POV - Bilbo
In which Bilbo discovers things he would rather not know, entertains thoughts he knows are not right, and says things that would be better left unsaid.
01 Astron, 1290
I hope this letter will find you. I know you are upon the road in the north.
I see from your last letter that you are apprised of the new market going in just over the Brandywine Bridge. The Master played us all false with his threats. I think there can be no doubt now that he intends to seize the Marish and to block all trade from the east that would go to Whitfurrows. Is it true he intends to come to the Free Fair?
Good news indeed about the support of all the Bagginses. Falco will be able to work with the Chubbs on anything that worries them, though I hear that he practically runs the upper portion of Westfarthing as it is. He can deliver it whether or not Wilcar agrees. Otho can win Pal’s abstention. The minor branches will no doubt fall into line, as you said. When will you speak to Odo Proudfoot and Pasco Goodbody? Try to have Otho in on those meetings. Whatever you have been saying to Prisca seems to be having an effect on Wili. He will be here with one of his boys when you come later this month. He’s been much less stubborn the last month and is no longer so keen to support Rory.
You must be thanked for winning over Widow Grubb. She has some grudge against Gun’s brother-in-law, Will, and had been stirring up trouble in Frogmorton. That seems now at an end.
We will need to decide what to present at the Moot when you are here. If Falco is strongly supporting this, as Poppy has told Bertie, I think the western boundary can safely be extended to Nobottle. I am curious to hear how your discussion with Rufus goes.
03 Astron, 1290
Rory has told me the full story of Odogar’s foolishness. I don’t know how you deal with those two. Rory says I am to be guided by you, which I am glad to do as I’m not sure either is quite thinking straight. I will see you in Scary in a few weeks. I’ll be bringing Fred, and Prisca says she must come so she can see you and Frodo. I think Gilda is encouraging her on that count.
You heard about the fever rash in Brandy Hall? Prisca and I went to Bard’s farm to wait it out. Poor little Merry. He’s a lucky lad, but he’s still weak. Gilda got sick tending him. Thank goodness for your cousin, Ula, the one Frodo’s sweet on. She took care of everyone while Gilda was ill. Little Sara had to step up, as well. Rory wouldn’t leave Gilda’s side while she was sick, and that left Sara and Mac to tend things with Big Sara’s help. I’ve finally seen some sign that Little Sara might know what a Master’s tasks are. I think Rory’s wise to leave him to tend things in the Hall while he and Mac go to the Fair. A little more responsibility will be good for the youngster.
Given the foolishness of all my kin, I think I’d best go there, too, if only to laugh at them.
03 Astron, 1290
This is for your eyes, not Frodo’s. Never trust a Baggins. I should know this by now. Your niece has been dosing me for tremors based on something in the newest scroll. She doesn’t understand how dangerous that can be, and some of the herbs have not had a good effect. I’ve given her a lecture and told her she’ll be sent off if she ever tries something like that again.
I’ve enclosed my last questions and corrections about the scroll. You may give that to Frodo. I know you two are tramping about dealing with mischief, but I do want the prepared scroll ready to come back with Rory after the Fair. Keep an eye on the Master. He is allowing his contest with the Bolger to get the better of his common sense. Odogar’s more than a bit of a Baggins, too, no matter his name.
05 Astron, 1290
Dearest Little Cousin,
Your letter about the walk in Northfarthing was lovely. I can picture the hills all covered with flowers and how wild some of the hills must be. How beautiful it sounds – I wish I could see it with you. I am so sorry that you will be subjected to Bargo and Bluebell all too soon. Try to stick close to Uncle Bilbo.
In answer to your question, everyone very close to you is doing well now. Merry and Merle both had a touch of the fever, but are bouncing about and driving us all quite mad, as you can no doubt tell from the letters! The Mistress tired herself out tending the sick, so the Master and I conspired to make her rest. She is quite herself now, which is to say imperious and dispensing advice and whacks with the cane in equal measure. The one sorrow is that Daisy, Tom Tunnelly's little sister, died. Will you be going through Whitfurrows on your way home? Perhaps you can speak to Tom. He hasn’t been back to the Hall since Afteryule.
I wish I was going to the Free Fair! Aunt Prisca makes it sound like so much fun, with dancing every night. I’ve no doubt but you’ll be asked for many a dance. You’d best mind your manners, rascal. It turns out I may be home for Harvest after all, so save a dance for me then.
Greenfields, 08 Astron 1390
‘And that was the last wolf anyone sighted this year, Mister Baggins,’ concluded Billy Stubtoe, the headman of Greenfields. ‘He was a sorry beast, no bigger than some of the dogs round here, and all his bones showed.’
‘Old, I think,’ broke in another man, none too young himself and with the sun-weathered face of a shepherd, ‘and probably couldn’t hunt no more.’
Bilbo nodded, sipping his beer. This was the second night in the common-room of The Battlefield, the only inn in all of Greenfields. It was a long, low building, built into the side of a hill and fronted with stone. Its court had a stone wall and a big gate out to the road to Oatbarton. In the Winter, those who could not flee south to escape the White Wolves had holed up in the Battlefield, the windows boarded shut to keep the savage beasts from breaking in through them and devouring the hobbits sheltering inside. A pelt of one of those wolves was mounted on the wall at the end of the room, a stern reminder that things were more dangerous at this end of the Shire. On a high shelf above the beer taps was a strangely formed skull, said to be that of the Orc king Golfimbul, retrieved from the rabbit hole where Bandobras Took had knocked it.
If only I was dealing with Orcs. The answer to Orcs was rather simple – call in the help of the dwarves. A troop of them and their axes would make short work of that kind of trouble. It was the Troubles that did not lend themselves to a simple solution.
Northfarthing was ill. Like himself, it seemed well enough to the causal eye, but a closer look by someone who knew what should be would expose the… not rot exactly, but deformity. Things pulled in the wrong direction, like looking young while age is spun out in a long, rough thread. Frodo had noticed the dead trees early on in their tramp, but had not seen that they failed to decay, as though they were not really dead. More like being frozen in the clutches of the Winter.
Today, northeast of Greenfields, Bilbo and Frodo had tramped with Billy to go look at an apple orchard that no longer thrived. The trees at the far end of the grove were like the dead snags he had seen on the walk up, with no sign of sap or bud, but also no damaged bark or beetle-ridden branches. The roots were firm, but odd in a way Bilbo could not place until he peeled a bit of the outer skin from it. There was no smell, as though the root had turned to bone. At the southern end of the orchard, the trees were alive and reminded Bilbo of the wild apples in the Old Orchard near the High Hay, ancient and gnarled, looking every bit their age, yet hale. Billy had looked at them curiously, then had taken Bilbo and Frodo’s arms quite firmly and walked them out from under the twisted boughs clothed in white blooms and delicate green leaves. When asked why, the headman had shrugged.
‘Best not to step among them until they’ve leafed and rooted for the season. They’ve been walking again.’
The patches of desiccated grasses, like the orchard, were not truly dead, just withered as though it were still deep Foreyule. Their roots did not smell, either. Bilbo did not try to taste the dirt the way Uncle Gorbadoc had taught him; it did not seem that could be wholesome, given what was growing, or failing to grow, upon it. As with the trees, the plants had no sign of pestilence or disease upon them, just the sense that their forms had ceased to respond to the rhythms of the seasons. Bilbo wondered if they, too, felt drawn and stretched as he did. Rory and Gilda, they know of this. Not an illness, a wrongness. Something was parting the things upon the land from what gave them life.
The instances of the parted land became more common as they had walked from south to north and from the west of the Shire towards the east. Bilbo tried to remember the maps he had seen in Rivendell and the stories he had heard from elves and dwarves alike about the cold evil that had once held sway north and east of the mild countryside of the Shire. That was where the Winter and the White Wolves had come from, where Orcs bred, trolls roamed, and dragons emerged.
