. ‘I’d have known, for one, and I know she hasn’t.’
‘I figured, though it was funny. I decided it was one of those second or third cousins of his, down from Sadoc or Marroc. Tina sent me a note a few days after we met and said that Rory had changed his mind and the boy wouldn’t be sent, which I thought just as well given the new baby on the way and what an ass Pal is.’
‘Hmm.’ Bilbo was back to thinking. ‘Pal knew who was being sent, that’s certain. He didn’t want others to know.’
‘Why would he want to hide that?’ Frodo asked.
‘Remember who was to bring you and I think you have your answer, Frodo,’ Bilbo replied. ‘They wouldn’t want anyone interfering in their plans.’ After a moment’s more thinking, he shook his head slightly. ‘I suspect there was a letter from Rory, but also one from Esmie, and that Pal repeated bits of both and not all of either.’ Bilbo thought some more before looking up again. ‘So why didn’t you think this boy that was supposed to go to Pal was the one with me from Wintermark? That Rory sent the boy to me and not him?’
‘Originally, I thought he probably was. In Afteryule, I went to go see my new grandson, Pippin, and visit with Tina. I’ll be damned if I’m going to let Pal tell me I can’t see the boy! When I was there, Tina told me Pal told her that you had found yourself a pretty boy at Wintermark and had taken him home, which sounded perfect nonsense to me, especially as it came from Esmie, but Pal seemed quite incensed over it, which is why I thought it might be the same boy who was supposed to come in Halimath. When I asked Uncle Gis, since he was there at Wintermark, he said I should talk to you if I wanted to know what was going on in your smial, so I knew you had someone with you. I wrote you, but you never gave me an answer. Then I got wind that Odogar threw out his youngest for being a pervert who’d done things down in Buckland and that the boy was with you. And he is.’
‘No, he’s not.’
‘If you don’t mind, Bilbo, I would really appreciate some complete answers from you. I’ve answered your questions nicely and I’m about ready to start yelling again.’ Frodo had some sympathy for Rum’s frustration with Bilbo’s evasive replies.
‘Yes, you need to have some answers,’ Bilbo said briskly. ‘I went to Buckland in early Halimath to visit Frodo and to spend our birthday together, but mostly to let everyone know it was time for Frodo to come to Bag End. He was old enough he didn’t need Gilda to mother him anymore…’
‘Cousin Gilda is incapable of mothering anything,’ Rum said with a very sour look.
‘…and I wanted to give them time to get used to the idea. My plan was to let them know at Harvest and then come back to Buckland at Yule and bring him home after that.’
‘But you’ve had him since Halimath.’
‘When I got there, I was appalled. He was just running wild, stirring up trouble and getting the snot beaten out of him on a regular basis by his older cousins. I also found out that Esmie had convinced Rory to pack him off to Pal at the end of the year. I saw I had arrived just in time, and I told Rory that I was taking him home at once. Rory didn’t want to let me take him and Esmie did her best to drag Frodo off to Whitwell before I could convince him otherwise. I put my foot down and made Rory agree to it. Also, I didn’t just take him home; I adopted him to make sure no one could interfere.’
Rum cocked his head. ‘Why was there any question? He’s Baggins, he’s Drogo’s son, he belongs to you. Where else should he be?’ Bilbo raised his eyebrows and gave Rum a knowing look. A second later Rum made a face. ‘Oh, that is disgusting! Rory, of all people, should know better!’
‘The Queen of Calamities…’
‘Cousin Esmie?’ Bilbo nodded. ‘Perfect name for her. Go on.’
‘The Queen had been spreading a rather interesting mix of lies and rumors. She very much wanted me to be kept at a distance from Frodo.’
‘And not for his own good, so why? What was she getting from it?’
‘She knew who I would leave my estate to and wanted to be sure that the boy had no loyalties to anyone except her own wicked self.’
Rum looked at Frodo. ‘Please tell me you haven’t fucked her.’
