4. Assumptions

POV - Bilbo

In which Dalin encounters a flock of little birds, all the right lies are spread, faces are matched with names, and Bilbo contemplates Sara's fate.


Evening, 24 Highday, Foreyule, 1389

Bilbo could not have asked for a better entrance.

As he had suspected, the kitchen knew of Dalin’s presence, but had not spoken of it to any of the guests or extended family. When Dalin walked into the Great Hall, the entire room was struck dumb. The relatively high roof of Hall did not allow Dalin’s head to brush the ceiling as it did in the tunnels, but he still looked monstrously large to the assembled guests. Eyes bulged, mouths gaped, hands fluttered, and more than few of the gathering looked on the verge of fainting. This is going to be a most entertaining Yule. Rory nodded graciously to the assembled hobbits as though he had a dwarven guest at table every day, but Bilbo could see the merriment in his eyes. Bilbo grinned broadly and caught Gilda’s eye. She smirked back, then put on her most regal expression.

The dwarf was being dragged by the three little hobbits towards the children’s table at the back of the dining hall. The other children in the room had recovered from their surprise at the sight of Dalin more quickly than most adults, and it was as if a flock of brightly plumed birds winged its way across the floor, surrounding the bearded giant in a whirlwind of color and screeches. Merle and Merry clung tightly to their prize, refusing to relinquish his hands to the newcomers, while Berry kept a firm grip on Dalin’s belt. The pack of children soon was so thick the dwarf could not risk taking another step forward.

‘Go help Mister Steelhand, you beggar,’ Gilda cheerfully scolded. ‘The children will be the death of him.’ Bilbo gave Gilda a kiss, and went to help Dalin.

‘Now, now, children,’ Bilbo happily chided the exuberant mob, ‘be good to our guest! Say hello to Mister Dalin.’

‘Hello, Mister Dalin!’ the children obediently chorused. By this time, parents had gathered their wits and came to gather their offspring and herd them to the table. Bilbo reached the dwarf and gently began shooing the children off.

‘That’s it, very good, excellent, excellent, take your seats, there’s a good boy,’ he cajoled, giving little pats and pushes as needed. Merle had to have her hand prised off Dalin's, and be told rather sternly to be good and mind her little brother and cousin. She sighed with great exaggeration and dragged a protesting Merry and Berry behind her to the head of their table. It was obvious that Merle took her duties as Mistress of the children’s table quite seriously.

‘Thank you for your well-timed rescue, Mister Baggins,’ Dalin rumbled as they made their way up the hall. ‘I have rarely been encircled by such a ferocious pack.’ The dwarf obviously enjoyed the children’s attentions.

‘These are the dangers you encounter when you venture out into the wide world,’ Bilbo solemnly replied, ‘which is why you should always have a hobbit at hand,’ earning a great guffaw from Dalin. Bilbo guided the dwarf through the milling hobbits, who were waiting for the Master and Mistress to reach the head of the table before taking their own seats. He nodded a friendly greeting, calling out the occasional “Hullo! Wonderful to see you!” but did not halt for conversation.

‘Dalin,’ Bilbo said in a low voice as they drew near the head of the table, ‘you are the special guest of the Master and Mistress. You will sit at Gilda’s right hand through the meal. The only thing to remember is do not touch your plate or the silver until she has placed food on your plate at the meal’s start. Once she has done that, it is well. The kitchen girls will keep your plate brimming, so have no worries about that. Best to let others ask you questions this meal.’ Dalin grunted understanding, and they were at the head of the table.

Dalin bowed low to Rory and Gilda, eliciting many whispers (and, much to Bilbo’s irritation, a number of giggles) around the hall. Rory and Gilda nodded back and Bilbo helped Rory seat Gilda. The Mistress’s serving was accomplished, the dishes were filled, and the meal began.

Gilda was engaging Dalin in polite small talk about the food and drink, so Bilbo began to cast about the room to find where Frodo had disappeared to. Mac and Sara were busy at the foot of the table, loudly explaining the mysterious dwarf to guests and kin. Bilbo smiled wryly at the distortions in their account. He finally caught sight of Frodo at the tween table and relaxed a bit, then grinned as he realized that Frodo had taken the Master’s chair despite being the youngest tween at the table. Wilwarin, you don’t lack for nerve. The seat suits you well. A quick inventory of the other youngsters showed that all three of Frodo’s tormentors from Harvest were present among the twenty-odd tweens at the table. When Bilbo had been here last, the oldest looking tween, the biggest of the three bullies, had sat for the Master, and the fellow did not look terribly pleased at having his position usurped. You have no right to it, you great lummox. Only Merry or Berry has greater claim, and they haven’t the age.