And I, too, am parted, like the trees. Bilbo no longer doubted Gilda’s judgment from Yule, that he was affected by whatever was this deeper wrong. He began to wonder if it had anything at all to do with his adventure or if he had simply returned to a place where the Troubles had already taken root. Gilda said it first appeared a dozen years after I returned. Dob Delver, the gaffer who ran The Battlefield, had placed the first sign of the Fading, as he called it, to about thirty years ago. It was just minor then – some spots in the far meadows, a few distant groves with withered limbs, lambing a bit off here and there. Ten years ago they had the Second Winter, another surge of frigid cold and more wolves just as the regular season had begun to turn to spring. Two years ago, in the late autumn, there had been more illness than usual, and the following spring saw many more dead trees than the year before.
At Bilbo’s right hand, Frodo finished the last of Bilbo’s supper. As usual, he had not much appetite and simply gave the lad the remainder of his meal rather than let it go to waste. Perhaps the old wolf wasn’t hungry. He waited until Frodo looked up from the now empty bowl and smiled cheerfully. ‘Enough, lad, or do you want more?’
Dob’s daughter, Ella, who waited the tables in the room, took Frodo’s bowl and replaced it with a plate holding a slice of pear tart. Bilbo chuckled as the boy discovered he was not quite full and put away this last morsel. That done, Bilbo bade the innkeeper, his daughter and the rest of the room good-night (and received a similar farewell in return) and led them back to their room. They had to start their long tramp to Oatbarton on the morrow and Bilbo wished to read letters and set down his thoughts before retiring.
A stack of letters waited for them in their pleasant room. There was a solid desk against one wall and a large bed with a tick of fresh straw. A fire already burned in the hearth, though in truth the day was warm enough that they really did not need it. Bilbo sat at the desk and sorted the letters into a stack for himself and another for Frodo while Frodo prepared pipes for them both. The lad had performed that task ever since their argument in Long Cleeve and Bilbo was disinclined to discourage anything the boy wished to take on as his own. Most letters found them directly, since Bilbo made no secret of his walk north and the Messengers spoke to each other on where Mister Baggins planned to be in a few days’ time. If notes arrived at Bag End, Bell Gamgee would bundle them up and give them to a Messenger to tramp north with, the opposite route that Bilbo and Frodo were taking so they would be met with the notes when they went along.
This set was fairly substantial. The letter from Falco was, no doubt, about the meeting with Wilcar Chubb. That was the most important news that might be surprising, and Bilbo set it aside to read last. The note from Rufus was simply asking what day he and Frodo planned to arrive in Oatbarton, the one from Isenbrand gave an account of the last carts of roots as well as new ones of stone, and Maud Grubb had sent one of her usual terse and funny reports on the shenanigans in Whitfurrows. There was no letter from Odogar, for which he was grateful. Gilda and Rory each had sent short notes full of false assurances that all was well in Buckland. He looked forward to talking to Prisca for the full news of the fever and how Gilda and Merry actually were. Bilbo had not received another letter from Ula since the shocking one in mid-Rethe, which he had not shared with Frodo, but was relieved that she was sending regular correspondence to the lad. Frodo was always glad to share them, reading parts aloud though he would not actually hand the letters to Bilbo to read, and the old hobbit suspected that more was written than what he was hearing. Bilbo feigned a mild interest in the contents, though in truth it made him uncomfortable to see the youngsters becoming closer, knowing how Gilda had directed the girl to show Frodo affection she did not feel. Whatever his doubts, these letters seemed sincere. You’re sweeter on the lad than you admit, Ula. Merle, Merry and Gilda sent Frodo regular letters, as did Dilly. There were brief letters from Rum, Griffo Boffin and the weekly tome from Cousin Dora, which he did not bother to look at. He wished the woman would write to Frodo as well. He knew it hurt his boy that his father’s siblings paid him no mind.
Bilbo glanced over at Frodo, who was smiling at what he was reading, before opening the letter from Falco. Oh, now this is interesting. Wilcar Chubb had been quite forthcoming to Falco on the gossip he had heard from his wife, Pal’s eldest sister Adalmira. Wilcar had seen nothing odd in Falco’s curiosity over Car’s presence in Whitwell, seeing as how pleasant gossip was the only way news got about, and had said that Pal was trying to settle some trouble that the Thain and the Master had stirred up in lower Eastfarthing by carting about bad roots to replace a few that had been poorly cellared earlier in the season, and blaming it all on Odogar. Wilcar was a bit surprised that Falco did not know anything of it, seeing as how Pal said Otho had been tending to things on Bilbo’s behalf, and he’d thought for sure Bilbo would have told Falco about it. So, Odogar is promising Otho the farthing if he will help.
Bilbo thought back to his brief, unpleasant meeting with his Baggins cousin in early Rethe, the day after Lobelia’s visit. They had met at the barn on a farm that Bilbo owned part way between Hobbiton and Bywater that was next to another owned by their cousin, Odo Proudfoot, who worked both. Otho’s look at Bilbo was smoldering when he came into the barn.
You swore you’d never…
Then hear a new oath, cousin. I swear that if I hear any further lies about Frodo’s paternity that I can trace back to your smial, they will be met with both the truth about Hilda and an equivalent rumor about Lotho. How long were you wed before your son was born? Only one year less than Drogo and Primula when they had Frodo.
She couldn’t have another! We never thought there would be…
Nor did Drogo, and yet there was. You are in the same position.
I can’t help what is common gossip…
Drogo took your wife’s secret to his grave. He never bore you ill will. He made sure that no one would gossip, not here, not out east where people did take notice of a certain pregnant young girl. I think you owe his son a bit of respect. Fight me on other things if you like, Otho, but not this. You know quite well the lengths I will go to protect the honor of an innocent.
Otho had glared for a minute or so, but had finally assented to reining in Lobelia. And now you try to get around me by colluding with Pal and Odogar. Bilbo was just glad that whatever Otho had said to Lobelia appeared to have silenced her. There would always be some kind of rumor murmured by mean spirited folk, but most would look at Frodo, see a bright Baggins lad and not look any further. Bilbo firmly forbade himself to think any more on people staring at Frodo and to concentrate on Falco’s letter. Wilcar evidently did not know anything beyond the twisted version of the tale about the failed harvest and Falco had said nothing of his own talk with Bilbo. To his relief, Falco appeared to be thinking a bit more clearly on just what Odogar had proposed. “If I recall the map correctly, a good chunk of the best lands of Westfarthing would be ceded to the new farthing. It doesn’t seem fair to Cousin Wilcar to have to relinquish so much for the good fortune of others. I doubt he will be pleased by this, no matter if Pal wishes for it.” Even so, Wilcar said again he thought the idea of putting Bilbo in charge of a farthing was not a poor one.
With a sigh, Bilbo put aside the letters and opened a bound journal where he kept a diary of their walk and what he had seen. There would be time ahead to foil Odogar’s idiocy, if only by refusing to cooperate, but there truly were problems here in the north that needed to be tended to sooner rather than later. Rufus was not claimed by Dragon Fever as Odogar was, that was clear, and Bilbo had found no sign of it among the northern folk the way it seemed to be spreading in the southern reaches of the Shire, for which he was grateful. They were not parted from their good sense up here, perhaps because those who chose to live in this place had always to keep their wits about them. It was not as forgiving as the rest of the Shire. Even so, Rufus was not tending to things up here as well as he could.
There was the Parting that he saw in the land, part of the Troubles. He wrote up his impressions of the orchard from earlier in the day, including a few small sketches of the trees that still lived. Billy said they walked, but away from the danger or towards it? Perhaps the trees were being called as he sometimes felt something was calling him. The deformed animals he thought were getting twisted away from what was true. The shepherd they had spoken to the day before said the lambs cast out increasingly were still living when they emerged and closer to term. He and other shepherds had taken to burning the carcasses rather than feeding them to the sheep dogs as they would have before. Bilbo thought this wise.
