POV - Frodo
In which Frodo looks at pieces of things around him, and begins to put himself back together.
14 Astron, 1290
Dear Cousin Frodo,
I miss you so much. Are you ever coming back to visit? Merry misses you, too, and he wouldn't be such a pest if you were here. Ula's being mean and saying I have to let him ride Pebble sometimes. Papa says so, too. He should wait until he's big enough for his own pony! Tilly's going to get a pony, too, so then we can go riding without Merry.
I have read all of your book and know two of the poems completely by heart. I sing them when I go riding so Pebble can learn them too. If you come back then I can sing them to you.
Aunt Dilly is here all the time now because Mama must sleep a lot and Gammer needs someone to help run the hall. I love Aunt Dilly! She brings Berry and he distracts Merry which is good. Aunt Dilly is teaching me new embroidery and Gammer says I'm supposed to help her do hall business.
Mistress Maddie says I make the best soup of anyone. I make Mama soup for when she wakes up. Now I'm learning to make pies. I can roll out a pie crust without tearing it and I can put it in the dish. Maddie says I will be the best cook in the hall by Yule but I think she's just teasing because she's the best cook. Are you and Uncle Bilbo eating enough? You should come here and then you will have enough.
I love you!
16 Astron, 1290
It was so much fun to have you here! I already miss you. I'm sorry Bargo was so mean to you while you were here. I know you punched him and he deserved it. He's the worst big brother ever!
I'm sorry there was no dancing while you were here. That would have been so fun! You were always walking about with Papa and Milo and Uncle Bilbo and Marco, doing important things and you didn't have any time for me. That was mean! You should have spent more time with me. But Papa thinks very highly of you. He said so! He likes you a lot, and Milo and Marco like you, too, so you can ignore Bargo.
Mama said she is definitely sending me back to Buckland but I don’t want to go now because that is so far away from you. Bargo should go, though. He can go sit with Ula and let her be mean to him. Now Mama says I might not go to the Free Fair with her and Papa. But I want to dance with you and I told her I had to go. I don’t think Mama likes you as much as Papa does.
Please write me as soon as you get back home to Hobbiton.
With kisses for you and Uncle Bilbo, but mostly for you!
16 Astron, 1290
Dearest Little Cousin,
I hope you are on your way home by the time you read this. You must be tired from all the tramping about you've done. I hope Bargo and Bluebell were not too trying. You didn’t say anything about them in your last letter. Did you stick close to Uncle Bilbo like I told you to do?
I wish I were walking about with you! I think that would be more fun than being inside the Hall for days at a time taking care of people. The Mistress laughed at me and gave me a (gentle) whack with her cane when I grumbled. She did warn me that a healer's tasks are many and long. And it is what I want, so I don't wish to sound ungrateful, but it is spring and you are tempting me with your tales of flowers and lambs and breezes!
Merle showed me her letter to you. She's not the only one with a pony. Every week or so I go with her and Merry and Pebble and we visit Master Mac's farm to see my girl, Feather. The next time I see Uncle Bilbo, I will have to give him a big kiss and thank him again for her. She is such a nice pony.
Almost every sign of the fever has gone. I have rarely seen Mistress Gilda in such a gay mood. There was some medicine in the Elven scroll that has done her much good. Everyone is happier for it, especially Uncle Rory. The only person who is still not fully well is Cousin Esmie, and I say just desserts. Mistress Dilly is about the Hall much now, since Esmie is of no use (not that she ever was), and I hope she stays here.
Everyone here who loves you misses you terribly. Aunt Prisca could talk of nothing the last few days before she went to Scary except how much she wanted to see you again. I know how she feels.
Give my love to Uncle Bilbo,
18 Astron, 1290
Dear Uncle Bilbo,
There is no need to apologize. You have been long on the road these last few weeks and I understand your need to get back home, especially if Cousin Frodo is worn out from all the travel. I'm a bit amazed you took such a young lad on so long a journey.
I am sorry I do not get to meet him at once. Father always spoke so well of Uncle Drogo and the few times I met him he seemed a good fellow. I should like to be friends with this cousin. I will pay a visit with Father Dudo once you are back in Bag End.
I shan't make you wait that long for my news, though. Daisy and I shall have another babe this year! We're not sure exactly when, but probably mid-Wedmath. Even Aunt Dora is smiling at the thought. Perhaps you and Cousin Frodo can come visit then?
Early Morning, Whitfurrows, 20 Astron, 1390
Frodo turned over again, trying to escape his thoughts. He knew he should be asleep in this early hour of the morning, but he couldn't. He wanted Bilbo here with him, safe. Every time he closed his eyes, all he could see was Odogar's savage stare at Bilbo at the end of the morning meeting followed by the malicious smile at himself, a look he had only ever seen on Sara's face before that day. Worse, he remembered Bilbo's swift, careless packing of their trunk. This unnerved him more than Odogar or the unsettling feel of the smial. The dwarves had taught his uncle how to properly pack a bag for a long journey and the old hobbit had been very thorough in teaching Frodo how to fill his rucksack to keep everything neatly stowed in its proper place. If something looked unkempt or messy near Bilbo, it was deliberate, a way to prevent snooping or to keep things where Bilbo could quickly find them, like the stacks of correspondence that accumulated near the ledgers. Something that could make Bilbo fail to be neat and tidy was dangerous indeed. When they got to Whitfurrows, Frodo had repacked the trunk, being very careful to make things neat.
You shouldn't have left him! Even if he got angry, you should have stayed! He's all by himself facing... that. Frodo could not exactly say what "that" was, but it had something to do with the wrong, broken things in Northfarthing. He wished he had spoken to Bilbo the last night in Scary, when his uncle asked if he wanted to smoke a pipe. He had not wanted to speak of dark things right before bed, but then had been unable to sleep, much like now. He had gone to Bilbo's room later, knowing from the strong smell of pipe smoke that his uncle also had not been sleeping, and had been startled to find the room empty, lamp snuffed. He waited a few minutes in case Bilbo had just gone to the privy, but his uncle did not return and he felt exposed standing alone in the dark room. Almost he had climbed into Bilbo's bed to wait, but knew this might make him angry, so had retreated to own bed and huddled under the covers. Much later, he had heard the door to Bilbo's room creak slightly, then click shut, followed by the sound of a lock being turned. That Bilbo would turn a lock inside a smial was also unnerving. Why did you leave him alone, Rat?
Aunt Prisca and Uncle Wili did not seem to understand just how wrong everything was. Bilbo knew. Just like he had told the dwarves to move away from the secret door on the side of the mountain but a few moments before the dragon had attacked, Bilbo had urged them all to safety. This is why the dwarves do not jest when they call him Lord of Burglars. He knows when danger is near. And he's not afraid. Frodo shivered at the thought of Bilbo alone while they ran away, facing down something ferocious. But the others did not seem to understand the danger they had been in. Aunt Prisca had been quite angry with Odogar's kin for allowing the smial to become so decrepit. She said that Bilbo had said Odogar was still mourning his wife, and that the girls had agreed, but did not know what to do as he refused all offers of assistance or care from them, and would not leave the smial to come to their homes to be fed or tended. "Yes, they need to defer to him," she had fumed, "but he is obviously not in his right mind!"
Frodo had been unable to get any satisfactory explanation out of Odogrim, either, when they had cleared the table. The young man had just shrugged, though he looked worried. "Papa is much concerned with farthing business. He hasn't time to mind a pantry. I need to do better with this for him." Unlike Bargo, Odogrim had been perfectly good mannered the few times they had been alone, never so much as hinting that there had ever been any trouble between them. Part of him was irritated that Odogrim would not acknowledge the wickedness he had inflicted on him, but by the time of the lunch yesterday, Frodo found himself feeling protective of his stupid older cousin and wished there was some way to have brought him with them and get him out of danger.
After a while, what kept Frodo awake was a more normal explanation - a full bladder from supper. He grumbled, then crawled out of bed and went in search of the privy. The only one he knew of was the one near the kitchen that Tilda had shown him after they arrived yesterday evening. Grateful for the feel of a clean floor under his feet, Frodo went to it and relieved himself. Coming out of the door, something caught his attention. Something familiar. Quiet as a mouse, he walked towards this familiar thing and ended up in the parlor, the familiar thing resolving itself into the sound of Bilbo's snore.
There was his uncle, lying on a couch, covered with his own coat, his rucksack partly shoved under the couch. A lamp on a nearby table had been turned down, but it cast just enough light so he could see Bilbo. Frodo reached out and stroked Bilbo's hair, then pulled his hand back at how cold his uncle was. The old hobbit's face was not relaxed in sleep and it seemed to Frodo that he shivered a bit. Frodo hastened back to his room, pulled the quilt off the bed, and brought it to the parlor, casting it over Bilbo. He sank to his knees next to the couch, worming his way under the quilt so it covered them both, and took one of Bilbo's hands between his own. It, too, was very cold. His uncle let out a great sigh and turned on his side, not waking, but reaching out and pulling Frodo closer until their faces were touching. It was awkward, but Frodo was not going to leave Bilbo again, and did his best to get comfortable. In a moment, they were both deeply asleep.
