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On Merry Yule: 23. Bagshot Row
Evening, 5 Mersday, Afteryule
Frodo listened to the Widow Grubb’s door close with a solid thump and wondered how things had become so strange. Bilbo leaned against the doorjamb to their own room and laughed over the widow’s words. To his consternation, Bilbo’s laughter turned into a few gasps, as though he were having a problem breathing. Or was trying not to cry. Frodo waited, anxious, while Bilbo kept his face buried in the crook of his arm. Bilbo raised his head, wearing a rueful grin.
‘Come on, lad. Let us get some rest.’ He followed the old Hobbit into the room. The only light was from the fire, which was dying. It threw odd shadows about the room. Bilbo shed his coat and began digging in his pockets for his pipe-weed pouch. ‘May I prepare you a pipe, Frodo, or do you wish to go right to bed?’
‘A pipe, please, Uncle Bilbo.’ Frodo was still holding his raven pipe. It was warm. When he had jumped up to keep Bilbo from leaving, he had been holding it. Frodo handed it over, and Bilbo knocked out the ashes into the fireplace. He was not going to go to bed until Bilbo did, and he was not falling asleep until the other did. For all Frodo knew, Bilbo had not slept in three days.
He is tired, just like he said to Widow Grubb. He is very tired. He is very crazy, Rat. There’s a good reason people call him “Mad Baggins”. They don’t know him! He is not mad. He’s just tired. And who has tired him out so much, Rat? Frodo tried to keep his concern off of his face as he took the prepared pipe, but Bilbo gave him a sharp look.
‘What is the matter, Wilwarin?’ Bilbo asked as he put his own pipe together. Frodo did not answer. Bilbo finished and settled in the chair before the fire. He sat down at his uncle’s feet and leaned against Bilbo’s leg, the way he knew Bilbo liked for him to do. He made sure he sat quite close, and was rewarded with a soft pat and a squeeze on his shoulder. Before Bilbo could pull his hand away, Frodo reached up and caught the old Hobbits fingers in his own, stroked them, then pressed them gently down on his shoulder, letting Bilbo know it was all right to leave his hand there. As he hoped, his uncle gently kneaded his shoulder. Frodo could feel tension leave his uncle’s form.
‘I’m a little worried that you are so tired, Uncle Bilbo,’ Frodo finally said. He felt Bilbo give his shoulder a reassuring squeeze, then go back to the slow kneading. It felt very good.
‘Well, I shall sleep well tonight, my boy, and tomorrow I shall sleep even better, for I will be back home.’
Bilbo’s tone was calm, a little sleepy. That was good. The last few days, especially the last two in Buckland, had left Bilbo so agitated and angry. Frodo covered up a small shiver with a yawn. He wanted to get to Bag End quickly. Bilbo never acted oddly there. He was fussy and busy and annoying, yes, but he had never left this clutching fear behind while puttering about the smial, either. The business with the wardrobe was anger and being so tired. What caused the fight with Gammer, Frodo had no idea, but was reasonably certain it involved him and Sara in some measure. Then, there was the hallway.
Frodo had to yawn again to cover up his shudder at the memory of the shadows and his uncle’s threat. It was not anger, precisely, that he had felt from Bilbo. He thought he knew what made the fish jump out of the lake, as Dalin had described. Dread. Bilbo was dreadful in that moment, particularly when his tone had dropped and his eyes had turned cruel, his words, enchanted. Caught between a dragon and a mountain. A murdering mountain. When they had started out this morning, Frodo had thought he would prefer to travel with Sara than with Bilbo and Dalin. Sara he knew how to calm and placate. Bilbo would not allow such a thing. Frodo had not a clue as to what might placate a Dwarf. He did not think that even gold would suffice.
He drew on his pipe and held in the smoke, then let it out slowly. The smoke was soothing. Their pouches were filled with the best Southfarthing leaf. He was not sure where the Widow Grubb obtained her supply, but it was bitter, with a muddy undertone. This was better. Bilbo was fussy about his pipe-weed. He would never be so rude as to refuse the gift of a host, but he rarely kept leaf others gave to him. Frodo let his head tip sideways and rest on Bilbo’s thigh. His uncle’s hand was very relaxed on his shoulder, no longer kneading. He could feel small taps of fingertips and smiled a little, knowing that Bilbo had remembered some beloved bit of poetry and was tapping the meter.
Frodo frowned. Poetry meant Elvish poetry, and Elves meant leaving. Where was he going? He did not believe for a second that Bilbo had been going off to bed. He was talking to himself about the south. Did he mean to leave me and go south? He’s just mad, Rat, and tired. Get him to bed, then get him home. “As long as you need him, he will stay safely in the Shire. You need to help me keep him here, until it is safe to go see Elves.” Is that why you have sent me to him, Gammer? To make him stay? All the dark and dangerous things he had heard spoken of over the last fortnight made Frodo shiver and this time he was not able to cover it up with a yawn.
‘You’re shaking, Wilwarin. Are you all right?’
‘I think I am very tired, too, and now I am getting cold,’ Frodo hedged. He was tired and he did feel chilled in his hands and feet. Bilbo gave a contented rumble and began to move.
‘Well, then, it behooves us both to cease our thoughts and seek our slumber.’
Frodo stood and collected Bilbo’s pipe, knocking out ashes and tucking it into a coat pocket. He was undressing for bed when he realized he did not have a nightshirt. He guessed it really did not matter, seeing as how they had seen each other undressed any number of times this visit, but he still felt shy. Frodo very carefully and neatly folded his clothes as he removed them, keeping his back to Bilbo. No point in risking the other’s ire over messy things. Bilbo had already climbed into bed by the time he finished. As Frodo climbed into the bed, he shivered again at the touch of cold sheets on his skin. He scooted as close to Bilbo as he could without actually touching him, hoping to share some warmth.
