For as long as Frodo could remember, he had had an Uncle Bilbo. The fauntling didn't know what he looked like, but Mama said that Uncle Bilbo looked like Frodo himself. Now, Frodo knew that his Uncle Bilbo wasn't really his uncle, but there wasn't really a name for the cousin of your mama and your da, not one that fit (and Uncle Bilbo was definitely not just his cousin!) so 'uncle' he was. But uncle or no, he lived Very Far Away, so he never stopped by for tea, and he missed the fireworks Gandalf lit off at the Lithe. But worst of all...Uncle Bilbo never came to his birthday parties, and since they both had the same birthday it meant they could have had twice the party. It was too unfair. Instead, Frodo had to content himself with the letters and the wonderful stories that Uncle Bilbo would write to him.
Before the fauntling had learned his letters, his mama had read Uncle Bilbo's stories to him before bed. And such stories! Stories about elves and dwarves and dragons and trolls! Frodo knew his uncle was a great hero, and that was why he lived so far away. It was so vexing to be stuck here in the Shire when Uncle Bilbo had gone on adventures. Frodo was going to go on an adventure as soon as he was big enough. He picked up a stick and swung it like Uncle Bilbo's sword, Sting. He kicked his bare feet through the fresh-fallen leaves, crunching the crunchiest ones happily.
He had just turned 7 last week, and he was going to start to learn cursive tomorrow. Uncle Bilbo had the nicest handwriting, and Frodo couldn't wait to be able to write back just as fine. He knew that it took almost a month for his letters to reach Uncle Bilbo, and another for Uncle Bilbo's letters to reach the Shire, so maybe by the time Frodo got the next letter, he'd have his cursive mastered. He swung 'Sting' again, trying to hit a falling leaf. He missed. He tried again. It hit the ground without a sound. Frodo shrugged and kicked through another pile of leaves, sending orange and brown leaves everywhere. Ah! There was the edge of the woods, and there, the last field behind the back of Bag End. Frodo left 'Sting' in the woods (he wasn't supposed to play with long sticks where he could hit someone or something else) and he skipped out across the field. He waved at Sam, helping his da with the last of the pumpkin harvest, and he hopped over the fence instead of opening the back gate, but he was pretty sure his mama hadn't seen so it was ok.
Inside the garden, though, he heard a great loud CAW! and Frodo stopped dead in his tracks. There, on one of Bag End's chimneys, sat an emornous old raven. It cawed at Frodo again and flew down to land on the empty tomato cage next to him. Frodo gulped hard. The raven was almost as big as he was tall. The bird cocked its glossy black head at him, eyes shining bright above its really big beak, and then it held its leg out. Frodo saw that a small scroll had been tied there. He looked at the scroll and back up at the bird, who ruffled its feathers and thrust its leg back out at him. With trembling fingers, the fauntling untied the little scroll and, opening it, read, My dear Frodo, happy birthday! It was in Uncle Bilbo's writing! My goodness, 7 years old...you're growing up! Now, I believe you're ready for this. Please meet Coräc, son of Roäc, one of the ravens who serve the House of Durin. Frodo looked up and and said to the raven, "Coräc?" The raven ignored him huffily. Frodo read on, If the ninny tries to ignore you, tell him whose nephew you are, for he is honor bound to serve me and, by extension, you. The fauntling scratched his head, then said, "Coräc, my name's Frodo, I'm Bilbo's nephew."
The raven ruffled his feathers and shook himself vigorously before he croaked, "This is ridiculous."
Coräc went on huffily, "I serve the line of Kings, I am not meant to be a message pigeon for...for...what even is a Frodo anyway?"
The fauntling stared at the bird, a little stung. "I am a Frodo. An' what's more important that passing messages to loved ones? Family's the most important thing we've got, so you can consider it a great honor to give me word from my uncle!"
Coräc, son of Roäc, stared down at the fauntling, then gave a bird shrug. "As you say, Frodo, Bilbo's nephew."
Frodo turned his attention back to the scroll in his hands. Coräc will be able to carry our letters more swiftly. The ravens don't need to be cared for, per say, but occasional gifts of food may help grease the wheel, so to say. They are proud, cantankerous creatures (not unlike those whose line they serve!) I know that Coräc is particularly fond of bacon. I hope you two will grow to be fond friends. May he serve you well until such time as we need not correspond via letters! Now, as I was saying in my last letter, Thingol asked Beren...
Frodo reached into his pockets and pulled out a strip of jerky, ripped off a small chunk with his teeth, and offered the bit to Coräc. The raven cocked his head at the meat warily. Frodo said, "I'm glad to meet you, Coräc. My uncle said he hopes we'll be friends. Would you like some jerky? Da made it from the rabbits that tried to get into the cabbages."
Coräc cocked his head again, shrewd in the way all ravens are, before he hopped down to the path and pecked the jerky from Frodo's outstretched hand. Then he flew up to the chimney again and called, "I see you'll be reading for a while. I'm going to hunt. Call for me when you have your reply ready." With a flick of his tail, he flew off.
Frodo nestled down in the soft moss beneath their oak tree and unrolled the rest of Uncle Bilbo's letter.
The Shirefolk took note of the new raven always flying in and out of Bag End over the winter. Come spring, Gaffer Gamgee took to threatening it, but when Sam lifted a rock to knock it out of the air above the garden, Frodo shrieked, "No!! Don't hurt him!" and didn't speak to Sam for a week. Frodo insisted that the bird was his friend, that its name was 'Croak' or some such, and that the thing could talk.
"What new nonsense has that fauntling been spouting now?" Lobelia Sackville-Baggins sniffed one day at the market. "His good-for-nothing 'uncle' has been filling his head with fluff for far too long. It's only a matter of time before Frodo does something...unnatural. Next you'll hear he's run off into the blue, too!" Lobelia never said such things when Primula Baggins née Brandybuck was present, though, because Prim would ask something about silverware, and Lobelia would flush a deep, blotchy red and stomp off.