‘Baggins? Are you ever going to say hello?’ said an amused voice to his right. Bilbo turned quickly to see his old friend Wilibald Bolger. His dear cousin, Prisca, smiled a hello from the other side of her husband. Bilbo reached out and put an arm over Wili’s shoulders.

‘Forgive me, Wili! I got distracted and you sneaked up on me. Going deaf, you know,’ he teased back.

‘Not from the look of you, Baggins!’ Wili replied, giving Bilbo a solid thump on the back. ‘Sorry I missed you at Harvest. I had to go up Whitfurrows, see the market, and pay respects to Odogar. He and Car had come down for Highday.’

Bilbo jumped at the opening. ‘Wili, I hear that the root harvest wasn’t so good up in Eastfarthing this year. What’s the truth about that?’

Wili’s face dropped, and he shook his head. Prisca leaned around him and took up the conversation. ‘It’s in a bad way, cousin. There’s hardly a decent root of any kind to be found either side of the Road east of the Oatbarton road. You have to go north of Scary or south past Stock to find anything fit to be put on a table.’

‘That’s unpleasant news, Prisca, but not so terrible,’ Bilbo replied. ‘I know Northfarthing has done well enough on their roots this year, as has Buckland. There should be enough to trade, if just.’

Wili and Prisca looked a bit grim. They had lived through the Fell Winter. Wili snorted and shook his head. ‘It would be all right if Odogar wasn’t such a pig-headed fool. He doesn’t want to trade here into Buckland, and don’t even talk about Northfarthing. He wants to be trading with Pal.’

Well, seems Farmer Haysend got his news just right. It also made a bit more sense that the “someone” in Southfarthing would be Pal, not Rum. Bilbo thought a bit, and decided Highday table was rather too public for any greater discussion of the topic. I’ll need to corner Rory on this later to see how stone plays into all of this. He smiled broadly and patted Wili’s back. ‘Well, Odogar can be a fool, it’s true, but he’ll usually come round when he sees what’s needed. What harm is there in letting him trade with Southfarthing? Don’t fret about it now, Wili. But let’s be sure to have a good chat when there’s not so many ears about, shall we?’ Bilbo let his voice drop a bit on his last words. Wili glanced around, then smiled knowingly and nodded.

‘Right you are, Baggins,’ Wili replied in an equally low voice. ‘Glad to see you here!’ Wili continued in a louder tone, ‘Wasn’t sure you’d make it here for Wintermark. You’ve been absent the last several years, and we’ve sorely missed your company.’

‘And I’ve missed being here. I could hardly bear it when I arrived here for Harvest and you two were gone!’ Bilbo spoke sincerely.

Prisca laughed. ‘But you did see our two great oxen, didn’t you? Bard and Fred? They said they enjoyed seeing you again.’

‘The pleasure was mutual, Prisca, I assure you. They are wonderful fellows.’ The brothers in question were exchanging pleasant insults and recent news with Sara and Mac at the end of the table. Bilbo noted the generations around the various tables. The elders were all clustered up at the head of the main table, carrying on about grandchildren and sore joints and old memories. Their children gathered with Sara and Mac, and the news was of children and work to be done and plans for the next week. The tweens pretended nonchalance while discussing annoying little siblings and places to meet later. The little children ate and sang and swooped over from their table for hugs, kisses, and tidbits, then flew back to their own friends.

‘Well, Bilbo, speaking of wonderful fellows, I am glad you have finally decided to take care of Frodo,’ Prisca said in a voice almost too low to be heard. Bilbo started to crane around Wili to speak with her, but she hopped up, made Wili slide down the bench, and settled in close to Bilbo. She did not bother to bring her own plate with her, simply appropriating her husband’s. Wili saw he was no longer needed for the conversation, and began chatting with the next hobbit over.

‘It did seem time to take on some responsibility, Prisca,’ Bilbo murmured back, very curious as to what was on her mind. ‘I promised his parents that I would take care of Frodo, and I mean to do just that.’

