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On Merry Yule: 7. Blood and Bone
Evening, 27 Monday, Foreyule
Bilbo looked up from his writing to see one of the yard boys standing in the doorway, holding a ewer of hot water and a small basin.
‘Yes, lad, what is it?’
‘Mistress Maddie sent me with some things for you to use for washing up for supper, sir. She said the Mistress said for you to come right to table as soon as you’ve washed or she would send the Hall dogs after you.’ The lad grinned merrily. Bilbo laughed and pointed to a small sideboard where the lad could set things down. With brisk efficiency, the basin was in place, some water was poured, and a small towel was laid to the side. The lad gave a little bob of his head and trotted out of the room, calling over his shoulder, ‘You have a spot of ink on your cheek, sir!’
‘Which cheek?’ Bilbo asked, but the boy was already gone. Guess you’ll have to wash your entire face, Baggins. Where’s Frodo? He was to have come to get me. Bilbo stretched until his back popped, then carefully set the work table in order for the next day. The scroll was very difficult to translate: the descriptions were precise and he was not always certain he had captured the exact point the healer was trying to convey. Gilda will read it over and give me some help on the context. There will be enough to give her on Hensday, and she can begin reading it and making me some notes. They usually had to exchange a few copies before Gilda was satisfied he had translated a healing scroll correctly. He washed up, carefully scrubbing his cheeks (there was ink on both of them), and then combed his hair with his fingers.
He slipped on his coat and walked towards the great dining hall. With so many guests in the Hall, all dinners and suppers were served there, though it was not nearly so formally as at Highday table. No one waited for the Master and the Mistress; guests sat where they would and came and went as they wished. Bilbo almost stopped at his room to put on a shirt that did not have ink stains on the cuffs, but then decided he would enjoy turning them into a conversation topic, and continued to table. He had barely touched the dinner Maddie had sent for him - making good use of a passing Hall dog, as Gilda had advised - so he was quite hungry.
Entering the dining hall, Bilbo saw Dalin sitting near Gilda, deep in conversation. She and the Dwarf had struck a great friendship in no time, and she delighted in telling him all the stories of Buckland she knew, which was a considerable amount. Merle had claimed the spot to Dalin’s other side and was busy with her meal. Rory, Wili and Saradas were talking energetically on the other side of the table. Esmie was sitting by herself at the foot of the table, trying to coax a recalcitrant Merry to eat. Sara, Mac, and Dilly were nowhere to be seen, though perhaps Mac and Dilly had returned to their farm up the road. But where is Sara? Ah, pay it no mind, Baggins. Just as well the fool isn’t about. Dalin saw him and waved a hand in greeting. Bilbo waved back, made his way up the table, and slid onto the bench next to Merle.
Bilbo had kissed his niece good evening, thumped Dalin on the back, twinkled at Gilda, and begun to sip his wine before he noticed. Frodo was not at the head of the tween table, as he had been the last three nights. The wretched Burrows boy was sitting for the Master. Bilbo’s concern grew as he confirmed that Frodo was not anywhere at the tween table, nor at the main table. He even looked at the nearly empty children’s table just to be sure his lad was not entertaining the little ones. Did he lose a fight with Burrows? The larger boy had been throwing malevolent stares at Wilwarin every night and Bilbo was reasonably sure there would be a confrontation at some point.
He turned and tried to catch Gilda’s eye, but she was completely engaged in her conversation with Dalin. Bilbo looked over at Rory. Wili and Saradas were debating something about hedgerows, and Rory was listening with interest. In a moment, his brow wrinkled as though feeling the weight of Bilbo’s gaze, and he looked Bilbo’s way. He knows. Rory’s stare was full of fury and hurt. He knows about Sara. Suddenly, the fact that both Frodo and Sara were absent from the table did not seem coincidental at all.
‘Bilbo!’ Wili’s voice shook him out of his thoughts. He tried to smile at his however-many-times removed cousin (though, actually, maybe Wili was just a cousin-in-law?) ‘Bilbo, just the fellow we need to talk to. Come over here!’ Bilbo gathered his glass and moved. Rory scooted over to the side so Bilbo could slide in on the bench between him and Gilda. Bilbo gave her an absent kiss on the cheek before turning his attention to the men. Rory kept his head turned and refused to look at him.
‘Bilbo, what are you doing on Hensday?’
‘I’m in the middle of doing some translation work for Gilda on a new healer’s scroll, Saradas, but I suppose I could take a rest from it then. Why?’ A kitchen girl deftly slipped a plate in front of him, though he had no appetite. Not until he figured out where and how Frodo was.
‘Well, we’re having an argument about where to put in a hedgerow…’ began Wili.
‘Whether to put in a hedgerow!’ interrupted Saradas. Rory’s younger brother looked unhappy.