‘Frodo? Lad? Wake up.’
Frodo felt a gentle hand stroking his hair. With a yawn, he tried to sit up, then grimaced as his muscles complained over having been held in too strange a position. The parlor was light, but not bright. Bilbo was rumpled and looked tired, but smiling and holding his hand. The quilt was still draped over the both of them. In a moment, Frodo was up on the couch next to Bilbo, hugging him tightly and at the edge of crying.
'Shh, Wilwarin, what is this?' Bilbo said soothingly, stroking his hair and rocking him just a little.
'I was so scared you would get hurt!'
'I told you I would be fine, lad. There was nothing to worry about.'
'You wouldn't have sent me away if there wasn't!'
Bilbo did not reply for a bit, but just held him and rocked slightly, humming something tuneless. ‘I was in no danger, Frodo.’
Frodo shook his head. ‘That’s not true. I saw Odogar’s face. The way you packed the trunk. All the wrong…’
‘Enough, Frodo,’ Bilbo said sternly. His uncle’s grip on his was not comforting as it had been a moment before. ‘You will stop this. And you will go back to bed. It is still a few hours to breakfast.’
‘I’m not leaving you again.’
‘You’re exhausted, lad, and …’
‘So are you!’
Bilbo looked at least as tired as he had at Widow Grubb’s on the walk home after Yule. Tired and crazy. You’re doing it to him again, Rat. ‘I told you to go to bed.’
‘Then come to bed, too. You need to sleep.’
‘No!’ Bilbo definitely `was becoming angry. ‘That is the last thing… Frodo, will you stop and do as you’re told!’
‘When did you last sleep?’ Frodo demanded.
For a moment, Bilbo’s hands tightened almost to the point on pain on Frodo’s arms as his uncle glared at him, then Bilbo closed his eyes and sighed, relaxing his grip. He touched his forehead to Frodo’s. ‘Please, Frodo, please, don’t be a brat. I cannot bear another contrary relative. Not today. Just be a good boy, please?’
Well done, Rat! Poke him again and you could make him cry. Or he’ll slap you. Stop it! Frodo sternly told himself. Stop being a rat, Baggins. ‘Will you try to get some sleep, too? Please?’
‘Yes, Wilwarin. I will be a good boy, too.’ Bilbo sat back, trying to smile, looking even more worn out than just a few minutes before. ‘Leave me the quilt and go back to bed.’
‘Yes, Uncle.’ Frodo hugged Bilbo again as strongly as he could and did as he was told. He was asleep almost as soon as his head touched the pillow. He was woken some hours later by a tap on his door and Aunt Prisca telling him breakfast was on the table. He washed up, dressed quickly, and hurried out to the dining room. Bilbo was sitting there still looking deeply worn, cradling a cup of tea. There was a plate of food in front of him, untouched. His expression became much cheerier when he saw Frodo, and he held out an arm.
‘There you are, sleepy head!’ Frodo gave him a hug and a kiss and sat next to him on the bench. There was still a chill to Bilbo’s skin. Aunt Prisca was fussing over Frodo and soon had a full plate of food in front of him. He had barely eaten any supper the night before and was ravenous. Under the table, Bilbo tapped his shin, warning him to pay attention.
‘As I was saying, Wili, Gun, not really,’ Bilbo said in a quiet voice to the hobbits sitting across the table from him. ‘Odogar didn’t say anything different than what he had said at the earlier meeting. He was just more offended that I wasn’t going to do as he told me, and he wouldn’t accept my counsel. When we parted, he said he was going to work with Otho, not me, and they are both welcome to it.’
Gun looked puzzled. ‘You would let this opportunity go by?’
Frodo could feel Bilbo tense, then relax. ‘I could not care less about this “opportunity” as you call it, Gun. It is nothing but folly. Odogar has my counsel on what he can do to resolve the real arguments he is having with the Master and how to improve trade on the Road. If he wishes me to intercede with Rory, I will. Otherwise, I wash my hands of it.’
‘But, what is wrong with him, Bilbo?’ Tilda squeaked. ‘He’s always been a bit odd, but that's because he thinks so much. He’s very smart. But, what is happening to him now…’ Her voice petered out and she looked at Bilbo beseechingly.
Bilbo looked so tired. Leave him be and let him eat his breakfast! Frodo was becoming irritated with these relatives all demanding that Bilbo solve all the problems, figure out all the riddles, take on all the dangers that confronted them. There is more than one Baggins to talk to.
‘When did Odogar start acting oddly?’ Tilda looked at him and Frodo tried to copy the slightly bland but just interested enough expression that Bilbo wore when talking to the hobbits in Northfarthing. Bilbo glanced at him sideways then returned his attention to his tea. You don’t need to send me away, Bilbo. I can help you.
‘About when Jessamine began to decline, the poor thing,’ Tilda said after glancing at Bilbo and getting no response. ‘About three years ago, maybe a bit less. That’s when he began being so concerned with trade and the Road and markets and such. It got much worse late year before last.’
‘Worse how?’ Frodo took a bite of his breakfast, and smiled just a little to encourage her to talk. Bilbo turned and held his tea cup out to Prisca to be filled again, and gave Frodo a sly wink. Be a bright lad, not a brat. Or a rat.
‘The smial was unkempt, even then, but I just thought it was because the only thing that mattered was Jessie. But, now, it’s so much worse!’
‘Bilbo, you said you thought this was Odogar still mourning his wife,’ Prisca said as she filled the tea cup.
‘Yes, I think that really is what is wrong,’ Bilbo replied with a sad expression and a gentle shake of his head. ‘That’s part of why I don’t wish to participate in his great scheme. I fear grief clouds his judgment. I also wonder at those who might try to take advantage of him when he is not thinking clearly.’
‘He could at least hire a housekeeper,’ Prisca said with a snort.
‘I don’t understand why his children don’t see this,’ Tilda added.
‘Odogrim does,’ Frodo replied, ‘but he is so grieved himself he is not much help, I fear. He doesn’t want to be disloyal to his father. I know he is supposed to go for a long stay with Uncle Falco in Westfarthing. I think Uncle Falco and Aunt Nora would be very kind to him.’
‘He should go sooner rather than later,’ Bilbo said quietly, not looking at anyone. ‘I don’t think Granite Bank is a wholesome place in its present state.’
‘Uncle Wili, can you talk to Bertie and Poppy and see if they can get Odogrim to Uncle Falco right away rather than wait until the Free Fair?’ Frodo gave his uncle what he hoped was the kind of look Bilbo gave him when delivering an order in the form of a request. To his delight, Wili started nodding vigorously.
‘Of course, Frodo. Given the state of that smial, it can’t be doing the lad any good to hang about Scary when he already has a welcome in Westfarthing. But are you sure that Falco is ready…’
‘We will write him and let him know,’ Frodo said firmly. ‘He and Aunt Nora were already talking about Odogrim’s stay when we were there but a few weeks’ past.’ That was not precisely true, but Frodo had no doubt of the warm welcome Odogrim would get. He saw a small smile teasing at the corner of Bilbo’s mouth. You need to eat something. Frodo moved the butter and preserves closer to Bilbo and put a bit on a slice of his own toast. After a moment, the old hobbit added a spoon of preserves to some toast on his plate and slowly ate it.
‘That smial is quite a mess,’ Tilda agreed. Gun nodded. You look quite a mess. Frodo had been astounded at Gun’s deterioration since Yule. ‘I can see why Poppy and Bertie don’t like to stay there. Poppy said that’s why they haven’t been visiting much lately. Car and Rosa don’t seem to notice.’
‘I don’t think they know how to say anything,’ Frodo offered after eating a few bites of egg. ‘Car is gone a lot down to Whitwell, I hear,’ Gun nodded and the corner of Bilbo’s mouth twitched into a smile again, ‘and I doubt Rosa wants Fatty and Stella in the middle of that, especially if Car isn’t there.’
‘Poppy said to me that she and Bertie plan to visit more here in Whitfurrows,’ Prisca volunteered. ‘Bertie said he’d even considered getting a cottage just south of town so his mother, Gerda, could be closer to her Boffin kin.’
‘That’s a splendid idea,’ Frodo said with his brightest smile. ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have them here, Aunt Tilda?’ She was not his aunt, but he had a feeling the woman would like being called such. She smiled in return, pleased by the address and the idea.
‘Yes, that would be very nice. And Bertie, he’s a bright boy – he reminds me of you, Frodo! – and he could help with the market. Little Gun and Baddie are more interested in their farms and don’t really have a head for the market, I think.’ Tilda did not look at her husband when she said this. Gun looked a bit irritated at first, then shrugged and nodded.