‘I have better taste than that.’ Though I would have. If Bilbo hadn’t stopped it, I would have. It would no more have been his choice than being sent to Pal.
Rum laughed and clapped. ‘Good lad! Don’t worry, you didn’t miss anything.’
Bilbo smiled and cocked his head. ‘This sounds like the voice of experience, cousin. Do tell!’
With a salacious grin, Rum said, ‘Dear little Esmeralda wanted to try her charms on Cousin Pervert and I was happy to oblige.’
Bilbo chuckled. ‘Talk about disgusting. I thought you had better taste than that.’
‘I’m not one to turn down a romp. That woman likes cock almost as much as I do, not that she knows what to do with one. I had to give her directions – no, no, dear, that’s not how it’s done, lips like this, hands like that, a bit more grip, turn around, it goes in there.’ Rum accompanied this with a few rude hand gestures and a thrust of his hips that left Bilbo roaring with laughter. ‘I mean, she thought I’d made it past fifty without ever bedding a girl and seemed quite offended that I knew better what to do with a furrow than she did.’
After a few snickers, Bilbo became serious again. ‘In any event, Frodo is with me now, where he belongs.’
‘And you’re going to stop avoiding my questions?’
‘If you ask politely, yes, though some things I will not put on paper.’
‘Fair enough.’ Rum’s expression was stern. ‘What is Rory doing sending Frodo to Pal?’
Bilbo threw up his hands in aggravation. ‘I don’t know! I’m not sure he knows. At bottom, I think it was just to try to keep me from taking Frodo from him and Gilda.’
‘By sending him to Pal?’
‘Yes, and he’d come back from Pal eventually, plus Esmie was pushing for that. Don’t underestimate her influence on Rory. When Frodo went with me, it was permanent.’
‘He should always have been with you.’ Yes, I should have.
Bilbo sighed and rubbed his face. ‘Probably. It’s done, and it doesn’t matter anymore.’ He gave Rum a tired look. ‘Questions answered?’
‘Enough for now and I only had to yell at you once.’
‘How decent of you. And, since you were rude enough to yell at me at all, I’m kicking you out.’
‘But we’re not yelling now,’ Rum said reasonably, with a smile.
‘Oh, no you don’t. I am immune to your charms. You need to leave.’
Rum crossed his arms and leaned against the door, looking about. ‘This is a frightfully cramped little hole. You know, I have room for more than just ponies back at the house.’
‘I’m sure you do. We’re fine here.’
‘Won’t you let me properly apologize for being so mean earlier?’
‘Apology accepted. You go along, now.’
‘You should come with me.’
Bilbo gestured at Frodo. ‘I have a tween to care for.’
‘You can fend for yourself for a night, can’t you lad?’ Rum asked with a grin. ‘You should go find yourself a girl. Or a boy, if you prefer. One of each is even better, trust me!’
Bilbo shook his head. ‘But then I would have to put up with Pal in the morning.’
‘Well, then, we can go somewhere else and find a girl. I hear Widow Grubb’s in town.’
Bilbo started laughing. ‘Don’t you dare! Maudie would be all too happy to say yes. No more of this now, Rum.’ Bilbo walked over to the door. ‘We need our sleep, so you need to get on your way.’
In a smooth motion, Rum pulled Bilbo up against him and started nuzzling his neck and running his hands over Bilbo’s back and rump. Bilbo did not resist but neither did he respond. After a few moments, Rum stopped, holding Bilbo tightly, face against Bilbo’s neck. ‘It’s not fair. I love you madly and you don’t love me at all.’
Bilbo took Rum’s face in his hands as he had earlier. ‘I do love you, you silly boy. Just not as you would have it.’ He put a gentle kiss on Rum’s forehead. ‘Goodnight, brat.’