‘We are putting in a hedgerow, Sara,’ Rory said firmly. Bilbo thought he would rather be sitting with the Hall dogs under the table. All I need is to be drawn into yet more of Rory’s family squabbles. Silence would be the best policy in for this meal. Bilbo did his best to look inconspicuous.
‘Not across that pasture,’ Saradas argued back at both of them. ‘That’s needed as open land.’
‘That’s needed for sheep, Sara,’ Wili said with exasperation.
‘You can put sheep on it,’ the other snapped, ‘and you should be able to put ponies and cows on it, too!’
‘Not a flock of this size,’ Rory said with a sigh. ‘We need to be able to…’
‘Break up the flock!’ was the angry reply. Saradas stood up and picked up his plate.
‘We’ll be at the center meadow two hours past sunrise on Hensday,’ Rory calmly told his incensed brother. Saradas gave an angry nod and walked further down the table, taking a seat next to his son, Seredic. Rory sighed and moved over to where Saradas had been sitting. Bilbo pretended to be eating his supper.
‘He’ll come around,’ Wili assured Rory. ‘It’s just something different, and Big Sara’s always been set in his ways. Right, Bilbo?’
‘Cousin Saradas is a Brandybuck to the core, Wili,’ Bilbo cheerfully confirmed. ‘That is the definition of stubbornness.’ He flashed the other two a genial smile and picked at his supper. This sounded like a tedious argument concerning Master’s business, and Bilbo could not have cared less whether they were pasturing sheep, cattle, or Wargs. Sitting next to Rory without being able to ask anything of note was not where he particularly wanted to be.
‘Got a letter back from Haysend, Bilbo,’ Wili went on in a cheerful tone. Bilbo smiled and encouraged Wili to chatter on about the success of getting the word out for roots from Buckland. Rory turned and started nodding in approval, so Wili went on with his news, and somehow Bilbo managed not to speak to Rory for almost three-quarters of an hour. The longer time went by without sight of Frodo or Sara, the more worried he became. Some quick glances down the table at Esmie showed that she was unsettled and looking about. She doesn’t know where Sara is, either.
Eventually Esmie gave up trying to hold her place at the foot of the table and moved to sit next to Merle and Dalin. Merry cheered up considerably, and lost no time in worming his way into Dalin’s lap. The Dwarf did not pause in his conversation about the underground vats near the Old Orchard with Gilda, but put a gentle arm around the child. Merry soon fell asleep. Merle climbed in Esmie’s lap and glared jealously at her brother. The hall began to empty and Maddie directed the kitchen lads and lasses to collect the dishes.
‘Mister Dalin,’ Gilda asked, ‘would you be so kind as to help Esmie take the children to bed?’
‘As you wish, Mistress Gilda,’ he politely replied, and stood carefully so as not to wake Merry.
‘Gilda, Rory, where is Sara?’ Esmie asked. Bilbo kept his face bland, hiding his own eagerness at the question.
‘Sara?’ Rory answered in an overly-casual tone, ‘Didn’t he stop by and tell you?’
‘Obviously not.’ Esmie’s eyes were narrowed.
‘He and Mac are going to have to get the Sun-return logs tomorrow, with the generous help of Mister Steelhand,’ Rory gave a small bow to the Dwarf, who nodded genially in return, ‘and I had a few things I wanted him and Mac to see to up north, so he went to do that and will be staying with Mac and Dilly tonight. They’ll be back here for second breakfast tomorrow before they set off for Rushey.’
Esmie sighed. ‘I would have appreciated being informed of this, Rory.’
‘Well, chew Sara’s ear off tomorrow for not telling you.’ Rory’s voice was unusually waspish. Esmie glared for a moment longer, then shook her head and walked away, holding Merle’s hand. Dalin bowed to the three remaining Hobbits, and thumped after her.
Bilbo stood and began to offer his hand to help Gilda stand up. She just stared at him. He felt Rory walk behind him to stand next to Gilda, also staring at him. Bilbo pulled his hand back.
‘You know. You’ve talked.’ It was not a question. Rory nodded very slightly. Gilda just watched him. ‘Did you speak to both of them?’
‘I spoke with Sara this morning,’ Gilda replied, ‘and Frodo talked to Rory at dinner.’
Bilbo felt a certain pride that Frodo had done this himself. ‘And what did Fro… ’
‘What was needful to say was said, Baggins. There’s naught more to say, so I’ll thank you never to mention it. This is not something fit to be said.’ Rory’s words were hard.
Gilda reached up and caught Bilbo’s arm. ‘Bilbo. It is done. They will find their own way to accommodate each other.’ He took her hand gently, and felt a motion he knew was intended as a reassuring squeeze. He did not think she was simply talking about Frodo and Sara.
Rory snorted. ‘I should have sent him to Pal.’
