Lobelia was angry.
This was, to be fair, not precisely a new state of mind for her. But the reason was new, and she could not get it out of her head. Everything had been fine, everything was prepared, and then Bilbo Baggins naturally had to go and ruin everything.
She’d been happy when she married Otho. He was perhaps not the most handsome of hobbits; but he was comely enough, and he was ambitious and intelligent. And, most of all, he was charming. Folk who didn’t know Otho generally seemed to believe that he was some boorish brute, but Lobelia knew very well how wrong they were. If he wanted to, Otho could well charm the stingiest of hobbits. But, well, he did have to want to do it. Most of the time he cared very little about that sole trait, and he did things his own way.
It hadn’t been a bad match. They cared deeply for each other, and that Otho was set to inherit Bag End and become the next Head of the Baggins-family was simply something extra that had sweetened it all. Lobelia had her own ambitions, and Otho promised her they would be fulfilled and that she would have all she ever wanted.
There was just one problem. Bilbo Baggins, Otho’s cousin. Indeed, even a distant cousin of Lobelia’s as well. He was always in the way. It hadn’t been so much that he was in the way at first; Otho had been somewhat fond of his cousin, for all that the different sides of their families never really got along. But then Bilbo had disappeared on his adventure, and old Longo Baggins, Otho’s father, had waited nearly a year before having his nephew declared dead. Other relatives had argued that it was too soon, that they couldn’t know for certain. But Longo insisted; he’d reminded them of Hildifons Took, one of Bilbo’s uncles, who had gone beyond the borders and never returned.
They’d thought that Bilbo would simply be another Hildifons. It was sad, Lobelia would not deny that. She’d not known Bilbo very well then, but she couldn’t imagine simply disappearing and not ever being found.
Otho’s family was ensuring that the smial would be ready to move into. They’d been measuring the rooms to see if the furniture would fit. And in the middle of it all, who came up the Hill but Bilbo. It had been quite a scandal at the time, and Bilbo had seemed completely livid at how quickly people had been willing to give him up for dead.
But that was not the issue now. No, now the issue was simply that for all the attempts to stay on good terms with Bilbo throughout the years, it seemed that he was having none of it. He had been on at least speaking terms with Otho, for all that he hadn’t seemed to like it, but once Lobelia herself was added to the mix it all went wrong.
Perhaps she pushed too much, she thought to herself. Perhaps she should have realised that empty flattery was not going to get her anywhere. Or perhaps she ought to have returned those silver spoons she made off with during the auction.
Or perhaps it was simply that Bilbo saw in Otho the same greed that resided in old Camellia. No, Lobelia did not much care for that trait in her mother-in-law, but what could she do? And it wasn’t as though she didn’t like finer things herself.
But Otho had remained as Bilbo’s heir, and the more time that passed, the more impatient they became. Bilbo was not showing any signs of deteriorating with age. He looked much as he had when he returned from his journey – if perhaps a bit rounder than before. In fact, he was absurdly healthy, as Lobelia had been able to find out via gossip. He was as spry and energetic as a robust hobbit in the prime of their life, when he was in fact nearing a hundred years.
And then it happened. Bilbo threw all carefully laid plans out the window and intended to change his will. He intended to adopt an orphaned cousin of his, Frodo Baggins, and make him his new heir.
And how it rankled! Otho had been quietly seething since the news reached them of what Bilbo was planning to do, and Lobelia had not been in a good mood either. But Otho had told her very firmly that there was nothing to do about it. They had disgraced themselves in Bilbo’s eyes, and there was no way back. If the old hobbit changed his will, it would be done properly with the help of a lawyer. It was out of his hands.
But Lobelia did not get to where she was by giving up. At his heart, Otho was still more of a Baggins than a Sackville – and as such, he would be bound by his manners. Bracegirdles, Lobelia thought, did not have that limit. If they wanted something and it was denied them, they would actively explore all possibilities to gain it.
And with that in mind, and with a small triumphant smile at her own craftiness, Lobelia very carefully did not tell her husband what she was up to when she wrote a letter to the only hobbit in the Shire who could help.