Prisca gave him a sidelong look, then took his hand and squeezed it. ‘Prim was dear to me, and Drogo too, cousin. I was ever so glad when I heard you had done as you should, and taken the boy on.’

Ah, so you’re one of the speculators. This was good. Prisca was a well-respected gossip, and a clever one. She could be counted on to spread the right lie quite artfully, particularly as she clearly believed it herself. ‘Well, Prisca, it was less a question of taking him on than of convincing Rory where the lad’s proper place was. I’m sure you understand.’ Bilbo raised a careful eyebrow, then sipped his wine.  Prisca nodded very slightly, a small smile on her lips.

‘Indeed. He has the Baggins look and he belongs in Bag End.’

Bilbo smiled sweetly in return. Perfect. ‘That was my thinking. I owe it to his parents to do right by the lad. You know I could deny them, or him, nothing.’ Prisca smiled widely and squeezed his hand again. A gust of laughter and chatter wafted up the table. Prisca glared over her shoulder at the noisy folk near the foot, then turned decisively back to Bilbo.

‘I’m glad you took him away from her!’ Prisca’s head jerked towards the end of the table, and Bilbo knew without a doubt which “her” Prisca was referring to. I need to talk to Gilda, and soon. He had no doubt that Gilda would have some interesting observations about Esmie in regards to Frodo. ‘That, that, Took, she’s always treated him more like a servant than a kinsman, if you ask me. As if she had any call to order Prim’s boy about!’

Bilbo sidled closer, placing a conspiratorial arm about her waist. Perhaps I can do a bit of investigation of our dear Attercop, with cousin Prisca’s help. ‘Now, Prisca,’ he said very softly, smiling genially, ‘I’ve always heard that Esmie took excellent care of Frodo after Prim’s passing. Kept him close and held him dear. Ordering him like a servant? Certainly she didn’t ask any more of him than she’d ask her own son to do, were he that age?’

Prisca’s eyes narrowed and she snorted. ‘I certainly should hope she would never act towards her own son as she has to Frodo! That would be beyond scandalous. Always patting him and flirting with him. You’d think she hadn’t a good man of her own!’

Bilbo feigned dismay. ‘I can hardly believe that, Prisca. I’ve heard naught but good of Esmie from Rory.’

‘A man isn’t in the kitchens or the lower tunnels,’ Prisca replied with some asperity, though her voice remained low. ‘What does Rory know of what goes on in the laundry?’

‘But surely Gilda would know, and she would talk to Rory,’ Bilbo pressed.

‘Not since she’s taken ill, she wouldn’t,’ Prisca countered. ‘And men lose their brains where a round rump and a sweet smile are involved.’

‘I don’t.’ Prisca pulled away a bit at the sharpness in Bilbo's tone. She regarded him closely, then nodded with a small smile.

‘I know. You’ve always been able to keep your sense around a girl. That’s why she doesn’t much like you, I’ll wager. She knows her charms are useless on you.’

Before Bilbo could follow up that comment, Wili reached over and playfully slapped at Bilbo’s hand on Prisca’s waist. ‘Good thing I know you’re her cousin, Baggins, else I’d think you were trying to steal my wife!’

Bilbo laughed and pulled Prisca into a tighter hug. ‘Of course I’m trying to steal your wife, Wili! Who wouldn’t at least try? But she won’t have me, so I’m left alone, as usual.’ Prisca kissed his cheek, then pulled out of his embrace to cozy up to Wili. Bilbo tipped his glass and gave them a smile.

Prisca had given him quite a bit to think on. He was now very sorry he had not taken time to speak with Gilda at Harvest. A glance towards the table head showed her and Dalin in an animated conversation about the history of Brandy Hall’s construction, while Rory was engaged in explaining something to his brother Saradas, pushing food around on his plate to represent some particular landscape. It appeared that they were discussing planting a new hedgerow.

Bilbo waved at one of the serving maids to get his now-cold plate removed. In a trice, a new, full plate was before him, as well as a fresh glass of wine. He took a bite of the mashed potatoes and parsnips, rich with cream, and decided he would send a letter to his farm foreman up in Oatbarton tomorrow, plus another to a trustworthy, if distant, kinswoman he knew in Frogmorton. Odogar and Pal may agree to cart in Southfarthing potatoes, but no harm in making sure there are more than anyone really needs. He took another bite of the mash, savoring its feel on his tongue. Roots were very good things, indeed.

