POV - Bilbo
In which Bilbo struggles with all the claims being made about Frodo and asserts a few of his own.
4 Thrimidge, 1390
This letter is mostly for you. Read it through completely before you share any of it.
I am delighted to hear that you and Frodo are nearly done with the scroll translation. Just the rough pages you have sent have proved useful. Perhaps your elf friends have wisdom on agues and fevers that they might share? Do not send the finished pages by Messenger. Rory can bring mine and Ula’s copies back with him from the Fair. That is soon enough. I continue to be a good patient and allow Ula to serve me my tonic. It makes it easier to get about the Hall and greatly lessens the pain if I need to go by wagon somewhere. It is not a cure, but it is a welcome balm. Thank you, love.
With my tonic, I can take up some of my healing tasks again, though mostly I let Ula do the work while I watch. Sara drove us down to Standelf at the end of Astron to set a bone on a lad who fell from a hayloft. While there, a woman cast out her child. It was like the miscarriage we discussed in Afteryule. This one I showed to Ula so she would know what to look for. Katy Rumble, the healer in Rushey, has paid a call and has told me of two others like this in the Marish in the last year. Did you hear of any such things in your walk north?
What happened in Scary? Prisca can’t say and Wili won’t. They talk about the smial being dirty and the food bad, but there is more than a grieving widower at the heart of this. Besides, Odogar and Jessamine detested each other. They say you sent Frodo away with them and showed up drained and grim the following day. Prisca says both of you have lost much weight since Yule.
Don’t make me hobble to Hobbiton to beat the answers out of you, Beggar.
4 Thrimidge, 1390
Gilda is worried about you and Frodo, and so am I. Wili and Prisca came back with alarming news from Scary. I understand that Odogar isn’t taking care of things properly which has all the women clucking. Wili said you were so worn the next day that you could hardly talk, and that Frodo was being protective of you. That’s not like you, brother.
Wili also said you want him running the east market and you think I’m being an ass. I’ll concede the latter, but want your reasons on the former. He says Odogar is sick with Dragon Fever and that Gun is just sick. Gilda sent Ula to Whitfurrows with some medicines for Gun, but suspects there’s not much to be done. He’s older than any but you. Wili’s been hit hard by this news and I don’t think he’ll be much for managing anything.
Thank you for seeing that Little Tom came back. Tom and Ada are much better for it. He went back to Whitfurrows with Wili and Ula. I sent a letter to Greenbough saying we’d be taking the boy home every so often. Gilda’s trying to talk Ada into another child. They’re still young enough.
I think we need to talk before the Fair. If you’ll put up with us, I’d like to come to Hobbiton the week before the Fair and then travel there with you if you’re still going. I’d like to talk to Odo, too, as long as I’m that close, if only to thank him for Ula. She takes good care of Gilda.
6 Thrimidge, 1390
Very well, I shall not pay a visit. If I promise to behave around your Buckland boy, will that change your mind? I will pester you until I get to the bottom of all the rumors.
Yes, I know about the seeps near Longbottom. They’re not like winter seeps since they don’t dry up in summer. Once they start, they stay. They make my skin crawl and I won’t pasture anything near them. I’ve talked with Addy about them and he’s tried to talk to Pal, who doesn’t think they are important since they’re not near the leaf. I’m worried that they may get near the wells. I think that a bit more important than leaf.
I have always thought making the Tooklands part of Southfarthing an excellent idea and probably said so to Pal at some point. It will be amusing to see him try to bully Wilcar into handing them over. Wilcar is tougher than he looks and is a bit weary of his brother-in-law. However, I assure you I want nothing to do with anything Odogar controls. Well, except for Car.
10 Thrimidge, 1390
Dearest Little Cousin,
I’m just back from Whitfurrows. Thank you and Uncle Bilbo again for what you did for Tom. The Master has made arrangements to bring him back here every few months. It looks like Uncle Wili or one his boys will be going back and forth regularly, so there will always be someone to bring him. He’ll soon be big enough to bring himself. I told him he should write you.
Do not say anything to Uncle Wili, but I fear his brother will not live much longer, a year at most. The Mistress has said she will speak to our uncle. Gun is very old and his heart fails. You’re right, Tilda is quite dear. She insists that Tom come have Highday supper with them each week. I think that will be good for them both.
Da thinks you are a good lad and says he and Ma are going to steal you if Uncle Bilbo doesn’t let you visit often. I hope you like them just as much, though watch out for my brother, Baldo. He’s one for pranks.
Dilly says that the pair in Oatbarton won’t be back until after the Fair. I had hoped their absence might be made permanent. Sadly, it appears that the Girdley Island pair will also return at about the same time. It has been such a nice spring without their obnoxious presence. I’m glad I will be home in Halimath. I will try to come home for Yule, too. Ma and Da say they wish for me to be home at that time. If Mistress Gilda remains in her current good health and happy mind, then I think I may safely depart for a few weeks.
My love to you and Uncle Bilbo,
Bag End, Afternoon, 13 Thrimidge, 1390
Bilbo sat in his study reading a letter from a distant cousin, Sammy Whitfoot, down in Pincup. The man was a carpenter, though that title scarcely did justice to his skills. Sammy could fix anything that had to do with making water go to where it did not wish to go. He was responsible for most of the mills and dams across the Shire and had an almost dwarven knack for constructing clever engines. I should introduce you to Dalin. You’d like each other. He had received a letter from Dalin, too, this week asking after his and Frodo’s health and letting Bilbo know that a group of dwarves from Belegost intended to bring wares to the Free Fair. Bilbo had a letter in return ready to go with the next dwarf walking west, warning Dalin that word of his attack on Sara was being spread about deliberately and with some malice, and that he should not himself come to the Shire for a good long time.
Sammy was going to be needed to repair the dam on Bywater Pool. Bilbo had already secured the stone, timber and rope the repair would take, and had asked when Sammy could do the work and how many men he would need. Wilcar Chubb was the one who rightfully should have been seeing to this repair, seeing how big it was and how important the dam for controlling floods on the Water and irrigating nearby fields, but Bywater was a long way from Michel Delving and Bilbo wished to be sure the work was done properly and in time for the autumn rains. He had, of course, written to Wilcar and asked if his however-many-times-removed cousin wished for him to handle the details of this and had received swift, grateful assent. He had also received some oblique inquiries about news from his long walk about the northern reaches of the Shire. “Cousin Falco says you most definitely plan to be at the Free Fair this year, Bilbo. While you are here, do spend some time with me and Ada. Perhaps you can pay a call before then.” Bilbo smiled slightly at the invitation. Are you trying to find out things about me for Pal, or things about Pal from me? Probably both. He did not envy Wilcar having to deal with Pal’s greed. I could keep that greed at bay. It might even help keep the Troubles at bay, or at least accounted for properly. Bilbo gave his head a shake at his own foolishness. He was not going to be argued into doing the wrong thing.