‘So that you would have remained in ignorance?’ Bilbo shot back.
‘So he wouldn’t have such a smart mouth.’ Rory’s eyes gleamed dangerously.
‘Stop it, you two! You’re worse than they are. Frodo’s where he belongs, Rory, however you look at it, so quit being an idiot. I told you he should have gone to Bilbo sooner.’ Master and Mistress glared for a moment, and Bilbo realized the two of them had probably been fighting all afternoon. Gilda glanced over at Bilbo. ‘What are you doing? Haven’t you ever been taught it is not polite to listen to a private conversation? Go away.’
Bilbo backed away, then turned and hurried from the dining hall. His first stop was the kitchen and a tray of supper for Frodo. Please, Wilwarin, don’t have done anything stupid. Bilbo walked as quickly as he could without spilling anything from the tray. Baggins, why didn’t you stop in the room before supper? You should have known something was wrong when he didn’t come to collect you as he promised. Frodo, please be in our room.
Bilbo knocked lightly on the door, and let himself in. To his immense relief, Frodo was sitting in front of the fire, smoking his pipe. The air was thick with pipe smoke, and only the small lamp by the door had been lit. How long have you been here, alone? Why didn’t you come to me? He cursed himself again for not having checked the room before supper. The lad did not look up or otherwise acknowledge Bilbo’s presence. The old Hobbit shut the door quietly behind him, and set the tray down on the table.
Frodo still had not moved. Bilbo lit the lamp on the desk, and went to work making up his own pipe. He looked around the room surreptitiously. To his dismay, he saw that all the boy’s clothes had been rummaged and left untidy, and that Frodo’s pack was filled and had been set near the door. Bilbo drew up his own chair at the other end of the hearth and sat.
‘If you get hungry, Maddie put together a tray of supper for you,’ Bilbo began. Frodo nodded a little bit. ‘I do not know if you need or wish to talk, or just to sit and think. I hope you do not mind if I sit here.’ Frodo shook his head a little bit. Bilbo settled into his chair and waited. He certainly was not going to sleep as long as Frodo was awake, with a pack by the door. I will not let you run, Wilwarin.
The wait was actually less than Bilbo had thought it would be. About an hour, Frodo started playing with the raven pipe.
‘I told Uncle Rory everything.’
‘I wish I hadn’t.’
Frodo’s voice was very tired. Bilbo could not see his face clearly given the dim light and smoky air, but it did not look as if the lad had been crying. Frodo's face looked older, touched with a deep sadness that had no part of childhood.
‘How did it come about?’
‘I didn’t mean to say all that I did,’ Frodo began, ‘it just came out. I started by telling Uncle Rory that I wanted to come home.’
Bilbo shut his eyes. This is more than home to him. He expected Frodo to be homesick and glad to visit. He had not expected the boy to go behind his back to try to return. He doesn’t want me after all. He came here to stay, not to visit. It pained him deeply that his lad would leave him so easily, without a thought for Bilbo’s attempt to care for him.
‘Oh, Uncle Bilbo, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean, it’s not…’ Bilbo didn’t open his eyes, just held up his hand .
‘It is all right, lad. If Bag End is not home to you, it is not home.’ He looked over at Frodo’s embarrassed face and tried to smile. ‘I am not going to try to tell you differently. I am sorry you are not as happy there as I had hoped you would be. It was never my intention to make you sad. Go on.’
‘I asked Uncle Rory if I could come home. I said that I knew I’d been wrong and bad, and that I knew better now. He wanted to know exactly what I had done, and he wanted promises from me that I would not do so again, before he would allow it.’
‘And you told him of being bullied.’
‘Yes.’ Frodo’s voice was quiet, wrung out. ‘I told him what I had done, and with whom. He was… disgusted. Said I should have known better and that I should be ashamed of myself.’
And you told him to do this, Baggins. ‘You told him about Sara, as well, not simply about the other boys.’
‘I thought you weren’t going to do that.’
‘I wasn’t.’ Frodo’s voice sharpened, became louder. ‘He began lecturing me about being honest. Uncle Rory told me that he had brought me up to be as good as the Master’s Heir!’ Frodo’s voice was furious now, and he was sitting up in his chair, not slumped as he had been before. The Old Took was appearing in Frodo’s face, and the lad’s voice dripped with contempt. ‘As if this were some great thing. So I gave him honesty, all right! I told him what the “Master’s Heir” had done!’
Frodo had turned around in his chair to face Bilbo fully, and his face was ablaze with anger. The low fire in the hearth caught the hollows and curves of Frodo’s face, bringing out ferocity as well as beauty, and Bilbo again felt proud of the courage his lad showed. He needs no lessons from you, Rory, in how to be. As he admired what he saw, his eyes saw a flaw, something out of sorts. Frodo’s lip was swollen and his skin of his left cheek was slightly discolored.