After he had very deliberately cleaned his plate, Bilbo looked down the table at the Spider and the Snake. Merry had climbed up into his father’s lap, and was picking at the food on Sara’s plate. Sara had a casual arm slung around his son to keep him from falling or trying to leave with anything he should not, and was chatting to one of the Bolger boys and his cousin, Marmadas, about something. Mac threw in an occasional comment from across the table, but seemed mostly concerned with Dilly, who obviously had not recovered from Gilda’s scolding earlier in the evening. Esmie sat and ignored the conversations around her, staring into the distance.

Wrong. She was staring at Frodo. What are you thinking, Attercop? What do you think of Wilwarin now? Not the simple child you believed was in your web, and more beautiful than you had ever imagined. Her shock at the first sight of Frodo had almost made him laugh. He knew better than to think she had given up. If anything, the challenge would whet her appetite. Frodo’s questioning look when she had treated him as a child eight years younger than he actually was was quite satisfying. He knows there’s something wrong, Attercop, but does he know enough to elude you? In truth, while he knew very well how deeply his lad missed Rory and Gilda and his little cousins, Bilbo was still in the dark as to Frodo’s feelings towards Esmie.

In truth, Baggins, you know nothing of his desires. Bilbo had thought a great deal of what Frodo had said the night he had confronted the boy about Harvest. There was nothing certain there. Pleasures given in exchange for other things, but nothing that indicated any pleasure of his own. “I’m good at it.” Why, Wilwarin? For what reason? Why are you so practiced in that particular pleasure? Because you wished to be, or because you had to be? There was no knowing. Esmie continued her calm contemplation of the tween. Do you wonder the same things, Queen of Calamities? Do you know something of him I do not?

Bilbo thanked the girl who came around to refill his wine, and declined her offer to get him more supper. He let his eyes rest on Sara. Walking in the corridor, he had been glad for Gilda’s tight grip on his arm. It was all that had kept him from lunging forward and attacking Sara when the bastard put his hands on Frodo. The rough hand on Frodo’s shoulder at their greeting had been unpleasant enough to watch, though nothing came of it. Nothing came of it? There will be bruises on Wilwarin’s shoulder tonight. There had been some small, fading marks on Frodo’s arms and shoulders when they had arrived in Hobbiton, signs of Sara’s sharp elbows and digging fingers. And you let it happen again, Baggins. In front of all, he marked your boy again.

Worse by far, in the hallway, that too-familiar hand on the back of Frodo’s head. In the first few moments, Bilbo could not believe what he was seeing, then Frodo had tried to jerk his head out from under Sara’s touch. Watching Frodo struggle to get away, Bilbo had tried to disentangle his arm from Gilda’s, getting ready to defend his child, but she would not let go, and Frodo had broken free on his own. He took care of it by himself, Baggins, this and the grip on his shoulder. He’s not helpless. Indeed, Frodo had refused the offered shelter. After the boys had set off down the corridor again, Gilda had given Bilbo a rap with her cane and a warning glare, reminding him to let the boys settle their little scuffles on their own. He was reasonably sure all she had seen was some rough-housing, and that she had not understood the full meaning of Sara’s touches.

It was difficult to reconcile that predatory hand with how it appeared at this moment, gently holding Merry in place. This hand was good, respectable, tender. It would not harm the trusting flesh under it. Merry turned his face up to look at his Da, delighted at his father’s delight in him. Sara planted a loud kiss on the child’s forehead, then said something to make them both laugh. Bilbo turned away, and began chatting again with Prisca and Wili about trivial things.

Sooner than he had expected, Highday table was at an end, and people were rising to leave. Many hobbits lined up to give their greetings to Dalin and wish him a merry Yule. Bilbo stood next to the dwarf to make the introductions. The dwarf’s patience and good cheer was impressive. I would have begun to yawn and beg off by this point, Bilbo considered. Ah, Baggins, remember, he wishes to open up trade for Erebor – of course he will be a good ambassador! Merle quickly abandoned her post at the children’s table and reclaimed her new friend’s hand. The picture of the little hobbit lass and the great boulder of a dwarf was one Bilbo knew he would carry with him for many years.