Bilbo took a look at the things on his desk that demanded his attention – letters from people, letters he had begun writing to others, some accounts to be tallied, the Yule book from Rory that he was trying to translate, various and sundry other bits of paper – and left the room. He needed to move about. His feet led him to the kitchen where he poked the fire under the oven until it came to life and tied an apron around his waist. What to make? Something… sweet. He went to a stair past the dry pantry and descended to one of the many small cellars below Bag End. Most smials and houses had only a single cellar, for they were small and had been built with economy. Here, there were several cellars of different sizes and at different depths, each meant for some specific use. One held wines and beers, the racks for the bottles and jugs built into the walls and sturdy stands on the floor to hold barrels. Another was for cellaring roots, cabbage and hard squashes, specially lined with hardwood to keep moisture steady and with raised, slat-bottomed bins so nothing rested on the ground. Onions and garlic hung from the ceiling, their braided tops slipped over brass hooks. One cellar, very deep, lined with granite and with drains set in the floor, was for ice and meats since the stone kept it cold even in summer. Bilbo did not use it and would rather go without meat at supper than keep something in that room. The cellar he entered now was for fruit, mostly apples, but also quince and pears. Dried figs, cherries, plums and apricots as well as jars of preserves sat on shelves on the opposite wall. There was little fresh fruit in here now, just the last apples and quince. He selected a few apples and quinces from the shelf, picked up a pouch of dried cherries from the dried fruit, pulled a salted lemon from a jar and went back upstairs.
The apples were soon peeled and diced, with a bit of minced up lemon peel and squeeze of the salty juice to keep them from browning. Everyone was scolding him for how thin Frodo was, and he knew his boy loved apples however they were cooked. Bilbo grumbled at himself for not feeding his lad better. Bell Gamgee wore a reproachful expression whenever she came to Bag End these days, and May and Sam always had a basket of goodies to share when they were sent up for their lessons. Tulip had looked daggers at him when they had gone down to Bywater for supper a ten-day ago, and he had feared Sage Proudfoot was going to beat him with her great wooden spoon after she had given Frodo a welcoming hug a few days after that and felt how slight the boy was. He’s a tween! Tweens are skinny!
Bilbo looked at the butter he had added to the apples and dropped in some more, then stirred in the dried cherries and a few pinches of various spices. This all was put into a baking dish. He should have done this before. Every few days, they would walk to Bywater and visit with one or another kin. He had almost nothing to say to Dudo and Tulip, nor they to him, but they were amiable enough with Frodo that they could all dote on the boy and have a pleasant visit. Odo and Sage were much better company, though Bilbo was careful never to discuss anything serious. He wanted their attention on Frodo and getting to know him. You all should have been asking after him. Frodo’s words the night of the clan meeting cut to the bone, and he did not feel himself spared.
Next was a handful of rolled oats tossed in a small bowl, followed by a half handful of flour, an extravagant spoon of sugar, a pinch of salt and some more butter. Bilbo mixed this with his hands, carefully rubbing the butter into the flour the way Aunt Linda had taught him in the kitchen where Sage now ruled, blending it into a sweet crumble before strewing the mixture across the top of the apples in their dish. It was faster and more forgiving than a pie crust and he liked the crumble better than dough. Into the oven it went.
Seeing Frodo with his various Baggins kin over the last three months had been painful, knowing how the lad struggled with doubt over whether he belonged. Bilbo wanted to blame Rory for spreading tales of bastardy, and it infuriated him to think on the harm those stories had done and continued to do to Frodo, but the greater blame lay with him. Frodo should have been sitting in these kitchens here in Hobbiton and Bywater a long time ago. You have failed him and Drogo and Prim. Again. Frodo had heard vile, poisonous things for so long, no wonder he doubted. I left him so he would not hear other vile things. But that was wrong, too. You could have done this so it was proper. You were just pleasing yourself, Baggins.
Bilbo went to the wet pantry. This room, like the cold cellar, was lined with granite and had a sink to hold a block of ice in the summer. In here were the perishable foods that needed to be eaten in a day or two. It was not yet warm enough to need ice, but by next month that would change. The butcher had brought round some nice fresh sausage and a good pork roast that morning. Edda Cloverfield, Clarence Cloverfield’s wife, had brought eggs, milk, cream and butter fresh from their dairy down the Hill and across the Water at the southern outskirts of Hobbiton. Bilbo brought out the sausage. The kitchen garden outside the door past Frodo’s room provided tender greens, a bulb of fennel and sprigs of aromatic herbs. Some onions, carrots, parsnips and garlic came up from the root cellar. In the dry pantry, he measured barley from a sack into a bowl and retrieved a basket of mushrooms. The sausage soon sizzled in the cast iron kettle. Onions, carrots and garlic joined it after the fat had rendered, and he let that cook while he washed and chopped the greens.
He should have been thinking. Frodo should have come home with him at once. Perhaps not that week, for the poor child had been wrung out and was not up to a journey, but within the month. Bilbo should have returned to Hobbiton, gone to Dudo and Tulip, told them that they needed to give Frodo a home and that he would take care of everything. Frodo would have had a proper family, with a respectable aunt and uncle who would have warmed to the lad even more quickly than they did now, and Bilbo could have come to visit him at any time. He was reasonably sure Dudo would have allowed that. Odo and Sage and all of their children, especially Ula, would have been just down the road. He would have been the only one inconvenienced. There would not have been any rumors or ugly intimations (or at least none spoken too loudly) about his own attentions to the boy. There would have been no Tom, no Bargo, no Sara. He’d still be skinny, though. Just like Drogo that way. He had made the mistake that Frodo’s childhood in Brandy Hall would be like his own, like Drogo’s. Drogo ran away. He wanted to be with you and Mother, not there. Frodo wants to be with you, too. Bilbo tried to push that thought away.
The mushrooms were wiped off and chopped up, then added to the sausage and onions. Once they released their liquid, he added the barley, let it toast in the sausage grease, and then stirred in water and the chopped greens. When the mix boiled, he put a lid on it and put it into the oven, pulling out the cooked and browned apple crumble. That was set in the dry pantry to cool. Now for the pork roast. That he would cook tomorrow, but it needed to be prepared first. Bilbo took out the mortar and pestle and went to the dry pantry to pull out a selection of spices. Cloves, juniper, coriander, fennel seeds and peppercorns went into the mortar for grinding to a fine powder. Father had always liked these spices.
It had hurt to hear that Frodo still had any doubt about being a Baggins, though Bilbo had to admit the boy’s ruthless logic about how the other clan members found themselves convinced to be true. None had asked aloud or bluntly the way Rufus had about Frodo’s paternity, but all had asked. He knew from their exchange when Odo first saw Frodo that Odo and Falco had been talking about this. They think he’s your son, Baggins, and are assured, just as Rufus was. But once they were convinced, they would stoutly assert that Frodo was Drogo’s son. That’s all I need from them. What he needed from Frodo was trust, and that was what frightened him.