Bilbo’s arm pulled him close, spooning against him as they had the night Dilly had lost her child. There was solidity and warmth in the press of Bilbo’s chest against his back, leaving no room for shadows or wandering away. Frodo tucked Bilbo’s arm under his own, wanting to feel himself held. He snugged himself as close to his uncle as he could, as though Bilbo were a great blanket. Bilbo’s face rested against his neck, breath warm and smoky. Faster than Frodo thought possible, the old Hobbit was limply asleep, arm heavy across Frodo’s ribs, a soft hint of a snore in his breathing. He himself did not fall asleep at once, though drowsiness was claiming him. He lay and enjoyed the closeness, the pleasing feel of skin next to skin, the scent of ink, leaf and musk that was Bilbo. Frodo smiled a little to himself as he drifted into dreams.
He was woken the next morning by a gentle shake of his shoulder.
‘Wilwarin, it is time to rise. We have a good walk ahead of us today!’ Bilbo cheerfully greeted him. His uncle was already dressed, the fire was crackling, and the room was quite warm. Frodo could see Bilbo’s pipe resting on a small table near the chair, and wondered how long the old Hobbit had been awake. You’re to keep an eye on him, Rat, and you can’t keep track of him, even when you’re sharing his bed. Bilbo looked almost completely his usual, happy, inquisitive self this morning, and the oddness of the previous day was gone. Frodo stretched and got out of bed to dress.
‘Your back looks much better, Frodo. How does it feel?’
‘Well enough, Uncle Bilbo. A few spots still ache, but I am doing well.’
It did not take long to ready themselves, though Frodo wished they had water for washing, and they soon collected Dalin. The three made their way to the kitchen, where they were greeted with a chorus of girlish ‘Good morning, Masters!’ from the widow’s granddaughters. Their mothers were not to be seen, and the widow herself perched on her stool like a great black crow.
‘What is wrong with ye, you sluggards?’ she snapped. ‘ ‘Tis a full hour past sunrise. Don’t you have a journey to make today, or are you going to lay about, eating my meat, smoking my weed, and guzzling my beer?’ Her one eye glared at Bilbo. The granddaughters busied themselves setting out a hearty looking breakfast on the long table.
Bilbo chuckled and placed a kiss directly on Widow Grubb’s eye patch. ‘Well, old crone, we would most certainly prefer to lay about and abuse your hospitality, but you’d beat us all soundly and put us to work, so I think we shall leave, once we’ve cleaned your larder of breakfast!’ She grinned with her gapping, crooked teeth and returned Bilbo’s kiss. Dalin also received a kiss, and laughed. Frodo gave her a small bob of the head as he passed her, refusing to come within arm’s reach. The widow harrumphed, and glared at him with her remaining eye. She turned around on her stool to watch them as they ate. Frodo did not know how his uncle could keep from flinching at the hag’s touch.
There was naught to complain about over the food, however. Frodo ate his fill of the thick slices of toasted brown bread, soaked with butter and honey, the sausages and bacon, the tiny smoked fish, the thick porridge drowning in cream, with thick amber beer to wash it all down. He wondered if they drank anything else in this house. Bilbo ate some porridge and a few of the fish, but seemed content with the beer. Dalin ate heartily.
‘You will keep me apprised, Maud, of how the tables are? And how you do in your vermin hunt?’ Bilbo asked with a wicked twinkle.
‘Oh, aye, Baggins, that I’ll do,’ she assured him. One of her granddaughters brought her a mug. ‘And you’ll tell me more of what tomfoolery old Odogar is cooking up, won’t you?’
‘As I piece it out and understand it myself, I will, Maud.’ She swilled some beer and swished it around her mouth before swallowing, looking surly.
‘You called that thieving fool part of a puzzle, Baggins. What pieces are you seeking for?’
Frodo wished she would be quiet and quit reminding Bilbo of his dark thoughts. His uncle’s brow knit in concentration. After a bit, he sighed and shook his head. ‘I have no idea, old woman. Just things that are wrong in bad ways. Things that shouldn’t be, but are no accident. Keep your prying nose into everyone’s business and listen for such things.’ She cackled unpleasantly.
‘As if I do aught else! Well, Old Maudie knows that business well enough and she’ll be telling you as long as you tell her your business.’ Bilbo smiled and rose from the table. Dalin and Frodo hastily gobbled the last on their plates and followed suit. His uncle held the old hag in a long embrace.
‘Good-bye, Maud. I’ll be writing.’
‘Good-bye, Bilbo. I’ll be snooping!’ They shared a laugh, and Bilbo turned to go. Dalin bowed to Widow Grubb, as did Frodo. She did not turn to watch them leave the kitchen. One of the granddaughters escorted them to the front door, where their packs, and Dalin’s axe, sat waiting for them. Bilbo’s pack was filled with dinner – Frodo caught the smell of cured ham rising from it. They stepped out the door to allow Dalin to hoist his burdens, then set off.
The day was not as bitingly cold as the previous one, and soft-grey clouds covered the sky. They were not heavy enough to be holding snow, but there was a damp threat in the breeze out of the west. He was glad they were to be in Bag End by nightfall. They made their way out of Frogmorton, returning greetings called out, waved, and nodded by the friendly folk who lived there. A shepherd with a sharp-eyed drover dog filled the Road ahead of them with his flock of black and brown sheep. Seeing the travelers, he whistled up the dog.
‘Hi, there, Snap! Clear a way for these good fellows!’ The dog’s tongue lolled out the side of his mouth, and then he was away like a streak, white collar standing out against his glossy black coat, harrying and jostling the sheep off the Road. One sheep did not wish to obey, and put its head down, threatening to butt the dog. It was a wily old ewe with a ring through her ear. Frodo could tell this was a contest the two animals had engaged in before. The dog stalked about her, snarling, but the ewe kept her rump to the stone wall beside the Road, and threatened with her poll whenever Snap came close.
I’m Snap, keeping Bilbo to the right side of the Road. Let’s hope you have better luck, Rat. The shepherd strode over and used his crook to push the ewe back to the flock. She was none to pleased and butted the shepherd when he turned away from her to wave them past. They all laughed at the stubborn old ewe.