I wonder what your brother, Old Will, would think of you bringing in Bertie rather than have him take over managing the market? Frodo ate the last few bites off his plate and Tilda jumped up and filled it again for him. Bilbo gave him an amused glance and Frodo took the opportunity to stare pointedly at his uncle’s full plate and then give Bilbo one of his own stern looks. Bilbo’s expression became a touch annoyed, but he did pick up his fork and take a bite of the potatoes. Tilda and Prisca began talking about perhaps working with Rosa to get a regular housekeeper to clean Odogar’s smial. Frodo concentrated on eating the rest of his breakfast and giving Bilbo looks to encourage the old hobbit eat a bit more of his own. At the end of the meal, Gun excused himself to go see to some business. The women went off to the kitchen, still talking about housekeepers, which left Wili sitting across the table from them, giving Bilbo an intent look. Bilbo paid him no mind, very deliberately finishing his breakfast. Frodo did not doubt but that he did it more to annoy Uncle Wili than to satisfy any hunger, but counted it as good. After he finished, Bilbo stood and walked into the parlor, taking a seat near the hearth. Wili sat opposite.
‘Wili.’ The two old hobbits eyed each other. Frodo pulled up a chair.
‘That may satisfy Tilda and Prisca. It doesn’t satisfy me.’
‘Why not?’ Frodo asked. Let him rest. Can’t you see how tired he is?
‘It’s not grief. You know that. It’s Dragon Fever.’
‘It’s both, Uncle Wili.’ Bilbo nodded agreement and settled into his chair, evidently content to let Frodo do the arguing. ‘The one is worse for the other. Odogrim is just grieving. Car, there’s no grief, just Fever. Bertie’s the only one not hamstrung by either. You need him down here in Whitfurrows to keep a close eye on the market.’ Bilbo smiled and nodded again.
Wili considered this. ‘It would be better for him to run this market rather than Gun and Old Will. They’re a pair of thieves. They’ve got the Fever worse than Odogar. Budgeford is close enough.’
‘And you need to run the one by the bridge. You. Not Mac.’
‘Frodo? What do you mean me? That was built by the Master, and it’s for him to say. I know you’re a sharp boy, but…’
‘Shut up, Wili, and do as Frodo says.’ Bilbo was no longer smiling. He looked tired, angry and old. ‘You said you’d be guided by me. You’ve heard my counsel. Rory has overstepped. I will be having a word with my cousin at the Free Fair, if not sooner. You and your boys need to work closely with Bertie to take care of both the markets and the Marish and all of Eastfarthing between the Water and the Stock Road. I have spent the last four weeks listening to kin from every twisted branch of my misbegotten family tree and you are all idiots.’ The two elders glared at each other.
‘It more than just grief and Dragon Fever, Uncle Wili.’ Frodo waited until he had the other’s attention. ‘There’s something… broken. Parted, Uncle Bilbo called it. It was in the smial itself. It’s in things we’ve seen, up north, on the walk.’
‘Wili,’ Bilbo said quietly, the anger gone from his face, but still looking much too tired, ‘do you remember at Yule, riding out to discuss a hedgerow with Rory and Big Sara?’ Wili nodded. ‘Do you remember what Rory said about why he wanted to pasture wool sheep in Buckland?’
‘Troubles. Things wrong in the land itself. We’ve talked a few times on it.’
‘Do you remember what I said?’
‘We need to work together.’
‘Right, because of these Troubles.’ That’s what you have been trying to tell our kin, to work together. Not to plot and connive, but to take care of things. Because of the Troubles.
‘So what work do we need to do?’ Wili asked.
Bilbo sighed and rubbed his face. ‘Most obviously, this stupid plan of Odogar’s must not survive the Free Fair. I will see to that. But Gun is right that there is an opportunity, and that is to undo much of the division and greed that Odogar and Gun and Pal and Otho and others would like to spread more widely. Good men need to step up and take on things so that worse men don’t spoil them. That means you, Fred and Bard need to work with Bertie and Mac to clean out the rancor that’s been festering here in Eastfarthing. Rufus can be counted on, as well as his sons.’
‘And what will you do, Bilbo?’
‘I’ll be dealing with division in the west of the Shire. There’s quite bit happening there, led by Pal and Otho.’
‘I mean stepping up. You’d make a good farthing head.’
‘I’d rather sleep with spiders and dine with Orcs.’
None of this is for your good. It’s all what others want you to do for them. Like burgle a dragon so they don’t have to face it. ‘That’s just more division, Uncle Wili. And Uncle Bilbo has told everyone “No” very clearly, so stop nagging him.’
That earned him a sour look. ‘Bilbo, you talk about not dividing more, but you aren’t saying to work with Rory or Sara.’
‘Sara’s opinions are Esmie’s, and her opinions are Pal’s. Or maybe Pal’s are hers. No difference. They’re all dwarven-hearted.’ Frodo dared Uncle Wili to contradict him. ‘Ignoring Sara or keeping him busy with little things he can’t mess up is the best approach. Rely on Mac, not Sara.’
‘As I said, I will deal with Rory later.’ Bilbo stood and walked off. ‘I’m tired, I’m fed up with my cousins, and I am done with this conversation.’ With a smile, Frodo gave Wili a nod, retrieved Bilbo's knapsack from under the couch, and followed Bilbo out. He caught up with his uncle in the hall and took his hand. Bilbo let Frodo lead him to Frodo's room, where he sat heavily in a chair. 'Fix us a pipe, will you, lad?' When Frodo tried to sit at Bilbo's feet, the older Hobbit waved him away. Frodo did not like that, but did as he was told and took a seat on the bed. As he suspected, Bilbo did not wish to talk until after he had finished his pipe.
'I apologize for being so short tempered with you this morning, Frodo.'
'And I apologize for being a brat when you needed to sleep, Uncle.' Bilbo gave him a true smile. 'Do you wish to rest some more?'
'Tempting, but no. I'll stay awake for now and then go to bed early tonight.'
'You walked all the way from Scary in the dark?'
'Not all the way. I left a few hours after you did. There was still light for the first part.'
'What did you and Odogar talk...'
'I said I am done with that conversation, Frodo.' Bilbo's voice was so quiet Frodo could barely hear it. 'I do not care to waste another minute on it.'
'As you wish.' Frodo tried to think of something else, something that might please Bilbo since he could not sit next to him. 'Oh, I know,' Frodo hopped of the bed and pulled his rucksack out from under it. 'On the way here yesterday, there was a Messenger going north and I collected our letters.'
'Ah, good,' Bilbo said with cheer, 'that sounds like a proper way to spend the morning!' Frodo handed over a thick bundle for Bilbo and took his own. They spent the next hour reading letters and sharing bits with each other. There was a letter from Mister Gamgee written by May politely asking when Mister Bilbo and Master Frodo expected to be home, two letters from Aunt Gilda (one for each of them), another annoying missive from Bluebell, letters from Merry and Merle, and so forth through the kin they actually liked talking to. Bilbo took great delight in reading aloud a letter from Griffo Boffin saying the fellow looked forward to meeting Frodo. When Bilbo got to more serious letters from his interests around the Shire, Frodo stood at the small desk in the corner and wrote replies that Bilbo dictated to him, folding and sealing them as neatly as he could. Doing this work seem to restore Bilbo as well as a nap, and the old hobbit was much his usual self by the time they were done.
'I think this afternoon, after lunch, I need to do a bit of business here in Whitfurrows,' Bilbo said with a smile, holding his hand out for the new pipe Frodo has prepared.
'And what business is that?'
'I have to talk to Wilber Greenbough about some lumber for Rufus. Good roads should not be subject to the whims of idiots.' Bilbo scowled for a moment, but then smiled brightly. 'And tomorrow, we head home! Isn't that a nice thought?'
'Very nice, Uncle Bilbo.' Frodo hesitated a moment, then asked. 'Is that the only lumber yard in Whitfurrows?'
'As far as I know, yes. Why?'
That's where Tom was prenticed. Frodo did not really want to see him again, but... ‘Tom's a prentice there. I should talk to him. About his sister.’
'The little girl who died this winter, yes?'
'What do you wish to say?'
Frodo shrugged. 'I'm not sure, just, something.'
'Did you know... Daisy, right?'
'Yes, Daisy. Not really well, but we knew each other and I would mind her with the other children sometimes. I was starting to teach her letters when I left.'
Bilbo puffed on his pipe for a few heartbeats. 'That is a kind thought, Wilwarin, and I won't discourage you. You should offer condolences. It is proper to do so. Just be aware that Tom may not accept them with good grace. You and Tom parted with sharp words.' Frodo nodded. ‘If he is angry with you and grieving about Daisy, he may only have harsh words in return. Be polite and kind, no matter what he says.'
'I will be a gentlehobbit, Uncle.'