The spices pulverized, he peeled a few garlic cloves, tossed them in the mortar and added a bit of salt. A few grinds and there was a delicious smelling paste. He retrieved the pork roast from the wet pantry, placed it in a clay pot, slathered the garlic paste all over it and returned it to the wet pantry to sit until the morning when he would add the quince, some onion and a few more ingredients to the pot and allow it all to roast slowly in the coals all day.
Frodo trusted him more completely than Bilbo could have imagined. It was shocking and humbling at the same time. Bilbo washed the spice paste from his hands and tried to control their shaking. His caution about touching the lad had been right all along. Frodo would never have objected to anything he did. He still was not entirely certain what Frodo had been trying to do. “I never would, either, no more than you would! I’m not that wicked little boy anymore. I’m a Baggins, not a rat.” Bilbo began washing the dirty dishes, going slowly and carefully so he did not break anything. Whatever Frodo had been trying to do, it was not anything like the crude bargain he had tried to strike with Bilbo back in Halimath so he could remain in Buckland. He’s not that boy anymore. That was clear. The bravery and kindness Frodo had been showing made Bilbo proud. His lad could not be cowed into submission nor would he act hatefully even when faced with his tormentors. This strange debate about trusting and breaking and things gone wrong was an argument the boy was having in his own head. The Rat did not want to leave his boy be.
He’s trying to leave Buckland behind and come to you. Bilbo gently set down the dish he was holding lest it slip from his hands and braced himself on the edge of the sink. It was a few minutes before he had composed himself enough to continue his work. Each dish needed to be scrubbed very carefully to remove what dirtied its surface, just as Frodo had to remove the layers of filth that others had grimed him with over the years, stop being the little nothing bastard packed off to be debauched by a disreputable uncle who bought boys for his unspeakable desires, and become the bright, fierce, beautiful lad he truly was, the best of all the Bagginses.
But he should not be with me. I am a danger to him. That was what had sent Bilbo into his melancholy. Odogar found the chink in my armor. Frodo. Odogar’s last words echoed in his head. There was nothing any of them – Odogar, Otho, Pal – could do to him directly. He had no reputation to protect, he had no true scandals besides going off on his adventure, and he could not have cared less about gold or station or power. What he liked was to walk about the Shire, do good things, speak to interesting people, and read elven poetry. There were only three things he wanted and two were beyond reach. He had wanted Gilda as his wife, but she had chosen Rory. He wanted Drogo’s company as his brother and best friend, but Drogo was dead. All that remained was Frodo as his child, and that was how he could be hurt, by harming his lad. Their arrows are aimed not at me, but at him. He wiped the dishes dry, took off his apron and returned to the study.
The work on the desk still held no appeal, so Bilbo just stood and stared idly out the window. “If you aren’t prepared to risk him, you should stick with Otho.” Compared to Odogar’s threat, Esmie’s desire to capture Frodo’s heart seemed harmless. She wanted Bilbo’s gold and Bag End, and he would cheerfully have handed them over. Odogar wanted all the Shire and other things he could not really describe. He was counting on Bilbo dying and leaving the new farthing to Otho. Or just me dying. By making Frodo his heir, he had thwarted Odogar’s unspeakable desires, and Odogar was not going to accept this. That was how Bilbo understood Odogar’s words. If Frodo inherited and had the backing of the rest of the clan, Odogar could not seize the farthing. Bilbo had gone over the adoption papers very carefully, looking to see if there was some way in which they could be altered or amended to keep Frodo his child but allow Otho to be the heir. Otho might have his lips sealed by Bilbo’s threat, but he would be more than happy to allow others to spread whatever slander they could come up with.
He hoped that by making it very clear that he would not stand in Odogar and Otho’s way and by discouraging talk of him being in charge of anything that their ire could be turned. Just leave me my boy and my poetry and you two can squabble over the rest. Bilbo had a bad feeling that they would blame him for any failure that happened and would attack Frodo to punish him. If that happened, Bilbo knew his only choice would be to take his lad and leave. Rivendell would be the best place, though the Road between here and there was dangerous. Given Dalin’s descriptions, Dale would be most Shire-like, and it sat near Erebor where he and Frodo would be certain of a warm welcome, but it was even further than Rivendell and the roads darkened. In the letter to Dalin, he had asked about the possibility of a visit to the Blue Mountains, and he honestly did wish to see Mithlond, where the elves went to sail over the sea. Thoughts of adventure made him reach for his ring and think of his long-ago journey. Perhaps we could go someplace very far away. South, like Uncle Gar went, to the kingdom on the sea where he met a prince. Maybe I could find the wizard there. In his mind, he went over what they would need to pack to go so far. They would need nice ponies. Gilda and Rory would not help if they knew what Bilbo wanted the ponies for. Rum might. Though he’d want to go along. Why wait for trouble to happen? They could go anytime now that the weather was good.
Bilbo was about to turn back to his desk and start writing down the list of the supplies they would need when he glimpsed Frodo and Odogrim making their way up the lane. The view of his lad brought him back to his senses. No travels for some time, Baggins. The lad is worn out from just the walk about Northfarthing. He went to the desk and gathered Frodo’s letters together. Soon he heard the front door open and the chatter of the two youngsters.
‘Uncle Bilbo, we’re home!’
‘I’m in the study, lads!’
In a minute, the pair showed up at the study door, Frodo cheerful, Odogrim a bit more subdued and not looking Bilbo in the face. Their cousin had arrived at Bag End very late three nights before. The young man was lean and looked worn. The cheerfulness that Bilbo had seen in him at Brandy Hall at Yule and again at Granite Bank was nowhere in evidence. Bilbo had sent a letter the next day to Falco saying that Odogrim was in Hobbiton and needed to rest before continuing to Nobottle. The last two days Frodo had spent with his cousin showing him about. Odogrim liked the garden and yesterday the two had spent much of their day with Ham Gamgee learning about what was growing in it and how to care for it. Today, they had walked down to Bywater to meet with their Proudfoot cousins. Frodo had been quite insistent that Odogrim had to become acquainted with them, and Bilbo knew that Sage would welcome more mouths at her table.
‘Aunt Sage says you are to come by for a meal this week or she will send her boys here to carry you there in a sack,’ Frodo teased.
‘I shall take that threat seriously!’ Bilbo said with more cheer than he was feeling. ‘Supper will be ready in about an hour.’ He reached over to his desk and picked up the stack of letters he had just sorted. ‘Here are letters that came for you, Frodo.’
‘Thank you.’ Frodo took them and began to go through them, then remembered he had a guest and tucked them under his arm. ‘Let me put these in my room and I’ll be right back.’
‘No, Frodo, please, go and read your letters,’ Odogrim said. ‘You have been giving me all of your time today. Anyway, I would like to speak to Uncle Bilbo on a few things.’ He smiled and looked in Bilbo’s direction, but still would not meet his eyes. ‘You’ve kept me so busy, I haven’t had a moment for our uncle.’
