In which Bilbo cuts to the heart of the mystery in Brandy Hall, or so he believes.
Mid-afternoon, Brandy Hall, 15 Halimath 1389
Bilbo sipped his brandy and surveyed the tea laid out on a low table in Rory’s study. One of the kitchen-girls had brought it in a few minutes before, and he had flirted with her and teased her and sent her off with pinch on her cheek and compliments to Maddie.
Yesterday, he and Frodo had spent most of the day on the butterfly hunt, systematically going through the linens in use in the Hall. A call of “Wilwarin!” alerted the other to a successful catch. Most of them had been found at the very back of a few linen presses, though they had stripped some things off beds, tables and chairs. A stack of bedclothes, a collection of small towels and tablecloths, and several other pieces had turned up, though Bilbo knew for certain that Prim had more than that when she and Drogo had left Hobbiton to return to Brandy Hall. In particular, he remembered a few very fine pieces in which she had taken great pride that had not turned up.
Rory had supplied a large trunk with a raised eyebrow and a great sigh, but no questions. Last evening, Bilbo and Frodo had sat in Bilbo'’ room and examined the catch. Frodo had sat next to the butterflies, unfolding them, looking at them intently, then very carefully and precisely folding each and placing it within the trunk. Sometimes Bilbo recognized an item, and if he had a story he could tell about it, he would. Frodo had laid his quilt across the top of the other linens like a mother tucking in her child for the night. After all had been stowed, they had smoked another pipe in silence before Frodo gave him a kiss and went off to bed.
Bilbo sipped more of the brandy. He was careful not to drink too much. He needed a clear head when dealing with Esmeralda. He had asked Rory if he could make use of his study today. It seemed fitting, considering the other talks that had happened in this room over the last few days. His outrage had cooled, though it had not abated, and he did not intend to be particularly agreeable to this duplicitous cousin.
The door creaked a bit, and Esmie swept in. The preserving of harvest fruit was underway, and she had been working in the kitchens and in the cook yard. Her hair was pulled back from her face, and fastened with a simple clasp, some stray locks wafting about. The bridge of her nose and the apples of her cheeks were a touch sunburnt from time in the yard. She was dressed as simply as one of the cooks - a solid-fronted white blouse with a low neck and short sleeves, a plain brown skirt a bit shorter than she usually wore, a wide leather belt to support her back and sides as she lifted heavy things and stooped over the low tables. Though her face and hands were freshly scrubbed, a scent of sweat and wood smoke clung to her. She had been doing the Mistress’ work this season, since Gilda could not. You are not the Mistress any more than Pal is the Thain. Part of him was tempted to go fetch Gilda, no matter her need to rest, and make her a part of this conversation. Nothing will happen before the two of you talk next week, and you’d best have your own argument prepared.
They exchanged greetings and Bilbo made a great fuss over seating her in Rory’s chair and serving her the meal. She giggled and teased and flirted back at him as the Mistress should do with a doddering old cousin. Bilbo ate only a few bites and bided his time.
‘You and Frodo quite tore the Hall up yesterday, Bilbo,’ Esmie said after he returned from placing their used dishes on a tray in the corridor. He smiled at her, but did not reply, and poured her a brandy. She took a large sip. ‘Just what were you two doing? I’ve been hearing rumors of stolen sheets.’
‘We were on a butterfly hunt,’ Bilbo smoothly replied. Esmie looked at him blankly for a moment, then comprehension dawned. She did not look too pleased. Bilbo had forbidden Frodo to look in Sara and Esmie's quarters for anything, and was thinking now that he should pay his own visit.
‘You have disrupted quite a few people with your antics, Bilbo,’ she scolded, ‘and Frodo certainly does not need to be encouraged in such things.’ A hard stare, but not the look he so detested. ‘He should have been asking politely, not rummaging through others’ belongings.’
‘But others had his belongings, and others have rummaged through his things,’ Bilbo calmly responded, ‘and young men are impetuous. In any event, since he will soon be departing, he needed some help gathering things and setting his affairs to rights before he goes. I am only too happy to assist.’ He sipped and watched.
‘And where did you hear this?’