Then there were just ordinary troubles, and these made Bilbo shake his head and grumble a bit, earning a questioning glance from Frodo. Rufus really needs to pay more attention to the state of things up here. The roads had not been mended in a meaningful way since the summer of 1387, and the years of wear and winters was taking its toll. The road between Long Cleeve and Greenfields in particular saw a great deal of use and was little more than a mire in some spots from the tread of feet, hooves and wheels. The bridges over the creeks were passable, but in need of repair, particularly the biggest bridge up north, the Water Bridge in Long Cleeve. He hoped the road down to Oatbarton was in better shape, though he intended to walk mostly along the paths that led through field and fold to either side of the main way. Bilbo was curious to see how far south the Parting extended.
This is not a time for affable fools. That was it, really. The Troubles called for a firmer hand and a sharper wit than in more fat times, and hobbits like Wilcar and Rufus just were not up to the job. Someone stronger, like Rum or Rory, was needed to keep things from straying. Perhaps I should be more direct in what I’m doing. The Mayorship does come up soon, and that would not be as divisive as trying to create a new farthing, Baggins. Or keep the farthings as they are and have better headmen in charge. Bilbo absently drew a rough map of the Shire in the journal. Odogar is the problem to solve. Pal was Rum’s problem and one he could solve in ten months were he to consent to a wife. Eastfarthing was more demanding. There was no one positioned to take over from Odogar. The Marish might answer to the Master, but no one would accept it belonging to Buckland. On the map, Bilbo placed a few dots. Waymeet. Hobbiton. Bywater. Scary. Whitfurrows. If Eastfarthing just extended a bit further, to the other side of the Hill, then it could be Baggins territory. He got along with Rory, so no more fighting over the River…
Bilbo gave himself a shake. What are you thinking, Baggins? This is what you are trying to prevent, you fool! Grumbling to himself again, Bilbo shut the journal and set the desk to rights. Frodo claimed their pipes and began filling them, indicating that he was not yet ready for bed. Bilbo made no mention of this and went over to their trunk, putting a few things in, taking a few others out, so it would take but a moment to prepare and shut it tomorrow morning. They would see it again in Oatbarton when they stopped to stay with Rufus and his family. Bilbo kept the most important letters with him, not wanting to risk a nosy relative (he put very little past Asphodel) rummaging through them, and stowed the rest. He placed their nightshirts on the bed where they would be easy to find and set out clean clothes for the walk tomorrow before joining Frodo before the hearth, accepting the pipe after taking a seat on the floor.
Ever since the bewildering argument in Long Cleeve, Bilbo had taken to sitting on the ground instead of in a chair. He was not quite sure that sitting next to Frodo was right, but he knew he no longer wished the boy to sit at his feet. Though Frodo had hedged his words, Bilbo had smelled and seen fear in his lad when they argued. He knew that his own reaction to thoughts of killing Sara was part of that fear. As at Wintermark, it had left him roused, desiring to perform in truth the violations he inflicted on Sara in his mind, and there was no way that Frodo had not seen this. I would have. Had you touched me, Wilwarin, I would have… Bilbo looked away, pretending to study the stone work of the wall until he had composed his expression. It was best that Frodo should sit a bit apart from him.
He did not feel comfortable sitting above the boy, pawing at him and handling him, even if he knew the touches to be innocent. Bilbo had thought carefully, as they walked the day after the argument, about the way Frodo sat with him, and realized that the lad was allowing him to do things, to take pleasure in an intimacy that was not returned. It was a kind of servicing. “I don’t know what will please you! You won’t let me please you. All I have now is you.” The key to the mystery of his lad was in those words, and Bilbo did not know how to translate them.
Frodo had not asked why Bilbo was now sitting on the ground, just giving him a look and then a shrug and had smoked his pipe. Over the last four days, they had not spoken of the argument or any of the things that had been part of it. Bilbo scolded himself again for having pressed Frodo about their relatives, and it grieved him that Frodo could still doubt that he was a Baggins. It was true that everyone was staring at Frodo, though none had asked any unfortunate questions. You can’t demand this, he must come to it himself, of his own will, just as he came to you. Frodo will not be forced to an agreement. Instead, their evenings were spent speaking of what they saw during that day’s walk and sometimes of what news came in the letters. Frodo had been thoughtful after a recent letter from Ula, though the parts of it he had read aloud seemed quite cheerful, with talk of Gilda and dancing.
Minutes went by and Bilbo waited, patient, for a sign of what his lad wanted. Frodo took his pipe from his mouth and studied it, turning it slowly in his hands, touching the inlaid ravens on the bowl. ‘You said I could say anything to you. Ask you anything.’
Bilbo sternly warned himself to be mild and keep his temper under control. ‘Yes, Frodo I did, and I also promise that I shall not be angry with you for what you ask, though I do not promise I will answer.’ Frodo glanced at him, an eyebrow up. ‘I will not, for example, betray a confidence.’
‘You keep your word.’ Bilbo nodded. There was a long pause as Frodo thoroughly examined his pipe several times. ‘Does...’ Another pause. ‘Is it…’ The pipe turned this way, then that. ‘What…’ Frodo stopped worrying the pipe and stared at the fire for a second, before exhaling. ‘Does being mouthed really feel that good?’
This was not a question Bilbo had expected and wondered why Frodo was asking now. He had an unpleasant notion that it had to do with how to please someone, and hoped this was not something Frodo had ever wondered about him. Frodo had not turned away from the fire. Start with the obvious, Baggins. ‘There are a few ways I could answer this, Frodo, but I would like to ask you a question first.’
‘If you wish. I may not answer.’
‘Fair enough. Am I to understand that none of the boys you serviced in this way ever did so to you in return?’
Frodo turned and looked him in the eye. ‘No, sir. They did not.’
‘Not even Tom?’
Frodo’s eyes narrowed, but his voice remained calm. ‘That’s two questions.’
He recalled Frodo’s sadness at Yule when he had said he and Tom had parted and the looks exchanged between the boys at The Fat Badger, and thought there was probably a story there, but it was clearly not one Frodo wished to share. All right, no questions about Tom. ‘My apologies, Frodo. That was prying of me.’ Bilbo considered his words. ‘My answer presumes that this act is done with reasonable care and by someone who is a bit practiced.’
Bilbo did not look away and did his best to match Frodo’s matter-of-fact tone. ‘Yes, like yourself.’ He took a moment to draw on his pipe. ‘To be mouthed in such a way is probably the most pleasurable feeling you can have short of actually mounting a woman.’
That removed a great deal of Frodo’s composure. ‘Really?’
Frodo growled and turned back to the fire, scowling. Regretting a missed opportunity, I'll wager. You’ll have others, Wilwarin. Bilbo doubted Frodo was in any mood to hear that particular assurance. Remove any sting it might have. ‘It does feel good, though it is shameful to ask for. It was shameful for the older boys to ask it of you.’ That got Frodo’s attention. ‘I’ve said before, that most tween boys have had someone else’s hand down their pants, or their own down another’s. Fewer, though still quite a number, have mouthed each other.’ Bilbo stopped and smoked his pipe, waiting for the obvious next question. If he asks, Baggins, be ready to answer honestly.
‘So, it is that much more pleasurable than just being stroked?’
Not quite what he had thought Frodo would ask, but easier to answer. ‘Yes, it is, though the difference in enjoyment may be greater or lesser depending on how the acts are done.’ Bilbo was not certain he liked the intent expression on Frodo’s face. The lad was thinking of something that puzzled him, trying to work out an answer. ‘Why do you wish to know how they compare?’
A change came over Frodo’s face, the composed mask from the start of the conversation slipping back into place. The boy drew on his pipe, but it had gone out and Frodo set it aside. ‘Sometimes the others would ask to be stroked instead of being mouthed, or as part of it. I wondered if it gave them the same pleasure, else why would they ask?’
Liar. No, Baggins, not a lie. A false trail, but a reasonable answer. Trust him to tell you what you need to know. Bilbo suspected there was much more, and would be patient. With a shrug, he answered, ‘Either is good. A hand can squeeze more than a mouth, and provides its own enjoyment. The boys probably wished to feel each.’