‘Go on, lad,’ Bilbo said with a big smile. ‘Odogrim’s right, you haven’t given him a spare minute in three days.’ With a slightly uncertain smile, Frodo left the room. A few heartbeats later, Bilbo heard the door to Frodo’s room open and shut. Bilbo gestured for Odogrim to take Frodo’s usual seat near the fireplace and walked over to shut the study door before taking his own seat. The two of them sat in silence for several minutes. Finally, Odogrim raised his head and looked Bilbo in eye.
‘I apologized to Frodo. I apologized to him for my wickedness and cruelty and also for failing to protect him from the wickedness of others. I said I had no excuse and I was sorry and hoped that he could forgive me.’
‘And what did Frodo say, if you may repeat it?’
‘That I was the oldest and should have known better, but that he’d forgive me if I swore I’d never do it again to anyone. So, I did, and he did.’
Bilbo let Odogrim sit there for a long minute before replying. The young man never looked away. ‘Then I shall forgive you as well. If the one you wronged believes you should be forgiven, then I shall not gainsay him. I do have a question for you. Why? Why did you do this to him?’
Odogrim dropped his gaze to the floor, thinking. After a moment, he shrugged and looked up again. ‘Because I could. I don’t excuse myself. He was there, and we could use him, so we did.’
Bilbo had to look down, eyes closed, and draw several breaths, forbidding himself to rage at the other. This is the only one besides Frodo who you can talk to and who knows what happened. You need answers. Frodo has forgiven him. When he could speak calmly, Bilbo asked, ‘Who there at Brandy Hall knew you were using the lad like this? Not a guess, only those of whom you are certain.’
‘Me, Bargo Burrows, Hamson Bracegirdle, Tom Tunnelly and Master Sara.’
At least there were no new names. ‘I know that Sara caught you all out at some point. What did he say to you?’
‘Gave us each a clout strong enough to knock us down. Couple of kicks, too.’ Good, I hope they hurt. ‘Then told us to git, and he’d deal with us later.’
‘And did he?’
Odogrim shrugged, a puzzled expression on his face. ‘Not really. We figured he was going to ask Frodo what we’d been doing and then we’d all be in for a thrashing. No more than we deserved. Next day, he told Bargo to meet him out by the pig sty. We thought Bargo would come back missing most of his backside, but he came back with a grin.’
Odogrim’s face went a bit pale. ‘Uh… because… what Master Sara said… Umm… It…’ The other’s voice trailed off.
‘It was something unpleasant, perhaps even obscene, about Frodo, yes?’
‘Yes, sir, it was.’
‘Repeat it to me as exactly as you can. I know they are not your words and will not judge you by them.’
‘Bargo said that Master Sara said that Frodo was just a nothing bastard who was kept around instead of sent off where he wouldn’t be an embarrassment because the Mistress had a soft spot for him. Master Sara and Master Rory knew he was just a pervert anyway and liked it, so give him what he wanted. We could do what we wanted with him as long as we didn’t leave marks.’
‘Mmm.’ Strangely, these words did not enrage Bilbo. Quite the opposite; they made him cold and calm. If I see you again, Sara, I shall kill you. That would be the last thing Bilbo did before they left the Shire. This meant they should probably go to Rivendell. Buckland was on the way.
‘I have the same question for you in return, sir.’
‘Hmm, what?’ Bilbo brought his attention back to Odogrim. ‘What is your question?’
‘After you let me know you knew, you met with my father and you told him what I’d done. Why did you tell him, and what did you say? I’m not saying you shouldn’t have, just why you did and so quickly.’
‘Fair enough. I did not intend to say anything to Odogar on this matter. At the very end of our conversation, he was angry with me, and began saying slanderous things about Frodo, much like Sara’s claim that Frodo has perverted tastes. I told him the truth was older tweens, you among them, had made use of a child who could not fight back. I told him to ask you what would happen to him if chose to spread these slanders himself. That was the last thing I said and was why I left so abruptly.’
‘But you sent Frodo away before that.’
‘Your father had acted in a threatening manner towards both myself and Frodo in the morning meeting. I did not feel the lad was safe, so I sent him ahead while I spoke to your father.’
Odogrim nodded but did not say anything. Bilbo waited. After a few minutes, the young man sighed and dropped his head in his hands. ‘Perhaps it is not what you would do, but I have been punished and that may give you some satisfaction. My father called me in not long after you’d left and he asked me for what you had told him to ask. I repeated what you’d said. He said he wished you had done your threat and gelded me for I was an unnatural creature, like you and Frodo, and that’s what should be done to all degenerates. He said I’d been corrupted by Frodo.’ With another sigh, Odogrim sat up and looked at Bilbo again. He did not seem angry or resentful, just weary and bit sad. ‘He disowned me and ordered me out and made me swear I’d never breathe a word of this so I don’t shame my family more. I'm forbidden to come near my siblings or their children. He said if I had a scrap of decency, I’d find a river and drown myself.’ He shrugged. ‘I figured I owed Frodo an apology first. That’s why I’m here. And the Water’s close.’
Bilbo sat, stunned by Odogrim’s words. ‘No, lad, no. Don’t say such things.’
‘Why not? I’ve done horrible things to a little kid for no good reason. I’m dead to my family now, anyway.’
‘And you have been forgiven by the one you harmed. And by me.’
‘Truly? By you?’
‘Yes,’ Bilbo said with all the conviction he could. ‘Alone of those who have done harm to my lad, you have apologized and shown remorse, and for this I forgive you. I do not believe you are an unnatural or corrupted creature. I believe you were a thoughtless bully who now is very sorry.’ Odogrim nodded, face twisting a bit. ‘Do you think Frodo to be corrupted, as your father and Sara claim?’
‘No. I think he was scared and trying to keep Bargo from beating him up. I should have given Bargo a thrashing for him.’
Bilbo cocked his head. ‘I do believe there’s still time for that. More importantly, I think there is much good in you, and much good that you can do. You have amends to make by being now the good-hearted lad you should have been.’
Odogrim started to weep. ‘I am so sorry, uncle.’
‘I can see that you are. You deserved punishment for your cruelty, but your father’s judgment is too harsh. He has foolishly relinquished a good son.’ Bilbo rose, came over the young man and placed a kiss on his brow. ‘I claim you. You are of my smial now, and you will obey me. You will do no harm to any, not even yourself, from now on. Tomorrow, you will go to my cousin Falco and you will be as a dutiful son to him. And you will be a friend to Frodo.’
‘Yes, uncle. I will.’
Bywater, Afternoon, 10 Forelithe, 1390
Odogrim had left the day after his sad confession, meeting their cousin Fargo at The Green Dragon in Bywater as the latter passed by on his way home to Nobottle after finishing business in Frogmorton. Bilbo and Frodo had walked Odogrim to the inn and had sat with him through the late morning and past lunch, waiting for Fargo. The young man had been in better spirits than Bilbo had seen since he arrived and had embraced both of them strongly before climbing up onto the wagon. He wrote regular letters to Frodo, and even a few to Bilbo, and seemed to be happy in Nobottle. Falco had written a letter as well, thanking Bilbo for suggesting the young fellow come sooner and saying he seemed as good a person as his cousin Bertie. He hinted that he’d heard there had been hard words between father and son, which Bilbo ignored. Frodo had noticed signs that Odogrim’s talk with Bilbo had made him cry and had asked what had happened. Bilbo ignored those questions, too, and Frodo had not asked again.