‘Goodnight, Grumpy.’ That made Bilbo laugh. Rum peeled himself off the door, crossed the room and hugged Frodo tightly. ‘I have you back.’ Taking him by the shoulders, Rum said, ‘You have your father’s face. I hope you have his heart as well.’ He kissed Frodo’s cheek and turned away. ‘And you must come to the Great Smials and see me. Both of you.’
‘Pal’s forbidden it,’ Bilbo said as Rum crossed the room. ‘He doesn’t care for unnaturals in his home. I fear we have been barred, Cousin.’
Rum gave Bilbo a haughty look. ‘For your information, Mister Baggins, I am not “Cousin.” I am the Thain. I will invite whomever I please to be a guest in my smial, and both of you are always welcome. His home is in Whitwell, and he can stay there.’ He leaned down and gave Bilbo a kiss on the lips. To Frodo’s surprise, Bilbo slipped a hand behind Rum’s head and gave him a deeper kiss in return. Rum pulled away abruptly and left, shutting the door sharply behind him.
Bilbo sat down on the floor with a thump and dropped his forehead on his knees, arms crossed over the top of his head. Frodo scrambled off the bed and knelt next to the old hobbit. ‘Bilbo?’ His uncle did not move. ‘Bilbo, are you all right?’
‘Forgive me, Wilwarin.’ Frodo could barely hear the words.
‘Forgive you? For what?’
Bilbo let his arms drop forward and raised his head a little. ‘Making you watch me… soothe an angry man.’ Bilbo glanced up at him, trepidation in his face. Frodo took one of his hands.
‘Better than getting beaten up.’
‘Maybe. But… shameful.’
Frodo shook his head. ‘I saw nothing to be ashamed of.’
‘I should have sent you to Rory.’
‘I told you I won’t let you do that.’ What Frodo most wanted to do was kiss Bilbo as Bilbo had kissed Rum, to show him he was loved and forgiven, but knew it would just upset him more. It’s not fair. I love you more than he does! He contented himself with scooting close enough that their legs were touching.
For few heartbeats, Bilbo studied Frodo’s face, then smiled a little and squeezed his hand. ‘Ask. Unless it is someone else’s confidence, I will answer, even if I’d rather not. After what you’ve seen, you deserve some answers.’
‘Was he really my father’s best friend?’
‘I would say that your father was Rum’s best friend and that Rum was very dear to him, and to your mother. He was not exaggerating when he said how they treated him. He adored your father.’
‘What kind of friends were they?’
Bilbo shifted around to sit more comfortably. ‘They were not ever lovers, if that’s what asking, Frodo. Drogo had no inclination towards men. Perhaps you have heard something?’
‘Perhaps I have.’ You may answer, but I’m not.
‘Hmm.’ Bilbo waited a moment to see if Frodo had more to say. ‘Rum was to Drogo as Drogo was to me, a much loved little brother. When Drogo came to the Great Smials, I was mostly concerned about Mother, who was grieving over Father, and all I hoped was that the two youngsters could amuse each other. Drogo was tired of being a little brother, I think, and Rum took to him at once. They really were an inseparable pair of troublemakers.’ This brought a fond smile to Bilbo’s face. ‘After we moved back to Hobbiton, I bought Drogo a pony so he could ride to Tuckborough whenever he pleased.’
Frodo thought about what he next might ask. ‘I remember you saying to Odo and Falco that Rum can get any beast to do his bidding. I think I saw that when he first arrived.’ Bilbo nodded. ‘Is that why people are afraid of him?’
‘Yes. Talking to Rum is like talking to a dragon. It’s as though his voice enchants.’
‘But not you.’
‘If I’m not paying attention, he can be… persuasive. He always pays attention. Everything you do or say, he takes note of, even if you think he hasn’t.’
‘Is Rum like you?’
‘Like me in what way?’
‘Is he a good person of whom wicked people say cruel things?’
Bilbo shrugged. ‘Sometimes, he can be good. He is a selfish, spoiled, bratty, arrogant, willful man with unnatural tastes who delights in shocking others. He is not cruel, though he can be spiteful. I think his deepest nature is what he shows his animals, and they are loyal to him as he was to Drogo. In one way, he is very much like me; he detests those who are outraged by his behavior, but who think nothing of their own wicked deeds. Which is pretty much everyone.’