After a large and pleasant lunch, Frodo and Bilbo took their letters to the post-office, then walked to the lumber yard. It was bustling and Bilbo kept a firm hold of Frodo's arm while they made their way to the foreman's office. The owner, Mister Greenbough, and the foreman greeted Bilbo happily. After pleasantries were exchanged, Bilbo said, 'Is your prentice, Tom Tunnelly, here today?'
'Aye, in the cubby behind the stair. He's doing accounts. Do you need him?'
'Oh, he and my lad, Frodo, knew each other down in Buckland and I thought the two could chat while we do some business,' Bilbo answered.
'Certainly, Mister Baggins.' The owner turned to Frodo and pointed off to the far corner of the yard, where there was a stairway going up to some kind of loft area over tall stacks of wood. 'Tom's over there, lad. Mind you stay near the wall so you don't get in the way.'
'Yes, sir.' Now that he had to see Tom, Frodo was unsure that he wanted to. He followed the wall until it led him past the stair and he could see a small space with a tall desk, a cupboard with a heavy lock, a lamp over the desk, and Tom. The boy looked tired, almost haggard. He looked up from his desk and froze when he saw Frodo. After an angry glare, he looked back at the ledger and paper in front of him.
'What do you want? Go away, Baggage!'
Frodo was glad Bilbo had warned him Tom might be mean or he probably would have left. 'I came to see you.'
'Why? I don’t want to see you. Why are you even here, in Whitfurrows?'
'I was on a long walk in Northfarthing with Uncle Bilbo visiting kin.'
'Showing off his whore, was he?' Tom's voice was only slightly less ugly than his expression.
Polite and kind, like Bilbo said. 'I heard about Daisy and came to offer my condolences.'
For a moment, Frodo thought Tom would start crying. 'Why are you saying this? She died months ago!'
'I didn't hear until a two weeks ago, when we were in Greenfields.'
'Why so long?'
'It was Ula who wrote. She was the only one who knew I'd want to hear and she had her hands full with all the sick at the Hall. She wrote as soon as she could. We were gone from home, so it took a while for her letter to find us.' Frodo reached out and laid a hand on Tom's shoulder, who started to shake, shedding a few tears. 'I am sorry, Tom.'
Tom's face screwed up and he started crying in earnest. Frodo pulled him into an embrace as the smaller boy began sobbing. In a minute, they were both sitting on the ground, Frodo's arms around Tom. A few of the yardmen looked at them curiously as they walked by, but did not halt. After a while, Tom stopped sobbing, but he did not let go of Frodo and kept his face buried in Frodo's shoulder.
'Frodo? Tom?' Frodo looked back over his shoulder and saw Bilbo and the yard owner walking up. Bilbo knelt in front of them. 'Tom? Lad? What is the matter?'
'Daisy died!' Tom cried.
'Your little sister. I heard, Tom. I am so sorry.' Bilbo pulled out a handkerchief and gave it to Tom to wipe his face.
The yard owner knelt next to Bilbo, concern on his face. 'Ah, for pity, lad! When was this?'
'Some weeks ago, Mister Greenbough,' said Frodo. 'We got word of it on our travel.'
'The fever that struck Buckland early this year,' Bilbo added. 'Little Daisy did not survive it.'
‘Aye, the fever rash,’ Greenbough nodded. ‘It struck here as well. Awful thing. Didn’t touch the yard, thank goodness.’
'Ula said you haven't been back to the Hall, Tom. Is that true?' Frodo asked. Tom nodded, wiping away some tears with Bilbo’s handkerchief. 'Why haven't you been back?'
‘I’m prenticed, I can't just leave, and I don’t know how to get back from here, and...'
'Of course you can go back to your folk, lad!' the yard owner said with a bit of exasperation. 'You should have said something. Just take yourself back.'
'It is a long way and he's a small fellow,' Bilbo said. 'He can't walk there by himself, Wilber. He's just a tween!'
'I've got some men going down to Woodhall for logs in a few weeks, Mister Bilbo. They can get him to Stock and there'll be someone going on to Bucklebury from there. He can hop on a wagon...'
'That's too long,' Bilbo smoothly interrupted. 'Tom, you know my cousins, Wili and Prisca Bolger, from the Hall, yes?' Tom nodded. 'They are in town and return to Brandy Hall directly tomorrow. You will go with them and be back with your parents tomorrow night. Can you be ready by morning?'
'Yes, Mister Baggins,' Tom said, 'but I have to get these accounts done before I leave.'
'Is that acceptable to you, Mister Greenbough, ' Bilbo pointedly asked.
'Aye, it is. I'll need you back in Thrimidge, boy.' Tom nodded and stood. Frodo stood as well.
'Thank you, sir. Frodo, Mister Baggins, I need to get back to work.'
'Yes, Tom, we'll leave you to your work. You be at Gundabard Bolger's door at eight sharp tomorrow. That's where we're staying. Come along, Frodo.' Frodo gave Tom a fierce hug which the smaller boy returned and hurried after Bilbo. They stopped in the foreman's office and Bilbo pulled out a few coins. 'Here's for your trouble, doing without your prentice for a few weeks, Wilber.'
'Now, Mister Bilbo, there's no need...'
'Of course not! But no one should be out for doing a kindness and the boy may stay longer than you expect. He's their only child now and his parents won't want him to leave. His father's the horse master and his mother's the loom mistress at the Hall, so this will matter to the Master, as well. I'll be sure my cousin Rory knows of your kindness to the Tunnellys. I'll be in touch after I'm back to Hobbiton about our business.' With a nod and smile, Bilbo led them out of the lumber yard and back to Gun and Tilda's home. In their absence, Tilda had prepared a room for Bilbo. He told Frodo to let Wili and Prisca know about taking Tom back to Buckland tomorrow, said he would be writing some letters to go with them, and shut the door behind him. Frodo hoped he would take a nap.
Aunt Prisca was bustling in the kitchen with Tilda, helping prepare supper, while Uncle Wili sat on a stool in the corner, amusing them while they worked. Gun was not yet back from whatever business he had been about earlier. Frodo gave them each a kiss.
‘Aunt Prisca, Uncle Wili, you know Mister and Missus Tunnelly in the Hall, right?’
‘Well enough,’ Wili answered.
‘You know their daughter, Daisy, died of the fever rash earlier this year.’
‘I had heard that,’ Prisca said sadly. ‘Wili and I were not in the Hall when that all happened. We were with Bard and Cissy.’
‘Their son, Tom, he’s here in Whitfurrows, prenticed to Mister Greenbough, the lumber yard owner. He hasn’t been able to go back to Brandy Hall. Will you take him back with you tomorrow?’
‘Oh, the poor lad!’ Prisca exclaimed, ‘Of course we will!’
‘He’ll have to come back in Thrimidge, since he’s still prentice.’
‘I’ll be coming back in a few weeks, Frodo, and will bring him myself,’ Wili assured him.
Tilda and Prisca immediately took charge of Frodo and had him taste everything they were cooking several times, made him a plate of bread and cheese, and clucked over how thin and peaked he looked. Frodo stayed and let them fuss, not wanting to disturb Bilbo’s rest. He’s had too many relatives nagging him these last few weeks, Baggins. He’s more sick of them and their poking and prodding than you are. He ate and listened carefully to the conversation. It seemed that Uncle Wili was going to be traveling up here every few weeks from now on, and probably bring one or the other of his sons, and often Aunt Prisca, to “learn the market” from Gun. He’d sent off a letter to Bertie that morning asking the fellow when he would next visit Whitfurrows so they could meet. Tilda begged them to be sure to bring Cissy and Tilly up to visit, and that she would get Rosa to bring Fatty and Stella. ‘It would be so nice to have little ones running about the house again,’ she said wistfully. Prisca thought perhaps they could gather all the little cousins down on one the Marish farms this summer, and Frodo suggested that Berry, Merry and Merle would probably enjoy being there, too, and soon the women were planning a long holiday in Afterlithe. If I were still here, I’d go along and be the big brother, just like Bilbo was, with my puppy pack of cousins. The thought was amusing and a little sad at the same time.
Gun came back just as Frodo was helping Prisca lay the table. She shooed the boy off to collect Bilbo. He tapped lightly on Bilbo’s door and was met with a distracted, ‘Come in.’ Bilbo was sitting at the desk in the room, a substantial stack of letters next to him, writing away on another.
‘It’s supper time, Uncle Bilbo.’
‘Yes, and then some sleep for us both. We’ve a long walk tomorrow.’
Supper was delicious, but they did not linger over it. Frodo did feel very tired and knew he would sleep well tonight. Bilbo paused at his door, then asked, ‘Would you like a pipe before bed, Frodo?’
‘Yes, I would. Let me get my pipe.’ There was a hearth in Bilbo’s room, though there was no need for fire, and his uncle was already seated before it in a chair by the time he returned. Frodo prepared their pipes and sat at the other end of the hearth, though he would have preferred to sit against Bilbo’s knee. Bilbo drew in a deep mouthful of smoke and let it out slowly, eyes closed, savoring the taste.