Sadly, ignoring the letters and questions from his various kin did not dissuade them from writing him about things he did not wish to discuss. Rory warned that he wanted to know about Scary, Rufus pressed him for a promise to meet with him and Wilcar, Wilcar also wished to meet (though he said nothing of Rufus), Gilda and Prisca wanted to know if he and Frodo were any better rested, Maud wanted to know if rumors about a new farthing were true, and Rum would not stop needling him about whatever obscene, salacious thought crossed his perverse mind. At least he was spared Odogar’s mad ramblings. The only letter he appreciated receiving was the one from Ula, who had written in some detail about the goings on in Brandy Hall.
Gilda truly was better and could even walk a bit without assistance, though she was never without her cane. Merry was almost fully recovered from the fever rash and was driving everyone mad with his antics, especially his sister. Dilly was much at the Hall helping Gilda and Mistress Maddie, and Bilbo could see that a deep friendship was developing between Ula and Dilly. Merle seemed to be in their company a great deal, which also pleased him. There was some trouble, however, between Mac and Dilly, for Mac was always at their farm and not about the Hall and Dilly was sharp with him, though Ula did not know why. The idea of Dilly being sharp with anyone, let alone her beloved husband, made no sense to Bilbo. The very interesting news was that Rory had put Sara in charge of a great deal and spent his own time either with Gilda or else traveling with Cousin Wili and Mac up to the new market inside the gate. It appeared that Sara was still sober and that Esmie was still ill. Bilbo remembered Gilda’s threat at Yule and wondered if it was fever rash that Esmie had contracted. Sara and Mac were not on speaking terms anymore, though Rory and Sara were amiable enough. Bilbo looked forward to speaking directly with Ula when she returned to Bywater for harvest.
Instead of wasting his time on the nonsense his relatives were up to, Bilbo lavished his attention on Frodo. True to his word, he was teaching the lad how to cook and they had great fun coming up with interesting dishes to try. It also had the effect of getting Frodo to eat and put a bit of weight back on, though the lad was growing upwards again. Even so, he had lost the hollow, scrawny appearance of late Astron. Frodo was helping him translate the book Rory gave him at Yule. It was an odd mix of pages from several places, and most of the writings seemed to be little better than an accounting of stores and trade, but a few gave glimpses into the lives of their authors, being journals or histories and there was a deed of land. After a day of translating and a big, well-cooked meal, they would sit in Bilbo’s study, smoke a pipe and talk about what they had read.
He missed being able to touch Frodo’s hair, though it made him ashamed for having taken that liberty with the lad in the first place, knowing full well what a man’s hand in his hair must mean to Frodo. You saw Bargo grabbing him by the hair, keeping him on his knees. You saw Frodo fight to get away from Sara’s hand on the back of his head. You know better. Not wanting his shoulders to be clutched or handled also made sense. In the talk about Bargo, and later the Tunnelly boy, Frodo had said things that made Bilbo write down dates. He had always thought that the bullying had begun not long before Sara had found out and started using Frodo himself, so about two years before Bilbo brought him home, but Frodo had said Tom had started with him when he was sixteen and that Bargo had been using him cruelly by the time he was seventeen, which put all of this back five years. I left you too long. That Frodo allowed anyone to touch him, would permit the small intimacies of a hug or holding a hand or sitting against Bilbo, arm resting over Bilbo’s legs, while they talked of this or that, amazed him.
The other thing Frodo had said when speaking of Tom left Bilbo relieved. He had no taste for boys. Aside from his passing crush on Tom, which was probably born more of loneliness than true desire, Frodo had not wished for any of their attentions. Odogrim’s account was horrifying, but also believable; they simply enjoyed bullying another to do something they found pleasurable. It also explained why there had been no signs of affection or desire on their part or Frodo’s at Harvest. You’ll find someone worthy of your love, Wilwarin, and you will put this behind you. Bargo’s aggression, like Sara’s, had something deeper to it, and Bilbo doubted any of the bullying would have happened save for Bargo’s determination to dominate Frodo. And you have been put in your place. Bilbo wondered what Frodo had done to Bargo to back him down.
Over the last month and more, Bilbo had taken care that they did not stay so much to themselves on the Hill. They went to visit with kin at least once every week, more often if Bilbo could manage it. He did his best to simply leave the lad with Dudo or Odo or one of Odo’s sons for a meal and a few hours of visiting while he went about his business. The dam had taken a few weeks of work, there were often a few dwarves stopping by The Green Dragon who were happy to chat with the Lord of Burglars, there were clothes to collect from the tailor, some stories to listen to, a few letters to write, interests to see to, merchants to speak with, and a half-dozen other things to keep him busy. Strangely enough, Otho sometimes wished to speak to Bilbo of news he had gathered from his Sackville kin in lower Southfarthing. They usually met at The Green Dragon and shared a pot of tea while Otho talked. Bilbo never volunteered any information of his own but listened respectfully and was perfectly polite. He suspected that Otho simply wanted to be seen publicly with him to increase rumors that they were in accord.
Bilbo also made sure that he and Frodo went to every celebration, party and dance held either in Hobbiton or Bywater. They were always invited to at least one birthday or wedding in any given week, and Highdays saw an evening dance in the public square in one or the other of the towns. Frodo was making some friends and becoming well known to people. There were not very many young folk close to Frodo’s age, most either ten or more years older or younger than he, but he never lacked for someone to dance with. The boy carried himself like someone four or five years older than he truly was. And he is the biggest catch in mid-Shire. This was not a pleasing thought. Bilbo looked askance at the young women in their thirties who were all too eager to dance and flirt with his boy, though Frodo seemed to be quite adept at turning aside their flattery and occasionally overly friendly hands. More than once Bilbo found himself wishing that Ula was there, though he knew he was still a bit uneasy with their association. She’s too old for him. Yes, but she’s good for him. You sound like Gilda, Baggins. If any of the women seemed to be getting more forward with Frodo than the lad knew how to handle, Bilbo would simply ask her, with every bit of charm he could muster, to please honor him with a dance. They never said no and were often just as forward with him as with Frodo. I guess I’m still considered worth catching.
Today Frodo was with Odo and his youngest sons, Bolo and Baldo, on Odo’s farm helping them with something while Bilbo continued down into Bywater proper to meet with Dudo on some bit of business that his cousin left unexplained. They were all to meet again after supper at the Bywater square for the evening dance. Dudo had been asking questions on their last visit about a smithy in Waymeet that Bilbo had an interest in and where he had introduced the young smith to a dwarf who was a distant kinsman of Dori’s, and Bilbo half expected that Dudo wished to have an interest in it as well. Tulip showed him to the parlor where Dudo greeted him politely but with a certain reserve, brought them tea, and left them alone. Bilbo sipped his tea and waited to hear what Dudo had on his mind.