‘Do you believe that Uncle Rory and Aunt Gilda lied to him about me?’
After a long silence, Bilbo nodded. ‘They didn’t want either of us near you, I think.’
‘But you didn’t want me near him either. Why not, if he was such good friends with my parents?’
‘Because he loves beautiful things and wants to enjoy them. Especially beautiful young men.’ Bilbo sighed. ‘The less inclined they are to him and the more they resist, the greater the challenge and the more satisfying the pursuit, or so he has said to me. He particularly enjoys seducing those who are mean or insulting to him.’
‘Did he seduce you?’
There was another long silence. ‘In a way. I wasn’t a young man, but he was. He wanted me to love him and I didn’t. Maybe I seduced him. More than a few lay his corruption at my feet.’
‘Would he try to seduce me?’
‘He might. There’s no telling with him.’ Bilbo gave him a measuring look. ‘Do you want to be seduced?’
‘Not really.’ Not by him. ‘If I turned him down, would he try to force me?’
Bilbo immediately shook his head. ‘No, he would not. He’s not Sara.’
‘If he enchants, then he needn’t force.’
‘He doesn’t enchant, he observes. He finds out everything he can about a person, he never forgets a detail, he watches others closely, and he understands their hearts. Then he uses that for his own amusement.’ This echoed Frodo’s own observations of Rum in the parlor. Bilbo paused, thinking. ‘He wants the one he pursues to truly agree to it, to want what he does to them. He doesn’t trick people. It makes them more ashamed for having been willing, and they have not much grounds on which to protest. He’s feared not because you would object to what he does, but because you would like it all too much. It would be exactly your deepest desire. He shows people their own wicked hearts.’ Bilbo gave him another measuring look. ‘If you truly have no interest and are kind to him, he would probably flirt with you but not press you for more.’
‘If what he said to me in the parlor was how he flirts, I certainly have no interest.’
That made Bilbo laugh. ‘That was not flirting, Frodo. That was him trying to offend everyone in the room. And to test you.’
‘Did I pass?’
Bilbo grinned. ‘Magnificently! You handled all of that very well, Wilwarin. You kept your wits about you when he was at his most charming.’
‘Do you mean for us to visit him?’
‘That will depend on what happens over the next few days. I think I will continue writing for a while and ponder the wisdom of a visit. I would like to see Gis and Petunia. I suspect he will start writing you. Then again, knowing Rum, he may just show up on the doorstep and stay for a month. He does that, too.’
‘When did you last see each other?’
‘Sara and Esmie’s wedding. We were both guests of your parents. I’ll wager that was the last time he saw you, too. You would have been five or six.’ Bilbo looked away, face sad. ‘I should have gone to see him.’
‘Do I understand rightly that he lost his father the same summer my parents died?’
‘Yes, you do. My cousin Fort, his father, died in June that year. I wrote him a letter, asked if I should come, and he said that he was in no mood for visitors. Then, after we lost your parents, I did not wish to speak to anyone, so we never spoke.’
‘Alder is Pal’s father, yes?’
‘Yes, Adalgrim Took. He was married to your Uncle Odo’s older sister, Lina.’
‘Do you love him? Rum, not Alder.’
‘You heard what I said.’ Frodo waited. After a few heartbeats, Bilbo smiled a little. ‘He is dear to me, but I’m not in love with him. Once, I desired him. Not anymore. I don’t desire anyone anymore.’
Then why did you kiss him like that when he left? Frodo did not think Bilbo was telling the whole truth and knew he probably did not want an answer. ‘I don’t have any other questions, at least none I can think of.’ Or dare to ask.