They tramped on all morning, making good time. Bilbo whistled now and then, but no one wasted any breath on conversation. The weather was turning worse ahead of them, and it would not be wise to loiter on the Road. Frodo spent his time trying to puzzle out the exchanges with Gun the day before. This isn’t just the root harvest, or the tannery, that’s clear. It has to do with Odogar wanting the be called “the Bolger”. He wants to take everything away from Uncle Rory – the Marish, the Road, and more beyond that. He shook his head in incomprehension. It was one thing to describe dragon fever; it was another to try to understand what someone in its grip would do. After a few miles, Frodo decided he needed to ask Bilbo for some answers.
They stopped for dinner two miles west of the Oatbarton road. Bread, cheese, cured ham, cold pot-roast and a skin of beer came out of Bilbo’s pack. They still had a little bit of the sausages and pickles from Brandy Hall, and the dinner was filling.
‘Uncle Bilbo, I have been thinking as hard as I can about Odogar and Gun, and I confess I cannot figure out what they are up to, save only that it is no good,’ Frodo said after washing down a mouth of ham with a swig of beer from the skin. ‘I can guess that you are trying to convince them you are in agreement with them so you can find out more of what they are up to. I don’t understand why they hate Uncle Rory so much. What has he done to them? Surely it cannot be that the Marish looks to the Master – it has always done so!’
Bilbo ate a few bites before answering. ‘I am not certain, myself, Frodo. I mean, I know what Odogar thinks to do, but why he should think it a good thing, I cannot comprehend. So, I ingratiate myself and try to understand it at the same time as I hope to prevent it.’
‘Did you have to talk about Aunt Prisca like that?’ Frodo gave Bilbo an annoyed look. Bilbo shrugged.
‘I said nothing specific. That Gun chose to interpret my words at their most vile says more of him than of me. It is a bit of gossip no one would believe, anyway.’ Frodo thought of how much Aunt Prisca hung on Bilbo at Wintermark and flirted with him over all of Yule, and was not so certain.
‘What of the spinning mill, Mister Baggins?’ Dalin rumbled. ‘That is something Master Rory would very much want, but between the weak-flowing stream and the weak-witted kin, it does not look promising.’
‘If Rory wants a spinning mill, then he should build it on the River, preferably in Buckland, but certainly no further than the Marish, and the closer to the Bridge, the better. Shear the sheep in the south and drive the old ones up to Girdley Island for slaughter and tanning. Or slaughter in the south and cart the hides up.’
‘I like Mister Bracegirdle little more than I like Mister Bolger. Either of the Mister Bolgers!’ Dalin bristled.
‘It matters not whether they are likeable, Dalin. They are the heads of their families, my kinsmen, if only by marriage, and they must be dealt with. If they are haughty and uncivil to me and to the Master, imagine how they are with those who have no claim upon them, and no power against them. If I can burgle a dragon for Dwarves, then I can confound some kin for Hobbits.’
He cares for the Shire, as he said his father once did. “The Master should be thinking of larger concerns.” Bilbo’s willingness to bear up under wicked words and petty insults suddenly looked larger, more important, than just biding one’s time until the hurt could be corrected or returned. Frodo simultaneously felt very proud of what Bilbo did, and rather jealous of the attention going elsewhere than himself. He remembered Gammer scolding him that he would learn what it meant to be the Baggins’ heir. You sent me away because of your Mistress duties. Frodo sighed, not pleased with duties. Soon thereafter, they packed up their dinner and set out again.
They tramped quickly, one eye on the darkening sky before them. There would be snow that night. The miles passed under their feet. They reached Bywater at dusk. Dalin attempted to bid them good-bye and turn aside at The Green Dragon.
‘You shall do no such thing!’ Bilbo indignantly said, standing across the entry to the inn’s yard, hands on hips.
‘I would not impose upon your hospitality and kindness another day, Lord of Burglars,’ Dalin contritely rumbled. Bilbo snorted.
‘I shall tell you if you are doing so, rest assured, Dalin! No friend of mine will stay at an inn when there is a bed to be had at Bag End. Come along now, or do I have to throw you over my shoulder and carry you there?’ Dalin and Frodo laughed at the thought, but the Dwarf did cease his protests.
It was full dark by the time they plodded into Hobbiton. There were few Hobbits outside at this time, but all who were recognized Bilbo and Frodo and greeted them warmly. Even the miller, Mister Sandyman, was reasonably courteous. Frodo thought his feet had turned to stone or that he was wearing Dwarven boots as they began to climb up the Hill. There, at the top of Hill, he could glimpse the windows of Bag End, gleaming cheerfully in the dark. Most of the other homes were tightly shuttered against the coming weather. Indeed, as they turned into Bagshot Row, Frodo felt the first few flakes of snow begin to fall. They got to the green door to the smial before it came down more heavily. The door was not locked, and Bilbo gave a cry of joy as he flung it open.
His uncle grandly waved Dalin and Frodo in before him, laughing as he did. The lanterns in the entry hall caught Bilbo’s face, glinting off the drops of the melted snowflakes caught in his curly hair, making his dark eyes shine, illuminating the wide smile under cold-reddened cheeks. Bilbo gave the door a playful kick with his heel, closing it with a resounding thud. Frodo sighed in weariness as he shed his pack, scarf, cloak and gloves, hanging the cloak on the rack. Dalin set Shadow Foe against the wall, dropped his pack, and removed his scarlet cloak. The smial was deliciously warm.
After resting a moment, Frodo took both his own and Bilbo’s packs to their rooms. Bilbo had already set off, humming loudly and happily, to see to water for tea. Dalin followed Frodo, carrying his own pack. By the time they went to the kitchen, Bilbo had set the table and was laying out cold dishes Missus Gamgee had left for them. Frodo could smell delicious scents coming from some tightly sealed pots set in the coals of the kitchen fire.
Bilbo bustled about as though he had not just walked twenty miles in the cold. Soon there was a basin of warm water for washing hands and faces, and mugs of hot tea for warming cold bellies before the meal. A pitcher of Hobbiton ale joined the bread and cheese. The hot pots were pulled from the fire, dusted of ash, and opened. Frodo could never remember what was on the table that night, only that it tasted good. His cold feet thawed out and his fingers regained their flexibility. Soon Frodo was yawning and leaning his elbows on the table. He staggered to his feet and tried to help Bilbo clear the table, but his uncle just laughed.