As the line came to its end, Frodo appeared, trailed by a number of the other tweens. Frodo looked quite distinguished and adult compared to them. Bilbo beamed at his nephew.

‘Uncle Bilbo, Mister Dalin,’ Frodo politely greeted them. ‘Some of my cousins and friends have asked to be introduced to you, Mister Dalin, if you are not too tired from the evening. It can wait for another day, if so.’

‘I would be honored to meet some of your companions right now, Master Baggins,’ Dalin replied with a small bow. Bilbo was glad to hear it. He very much wished to discover the identities of the bullies, who were part of the group. He moved to the side to allow Frodo to stand with Dalin during the introductions, and so that he could get a good look at the youngsters’ faces. An older girl, perhaps almost thirty years old, was the first to approach. She was short but broad, and looked quite curious at meeting a dwarf.

‘This is Tanna Goldworthy, Mister Dalin.’ Dalin exchanged pleasantries and gently shook the girl’s hand. Two familiar-looking boys, also in their late twenties, stepped forward, round and solid, if a bit nervous. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder against each other.

‘These are my cousins Marmalas and Gormac Brandybuck.’ Bilbo nodded a bit in recognition. Gorbulas’ youngest boys, an unexpected pair of twins when all had thought there would be no more children. The boys did not reply to Dalin’s greetings, but bobbed identical bows before backing away, nearly knocking over the boy and girl standing behind them.

The boy Bilbo recognized as the first of the bullies from Harvest. He was rather nondescript, stout and dull-eyed. The girl reminded Bilbo of someone, though he could not figure out whom.

‘May I introduce Hamson and Harriet Bracegirdle.’ Lobelia’s niece and nephew. No wonder she looks familiar! The two mid-tweens bowed and mumbled greetings. Bilbo was not surprised that a kinsman of Lobelia’s would be a bully, though he was forced to admit that the boy’s older sisters, Hilda and Helga, married to Seredic Brandybuck and Wilifred Bolger respectively, were perfectly lovely girls. Another of the bullies, the second one, now stepped forward and offered his hand to Dalin with a cheerful grin. The boy barely looked a tween at all.

‘This is my cousin, Odogrim Bolger,’ Frodo said in a pleasant tone, as though this oaf had never done anything to him. Bilbo studied Frodo’s face from the corner of his eye. There was nothing to be read there; Frodo’s expression was genial, even bland. Then Bilbo saw it warm into true affection. A tall lass with pale brown hair and very pink cheeks stepped forward. Frodo reached out and touched her lightly on the shoulder.

‘This is Ula Proudfoot, a cousin from the Baggins side of the family,’ Frodo said with a bright smile at Ula, who smiled sweetly back. Odo’s youngest girl. Bilbo wondered how she had ended up visiting here. She calmly shook hands with Dalin. Frodo’s affectionate expression did not change as he reached out to the next tween in line, a small, sandy-haired boy with large hazel eyes. Bilbo figured he was one of the younger ones, in his early twenties at best.

‘May I introduce Tomson Tunnelly,’ Frodo said warmly, not taking his eyes off the other boy. Tomson did not appear to be very eager to make Dalin’s acquaintance, and Frodo had to take his arm and pull him the last step or two. The dwarf quickly saw the boy’s reluctance and simply inclined his head with a pleasant smile. Tomson mumbled something as he bobbed his head to Dalin and bolted off to stand partly behind Odogrim.

That left the chief bully and one younger girl who resembled him quite a bit. This fellow is no tween or I’ll eat my buttons. The fellow was no taller than Frodo, perhaps even a hair shorter, but substantially wider and more muscled. His dark, almost black, hair was shaggy and hid his eyes. A quick glance at Frodo showed him with a most polite smile firmly fixed on his lips, and a look in his eyes that indicated a deep, implacable hatred.

‘This is my cousin Bargo Burrows, Milo’s brother, and their sister Bluebell.’ Bilbo knew the mention of Milo was for his edification, not Dalin's. Bilbo quickly worked out the degree of relations and realized this was Frodo’s first cousin, son of Prim and Rory’s sister Asphodel. So, you did have precedence at table after all. That must have been a nasty tonic to swallow when Wilwarin took your place. Bilbo suppressed a smirk. Bargo did not look at Dalin at all, just kept glaring at Frodo from under his mop of hair. The small girl, looking like a pretty version of Dilly, elbowed her big brother out of the way and dropped a giggly curtsey to Dalin, who returned the honor with a rather exaggerated bow.