‘Bilbo, I think you know how dear Frodo has become to me and to Tulip.’
‘Yes, I have an idea. The lad is quite fond of you as well. It pleases me greatly to see you all become closer.’ Bilbo was quite sincere.
‘Then you will understand when I say that Frodo needs to be with his true kin.’
Bilbo set down his tea cup. ‘What do you mean? He is with his true kin.’
‘You are not his closest kin. I am. He is my nephew, not yours. He needs to be here, with me and Tulip and have a proper family.’
It was a few heartbeats before Bilbo mastered himself enough to speak calmly. ‘I am his proper family. I am the only one in this family who showed any concern for him after his parents died, and I brought him back here as soon as he was old enough.’ But shouldn’t he have come back to them in the first place?
‘Yes, Bilbo, yes, you did this,’ Dudo agreed, ‘but the Brandybucks had equal claim on him until that time.’
‘And you made no claim on him at any time,’ Bilbo testily replied. ‘You could have done something had you wished, had you been thinking of him at all.’
‘I trusted that his mother’s kin would care for him well.’
‘And they did not, which is why I brought him back. You never asked how he was doing. He said, but a month past, that he cannot recall any of his father’s kin, save myself, so much as writing him a letter.’
That did make Dudo look away, a bit ashamed. ‘Aye, and I acknowledge I am at fault in that, but I had no reason to believe he was not well cared for.’
‘Even if he were well cared for, you could have written or sent him a birthday present or gone to pay a call.’
‘The point, Bilbo, is not whether he should have been brought back. Obviously, he should. The problem is, once back here, he should have come here,’ Dudo pointed to the floor, ‘to me, his true uncle. You had no right to adopt him.’
Isn’t this what you said to yourself, Baggins? That you should have brought him back to Dudo and Tulip? They didn’t want him. I did. ‘But I did, and it is done. He is mine now.’ He wants to be with me. He trusts me.
‘No, Bilbo, he is not. With his father’s death, he became mine by right. You had no call to adopt him, and it is not valid. Not unless I gave you leave.’
‘Rory signed it. It is valid.’
‘Rory had no authority to do so.’
‘As much as you! He is Frodo’s mother’s brother and could grant it as he pleased.’
‘Not if there were closer kin. I had to agree to it as well, and I did not! You needed me to say “No” first and you never asked. You just took.’
‘As I said, it is done.’
Dudo shook his head. ‘I will challenge this adoption.’
Bilbo stood, furious. ‘Why are you doing this now, Dudo? It’s been over half a year since I brought Frodo home. I brought him here to see you within a month of bringing him back, and you didn’t bother to ask to see him again until month before last.’ What truly motivates you?
‘I wanted to see if you were up to your old tricks, Bilbo.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘You simply took him because it pleased you. It’s just as when you and Bella walked off with my brother!’ Dudo also stood and was obviously incensed. ‘You two just left for Buckland with him, never mind his family here, and kept him apart from us. He never knew he belonged here because you were always taking him somewhere else. And now you’re doing the same with Frodo. You’re dragging him off to strange corners of the Shire and exposing him to dangerous people!’
‘I took him to Buckland for Yule to see his mother’s kin, who he was missing terribly, and I took him on a long walk to see more of his kin; Fosco, Falco, Rufus Burrows and Odogar Bolger, and all of their families.’
‘You were pursuing your own interests on that last walk, and you know it! You were just seeing if you could take over a farthing. You said yourself there’s queer things going on in the north but you kept him there for weeks. As for Buckland, you had him with a dwarf who tried to kill the Master’s heir! In close company with that brute!’
If only he had killed Sara. Bilbo began to get a sense of what was behind Dudo’s sudden desire to care for Frodo. ‘I fear you have heard a much distorted account of that alleged attack. Frodo got into a scuffle with his older cousin over an insult, and Mister Steelhand separated them and told them to stop their nonsense. Who told you of this?’
‘And who told him? He certainly didn’t ask me, who could have told him what I just told you.’
Dudo shook his head. ‘Quit trying to change the subject, Bilbo! It’s all more of your manipulation to keep kin away from him. To make him wholly your creature.’
Bilbo started to feel sick in the pit of his stomach. ‘What nonsense is this? He’s right now with Odo, he’s shortly to be here for the evening dance, he’s visiting with you at least once a week...’
‘He’d not met Odo until it suited you. Would he ever have been to see us if we had not insisted on that meeting? Why have you been so wary of Bywater? You were keeping him for yourself, just like you kept Drogo even when you were back on the Hill!’
‘Oh, don’t you even try to argue that to me, cousin!’ Bilbo spat. ‘When we came back to Hobbiton, I sent Drogo down here all the time and Dora kept sending him back! She already had one bratty little brother to take care of and didn’t need another on top of you and Uncle Fosco. Would you like to see her letters telling me to keep him? I saved them. It may take a day to find them, but I have them.’
‘Then you should have come here to help care for them! You didn’t care about propriety at all and didn’t care who you embarrassed! You are not a respectable hobbit. You, you, you just lit off on adventures, and mixed with queer folk and left everything undone around here!’
Bilbo laughed humorlessly. ‘So, I went away, didn’t bother a soul for a good year and a half, brought back a bit of gold, spent most of it buying back my own belongings, and have done little but tell amusing stories since then. Oh, so disreputable!’
‘And Drogo cared nothing for his own kin and spent his time looking after your business while you went about pleasing yourself.’
‘As I had cared for him for so long. You fault him for being loyal?’
‘And he could not remain among us, thanks to you!’
‘What? What are you talking about?’ Bilbo bluffed, knowing only too well what Dudo referred to.
‘If it was not for you and your unnatural tastes, my brother would not have had to leave Hobbiton. There is nothing but scandal where you are concerned. You’re going to ruin Frodo just like you did Drogo.’
‘I ruined Drogo? If he could not remain among you, it was due to your own hateful rumors and vicious lies!’ Bilbo shot back. ‘No one cared a snap about my respectability until people thought there was gold to be had.’
‘Not even gold could buy it for you.’
Bilbo grasped his ring, rolling it between his fingers, letting the familiar touch of the smooth metal soothe him and walked slowly towards Dudo. ‘And just what slanderous thing are you implying about your own brother? About me?’ Dudo retreated before Bilbo’s approach. ‘Do you really think I don’t know who wrote letters and spread rumors and filled your ears with poison? Or who does so now?’
‘It doesn’t matter who. It’s being said now, just like it was said then. If you cared about Frodo, you would leave him here with me and Tulip,’ Dudo said doggedly.
‘And would any of you care about Frodo in the slightest if he wasn’t my heir? If by welcoming him to your smial you weren’t also welcoming my supposed fortune?’
‘No, Bilbo! I’m challenging your adoption completely. He will not have any taint of you clinging to him. He will be respectable and you can stop trying to have everything shape itself to your desires. If you wanted an heir you should have got one of your own, not try to steal someone else’s to keep your unnatural rule going.’