Bilbo rose and knelt before Frodo’s chair, taking the boy’s face in his hands and turning it to catch more light. The corner of Frodo’s mouth was clearly bruised, and the lower lip in particular was swollen. The lad flinched a bit as he touched the cheek with his fingers. After a moment, Frodo began pulling away, twisting to get his face out of Bilbo’s hands.
‘What caused this?’
‘Uncle Rory struck me.’
Rory’s words about thrashing sense into Frodo came back to Bilbo’s mind. ‘You were arguing with each other, and he struck you?’ Bilbo dropped his hands to arms of the chair.
‘No. I had told him of Sara, he came around the desk and asked me, calm as could be, to repeat myself, so I started to and he hit me.’
Bilbo reached out and very carefully touched Frodo’s face, gently tracing the edge of wounded flesh, brushing lightly along the corner of his mouth and the lower lip. His hand started shaking and he pulled it away, lest he cause more hurt.
‘He demanded I tell him about Sara.’ Frodo’s voice had lost its ferocity, returning to the tired, worn tone from earlier. ‘I told him. Uncle Rory said it was my fault, and I had tempted and corrupted Sara, and that he was glad I was sent away.’ The lad’s voice kept dropping. ‘He said I was no Brandybuck and said I should go back to Hobbiton or wherever else I wanted. So I’m doing as he wants. I’m leaving.’
When did this whole wretched family go insane? Bilbo did not know whose neck he wanted to wring first, Rory’s or Sara’s or Esmie’s. Frodo at fault? He gave his head a shake, trying to figure out the logic, or illogic, of Rory’s thinking that could lead to such a conclusion. And to say such vicious things to the boy. Frodo was watching him dully. He took the raven pipe and set on it on the ground, then took Frodo’s hands into his own and looked up into the lad’s face.
‘Well, Wilwarin, I am very glad that you did not go before we could speak. I would have been most distraught to find you gone. It is never a good thing to leave without saying where you are going, and getting a few companions for the road. We can leave right now, this very minute, if that is what you wish, though I think it would be good for you to at least eat some supper before we go. Better yet, I think we should get a good night’s sleep. That way, we can set out first thing in the morning, and have a lovely day for walking.’
Frodo looked at him in confusion. ‘We?’
‘Yes, we. You and I.’
‘You weren’t told to go. Uncle Rory only said that I…’
‘Do you think that I would stay when you are not welcome?’ Bilbo sharply said. ‘I will never do that to you. What harms you, harms me. I will not simply stand and see you humiliated like this. If you wish it, we go. Though I would like to have a word or two with my esteemed cousin before we set out.’
Frodo looked at him in wonder. ‘Tomorrow, then?’
‘Tomorrow.’ Bilbo confirmed. ‘I am so very glad that you did not simply run. When I didn’t see you at supper, I was terribly worried. Why did you wait?’ He hoped Frodo had been waiting for him to come back.
Frodo hung his head a bit. ‘I had nowhere to go. I don’t know where I belong now.’
‘What do you mean? You’re a Baggins!’ Bilbo sat back on his heels and glared. ‘You belong with me. You are Drogo’s son, and now my child and heir. It may not be home to you, not yet, but Bag End is where you belong and nowhere else. That is our home, and no one can take away or order you off!’
Frodo shrugged a tiny bit. ‘But Uncle Rory is my uncle. My true uncle, not just what his little cousins call him. He is my mother’s brother, and he wants nothing to do with me. He said I was in no way my mother’s son. My real aunt and uncle, my… father’s… siblings, don’t seem much to care for me either. I don’t much feel a Baggins.’ There was very little self-pity in Frodo’s voice as he said this. It was more as if he was repeating a fact to himself so as to memorize it.
If hearing that Frodo did not wish to remain with him had hurt, hearing Wilwarin’s quiet statement that Bilbo was not his true uncle felt to Bilbo as if his heart was being pulled from his chest. The lack of spite or rancor poured vinegar over the tatters that remained. He doesn’t believe he’s Drogo’s son, nor I his uncle. However bereft Bilbo felt, he could not indulge it. How many times must my lad lose his parents? “It would be for the best if it were you, Bilbo. Otherwise, he’s just another Wintermark bastard.” No, Gilda, it would be best that people would speak the truth. ‘Whatever you may feel, Frodo, you are a Baggins. And don’t judge Dudo and Dora so quickly. They care for you more than you think. Your Aunt Dora is a crusty old lady who takes quite some time to warm up to anyone, and you’ve only seen her once. It’s not that they don’t care for you – it’s that they don’t know you yet. And I may be a cousin, not an uncle, but I love you dearly, Frodo. Nothing can stop that. Why, lad, I’ve known you from the day you were born!’