She made an exasperated sound. ‘I told him not to upset you with the news.’ You are not pleased to have been found out. Bilbo began to wonder who else was in the dark about her plans for Frodo and why she felt she needed to keep them secret.
‘I am very glad he did. I should hope at least one adult in this Hall would be upset on his behalf. And I certainly did not care for how you represented my own position to him.’
Esmie looked at him in astonishment. ‘What do you mean?’
‘You led him to believe that I approve of you sending him to Pal. You know I do not.’
‘But you do agree that he cannot remain here, and you also agree that he cannot go with you…’
‘No, I don’t agree with that. I firmly believe, indeed I know that Frodo would be better off with me. The trouble is that his reputation is better off with Pal.’
Esmie gave a shrug and sipped from her glass. ‘He’ll come to no harm with Pal. That’s all that matters. He’ll be free of you. No more antics like what happened yesterday. Rory may not care, but Pal will see things are proper.’ Her gaze was as disdainful as her tone was condescending.
Bilbo's blood went cold and he stared at her with no small malice. Her expression became a bit of a smirk, rather like the one Sara had given him at table last Highday. ‘Why are you going to such extremes to keep me away from my boy, Esmie? What sort of a monster must you think I am to forbid me to even see him?’
Esmie was all concern and apology, ‘No, no, Bilbo, nothing like that! It’s just that you don’t seem to care how things look, and you keep doing improper things because you don’t care.’
Bilbo sipped and reflected. She’s right, if not being totally honest. Some would deprive me of my boy because they know it will hurt us both. But it’s true that I’m heedless of gossip. I must think of Frodo, not just myself. The trouble was the only thing he could think of about Frodo was the child’s pain and fear, which were not going to be handled well in a warren like the Great Smials.
‘Bilbo, please, don't be so downcast,’ Esmie pleaded. She gave him her brightest smile, the charming Old Took smile that he himself could use with such excellent results, a smile Frodo had not quite mastered because it took a bit of cunning to carry off. He smiled like a sad old man, while the rest of him crouched, watching to see what she was planning. ‘It isn’t so bad as you make it out to be. Give the lad a few months to settle in, and I’m sure I could get permission for you to see him.’
Esmie smiled rather conspiratorially. ‘I know how dear the boy is to you. I don’t know how often it could be arranged, but I’m sure I can get Pal to unbend a bit. Even so, it may take a few months to get my stubborn brother to be reasonable.’
“She likes her comfort too much to risk it. Has a touch of the dwarf in her heart.” Rory's warning echoed in Bilbo’s head. None of this made sense. She would not risk her brother’s ire and disgust without something in return, but what? This required investigation. Bilbo had the sensation of facing something predatory.
‘But, Esmie, doesn’t that rather defeat the purpose? If my very presence endangers his reputation, then why would you allow me around at all?’
Her gaze sharpened. ‘It would not be very often,’ her voice was a touch waspish, then grew polite, with the knife edge hidden under a silky cover, ‘and there won’t be anything he can’t or won’t recover from in such a visit. As long as you mind your manners, and don’t encourage him in improper habits.’
‘I told you before, Esmeralda, that you sicken me with such intimations, so please to stop them.’ She did not look as abashed as she had a few days before. ‘Besides, I rather think that your concern on such matters is greatly misplaced. I don’t believe I could “encourage” Frodo, as you put it, since he has no such inclinations. He’s infatuated with you, my dear, not me. I rather think that a certain jealous husband has been saying spiteful things to embarrass a young lad in the depths of his first tween love.’ Bilbo sipped his brandy, and watched where she would next move.
Esmie gave an indignant snort. ‘Well, of course I know the silly boy is mooning over me! It is rather obvious, and he should be more careful of jealous husbands.’ She gave Bilbo a knowing look over her glass as she sipped. ‘He’s not depraved, Bilbo, and he’s not stupid. Frodo has an eye for curves, like any Brandybuck, and I’ll allow as to how Sara is more jealous than he should be. But it isn’t just Sara talking. The boy is definitely doing… naughty… things with other lads and is getting known for them.’
‘Such as? What? When? With whom?’ Bilbo shot back, ‘And just what is “naughty”? Kissing another lad? Putting his hand down someone’s pants besides his own? Selling himself at the crossroads?’