In addition to the letters Coräc brought, sometimes Uncle Bilbo would send presents that were too big for the raven to carry. One day, Frodo and Sam and Merry and Pippin were playing in the grass next to the market while their mamas visited, when a group of dwarves trundled up the East Road. This was no longer an uncommon thing, as dwarves from the Blue Mountains came to or from Erebor, but this time one of the dwarves stopped Frodo to ask, "Excuse me young sir, but could you tell me how to get to Bag End?"
"Why yes!" piped Frodo, "I live there!"
The dwarf doffed his hat and cried, "Why, are you Mr. Frodo?"
The fauntling laughed and said, "I am!"
The dwarf beamed and bowed. "Bofur, at yer service. Well met Mr. Frodo! Your uncle sent me with somethin' yer sure to love." He pretended to hide his mouth like he had a big secret, "It's supposed to be for your birthday." He dropped his hand and shook his head, the long ear flaps of his hat flapping. "But we were going to Ered Luin now, not in the fall, and he wouldn't be so cruel as to make you wait."
Frodo was so happy he clapped and did a jig. Primula, noticing the commotion, came over with her basket to find out what was going on. Bofur bowed again, introduced himself again, and said, "Bilbo sent us with gifts, ma'am."
'Us' being himself and a dwarf with an axe sticking out of his head! He bowed and said gruffly, "Bifur, ai-menu."
Bofur jerked his thumb at the other dwarf. "My brother, Bifur, doesn't speak a lick o' Westron anymore. But we've got the crate in the wagon, though, and we can bring it up to Bag End whenever you're ready." He bowed again to Primula, ear flaps swinging.
Primula tugged on the ribbons of her mob cap and said, "Oh, do please join us at Bag End, you're just in time for elevensies."
Bofur gushed, "Didja hear that Bifur? We get to raid the Bag End pantries again!"
Primula's lips tightened.
Bifur hoisted a big crate over his shoulder and growled something glutteral which, if not for the wide smile behind his beard, would have sounded quite cross.
Frodo gasped and cried, "Were you with Uncle Bilbo when he faced the dragon?"
Bofur slapped his knee, laughing, "Oh aye! We were also with him when he got us tied up in sacks by the trolls, did 'e tell you 'bout that one?"
And with that, Frodo was off, babbling questions the whole way up Bagshot Row. Bofur just basked in the fauntling's happiness while Bifur walked sedately next to a very quiet Prim. The crate didn't seem to weigh a thing to the dwarf despite the long climb up the hill.
Drogo was working in the garden when his wife and son walked up in the company of two dwarves. He quickly brushed his hands off and held open the gate. Frodo, by now nearly bouncing with anticipation, held open the round green door for his mama and the dwarves. Bifur gently laid the crate down on the floor, then called for Bofur, who was about to walk straight for the kitchen. He came back and unbuckled his dusty boots, leaving them on the rug beneath the coat pegs. The two dwarves then walked into Bag End in their stockings.
Drogo bustled to and from the pantry in a manner that made Bofur nudge Bifur, but the two said nothing on it. Ah! There, wasn't that where Bilbo had fainted clean away? Bofur leaned back and pulled two letters from inside his vest. Then Primula set out plates of cucumber sandwiches, fresh cut carrots with a white dill dipping sauce, cherry tomatoes, strawberries with cream, soft cheeses, hard crackers, seed cakes, muffins with jam, cold sausages, asparagus with hollandaise sauce, fresh radishes, and a chop salad. Bifur nodded his thanks and Bofur looked ready to cry as both of their stomachs let out loud growls. The hobbits laughed, glad to see the familiar appreciation for good food in an empty belly. Bofur tucked in with gusto. He remembered their horror at the leafy fare in Rivendell, but Bilbo had converted them to green food, and hobbit fare was hands down the best in the world.
After most of the food had been eaten, Drogo lit his pipe and asked, "So how is my old cousin these days?"
Bofur also lit his pipe. "Busy as a bee in May," he puffed a smoke ring, "what with Fili's wedding this summer. We're to help escort the Lady Dís back to Erebor, so that should help. Poor Bilbo's been in the thick of it."
Primula hummed, "Who better to plan a party than a hobbit? Fili is the Crown Prince, right? Ooh, so it's to be a royal wedding?" She sighed happily, "How exciting! I do wish he was less busy, though. We would love to have him for a visit."
Bofur took a gulp of tea. "He almost went as far as Rivendell, but with the assassination attempt--"
"Assassination attempt?" Primula and Drogo cried. Frodo paled.
Bofur realized his mistake and held up his hands. "Peace! It wasn't bad, he was wearing the mithril shirt and Thorin, ah--" he glanced at Frodo, "stopped the bu-- er, the bad guy. It was more the shock than anything, and, well, then Thorin didn't want him to go."
Primula asked Bifur, "Would you please take Frodo to open the crate in the hall, master dwarf?" Bifur nodded and put a hand on Frodo's shoulder, gently guiding him out of the room.
Before the fauntling was out of earshot, he heard, "Some hotheads heard tell of a daft rumor that hobbit lads could bear kids like lasses, which, let's be honest, were it true, would have been an issue within the last eight years..."
Drogo said, "I'm not sure I follow."
Bofur replied a little desperately, "the whys matter less than the whos, and rest easy, they've been dealt with--"
In the hall, Frodo quietly asked Bifur, "Are you sure my uncle is alright?"
The big dwarf patted his head and nodded, then he produced one of the letters that Bofur had pulled from his vest. While Frodo broke the wax seal, Bifur used the sharp point at the top of his hand axehead to pry between the nailed-shut lid, and with a twist and a shriek of wood, began to open the crate.