‘Mmm.’ Frodo, dropped his eyes, thinking, then gave a small nod and caught Bilbo’s gaze. ‘If mounting a woman is better, why would a man want a boy if he had a wife?’
‘It depends on the man.’ Even this oblique mention of Sara made Bilbo’s heart pound and his thoughts run in dark directions. Stop. You will scare your boy. Stop. ‘It is something older men, married men, will ask of boys because it feels very good and because they know they can get away with it. A strong-willed wife may be less cooperative than a curious young boy.’ Frodo began to say something, then, looked away, face getting very red. ‘Wilwarin, I meant it when I said you may ask or tell me anything. You may ask something prying, or say something shameful, and I will hear you out.’
‘Did you do this? When you were my age. With an older man?’
Bilbo waited until Frodo looked at him again. ‘Yes. Do you wish the story of it?’ The boy nodded. ‘I was not yet a tween, perhaps eighteen. A man I knew asked me to do this. He did not threaten me, or try to force me, and he did so to me first so I would understand what he wanted.’ And he was but the first. We are both rather practiced, lad, aren’t we?
Frodo considered this. ‘Was he married?’
‘Yes.’ Frodo started to ask another question, but then blushed redder than before and hid his face in his arms. ‘What is it?’ The boy shook his head and would not look up. ‘You’d best just ask, for…’
‘You never would.’ Bilbo set down his own pipe and waited until Frodo finally looked up, shame and trepidation on his face, then held out his hand. After a moment, Frodo reached out and took it, his shaking slightly, and Bilbo clasped the boy’s hand between both of his own. ‘I’m sorry. That was wicked of me to...’ Frodo’s face twisted and he ducked his head.
‘No, Wilwarin, it was merely a bit thoughtless, and you didn’t mean it poorly. I take no offense. Since asked, I can assure you that I have never asked a child for such a thing or to do such a thing to them. Never.’ Bilbo hitched himself a little closer and reached over for Frodo’s other hand. ‘Here’s another story for you. When my younger cousins became old enough to want such things, I kept an eye out, knowing what older men might ask of them, and did my best to make sure no one tried to take advantage of their ignorance and curiosity for their own pleasure. What they may have done with each other, I did not ask.’ Bilbo hoped that Frodo would not inquire too closely about what he may have done with not-so-younger cousins.
‘The boy you loved…’
‘He did this for you?’
‘And I for him, yes.’
‘Did you know he loved you because he would do this?’
‘We did this because we loved each other.’
‘Mmm.’ Frodo pulled his hands away, but did not otherwise retreat. He picked up his pipe and began examining it closely as when they had started this conversation. ‘I don’t think Tom loved me. Not like that.’ The words were so soft Bilbo could barely make them out. He waited for more. It was a few minutes. ‘His sister died. Of the fever rash this last winter.’
‘I am sorry to hear that. I remember her sitting next to their mother at the Hall. He and his parents must be very sad.’
‘Yes, they must be.’ Frodo sighed. ‘All those cousins, and you’re the big brother.’ He looked up. ‘You were always taking care of them, weren’t you?’
Bilbo was a little thrown by the swift change of topic, but tried not to show it. ‘Yes, like a big dog with all the puppies following along. Cousin Wili was the oldest, your mother the youngest, and everyone else in between!’
‘Who?’ Frodo’s voice was cheerful.
Yes, let’s change the subject. This was much better to talk about. ‘Rory, always in the middle of the worst trouble, and Drogo, of course. Amaranth, who would not be left behind, no matter her crutches, and Gorbulas and Big Sara, who wasn’t big at all back then, and Asphodel and Prim. Often, we had Rufus and his sister, Reed, and their cousin, Rudi, visiting, and they would be added to the pack. Whenever there were visitors to the Hall – Boffins, Bolgers, Tooks, Grubbs, any of them! – I ended up with a new litter. Asphodel and Prim were much younger, and I was gone before they could get into too much trouble, but the older ones,’ Bilbo shook his head in mock disapproval, ‘the scrapes they got themselves into!’ That made Frodo snicker. ‘Yes, I thought them all my bratty little siblings at Brandy Hall, no matter what kind of cousins they actually were. I only had Drogo at the Great Smials. Mostly I was caring for Mother then.’ Bilbo knew he was getting tired and starting to ramble.
‘That’s what you do.’ Frodo’s face was serious.
‘What mean you?’
‘You take care of others. All your little siblings who aren’t, but you made them so. Your mother. My father. Me. You get elven scrolls and take care of Aunt Gilda, even when she isn’t very gracious about it. The ledgers and all this mess with Odogar. Even taking care of dwarves and getting their kingdom back.’
‘That was less caring for them than running for my life!’ Bilbo teased, very confused by his lad’s turns of thought, but pleased at the cheerful end to the evening. ‘And since I’m caring for you, I think it time we both go to bed so we’re rested for tomorrow’s tramp.’
‘Yes, we should go to bed,’ Frodo agreed, quickly on his feet and giving Bilbo a pull to help him stand. Just that quickly, Frodo stepped in close and gave Bilbo a firm hug, which Bilbo returned. It felt good to touch Frodo like this, with the lad wanting to hug him back. Bilbo broke the embrace first and gave Frodo a kiss on the cheek before going over to the bed and changing into his nightshirt. They were both soon asleep, Frodo nestled against his back with an arm draped over him, just as Drogo would do.
Oatbarton, 11 Astron 1390
It took all of Bilbo’s will to smile brightly and wade into the throng of Burrowses awaiting them in the parlor of the smial and not grab Frodo’s arm and bolt for the relative safety of the road. He counted at least eighteen people, and that was only the adults. A quick glance at Frodo showed that the lad was doing his best to imitate Bilbo’s cheer, but was obviously intimidated at being the focus of so much attention. They had arrived but a few minutes before after a long day’s jaunt through the countryside and had just had time to wash their hands and faces and brush off their feet before Rufus had escorted them into the parlor.
His alarm faded quickly, though, at the genuine warmth of the greetings, with only a few sour faces to be found. Rufus and Asphodel were there, of course, Asphodel sporting the least welcoming expression. Rufus’s four older children, Milo, Amaryllis, Marco and Hyacinth, each had their respective spouses, Peony Baggins, Mericar Goold, Clover Grubb and Harold Hornblower, with them, plus a few small children and some of their spouses’ kin. The younger Burrowses, Bargo and Bluebell, were soon speaking to Frodo, Bluebell mostly talking and Bargo mostly glowering. Bilbo trusted that the sheer number of relatives in the room would keep the bully on his best behavior. Rufus’s cousin, Rudibard, and his wife, Wilma Chubb, were present and looking well. They exchanged cheerful chatter about the couple’s delightful daughters, Cissy and Dilly. There were a few neighbors and couple of minor cousins to round out the mob. As the evening passed, yet more hobbits came in and began filling a second parlor just down the hallway from the first.
Bilbo wished he and Frodo had been given an opportunity in which to change out of their travel clothes as they were a somewhat grubby from three days of walking, but no one seemed to mind and a few of the men had obviously just come from the fields or a workshop, so he and the lad were not alone in being a bit dusty. There really was not much to do for an hour except smile, talk about the lovely weather, the fine walk, and admire how large the little children were getting. When Rufus said supper was ready, Frodo was still being followed by Bluebell, but was holding his cousin Milo’s young son Mosco on his hip while he held an animated conversation with Milo and Cousin Peony.
The ancestral smial of the Burrows clan, Fair Delving, was less opulent than Bag End and far larger. It did not rival the vast tunnels of the Great Smials or of Brandy Hall, but it comfortably held several generations of Burrows and however many guests might show up on the doorstep. It differed from most smials in that it had multiple levels tunneled out of a fairly steep cliff side, each level stepped back from the one below. Bilbo always felt at home in these tunnels, though he preferred to be on one of the higher levels. The walls of the smial were mostly wood, with a few of the lower areas made of stone and the top level was just neatly plastered earth. There were two levels below ground, both used for storage.