‘Bilbo!’ Esmie gasped. ‘That is quite enough!’
‘Well, it would be quite enough if you would say which it is, Esmie. But since all I hear are rumors, no details, no proof, and all I see is a tween lad rather intently watching your bottom when you walk away or sneaking a look at your bosom when you lean over, I am left with no opinion except that it is Sara’s lies.’
‘You haven’t been here very long, Bilbo,’ Esmie snapped, ‘and Frodo’s been on his best behavior. There is some substance, though I shan’t repeat it. It’s not something that bears repeating. You will just need to see for yourself. Or, better yet, not go prying and possibly changing rumor into proof. In any case, this is distasteful to talk of.’
Bilbo set his empty glass on the table beside him. Esmie held out her glass for him to refill it, and he did. He was not sure there was any longer a point to the conversation. But he was still trying to figure out what Esmie wanted. No one seemed to think they needed his approval to move Frodo to the Great Smials, and everyone besides himself seemed quite certain that doing so was the best thing for Frodo, so why did she even bother to talk to him about it? And no one could say exactly what it was the lad was doing to make them all so edgy. It could be almost anything. Or nothing at all. Just a lie to strengthen their own arguments. But Rory seemed to think there was something there.
Esmie began to chatter, and he smiled politely, waiting for her to say something new. ‘Pal and I have been writing a bit the last few days, and everything is set. Once Harvest rites are done tomorrow, then there isn’t too much to do until the threshing in Southfarthing come late Winterfilth. So, the children and I are going to pay a visit to Pal and Eglantine, and get the boy settled in time for the threshing, which will be a busy enough time to keep him from brooding too much on going somewhere new. The children and I will stay for a few weeks, then be back in time for gathering winter gourds and begin the autumn butchering. We'll be leaving next Friday.’
‘You can’t!’ Bilbo exclaimed.
‘Why not?’' Esmie asked, puzzled.
‘Not Friday. Wait until Highday! Saturday is our birthday. I promised Frodo we would celebrate it together,’ Bilbo replied. ‘Surely you can’t have forgotten? You wouldn’t make him leave just before his birthday?’
The look on Esmie's face was all the answer he needed. ‘He needs to go, soon, and if you truly cared for the boy, as you claim, you’ll go home sooner and not make the leaving more difficult than it’s going to be. He will arrive at the Great Smials to a birthday celebration, and will be welcomed quite merrily into his new home. I’m not heartless, Bilbo. Much better to arrive at a party than leave from one, don’t you think?’
Bilbo did not have any words. He was not sure he could breathe. Another promise, broken. And he’ll think I knew about this, too. He just stared blankly at Esmie as she prattled on.
‘It is the perfect time for him to go. He’ll arrive at a party, and meet all his cousins at once. Then, there will be all the business of the harvest, and getting things settled for the winter. Pal has said he’ll keep Frodo close and teach him what he can. He’ll keep a good eye on him, and people will see him with Pal. That will be very good for both of them. Pal so wants a boy, you know! He and Eglantine are hoping the new baby will be a boy, and I think Pal will be quite taken with Frodo. You needn’t worry, Bilbo, and perhaps at Yule, you can pay a visit.
‘Frodo will not have a minute for missing anything, particularly not the fellows he has been associating with. Pal will teach him to be a proper farmer and gentlehobbit, and the girls will be quite mad about him. He has a bit of growing to do, of course, not that that’s a bad thing. While it’s good for him to be thinking about girls, he’s too young to be doing much, and the girls still need to do some growing up.’
Bilbo had only been paying half an ear to Esmie's words as he tried to control his own hurt, but the last sentence finally broke through the fog. ‘What girls? It sounds like you have some specific ones in mind.’
Esmie beamed warmly. ‘Of course I do! None other than Pearl and Merle. They are good girls, and that would be an excellent match for either of them. Yes, yes,' she said to Bilbo’s incredulous expression, ‘I know they all seem a bit young, but one can’t start too soon with setting out proper expectations. It’s too bad Merle is so much younger, though there is the example of his own parents, but I doubt he will want to wait so long for her to come of age. Pearl’s about right, though, and, by then, Pal and Eglantine will love him as much as Sara and I do.’