‘Are you up to a long tramp tomorrow? All the way back to Bag End?’ Bilbo opened his eyes and glanced about the room. ‘I weary of being a guest.’
‘Yes!’ Frodo found the thought of sleeping again in his own bed very appealing. ‘We should do that.’
‘The Gamgees will be a bit put out at us as we will arrive unannounced with the trunk,’ Bilbo smiled around his pipe, ‘but I dare say they will forgive us if we let May cook us each a pie!’ They both laughed at that. Bilbo’s look became a bit more keen. ‘You have done well today, Wilwarin. From your excellent arguments at breakfast to keeping the ladies entertained at supper, you have let me get more rest than I had expected.’
‘You needed some respite from well-meaning idiots.’ That made Bilbo chuckle, though the keen look did not leave his face.
‘That was a very good thing you did today, Frodo, going to talk to Tom. I didn’t realize he’d not been back to Buckland. His parents will be glad to see him.’
‘I’m glad you warned me that he might be harsh. He was, at first. Even if he hadn’t stopped being mean, it would have been the right thing to do. I’m glad Ula told me about Daisy.’ Bilbo started to speak, then stopped and drew on his pipe. ‘What is it?’
‘I shan’t pry. He is special to you and that is all I need to know.’
He knows I don’t love Tom anymore. I can ask him. He’ll understand. ‘Yes and no. Being special.’ Bilbo said nothing but smiled a little. ‘I thought he was different than the others. I think he… was worse. I don’t understand why he wanted to be with me. Or, I thought I did, but at Yule…’ Frodo shrugged.
Bilbo’s expression was thoughtful. ‘You’re the same age, yes?’
‘No. He’s older than me. Three years older.’ A hardness came to Bilbo’s eyes.
‘And how did you become friends?’
‘We met in the schoolroom and we were always kind of friends.’ I didn’t have any friends except him. ‘We’d do our lessons together. He knew figures and I knew words. Uncle Rory thought it good for us to teach each other. We always met in my room because he shared a large room with his parents and they didn’t have a desk.’ Bilbo made a non-committal sound. ‘When I was sixteen, he asked me to touch him, stroke him. He did it in return and it felt good but,’ Frodo knew his face was getting a little red, ‘it didn’t really have an effect on me, not like it had on him. But it made him happy and he started spending time with me besides lessons. He was friends with Hamson, and I started going around with them. One day, Bargo and Odogrim were there and Bargo wanted Tom to stroke him, and Tom said I was better at it.’ Frodo growled at his own stupidity and rested his forehead on his knees. ‘I actually thought it was a compliment. That’s how stupid I was.’
‘You were a child. They were all tweens.’ Bilbo’s voice was stern.
Frodo looked up and could see that his uncle was angry. Bilbo had been getting more cheerful and now he had broken that mood. Best stop now, Rat. It only gets worse. Keep doing this and he won’t sleep again. I’m not a rat. I’m a Baggins. Not when you break him, you’re not. With a sigh, Frodo ducked his head again and closed his eyes, not wanting to see Bilbo angry. ‘Yes, yes, the big bad tweens did nasty things to the poor little boy. I’m tired of that story. I’m not that little boy anymore.’
He heard Bilbo leave his chair and sit on the ground near him. He did not open his eyes or raise his head, but he did hold out a hand which Bilbo took. ‘No. You very much aren’t that little boy. I’m sorry for interrupting, Wilwarin. Please, tell me a different story.’
‘It’s not a good story.’
‘I’ll hear it.’
Frodo still could not quite bring himself to look at Bilbo, but he lifted his face and rested his chin on his knees, leaving his hand in Bilbo’s. He needed that touch. ‘Tom was always mean, like the others, when they were about. He’d call me names, use me roughly, tell me I was a nothing bastard. When they weren’t around, then he’d be nice and tell me he was sorry, and I loved him and I wanted him.’ Bilbo moved a little closer and clasped Frodo’s hand between his own.
‘At Yule, before Sara beat me up he was mocking me, saying Tom had been the one telling on me to him, not Bargo, like I had thought. The person jealous of me fooling with Ula was Tom. He had been mad about it, and wheedled me into meeting him in the woods to make up for making him mad, then he went and told Bargo and the other two where I was. He got Mac later, but long enough after he told the others that I would have been beaten up.’
‘I trust they had all underestimated the tenacity of a certain snot-nosed little cousin?’ Bilbo’s tone was wry. Frodo glanced over and saw a smile tugging at the corner of Bilbo’s mouth.
‘Very much.’ That got a chuckle and another squeeze of his hand. ‘When I went to the shed to meet Tom the next day, that’s what I went to confront him with. He thought I was there to fool with him. He wasn’t at all sorry for telling on me to Sara. He told me I used to know my place, that I was nothing and even he was ahead of me, that he was a prentice and I was your whore. He called me that again today.’ Those words made Bilbo grimace and look away. Frodo wanted to try to explain the kiss he had claimed, but could not come up with how to say it. ‘Even after he said all that, he still wanted to fool with me, but I said I didn’t do that with boys anymore and I left.’
‘Those were very harsh words from Tom.’
‘I don’t think he ever loved me.’
‘Not as you loved him, certainly.’
‘I don’t love him anymore. I felt pity for him today, but not love. I don’t want him anymore. I never wanted any of them, except him, but not anymore. And most of all, I don’t understand why he ever wanted me, if he ever did, given what he said. Kind of like Esmie.’
‘Very much like Esmie and, as with Esmie, I think you’ve mostly answered your own questions, though it might not be a story you want to hear.’
‘Hmm.’ It was nice to sit here holding Bilbo’s hand. He knew they both probably needed to go to sleep, given how far they intended to walk tomorrow. He did not really want to figure out the riddle in this story, but, once said, Frodo knew he’d be like Bilbo, answering riddles in darkness while something threatened, until he came to the end of them. ‘Sara gave him gifts for betraying me, but the others didn’t. He kept saying he was my only friend and that I was nothing. And when I was there, I was. Nothing.’ Just a rat. But not now. More rat than you think. Not a rat. Where’s he sitting now? Tell him the right story, and he’ll pet you again. Frodo pulled his hand out of Bilbo’s and put his face down in his arms again. Stop it.
‘Stop what, Frodo?’ Oh, good, Rat. Now you’ve insulted him! Frodo sighed, sat up and looked at Bilbo, who was sitting very still with his hands folded in his lap. ‘I’m sorry lad. I don’t mean to upset you.’
‘You didn’t. I can’t figure out what Tom wanted and I can’t make my thoughts stop trying. I can figure out Esmie. She wanted to control… me.’ Bilbo’s eyebrows went up and he cocked his head. ‘Tom was trying to control me.’ Bilbo nodded. ‘But, for what? I had nothing to give him.’
‘Esmie wasn’t about giving. None of them were about giving. They all wanted to take. Different things, but all taking from you.’
‘What was he taking? Tricking me into mouthing others?’
‘Well, if it saved him from doing the same, he had a reason for that betrayal. Think what he said when you caught him out – you used to know your place and he was ahead of you. Tell me, Frodo, what is he now and what are you?’
‘A prentice and a gentlehobbit.’
‘Master Tunnelly envied your station and was jealous of your qualities. Until he betrayed you to Bargo, he was their servant. Getting you in trouble, putting you in the position of being ill-used, then showing you a little kindness to take advantage of your trusting heart, this is how he made himself feel important and powerful. What he wanted to take from you was your dignity. And you did not give that to him or any of them. And they are now, one by one, being put in their place, not by your cruelty, but by your kindness.’ Bilbo thought for a moment. ‘Well, perhaps with a few well-placed punches, too, but that’s just to make Bargo pay attention.’ Frodo snickered and nodded. ‘Perhaps your kindness in the face of his cruelty will prompt Tom to be more kind himself.’
Bilbo stood and stretched. ‘Unless there is more to this story, I think I need to sleep.’
Frodo stood and let Bilbo hug him. ‘I need to sleep, too. Thank you for hearing the story.’
‘I will always listen, Wilwarin.’
Morning, Whitfurrows, 21 Astron, 1390
Tom was at the door at half-past seven, a small bundle slung over his shoulder, and he immediately volunteered to help harness the pony team to the wagon. ‘I’ve been putting ponies in traces since I was fifteen,’ he assured Wili. ‘Da made sure I knew how.’ Bilbo gave the small hobbit a long look, then told Frodo to help Tom and Uncle Wili to get the wagon ready for the trip. If Frodo had been worried that Tom would behave oddly, it vanished in the face of the youth’s single-minded attention to preparing for the trip down to Buckland. It was reasonably impressive to see how smooth and assured Tom was checking the ponies’ feet and legs for signs of soreness, brushing them down and looking for any mark left by the harness, handling the lengths of leather straps and all the buckles while putting the gear onto them, and maneuvering them into their places before the wagon. Wili complemented him on his skill.
