In which Bilbo once more is a thief who fails to understand what he has set in motion.
Morning, Brandy Hall, 18 Halimath 1389
It had been late before Frodo was done. Though Bilbo was tempted just to keep the boy with him, it would not have been wise, not when he would be facing Rory the next day. All it would take is one rumor that he spent the night in my bed… Bilbo retrieved Prim’s quilt from the trunk for Frodo to take back to bed with him, kissed the boy tenderly on the cheek, and had bid him not to be late to first breakfast. Frodo had returned the kiss along with a strong hug, and slipped out.
Bilbo had only gotten a brief bit of sleep, for he had much to consider. The stars were fading before he had left his chair before the fire. What do I say of Sara to Rory? He thought of the harm he wished to inflict on Sara. It would be so easy… He could wear his ring, but, no, he wanted Sara to know who did this. Retrieve Sting from Bag End and return to use that blade on this dark creature. He recalled how it felt when Sting bit into the spiders, the crack of stiff carapace, then the odd, wet, velvet sensation of the blade as it vanished into the fat bodies. How they jerked and spasmed, not dropping at once like a goat in the autumn slaughter. How they hissed. How their green blood, like ichor, frothed as it left the wounds. He wanted to strike Sara like that. He wanted Sara howling, screaming, in pain, for as long as Frodo had sat in his arms and wept.
But how to talk to Rory? Bilbo thought they could probably talk to Rory about the other boys, and that Rory would be unhappy but not horribly shocked. What he would do if he heard of Sara’s acts; that Bilbo could not tell. Would he believe me? It’s one thing to be told your son is a fool and a sot, even to be told that he’s a bully, but this… Even I hadn’t wanted to believe this of Sara. Why should his own father? Won’t Rory think I’m making it up to force his hand? If he claimed this, he would have to let Rory question Frodo.
"Please, I don’t want Uncle Rory to know such things!" The boy’s cry chased after Bilbo. He could not help imagining Frodo in front of Rory, trying to speak of such things. Rory would not let him help; he would make Frodo speak for himself. Frodo is right. Rory won’t want to believe him.
Bilbo worried at this until he could not keep his eyes open, and had decided there was nothing he could say about Sara until Frodo was safe. He did not dare to risk angering Rory with tales of Sara, no matter how true, and he could not put his lad through more questioning, not now. Frodo did not need to be put through any more grief. He would talk to Rory alone. It made the most sense. With what I shall argue to Rory to make him relinquish Frodo to me, Frodo should not be there.
After a few fitful hours, Bilbo rose and made himself ready for the day. He washed thoroughly, knowing he could not be cleansed of the taint of the Hall - it sat in the heart, not on the skin. He dressed slowly, with great care, wondering if Frodo had woken yet. He did not take a candle with him as he made his way through the dark tunnels towards the small dining room. Bilbo did not go straight there, but wandered through the corridors, knowing them by instinct and childhood memory. He remembered his past escapes from dark places underground.
By the beard of Durin! I wish I had Gandalf here! Curse him for his choice of you! May his beard wither! As for you I will throw you to the rocks!
Well, I really must not detain Your Magnificence any longer, or keep you from much needed rest. Ponies take some catching, I believe, after a long start. And so do burglars.
Down the swift dark stream you go Back to the lands you once did know!
Thief, thief, thief! Baggins! We hates it, we hates it, we hates it forever!
The voices of his adventures echoed in his thoughts. Ring and cup and Arkenstone I have stolen, thirteen dwarves I have freed from elven captors. I am well prepared for this. This would be his greatest theft, for it would be in the light, without the ring, while they all watched. He had answered the riddles, severed the web. All that remained was to collect the precious text, but his treasure was guarded by fell creatures. Time to draw them off.
Bilbo surprised himself at how easily he could smile to all sitting around the table, even at Sara, though he did not tempt fate by walking near the man. Rory sat at one end, Gilda at the other. None of the children were to be seen, though a general mess on the table to either side of Sara indicated that Merle and Merry had already eaten and departed. He loves them so, how could he? Frodo had not shown up. Bilbo paused by Gilda’s chair long enough to greet her and kiss her good morning, then found a seat next to Esmie.