The fauntling read, My dear Frodo, You will have read and sent several more letters by the time you open this letter, so I won't be including any news, only congratulations! Happy not-quite-birthday, my lad. May these soldiers serve you faithfully and well. Frodo's head snapped up. There were what looked like long and detailed histories of battles in the rest of the letter, and oh! Inside the crate was a large box for him and a few other boxes for his mama and da. Bifur lifted the large box out of the crate so Frodo could open it easily. It was wrapped in bright paper more fine than anything he'd ever seen, but inside were ranks...legions...battalions of toy soldiers. Dwarves, elves, men, and orcs were intricately carved and painted, faces snarling battle cries, and oh! moving catapults and some sort of swinging arm thing that was not a catapult... Frodo covered his face and fought back tears. Oh! Oh! It was the best present he had ever got, and oh how he wished his uncle was here so he could wrap him in a bear hug. He threw his arms around Bifur instead. The dwarf patted his head again.
Years passed. Soldiers grew battle-scarred (and lost a few limbs). Frodo himself broke his arm playing king-of-the-hill on a snowbank one winter and had to learn how to write with his left hand in order to keep up his correspondence. His uncle expanded on his histories of battles to the histories and languages of people.
Bebother and confusticate these dwarves, they will not let me teach you khuzdul (yet. I maintain that I will wear them down some day. Sacred secret or not, you are my kin!) In the meantime, you can at least learn Sindarin like a civilized person (unlike Others whose names shall not be mentioned, even though He deals with elves on a regular basis as part of His duties.) One never knows when you'll be prevailed upon to act as intermediary to a trade dispute. (Why these Sylvan elves keep forgetting that I, at least, speak Sindarin, I will never know.)
Uncle Bilbo sent gifts of beautifully bound books, including one illuminated text which kept Frodo entranced late into the night, the golden ink glimmering in the candlelight, until his da had to sternly order him to bed. He sent intricate maps of the lands surrounding Erebor and Ered Luin. Frodo kept those displayed on his bedroom wall. His mama must have written to Uncle Bilbo her fears that her son would become a book-bound recluse, because Bilbo's letters began to include missions and quests. His love of maps meant that he was charged with mapping the borders of the Shire. Frodo wandered the edge of the forest near Buckland, following the stories of the elves that passed beneath those trees. He would sometimes hear singing in the distance, but he hadn't come across a party yet. He couldn't wait to find out if his Sindarin pronunciation was correct. It was hard reading the written interpretation of what a sound was supposed to sound like! He would sometimes wander outside when it was fully dark, trying to find the constellations that could be used for navigation. In short, his legs and lungs grew strong, and his mind was cultivated like a garden.
On Frodo's 12th birthday, Bilbo sent him a traveling cloak, its weave fine and warm and of a color that was no color at all. It blended well with whatever surrounded it. In the woods, it was green. On the roads, it was dusty grey. Against pine needles, it was rusty brown. The cloak was fashioned with a clever hood that had a stiffened brim to keep the rain from his face. But most importantly, the cloak was clasped with a delicate, beautifully intricate knot of silver and sapphire. Frodo was half-terrified to lose the clasp. He could not express his thanks enough, though, but upon receipt of his uncle's response, he nearly fell from his seat.
Don't you worry about it being too fine a thing to wear! It's meant to be a practical gift, for a practical life, and the craft of dwarves is not easily broken. I am very glad you like it, my boy, and so is Thorin, who always loves to hear appreciation for his works. It's truly a shame that he doesn't have the time for smithing any more; between you and me, he'd be the first to admit that he preferred being a blacksmith.
The handiwork of a king! For him! Frodo felt faint. Sometimes he was so caught up in his uncle's, well, scholarly eccentricities that he would forget that Bilbo was a hero in his own right, surrounded by heroes, and the friend of a king. Bilbo didn't exactly write much about the King Under the Mountain, not any more than the rest of his friends, but there was always a sense of...well, Bilbo wrote about his friend, not often about a King. And so Frodo often forgot that Thorin was not just a friend of his uncle's, but the king of...a whole kingdom. It was too big a thought. Frodo put on the cloak, ran his fingers over the shining clasp, and picked up his walking stick. The stars were starting to appear in the gloaming, the moon rising into the sun's setting, and he called to his mama that he was going for a long walk. Coräc slept on one of the chimneys as Frodo set off.
The sun had fully set, but the moon was full and bright by the time he reached the borders of the forest near Buckland. The autumn air was sharp, but not biting, crisp in the way that keened the senses, and in the stillness, he hear distant singing. He walked deeper into the woods, moonlight barely making it through the trees. Soft light diffused fom a clearing, pale blue lamps and seemingly the light from the fair folk themselves filled the meadow, somehow not obscuring the starlight above. A large group of elves had made camp for the night.
A voice called out in Sindarin, "Ho! What is a dwarfling doing here?" Elves rose fluidly to their feet and gathered round him, and Frodo was struck by just how very tall they all were.
He replied in kind, "I am no dwarfling, I'm a hobbit!"
This caused a stir. The same elf again asked, "Then what's a hobbit doing wearing the crest of Durin?"
Frodo, confused, touched the clasp on his cloak, not seeing the way the metal shone in the starlight. The elf nodded. "This was a gift to me from the King Under the Mountain."
"To you! How?" cried the nosy elf.
Frodo was stung by his tone.
"Peace, Fimbrethil," a dark-haired elf said softly. "What is your name, hobbit?"
The hobbit rolled back his shoulders and said, "I am Frodo Baggins."
The elves seemed to find this information very interesting indeed, judging by the way they all appeared to be exchanging silent conversations with their eyebrows. The dark-haired elf replied. "Well met, Frodo Baggins. I am Elrohir. Are you, by chance, kin of Bilbo Barrelrider?"
Frodo scratched his head, "I'm afraid I don't know that last word, but I do have an Uncle Bilbo who lives in Erebor."
Several of the elves now gasped, which confused Frodo even more. Elrohir switched to Westron, "It is an honor to meet the nephew of such an Elf-friend, Frodo Baggins. I was able to catch a glimpse of your uncle when he and the Company took rest at Rivendell. May I ask, was it he who taught you Sindarin?"