‘As good as your Da, lad!’
‘Thank you, Mister Bolger.’
Once the wagon was ready and pulled around front, Tilda took both tweens by the shoulder and marched them into the kitchen for some breakfast, while Bilbo helped Wili and Prisca put their things in the wagon. All the food and Tilda’s constant attention meant that there could be no serious talk between the boys, for which Frodo was grateful. Soon, Bilbo was calling in the door that wagon was ready and it was time to leave. At the wagon, Tom tried to return Bilbo’s handkerchief, which the old hobbit laughingly refused.
‘You may keep that, Master Tunnelly. Just be ready to give it away if you happen upon someone who needs it more than you do.’
‘Yes, Mister Baggins, I will.’
Bilbo pulled two letters out of his waistcoat pocket. ‘These are for you to take, lad. This one you are to give to the Master as soon as possible after you arrive in the Hall.’ Frodo suspected it was an explanation of why Tom was back and what Bilbo wished done about it. ‘And this letter is for your parents. It is my condolences, as I am unable to offer them in person.’
‘My folks don’t read, Mister Bilbo. Just me, and I don’t read very good.’
‘Then you’ll need to have someone read it to them…’
‘Ula. Tom, have Ula read it to your parents. She’s the one who gave us the news.’ Frodo knew Ula would be respectful and not make them feel foolish for not being able to read Bilbo’s letter.
‘Yes, I’ll ask Ula. She’s nice.’ Tom looked up at Bilbo. ‘Thank you, Mister Baggins. You’re very kind.’
Bilbo smiled and gave the boy a pat on his shoulder. ‘It is no more than any decent person would do. And it was mostly Frodo’s idea, so you should be thankful to him.’ Tom looked over at Frodo, then quickly looked away, face going red.
Frodo stepped in between Bilbo and Tom, giving the other a hug. Tom hugged him strongly in return. ‘Good-bye Tom. Give my best to your parents and to Ula.’
‘I will, I promise.’
‘Up you go, boy,’ Wili said. Frodo helped Tom scramble into the back of the wagon. There were several minutes of hugs, good-byes and a few tears as he and Bilbo said farewell to Wili and Prisca, and the wagon went clattering off. They went inside and finished packing their own things. Another wagon pulled up not long after eight to take their trunk. Tilda packed them a large lunch and they were soon on their way after bidding their hosts good-bye.
The day was glorious, perfect for walking. The sun was bright, but not too hot, and a gentle breeze pushed at their backs. To either side of the Road, the Shire was in bloom. Fruit trees and wildflowers vied to adorn the land and scent the air. Fields were tilled and new growth sprouted up in greens so vibrant that it seemed to float above the dark, rich earth. Off to the south, Green Hill country lived up to its name, reaching towards the blue sky with dark green arms. Hydrangeas bloomed in profusion, covering the rock walls with blankets of flowers, some as pale blue as the sky, some of a deeper shade like a lake, and yet others imitating lilacs with their purple clusters. Cows and sheep grazed contentedly in fallow fields, and there were no sere patches to be seen. The trees, alone or in stands, were alive, their branches tipped with new growth, and provided shelter to birds above and rabbits below. Everything was normal.
The fears and frustrations of the long walk about Northfarthing seemed very far away from the lovely signs of spring. Bilbo set a brisk pace, but not so fast that he could not sing his favorite walking tunes or whistle merrily, never stinting a cheerful “Hallo!” and “Good day to you, too!” as they passed other travelers going east along the Road. They stopped briefly between Whitfurrows and Frogmorton for a rest and a bite, washing it all down with water from a nearby well. They did not stop in Frogmorton, for which Frodo was glad. He had been worried that Bilbo would wish to pay a call on Widow Grubb, and Frodo had no wish to encounter that old woman, not with all the oddness that had been happening. Her one eye saw too much. He knew Bilbo had been tempted, slowing at the lane which led past the widow’s brewery, then shaking his head and striding on swiftly. They stopped for lunch at the same place where they had stopped with Dalin on the walk to Buckland almost exactly four months before. While they ate, Frodo studied Bilbo, as he had at the first lunch they had eaten when setting out on this long tramp.
The walk and the prospect of home was restoring Bilbo, but he was still at the edge of exhaustion. Frodo wondered if trying to do the entire walk to Bag End in one day was such a good idea, no matter how they longed to be home. Get him back where it’s safe and then you both can sleep. It seemed a little strange, him worrying about getting Bilbo to safety when his uncle was the one responsible for looking after him. At the start of the walk, especially after what happened to Posco, Frodo would have shaken his head at the idea of Bilbo needing anyone to protect him. He was ageless, powerful, frightening, the one everyone turned to with their concerns and needs, or quailed before if they had overstepped. Whatever was affecting Bilbo had started in Oatbarton. The private talk Bilbo had with Uncle Rufus after the unsettling discussion about the Parting in the northern reaches had left his uncle introspective, almost melancholy. You shouldn’t have said what you did about Bargo. Bilbo had started talking about leaving and Frodo suspected he was talking about going on an adventure and trying to find the elves or the wizard, not just leaving the Burrows’ smial. That’s the other reason he was glad they had not stopped to speak to Widow Grubb. The last time Bilbo had drifted off into mutterings about going somewhere had been at the widow’s home in Afteryule. His cheer had never quite returned after the talk with Uncle Rufus, and the two days in Scary had done something more to him that Frodo could not grasp. Under the outward cheer, sadness and a deep, ferocious anger were consuming his uncle.
The anger he thought he could understand given the selfish idiocy on display by almost every one of their kin. Even Uncle Falco, who Frodo thought the most sensible and the most like Bilbo in his thoughts, wanted Bilbo to do foolish things, like try to force the creation of a new farthing. They don’t understand that he never would. What was making his uncle sad, Frodo could not figure out. Yes, you do. He was sad before he was angry because of all your poking. You’re such a brat he had to beg you to stop. You like making people beg.
Frodo busied himself with eating more of the delicious lunch Tilda had packed so that he would not have to look at Bilbo. The plain bread loaves were stuffed with sausage and mushrooms and one had some pickled vegetables in it. There were many little sweet cakes and rolls wrapped in a tea towel inside of a pretty woven reed basket with a snug fitting lid. Frodo thought he would give the basket to May when they got home.
When they got home, Frodo hoped that Bilbo would once again allow him to sit at his feet and let himself be soothed. It would help lift the sadness. Frodo knew it was his own fault that Bilbo had been refusing to do this while they had been about. I reminded him about the wicked things people say of him and what he wants of me. He’s making sure everything is proper. When they were back at Bag End, he would let Bilbo know that he did not think such things and would sit close and let Bilbo rest his hands on him again. He would be a good boy, as Bilbo had asked, and be like a son, as good as the other clan heads’ sons, which is what Bilbo most wanted.
‘So, what do you think?’
Bilbo’s voice startled him. Frodo looked up from the food and found Bilbo watching him, face bland but eyes sharp. ‘I think it is a beautiful day for a walk, especially a walk home, though I may not make it past the front hall before I fall over and sleep.’
That got a chuckle and a nod. ‘Yes, Wilwarin, and I would join you and poor Ham Gamgee would have to cart us back to our beds in a barrow.’
Frodo laughed. ‘He would, too!’
‘No doubt!’ said Bilbo with a grin. His face because a little more serious. ‘I would like to know what you think of our walk in the north.’
‘I’m not sure what I think, Uncle. There’s so much to think on, and truly, I’m not trying to avoid the question.’
That got a snort from Bilbo. ‘Much? Too much by half! I have seen enough to keep me thinking until next year!’ This was better. An irritated Bilbo was annoying to deal with, but much better than him being angry or sad. Annoying was better than frightening. ‘Is there something that stands out from the walk?’
‘Well, this may be stupid but I really didn’t understand how big the Shire was until now. And how different it gets. Northfarthing is nothing like Buckland or the towns upon the Road.’
Strangely enough, this observation made Bilbo happy. ‘Yes! You see that and understand, lad. The Shire is many places, in truth. Wait until you see the White Downs near Michel Delving in Lithe. How far south did you ever go in Buckland or around there?’
‘I went down to Haysend once, with Mac and Uncle Rory, but mostly not past Standelf. In the Marish,’ Frodo turned a bit red, ‘only as far south as Maggot’s farm, a bit north of Rushey.’
Bilbo laughed out loud at that. ‘Ah, yes, the Rascal of Buckland and the Marish!’ Frodo ducked his head, blushing more. ‘Well, perhaps later this year we’ll go for another tramp, but to Southfarthing. Hmm, down to Longbottom, and then across to Willowbottom, up to Stock and back by the Stock Road. Yes, that would do. Gis was talking about some southern Big People coming up to buy leaf…’
‘…and about grey riders…’
‘…them, too, and we can see what the prospects for a ferry might be in Willowbottom.’ Bilbo glanced away south, thinking. Frodo was not certain he liked this discussion of a new, long tramp, not when they were not yet safely home from this one. Bilbo’s face brightened. ‘And, best of all, no annoying relatives! Yes, we should go on a tramp sometime that is just for our own amusement.’ Except that you would be going there like you went to the north, to find out about the Troubles. That did not sound very amusing. ‘What else, lad? What stands out?’