Bilbo twinkled and joked with Maddie, who was serving table herself that morning. Gilda had asked her to sit and go over the state of the deep cellars, but Maddie would not take a seat until all the Master’s family had been served and clucked over. Bilbo knew the second he cleaned his plate, Maddie would have it filled again - she could not bear the sight of an empty dish. He watched her and Gilda, dark head and silver, stout health and frail illness, confer over the stores for the coming winter, Maddie matter-of-factly cutting the Mistress’ meat and buttering her toast. Bilbo felt relief that Gilda would accept Maddie’s care. Then again, Maddie might give her no choice. The cook bounced out of her chair when Frodo finally came in, scolding him for being tardy, steering the lad to a chair, tucking a napkin in his collar and placing a full plate (when exactly she had prepared it, Bilbo was not sure) in front of the lad, all within a single moment. Frodo looked a bit surprised to be so quickly seated with fork in hand, but wasted no time in attacking his breakfast.
Bilbo surreptitiously studied his boy. There were dark circles under Frodo’s eyes, and his eyelids were rather puffy from the crying. But his appetite was good. Frodo demolished the food on the plate, while Maddie beamed, and was asking for more as he popped the final bite in his mouth. Another plate was in front of him before he had swallowed that bite. If he were upset, he wouldn’t be eating so well, Bilbo reassured himself. A small voice had woken with him that morning, saying that it was all going to fall apart, that Frodo would reconsider, that he would look upon the spider and be drawn back into her web. Bilbo knew he must not underestimate the spider’s hold on his lad.
The spider herself was watching Frodo intently. Afraid the little fly will escape, are you? Esmie turned to pour Bilbo some more tea, and met his eyes. Her look was searching, probing. You know something has changed, Attercop, but you haven’t the eyes to see, however many you may possess. Bilbo gave her a sour look and raised his teacup to her as though to salute a victory. Esmie preened and smiled, reaching far across the table to deposit the teapot, artfully displaying her bosom to Sara and Frodo as she did so. Bilbo decided it was time for the stinging fly to take a bite.
‘Esmie, my dear girl,’ he smiled at her, all charming, mad uncle, ‘I must ask a favor of you. I know you rely so much on the dear fellow, and can hardly spare him, but I insist on borrowing our lad for the day. I have a trunk to send off, a translation to finish, and was thinking of going on a hike this afternoon, towards Standelf.’ He beamed at the table in general and politely sipped his tea.
Frodo had listened carefully, without looking up from his breakfast, but Bilbo thought he saw a smile teasing the corners of the lad’s mouth. Esmie smiled graciously, her eyes all suspicion. Sara was now glaring at Frodo, and shooting questioning glances at Esmie. Bilbo made himself put his knife quite deliberately on the table. No one else appeared to be paying attention. Bilbo could not resist another nip at the spider’s legs.
‘Besides, cousin, you had him all to yourself the entire day yesterday, and I couldn’t find the two of you anywhere!’ Frodo was keeping a remarkably bland and disinterested expression on his face, though his head had dropped a bit and he was very busy with his eggs and toast. Sara’s face had begun to go a touch red, and Rory was giving Bilbo a warning look. Esmie’s smile was no longer so gracious. ‘Why don’t you let me look after the rascal today? You and Sara should really go and enjoy this fine autumn day. You’ve both been working without pause since Harvest.’
‘Bilbo, I’m afraid that I will be busy all day again, what with the cellars needing attention, and I had been counting on Frodo’s help with them,’ she said in a gentle, soothing voice. Bilbo looked directly into her serpent-cold eyes and offered up his most Tookish smile.
‘Esmie, do I have to?’ Frodo whined in a perfectly disagreeable manner. ‘I want to go hiking with Uncle Bilbo!’ He slumped over his breakfast as only a sullen and slightly sleepy tween could do. He noisily pushed things around on his plate, while throwing resentful glances at Esmie. I can see I’ll have to keep an eye on you, Wilwarin. Bilbo was very proud of his boy.
‘Frodo, stop being miserable, sit up, and take your elbows off the table before I rap you with my cane,’ Gilda crisply warned him. Frodo quickly complied, but kept throwing nasty glances at a now-confused Esmie. Your enchanted web isn’t so attractive now, is it, Attercop? Don’t you know that tweens are temperamental creatures?