‘Oh, I hope they'll love him a bit more than Sara does. Rather over-planning his life, aren’t you?’ Bilbo asked dryly. ‘And why in such a hurry to plan all of this? They’re all children! There’s time when the time comes.’
Esmie drew herself up in her chair and stared at him scornfully. ‘And what else should we be doing? Leave him to blunder about as you have? Perhaps if someone had taken you more firmly in hand, Bilbo, when you were Frodo’s age, you wouldn’t be so disreputable now. What follies might you have avoided had you been shown what you should do instead of allowed to wander, following your own whims? Perhaps you have developed a taste for unnatural things and cannot be pleased with aught else, but Frodo has an eye for women and shall be given the proper guidance and encouragement.’
‘You know nothing of my tastes, Esmeralda, and you demonstrate a woeful ignorance of how I was raised,’ Bilbo said very calmly but very precisely. He was glad he had stopped drinking. ‘I suggest you not speak any more on this, lest you truly anger me.’
‘Of course, Bilbo,’ Esmie replied, still scornful, ‘as you wish. It is probably all… rumor… anyway. As you say is the case with Frodo.’ He just watched her. She preened a bit, sipping from her glass. ‘Though, even for Pearl, it will be a long wait. But, the wait won’t be so bad,’ Bilbo heard her voice slow, become thoughtful, but then she continued, brightly, earnestly, ‘and other lads manage such a wait quite well, if they respect their promised lass!’
‘What do you care if he waits or not, as long it’s a lass he's caught with in some hayloft, or behind some hedge?’ Bilbo quietly asked. ‘After all, such things are quite natural and only a touch scandalous. Nothing he can’t recover from.’
He was not prepared for her anger. ‘What is wrong with you, Bilbo Baggins?’ she snapped. ‘Why do you object? Why are you so contrary to no good purpose? Everything I am trying to do is for Frodo, to do what is best for him so he doesn’t end up like you! Don’t you want him to be respectable? Aren’t you the one who came in here but a few days ago, saying he was bound for great things? Answer me this if you can, you meddlesome old fool: Is what I want for the boy really so different from what you want? In the end, isn’t my approach more likely to get him to that point than wandering about with you, talking to queer people and speaking words no proper hobbit can understand? I warn you, Bilbo, you had best not oppose me. If you continue to speak against what is sensible, I shall begin to think you do have wicked designs on the boy, and I shan’t be quiet about it. Quit being a dog in the manger, trying to hold on to everything that you have no use for. Don’t you want to see children in Bag End again?’ She downed the last of her brandy in a gulp, and glared at him.
Bilbo felt as though he had been hit over the head with a dwarven battle-axe. He dragged himself to his feet and went over to the window that looked out on the Brandywine. He stared out, keeping his back to Esmie, trying to get his thoughts under control. She’s right. Is what she wants so different? Isn’t her way better, kinder in the long run? You’re an odd one, Baggins, made for an odd life, but hasn’t Frodo already had too many terrible things happen to him? Frodo's misery when they had argued about him going to Pal kept haunting him. I want to spare him from more of that! Aren’t you being selfish, Baggins, dangling ideas and tales of adventures in front of Frodo? It’s a dishonest way to his heart. He heard Esmie stand and pour another brandy. She’d ruin him, too, if I interfere. She’d say things of me, but it would be in connection to him, and he would be the one to suffer. I’m old, I’ve heard it all before, but I was respectable, once. I was respectable until after my adventures. He’d never even have that. He heard Rory’s chair creak as Esmie sat down. I do want him to be happy. I want him to marry and have children, all the ones Prim and Drogo wanted to have, and they would be brought up in Bag End, as I had hoped theirs would be, and… Bag End?
Bilbo’s back stiffened as he suddenly saw everything with perfect clarity. It was as when he had awoken in Mirkwood and had found himself half-encased in spider thread. He felt he had been peering closely at the colored knots on Prim’s quilt, and only now perceived that there was a pattern created by the tiny, disparate threads. All of Esmie’s plots and desires were laid bare before him, and he wondered at himself for having failed to see them. He instantly knew he had to fight his way out of these tangles before they immobilized him, and left Frodo at this spider’s mercy. She was far more formidable than the ones he had battled under the dark trees. What I wouldn’t give to have Sting at my side now. His wretchedness disappeared as a sharp, calculating fury took hold. He turned from the window and slowly sauntered over to Esmie.