‘Wilwarin, you’ll drop everything and fall asleep into the sink. Get you to bed, lad!’ Bilbo turned him towards the hall and gave him a gentle push.
Frodo mumbled something about not being tired, yawned hugely, and staggered off to his room. There was no fire here, so the room was chilly. That woke him up a bit. Frodo did not light a candle or a fire, but felt his way over to his bed. The corner of the covers was neatly turned down. He undressed in the dark, tossing his soiled travel clothes somewhere in the direction of the dirty clothes basket and not bothering to find a nightshirt. He rarely used one, anyway. Shivering in the cool air, Frodo started to slide into bed, then twisted around as his neck brushed something on his pillow. His hands felt the small lump, and he brought it to his nose to sniff. It was some kind of sweet, wrapped in a bit of cloth. Missus Gamgee must have left it on my pillow when she turned down the covers. He smiled and carefully set the gift on the small table near the head of the bed.
He sank back onto the very soft pillow and sighed contentedly. No walking tomorrow. He hoped the snow would not be too deep so that Sam and May could come visit. No lessons, though, just fun and snowballs. They would have such fun with Merle and Merry. I wonder if it is snowing in Buckland, too? Frodo snuggled down in his blankets, which unfortunately were freshly washed and did not smell like his bed.
The minutes ticked by, and he did not fall asleep. The sheets were warmed by his body, and the good wool blankets rested solid and heavy across his back. Frodo sighed and turned over, tried to sleep, could not, turned over again, wriggled, stretched, buried his head in his pillow, and still was awake. He rolled over with an exasperated sigh and reached out… Bilbo. His hand ran over the place next to him where Bilbo was not. And would not be again for some time. Perhaps never. Loneliness came over him, and, though he did not cry, his throat seized up painfully and his eyes stung. Frodo rucked up his blankets so they made a lump next to him, and hugged them. He’s not gone away, Rat. He’s in the next room, snoring. Don’t be stupid! You can’t. Slowly, exhaustion forced his mind to calm and drift into sleep.
He woke earlier than usual the next morning, feeling chilled and grimy. Frodo pulled on a heavy nightshirt and wrapped himself in a robe, made his bed, then padded out to the kitchen to fetch hot water. Through the window, he could see that the Hill was covered with a thin white blanket. He heard Bilbo’s voice outside talking to someone, probably Mister Gamgee. He poured hot water from the large tea kettle into a pitcher and went to wash up. By the time he was clean and dressed, Bilbo had returned and Dalin had woken.
‘Good morning, Wilwarin!’ Bilbo said with great energy as he walked in. Frodo gave him the usual morning hug and kiss, trying not to cling too long.
‘Dalin, Ham Gamgee says he thinks it will snow again mid-day, but that the clouds will be gone on the morrow,’ Bilbo announced as he began to gather things for breakfast. ‘Will you stay one day here in Bag End and rest your feet before you journey on? I do not wish to keep you, but I would so like to visit more and I hate the idea of sending a guest out into bad weather!’
‘If you can bear a great, thumping Dwarf in your smial for one more day, Lord of Burglars, I would be grateful for shelter from the snow,’ Dalin replied. That business settled, the three set to making, and eating, a good breakfast. Bilbo even showed Frodo how to make coffee. Dalin offered a few suggestions about proportions of the cracked coffee berries and water, which made it almost palatable when mixed with nearly equal amounts of sugar and cream, much better than the tar-like brew Bilbo had prepared on Dalin’s arrival. Frodo finished his cup of it, and graciously left the remainder for the Dwarf.
He could hear Mister Gamgee moving about outside, stacking cut logs on the wood pile near the door. Frodo pulled on his cloak and stepped out to greet the gardener.
‘Good morning to you, Mister Gamgee, and Yule blessings on thee and thine!’
‘Why, good morning to ye, Master Frodo! I thank thee for thy blessing, and wish the same upon ye in return,’ the weathered Hobbit returned with a cheerful smile. ‘How are ye, lad? Did you have a good Yule, visiting with your cousins and kin in Buckland?’
I was miserable, and hope that half of my kin freeze in a snowbank. ‘I had a lovely Yule, Mister Gamgee, but I am glad to be back home.’ Home. Not yet, but it will be. It has to be. I’ve no other, now. ‘How was your Yule, sir?’
Mister Gamgee grinned broadly, ‘A very fine Yule, Master Frodo! We were visiting up and down the Row all day, and then had a jolly feast. ‘Twas as good a Yule as I’ve seen. Thankee and your uncle, Mister Bilbo, too, for the gifts you gave us, though I think the little ones preferred the tin of sweets to the pens and ink.’ Mister Gamgee gave Frodo a wink. May and Sam had each received a few prepared quills and a bottle of blue ink in a pretty crystal ink well from Frodo, while Bilbo gave them sweets. Frodo laughed and shrugged. If he were eight years old, he would prefer sweets, too.
‘Would it be all right for May and Sam to come visit today? I have missed them a great deal and would like to see them. I do not wish to set Missus Gamgee’s neat kitchen into an uproar.’
Mister Gamgee wrinkled his brow and sent a furtive look toward one of the windows. Just then, Dalin let out a great guffaw of laughter. ‘Well, now, Mister Frodo, it seems as your uncle has a guest already, and I’ll not have the young ones disturbing him. You’re more than welcome to come down the Row and see them in our smial. The missus would much like a visit from ye, after you being gone so long. You know women folk,’ Mister Gamgee tried to joke, ‘never happy unless they have you sitting at a table. She’s certain you’ve wasted away, not having any good Hobbiton cooking.’
He’s afraid of Dalin, and doesn’t want the children near. If he’d seen what happened in Newbury, he wouldn’t risk coming near Bag End himself, Rat. ‘I think Uncle Bilbo may wish for me to stay close and rest, Mister Gamgee. He’s worried I have been tired out by all the visiting and travel. Perhaps tomorrow, then? Uncle Bilbo said you thought the weather would be better tomorrow, as well. Mister Dalin plans on setting off on the morrow, too, so Uncle Bilbo won’t have his own visit interrupted.’