‘The Parting.’ Bilbo nodded once and waited. ‘That… more than the farthing nonsense, that stands out.’ Frodo thought about the barren meadow patches, the stories of wrongly born animals, and the stillness of Granite Bank. ‘Any one thing would be nothing by itself, but all put together…’ Bilbo nodded again. ‘The smial, that was the worst.’
‘It is as sick as its master.’
‘Did it make him sick? Or, maybe the other way around?’
‘I don’t know. I’ve been trying to puzzle it out. There’s been… division in its heart for a very long time.’ Now Bilbo was glancing north and east in the general direction of Scary. ‘It reminded me of the ruins of Erebor, littered with the remnants of the dwarves’ great battle with Smaug, and I followed Thorin as he wandered, treading on the bones of his people, searching for the Arkenstone. But the dragon in the center of these ruins is made of ice. I haven’t found the chink in his armor. Not yet.’ For a few minutes, Bilbo looked towards Scary, thinking. ‘And what else, Frodo, can you say of what you saw?’
‘You made no mention of the Parting to Odogar. Not like you did to Uncle Rufus.’
‘Odogar would not be able to hear about it, nor Gun. Wili knows, Bard and Fred know, I think Bertie might understand.’
‘Is this what you and Uncle Rufus talked about when you sent me and his sons away?’
‘It’s not polite to pry, Frodo.’ Bilbo gave him a stern look. ‘We should be on our way, so we can be home all the sooner.’
Frodo was just as glad to end the conversation. It was going in darker directions than he really wanted to speak of. As soon as they started walking, Bilbo immediately became more cheerful. Frodo tried not to think of anything, hoping to lose himself in the combination of the beautiful sights around him and the deep weariness of his own form. The sun was declining though still bright when they turned from the Road north onto the Bywater Road and began the long climb to Bag End. Home. Frodo startled himself with the strength of that thought. Yes, it was home. Whatever the truth of his begetting, he belonged with Bilbo in Bag End. Our home. Bilbo had said he never felt truly at home in Bag End until after he had gone on his adventures out of the Shire, and Frodo had not expected to feel this until an equal number of years – and perhaps some equal adventures – had passed for him.
They were part way up the Hill when they saw Mister Gamgee walking towards them with May and Sam. The children let out shouts of joy and raced ahead to throw themselves at Frodo, who could barely withstand the assault, he was so tired. Bilbo laughed and ruffled the children’s hair while waiting for their father to catch up.
‘Master Hamfast, good evening!’ Bilbo greeted him, holding out a hand. Mister Gamgee shook it and gave a little bow.
‘An’ good even to you, Mister Bilbo,’ the gardener replied. ‘You almost took us unawares, sir, and that would have been mighty unfriendly of you. Your letter last night said you’d not be here ‘til tomorrow.’
‘I do apologize profusely for not having sent word ahead of my changed plans, but I had not made up my mind to walk the whole way in one day until late last night, and the lad and I came as quick as the messengers,’ Bilbo said in his most charming manner, motioning for them to keep walking towards the smial. ‘I trust the arrival of the trunk told you we were on our way?’
‘Oh, aye, it did, but we figured before that you’d be home today, or early tomorrow at the latest, Mister Bilbo,’ Mister Gamgee said. ‘When the missus heard what you wrote, that you were lookin’ to be home soon since the young master was tuckered out, she said “Mark my words, Ham, they’ll be home by nightfall tomorrow or I don’t know Mister Bilbo,” an’ she was right.’
The children were pulling on Frodo’s arms, peppering him with questions and trying to tell him everything they’d been doing since they last saw him, none of which he could understand. He was just too tired. He contented himself with saying “Oh?” and “Really?” and “Is that so?” and hoped they would not yank him in two or tip him over before they got to the door. Missus and Daisy Gamgee were standing before the open door of Bag End, and Daisy quickly divested Frodo of her little siblings, leading them back to their smial on Bagshot Row with promises of sweets. Bilbo gave Missus Gamgee an elegant bow, which Frodo thought impressive given how weary his uncle must be. This made her giggle and blush.
‘Welcome home Mister Bilbo, Master Frodo,’ she said, giving each peck on the cheek. ‘Daisy and me cooked for you since we knew you’d be plumb tired from your walk and probably haven’t had a good bite to eat since the day you left.’ She looked at Frodo with a frown and felt his shoulder, then nodded her head sharply. ‘An’ we’ll do some more cookin’ since I can see the young master’s doin’ poorly.’
‘You take such good care of us, Mistress Bell,’ Bilbo replied sweetly, edging towards the door. ‘I’d best get the lad in and washed up quick so he can eat his supper right away.’
‘Water’s hot for tea, and there’s a goose in the oven, keepin’ warm, an’ fresh bread and butter in the pantry.’
‘Oh, you are a queen among wives! Frodo, quit dawdling, say thank you and wash up! Supper’s ready!’ Frodo said something he hoped was reasonably polite and scurried into the smial, Bilbo right on his heels, though his uncle did not give the appearance of being in any hurry. In a moment, the door was shut and Bag End was theirs alone. Their packs hit the floor at the same moment, swiftly followed by walking sticks and cloaks. Bilbo stretched until his back popped, and made a beeline for the kitchen. ‘Wilwarin, come get some hot water and wash up while I get the table set,’ he said over his shoulder. Soon, they were sitting to a delicious meal and both ate heartily. They had just enough energy left to wash up the supper dishes and pick up their dropped things in the entry hall before staggering off to bed.
Evening, Bag End, 22 Astron, 1390
Unfortunately, their first day back was not very restful. The weather was a perfect spring day, which meant that half of Hobbiton decided it was a fine occasion on which to drop by Bag End, offer their regards to Mister Baggins and hear the tale of their long sojourn up in Northfarthing which most found nearly as outlandish an act as going off into the wild to fight dragons. The littlest Gamgees were thrilled to have Frodo back and followed him everywhere, pestering him to either tell them stories or have him listen to their own. Missus Gamgee and Daisy would not hear of Mister Bilbo doing any cooking or cleaning, having decided that he must be a near invalid after suffering through the deprivations of places other than Hobbiton, and kept the smial in turmoil with their running in and out, dirtying every pot and pan, and dragging Bilbo to every pantry, cellar, closet and linen press to admire how full and neat it was. Letters poured in throughout the day, many promising a visit in the near future. There was not even a chance to nap. Frodo grew concerned as he saw Bilbo looking more tired and surly with every new face in the parlor, and finally ushered everyone out, locking the door and pulling all the curtains to discourage the more determined visitors. He really did not care if people thought him rude and ignored mutters about “Buckland manners.”
It was good not to have to cook supper and even better to get to eat a meal prepared by Missus Gamgee. Unlike the unwanted guests, the Gamgees cared greatly about himself and his uncle, and any irritation they may have caused could be excused for the sincere affection and concern they held for Bilbo and Frodo. Frodo told Bilbo to make himself comfortable in the study with a glass of wine and his pipe while he took care of washing up the dishes. When he came in to the study, Bilbo was sitting in his chair by the fireplace, pipe in one hand, glass of wine in the other, looking a bit sleepy. Frodo’s own pipe was prepared and sitting on the sideboard. After lighting it, Frodo ignored the chair sitting at other end of the hearth and took his usual seat at Bilbo’s feet. He could feel his uncle tense and pull slightly away when he sat, though he said nothing. Even after Bilbo finished his wine and set the glass on a small table next to the chair, he did not touch Frodo. Several minutes went by and then Bilbo sighed.
‘Frodo, you shouldn’t be sitting on the ground. Take a seat. There are two for a reason, you know.’
‘I always sit here.’
‘But I want to sit here. And you sat on the ground for most of our trip, even when you had a chair.’
‘And we are back home now. I would like you to sit in the chair.’
Frodo turned so he was facing Bilbo, an arm draped over Bilbo’s legs, deliberately leaning against him. He could feel Bilbo pull away from him. He doesn’t trust you. He knows you break things. This retreat hurt sharply and, for one moment, Frodo considered running his hand up Bilbo’s thigh to see just how much he could break. He shouldn’t trust you, Rat. Bilbo did not move, did not say anything, but after a few heartbeats he relaxed under Frodo’s arm. I trust you because you never would. ‘I will. But not yet. Explain why you want this.’
‘Children and puppy dogs sit at your feet. You said yourself, you’re not a little boy anymore. I’ve been seeing that for some weeks. I should be more respectful of you and not treat you like a little thing to be petted.’ Bilbo smiled a little, but it was sad. ‘You’ve grown up, so. You’re much older than you were even a few months ago.’