‘Esmie, really child, you needn’t be chained to the kitchens,’ Gilda scolded. ‘Maddie and I will look after things!’
‘But, Gilda, I don’t want you getting tired out…’ Esmie began. Gilda became indignant.
‘I have been tending these cellars for nigh as long as you’ve been alive, child, and I am quite rested enough! I think I should know my own strength more than you do!’ Bilbo was greatly enjoying watching Gilda dress Esmie down, and leaned back in his chair, tea in hand, to watch the show. ‘I’m not on my deathbed yet, girl, and even if I were, I’d rather it be my cellars, doing some honest work, than ruining some perfectly good bed.’ Oh, Gilda, you are in fine form! Frodo was smirking into his griddlecakes. ‘So you just take your pretty rump out the door and enjoy a cuddle under a tree with that useless boy of mine before it gets too cold for that this season.’ Even Sara was grinning now, and Rory’s warning look was aimed at his irascible wife. Esmie turned a lovely shade of pink that complemented her auburn hair quite nicely. ‘In fact, Maddie, you will fix up a picnic basket for these two and see that they scoot out the door and stay away all day.’
‘Yes, Mistress Gilda, I’ll do just that,’ Maddie replied with great aplomb.
‘Mistress,’ Rory warned, ‘I think you step a bit further than your cane can reach.’ Turning to Sara, he said, ‘Harness the bays to the large wagon, and take yourself, Esmie, and the children. Collect Mac, Dilly, and Berry, too, and go enjoy the day. You two worked hard and the pressings came in faster than we expected. Maddie, baskets enough for that mob,’ Maddie gave a shallow curtsey and hurried back to her realm, ‘and I don’t want to see any of you about the Hall until sundown!’ Rory took a large bite of bacon to show the subject was closed.
‘Well, we shouldn’t leave Frodo behind if we are to take a holiday,’ Esmie said, giving the boy her sweetest, most motherly smile. Frodo shot a quick look at a now-glowering Sara, and applied himself to the last of the sausage. You are a tenacious one, Esmie, I must admit that.
Frodo let out a little yelp, and stared at Gilda in disbelief, reaching down to rub his ankle. She shook her cane warningly at him. ‘Don’t you get any ideas, you rascal! You are not going anywhere today. Your uncle has asked, very politely, for your help, and I’ll not have you gallivanting about. If he shirks his work, Bilbo, you send him to see me!’
‘Wife, I’m going to take your cane away and let you hobble on your own,’ Rory sighed, and turned an admonitory finger towards Frodo. ‘Do as your Gammer says, boy, and mind your Uncle Bilbo. You were in entirely too much mischief at Harvest to deserve a holiday now.’
Bilbo saw Frodo’s face go a bit pale as he shot an alarmed look at Rory, then a quick, questioning look at Bilbo. Bilbo gave an almost imperceptible shake of his head, and Frodo dropped his eyes back to his plate. No, lad, I didn’t say anything. Sara’s grin had turned a bit ugly.
Rory let out a big sigh. ‘Dropping snakes on girls and knocking over baskets. Frodo, what shall we do with you?’ Then Rory gave him a wink and a good-natured grin. Frodo smiled weakly back. Bilbo realized that he had best relax his grip on the teacup, lest he break it.
Rory and Esmie rose and began to help Gilda away from the table and down the hall to the kitchens, to deliver her to Maddie’s competent hands. Frodo jumped up and quickly stacked all the dirty dishes near him, deftly avoiding Sara’s attempt to accidentally knock them over as the older hobbit pushed away from the table and turned to leave. Frodo and Bilbo arrived at the sideboard at the same time to deposit their plates. When Bilbo turned around, Sara was almost out the door, but had turned to stare at the two of them with his usual filthy leer. Bilbo felt Frodo wrap his arms around his uncle’s waist, and rest his head on Bilbo’s shoulder. Looking down, he watched the boy smile sweetly at Sara, then bat his eyes. Sara wheeled around and stomped off in disgust. Frodo turned his face up to Bilbo and repeated the performance. Bilbo let out a roar of laughter, and swatted the impertinent imp on rear.