As soon as supper was announced, the crowd made their way to the main dining hall. It was the center room of the ground floor and quite a clever feat of engineering. Bilbo suspected some dwarven ingenuity was involved. Unlike the main halls of Brandy Hall and the Great Smials, there were no supporting pillars in the very large room. The ceiling was higher than the rest of the level, pushing up into the level above, allowing room for stone and timber bracing to reinforce the walls and ceiling of the large open space. It could seat a hundred hobbits, if you did not mind it being a bit cozy, and swallowed up their thirty-five or so at a single table without a problem. Bilbo signaled Frodo to stay with Milo and Peony and sit at the foot of the table. Frodo gave him a quizzical look, but did as Bilbo directed. He sat to Milo’s right just as Bilbo sat at Rufus’s.
Supper was a slightly quieter continuation of the conversations started in the parlor, since the food kept mouths occupied. There were a couple of kitchen girls to bring dishes to the table, but people served themselves from platters and no one was above dashing back to the kitchen to get more of this or that if the girls were busy. It was a nice half-way between the formality of Brandy Hall and the simplicity of Bag End. It felt like a clan. This is why they have a farthing and you do not, Baggins. Bilbo looked at the gathering of kin. All of the male line Burrows kin lived in the smial or in houses close by. The Burrows women who married in Oatbarton sometimes continued to live in Fair Delving, especially if their husbands did not have great standing within their own families. Anyone could see the strength of the Burrowses and it seemed right that such a wealthy and powerful clan should order things. The Baggins had stopped living in this way some generations ago. In the time of Bilbo’s great-great-great-grandfather, Dargo Baggins, the clan had left the old, large smial in Michel Delving they had occupied since Isumbras I became Thain, and the main branch had relocated to a large if ordinary house in Hobbiton. The other lines took up residence where it pleased them, though most could be found within eight leagues of Hobbiton. Power reassures not just those who have it, but also those who are subject to it. He thought back to the grandeur of the great halls of Erebor, how all visitors gazed in awe at the soaring spaces, the monumental carvings, every surface adorned with designs and set with glittering gems. Even Smaug had not been able to gather to himself all that sparkled within the mountain. When power can be seen, it compels agreement. The lines on a map, the building of a market, the space above his head – all were visible signs of whose command was acknowledged in the Shire.
Bilbo ate with a fair appetite, for they had walked a great deal today and had not eaten after lunch. He could see that Frodo was eating heartily and it looked like both Peony and Amy were keeping his plate full. All the cousins agreed that Amy Burrows, Rufus and Asphodel’s oldest girl, looked very much like her Aunt Primula, and it gave Bilbo both joy and pain to see her for that reason. The meal went on for almost two hours, for the company was pleasant, and Bilbo was very much ready for his bed by the time Rufus stood and brought the meal to a close. Frodo was suppressing a yawn as he walked up with Milo and Peony, and Rufus laughed.
‘My apologies, dear guests, for keeping you from your well-deserved rest!’ he said. ‘Let me take you to your rooms.’ Bilbo was not terribly pleased when both Bargo and Bluebell followed them, and even less pleased when Rufus stopped in front of a door at the back of the ground floor. ‘Here you go, Frodo. I figure you’ll be visiting with these two,’ Rufus nodded towards the siblings, ‘so gave you Milo’s old room.’
‘We’re just down the hall,’ Bluebell added, pointing further along the corridor. Frodo managed a genial, almost-smile at that news.
‘Frodo, you’ll need to get your things from the trunk,’ Bilbo smoothly added, ‘so come along.’
‘Oh, Mama and I unpacked for you, Uncle Bilbo,’ Bluebell eagerly answered. ‘Frodo already has everything right here.’
Bilbo hoped he could keep his annoyance at this news hidden. You didn’t even bother to sneak, did you, Asphodel? ‘Oh, excellent! No need to carry anything back, but,’ he smiled at Frodo, ‘you will need a few things from the rucksacks and I need you to help me with some letters tonight, if you’re not too tired, lad.’ He did not like the sneering look that came over Bargo’s face when he mentioned needed Frodo in his room.
‘No, uncle, I’m not too tired,’ Frodo said politely, though Bilbo could see tension in Frodo’s shoulders and knew he had caught his cousin’s expression, too.
‘Up we go then!’ Rufus said and set down the hall to a cross corridor which led to the staircase up. They went up two floors to the top of the smial and down another corridor before stopping before the room Bilbo usually stayed in. They thanked him and bade him good night. After going in the room and shutting the door, they let out identical sighs of relief and broke into laughter.
‘Fix us a pipe, Frodo, and let us sit for a bit,’ Bilbo directed before going to check the trunk. It was mostly empty, his clothes neatly placed in the chest of drawers. A close examination of the bundle of letters showed that they were in a different order than how he had placed them. He was going to have to secure his more important letters carefully lest Asphodel start burrowing into those, too. He was soon sitting before the small hearth, Frodo across from him, enjoying the pipe.
Frodo started talking much sooner than Bilbo had expected, given the thoughtful look on the boy’s face. ‘So, how do we handle this?’
‘Can you narrow “this” down a bit more?’
‘Why didn’t you have me sit with you at supper?’ Bilbo just grinned. Frodo’s eyes narrowed. ‘Am I supposed to figure that out?’ Bilbo nodded. The lad gave him a sour look, then dropped his eyes, thinking, before nodding and looking up with a less irritated expression. ‘The heirs sit together.’
‘Correct, Wilwarin. We are not among Bagginses now, even if these are kin. From now on, you need to sit with and speak to people of your station, not your age.’ He paused a moment and added, ‘I can ask Rufus to have you moved up here, near me.’
‘No.’ Frodo’s answer was firm.
‘Why not?’ Frodo gave him a look. ‘No, Wilwarin, you must say your reasons.’
For a moment, Bilbo was worried that Frodo would argue rather than answer. ‘Two reasons.’ His voice was brisk, with the tone Bilbo knew meant Frodo was saying things that wounded and was trying to keep from showing his hurt. ‘We must not give someone an excuse to spread slander, and there are at least two people here who would say something vile if you asked to have me moved closer to you. Second, if I move, it will look to Bargo like I’m afraid of him, and he will see his snot-nosed little cousin he so delights in tormenting, not the Baggins heir.’
Bilbo winced inwardly at hearing his own cruel words from Yule said back to him. You did see that look. ‘I am concerned that Bargo will try to bully you. He would gladly have thrashed you at Wintermark. Not that I blame him much, given what you said.’
Frodo smirked before becoming serious again. ‘I can handle Bargo. I’m not afraid of him. He’s… not Sara. He’s not so brave if he doesn’t have Odogrim and Hamson to back him up, and I’ve cowed him before.’
The lad’s right, Baggins. He has to take on this kind of bully himself. Bargo isn’t Sara. A different kind of trouble came to mind. ‘Very well. I trust you can handle Bargo. You were holding your own with him at Yule. Are you able to handle Bluebell?’
‘Ugh, why would I want to handle Bluebell?’ was Frodo’s arch reply.
Bilbo snickered. ‘You don’t, but the young lady seems quite determined to catch your eye. I know she’s been writing to you…’
Frodo cut him off. ‘Ula already warned me about her, and in general to be wary of any female attention.’
It hurt to hear how clearly Frodo understood that he might be played falsely when he should just be thinking about flirting. But you’re not wary of Ula’s attentions, and that holds its own trouble. ‘Then you know to be as careful around her as you are around her brother.’ Frodo nodded, eyes on the ground.
‘Do you need help with letters tonight?’
‘No, lad, but keep an eye on yours. I think someone was reading those left in the trunk.’ Frodo made a face and growled. ‘What I do want from you tonight is for you to tell me the names of everyone who we met this evening and how we’re related.’
Frodo looked at him in confusion. ‘You want me to what?’
‘You asked how we were going to handle “this”. This is how. Tell me who is here.’