Frodo nodded and asked, "Please, will you tell me if I say something wrong? This is my first time speaking with company instead of just reading it."
Elrohir smiled fondly, "Happily, come, sit for a while. We will teach you some songs."
Eventually, the last of the leaves fell, and the snows drifted high, covering some of the windows of Bag End. Frodo would always look back at that snug, slow winter, at the long nights spent sitting with his parents reading before the fire, at helping his da knead sweet dough for Yuletide treats, at chopping and hauling firewood at his mama's prompting, at his honest boredom, and remember more vividly than he lived it.
For that spring, his parents died, and Frodo bitterly regretted that he hadn't greedily clung to every moment he had with them.
On some level, he knew that a Great Discussion was going on around him. He knew he was too young to be on his own, he wasn't even a tween yet. He knew that the relatives were trying to figure out what to do with him, like he was an unclaimed parcel at the end of market day. He didn't know the details of who said what, though. He just ran his fingers over and over the ties of his da's apron and worried more about who would take care of his da's prized tomatoes if they took him away. Frodo blinked heavily. Da'd just planted those seedlings the week before.
Coräc cawed at Frodo from the open window. The relatives continued arguing and took no notice. Frodo went to the window stiffly, like his body had frozen like his mind, and read, Hold on, my boy, I'm coming. At his uncle's messy scrawl, at his rushed one line, Frodo burst into tears.
In the end, the Thain decided that Frodo would go to his da's closest (closest) remaining relatives, Lobelia and Otho Sackville-Baggins. Frodo did not put up a fuss, since he knew that his closest (furthest) relative was on his way. He allowed his things to be packed up and sent to the Sackville-Baggin's smial. He took one toy soldier with, a dwarf with a long red beard a double-headed war axe, and left the rest in his mama's mathom chest. Then he watched, numb, as the round green door of Bag End shut behind his cousin, and he watched over his shoulder for as long as he could as their cart rattled off to Hardbottle.
Lobelia and Otho had a son two years older than Frodo, and the grown ups must have thought it would do Frodo good to have someone his age who he could play with. Nobody told Lotho this, though. He didn't like Frodo at all.
Lotho was a big fauntling. He was a head taller than Frodo and very stout. Frodo didn't know why Lotho didn't like him. He didn't think he'd like anyone if his mama was Lobelia, though, so he tried to give Lotho a wide berth. But one day, Frodo was reading under the beech tree that grew by the Sackville-Baggins' mailbox when Lotho came up and started taunting him.
"Nobody's gonna dance with you at the Lithe with your nose gone flat from your book."
Frodo looked up, unimpressed. "No body's gonna dance with you at the Lithe with your face."
The bigger fauntling sneered, "At least I'm respectable. Your uncle's a good-for-nothing, and your parents deserved what they got!"
Frodo felt like ice water had been poured down his back. He jumped up and shouted, "You take that back!"
"I won't! Getting into a boat like that, it's unnatural and against all hobbit sense. You're gonna end up just like them if you don't start acting proper!"
Frodo burst into tears.
Lotho called, "Crybaby! Crybaby!"
Frodo knocked Lotho down, ran off, and hid in his room. He heard Lotho run shrieking to his mama, and Lobelia soon came pounding down his door. Frodo spent the rest of the afternoon in the corner and was sent to bed without dinner or supper, and he learned the agony of a hungry belly and a headache made of tears. He pretended he was his uncle, deep in Mirkwood, lost without their packs, and finally slept.
The next day, Frodo ignored Lotho and Lobelia. Otho never looked past his newspaper. He ate breakfast while pretending to be invisible, and he was a little hurt by how well it worked. Then he went out into the garden to play with his dwarf soldier, making the stalwart warrior scale the mountain (a spare pile of dirt left from the wheelbarrow) when Lotho snuck up on him and snatched the soldier from his hands.
"Give him back!" Frodo shouted.
Lotho held it over his head, saying, "What's yours is ours, since we took you in. It's only by our kindness that you don't starve!"
"That's a filthy lie, give him back!" Frodo jumped, but Lotho kept the soldier out of reach. Then Coräc swooped down with a loud CAW! and caught the soldier from Lotho's outstretched hands. The big fauntling shrieked and fell trying to jump away. Coräc flapped his giant black wings over Frodo's head and dropped the soldier into his arms. Then Coräc landed on his shoulder and...and ran his beak through Frodo's curls.
Frodo clutched the soldier to his chest and said, "Thank you, Coräc." He felt the raven nod, then he took off, launching himself off Frodo's shoulder and fanning him with his great wings.
Then Lotho stood up shakily and threw a rock at Coräc. The raven dodged it, avoiding hurt by scant inches. Frodo screamed.
Lobelia came running as Coräc swooped down and flapped his big black wings in Lotho's face, as the fauntling dove to the ground, thinking the bird would take him with its talons.
"IF YOU EVER THROW ROCKS AT CORÄC AGAIN, WE'RE RUNNING AWAY. I DON'T CARE IF I DO STARVE!"
Lobelia, shocked at quiet Frodo's outburst, didn't immediately respond, but then she grabbed Frodo by the ear and hauled him to his room. She slammed the door shut on him, and through the window, he could hear Lotho tearfully tell her how that bird just attacked him for no reason.
Coräc chose that moment to fly to Frodo's window. The fauntling cried, "I'm so sorry, are you okay?"
The big raven ruffled his feathers. "If I couldn't dodge a few rocks, I'd be a poor raven of Erebor, Frodo. I'm sorry that I got you put back in your cage." He baited angrily and clacked his beak.
"At least I'm free from my cousin in here," Frodo huffed. "Though...the thought of missing lunch is not a good one."
Coräc shook, feathers fluffing, and he flew off. He came back several times, bearing strawberries a few at a time, even a pair of buns that must have been left cooling on a windowsill somewhere.
Frodo sighed, "I don't know what I'd do without you, Coräc."
"It doesn't matter, you won't have to know," Coräc clacked his beak and flew off.