‘Frodo, you’re terrible!’ he scolded. Frodo just grinned and finished clearing the table. You really are going to go with me. Bilbo had to take a deep breath, and hoped he would not start crying for sheer joy. But there was no time to lose if they were to escape the web. The rest of the morning was spent avoiding Esmie and making preparations for their own departure.
An hour after first breakfast, Bilbo sauntered out to the gate next to Sara’s wagon to wave them farewell for the day. Then he sat on the stone wall that bordered the lane and waited until a wagon went by that was bound for the Floating Log at Frogmorton. Some gossip, some jokes, and a silver penny earned a place in the wagon for the trunk of linens. Bilbo knew the innkeeper would hold it safe and send it on to Bag End, and that he would enjoy a good night of business when “Mad Baggins” stepped in to tell outrageous tales. Bilbo was well liked by all the innkeepers in the Shire.
In Frodo’s room, there was not much to pack. The quilt had been put back into the trunk before it went off, and Frodo was wearing the shirt that Merle had embroidered for him. Nothing else mattered to him, so Bilbo picked out a few changes of clothes that were both sturdy and of reasonably good quality. They picked up one of the knapsacks that hung in a vestibule, and Bilbo showed Frodo how to pack it for a trip. They carried it back to Bilbo’s room, and quickly packed up Bilbo’s belongings.
It was now late morning, and they went to pester the kitchen maids for second breakfast. Bilbo worried that they would run into Gilda if they ventured into the kitchens. Luckily, Gilda still was with Maddie down in the cellars. Bilbo encouraged Frodo not to dally (not that he was very worried, the tween inhaled food as though he had not eaten in days), and left instructions for two substantial lunches to be made ready to take with them on their hike later. Then they went back to Bilbo’s room.
‘Frodo,’ Bilbo instructed, ‘you are to stay here and not leave my room until I get back. Don’t go walking about. I don’t know quite how long I shall be; not long, I hope.’
‘What are you doing?’
‘I’m going to get Rory’s permission to take you.’
Frodo looked worried. ‘What if he won’t give it?’
Bilbo shrugged. ‘We leave anyway.’
‘Why not just go, then?’ Frodo asked.
‘I have a few loose ends to tie up,’ was all Bilbo would say as he left the room.
As he had expected, Bilbo found Rory in his study, going over figures for the ongoing harvest.
‘Rory, do you have some time? I do need to speak with you, but I don’t wish to interrupt.’
Rory gave him a long look, then shook his head. ‘You’re as transparent as glass, Bilbo. I can see right through you.’ If only you knew, cousin. ‘You want to talk about Frodo. What trouble has he gotten into now? That was quite a performance to keep him home today.’ Rory’s tone was reasonably light, and he moved out from behind his desk to the chairs by the fire, stopping to pour them brandies along the way.
Bilbo waited until they were both settled and had taken a sip. ‘You know me too well, brother. There’s nothing new, Rory, though I’ve uncovered some things.’
‘What did he do at Harvest? He had Sara in a state just before supper.’
‘I suggest you ask Sara what upset him so much, Rory,’ was Bilbo’s cool reply. Rory gave him a hard look, then shrugged and indicated Bilbo should go on. ‘I had a long talk with the lad last night. I had finally become fed up with everyone dancing around the question of just what Frodo was doing that had you all so upset. Everyone suspected something, but no one knew anything. So, I asked him directly what he was up to, and why.’
‘You’re braver than I am, Bilbo. I’m not sure I’d really want to know.’
‘Well, it might have been better for everyone had you done so when these rumors first started, Rory,’ Bilbo replied a bit waspishly. ‘It would have saved everyone a great deal of worry and would have been of some use to Frodo when he most needed it.’ Go on, ask. Ask so I can tell you what your wretched spawn has done to my boy.
Rory refused to be baited. ‘So, what did he say? Was it true?’
‘I promised him I wouldn’t tell you what he said, though I did tell him I thought he should come and speak to you himself. You’d both feel better for having cleared some things up. What I can say is that I’ve got to the bottom of the rumors, and to the mischief. The rumors only time can take care of, but the mischief is over. Permanently.’ And if I ever have the opportunity to lay hands on Sara, it will be paid back. In flesh. And he will be done with such mischief. Permanently.