‘So has Uncle Rory, and he is my uncle.’ Frodo’s implacable logic would not yield. Bilbo let his anger at Rory flare.
‘Well, then, that should show you what an ass he is and how little he deserves you! He will regret these cruel words when he finally understands what he has lost, be sure of that. Perhaps not right away, because of how badly you hurt his pride, but he will. Your mother was his dearest sibling and Gilda’s best friend. I would not wish to be him when your Gammer finds out what stupid things he said. He’ll be sleeping on the floor or on a couch for some time, if I know my girl.’ Frodo’s mouth quirked up a little despite his sadness at the thought of Gilda giving Rory what for.
‘Believe me, Wilwarin. I would happily thrash Rory for how he hurt you, but I know that he has hurt himself far worse by driving you away. You said a terrible thing to him, and he spoke from his anger, not from his true thought.’ Frodo did not look much relieved by this.
‘I think he also spoke out of jealousy, lad. You’re worth ten of Sara, and he knows it. He as much as admitted it to me the last time I was here. He’d give his right arm that you were his child, instead of Sara. It is hard enough for Rory to say that his son is an affable fool and a drunkard who is not up to the Master’s tasks. It’s not such a terrible thing, for that describes half the Hobbits in the Shire, but it’s nothing he would wish for. You made him see what no one should have to see. It is a terrible thing to know that your child has done something so wrong, something not just foolish, but wicked.’
Frodo looked off into the distance over Bilbo’s shoulder, and thought over those words. The old Hobbit patted the lad’s knee gently, collected the raven pipe and went to neaten up the table a little. Damn you, Rory. Damn you and your misbegotten son. Bilbo cleared a space, putting things in order, and set out the dishes Maddie had sent. He hoped he could get Frodo to eat a few bites and then go to bed. They would have a long walk tomorrow.
‘And what do you think of your child doing such wicked things?’
Bilbo whirled around quickly, startled as much by how close the voice was as by the words themselves. Frodo was standing a few steps away, arms crossed. What do you mean by “your child”? What other rumors have you heard? Bilbo leaned back against the table and crossed his own arms. He decided to pursue the obvious.
‘I don’t think you did anything wicked, Frodo. You know that.’ The lad’s cheeks turned a little red.
‘But I did. Uncle Rory was right, Sara wouldn’t have done anything except give me a thrashing, but I tempted him.’ The boy’s face became more red, but gaze did not waver. ‘It wasn’t Sara’s idea, it was mine. I saw that he was… swollen from what he had seen, and when he went to hit me, I offered to service him instead. Just like I offered you.’ The lad’s chin went defiantly up a little, and his face hardened. ‘I am wicked, and it is my fault.’
This will stop, now. ‘Really? Such a wicked fellow for such a little boy.’
‘Don’t you mock me!’
Bilbo raised a eyebrow. ‘And why not? If you are going to be a petulant child then you’re going to be mocked. Tell me, my dear Master Wickedness, when you so skillfully stole the virtue of the innocent Heir of Buckland, how old were you?’ Frodo glared. ‘I want an answer! Now!’ Bilbo snapped.
‘Eighteen. Almost nineteen.’
‘And you corrupted him, you terrible boy. You told the poor, helpless Heir, “Don’t beat me, and I’ll suck your cock.” ’ Frodo winced at the crudity, but did not look away. ‘Though I am sure you said it in a much more elegant manner, being ever so practiced in such things. Or perhaps not.’ Frodo’s face was flaming by this point, and the lad was gripping his shirtsleeves as though to keep his hands anchored in place. Push him much more, Baggins, and he’s going to take a swing at you.
Bilbo made his voice very cold, and very sharp. ‘You struck a stupid bargain, child. That is what eighteen-almost-nineteen year olds do. They do stupid things. I know no one who has failed to do stupid things in his youth.’
‘But I knew it was wrong. Uncle Rory was right. He said even a little boy would know it was wrong.’
‘So determined to be a villain,’ Bilbo said with mock sadness. ‘So determined to be a bad-mannered little boy.’ If Frodo pulls on those shirt sleeves any more, he’s going to rip the shoulders out. Bilbo was actually rather amazed that Frodo had not tried to hit him yet. Time to get to the point, Baggins. ‘Tell me, Frodo, what about the other wicked little boy? What about the forty-six year old cousin, married, with children of his own? What did he do? Did he give you a good slap in the face and tell you to take your dirty mouth elsewhere? No, he said “Oh, very well. If you wish to service me, I shall allow you to do so.” Or perhaps not quite so elegantly put.’
‘No. Nowhere near.’ There was actually a bit of dark humor in the reply.