‘That sounds a good plan, Master Frodo,’ Mister Gamgee agreed, ‘and your uncle is right – you do look more than a mite tuckered out from your travels. But if you feel more rested this afternoon, the missus will be more than pleased to set you a place at table.’
Frodo said his good-byes and went back inside. Bilbo and Dalin were comfortably seated before the fire in Bilbo’s study, smoking their pipes, drinking wine, and talking of Erebor and spinning mills. Dalin was explaining how the gears all worked together. Frodo did not want to hear of these odd contraptions and distant places. He wanted Hobbits and normal things.
‘I’ll be unpacking my trunk, Uncle Bilbo,’ Frodo said from the doorway, ‘and perhaps taking a nap later. Mister Gamgee invited me down to their smial to visit this afternoon, if it is all right with you.’
‘As you wish, lad, as you wish. Don’t go out if it starts snowing again, and let me know when you leave. We’ll be here all day, I believe.’
After starting a fire, Frodo opened up his trunk. Bilbo had packed it, so everything was nice and neat. He sat and sorted it out – clean clothes laid on the bed for putting away, dirty clothes tossed into the basket (to his annoyance, Frodo saw Bilbo had collected the strewn clothes from last night, and put them neatly in the basket), presents and treasures in a small stack on the floor. The trunk he slid out into the hall, then closed the door. The clean clothes he carefully put away, shaking out the fine shirts and hanging them on pegs so the wrinkles would relax. He took a moment to admire the needlework on the shirt Dilly had given him. She had sewn her mark, a small daffodil, on the back of each cuff. Methodically, he hunted through all of the drawers, shelves, and hooks, locating all of the old clothes he had brought with him from Brandy Hall in Halimath. These he took to the rag bin in the store room. When he returned, he cleaned out one drawer in the chest, and put his father’s waistcoat in it, laying it just so with all of its buttons properly done up.
Frodo sat on the floor with his back against the bed and looked at the presents. That was my last Yule in Buckland. He pulled out the pouch of pipe-weed from Uncle Rory and looked at it, then picked up the Raven pipe in his other hand. It all started with the pipe. When he first had seen this beautiful thing in Bilbo’s hands, he had been entranced. By the pipe, to be certain, but also by the giver. He had not seen Bilbo in five years, and his ears had been filled with many things about his uncle, delightful from Gammer and Uncle Rory, unsettling from Sara and Esmie. He wanted me from the moment he saw me. No, Rat, remember what Gammer said. She was always going to send you to him. He took you in because she wanted him to. He would do anything for her. He worked his thumb across the silver ravens.
But that was not quite right, either. Bilbo did not simply take him away. Sara had always threatened him with that – mind you manners, Rat, or I’ll have you sent off to Mad Baggins – and when Bilbo brought it up, the night he received the raven pipe, it had left him frightened. And curious. He had given Bilbo that soft kiss, the one Sara liked, and waited to see what would happen. Bilbo had remained the same as he had ever been, the beloved man whom he had always associated with Mama and Papa laughing, the story-teller and gift-giver.
He gave me Mama’s quilt back. Missus Gamgee had removed the quilt when she changed the linens, putting another in its place. He made a note to himself to find it and put it back where it belonged. And then he took me on our butterfly hunt. Frodo had to smile at that memory. It felt like an adventure, sneaking around and peeking at things, watching Bilbo deftly snatch things out of drawers, off of shelves, even taking a sheet off of a bed and swiftly remaking the bed. He thought I was going to go to Uncle Pal, not with him, and he still tracked down the linens for me. He was going to keep them until I came to get them. Sara had been cruel to him the next day, though he had kept his hands to himself. His cousin had taunted him that he had best enjoy Bilbo’s attentions while he could, for he was going to go to the Great Smials where such antics would not be tolerated.
‘In his room every night, Rat,’ Sara had sneered, ‘and going about with him in the day. I think you’d prefer to go to Hobbiton, wouldn’t you? Teaching you a new tongue, is he? I’ll just bet he’s teaching you a new use for your tongue.’
But Sara was wrong. He never would. Frodo had wondered, every night he had gone to visit Bilbo for the Elvish lessons, if this would be the night, when the lesson would be as Sara had claimed. Bilbo had always been so perfectly proper. His own tension had built with every hour that went by, waiting for when Bilbo’s voice would become like Sara’s and the casual hand on his shoulder would slide up into his hair. By Harvest, he actually wanted that touch, simply so it would be over with. Sara’s taunts to him and Bilbo that evening were almost too much. For a brief moment, after he had ordered Sara off and stood facing Bilbo, he considered simply offering himself, forcing the issue. But he could not find words to say what only took gestures to communicate with the others, so he fled.
He still was not really sure what happened the next night. Frodo could not figure out how Bilbo had spied on him with the others at Harvest, but his uncle had known absolutely what had happened. You and your clever tongue, Rat. Why did you ever talk of Sara? Then again, if he had not, he would probably be in the Great Smials. This Yule would not have happened. It had been such a relief to finally tell someone of Sara. Bilbo’s outrage on his behalf was not something he had expected. Then, the bargaining.
Bilbo turned him down. That had never happened before. Frodo had turned others down, had ignored knowing eyes on him, feigned innocence at subtle questions, thrown scornful words at clumsy advances. But no one had ever turned his offers away, until Bilbo. His uncle had argued bluntly, directly, crudely, even, but would not allow a caress or a kiss to enter their agreement. It may have been Gammer’s wish that he be sent to Bilbo, but Bilbo made it his own choice. It was the only choice open to him, so he took it.
He hated to have had to choose. He had been so angry and bitter over being sent away. A dirty, unwanted little rat, packed off in disgrace, tormented with threats of abandonment to a perverted old uncle’s clutches. He chose so that he would hurt their plans for him. He chose to prove he was not going to be betrayed and disposed of. He chose Bilbo as he chose to be good at servicing the others, to make what happened his own. He had cried out that anger and betrayal in Bilbo’s arms, so afraid of what he had chosen for himself.