Soon thereafter, Lobelia pounded down his door and dragged him ill-naturedly to the market, Lotho stealing pinches and stepping on his toes whenever his mama wasn't looking. Frodo ignored him and pretended he was invisible, that Lotho's pinches were the spiders' stings in Mirkwood.
Lobelia stopped at a lot of shops, bought toys and new clothes and a fine hat for Lotho, and nothing for Frodo. Some of the Shirefolk noticed Frodo's pinched expression and patted his shoulders heavily, "poor lad"s falling down on him like rain. Lobelia cooed, "Yes, the poor dear has just been so quiet, such a shame," while she bought Lotho a kite.
This went on til Mrs. Cotton heard Frodo's stomach rumble after Lobelia bought Lotho a big rock candy on a stick. She passed him a giant chocolate chip cookie. He looked up at her, confused, and met her sad, sad smile. "The only thing that'll really help is time, lad. In the meantime, there's no reason to go hungry. Just don't forget to eat."
He slowly took a bite. It tasted like ash in his mouth. Why couldn't he have gone with the Cottons? Then Lobelia called for him, voice sweeter than he'd ever heard. Frodo said quietly, "Thank you, Mrs. Cotton."
She patted his head, "You're more than welcome, Mr. Baggins."
He saw Lobelia's mouth tighten, and he hurried after her. Lobelia made him carry Lotho's bags on the way back to Hardbottle.
Frodo took to reading in his room to avoid his cousin. Lotho tried to tease him for being a stuffy bookworm, but Frodo just said, "These books are still more entertaining than you, Lotho."
Lobelia started sending him outside to play. Frodo started carrying a book with him.
Lobelia started using the evenings to try to give him lessons on how to be a 'proper' hobbit. Most of her instructions were how not to be a disreputable hobbit, though, and everything she seemed to list was something that Frodo liked to do. He liked reading about far off places, he didn't care about which lass he's dance with at the next party. He wanted to travel, not join in 'beating the bounds.' He wanted to do more than take tea with the same people he'd taken tea with the days and weeks and months before, where the only conversation was the weather and the height of the hay.
Frodo started reading in the evenings, too. However, when he was once so engrossed in a history of the War of Wrath that he missed Lobelia's question three times in a row, she took his books away and locked them in a trunk.
Frodo only spoke Sindarin for three days after that. Each day was a battle, but he endured. His uncle was coming.
Frodo thought that Lotho would give up if he ignored him long enough, but that only made his cousin madder. Frodo learned to slip away and stay away. He walked all over the Shire, and when Lobelia demanded to know why he'd missed lunch yet again, he would say sweetly that he was visiting the Gamgees, or the Cottons, or the Brandybucks, like a right proper hobbit. Sometimes he even ran into Merry and Pippin while he was out roaming, which was always the best. Their companionship made up for Lotho's unrelenting ill-will. But then Frodo made the mistake of coming back after nightfall.
Lobelia was furious. "This rambling must cease." Frodo pretended to be invisible and ignored her. "Mark my words, boy, if you don't settle down, you'll go bad!"
Frodo bit his tongue and fumed, Bad? Bad like pinching your cousin? Bad like making me go hungry? Bad like showing no kindness to others? Who's bad here? And he took a cold dinner alone.
The next day, though, she stopped him at the gate. "You turn right around, boy, You're staying in the yard today."
Frodo threw his hands up and marched back into the garden. He turned his idle hands to the tomatoes, which were getting choked by weeds and had too many yellow leaves from being watered the wrong way. Lotho, who rushed through his chores haphazardly, had watered the tomatoes from the top. Frodo shook his head as he pinched the yellow leaves from the plants. By the time he cleaned up the tomatoes and cleared away the weeds, Lobelia happened to be hosting some visitors, sipping tea in the sitting room and gossiping fiercely, so he took a chance and made his escape out the back gate.
Coräc met him at the crossroads, black wings silent as he soared on the breeze above Frodo's head. As they made their way to the forest beyond Buckland, he mused to his raven friend, "You know, the harder she tries to put me in that cage, the harder I try to get out. It's silly, and I know this will only make it worse, but..."
Coräc called, "But she shouldn't try to cage you in the first place."
They met no elves that day, though they lingered into the cool evening before finally heading back. White creeping phlox seemed to make the forest floor glow in the last slanting light. He took comfort in the way the stars bloomed as he walked on, Eärendil leading the way. The sweet smell of dew-damp clover enveloped him, and he was nearly overcome with the desire to just keep walking. But he was back in Hardbottle and looking at the gate. Coräc cawed and flew into the tree above the smial. Frodo sighed and opened the gate.
Inside, Lobelia sent him to his room without supper, again. Frodo's stomach growled angrily when he heard the key turn the lock behind him. He brushed the dust off his feet the best he could and crawled into bed. He willed himself to sleep, pretending to be one of the dwarves locked in the Elvenking's dungeons.
His door was still locked when he woke up the next morning, though he could smell the bacon cooking. Desperate, he called Coräc to his window. "I'm locked in, but I haven't eaten since lunch yesterday." The raven's feathered ruff rose angrily and he took off, wind buffeting Frodo's face.
Coräc brought back a wicker basket filled with strawberries and even a muffin. Frodo thanked him and praised his quick thinking with the basket, while Coräc huffed and pretended to not be pleased. Frodo ate and could have eaten more, but soon other matters were more pressing, and he started weighing the merits of crawling out the window. Then Lobelia finally unlocked the door.
He ran straight for the bathroom, ducked right under her upraised finger, with her mouth open ready to scold. But she was waiting for him after. "I have had it up to here with you, Frodo Baggins!" He ignored her, pretending to be Bilbo when the king scolded him for taking the Arkenstone. Bilbo had been right then, and Frodo was right now. But then Lobelia grabbed him by the arm and yanked him into a chair. "Pay attention to me," she snarled, and Frodo stared at her in shock. She ripped his traveling cloak from the peg on the wall, shaking it. "I should have burned this as soon as you stepped foot in my home, what with you and your wandering with- with elves. I swear on the harvest, I will haul you up to the Sherrifs if you don't stop this- this deviance!"