‘Oh, Mister Dwarf,’ she tittered, looking back and forth between Dalin and Frodo, ‘Welcome to Buckland for Yule. And thank you, Frodo, for bringing such a distinguished visitor!’ Bluebell reached out and touched Frodo’s hand and gave him a very flirtatious simper. Bilbo saw Bargo’s hands clench a little. Frodo smiled at Bluebell but did not reply, then shot an amused glance at Bargo. The older boy took his sister by the elbow and marched her off. Odogrim and the Bracegirdles followed after the Burrowses, as did the Tunnelly boy. The other youngsters said farewell and began drifting away.

Bilbo had no time to reflect on that last interaction as the Spider and the Snake strolled up to collect Merle and bid them good evening. Merry walked between his parents, holding their hands. Mac and Dilly followed a few paces behind, a sleepy Berry sitting on Mac’s shoulders. Bilbo felt Frodo edge closer, until his lad’s shoulder was just brushing his own.

‘Mister Steelhand,’ Sara said in cheerful inebriation, ‘good evening and Merry Yule. My brother and I were wondering if you would join us for a short walk in Bucklebury tomorrow after breakfast. There’s folk in town who’d like to meet you.’ Esmie smiled up at Sara, then motioned Merle to come take her hand. Reluctantly, Merle complied.

‘I would be honored to do so, Master Brandybuck,’ Dalin said.

‘Until the morrow, then. Good night cousins!’ Sara cheerily replied. Good nights were said all around, and Bilbo found himself standing with only Frodo and Dalin for company. Frodo silently watched his cousins exit the dining hall.

‘Well, Dalin, shall we walk you back to your room?’ Bilbo asked, glad to be rid of Sara and Esmie so easily. ‘I wouldn’t want you to get lost, after all.’

Dalin snorted in amusement. ‘I am a dwarf, Mister Baggins! I can find my way about anywhere underground with only one visit.’

Bilbo grinned, never one to ignore a boast. ‘Is that so, Master Dwarf? Well, then, please, will you be our guide so that we don’t lose our way in these dark tunnels?’ Dalin grinned in return and strode forward. Bilbo called out good nights to the kitchen girls as the ladies cleared the remains of the meal. He was not much surprised when Dalin set out in the correct direction at the first branch in the tunnels.

‘This is a fine set of caverns,’ Dalin rumbled agreeably. ‘Mistress Gilda and I had an excellent conversation about its creation.’ Dalin reached out and patted the wall of the corridor affectionately. ‘It is good to be able to walk a ways feeling the earth around you. Though it would be better were it lined with stone. The tunnels would be stronger and more durable.’

‘I’ve always wondered, Dalin,’ Bilbo asked, ‘if the stonework in the dining hall is dwarven. That’s what is said, but after seeing Erebor, I didn’t think it was so.’

‘So said Mistress Gilda. I will have to look more carefully at the pillars to know who made them, but I know it is none of the work of my own folk. Dwarves of Durin don’t design pillars in that fashion, though they do look typical of Belegost. I believe it is a dwarven design, but that the stones were laid by hobbits.’ Bilbo thought that made a great deal of sense. It was only a few minutes later that Dalin proudly led them into the family’s corridor and bid them good night with a grand bow.

As Bilbo closed the door to their room behind him, he realized that he was far too wound up to go to sleep. Frodo had moved to stir the fire, and now knelt very still on the hearth, watching the flames. It did not look as though Frodo was ready for sleep, either. Bilbo went over to the table where various odds and ends had been laid, including their pipes, and began preparing an evening smoke. Frodo did not look up until Bilbo handed him the raven pipe. Bilbo lit his own with a coal from the fire, then pulled up a chair. He expected Frodo to stay at the hearth, or else take the other chair, and was pleasantly surprised when the lad took a seat at his feet, sitting in profile with his back against Bilbo’s leg.

They sat like that for some time. Bilbo watched the fire and enjoyed the feel of his nephew’s touch. It had been very difficult, at first, to resist reaching out to pat or hug Frodo, and to allow the boy come to him instead. Frodo would always give him a perfunctory hug and kiss in the morning, simply greeting him for the day. In the evenings, he would sometimes sit at Bilbo’s feet like this or, much more rarely, would sit next to him on the couch. He particularly treasured the unexpected hug or quick kiss on the cheek that Frodo would suddenly bestow on him.