Frodo turned the raven pipe over in his hands, wondering at all that had happened to him since he first held it. He stood and retrieved Mac’s clever pipe stand out of the presents, carefully setting it on top of the chest of drawers. Mac had carved the stand from walnut, and then stained it with something to make it black like the pipe. He slowly picked through the rest of the presents and treasures, finding them places in his room. The little hedgehog from Berry, of course, had to stand near the raven pipe so the animals could keep each other company. The picture from Merry, inside Sara’s frame, rested on the rail of the wainscoting. It was meant to be a picture of he and Merry finding turtles near the River. We won’t be doing that again, dear Merry. He did not see how Sara would ever allow Merry or Merle to visit Bag End. Merle’s scarf hung with his cloak in the hallway, and Esmie’s gloves were tucked into the pockets, but Merle’s dried flowers rested nicely along the rail next to the picture. It seemed right to keep Merle and Merry’s gifts together.
Gammer’s paper went into the lap desk under the bed where it would stay neat and be protected from dampness. Rory’s pipe-weed pouch sat to the other side of the raven pipe from the hedgehog. Grandfather, son, grandson. All their gifts in a row. Frodo felt oddly jealous of that unbroken line. The flask of brandy he sat on the table, to be set next to the wine decanter in the parlor. The flask had his initials carved in the side. The seashell rock from Bilbo he sat on the small table near his bed, next to the book of poetry. He opened up the wrapped sweet from Missus Gamgee and wolfed it down. It was a cluster of chopped nuts, mixed with honey and spices.
That left the bird’s nest with its empty blue egg. Frodo sat it behind of the pipe, and to one side. He ran a light finger over the curve of the shell. That’s what I am. A cuckoo. An odd egg in the wrong nest. How could Bilbo not know? Yet it did not seem to matter to the old Hobbit. Maybe he did not know. There was no way to know except to ask, and if Bilbo did not, asking would be disastrous. Bilbo spoke with such certainty that Drogo was his father. Even Uncle Rory, supposedly his father’s best friend, always spoke of him being his mother’s son. And wouldn’t he know? Gammer, too? But why would Bilbo insist if he also knew? Frodo leaned his elbows on the top of the chest, staring at the nest as though it held the answers to his questions.
Perhaps Bilbo knew, but this was how he got back at the relatives who treated him so badly, making a bastard his heir. His uncle had not been in Buckland very much since Mama and Papa died, and people had not said anything while they were alive. Maybe Bilbo had never heard. But, no, that was not possible, not with what Hargo Bracegirdle had said, and what Bilbo had said to Uncle Rory afterwards. He knew, or he strongly suspected.
Then why does he give me Drogo’s things, and insist so that I am Drogo’s son? He has to, Rat. He has named you heir and he cannot say otherwise. That would explain the public statements, but not the gifts and the insistence when they were alone. Then some words came back to him, words he had not at all believed when they were said. “You asked me, Frodo, how do I want you. I want what I’ve never had. I want a son. That’s my heart’s desire.” It had seemed ridiculous when Bilbo said them. Frodo had not believed Bilbo when he said he would not lie with him. It was a fine sounding excuse, but it did not seem such an excuse any more. Bilbo could have any lover he chose, and he had never shown the slightest interest in Frodo that way. There was no need to make a fool of himself over some scrawny boy. But a son…
The symmetry of the arrangement made perfect sense, fit together like the empty egg in the abandoned nest. We want for each other. You have no son. I have no father. You’ll not get one now, and none will claim me, even if he knew I was his get. He nodded to himself. Now he understood. It was probably Gammer’s idea to begin with – put her kinswoman’s bastard in a place where he would never be pushed aside by a true son – and Bilbo probably agreed to it at the start to please her. But now it pleased Bilbo to think it all true, and it pleased Gammer to have him looking after the old Hobbit. I belong to you now. I may not be what you think, but I will be what you want. I will please you. I will need you and keep you here, as Gammer wishes. This thought reassured him. For the first time, Frodo knew where he belonged, and to whom, and for what reason. He no longer said this to convince himself – he knew it was true.
It was as though something deep inside had been satisfied by this truth. A spell of weariness came over him, and Frodo yawned. A nap. That is what he wanted now. He had figured out the mystery of why he was here and how he would stay, and it was time to sleep. He slipped out of his room and retrieved Mama’s quilt from the linen press. Frodo still did not understand why Drogo would have claimed him as a son, but that was a puzzle that would wait for piecing together. He pulled the other quilt off and dropped it on the floor while he remade the bed. He quickly exchanged clothes for his nightshirt, and burrowed under the covers, making sure to have a good handful of quilt. Within minutes, he was sound asleep.
‘Wilwarin! Frodo, lad, wake up! You need to eat something.’
Frodo woke, rubbing his eyes. The room was dark except for the candle Bilbo was holding. His uncle chuckled at him.
‘You’ve been sleeping all day, lad. I tried to wake you for dinner, but I fear you were having none of it.’ Bilbo lit the lantern by the door and the candle next to Frodo’s bed.
‘I am awake now, Uncle.’
‘Well, then, get dressed and wash up. Supper is nearly on the table.’ Bilbo left, humming happily. Frodo grinned, for the good cheer was infectious, and hurried. His stomach was loudly protesting the missed meal. In ten minutes, he was in the kitchen, looking for food.
The meal was plain and filling. Potato and turnip mash, a small roasted goose, a large platter of mushrooms and bacon, and plenty of fresh bread. Dessert was wine, cellared pears (shriveled, tender and sweet), and a deep yellow cheese, served in the parlor. Dalin soon retired, as he was to leave early the next morning. Frodo retrieved his pipe and gave it to Bilbo to prepare. When Bilbo had made up both of their pipes, Frodo took them to the fire and lit them. He settled at Bilbo’s feet, back against his uncle’s leg, so they could talk.
Bilbo looked so relaxed and peaceful, Frodo wondered how this could be the same Hobbit who frightened him so many times the past fortnight. He almost did not want to say anything for fear of reducing any of Bilbo’s good mood. But he had questions.
‘Uncle Bilbo, are you still angry with me?’ Bilbo raised an inquiring eyebrow, but did not speak. ‘For having disobeyed you when you said I was to return to the Hall after running Gammer’s errand?’ Bilbo’s face lost some of its cheer, and his uncle puffed a bit on his pipe before answering.