Frodo stood, trembling with rage, and shouted, "Deviance! What? For walking with my friends? Reading, learning, exploring are deviant now?"
"Yes!" shrieked Lobelia, incensed. "You are a Baggins of Bag End, not some Took or- or a Burglar! You've listened far too long to your mad uncle, and don't think I haven't heard of his exploits! He is nothing but a common thief and a liar, and I will not have you--"
The door banged. Or rather, someone banged on the door. Frodo and Lobelia both broke off and stared at it. Then she threw the cloak back on the peg and brushed her hair back from her cheeks, straightening herself up. Frodo took a moment to marvel at her commitment to appearances. But then she opened the door, squeaked, "You!" and tried to slam it shut, but a body threw itself upon the door and gained the room.
"Don't you 'you' me, Lobelia, I could hear you from the row," said a stranger with gingery blonde curls, the same color as his mama's hair, in strange dusty clothes and wearing a cloak with no discernible color... Frodo grasped the table to keep from falling. His- his uncle, furious and imposing, turned his snapping eyes on Frodo, and then like that, he visibly gentled. Frodo bit his lip, and Bilbo swooped him up in a crushing hug. "Oh my dear lad, oh my darling, I am so, so sorry my boy."
And Frodo finally felt the ice inside crack, and he sobbed into his uncle's shoulder.
Lobelia grudgingly made tea, and they sat down at the table with an uneasy ceasefire. She broke the silence to ask, "Where are you staying, cousin?"
He nonchalantly sipped his tea. "Oh I haven't made that decision yet, cousin. My guard are camped on the common behind the Green Dragon, which was as much of a concession as I could garner. I wouldn't want to subject you to a brace of dwarves all sudden like." He grinned sharply and Frodo snorted.
Lobelia's nose flared. "So you're not taking up residence at Bag End again?"
"Good gracious, no. I'm returning to Erebor as soon as Frodo is ready to leave."
Lobelia set down her teacup with a sharp Clack! and said flatly, "The Thain granted me custody."
Bilbo smiled blandly. "Which is why I've dispatched a letter to the Thain, to discuss arrangements in perso--"
The front bell rang. Lobelia shot off to answer it. Bilbo took the moment to gently chuck Frodo under the chin, saying quietly, "Du Bekâr."
Then Lobelia ushered the Thain into the room and fetched another tea set for him.
Bilbo stood, greeting cheerfully, "Fortinbras, my old fellow, how are you?"
The Thain, astounded, cried, "Bilbo? Well I'll be damned, it's good ta see you! My goodness, did you just get here?"
Bilbo shook his hand fiercely, then bashfully ran a hand through his curls. A single thin braid swung by his ear, tipped in a bright silver and sapphire bead. "I haven't even stopped to clean up. I do so hope I haven't got any twigs in my hair." He laughed at himself, then sobered, "I came as fast as I could."
Lobelia sniffed as she brought cakes and sandwiches, which he placed on the table just out of Bilbo and Frodo's reach. "Yes, indeed you came faster than the Post, we haven't received any message from you giving notice that you were coming."
Bilbo blinked, "No notice? I sent a message by Coräc."
Lobelia dripped derision, "By whom?"
"Ain't that the name of your big crow, Frodo?" the Thain asked between bites of biscuit.
Bilbo blinked long and hard, and looked at Frodo with disbelief.
Frodo said, "They all thought I was lying about Coräc, that he has a name and can speak. Lotho threw a rock at him."
Bilbo put his teacup down with a hard clack, now. He pushed back his chair loudly and stomped over to the open window. He called, "Coräc?"
With a loud flapping, the raven landed on the windowsill. Lobelia swallowed back a wimper.
Then Coräc asked, "Yes, your m--" Bilbo cleared his throat and shook his head slightly. Coräc amended, "--Sir?"
Bilbo bowed, "I offer my apologies for your treatment here, which has been most undeserved. You have served my nephew well throughout these years."
Coräc bowed, "No, it has been an honor to serve your family." He clacked his wicked-looking beak. "Through many dangers." Then he flew off.
The Thain gaped, "Was that the same raven that you sent me your letter by?"
Bilbo walked back to the table and sat down, head held high. "No, you got your letter from Roäc, Coräc's father." He anticipated the Thain's next question, "Yes, Roäc can also speak. That line of ravens have served the Line of Durin for centuries." Frodo noticed the way Bilbo rubbed his thumb over the ring on his left hand.
Lobelia said stubbornly, "But you're not from the 'Line of Durin' or whatsit. You're a hobbit, though you do appear to have forgotten that."
Bilbo merely shrugged. "That's neither here nor there at the moment. Fortinbras, I asked you to come because I wasn't present for the initial discussion of Frodo's care. I want him to come with me."
"What, back to Erebor?" the Thain coughed on a biscuit.
Bilbo sighed, "Yes, back to Erebor. My duties require me to be there. This is, of course, if Frodo is willing. We haven't even had the chance to discuss--"
"Yes!" Frodo all but yelled.
Bilbo smiled, and it lit up his whole face.
Lobelia cleared her throat, horrified. "That is out of the question. How could you even consider it, Fortinbras?" She fluttered, flustered, and continued. "Frodo is but a child, a fauntling! He needs to be around other children. Do dwarves even have children? Would it even matter? They wouldn't be hobbits!"
Bilbo visibly swallowed an angry response, instead said calmly, "Yes, dwarves have children. They don't just spring up from the rocks fully formed, for goodness' sake." He paused to compose himself again, wrapping himself in a regal mien, "Hobbit or dwarf, man or elf, people are people no matter where they come from. They need love, and care, and family. I can provide that. The Company will ensure it."