Rory let out a sigh of relief and smiled a bit. ‘Good! So, you were right, that he was just rearing up a bit?’
Bilbo smiled tightly. ‘Hardly rearing up at all, actually. The rumors were much worse than the truth.’ Since they kept anyone from uncovering the truth and taking care of my boy, they were far worse. Bilbo so wanted to throw the truth down in front of Rory. Do I want to hurt you? Shall I make you hurt like my boy? Shall I cut your heart out and hand it to you? Frodo, think of Frodo. He would say nothing that might keep him from taking his boy. He studied Rory’s face.
Rory smiled broadly, ‘Well, thankee, then, cousin, for talking to him. He’s done then, with this rearing up?’
‘He’s done,’ Bilbo said quietly, staring into his brandy, ‘he’s done. He understands, now, what he was doing and why he shouldn’t. He didn’t need a clout upside the head, either.’
Bilbo gave Rory a stern glare. ‘Actually, Rory, it’s more a case of bullying than anything that he has any taste for or curiosity about doing. He was in over his head with some older and meaner lads, who then said malicious things about him. He knows now to stay away from them and to ask for help if he’s being bullied into things he knows he shouldn’t be doing. At this point though, I don’t think there’s any way to break the others of their bad habits. For his own sake, Frodo is going to have to leave.’
‘I’m glad you’re finally seeing some sense, Bilbo,’ Rory replied.
‘And I’m taking him with me to Bag End. Today.’ And once again, I shall steal the heart-stone of a realm. Rory looked at him in puzzlement at first, not sure he understood. When he realized Bilbo was not jesting, he took a large sip from his glass and stared at Bilbo.
‘Bilbo. Brother, I know you love him, but think of the boy!’
‘I am thinking of him,’ Bilbo answered in perfect calm. ‘I have done nothing else since I arrived here a tenday ago. I am thinking only of him. He knows he can’t stay. I got him to understand that last night, though it was a terrible thing for him to accept. He also knows he does not wish to go to Pal.’
‘You’ve scared him with stories!’ Rory accused. ‘You’ve told him he’ll be mistreated and poorly handled. About Rum!’
‘To the contrary, Rory, I did not do to Pal what he and others so casually do to me. I told Frodo that Pal is a hard-working, responsible, sober man, stern but fair, who’ll give you a thrashing if you deserve it, and not otherwise. I said Eglantine is a sweet woman who loves children. And I said nothing of Rum! Do you think I would say frightening things to him, as he has heard about me? I have more respect for my boy than that. I’ll not sway his heart by fear and suspicion. Frodo is a damn sight braver and smarter than you here in Buckland give him credit for being.’ Bilbo knew his voice was bitter, and did not care. ‘I said not a word against Pal, nor even against Esmie. I let him know he could choose where he would go, and he picked Bag End. He picked me. It’s better for him.’
‘Bilbo! Damn it! You are not thinking! His reputation…’
‘Is in your hands.’ Bilbo faced Rory’s wrathful expression, and smiled. ‘You don’t understand, Rory. Frodo is coming with me, today. I won’t leave him another day here with Sara and Esmie. Whether there is any scandal attached to this is for you to control, and you can keep it to a minimum by approving of Frodo coming with me. You can help even more by telling your sot of a son and his dwarven-hearted wife to keep their slander to themselves. They are the source of most of the rumors about Frodo, Rory, and they are the ones who have spoken foully and evilly about me to the lad.’
Bilbo set down his glass and rose to pace, unable to stay calm. ‘Rory, last night, do you know what Frodo asked me? He wanted to know if I was going to take him away from you and Gilda so that I could lie with him. How does a child know to ask such things? That is the wickedness that those two have poured into his ears. Who knows but that what they said might have encouraged him in his own mischief, or made him loath to speak to you, for fear you would think him as horrible a creature as his unnatural Uncle Bilbo!’ He clenched his teeth to keep from saying more, spilling all of it out. Why shouldn’t Frodo have believed those stories? Why would he not think that I would use him as Sara did? Bilbo fancied he could feel Sting’s hilt in his hand.