It was just as well that his father had never told him just how boring it actually was to be Thain, Ferumbras Took thought to himself. He was perhaps not particularly happy about his mother holding on to the title of Head of the family, but that was simply the law; if the Head of the family died, the title would pass to his spouse even if the son lived. She had, after all, ruled beside him. If “ruled” was not too strong of a word. But the duties that fell to the Thain were, all in all, quite boring.
And still, they had to be done. He couldn’t simply decide that he didn’t feel like it – that was not how it worked at all. It didn’t matter that the title of Thain was more ceremonial than it used to be; it was still essentially the ruling body of the Shire. The Mayor and the Master of Buckland did not hold the same authority, for all that they dealt with similar matters. The Thain needed to lead the Shire.
Ferumbras had reminded himself of that at least a hundred times every week for the nine years that had passed since his father died. It did not make things easier, or indeed more pleasant. His own temper did not improve either with time. If he was not feeling melancholy over his family or his lot in life, he was generally angry. Angry with how things had turned out, angry with his own inability to take charge and set the pace, angry with his mother, angry with his father for marrying such a horrid old bat in the first place.
The letters were the worst part. Letters of complaint, letters regarding business, letters with advice. Oodles of letters everywhere. His father’s old study was not so much a place for Ferumbras to work in as it was a paper-storage by this point. He wasn’t certain what bothered him more – the complaints or the advices. People seemed to think him incompetent and in need of guidance, despite him being seventy-three years old already.
His cousins helped him as they were able. Cousin Adelard did his best and was an invaluable support. Old cousin Sigismond often came to help him as well, and the occasional letter or visit from cousin Bilbo did wonders. And even cousin Paladin would come away from Whitwell farm to visit him and often sat with him in the study for hours on end simply sorting through the letters and the paperwork, helping him find what was relevant or irrelevant and what needed to be disposed of.
It was during such a visit that Ferumbras found himself reading a letter he really would have preferred to not see at all. The handwriting on the envelope had not been familiar to him, and it did not get better when he began to read. But the words, and the tone with which they were written, those got the warning bells ringing in his head.
“Say, Dinny,” he said at length, “could you take a look at this?”
Paladin looked up from the harvest reports and raised an eyebrow, but he took the letter when it was handed to him. And as soon as he laid eyes on the writing, he scowled.
“Why on earth is Lobelia Sackville-Baggins writing to you?” he spat. “What is this?”
“A letter,” deadpanned Ferumbras. “But in all seriousness, Paladin, would you tell me if I read that right? Am I dreaming? Is this really a letter anyone would send me?”
Paladin read through the letter, and little by little his scowl disappeared and was instead replaced with exasperation.
“Really now,” he sighed. “She can’t get any traction with any notary firms or with her husband’s lawyer, so she sends a letter to the Thain? This is ridiculous.”
“Oh, so I did read that right,” Ferumbras muttered glumly. “I was really hoping that I was still asleep and having a bad dream.”
“It’s not all bad,” Paladin admitted. “Look at what it says – Bilbo is going to adopt young Frodo. It’s about time, don’t you think?”
“You’ve been sitting here complaining about your sister being stubborn quite often,” Ferumbras commented vaguely as he took the letter back to scan it again. “And yet I believe that both Saradoc and Rorimac have wanted the lad away from the river.”
“Yes, well, Esmeralda and Menegilda have both been of the opinion that Frodo needed some form of female influence in his life, which he wouldn’t get much of in Bag End,” Paladin sighed. “And you know what my sister is like when she puts her foot down. If Bilbo had tried to do this earlier, she would have used him for target practice.”
“So they’re going over Esmeralda’s and Menegilda’s heads, then.” Ferumbras couldn’t help the small smile that came to his face. “Well, that is sure to cause a bit of a stir. Do they know yet?”
“Considering the angry letters I received the other week about having told Bilbo about Frodo staring a little too longingly at the river, I’d say they know. But they also know that they can’t keep Frodo away from his legal guardian for all his life. One day Bilbo will be gone, and Frodo will need to know his duties. He’s not a Brandybuck, but a Baggins.”
“And soon he will be in line to be the next Head, and he will have bypassed Otho.” Ferumbras met Paladin’s eyes for a moment and they both grinned. “Well, amusing as that is, it seems Lobelia is not having it.”
They were cut much from the same cloth, were old Lalia and Lobelia, or at least Ferumbras saw it that way. The only difference he could see was that where Lalia was outright malicious, Lobelia was at the very least thinking of her family and their happiness.