‘Then we should probably get some sleep. It’s late and I am exhausted.’ Bilbo clambered to his feet, using the door to support himself. This was the most tired Frodo had seen Bilbo since the northern walk, though nothing like the grim exhaustion after Scary. Once Bilbo was standing, Frodo hugged him, being very careful not to touch him or move against him in a way Bilbo might think was provocative. Be his good boy, Baggins. He wanted to tell Bilbo that tomorrow they should go home and leave this place crowded with relatives and memories that were older than himself. That would be running away. No, it would be going home. This will just follow you home. Frodo had a vision of opening the front door of Bag End and finding not Dalin but Rum with Otho and Pal behind him, and Odogar and Uncle Rory and Uncle Rufus and a line of hobbits beyond them one after the other, snaking its way down the Hill and across the Water and along the Bywater road for as far as he could see. He started trembling and forbade himself to cry.
‘There, now, lad, it’s all right,’ Bilbo said soothingly, ‘I think we’re both exhausted’. He kissed Frodo’s temple and made him take a step back. ‘You wash up and get ready for bed.’ Frodo nodded, not trusting himself to speak, and went to the washstand. He took off his waistcoat and shirt, which Bilbo took, and quickly dashed some water on his face. ‘Your nightshirt’s on the bed.’ Frodo scrubbed his face roughly, more to explain away any redness in it than to clean up. He’d washed well just before supper, after all. A quick splash of water over his hands, and he was done.
He walked over to the bed to get his nightshirt and glanced at Bilbo, who had taken off his own shirt, shaken it out and hung it neatly on a peg. The old hobbit pulled his nightshirt out of the drawers, keeping his back to Frodo while he pulled it on. Something about the way Bilbo moved alarmed Frodo, and he went over to his uncle, who was slipping out of his trousers. When Bilbo turned around, Frodo reached out and pulled the neck of his nightshirt aside, and saw a large purpling bruise on Bilbo’s left shoulder and the top of his chest.
‘It’s, it’s nothing to worry about Frodo. It’s just a bruise.’
‘I should have jumped him!’
‘And then he would have beaten you, because he was in a fury,’ Bilbo said crossly, pushing Frodo’s hands away and pulling his nightshirt back into place.
‘He better not come visit. I don’t want him anywhere near you!’
‘He’s gone. I won’t bring him here again.’ Bilbo patted Frodo’s shoulder and walked to the bed. He did not wait for Frodo and climbed in. Frodo changed, put out the wall lantern and crawled in next to him. Bilbo was almost asleep already and Frodo snuggled up against him, not entirely sure if he wanted comfort or to offer it. He put an arm over Bilbo’s side and burrowed his face into Bilbo’s neck. And recoiled in disgust when he smelled Rum on Bilbo’s skin. Bilbo sat up. ‘Wilwarin?’
‘You smell like him.’
There was a pause, then a sigh. ‘Give me a minute.’ Bilbo clambered out of bed and shuffled over to the washstand. Frodo heard water being poured followed by the sound of scrubbing. When Bilbo came back to bed, he said, ‘That’s all I can do without soap.’
It was not too bad. There was just a hint of lavender, a trace of pipeweed different from what he and Bilbo smoked. Frodo curled up with his back to Bilbo so his nose would not be against him. He did not resist Bilbo pulling him close and cuddling him. ‘I’m sorry, lad.’
Frodo wished again that they were back home in Bag End and wanted to be in Bilbo’s room. Until he had gone to speak to Bilbo about the revelation of the Parting, he had never been in that room for more than a minute or two, retrieving the laundry basket or placing clean clothes on Bilbo’s bed. When he had sat there that night, he had been tempted to ask to stay. Just being in the room was like being held by his uncle. Bilbo had slept in the bed so long that it was permeated with his scent. Changing the sheets would not change the smell of the bed. There was almost nothing in the room save the bed and Bilbo sitting on it, looking strong and well and handsome. More beautiful than Rum. He doesn’t want you, he doesn’t love you. He only loves me. This thought comforted Frodo and he finally fell asleep.