‘You are right, Frodo. When you offered to service Sara to get out of a beating, that was wrong and wicked, but mostly it was stupid! The offer was Sara’s to accept, and that was a wickedness so far greater than your own I am astounded that you or Rory spent a single second dwelling on your misdeeds. There was nothing to make him agree except his own will, and he could have refused you. As I did.’
Frodo looked at him for a long moment, then said, ‘No, you never would.’
‘I never would. Any decent Hobbit would have sent you off after boxing your ears. Sara has shown himself to be indecent. So, will you stop this nonsense, Wilwarin?’ Frodo nodded a little. ‘I am pleased that you are not trying to pretend you did nothing wrong, but I dislike seeing you judge yourself so harshly, lad. When children do foolish things, it is for adults to chastise them, punish them if need be, but mostly to turn aside the foolishness.’
‘You didn’t answer my question. I asked what you thought of your child doing such things.’
‘I think my child needs to eat some supper.’ Bilbo turned his back on the boy and finished setting out the dishes.
‘I want an answer.’
‘And I want you to eat something before you fall over from hunger,’ Bilbo replied, brushing past Frodo to get a chair. He set it before the table, and motioned for Frodo to take a seat. For a moment, he thought the lad would refuse, but Frodo finally sighed and sat down, slumping sullenly over the meal. The boy picked up the fork and began to prod at the food. Bilbo left him and started straightening up the disordered clothes.
‘If you want to know what I think, you are going to have to eat your supper, and not just push it around on the plate.’ Frodo obediently took a bite of some stew. Bilbo shook out a shirt that had been dropped on the floor and refolded it. He listened for the sound of silver on plate, and was rewarded with the clink, scrape of another bite. ‘I assume you are not simply asking about what you did with Sara.’ Out of the corner of his eye he could see Frodo shake his head.
‘You know what I have said of myself, Frodo. I will not do as your Uncle Rory has done, and strike you, or shame you, or turn you out because you say you have put a lustful hand on another boy or man, or allowed them to do the same to you. How could I?’ Bilbo moved to the next rumpled shirt in the wardrobe, setting it aright. ‘However, I will not pretend that I approve of you doing such things, either. I do not approve. It is wrong and unnatural to do this.’ Bilbo glanced over at Frodo, who had stopped eating. He raised a meaningful eyebrow at the still-full dishes, and Frodo quickly took another bite. Bilbo watched until Frodo had eaten several more mouthfuls before returning to the clothes.
‘I do not like or approve of such appetites, Frodo. I do not like this in myself, and I do not like it in others, but it is there. It is wrong. Perhaps not a horrible wrong, like robbing someone, or forcing yourself on them, or beating them, but it is not how a person should be. A man should want a wife, not another man.’
‘Have you never wanted a wife, then?’
‘Of course I have! I am not totally depraved!’ Bilbo snapped. Seeing Frodo’s apologetic expression, Bilbo sighed. ‘I’m sorry, lad, I should not be angry with you. I should thank you. Most would not bother to ask. I do take pleasure in women, Frodo, or I did before I was too old to feel such things at all. You know I have lain with women, and I assure you I have very much wanted a wife, but none of the women I paid court to chose me for husband. Perhaps they could see this stain on me and knew they should seek a better man.’ His hands slowed at their work. Is this what marks you, Baggins? Are you open to other corruption because of this lust?
‘You said you weren’t sorry…’ Frodo’s voice was hesitant.
‘I have learned to live with my desires, and I do not repent of my pleasures, if that is what you mean. But I do wish that I had been able to do otherwise. I have no wife in my old age, no children. No matter what lusts he has forced on you, Wilwarin, Sara has both and can look down on me. Respectable folk, like Pal, bar me from their homes and refuse to shake my hand.’ The clothes were all back in order, but Bilbo could not look at Frodo quite yet, so he smoothed and neatened and rearranged the already tidy clothes.
‘Have you finished your supper?’
‘I don’t want any more. I’m not hungry.’
‘Humor your ancient old cousin and eat a few more bites.’ Bilbo waited until he could hear that Frodo had done as he asked, then turned to face his lad. ‘It is my sincere wish, Frodo, that you will do other than as I have done. If you have any liking for women, cultivate it. That is what I think of you doing such things.’
‘You said your first love was another boy, but that you like women. Did that happen when you got older?’
What are you trying to say, Wilwarin? That you have no such liking? Or that you don’t have much use for girls yet? Do you love another boy? Bilbo tried to think his way through the possibilities. ‘Well, I have never not liked women. Also understand, Wilwarin, that there are precious few men who have not had their hands down another lad’s pants, or had a hand down their own, at least once when they were tweens. I could tell you some very interesting stories of quite a few fine, reputable fellows with a goodwife and a number of children. Besides, it is rather difficult not to like women, isn’t it? Girls can be too silly and giggly to pay much attention to,’ Frodo rolled his eyes and nodded, ‘but a woman…’
Bilbo cocked his head and decided to find out a few things. ‘You’ve had more than a few lustful thoughts about Esmie now, haven’t you?’ Frodo turned red again and shrugged. ‘Oh, come now, Frodo. I’ve seen you watch her. You and every man in Brandy Hall. What man could help but think a few things, watching a woman like that?’ Bilbo gave him a grin and a wink, and Frodo smirked a bit and shrugged again. ‘Have you done more than think?’