“Poor lass,” he muttered to himself and shook his head. “She used to be so very sweet. But I suppose that Sackvilles and Clayhangers alike ruin all that they touch.”
Paladin did not comment; he’d heard similar mutterings from his cousin before, and though he might not agree, he knew that Ferumbras disliked sugar-coating his words. It was simply the way of things.
“So,” the younger hobbit said at length. “What about the letter? She asks you for help only because you are the Thain and your word would end it all, be it in their favour or not. She could have gone to the Master – except she does not care for the Brandybucks. And I sincerely doubt your mother cares a jot either way.”
“And the Mayor does not answer her letters anymore,” Ferumbras snorted. “He burns them without reading them. The only ones he reads are those from Otho, and they are few and far between.”
“So what will you do, then? She is unlikely to write to anyone else, especially if Otho has told her that he can’t do anything about it if everything is done correctly.”
“I do not have the authority to overturn the decision. If the adoption of Frodo is done properly and is witnessed as it ought, and if the will is correctly written and witnessed as well, then it is out of my hands. That she is coming to me now instead of when it is already done says a lot of what she hopes to achieve.” Ferumbras tapped the letter on his desk and thought for a moment. Bilbo would not appreciate any attempts at upsetting the applecart, and yet he could not leave Lobelia without a response. She was not outright asking him to do something – or at least he could interpret it as such, with how ambiguous the wording was. All she asked for was advice, and if there was the slightest possibility of this being tilted in the favour of her husband.
“I’ll do what I ought to do,” Ferumbras said at last. He grinned blithely at Paladin, who raised an eyebrow in response. “I will give her an answer. Short and to the point.”
He pulled a blank sheath of paper over to him and took his pen, quickly scribbling on the paper before showing it to his cousin. And Paladin burst into laughter.
“Well, that ought to satisfy her,” he managed to gasp out.
“It’ll be worth the complaints of me not being impartial in the matter,” Ferumbras chuckled. “But this is a feud I’d rather not touch with a ten-foot-pole either. The sooner Frodo is adopted, the better, in my humble opinion.”
To finally live at Bag End with cousin Bilbo was a dream come true for Frodo. It was not that he’d disliked Brandy Hall, not at all. He loved his mother’s relations, and they had been very kind to him. But despite the shared blood, he was not a Brandybuck, but a Baggins. So when Bilbo had told him that he intended to adopt him, the news were very well received indeed. Of course cousin Esmeralda and aunt Menegilda had argued; poor uncle Rory had been in the doghouse for quite a while for going over the head of his wife, but he’d only done what he thought best. And nine years of Bilbo not knowing what Frodo was going through was simply not right.
The Sackville-Bagginses had not been happy either. Frodo could never figure out what on earth he’d ever done to them to deserve their ire, but Bilbo only laughed and told him to pay it no mind.
“Oh, they’ll give up eventually,” he said. “It is all over and done with now, at any rate. You are my heir, and they cannot argue that it was done illegally in any way.”
But there was one other matter that rather puzzled Frodo. Once, he had overheard Lobelia gossiping about the adoption with some folks at the market, and she had some quite nasty things about cousin Ferumbras. But what the Thain had to do with the matter was something Frodo could not work out. Bilbo had never said anything about Ferumbras being involved, and nor had anyone else. Indeed, Ferumbras had not even been there when the adoption was finalised. But cousin Paladin had been, and he had told Frodo that as much as the Thain wished he could be there, he was rather stuck in Tookland.
“Paperwork,” Paladin had stated with a shake of his head. “Never-ending amounts of it. If he doesn’t go batty and burn it all before year’s end, I’ll eat my hat.”
But when Frodo had asked Bilbo about it, the old hobbit had looked very puzzled indeed.
“No, I can’t think of any reason,” Bilbo had said slowly. “I don’t recall that I ever told Ferumbras about my intentions. It’s possible, of course, that Rory let it slip at some point, but I don’t see why that would have Lobelia in an antagonistic mood.”
It was not until a rare visit to the Great Smials, two years after the adoption, that Frodo found out what had happened.