Fortinbras hmphed, then asked, "How would you provide for him, lad? I'm not going to lie, there's been some strange talk about you, this last decade. They call you..." He paused, ashamed to even repeat said gossip, and said more quietly still, "the Burglar."
He said this with such horrified shame that Bilbo burst into laughter. "The Burglar! Ha! Well, I'm glad that of all the names, that's the one that's stuck. Yes, I'm known as the Burglar, because I stole the mountain back from the dragon, among other things."
Lobelia raised an eyebrow, "Oh, do go on about those other things, too. One great act of good won't wipe out your life of crime."
Bilbo replied archly, "Well, the other things include stealing the keys to the dungeon in Mirkwood, the Arkenstone, the--" he stumbled and rephrased, "The Heart of the Mountain. That's what they called the Arkenstone. And that theft, dear cousin, I assure you was done to avoid a war, so don't you fret thinking otherwise."
Lobelia looked away. Fortinbras' lips twitched and he asked, "So what is your occupation, then, if you're not living a life of crime?"
Bilbo looked a little shifty, Frodo thought. He was leaving something out. How could they not see?
"I'm a kind of diplomat and a scholar. It's dreadfully boring, but vitally important, which is why I haven't been able to get away before. So yes, getting back to it, in my work, I am of the Line of Durin." He showed them the large silver ring on his right index finger, heavy with a deep blue sapphire and wide enough to nearly take up the distance between both knuckles.
Fortinbras eyed the large jewel, but hobbits hold little stock with gems or metals, as you will remember. The Thain mused aloud, "A diplomat and a scholar, eh? Don't know how much stock dwarves put into talking and writing."
Bilbo snorted and rolled his eyes. "Yes Fortinbras, if you really wanted to know, you could have asked outright. I am wealthy beyond reckoning." They shared a chuckle, the Thain slightly hysterically.
Lobelia snapped, "You cannot be seriously considering this- this folly. He needs family, to be cared for, not bought!"
Bilbo's brief good humor snapped out like a light. "You're right, cousin, he does need family. I am more family than you are, Bracegirdle. Drogo and Primula were both cousins of mine, and lest you forget, I have been writing Frodo's bedtime stories since before he was born." The ire in his voice was incredible to hear. "You're most certainly right, he needs to be cared for. Tell me, how do you believe that locking him in his room constitutes care? How does discouraging his reading promote his best interest? How does squashing him down to fit in your tiny little box of 'respectability' equate to loving care? When you love someone, you encourage them to be the best them that they can be!"
A long beat of silence rang out after this speech. Two spots of color burned high on Lobelia's cheeks, but once more she tried to argue, "But what--"
"Lobelia, for goodness' sake, I heard you earlier today threaten to haul Frodo to the Sherrifs for deviance, because he wanted to go for a walk under the stars. You cannot convince me that you are seriously fighting here for Frodo's sake."
Her mouth snapped shut and she went white as a ghost.
Fortinbras cleared his throat. "Frodo gets a monthy pension from his trust."
Bilbo rubbed his forehead. "Of course he does." He looked Lobelia in the eye fiercely, and Frodo remembered that this was a hobbit who had faced down armies and (now he could truly believe it) an actual dragon. "If I buy out the trust, will you cease your baseless objections?"
Lobelia, still pale, asked quietly, "What of his friends? He's like as not to never see Sam or Merry or Pippin again."
Bilbo's ire drained and he slumped. "That's why it must ultimately be Frodo's choice."
All eyes turned to Frodo, who blinked. Then he said slowly, "I'll miss them, I know, but I can write them. It's not like I don't know what it's like to miss someone and only know them through letters."
Bilbo smiled softly. "Really, my lad?"
"Really really, Uncle Bilbo."
Bilbo and Frodo both looked at Fortinbras, who hummed and then nodded. Frodo let out a whoop and threw himself into Bilbo's arms.
They made their way to Bag End that evening, walking as Bilbo's pony carried the few of Frodo's belongings that had come with him to Hardbottle. Bilbo sent Coräc on with a message to the dwarves camped in the Common. As the raven flew off, Bilbo started to blush and stammer (Frodo marveled) "Th- there is one thing we need to discuss before you make your final decision, my boy. I feel a little silly not giving you the opportunity to make your choice before actually going to battle with the Thain, but, well, to be honest with you, if you didn't need to know, I was hesitant to tell you." Bilbo spoke quietly, hesitating outside the gate of Bag End. Then he choked and cried, "Oh! That wizard! You have got to be kidding me. After all this time?"
Frodo cried, "What? What's wrong!"
Bilbo pointed to the faint glimmer on the bottom of the door, glowing just barely visible in the dimming light. "That mark means 'Burglar' and that was how Gandalf led thirteen dwarves to bang down my door." He wiped a tear from his cheek and said, "I haven't been back since Primula told me she was pregnant with you. I always meant to come back sooner, and now this. I'm sorry for everything, my boy."
Now Frodo pulled him into a hug. "You came back now, and that's what matters."
Bilbo chucked him under the chin again and said, "You're growing up already, my lad." Then he opened the gate and brought the pony round back. Frodo crept inside. The hobbit hole was too quiet, still, and stale. This wasn't a home. He shook himself to try to shake off the chill in his chest, and he ran off, ripping the dust cloths from the furniture, and started fires in every room.
Bilbo brought in the packs and raided the pantry. All perishables had been stripped, but jars of soup, sauce, and pickles still lined the walls. Casks of tea leaves and pipeweed were also stored away. Frodo was scrubbing dust off the counters in the kitchen when Bilbo arrives with his gleanings. Frodo looked askance at the sheer amount of food that Bilbo brought out, but his uncle knew best. Bilbo lugged out the largest stock pot, hung it over the hearth fire, and started emptying jar after jar of ham and bean soup into it.
Finally, Frodo prompted, "Earlier, you said that there was something else that I should know?"