‘What do you mean?’ The embarrassed humor was gone, replaced by wariness.
‘I mean have you touched her or allowed her to touch you, as only a husband should touch his wife or a wife her husband?’
‘No.’ Frodo studied his fingers for a moment, then met Bilbo’s eyes again. ‘Not yet.’
‘No. Not ever. Do not think to be avenged on Sara that way, Frodo.’ Frodo’s expression did not change and he did not look away. Baggins, don’t press this. You’ll only give him ideas. Get some rest and get on the Road. Bilbo walked over to the door and picked up Frodo’s pack. It was heavy. Bilbo said a small prayer of thanks that Frodo had not run away, but had waited. Frodo edged around him to place the supper tray in the hallway. The lamp near the door illuminated the boy’s face and clearly showed the swelling and slight discoloration on his face where Rory had struck him.
It was not too bad. The bruise was faint and would fade quickly. Most of the swelling would be gone on the morrow. Even so, Bilbo’s anger at Rory and Sara returned in full force. They have both laid their hands on your child, Baggins. Are you just going to slink away? What if Wilwarin had not waited and had run? On his own, in the cold and the dark? His hands clenched on the straps of the pack .
‘Is something wrong?’ He met Frodo’s eyes at the lad’s words, and the boy shrank back a bit at the fury in them.
‘Yes, something is wrong. In our arguing with each other, we have forgotten how badly you have been wronged, first by your miserable cousin and now by your idiotic uncle,’ Bilbo said quietly. He put a finger under Frodo’s chin and turned the boy’s head so he could study the bruise. ‘You spoke the truth about Sara and were punished for it. Rory harmed my flesh and my blood when he struck you. He had no right to do so. He would have turned you out of his household without my knowledge or consent. That is what is wrong.’ Bilbo dropped his hand and took a seat by the hearth, still holding the pack.
Frodo dragged the other chair near and sat. ‘But, this is Uncle Rory’s smial. He is the Master of Buckland and it is his right to say who shall and shall not be welcome here. And until,’ Frodo paused, then plunged on, ‘until he disavowed me, I was part of this household, too. I was trying to return, and he refused me.’
‘And he had no business even discussing such a thing with you!’ Bilbo bristled. ‘You are a Baggins by name and by right. As soon as you started speaking on this matter, he should have told you to hold your tongue and have summoned me. He no longer has any right to you, if he ever did.’
‘I told him that after he hit me. I said only you had the right to punish me with your hand. He can’t raise his hand to me anymore.’
He damn well should not have raised his hand to you at all, right or no right. Bilbo nodded. ‘That is correct, it is not for him to do. I may not be your uncle, Frodo, but I am your guardian. Even had I not adopted you, I could make a solid argument that you have always been under my authority, not Rory’s. Upon your father’s death, your nearest guardian would have been your uncle Dudo. If he was not able to claim you, then you would be under the authority of the head of the Baggins family, who is myself. The adoption was simply to ensure that you were my heir.’ And to try to keep scandal to a minimum.
‘So, why didn’t I go to you? Why didn’t you or Uncle Dudo take me?’ The question was said politely enough, but Bilbo could see the anger in the lad’s eyes.
‘Your uncle is a good fellow, but never was very close to your father. He had enough of his own children to raise. Don’t judge him too harshly, Frodo. He is an affable enough fool and meant no harm. As for myself…’
Bilbo recalled his talk with Gilda after the funeral. Rory had been too grief-stricken at the loss of his best friend and his most-beloved sibling to be able to talk much. He, Amaranth, Saradas, and Asphodel had stayed at the graveside, mourning their lost sister. Bilbo had walked Gilda back to the Hall. Sara had been up ahead, carrying Frodo while Esmie walked beside him, holding two year-old Merle in her arms. Frodo had fallen asleep on Sara’s shoulder, exhausted from crying.
‘What about the boy, Gilda?’
‘Won’t he go with you?’
‘I want to take him, my girl, but I know nothing of caring for a child that small.’
‘It’s not that hard, love.’
‘I’m an old bachelor. He needs a mother.’
‘So? Find a wife.’
‘Gilda! No, he needs people he knows. He hardly knows me. When he’s older, perhaps then I should take him.’
‘You should take him now, beggar.’
‘Keep him for me, my girl, won’t you?’