‘I must admit that I was deeply angry with you, Frodo, for disobeying me. I do not believe I have ever been more angry with you. When you came back, though, I could see something terribly wrong had happened, and my anger mostly went away. I was afraid of what might have happened. But, yes, I think I am still a bit angry at your disobedience.’ Bilbo’s gaze was watchful.
Frodo sighed. ‘I am sorry, Uncle. I knew I should have come back, especially when Sara said he was coming along.’ Frodo lied a small bit, ‘I wanted to go about with Dalin and I was worried about Mac. I didn’t think Sara would do anything if I stayed near them.’
‘Is what Dalin said true?’
‘He was very judicious with his words.’
‘So it was even uglier than I believe.’
Frodo looked down. ‘Yes, sir. It was very ugly.’
‘Did you pick that fight?’
‘I went out of the forge and into the woodlot to clear my head of the heat and smoke. Sara followed me and cornered me there. He said I had got him in trouble again, I guess because Uncle Rory knew the truth about him beating me at Wintermark. He tried to claim – to me! – that he had not hurt me that badly, that you were the one who had beaten me so. He said you had beaten me because you were jealous I had fooled with Ula. He said other horrible things about you. I told him he was vile and wicked, and that I did not wish to hear him speak of you. I wanted him to be quiet, so I told him the only person I had been sleeping with was Esmie. That’s when we started fighting.’
Bilbo gave him a stern look for several heartbeats, then Frodo saw a smile tug at the corner of his uncle’s mouth. ‘Well, I think Sara can be excused for wishing to give you a good wallop for that.’ Bilbo drew on his pipe, serious again. As he exhaled, he asked, ‘How badly did Dalin hurt Sara?’
‘Dalin threw him against the wood pile and choked him hard enough to leave dark marks on his throat. Then he dropped him on the ground, and yanked him upright by his hair. At one point he grabbed Sara by the crotch pretty hard. He shook a him a few times, and dropped him on the ground again. Mostly Dalin choked him.’
Bilbo was silent, smoking his pipe, then he nodded once. ‘Good.’ Frodo swallowed. He did not like seeing this side of Bilbo. His uncle paused to sip some wine, then asked, ‘And have you bedded Esmie?’ Frodo felt his face get a little red, and he emphatically shook his head. ‘So, what have you done with her, or her with you?’
‘What if I said it was none of your business?’ Bilbo smiled a little bit and shook his head ruefully.
‘I would say you were right, but I’m still curious. I don’t trust her any more than I trust her husband where you are concerned, lad.’
Frodo turned so he was facing Bilbo, one arm resting across the other’s legs. ‘Why do you say that? What don’t you trust?’
Bilbo grinned. ‘Tell me what has happened, and I’ll explain my concerns.’
Another bargain. But Bilbo kept his bargains. ‘She has flirted with me, and given me kisses on the cheek and ear. She’s run her fingers on my back and face. The day I went to get dinner for us and Uncle Gis, she kissed me on the mouth on the way back to the study.’ Frodo thought for a minute, then said, ‘And, when you took Gammer to care for Dilly, after I told her what had happened, she said things that I took to be an invitation to go to bed with her, but I might be wrong.’
Bilbo sipped his wine, thoughtful. ‘I think you probably understood it correctly, Wilwarin.’
‘And your concerns?’
‘What do you think of her attentions to you?’
‘That’s not answering my question.’
‘Why are you two fighting over me?’ Frodo was rewarded with a sharp glance. Right on that count, Rat. This definitely put things in a different light. Bilbo did not look happy at the question.
‘That will become clear, Frodo. What do you think of her? Or, what have you thought and what do you think now?’
‘I don’t understand why. Before she kissed me, Esmie acknowledged that she had been giving me more affection than was proper, and said it was because she wanted me to be interested in girls.’ Bilbo raised a disbelieving eyebrow. ‘It was after that when she asked if you were the one who had beaten me and said I could always come to her if I were in harm’s way. She said she could send me to Pal.’
He could tell that Bilbo was getting angry. The old Hobbit’s eyes had narrowed, and his mouth was a thin line, jaw clenched. ‘And do you believe that?’
‘I believe she would very much like me to not be with you, and to be at the Great Smials. I have my doubts about the rest.’
‘Why should she pay any attention to me? I mean, I am flattered that a beautiful woman would see fit to kiss me, but it started feeling all wrong since Wintermark. Too many people have tried to tell me you are a bad person, and she is one of them. She’s wrong.’
An odd, pained look moved swiftly over Bilbo’s face, then the old Hobbit smiled crookedly. ‘Well, be that as it may, what do you think the answer is? To why she would pay attention to you, I mean.’
‘I thought you were going to tell me why you were concerned!’ Frodo teased.
‘I am, Wilwarin. I think our concerns to be quite similar. If you understand your own concerns, you’ll better understand mine. So, what do you think?’
Frodo considered. It was a very strange tangle, but the thread that ran through it all was Bilbo. He drew on his pipe, and tried to think. It was as if she were jealous of Bilbo. But she has her own husband. What would she want with me? He sternly told himself not to think himself any better than Sara. If she were not married, then he might think it was as Ula had said… Frodo shook his head, growling in frustration.
‘It does not make any sense! She is the sister of the Thain’s heir, married to the heir of the Master. She has children. Esmie wants for nothing; why should she want me?’
‘Why does cousin Odogar wish to turn everything into coin?’
“Another thing, wrong.” Gammer’s words returned and sent a small shiver up his spine. Bilbo watched him closely. ‘She has dragon fever? But what…’ Frodo swallowed and tried to sort it out. ‘Ula said I must beware of women who showed too much interest in me, because I was your heir now. But Esmie has flirted with me since before you adopted me!’
‘Do you still intend to bed her if given the opportunity?’
‘She gave me the opportunity. I turned it down!’ Frodo irritably replied. ‘I’d no more go to bed with her than I would with Sara, after all the evil things she has said of you!’ Bilbo made a thoughtful noise and stared past Frodo into the fire, slowly puffing on his pipe.