‘You were wrong.’

Bilbo sighed. One thing he did not treasure was Frodo’s unerring ability to pick a fight at exactly the wrong moment. ‘Yes, of course I’m wrong. How could it be otherwise? Now, Frodo, would you be so kind as to tell me what it is I am wrong about?’ Frodo turned towards Bilbo so they could see each other’s faces.

‘About the clothes.’

‘How so?’

‘You saw.’

Well, at least we get to discuss the evening’s events. Bilbo had hoped they would be able to do so in a less antagonistic manner, but was willing to seize any opening. ‘I saw many things this evening, Frodo. To what, specifically, do you refer?’

Frodo gave him a baleful glance. ‘Must you always talk in circles?’

Bilbo took a leisurely draw on his pipe before responding. ‘When presented with overly-vague statements, yes, I go around them until I find a door in. We can play riddle games all evening, lad, or you can tell me direct what I am supposed to have seen.’

Frodo dropped his eyes and did not answer for a while. ‘Sara. It didn’t change what he thought.’

‘On the contrary, I think you made him take notice that you are not what he has always believed. You greatly unsettled him, Frodo, so he tried to bully you.’ Bilbo watched Frodo stare off across the room, thinking.

‘But it didn’t change what he thought. He’ll always think it, always bully me.’ Bilbo could feel the boy’s back go very tense against his leg. Frodo turned his head and looked Bilbo in the eye. ‘You’ll always think it.’

‘Think what? What is it that you believe I think of you?’

‘What you said to make me change my clothes. A thief. And, and, how’d you say it? A bad-mannered little boy who…’ Frodo’s face became quite red as his words petered out, but he did not look away.

‘I do not think you are those things. I think you are as I call you, wilwarin, though perhaps still in a cocoon, not yet transformed,’ Bilbo calmly replied. ‘I told you plainly how you have appeared to others here in Buckland, to those who love you greatly and to those who do not, and I told you what you will need to do to change their minds and to think of you in a new way. Some people, such as Sara, will never change. That is his failing, not yours.’

Bilbo wished he did not need to say these things. He needs to hear them, Baggins. He needs to know, with no illusions, what he is facing. Bilbo kept his face calm while Frodo studied it.

‘You saw. You did see what Sara did.’

Bilbo could not help how the memory of Sara’s hands made his face twist in anger. ‘That he touched you? Tried to hurt you? Yes, I saw!’ A look very close to relief came over Frodo’s face.

‘Then you saw that I didn’t do anything! I was trying to be good, and he was still mean.’

‘You were a perfect gentlehobbit, Frodo. Well, aside from a bit of rough-housing, but you didn’t start that. The fault is entirely Sara’s.’ Frodo nodded, satisfied with the vindication. Bilbo decided to push the conversation a bit. ‘I also saw that you fended him off rather nicely both times. I was about to intercede twice, but I ended up not having to.’

‘I didn’t want you to do anything!’

‘Why not?’ Bilbo was puzzled at Frodo’s vehemence. ‘I’m not afraid of Sara, and I detest how he torments you. I’d rather relish teaching him a lesson.’

‘No! You mustn’t. I don’t want you getting hurt. He’s very strong!’ Frodo protested.

That’s not quite all you’re thinking, is it, Wilwarin? As touched as he was at Frodo’s concern for him, Bilbo knew there had to be a more self-interested reason involved in the objection. ‘So am I quite strong, Frodo. I have tangled with creatures far nastier than your cousin,’ his wife, for one, ‘so I would not be a terribly easy target. Sara might find himself in a great deal of trouble were he to face me.’ And I would so enjoy cutting him down to size. Bilbo pushed away the small, insistent voice in the back of his head that urged him to hunt Sara down and do evil things to him.

Frodo looked more concerned than ever. ‘Please don’t, not on my account! It was, it was just rough-housing,’ his nephew sternly informed him, ‘and it’s nothing. I can take it.’

Bilbo’s temper flared up. ‘What Mac did was rough-housing. What Sara did was wrong. I do not want you to “take it.” I want him to keep his miserable hands off you!’