‘Ah, Esmeralda, Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities,’ he softly mocked as he approached. ‘You don’t know me so well as you think. Do you know who I am?’ He remembered back, almost fifty years ago, the last time he spoke to so heartless and dangerous a creature. ‘I am the clue-finder, the web-cutter, the stinging-fly. I can see you, though you do not see me.’ And you have very foolishly shown me the chink in your armor, sweet cousin. He was right in front of her chair now, and he grasped each arm and leaned down towards her, as he had done to Rory but a few days before.
She pulled away against the back of the chair, watching him warily. He smiled wickedly, then began to run his eyes over her in a casual, measuring fashion, lingering on her lips, throat, breasts and lap. As he did so, he casually asked, ‘So, cousin, tell me, where do you intend to do it?’
‘Intend what? What do you mean?’ she said nervously, ‘Get back, Bilbo. Leave me be!’
‘Here, or there?’
‘Here where or where there? What? You’re talking nonsense!’
‘Brandy Hall, or the Great Smials? I think the Great Smials.’
‘Bed Frodo, of course.’ The sound of her hand slapping his face was probably loud enough to be heard in the corridor. Esmie stared at him in fury and dismay. Caught you. ‘I don’t think you’d dare, here, with Sara, but what better way to make the lad feel at home in a new place than a roll in the sheets with his heart’s, well, his loins’ desire?’ A second slap rang out. Bilbo's smile widened into a wolfish leer. ‘And it would not really be a problem, seeing how close Sara and Frodo look, if something should come of it. I’ve heard rumors you are thinking of another child.’ He was ready for her slap this time. As she swung, he quickly grabbed her wrist and pinioned her arm to the arm of the chair. Just as quick, he had the other wrist captured and Esmie trapped in the chair. Another quick motion and he had one knee resting on the seat of the chair between her thighs.
‘Of course, if the babe had Frodo’s small feet, you’d have a bit of explaining to do,’ he mused.
Esmie struggled for a second. ‘Get away from me! Let me go!’
Bilbo pulled a long face. ‘But, Esmie, I thought you’d be glad that I'd finally found my way between a maid’s legs.’ He dropped his dark humor and let his fury show. ‘Trying to do what's best for Frodo? Wanting him to be happy? What lies! You are thinking only of yourself. You are manipulating my boy to bind him to you, playing with his love and his fears in a most shameless way. And you are manipulating me through him, using threats of ruined reputation and promises of a fleeting visit to secure my silence. You are almost as good at riddles as I am. Answer me this: Where does the inheritance of this old, mad, childless hobbit go? Who gets the dragon treasure? Who gets Bag End?’
Esmie had stopped struggling against his grip, and was slowly relaxing against the back of the chair. She looked up at him with some amusement. ‘To the pathetic little orphan cousin whom he dotes upon in a rather unseemly way.’ Her eyes glittered through thick lashes, ‘And whomever commands the cousin, commands the fortune.’
Bilbo had to admire her cleverness. He had never spoken about who was, or would be, his heir, and most agreed he was too mad to figure things out - he would die someday and the Sackville-Bagginses would probably claim the lion's share of the spoils simply by virtue of proximity. But the more astute would have known that Bilbo left very little to chance (when it did not involve racing out the front door with not even a handkerchief, of course) and the more observant had (correctly) figured out who held sway over Bilbo’s heart. Esmie had calculated some ages and likely death dates, and had taken it a step further. Rather clever, but still despicable.