‘He will only hear more of such things if he goes with you, Bilbo, and is alone with you at Bag End. Esmie and Sara may speak evilly, but they are not the only ones to say such things. You know what I think of you, Bilbo, brother! You know I think no such evil of you. Bilbo, I would trust you sleep unattended next to my own wife, or to care for my grandchildren. But others don’t! I might be able to silence Sara and Esmie, but I can’t put a muzzle on every gossip in Buckland, let alone the Shire.’
Bilbo faced Rory squarely and held his eyes. ‘You allow others in your own smial to say such wicked things even now, Rory. You have allowed other boys to use Frodo badly and then slander his name for having been forced. You didn’t even care enough to seek Frodo out and find out the truth from him! He spoke easily enough to me last night. You sit and watch Esmie try to seduce him. Isn’t that what she’s doing? You let them use him!’
Rory shifted uncomfortably but did not look away. He took a sip of brandy, then shrugged. What do you know, Rory? How much have you suspected? Enough that you knew you didn’t want to know more, I’ll warrant.
‘It is wrong, what you have allowed, are allowing, to happen to Frodo. I have been patient enough. I have tried to be careful and discreet. I have given everyone the benefit of the doubt, even as I received none. After what I heard last night, I can’t stand silent any longer.’
Bilbo drew a deep breath, and lied for all he was worth. ‘You will give to me what is mine, Rory. I am claiming my boy. It is up to you as to how scandalous that claim will be.’
Rory looked as though he’d been poleaxed. ‘Yours?’ he choked out.
‘Mine. Must I spell it out for you?’
Rory stared, blood draining from his face. He took a gasp of air, shook his head, and downed the rest of his brandy in a single gulp. Bilbo took the empty glass and refilled it. He returned to his chair, retrieved his own glass, and waited for Rory to do the work for him.
Rory had taken a couple more large swigs of brandy. ‘Yours. Your boy. I’ve always wondered.’ He looked up at Bilbo, anger and suspicion in his expression.
How to handle this? No direct claims, let him provide the words. ‘I know you’ve wondered, but you’ve said nothing, for which I thank you.’ Partly true. ‘We all love Prim’s son.’ Well, some of us, anyway. ‘Rory, it has always been you and Gilda, Drogo and Primula, for me. You’ve all taken care of me, let me into your homes, given your affection to an old, queer hobbit.’ Very true, it’s why I love you so much. ‘I would do anything for them. Whatever they asked of me.’ Bilbo shuddered a bit as he echoed Frodo’s words of the night before, knew how deeply he meant them, how much Frodo had meant them, knew what a terrible power love had on their hearts. ‘And all that matters is that Prim gave Drogo a healthy boy, isn’t it?’
‘But if Frodo is…’
‘Stop!’ Bilbo commanded, ‘Don’t say it! Don’t make it so, Rory, please. Frodo is the son of Drogo and Primula Baggins.’ Rory nodded and drained his glass again. Bilbo refilled it, and put it into Rory’s right hand. He took hold of the other, clasping it between his own. ‘I made an oath to them, Rory,’ too true, ‘to always look after the boy should something happen to them. And I have tried to always think of the boy, not of myself. To think of their wishes.’
He watched Rory’s face work a bit as the other hobbit confronted what he thought was the truth confirmed. You lying bastard, Baggins! But I did promise! I said I would always look after Frodo, and that’s what I’m doing. The spider, the dragon queen, she showed me the chinks in her armor, and she told me where the spears and arrows lay to pierce them. Mayhap I can’t kill you, Queen of Calamities, but I shall wound you and keep you from seizing my lad. I won’t let you hurt him. If you shall twist rumors to your own advantage, then so shall I. I won’t let you and Sara lay your hands on him again.
Rory seemed to have calmed a bit. He did not gulp his brandy any more. Of course that could be because the brandy was taking effect. Bilbo held his cousin’s hand and waited for Rory to hand him more lies to work with.