Suddenly, everything clicked into place. Oh, Dudo, you are such a simpleton. ‘Answer me – whose counsel was it that you should challenge this adoption?’
‘I am doing what is right…’
‘Answer me!’ Bilbo snarled, glaring down at his cousin.
Bilbo started to berate his cousin for allowing Otho to manipulate his jealousy, but bit back the words. Think, Baggins, think for once, and set your own pride aside. A battle over the adoption would be very public and very ugly and very much what Otho would want. But how to turn Dudo aside? He’s guilty for not caring for Frodo. ‘I am sickened at how easily you think evil things of your own brother. Drogo was a fine and respectable gentlehobbit, and does not deserve such words from you.’ That made Dudo look away, embarrassed. ‘I brought Frodo back here, home, not for myself, but for him and for Drogo, to do right by him.’
‘If you would do right by him, then you would not keep him to yourself!’
I’m not, you idiot. ‘And you know full well that I am bringing him here to Bywater, and making sure he goes to Needlehole and Nobottle, and will take him to see Dora and Daisy later this summer.’
‘I can do that.’
‘But you haven’t been doing that, Dudo. And Frodo noticed. He asked me why you disliked him so much that you wouldn’t come to see him. He has been heartbroken by his father’s kin – all of them, not just you – never giving him a thought while he sat an orphan in Buckland.’ Dudo’s face was guilty. Carefully, Baggins. Do not make him defensive. ‘His Brandybuck kin treated him like some kind of outsider and the lad’s heart is sore.’
‘Why did they not write me if they didn’t want him?’
‘Rory and Gilda wanted him, but they are old and Gilda is very sick now. The others didn’t know what to do about the lad, so they just left him to his own devices and let the older children bully him and be cruel. They didn’t tell me, either! It was only a stray comment in one of Frodo’s letters that made me think all was not well.’ Bilbo did not have to feign anger at his Brandybuck cousins. ‘He hardly knew how to smile when he got here, and he didn’t wish to speak to anyone. It’s only since Rethe that he has shown any interest in his own family. He didn’t think any of you cared about him, any more than his mother’s kin gave a damn.’
‘The poor lad!’ Dudo’s concern seemed very sincere. You do care about him, now that you know him. And you don’t want the gold. That was why Otho wished to use Dudo, of course. Bilbo walked away from Dudo and sat heavily in a chair, head in his hands.
‘If you want him, Dudo, then… I shan’t keep him from you, but I beg one thing of you.’
Bilbo sighed and sat up, hoping he looked defeated. ‘Win him over to you first.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Do what you are doing now. Invite him into your home and your heart. Let him know how much you love him, how dear he is to you. Tell him you wish for him to be yours.’
‘While you keep him!’
‘Only until he says he wishes to be here. Dudo, I know Frodo well by now. He is like you and Dora and Drogo. If you try to order him about, he will dig in his heels and refuse. If you demand him to be here, if I tell him he must leave, I fear he will just run away. That’s what Drogo did when Gorbadoc tried treating him like a hired hand instead of a guest. He told the Master he was a Baggins and took no orders from anyone, and then left to come back here.’ This account of Drogo’s rebellion brought a look of pride to Dudo’s face. Of course, he didn’t come here, he came to me. He wanted nothing to do with you, either.
‘Would you let him come here?’
‘Yes. Yes, I would. If Frodo wanted this, I would not bar him. You may ask him tonight if you wish.’
‘Tonight?’ Dudo looked more confused than suspicious.
‘Whenever you wish. I will say naught against it and will tell the lad it is his decision to make.’ And I know what he will decide.
‘And how do I know you will not play me false?’
‘Because you can always challenge me and force the issue.’ Bilbo stood. ‘If you truly love him, he will know and he will come to you of his own accord. We will see you at the dancing.’ With a crisp nod, Bilbo walked out.
His feet carried him to Bywater Pool and the newly repaired dam. There was a seat under a tree with a view of the water tumbling through the spillway at the top of the dam and Bilbo settled in to wait until evening. He had to be certain he was completely calm when he saw Frodo again, so he would be true to his word and not sway the boy. What if he says yes, that he does want to be here and not with you? He won’t. But if he does? He trusts me. He wants me. Didn’t you say you should have brought him here? When he was little, not now. If it’s what he wanted? He won’t want this. “You asked and you gave me a choice, so you won.” But what if his choice isn’t you this time? I will honor his choice.
If Frodo decided he would rather have a mother and a father and a respectable home, then Bilbo knew he would have to trust his boy and let him go. If Frodo did not wish for this, there was no power strong enough to part them. You said you wouldn’t fight Dudo. No, I said I wouldn’t keep the lad from him, and I won’t. But I won’t let him be taken. The threat of a challenge to the adoption could be dismissed with a single sentence, of course, but there would be no going back from that claim. Bilbo wondered if Otho had heard that rumor. He found it grimly amusing that only Dudo seemed to agree with him that Drogo was Frodo’s father. Even Frodo had his doubts.
Suppertime came and went and Bilbo remained on the bench, idly watching the Water. He was not hungry. He hardly ever was anymore. It pleased Frodo that he would eat and he knew the boy would eat better himself if Bilbo showed some interest in a meal. He liked eating what Frodo cooked for him (well, usually, though a few dishes had been distinctly unpalatable) and it fed a different hunger in him, a desire to make the boy happy. It was only when the sun was setting and he could hear people walking to the main square that he stirred and went to find his lad.
‘Bilbo!’ A shout from across the square caught his attention and he quickly spied Odo and Sage waving at him. He waved back and walked over to embrace them.
‘Good even to you both!’ he said cheerfully. It was disconcerting to look at Sage. She was Gilda’s paternal first cousin and the two women looked very much alike, with the same imperious manner, the same beautiful eyes, the same lovely lips. Each was crowned with a silver mane of curly hair. Sage was a bit less abrasive than Gilda and a much better cook.
‘We were expecting you at supper, Baggins,’ Odo said with a smile. ‘Frodo was a bit worried where you could have gone off to.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to worry anyone. I just puttered about my business here and lost track of the time.’
‘Uncle Bilbo!’ Frodo came bounding over and gave him a strong hug. No, he will not leave. ‘Where have you been? Have you had any supper? Why didn’t you come…’ Bilbo laughed and put a hand over the boy’s mouth to stop his chatter.
‘I’m here now, and that’s all that matters. Now, off with you! Leave your elders to gossip in peace!’ Frodo grinned, gave him a kiss on the cheek, and scampered away.
‘He is such a dear boy,’ Sage said, giving him Gilda’s smile. The smile became mischievous. ‘Baldo finally has someone about who can match him prank for prank.’ They all laughed at that. Bilbo asked Odo a question about how things were growing on his farm and they chatted about that for most of an hour while they watched the dancing in the square. Odo and Sage’s youngest two sons were both courting local girls and Bilbo expected there would be a wedding announcement for the elder boy, Bolo, within a few weeks. Frodo was as popular as ever and rarely sat out a dance. When almost two hours had gone by, he looked a bit weary and Bilbo waved him over.