Gilda had looked at him a very long while, then had agreed. Later, Esmie and Rory had both been emphatic that Frodo needed to stay in Brandy Hall with his cousins and people he knew. Gilda had been quiet, but Bilbo knew then that she wanted him to claim the boy. Now he understood better why she had been so insistent.
‘As for myself, I thought that you should stay with the people whom you knew best after so great a loss. I also was not certain I could care for such a young child properly. It has always been my intention, as your Gammer can attest, that I would bring you to Bag End when the time was right. I wish I had done so sooner.’ Frodo seemed to accept that.
‘In any event, Master or not, Rory has over-stepped himself where you are concerned. Were you of age, it would be a different matter, for then he could speak to you directly, but you are not.’ Bilbo began to put together a plan. Baggins, you cannot keep the boy in the center of trouble. But I can’t let him be run off simply to assuage the Master’s pride. It is his damn son who should skulk off!
‘You said, once,’ Bilbo looked up. Frodo was staring into the dying fire, thinking. ‘When we were here last, you said it’s never a good idea just to run away.’
‘That I did, Wilwarin.’
‘I don’t want just to run away, but I don’t know how I can stay.’
‘We have a matter of honor to attend to, Master Baggins.’ Bilbo finally let go the pack. ‘You have been guest and kinsman in this household, and my cousin has allowed you to be ill-used, failing in his duty to me to hold you safe. He conducted business with you he had no right to conduct, and has done you harm and ordered you off without my approval. Master of Buckland or not, I am afraid I cannot allow him to get away with this.’
Frodo sat forward in his chair, all curiosity. ‘So, what is it you want me to do?’
‘Brazen it out.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Put on your nicest smile and pretend nothing has happened. Be a perfect guest and enjoy yourself while visiting. Refuse to hide or to be ashamed.’
‘It will be difficult enough, child, you will see. I would rather leave than see you insulted or humiliated again, and I fear that both may happen if we stay. The matter will wait if you prefer to wait for another day.’
Frodo eyed the pack at Bilbo’s feet, then shook his head. ‘No, it should be settled now.’
‘Good. I will deal with Rory. When I am through, he will understand his errors. Only then will we leave.’ Bilbo smiled a bit. ‘But to carry out our schemes, we must both have some rest, so to bed with you.’
‘As you wish,’ Frodo replied in good humor, and moved to open his pack. Out spilled a large pile of very rumpled and crumpled things. With a little fishing about, Frodo located his nightshirt, and walked off with it, leaving the rest of the clothes in a tangled heap on the hearth. Bilbo sighed and began picking things up. He held out a hand for the shirt Frodo had just taken off, as he walked over to the wardrobe to put things away. Bilbo jumped a little when he felt arms circling him around the chest, then relaxed into one of Wilwarin’s rare hugs.
‘I’m sorry.’ Bilbo had to strain to catch the words.
‘Sorry for what, lad?’
‘For trying to leave you.’
Bilbo turned around with what he hoped was a pleasant smile. ‘There’s no harm done, lad. You wanted to come back to where you felt at home. I cannot be angry with you for that. You didn’t do this to spite me. I need to make Bag End more of a home for you.’
‘But it was disrespectful, and ungrateful, to talk to Uncle Rory as I did.’
‘Perhaps, but it was understandable, so you are forgiven. And,’ Bilbo hesitated a moment, ‘if you do not feel that I am your uncle, Frodo, you needn’t call me “Uncle”.’
‘But then I would have to call you something else.’
‘Just plain “Bilbo” is fine enough. It is my name, after all.’
Frodo shook his head decisively. ‘No, that will not do. It must be something grander. I know!’ the lad’s eyes twinkled with mischief, ‘I could call you “The Baggins”!’ Bilbo shook a warning finger at the imp, who smirked back. ‘Or, if you wanted a better title, “The Beggar.” Gammer would approve of that, don’t you think? It would fit right with “The Thain” and “The Master.” ’ Bilbo was starting to shake with laughter. ‘No, no!’ the boy crowed, ‘I have it! “Lord of Burglars”! That would certainly be magnificent. People would be most impressed. “Oh, Lord of Burglars, may I go outside to play?” ’
Bilbo laughed, and gave Frodo a gentle rap on the nose. ‘You rascal! Don’t you dare!’
‘He said I was yours, blood and bone.’ Frodo’s jesting was gone. Bilbo sobered up immediately. ‘I think at the least I should call you “uncle.”’
‘As long as you address me with courtesy, Wilwarin, you may call me as it pleases you. But Rory was right in this – you are mine, blood and bone. Your home is with me.’ Bilbo placed a tender kiss on Frodo’s uninjured cheek. ‘It would make me very happy were you to call me “uncle.” ’
‘Good-night, Uncle Bilbo.’
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