‘As you wish. Uncle Rufus and Aunt Asphodel, uncle by marriage and my mother’s sister. Their children…’ Frodo acquitted himself quite well until he started talking about the more minor relatives, where he got confused and in some cases simply did not know. When he got to the end of the recitation, he asked, ‘How does this handle anything, Uncle Bilbo?’
‘You handle it by understanding it, and that means knowing exactly who you are meeting. Every time.’
‘What good does it do?’
‘You will know who people are, and get a sense for who you can call on. You know who may have heard something important being said or who witnessed an act. You must also be sure that every one of them knows who you are, and has spoken to you.’
‘So they see that I look like you?’ Frodo’s voice was acid.
The last thing he wanted was a fight like the one in Long Cleeve just as they were to engage a less forgiving group of kin. Carefully, Baggins, he’s still sore about this. ‘The opposite, Frodo. They need to not think of what you look like, but rather pay attention to what you have to say.’ Bilbo paused, not wanting to give credence to rumors, but knowing Frodo responded better when given a practical reason to do something. ‘What must never be in doubt about you is that you are a person of intelligence and discretion, someone who knows who they are and who understands their troubles. People will care more about that than gossip.’
‘Like you always listen.’ The hostility of a moment ago had vanished and Frodo was thinking again.
‘And by doing that, you change what people see when they look at you.’
Frodo looked at Bilbo intently, eyes traveling over his form. Bilbo sat still for the examination, curious what would be uncovered. ‘No one in Northfarthing, not the far end, none of them ever called you “mad”.’ The boy met his eyes. ‘Or anything else insulting. Just Mister Baggins.’
‘If they are upset or think I have done them wrong, they’ll find the insults quickly enough,’ Bilbo dryly observed. ‘But it is not their first thought, and that is what matters.’ Bilbo stood and stretched, then gave Frodo a pat on the shoulder. ‘Enough for tonight. Mind our manners, be agreeable, and listen carefully. That’s how we shall handle this.’ With a hug and kiss, he sent Frodo off.
As tired as he was, sleep did not come easily. He missed the feel of Frodo next to him, though he knew there was absolutely no way that they could share a bed, not here. It was as after Yule and they were back in Bag End and had to sleep apart once again. Almost, after Frodo’s declaration of trust, he had asked the boy to sleep next to him, as Drogo had for so long. Who would see? Who would know? He tried to convince himself that this was why he had not asked, for fear of what would happen if anyone should find out, but he knew better. ‘And are you, still? Afraid of me?’ Frodo had answered, but had turned it so it was just fear of someone who was angry and might strike or threaten. That’s not how I meant it. You knew what I meant, Wilwarin. He did not want an answer to that question. To share a bed when no other was offered, as on this tramp, was one thing, but to say to Frodo that he expected the boy in his bed when he need not, that would be a violation. If I asked, he would, to please me, to prove that he trusts. To prove to himself that he is no longer afraid. Just as he wants proof of Drogo. Bilbo tried to think of how to keep them sleeping apart for the rest of the tramp and did not fall asleep until very early in the morning.
Oatbarton, 14 Astron 1390
‘Can you get stone? I can’t.’
Bilbo nodded. ‘Yes, but not a lot, not all at once.’
‘Tell your cousin – both of them! – that they’re not the only people in the Shire who need stone,’ Rufus grumbled.
‘Oh, no need to bother them,’ Bilbo airily replied, waving his pipe. ‘They are having too good of a time irritating each other.’ This got a laugh from Rufus, but also a sharp look. ‘I’ll have a chat with my cousin Brand over in Scary and have him find me a cart or two of stone right now and then keep sending some through the summer. No harm building stock piles up north.’
It turned out Bilbo had been judging Rufus a bit harshly over the roads. He knew things needed repairs, but had been having difficulty gaining cooperation from Odogar for stone and Pal for timber in sufficient quantities, and for an acceptable price, to do much road repair. I can help him get around those two. Rufus had also been stymied by local headmen who did not see a great reason to maintain roads that did not run directly past their own farms or homes and had been reluctant to commit teams or men to grading and filling the damaged stretches further out. He’s trying to do good, but he’s asking, not leading. He needs to lead.
If Bilbo was being honest, aside from the roads, there was not much wrong in Northfarthing that Rufus was responsible for seeing done. It was just that there was not much right, either, or at least not improving. He had spent the last two days walking about Oatbarton in Rufus’s company, accompanied by Frodo, Milo and Rufus’s middle son, Marco, and had seen most of the town and surrounding countryside. Rufus and his sons were well liked and were warmly greeted by everyone. Barns and cellars still had plenty left over from the last harvest, tables were full, people were content, and Bilbo could find no hint of the Troubles. He had tasted roots and dirt and found them alive, full of the flavors of spring. Nothing was parted that he could tell. Any problems were ordinary, and that is what bothered him. Aside from his own interests, such as the farms that Ham Gamgee’s cousins managed for him, there seemed to be little awareness that there was a world beyond Oatbarton, let alone beyond the Bounds. Dwarves and their trade did not enter their market or their imagination. Big People were of no account. Bilbo knew they believed elves and dragons mostly to be mythical creatures, silly stories to tell the children before sending them to bed.
‘Whatever you can get, Bilbo, it is appreciated.’
‘Only if you promise to stop suffering in silence, Rufus,’ Bilbo gently chided. ‘You know I can get my more cantankerous kin to play nice. Or at least nicer.’
‘Usually by setting them at each other’s throats,’ Rufus shot back with a grin. Bilbo put on his most innocent expression and shrugged, getting a laugh from the younger men. That was one very good thing about Oatbarton. Frodo was not merely coming along for the walks and sitting in on the meetings in Rufus’s study after supper. He was actively talking, presenting ideas, offering opinions and acquitting himself very well with Rufus’s sons, and with Rufus himself. Bilbo could tell the others thought well of his lad and was very proud of how Frodo carried himself. There may have been some intent looks at times, but there was even more genuine friendliness, and Frodo was not as self-conscious as he had been among the Baggins kin. Bargo had not been invited on any of the excursions and the only time they had to encounter the sullen boy was at breakfast and supper. Not much of a boy. Bargo’s birthday was coming up soon, sometime in early Thrimidge, and he would be thirty-three. There would be quite a celebration to mark his coming of age. Bluebell had chattered about it to Frodo in the parlor before supper yesterday, asking if he would come to the party. She is tenacious. He wondered if Asphodel was encouraging the girl.
‘At Yule we spoke of troubling things, Bilbo,’ Rufus said, humor gone.
‘Yes, Rufus, I remember.’
‘I had a chance to speak to Rory ere we came home. He talked about things going wrong all around.’ Bilbo and Frodo exchanged a look. ‘He said that the very land is afraid. What can you say of this?’
‘I don’t know what it is. I’m sometimes reminded of things I saw on my travels.’ Where once a mention of his adventure to Rufus might have earned him rolled eyes and an unbelieving smirk, Bilbo now saw that he had the hobbit’s full attention. ‘Most of what I saw outside of the Shire was the contest for power and riches waged between people who should have been allies. I know from the dwarves that dark creatures increase in numbers and armies spread.’ He cast his mind to the walk under the black boughs of Mirkwood. ‘There was a forest, greater than any I had ever seen, wider than the Shire. We walked in it for days. Though we were surrounded by great trees, nothing grew. It was all still, frozen in time, and you felt like you could not draw a true breath. No wholesome thing could grow. Something of this we saw in the walk up north.’
Now Rufus and his sons were exchanging looks, Milo nodding. Bilbo caught Frodo’s eye and made a tiny motion with his chin, indicating the lad should take up the tale.
‘At Yule, Uncle Rufus, I remember you saying things about sheep and orchards. When we walked, we could see patches of dead grass that no sheep would go near. There are trees standing dead, alone or in clumps, and no living thing will touch them or remain near. Farmers spoke of sheep and cattle, even dogs and cats, with deformities, more and of stranger kinds than they’d seen before. Big People are there more often, especially the tall ones in grey. They seem to be like others in the south of the Shire who ride through.’