Bilbo dropped his spoon, but fished it out before it sank to the bottom of the pot. "Yes, yes, you're right." He brought his hands up to cover the blush on his cheeks. Frodo goggled. "Now, I know I've told you about my adventures with Thorin and his Company, and how, oh goodness me, how they came barreling in here like a herd of oliphaunts and how Thorin was such a right boar at first, but...well I know it's not done in the Shire, that it's not a concept that Hobbits hold with, but the dwarves make no nevermind about it, and, well, you see--"
"Uncle, you're babbling. Let me make you some tea." Frodo interrupted quietly, but kindly. He filled and hung his mama's kettle over the hearth. How often had his mama put the kettle on for him when he was upset? And now this, for his uncle, the one person besides his parents who had always been there, and who he had, in a way, been closer to, since parents are-- were parents. Maybe Uncle Bilbo needed to hear it sometimes too? "Whatever it is, you're still my most important person."
Bilbo choked again and then took a deep breath. "Thank you, my boy. You mean the world to me, and I really hope this won't make you think less of me." He took another deep breath. "I fell in love on that quest, Frodo. Thorin and I have been married for twelve years this June."
Frodo blinked. Then he blinked again. Bilbo's face started to collapse, but Frodo asked quietly, "...the King?"
Bilbo croaked out, "Yes."
Frodo scratched his head. "But what does that make you? Not the Queen, surely."
Bilbo's rusty laugh hurt as much as it helped. "No, definitely not. My official title is Consort Under the Mountain, but most people skip that and go straight to the Bur--"
"Straight to the Heart of the Mountain," a new voice rumbled. Frodo jumped with a squeak, but he saw the way Bilbo's whole face lit up as they turned to see the dwarf standing in the doorway. He, too, was dressed in dusty, travel-stained clothes, but he also wore chainmail and a cloak with a wide fur mantle. He had long black hair, gone grey in a few streaks, and a long black beard. He bowed, braids swinging with jewel-tipped beads, and when he straightened, his voice rolled like thunder. "Thorin Oakenshield, at your service."
Frodo watched him gravely for a moment, noticing that one of his braids matched the one in Uncle Bilbo's hair, and he asked, "Do I need to call you king first, or can we go straight to uncle?"
Bilbo laughed wetly and held out his arms to both of them. Thorin, for all his regal severity, smiled a surprisingly bright smile behind his black beard. "To tell you the truth, I have been looking forward to being an uncle again." Then he wrapped both hobbits in his wide arms, and Frodo felt him press a kiss to the top of his head. Frodo heard Bilbo sniff, and Thorin rumbled something in khuzdul that Frodo could feel through the King's chest. Then the kettle whistled, and Thorin let them go. While Frodo set a pot of tea brewing, he went to the cupboard and set out bowls and cups and silverware.
Bilbo asked, "Are the rest staying down in the camp tonight?"
Thorin shook his head. "Dwalin, Nori, and Bofur are all hiding in the garden, giving us some space."
Bilbo snickered and hurried off to invite them in.
Frodo watched Thorin, who looked gravely back. Into the silence, Frodo said, "Uncle Bilbo wrote to me about you, you know."
Thorin quirked a half-smile. "Oh he did, did he?"
"Well, not about that," he flapped his hand at the bead and braid near Thorin's ear, the one that matched Bilbo's. "I mean, he wrote about you like you're his best friend. You're not some king to him, you're a person, so I guess it makes sense. You're his person."
Thorin looked down at his silver-and-sapphire bead and said, "He's right, you are bright." Thorin lifted his braid gently, to show Frodo the tiny, impossibly intricate details worked into the metal. "Each braid has a meaning. This is my marriage braid." He ran a finger down another braid. "This marks that I am of the line of Durin the Deathless, which, with your permission, I will braid into your hair one day. For as you come under your uncle's care, so too do you come under mine. You will be a ward of my house, afforded every the honor that entails, and you will be under my protection."
The breath caught in Frodo's throat. "Won't that make the dwarves mad? I thought that they- you- dwarves were very, um, insular."
Thorin looked quite grave again. "There will be some detractors. There always will. Even a king will never have a hundred percent support. But I believe that you will find a great deal more support than you think."
Frodo looked at the King's hands. They were broad and scarred and really quite hairy, but they were relaxed. Blue eyes met blue eyes and Frodo said, "Family is worth it."
Thorin's eyes smiled so so gently and he nodded. Then the front door flew open with a Bang! and a set of uproariously laughing, back slapping, headbutting, shouting dwarves (and hobbit!) burst into the room. Frodo watched in awe as the big red head tossed (tossed!) bowls filled (filled!) with soup to the dwarves at the table, one bald-headed and covered with tattoos, the other with a fur hat... a fur hat? "...Bofur, right? You brought me my toy soldiers?" Frodo pulled his soldier out of his pocket to show the assembled dwarves.
Bofur brought his hands to his mouth and cried, "Aye lad, you remembered!"
Frodo gestured wildly with his soldier, "Are you kidding? These were the best! You should have seen it, Lotho was being a bully, he took him and wouldn't give him back, and Coräc had to swoop down and rescue him, just like the Eagles at Ravenhill!"
Dwalin bumped Thorin with his shoulder. "Just like those Eagles, eh?"
"A thousand thanks for those Eagles," Bilbo said heavily, tucked in close to Thorin's side.
And Frodo was off, babbling happily about the adventures and battles he and his toy soldiers had fought with Sam and Merry and Pippin, extracting promises from Bofur to pull a few out of the mathom chest after dinner, and to find out just how far they could launch dried peas from the not-catapults.
Bilbo watched happily, heart glowing, as color rose back into Frodo's thin cheeks. He knew the boy was still healing, but tomorrow they were going back to Erebor. He would find new friends and keep in touch with his old ones. Fili and Kili would help get him into trouble, and Ori and Bofur would help get him out again. Dwalin and Balin would give him lessons in self defense and everything else. Bombur would feed him to his heart's content, and the new ones born to Erebor would play with him, running through the halls, and fill their mountain with laughter. Let them play for a little while longer.