‘Let’s go get some beer, Wilwarin. You must be thirsty.’
‘Did you ever eat supper?’
‘I’m in the mood for a beer,’ Bilbo airily replied, getting a glare and a grumble from Frodo. They went over to the beer table and bought two while Bilbo flirted with the tavern girl, eliciting another glare and more grumbling from the boy. They watched the dancers while Frodo told Bilbo about his latest prank on Baldo which sounded harmless enough, if a bit messy with the horse turds and the hay. Over Frodo’s shoulder, Bilbo saw Dudo approaching. I wonder if he’ll ask. He made his expression blandly pleasant.
‘Frodo, lad, how are you?’ Dudo asked with a big smile, taking Frodo’s shoulder in a firm grasp. Bilbo wanted to knock his hand away. Frodo smiled and turned so that Dudo let go. ‘When can we expect you at supper?’
‘In a few days?’ Frodo glanced at Bilbo for confirmation and he nodded.
‘Good! Supper is always merrier with you there,’ Dudo said quite sincerely, which got a smile from Frodo. They would be good to him. They truly care for him. They should always have cared for him. Dudo asked what Frodo had been doing for the last few days and if he had heard from Griffo and Daisy recently and other bits of news. They looked happy, chatting together, and Bilbo tried not to worry. Frodo finished his beer and handed the mug back to Bilbo, ready to go back to dancing.
‘If I may have a moment of your time, nephew,’ Dudo asked before Frodo could walk off. Bilbo willed himself to be mild and calm. ‘I’d like to put an idea before you, just for you to think about.’ Frodo gave him a questioning look. ‘Would you consider coming to live with Tulip and myself?’
Frodo’s face went pale and he looked almost frightened. After a moment, he swallowed and said, ‘I think you need to ask Uncle Bilbo, talk to him. It would not be right for me to…’
‘He has spoken to me, Frodo.’ Bilbo said this firmly. The look Frodo gave him made him want to cringe. ‘Dudo has my permission to find out your thoughts on this. I’ll leave you two to talk.’ With a smile and a nod, he strode off, returning the mugs to the beer table and walking to the other side of the square. He did not permit himself to watch their discussion, but struck up a conversation with one of the workmen from the dam repair. It was a good time later before he turned back to the dancing. Frodo was out in the middle with some young lady who was chattering non-stop at him, though his own expression showed he was decidedly disinterested in what she had to say. When the dance ended, his lad did not look for him, but quickly found another girl and was back to dancing.
Bilbo scanned the crowd about the square, looking for Dudo. He could not find that cousin, but saw another and made his way through the gathering to his side. He stood there for almost a minute before the other noticed him.
‘A lovely evening, yes?’
‘I think this will be a fine harvest year.’
‘I find I concur in that opinion.’
‘Your ward is quite popular with the ladies in Bywater.’
‘Is not.’ Otho gave Bilbo a sly look.
‘I am gratified to know from Dudo that you finally seem convinced of his lineage.’
‘Oh, I don’t know if I’d go that far. It’s enough that Dudo is.’ Otho smiled. ‘Regardless, he is not your nephew.’ He looked out at Frodo for a moment before returning his gaze to Bilbo. His expression was unpleasant and his smile more a sneer. ‘And it really doesn’t matter what he is to you.’
Bilbo wished they were not in so public a place because he would very much enjoy beating this cousin to a pulp. ‘He is, and remains, my heir. You can curb your greed, Otho.’
‘Had you not been so greedy, Bilbo, you could have enjoyed his company undisturbed.’
‘I suggest you keep your nose in your own business, cousin.’
‘The adoption will be challenged.’
‘Why not? You can’t stop it. You have no ground on which to stand. Either he is Dudo’s nephew and belongs to him, or he’s not, and belongs to no one.’
‘He belongs to me.’
‘If you want him that badly, then you need to own him in a more conventional way.’
So, you don’t think Frodo is a Baggins, and you think to force my hand. ‘As I said, don’t. That is the only warning you will get.’ Bilbo nodded and walked away. He found Sage and Odo and stayed with them, not wishing to encounter either Dudo or Otho.
The dancing was drawing to an end. Frodo came back with his older cousins, silent and refusing to meet Bilbo’s eyes. They walked the Proudfoots back to their farm along the Bywater road and continued on to Bag End in silence. The smial was dark and Bilbo did not bother to light any lanterns or candles before walking through, knowing exactly where everything was. He went to the study and lit the candle on the mantelpiece and stood, watching the small flame dance about.
‘They love you a great deal.’
‘I belong to you!’ Bilbo kept watching the candle. Yes, you do. ‘What have I done?’ Bilbo looked over at Frodo. The boy’s expression was angry and very scared. ‘Have I done something?’
‘No, you’ve done nothing. Dudo wished to ask, and I decided to permit it.’
‘Why? Why allow it? Do you want me to go?’
‘No. Never. What I want is you with me for the rest of my life. But I will never force you to anything.’
‘I told you I would never try to leave you!’
Bilbo weighed how much of Dudo’s argument to share. ‘I know. Dudo was very insistent that he is your true uncle and that you belong with him and Tulip…’
‘They don’t care about me! They would have left me in Buckland.’
‘Yes, I agree, but you are here now and they have understood their folly and they do care about you.’
‘They care about your gold, not me.’
Bilbo shook his head. ‘If I believed that, I would not have allowed Dudo to speak to you. He is sincere that he and Tulip love you and want you for your own sake.’
‘I told him no, that I wasn’t leaving you.’
‘He will probably keep asking.’
‘He better not. I don’t like it. I don’t like him.’
‘Don’t dislike him just for saying what is in his heart.’ Bilbo looked back at the candle, not able to meet Frodo’s angry gaze. ‘I have told you that I don’t want you here for any reason save that you wish it. It is always your choice, Frodo. If your heart ever leads you to somewhere besides here, I will not try to stop you. At some point some pretty lass will capture your heart, and you will leave for her.’
‘No. I’d bring her here.’ Bilbo smiled. That would be nice. You with your lass, and a child. Frodo came closer and Bilbo held out his hand, though he kept watching the candle. Frodo took it with just his fingertips. ‘If…’
‘If Uncle Rory had said yes, last Yule. If he had said I could stay, would you have allowed it?’
That made Bilbo give Frodo his full attention. Frodo no longer looked so frightened, though Bilbo could see he was still angry. ‘I’m not sure. You were being harmed and I couldn’t allow that. I would not simply have agreed. I don’t think that Gilda would have allowed you to stay, and we both would have argued against it with Rory. So, no, not there.’
‘So, why did you let Dudo ask?’
So he will not ask for something worse. ‘So you would know I am not the only kinsman who cares about you and so you could decide for yourself.’
‘And if I’d said yes?’
‘Then I would have been very sad for myself and quite envious of Dudo.’
‘You said you would never let go of me.’
‘Don’t you ever leave me!’
Bilbo pulled Frodo into a tight embrace. ‘No, Wilwarin. I will never leave you.’