‘Ah, lady fair with the fiery hair,’ Bilbo said softly, dangerously, ‘you certainly have all the men about you by the short hairs, even one as unnatural as I. Don’t underestimate the effect you have on me, and don’t believe all you hear. I’m not entirely without a taste for things that are soft and curved. I don’t think you’d mind me that much, since you seem to like foolish fellows with heavy pockets. Shall we see?’ Esmie flinched as Bilbo as he nuzzled her along her jaw, and tried to wiggle free. Bilbo pulled back a few inches and looked at her with feigned dismay. ‘Oh, dear me, that was rather rude, wasn’t it? I forgot to pay you first. Then again, while it’s not certain that I do have a taste for men, I can assure you, dearest cousin, that I have no taste for whores, so you’re safe on that count. We each have something the other wants, so why don’t we see if we can do a little business?’ Though, truth be told, a small voice at the back of his mind urged him to continue, to possess her, hurt her, make her suffer. He pushed it away. No revenge, just the lad.
‘Get your perverted hands off me and leave!’ she hissed, ‘I have nothing to say to you!’
‘You are no one to call me a pervert when you intend to bed a child, Esmie.’
‘And you have no such intentions? Frodo’s hardly a child, not with what he's been doing. At least what I do is natural.’
‘What you do? So you make a habit of this, debauching tween boys?’ She glared at him. ‘Esmie, as I said, we have business to attend to. You have what I want, I have what you want. You know very well my boy is worth more to me than any material thing – that’s what you're counting on to make your scheme work - so I shan’t bother to deny it. I now know you wish for material things more than you care for him, so spare me from any protestations of love or care for Frodo. Why don’t we give each other what we most want? I’ve never been one to haggle very much, so the advantage is to you. What do you want for Frodo? Name your price.'
‘What do you mean, name my price?’ Her eyes were calculating.
‘Just that, tell me what you wish to receive so that I may take my boy with me.’
‘Surely you can get yourself a boy for less than that. He can’t be so enjoyable.’ Bilbo was glad he had his hands full holding on to her wrists, else he might have struck her for her words. The little voice spoke again, urging him to punish her for her temerity. It took several heartbeats for him to silence it.
‘Do you want my dragon-gold? There's plenty, more than you’d know what to do with. It’s all yours, every last coin and chain.’ What of it? I can always get more. Sara had been right on that count. ‘Perhaps you want Bag End? Lobelia will kick up a bit of a fuss, but I’ll give you the key right now if you wish.’ Perhaps Frodo and I will go to Rivendell sooner than I thought. ‘Still not rich enough for your liking? Have it all. I reserve the clothes on my back, for modesty’s sake, and my walking stick, since I’ll be tramping off. The rest, every book, every chair, every flower in the garden, it’s yours for the asking. The only thing I want is my boy.’
Esmie had relaxed again after his promise not to molest her further. Bilbo could tell she was measuring, considering, balancing. Is Sara a part of this? Is she wondering what she can bargain without him here? No, his jealousy would ruin her fun, and her gain.
‘“My boy,”’ she said in a pensive tone, ‘You always call him that. I can believe you’d trade all for him. You’ll deny him nothing. Do you truly desire him that much? Does he want you back half so much? Would he want you if you had nothing to give him?’
‘Perhaps he wouldn’t, but that is for him to decide, not you.’
‘How true is what you say, “My boy”?’
‘I don’t understand.’
Esmie's eyes gleamed with scandal, ‘You know there are other rumors about your boy, that he is precisely that. The three of you living together for so long at Bag End, and then they move away, about the time children should be appearing, and none happen. So childless for so many years, then you pay a long visit to Buckland, and she’s with child. You should see yourself next to him. You could very well be sire and get, you're so alike.’
‘No more so than Frodo looks like you or Pal. Did I sire you, too? I wish that I had, for then I could disown you.’ Bilbo had not thought he could detest her any more than he did, and was not pleased to be proven wrong.
‘It might be enough to explain the business in the boat.’
Bilbo's hands clamped down more tightly on her wrists, pressing them hard into the wooden arms of the chair, making her grimace and gasp. ‘I don’t care to hear about it. Were I you, Esmie, I would not be saying such things too loudly around Rory. I doubt he would care to have his sister’s name besmirched this way.’
Esmie snickered. ‘Who do you think said it to me?’
Bilbo studied her smirking face for a moment and narrowed his eyes. She is telling the truth on this. ‘I don’t believe you. Even if Rory thought such a thing, he’d be too discreet to say it.'’