Frodo reached out and gently stroked the back of Bilbo’s hand. ‘I know. I know you do, Uncle Bilbo, and that’s what I want, too. But if you make a fuss, then other people are going to wonder why you’re so upset. They’ll think… wicked things.’

Bilbo could not deny the acuity of Frodo’s observation, even as it revulsed him. And here you’ve been lecturing him about other people’s perceptions. Learn your own lessons, Baggins! The wicked-tongued will think you act from jealousy, not anger. He took Frodo’s hand in his own. ‘I had not thought that, Frodo, but you’re right.’

The lad smiled a little, then took a deep breath, and met Bilbo’s eyes directly. ‘I want to know. What did you say to Uncle Rory? So that you could take me? Did you tell him about Sara?’

Bilbo shook his head. ‘No, I did not tell him about Sara.’ Frodo sighed and let go his hand. ‘Frodo, I promised you that I was not going to tell on you, and I do my best to keep such promises. Your Uncle Rory needed some answers, and I probably said more than you would have wanted me to say,’ and several things I don’t want you to know I said, ‘but I said as little as I could.’

‘I would like to know exactly what you did say, please.’ Frodo’s voice was quiet, but commanding.

Bilbo nodded assent, then sat for a moment remembering the conversation so he could pick out what needed saying. ‘First off, I told Rory that I had asked you directly what was going on with the other boys, and that you had answered me honestly and completely. I assured him that the details were not particularly terrible,’ Frodo’s eyebrows went up at that news, ‘and that I would not tell him the details, as it was a confidence between you and me.’

Frodo looked at him quizzically. ‘You don’t think what I did was terrible?’

Bilbo shrugged. ‘It was terrible to hear. I’ve said before I think people did terrible things to you. They were old enough to have known better. But I don’t think you did a terrible thing, though it is my strong wish that you never do so again, especially now that you know better.’ He fixed a stern eye on Frodo, who paled a bit and nodded understanding. Bilbo resumed his account.

‘I also told Rory that you were being bullied quite badly in a number of ways by older boys, and that Sara was doing his own bullying. That is all I said of Sara. I said that as far as the other boys were concerned, whatever it was you had done, you did because they had forced you and because you were too ashamed to ask for help. Finally, I told him you had not really understood what you had got yourself into. And I said that I would make sure it never happened again.’

Frodo nodded thoughtfully, but did not reply. ‘What you choose to say to your uncle at this point is for you to decide, Frodo,’ Bilbo quietly concluded. ‘I think it best that you tell him the truth, as you told me.’

‘I don’t want him to know about Sara.’

‘Why not? Shouldn’t he know such things about his own son?’

‘Who would want to hear such a thing?’ Frodo bitterly replied. ‘Uncle Rory won’t believe me if I said it. It would cause too much trouble, upset too many people.’

‘But I doubt anything short of Rory forbidding him will make Sara leave you be,’ Bilbo responded. ‘People may be upset for a while, but if it makes Sara keep his hands to himself, I say it’s worth it!’

‘Well I don’t!’ was Frodo’s sharp reply. The lad scrambled to his feet and put his cold pipe down on the table, then turned to face Bilbo, arms crossed over his chest. ‘I forbid you to tell anyone of Sara.’

Bilbo had to admire Frodo’s determination, even as he was exasperated by the lad’s hard-headedness. The boy’s chin was up and he had his most imperious Took face on.

‘Very well, Frodo. If Sara behaves himself, and I see that you are able to handle whatever mischief he is up to, I shall hold my tongue. You do need to be able to defend yourself. But if I see something that goes beyond the kind of rough-housing I saw in the tunnel, I shall not remain bound by this promise. Understand, Frodo, that when I see him use you badly, my wish is tear him limb from limb. If I see such things, I shall either have a talk with Rory, or I shall take care of the matter myself. What I will not do is stand aside and let you be harmed. I promised you that in this very room, and I keep my promises. Fair enough?’

Frodo considered Bilbo’s words and nodded. ‘Fair enough.’

‘Good. Now, it is late, and there is much to do tomorrow, so off to bed with you,’ Bilbo said in a more cheerful tone. The old hobbit fussed with things on the table to give Frodo a bit of privacy in which to change, and then muttered a bit to himself as he picked up the dropped and rumpled clothes Frodo had left behind, while the boy washed up. Bilbo changed himself into a nightshirt, though he rarely bothered with them at home. It took Bilbo a long time to drift off.


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