‘You should know, Bilbo, that others have speculated,’ Rory said slowly, softly, as though afraid to be overheard. Oh, I hope so! I hope every last gossip in all of miserable Buckland has speculated on this! ‘It was just so odd, them not having any babes for so long, then this one, all of a sudden. Some, some who were jealous and spiteful, they said Prim was unfaithful, you know? Betrayed her husband. Said that of my sister!’ Rory was definitely feeling the brandy. Bilbo made a soothing noise. They did say those things. They did say this of our Prim. Is there anything the gossips won’t say? Bilbo suddenly realized Frodo had probably been listening to such things about his parents all his life, particularly after their deaths, and his indignation flared up again. ‘They didn’t know, couldn’t know, how much they were in love,’ Rory went on, lost in his memories, ‘that Prim would never have done that. Never tried to fool Drogo.’
Bilbo knew he had to act quickly if he was to get out of Rory what he needed before his cousin was too far gone in memory and brandy to think. ‘So, Rory, when I had my talk with Frodo last night, I realized I was failing in my oath to them!’ That got Rory’s attention. ‘I hate to say it, Rory, but Sara is a vicious bastard who bears most of the responsibility for speaking wicked things of Frodo.’ Bilbo had to pause, collect himself, forbid himself to say what burned in his heart. ‘And Esmie can’t decide who she wants more, for she has more of a dwarven-heart than you know. And the mind of a Took, which is a very dangerous combination!’ Rory chuckled a bit at that.
‘You know who I will be leaving my treasure to, don’t you, Rory?’ Bilbo said carefully.
‘Frodo, of course. I’ve always known you would. Who else could you give it to? As long as I’ve suspected, I’ve known you would.’
Bilbo wondered if Esmie’s knowledge had actually come from Rory in that drunken confession. ‘Well, so does Esmie. She likes her comforts a great deal, as you warned me. And she sees Frodo as a way to them. It was your words when we rode Hedge that made me understand what she is truly up to. I’ll leave you to work out the details.’
Rory grimaced, nodding understanding. ‘Brother, you had a talk with Frodo last night, and now he wants to go with you.’ Rory paused. ‘Did you tell him? Does he know about…?’ Rory looked up with anxious eyes. Another weapon in my fight. Bilbo smiled.
‘That would be a terrible thing for the lad to hear, now, wouldn’t it? No, I said nothing of that, Rory. I don’t want the lad to ever know! He had been made to hear too many foul things about his parents, and I don’t want to add to those tales. But I’m also determined that he won’t be smeared with the lies that Sara has been spreading. I won’t have him called unnatural and depraved. As I said before, Rory, that is all in your hands now, to preserve his reputation, and his parents’ honor.’
‘What can I do, brother? You know I will!’ Rory clutched at his arm and Bilbo felt both triumphant and disgusted with himself.
‘Let me adopt Frodo as my heir. Let him remain Drogo’s son, but let me adopt him. There is no way to keep the truly evil tongues from wagging, but respectable folk will be satisfied. I will make sure there are no grounds for more rumors about other boys. As for the clever folks who have always suspected, well, they can feel some satisfaction at the news, and give each other knowing looks.’
Rory sat his brandy glass down and glared at Bilbo. ‘Now, that’s going pretty far, Bilbo.’ Ah, not “brother” any more, eh? ‘I’m not sure I want to give him up like that. He’s all I have left of Prim! Pal isn’t asking to adopt him, after all.’
‘Pal has no call to adopt him, as he will have his own gotten son soon enough. And Frodo is all I have. He’s mine, Rory, and I am taking him. I have to. I would be the most vile, despicable creature if I didn’t do my duty by him now, when he most needs me.’ Bilbo debated with himself for a moment before saying his next words.
‘I won’t have his name tarnished, Rory, not with the lies Sara is saying. You know what will be said if he simply comes to Bag End and is with me. That’s been the problem all along, and I won’t allow it. It is what has made me stay my hand, hold my tongue, but no more. If I have to, if you won’t let me adopt him, I will claim him as my own, not just here to you, but in front of all. People can count. They know I was here, with Prim and Drogo, at the right time, through Yule, 1367. Do you think anyone, looking at Frodo and me together, would doubt my word?’
‘You would do that to Prim?’ Rory snarled, starting to rise out of his chair. Bilbo gently pushed him back down.