‘It’s a little more odd than Frodo is describing, Rufus,’ Bilbo added, getting an alarmed look from the older hobbit.
‘More odd? I should think this odd enough, with things dying off and rotting!’
Bilbo hesitated before saying, ‘They’re not dying off. They’ve just stopped growing, like the trees in the great forest. There is no rot. You were the first to say that to me – no pests, no rot.’ He paused again, not wanting to put words to this thing, as though naming it aloud gave it power. ‘It is a parting of form and life, the way a tree’s sap retreats during winter, leaving it barren, but not dead. It’s as though the Winter persists in these forms, preventing them from coming back to life, just as I saw in Mirkwood, with the trees utterly still.’ A silence came over the room for a long minute as the others pondered what Bilbo had said. Even Frodo looked a bit dismayed.
‘The root crops rotted,’ Rufus said, thinking deeply. ‘Potatoes, carrots, turnips, rutabagas, they definitely went bad. Are they part of this?’
Bilbo shrugged. ‘I don't know. I tend to think so. I haven’t seen any of the bad roots, so I can’t say for sure.’
‘What can we do about this?’ asked Milo.
‘I’m not sure there is anything we can do,’ Bilbo admitted. ‘I keep hoping for the wizard, Gandalf, to show up. He’s overdue for a visit. He travels far and wide and he is wise, if somewhat snappish, so I hope he may have answers.’
‘And if he doesn’t show up?’ Marco asked nervously.
‘I may need to travel again.’ This news did not please the Burrowses, though Frodo’s face lit up at the prospect of an adventure. ‘If I can’t talk to a wizard, I need to speak to elves. I’m too old to go as far as I did before, east into the wild, so perhaps I will try to go to the elves who live west, beyond the Far Downs, on the other side of the Tower Hills.’
‘But what about these grey Big People and all the round ones from Bree? Could they be doing mischief up north?’ Marco persisted.
‘Big People are always a concern,’ said Frodo, ‘but how can they all be kept out? Perhaps more Bounders?’
Rufus grunted approval. ‘Yes, that makes sense. And if these grey people are a problem in the South, then they should be taken care of, too. That matter will be one for the Free Fair.’ He waved a hand at the younger hobbits. ‘You fine young fellows can go now. I have a few things to discuss with Mister Baggins that we don’t need your help for.’
Frodo sent Bilbo a questioning look and Bilbo motioned that the lad should leave. He himself was very curious to hear what Rufus wished to speak about. After the younger men left, Rufus stood and walked to a sideboard where he poured the two of them some brandy, handing a glass to Bilbo as he walked back to take his own seat. They sat for a time while Rufus studied Bilbo.
‘Is this what touches you?’ Bilbo said nothing. ‘You’re not dying.’
You are sharper than I have given you credit for being. This was the head of a powerful clan whose tenure of stewardship of Northfarthing was second only to the Tooks and Southfarthing. Bilbo chided himself for underestimating Rufus. ‘Gilda thinks so, and I tend to agree with her. It’s why I need to speak to the wizard.’
‘So, you are just always young?’
Bilbo shook his head. ‘I may look younger than my years, but I feel every one of them. I’m not sure I have that many left.’
‘I hope you have many. Your wisdom is needed.’
‘You flatter me,’ Bilbo teased, trying to lighten the conversation.
‘No, just honest, and now is time to be unflattering. You’ve waited so long to choose an heir and you’ve made an odd choice.’
This was not the direction he wanted the conversation to go. ‘I don’t see that it’s really anyone’s business who I …’
‘You’re not concerned?’
‘I don’t understand you.’ Bilbo was not sure which rumor Rufus was referring to, not that any were acceptable.
‘Let me be blunt.’
‘I have been told that Frodo is bastard. If he is, he cannot be your heir.’
Blunt enough for you, Baggins? Perhaps Wilwarin and I should go visit the elves. And not come back. Bilbo gave Rufus his most scornful look. ‘Who said this to you?’
For a moment, Bilbo was afraid he would bring up his supper. Rory? He had expected Asphodel or even Esmie to be named, but not Rory. He has spoken out of turn before. That is how Esmie learned it. Time to find out what damage the Master had done. ‘I would like to know exactly what he said to you and when.’
Rufus nodded and thought for a moment. ‘It was after the poor souls’ burial. We stayed in Buckland for a few weeks for Asphodel to be with family.’ Bilbo was shocked at how long ago Rory had made this claim. ‘We noticed you left without taking the lad. Asphodel asked Gilda to let Frodo come home with us to Fair Delving so he wouldn't be lost in the bustle of Brandy Hall. Gilda declared Frodo was staying with her. Asphodel didn’t like that, so we went to Rory for his permission.
'Rory heard us out and said “No.” I asked him why Frodo had not gone to you, his father’s kin. Rory said you had said you were not able to care for a small child and asked for Gilda to care for him until he was older.’
‘Yes, that is exactly what I said.’
‘It sounded reasonable to me,’ Rufus replied. ‘Asphodel said if caring for Frodo was the problem, then he should go with us where he would be closer to you.’ Bilbo doubted that Asphodel used his name as anything but a reason to pry Frodo from Gilda. ‘Rory got very bristly, declaring that Prim’s son would stay with him and Gilda. I asked wouldn’t you, Bilbo, be coming for the boy, when he was no longer so small. Rory was quiet a long time, then said he didn’t think so as Frodo was unlikely to be Drogo’s son.’
Bilbo sat there, astounded. If you thought him mine, then why deny the kinship at all? He could not make sense of his cousin’s words.
‘I was shocked at the words, and didn’t really believe them. But, when you never claimed the boy, even when he wasn’t so small…’ Rufus shrugged. ‘It was odd that there was no child for so long.’
Bilbo knew there was only one argument he could offer at this point that would convince Rufus, not after Rory's declaration about Drogo. ‘You have seen Frodo with me for several days, Rufus. I know you’ve been observing us closely. What do you see?’
‘He looks like… you.’ Rufus tipped his head, eyebrows up.
Got you. The only question now was whether Rufus objected to Frodo not being Baggins, or to Frodo being a bastard under any condition. ‘Yes. He has the Baggins look, doesn’t he?’ Rufus nodded once, slowly. ‘I have known from the day he was born that Frodo would be my heir, and I say he is Drogo’s son.’ Bilbo smiled charmingly. ‘I also know with absolute certainty that he is a Baggins.’ He sat back in his chair and sipped his brandy, waiting for Rufus’s answer.
‘So why the wait?’
Bilbo sighed. ‘Because Gilda begged to keep him,’ he lied, ‘and you know I can’t deny her. She and Rory do love him dearly.’ Rufus made a sympathetic sound. He knew something of Bilbo's devotion to Gilda. Time for some truth. ‘It was always my intention to name Frodo my heir and have him come live at Bag End when he reached his tweens, but he was supposed to come there with Drogo and Prim, so they could care for me in my old age. All of my estate would be his and his parents would oversee it and protect him. This was their reward for being loyal to me when others weren’t, and defending me against wicked slander.’ Bilbo did not have to feign sadness. ‘All my plans fell apart when I lost them. And now I am worried that I may die before he comes to his majority and he will have no true friends or loyal kin to call upon.’
Rufus pondered this. ‘Sitting next to you, the relation is obvious.’
‘Much like Amy resembles her Aunt Primula, yes?’
‘Yes, very much.’ A sharp glance. ‘Why would Rory say something so harmful, if he had been given… assurances?’
‘I don’t know what Drogo and Primula said to him, or what assurances they offered. I think…’ Bilbo shook his head. ‘I think he just wanted to keep his favorite sister’s only child. He argued with me last Halimath when I said I would not wait any longer. He did not want to relinquish the lad.’
‘Why did you adopt the boy?’
You mean why didn’t I claim him as my own and have done with that nonsense? ‘To forestall any challenges from Otho. And to stop wicked tongues from wagging too evilly.’ Rufus made a face at that. ‘He is my child now.’