It was almost true. Frodo knew it would be best if he took the compliment and took his seat. It would please Bilbo. No, it would make him feel worse, like he’d done something wrong. Wicked people would keep us apart. I’ll not be parted from you. ‘I don’t think that’s the whole reason. You’ve told me that you’ll hear anything from me. So will I. From you.’ He again felt Bilbo tense and relax under his arm.
‘You know my bad habits, Wilwarin. I’m going to ask you questions, and I will need answers.’
Frodo looked at his uncle, willing him to understand what he was trying to say. ‘I trust you, Bilbo. I’ll do anything you wish.’
That made Bilbo turn his head away, eyes closed, as he had before when Frodo told him this. I mean it. Every bit of it. I will do anything for you. It was almost a minute before Bilbo mastered whatever emotion had seized him. ‘Let me start with something simple. Why do you want to sit here?’
‘It soothes you.’
Frodo nodded. ‘You like me to do this. You don’t get angry, you don’t sit and brood, if I come sit with you. It pleases you and makes you happy. You don’t think of adventures and leaving.’ He could tell this answer did not make Bilbo happy, but neither did it seem to anger him.
‘I asked you a few weeks ago, Frodo, if you were still afraid of me.’ Frodo nodded. ‘Why… What made you… I don’t understand why you agreed to come here with me in the first place if you were afraid of me, afraid that I would debauch you. You said last month you believed me to be a liar at that time. Why come here with such a person?’
‘You gave me a choice. As far as I could tell, everyone was a liar and no one asked me what I wanted. Not even Tom. You asked and you gave me a choice, so you won.’
‘Even though you thought I was going to take you to bed.’
‘I figured I would have some man in my bed or beating me up no matter where I went. If it was Sara, he’d do both.’
Again, Bilbo closed his eyes and his face twisted from some inner pain. After he composed himself, he said, ‘I am sorry for those questions, lad. My fear is that you sit here against me, trying to, as you say, please me, for no reason save to keep me from harming you.’
‘No. Why do you think that?’
‘Because you said a few moments ago that you want to soothe me, keep me from getting angry. And, at Yule, when I was furious that Sara had attacked you again, you also tried to please and soothe me.’
Frodo knew his face was very red. ‘I was not trying to seduce you. You were hurting yourself!’
Bilbo held up a placating hand. ‘Please, Wilwarin, hear me out. You said you would hear anything from me.’ Trust him, Baggins. Frodo nodded. ‘I know what I did frightened you terribly. I also know that what you wanted, all that you wanted, was to make me calm down and stop being so angry. The way you did this, the way you touched me and pressed against me, it was seductive. You weren’t trying to do this, it’s just what you knew to do to soothe an angry man.’
Or break one. Shut up. Just stop it. You’re not such a little boy. If he knew, he’d not trust you. Frodo shrugged. Bilbo look at him closely, gave a little nod. ‘After our argument in Long Cleeve, I thought a great deal about the way you sit at my feet. I need you to hear me out again.’
‘From what I can see when you sit here, from what you just said…’ Bilbo paused a long while. ‘It is… a kind of… servicing.’
Told you. Frodo thought he was going to cry. He wanted to crawl into Bilbo’s arms like he did when he chose this and sob until he went to sleep. ‘Lad?’ He sees what you are trying to do. No I am not! ‘I know you’re not trying to…’
‘I’m not. I don’t mean to. You’re not Sara. I can’t break you.’ Frodo knew he had some tears on his face, but was afraid to let go of Bilbo for fear Bilbo would not allow him back. Bilbo reached into a pocket, pulled out a handkerchief and very calmly wiped away the tears.
‘I fear I must ask questions again, Wilwarin, for I do not understand your words. What do mean by breaking?’
‘What Gammer said. I had done. To Sara.’
Bilbo’s jaw clenched and unclenched a few times and then he let his breath out in a long whoosh. ‘Of course, Gilda, you would say something. And what did the Mistress say?’
‘She asked me if I thought I’d seduced Sara. Even you never asked.’ The old hobbit’s eyebrows went up. ‘I said no, that I just wanted him not to be mean, so I did what he wanted, but it didn’t work. He just wanted more.’
‘And how is that breaking him?’
‘She said I didn’t will to do wrong, but I tempted him and broke open a fault in his heart.’ But you don’t have that. I can’t break you.
‘How can you…’ Bilbo began to exclaim, then bit back the words. It took almost a minute and several deep breaths before Bilbo could speak. ‘Why do you find this believable, Frodo?’
‘Because there are so many broken, with Dragon Fever and dwarven-hearts. There’s so much wrong in them. Why are you saying I’m servicing you? I’m not. I’m not doing anything to you. You’re the one doing things and I trust you and you can do whatever you want, I don’t care what, but you don’t trust me. I never would, either, no more than you would! I’m not that wicked little boy anymore.’ Frodo knew it really did not make much sense, but it just all wanted to come out. ‘I’m a Baggins, not a rat.’
Frodo closed his eyes and hugged Bilbo’s legs tightly and tried to stop shaking. He felt Bilbo gently wipe his face with the handkerchief. ‘Of course you’re a Baggins, Wilwarin. I’ve always said so. I think Gilda has it all quite backwards. Understandable, given how poorly her son has behaved. You understand, though. There’s so much wrong in Sara. He did what he did because he was already broken. And just like Tom and Bargo and the other bullies, he was trying to take things from you because he was jealous, not because you tempted him.’
These words made him cry more, but in relief. Bilbo hummed tunelessly and mopped up his tears but did not otherwise touch him. When he could open his eyes again, Bilbo smiled. ‘Will you hear me again?’ Frodo nodded. ‘You ask why I call what you do when you sit at my feet a kind of servicing. After all, you’re just sitting there, right?’ Another nod. ‘If you allow another person to pleasure himself with you and you take no pleasure from it yourself, but merely allow it, that is what it means to service someone else. It need not be a lustful pleasure.’
‘I do want… to soothe you. I want you to be happy. Others just want you to always do things for them. They don’t care if you’re happy! I do!’
‘You make me happy just by being here, lad.’
‘But you do like this! Can’t I do something that makes you happy?
Bilbo’s expression was thoughtful. ‘Perhaps, but something you said a bit ago, that you’ve said before, makes me wary.’
‘That you would do anything I wished, whatever pleases me.’ Frodo nodded. ‘And what if I wished to do something… wrong?’
‘You never would ask for something wrong.’
Bilbo looked at him a long time. ‘Nothing I asked for could be wrong?’
‘If I asked you to my bed, not to sleep but to debauch you, that’s not wrong?’ Frodo shook his head. ‘No, Wilwarin. It would be unspeakably wrong. A worse wrong than anything Sara could ever do. You may not see the harm, but I do. And at some point, you would see it as well.’ Bilbo gave him a crooked smile. ‘And I know I’ve asked you to do a few things that you’ve objected to, like put your dirty clothes in the laundry basket or stop arguing with me when I tell you to go to bed.’ That made Frodo snicker. Bilbo held out his hand, resting it on his leg, and Frodo took it. ‘I need you to be a rude little brat and be willing to argue with me about things that we both know are wrong, even if they are pleasing. Even if they make me happy.’
‘You think me sitting here is wrong?’
‘I’m wary of it. Parts of it strike me as wrong, mostly that you don’t say it is something you wish for yourself, or that brings you some kind of pleasure or happiness. If this wasn’t a way to soothe me, would you do any of this?’
Frodo thought about it. ‘Some of it, yes.’
'What would you do, because it pleases you?'
‘Just, sit near you, like this. Hold your hand.’ Bilbo smiled and squeezed his hand. ‘I like just sitting near you, sometimes. It’s…’ Frodo hesitated and Bilbo raised his eyebrows, encouraging. ‘…like what… I said… about being little and… I could just trust… you or Papa to hold me.’ He thought for a moment he would start crying again, but only one tear trickled out. ‘I want that.’
‘Then you shall have that. What do you not like?’
‘My hair touched. My head.’
‘Then I shan’t do that anymore. Your shoulders?’
‘Sometimes. I don’t like being grabbed or rubbed. I like…’ Frodo bit his lip.
‘Sleeping next to you.’
‘I’m afraid I can’t allow that, lad. Not here.’
‘I know. Besides, you snore.’
Bilbo started laughing. ‘Wilwarin, you brat!’
‘You said you wanted me to be a brat,’ Frodo said with a grin. He waited until Bilbo had his mirth under control before standing, going over to the other chair and taking a seat.
Bilbo looked at him quizzically. ‘Frodo?’
‘You asked me to sit here. I said I would, but only after you explained yourself. You keep your bargains and I keep mine.’
‘Then one more bargain, Master Baggins.’
‘Yes, Mister Baggins?’
‘If you wish sit at my feet, I will allow it, but only if it is to make both of us happy.’