‘I would do this for Frodo. What do Drogo and Prim care? They’re dead. Ask yourself this, Rory. What would Prim rather that her child was called, my son or my whore?’
Rory started crying a bit, and Bilbo hated himself. He gathered his old friend into his arms and hummed and crooned to him until Rory had collected himself again. He cradled Rory’s face in his hands, as Rory had done to him, and kissed him tenderly.
‘You know I’ll do right by Frodo because he is mine. I’m asking that you do right by him as well, that you do as Prim would want.’
‘I’ll do it. I’ll have the papers drawn up, but you’ll have to wait. It will take a few days.’
‘I’m not waiting. I’ve waited too long as it is. Send them by a Messenger when they’re done. We’re going now, before Esmie and Sara get back. I don’t think it wise to say good-bye.’
Rory shook his head, ‘No, it’s not. Merry and Merle would be very upset. And I don’t want Frodo to see me like this.’
‘No, Rory, you don’t,’ Bilbo soothed, ‘and we’ll come back for Yule, and for birthdays, and fairly often, actually. I don’t want to take him away from you and Gilda, Rory. It’s just that now it’s my turn to care for him. You see that, don’t you?’
Rory nodded, then stood and caught Bilbo in a powerful embrace. ‘Take care of our boy, Baggins, or you’ll have me to answer to!’
They kissed again, and Bilbo left, trailing guilt behind him. The guilt disappeared as soon as he saw Frodo sitting in front of the cold grate, smoking his birthday pipe.
‘Are you ready?’ Bilbo asked, rubbing his hands briskly.
‘Uncle Rory said yes?’
Bilbo sobered up for a minute. ‘He is very sad, Frodo, but he understands it’s what you wish to do, and he has given his permission. He wants us to come back at Yule, so he can see how you’re doing, and he has promised to box my ears if anything is amiss!’
Quickly, they slipped on their packs and went to the kitchens to collect their lunches. These were safely stowed, and the two travelers were almost to the outer door, when Gilda stepped into the passage, supported by Maddie. Frodo came to an abrupt halt, and Bilbo said a silent curse. He had hoped to avoid this particular meeting.
‘Ah, you beggars,’ Gilda joked, ‘on your way?’
Frodo nodded dumbly, and Bilbo had to take his arm to make the boy walk forward.
‘Are you going on your hike now?’ Gilda repeated.
‘No, Gilda,’ Bilbo replied, ‘we’re going.’
Gilda fixed a measuring stare on him. ‘You’re taking him.’
‘Yes. Rory just gave me permission.’
‘What took you so damn long?’
‘It had to be Frodo’s decision, Gilda,’ Bilbo quietly said.
Gilda nodded a bit, then cocked her head to the side. ‘You know, Bilbo, you never did come to talk to me.’
‘I know, I’m sorry. Things got… complicated,’ Bilbo grimaced.
‘They might have been less complicated had you taken me into your plans, you stupid man,’ she scolded gently. ‘I may not move very fast, but my wits are quick enough. Next time you’re back, you come talk to me. First!’ Gilda lightly rapped him on the ankle with the tip of her cane.
The old woman turned her attention to Frodo, who was looking at her with a stricken expression. She held out one arm and he rushed into her embrace. After a minute, Frodo stepped back with tears on his face. Gilda gently wiped them away and pinched his cheek.
‘So, my little rascal, you’re off to terrorize the unsuspecting good folk of Hobbiton. Get into too much trouble, I’ll hobble over there and whack you with my cane!’ Frodo giggled a bit. ‘You be my good boy, and take care of your Uncle Bilbo. He needs someone with a bit of hobbit-sense looking out for him, or he’s liable to wander away on another adventure.’
‘I will, Gammer. And I’ll come back to see you, I promise!’ Frodo exclaimed.
‘Good-bye, Gilda,’ Bilbo leaned in and gave her a hug and kiss. She kept hold of his hand and peered at him intently.
‘I have Rory, you have Frodo. I think that’s fair.’
‘More than fair, my beautiful girl.’ Bilbo kissed her hand and let it go. He noticed Frodo giving him an odd look, then looking at Gilda the same way. Wonder all you want, my boy, you’ll hear naught from me.
They left Brandy Hall and made for the Buckland Ferry.