‘I have told you how close your father and I were, how close I was to both your parents,’ Bilbo said softly. Frodo nodded, completely confused by the conversational turn. ‘I have known since before you were born, Frodo, that I would never marry, would never have a child of my own. I could not make your father my heir, for he was already grown, but I left all of the Baggins estate that was mine to dispose of to him and to your mother. When they died, I changed my will and left all that I could to you. Rory and Gilda have always known this. When Gilda became very ill at one time, for some reason Rory told Esmie about this. So, she has known you would inherit from me, whether you were my heir or not.’
The knot unraveled. Frodo nodded, ‘And she thought to secure that inheritance through me.’
‘That is what we fought over. She wished to keep you away from me, unattached and loyal to her, so that when I died and you inherited, she could use you and your inheritance as she wished.’
‘Why didn’t you tell me this before?’ Frodo was more impressed, and more revolted, by Esmie’s machinations the more he understood them.
‘I did not want you to be with me because you hated someone else.’ Bilbo’s words were almost whispered, and he did not look away from the fire. The cheer from earlier in the evening was gone from his face, and he looked weary once more, as he had so much the last few days in Buckland. Bilbo’s left arm rested on the arm of the chair, loosely holding his pipe, while the other lay limply across his lap.
Frodo turned away, wanting to give Bilbo a moment in which to collect himself. He leaned his back against Bilbo’s leg, and sighed. It stung to understand how ruthlessly Esmie had used him, but understanding the true reasons relieved him. Ula had been right, after all. She didn’t love you Rat. She cared nothing for you. You were stupid to believe it. He sighed again, and Bilbo’s hand stroked the back of his head, then pulled away. Frodo closed his eyes and tipped his head back, until it rested against Bilbo’s hand again, and he rubbed his head against his uncle’s hand. Tentatively, Bilbo cupped the back of Frodo’s head, then gently worked his fingers into the boy’s hair. Frodo let himself settle into the touch. Bilbo rubbed his scalp in slow, firm circles, from nape to crown. It was as though Bilbo intended to touch every strand of hair. This was how to remove the sorrow and the weariness from Bilbo, how to soothe him. It was so little. As at the Widow Grubb’s, Bilbo’s tender touch relaxed them both. Frodo found himself wishing there was some way they could go back to sharing a bed, but knew it would not be permitted. If this was what could be shared, then he would be content. I will please you. He was glad he could not seduce Bilbo. After a time, Bilbo’s hand was still.
‘Wilwarin?’ Frodo turned his head so his cheek rested against his uncle’s hand. Bilbo smiled at him and ran a thumb along his cheekbone. ‘I thought you had fallen asleep.’
Frodo turned his head a tiny bit more and kissed Bilbo’s palm, not dropping the old Hobbit’s eyes. ‘I would do anything you wished. I trust you, Bilbo.’
The smile left Bilbo’s face, replaced by an expression Frodo could not understand. Bilbo stroked his cheek again, then turned away, resting his forehead in his other hand, eyes closed as though in pain.
‘Go to bed, Wilwarin.’
‘Bilbo? Are you all…’
Frodo rose and walked away. When he turned at the doorway and looked back, Bilbo had not moved, but he was silently crying. It took a long time for Frodo to fall asleep.
Sunday dawned bright and clear, as Mister Gamgee had predicted. Much of the snow was gone already, blown into drifts, or starting to retreat from the winter morning’s sun. Frodo heard Bilbo moving about the kitchen and wondered if his uncle had slept. When he came in, Bilbo looked quite rested. He was stirring something on the stove, and turned a bit so Frodo could give him his morning hug and kiss.
‘Frodo, good morning, lad, how are you,’ Bilbo greeted him.
‘I am quite well, Uncle.’ Frodo hesitated. Bilbo gave him a questioning look. ‘I, I did not mean to upset you last night. I’m sorry…’ He stopped as Bilbo laid a finger on his lips.
‘You did not upset me, Wilwarin. You gave me a very great gift, and I was moved.’ The old Hobbit grinned and waggled his eyebrows. ‘And you had best get moving right smart, lad! We have a Dwarf to feed this morning ere he marches off! Set the table and make some coffee.’
Dalin appeared shortly thereafter and the rest of the morning was given over to getting him ready for his journey. Bilbo packed a good meal for his walk that day, and gave him several letters of introduction to Hobbits in the Westfarthing so that Dalin would have two more nights of comfortable lodgings. Dalin was very grateful and told Bilbo so with many bows and superlatives.
At last the time came for the Dwarf to leave. They helped him on with cloak and pack in the entry hall. Dalin slid Shadow Foe into its hook on his belt. The Dwarf faced Bilbo and bowed in two.
‘Farewell, Lord of Burglars, greatest of living Dwarf-friends. My kinsmen’s tales of your cunning and bravery barely suffice, and their accounts of your kindness and generosity fall terribly short of truth. I am blessed for having the honor of speaking to you. I remain forever in your debt and at your service.’
‘Farewell, Dalin Steelhand, Hobbit-friend supreme. I delight in knowing that my dear companion of years past has such a fine and noble son. May your beard grow as greatly as your riches.’ Bilbo bowed low in return.
Dalin straightened up, and clapped Frodo on the shoulder. ‘You, Master Baggins, be not such a rascal and be a joy and support to your uncle. I shall stop here again, when I return to Erebor and see how well you are doing.’ The Dwarf’s dark eyes twinkled.
‘Good-bye, Dalin. I wish you a safe and pleasant journey, and hope you will return soon!’ Dalin leaned down and gave Frodo a crushing hug.
Frodo opened the door to Bag End and Dalin ducked just a hair to step out of it. His scarlet cloak swirled about as he strode out of the garden and down into the Row. The red of the cloth stood out sharply against the snow-littered ground, and Dalin’s golden head gleamed in the sun. Bilbo and Frodo stood on the doorstep, watching him go. At the bend in the road, Dalin turned and waved his great arm at them, then he passed behind a hedge and was gone.
If you enjoyed this story, you might also like Anglachel's newest WIP Hands of the the King. It is set in Gondor with Denethor as the main character.
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