‘Mmm.’ Bilbo waited while Rufus finished his brandy. ‘You need not worry, Bilbo, that Frodo is friendless or lacks for loyal kin.’ Rufus studied his glass. ‘It is no secret that Asphodel cared little for her sister’s choice of husband, but I was always proud to call Drogo my brother-in-law. He was a true gentlehobbit. Frodo may call upon me and my sons at any time, for any reason.’
Not good enough. ‘That he is your kinsman is beyond question. Will you support him as my heir?’
Rufus smiled. ‘I am assured, so, yes. And I don’t think you could have chosen better. Certainly not Otho!’ He paused. ‘And what does the boy know?’
‘What I have always told him, that he is the son of the finest hobbit I have ever known, Drogo Baggins.’
‘We still haven’t talked about Odogar, you know.’
With a chuckle and a shake of his head, Rufus stood. Bilbo also rose. ‘Not tonight, Bilbo. One serious topic at a time! Besides, I want my boys here for it. Frodo should not be alone in benefitting from your wisdom.’ They embraced and bade each other good night.
Bilbo walked back to his room, deeply angered at Rory’s stupidity. Why? What could possibly have moved you to say such damning things about Drogo and Prim? And to Asphodel! He knew that Posco believed Frodo was his son, given the idiot’s words about Prisca tattling, and suspected that Falco thought the same, but was astute enough not to say it. Who else? Not Otho. Even if it were true, there would be no convincing him. They should not need assurance. They should believe the truth.
Bilbo stepped into his room and came up short when he saw Frodo sitting near the hearth, smoking a pipe. The room was almost dark, with just a single lantern hanging on a hook on the far wall. The boy stood when he came in, smiling, but must have seen something in Bilbo’s face because the smile faded. ‘Uncle Bilbo, I made up your pipe…’ Frodo shrugged. ‘But if you’re too tired, I’ll say good night.’
‘A pipe sounds like just what I need, lad,’ Bilbo said with more cheer than he felt. In a moment, Frodo had helped him sit and had given him the prepared pipe. Bilbo took his time, enjoying the taste and feel of the smoke and making himself let go his anger so he would not alarm Frodo. The boy obviously wanted to ask what had been discussed, but Bilbo ignored him. You need to learn patience, too, Wilwarin. A quarter hour later, Bilbo looked over at Frodo and raised an eyebrow.
‘What did you talk about?’
‘Most of it was a confidence.’
‘Oh.’ Frodo sighed a little. ‘Then I shan’t pry.’
Bilbo let him sit while he finished the rest of the pipe. There were things said that Frodo should know. They would just have to be said very carefully, to prevent other things from being said. He was glad the room was dim so his face would not give away too much. ‘Most of it was about you.’ Frodo stared at him, biting his lower lip. Bilbo waited to see if the boy would pry, but he held his silence. ‘The details we discussed are not to be repeated, but you should know the shape of it, for I think it will return.’
‘If it was a confidence, you shouldn’t say it.’
Is this because you don’t want to pry or because you are afraid of what was said of you? Bilbo felt another surge of anger at Rory for having spoken stupidly more than once. ‘As I said, no details. Rufus was worried, given the unsettling things we have spoken of, that I am so old and my heir so young. It is, rightly, a matter of concern that the Baggins clan might be left under the authority of a very young hobbit.’
‘You’re not old.’ Frodo’s words were soft yet fierce.
‘Yes, I am. No matter my face, I am old.’
Frodo turned away. ‘I don’t want to hear you say this. There’s nothing old about you. I’m not losing you, too.’
Another little piece of the mystery before him fell into place. “All I have now is you.” Bilbo had to take a breath and will himself to stay calm. Frodo had lost too many things, not the least his certainty about his parents. Damn you, Rory. ‘Never fear, lad. I have no intention of being parted from you any time soon. I’m like the Old Took and shall live long enough to infuriate all my relatives. That’s another thirty years!’ Bilbo gave Frodo a wolfish grin and kept smiling until the boy snickered and smiled back. He reached out and took Frodo’s hand. ‘I’m not so weary of this life now that I have you. I should have claimed you sooner.’
‘I wish you had.’
Damn yourself, Baggins. You could have taken him sooner and spared him much. ‘Well, you’re mine now, and there's nothing anyone do about it!’ Bilbo squeezed Frodo’s hand and let it drop. ‘Rufus told me he is not so concerned anymore, now that he has had a chance to see how sharp you are. He thinks highly of you and agreed with me that you are the best choice, and we went over every choice I could have made.’ Frodo nodded. ‘He reminded me that your father was his brother-in-law, and that he always thought Drogo a fine hobbit. Rufus and his sons are people you may rely on.’
‘The older sons.’
‘I doubt Bargo will ever distinguish himself enough to be worth calling on,’ Bilbo dryly said. ‘I trust the lout has given you no trouble?’
Frodo gave him a cool look, his Took features to the fore. ‘He tried. He won’t try again.’
‘So, you’re handling him?’
‘Not the way he’d like me to. That’s at an end and he knows it.’
Much as he did not like hearing that Bargo had tried bullying Frodo again, he was glad Frodo had backed Bargo down. He wished they were sharing a room if only to be able to check his lad for bruises. Bilbo decided to push a bit. ‘You hate him in a way you don’t hate the other two. Why?’ He knew better than to include Tom in that group.
Frodo face took on the mask-like quality that Bilbo had come to know as a sign of thoughts painful or frightening, and wished he could take back the question. ‘He was the first.’
‘Mmm.’ Bilbo nodded and started to turn away to indicate that he did not need or expect more.
‘He was the first to call me bastard to my face.’ Bilbo turned back. The blankness of the mask had changed. The surface was still, but a fierce anger showed in the set of his jaw, a look in his eye, a tautness in his throat. Frodo’s face was mostly shadow, for his back was to the lantern, only the edges catching some light. There was more than a bit of a dragon in that look, beautiful and dangerous. ‘He was the first to say my father murdered my mother for being unfaithful.’ Bilbo could not help flinching at the baldness of the words. No, Wilwarin, no, no. Don’t, please, tell me you don’t believe that. ‘He was the first to trick me into servicing him, the first one I mouthed, the first to force me when I refused.’ Frodo was silent for a moment, thinking. ‘All of this he had done to me by the time I was seventeen.’ He let out a soft snort, sounding rather like Smaug. ‘I have had a lot of practice handling Bargo.’
‘Forgive me, Wilwarin, for bringing you here.’
Frodo looked at him quizzically, though his expression was no less ferocious. ‘You didn’t know. I only just told you.’
‘I knew he had tormented you.’ Bilbo stood and began pacing. ‘I am a fool, I am such a fool. I keep bringing you back into their hands.’ He felt for his ring, worrying it between his fingers. ‘They all try to claim you, and I let them.’ Rory. Gilda. Esmie. Sara. Even Bargo. The urge to flee rose in his heart. ‘You’re mine, not theirs.’ They could go tomorrow. Just pack the trunk, send that home, send a note to give Otho the key, and off they would go. Off to the elves, then go find Gandalf. ‘Just go.’
‘You want me to go?’ Frodo’s voice was right in front of him and Bilbo had to stop lest he walk over the boy. The fierce look was gone, replaced by concern and some alarm. He was still beautiful.
‘No. I want us to leave before harm comes to you. Again.’ He let go the ring and took his hand from his pocket so he could reach out and touch his beautiful child.
‘We can’t go, Bilbo. We can’t run away. You said that.’
Frodo’s stern words cleared away the whirl of thought. Bilbo took Frodo by the shoulders. ‘You’re right, but that doesn’t mean I don’t wish to leave. It hurts so much to hear these things that have been done to you. And I keep failing you.’
‘I think they’re failing me, not you. It’s not your wickedness that does me harm. It’s theirs.’ Frodo stepped back, out of his grasp. The dragon returned to the lad’s face. ‘And Bargo now knows to keep his hands to himself.’