‘It’s when Gilda fell ill so badly for the first time. He wouldn’t rest and then drank too much. I finally got him to come back here and he unburdened his heart to me. Talked about Gilda, and not wanting to lose her like he did Prim. And then he went on about Frodo, how he’d never held it against you, and I must never tell the boy, and all that mattered was that he had something of Prim left to him. It didn’t matter who sired him because he was certainly Prim’s child.
‘Of course, other people besides Rory have speculated. They’ve always wondered at that marriage. It wasn’t at all proper for them to have lived with you for so long. When no child came, you know, some wondered if the couple weren’t you and Drogo.' Bilbo remembered those rumors only too well; it was because of them that Drogo and Primula had eventually moved out of Bag End. ‘Prim did bear a child, so the fault lay not with her. If your cousin had been able to sire something, she’d have had a child much sooner. So the only question that remained after the babe arrived was who did sire Frodo? People in Buckland not only know how to count, they also know how to count backwards. And you were so conveniently visiting at the time.’
Bilbo carefully tucked that bit of information away for future use. Affecting nonchalance, he replied, ‘Well, better that people think he’s my son than my lover.’ Esmie smirked more evilly, and drew a breath to speak. ‘If you say the next words on your tongue, woman, I shall beat you.’
She bit them back and glared at him. After a few seconds, she dropped her eyes and shook her head. ‘Well, however fine a tale it may be, I do not believe it. If he were, you’d have claimed him by now. Besides, you were all together for years. If it was you, you’d have done this sooner and there would be more children.’ She looked at him with contempt. ‘Truth be told, I doubt you know how to get a child.’
‘I assure you I do. Would you like me to demonstrate?’ He moved his knee further up, pressed against the inside of her thigh, moved his face closer to hers. That little voice pressed on him again, encouraging him, saying how easy it would be, how much she needed to be put in her place, how satisfying it would feel to take her. She recoiled at the venom in his voice, and he smiled, satisfied.
‘So, Esmeralda, I grow weary of this. You do nothing but repeat slander that has circulated for years, and which has nothing to do with our business. Have you an answer, or do I need to let you think on it a bit more? What do you want?’
Bilbo looked at her in confusion. ‘What do you mean, nothing?’ She would never simply hand Frodo over to him, so she was up to something.
Her tone was gleeful. ‘Nothing. I don’t want anything because I don’t need anything from you. You see, I have one other thing you don’t have, old man. Time. And because of that, you have nothing to offer me. You may dodder on a few more years, but not for thirteen more. You see, I can have all of what you offer eventually. What you have will go to Frodo. You would not withhold it from him, even knowing what you now know. In the meantime, I have Frodo, and you don’t, and I shall enjoy what I have. I’m sure I could explain away small feet, assuming Sara even noticed them. Would you deny his child anything? There’s nothing you can do to hurt me. Anything you try will simply come back to hurt the lad. Rest assured, I will see to that!’
Bilbo stared into her malicious gaze and shook his head. He stepped away from her, releasing her from his grip and strolled over to the decanter. She bounded out of the chair and followed him. He calmly poured himself a glass, then turned back to her, taking a seat on the edge of the desk.
‘Do we understand each other, Baggins? Do as I say, don’t cause a fuss and I’ll let you see the boy. Be very good to me, and I can arrange for you to do whatever you like with him.’ Bilbo just raised his eyebrows, expression bland. ‘Don’t be so quick to be rid of your treasure, though, cousin. The lad’s affections might not be extended so easily if there was nothing but affection offered in return.’ Bilbo nodded thoughtfully and took a swig. Esmie was getting annoyed. ‘Better yet, why don’t you do everyone a good turn and die, Baggins? Spare us all your wild tales and lies and miserable songs,’ Bilbo smiled broadly, ‘and die like you’re supposed to.’ Esmie stopped railing at him and glared.
Bilbo just sat, sipping his brandy, smiling benignly back at her. After a minute, she swept out. He drained his glass and carefully set it back on the tray. He felt older than his ninety-nine years. He had sat down by the tree once again, and allowed the spider to half weave a web about him, showing him how she worked and what she used to create her dreadful entrapments. You’ve found your clues, Bilbo. Now it is time to cut through the web and be the stinging fly once more.