Ferumbras had, for once, decided to invite people for his birthday. It promised to be a lovely event, especially with his mother off on a visit to her kin in the Southfarthing. The poor Thain did not have much of a chance to meet his extended relations, as that would require him to be away from his home for longer periods of time; folk rarely visited him due to his mother’s presence. But the party was to be a grand occasion, and Bilbo had been quite eager to go. And Frodo of course came along. He hadn’t seen Ferumbras for quite some years.
For a hobbit who did not generally like people, Ferumbras was well in his element as a host. He greeted each and every guest; he made small-talk with anyone who approached him; he played with the children and told them stories. The gifts he gave out were excellent, as was the food and drink provided. Frodo was quite surprised to find that Ferumbras had a wicked sense of humour and was far quicker to laughter than the melancholy and henpecked hobbit he’d met so many years ago. He swept through the party like a whirlwind of smiles and booming laughter, and Frodo found himself wondering again why on earth Lobelia had grown to dislike him.
“Say, cousin Ferumbras,” he began when Ferumbras took a moment to sit down and have a drink. “I was wondering something.”
“Call me Rumble,” Ferumbras chuckled. “Most others do. Not sure why, but some nicknames don’t make sense, I suppose.”
“It’s your voice,” Bilbo laughed. “And it fits with your name. Now, don’t divert the subject!”
“Pardon me, my mind is a little bit all over the place.” Ferumbras grinned at Frodo. “What were you wondering, lad?”
“Well, you remember that I was adopted two years ago?” Frodo continued. “There’s something about that that I can’t figure out.”
“My dear Frodo, I am terribly sorry for not having been there,” Ferumbras sighed. “Your uncle did invite me, but I couldn’t leave home then. I’m afraid I was fairly stuck.”
“Oh, it’s not that,” Frodo hurried to say. “Paladin did tell me why and gave me your well-wishes, and I do understand. No, it’s only that I overheard Lobelia speaking to people about it all, and, well, she said some nasty things about you. But I don’t understand why.”
“Oh, that,” Bilbo cried. “Yes, I was wondering about that too! Rumble, what on earth did you do this time?”
Ferumbras stared at them for a moment, seemingly completely dumbfounded. Then he suddenly burst into laughter. He laughed until tears streamed down his cheeks and he could scarcely breathe, and all the while Bilbo and Frodo only exchanged puzzled glances and waited for the laughter to abate.
Little by little, Ferumbras was able to draw breath again. He wiped the tears of mirth from his cheeks, still chuckling, and shook his head.
“Stars above, I’d almost forgotten about that,” he managed to say. “But I must be honest, Bilbo, and tell you that it was not at all my fault. Lobelia asked me for advice, and I gave her an answer, that is all. If it was not the answer she was expecting, I can hardly be faulted for it.”
“What on earth did you say?” Frodo asked curiously. “And why was she asking you for advice?”
“Well, see, she took offense at the notion of you becoming Bilbo’s heir,” Ferumbras answered. He took another swig of ale, only barely managing to get it down without choking as he began to chuckle again. “And Otho did tell her that if it was all done correctly, he could not do anything about it. So, put yourselves in Lobelia’s clothes – don’t imagine that too carefully, I promise you that it is not very pleasant. But what would you have done? Why, write to a higher authority, of course! The Master was out – she never did like the Brandybucks, and they were consenting to the entire matter. The Mayor hadn’t responded to her letters for years, so he was out too. She couldn’t gain any traction with any notary firms and couldn’t get a lawyer to tell her that it could be stopped.”
“So she wrote to you,” Bilbo groaned. “My stars, Ferumbras, I am so sorry.”
“Honestly, I am quite flattered that she thought me so capable. It was a welcome break from letters telling me that I was incompetent and in need of help.” Ferumbras grinned brightly at them and shrugged. “Then again, she used to be a very sweet lass. Except the sweetest of berries can rot, I suppose.”
“So she wrote to you and asked you to help,” Frodo said. “But she must have realised that you couldn’t do anything!”
“I’m sure she did, especially if even Otho was unwilling to make an attempt,” Ferumbras snickered. “But well, she wrote. She asked. And I couldn’t very well leave such a kindly worded letter filled with flattery and outright slander without a response.”
“Then what did you tell her?”
“Oh, it’s very simple. I decided to make it as short and to the point as possible, so that she could not misunderstand it.”
Ferumbras took another swig of his ale, and Bilbo and Frodo waited impatiently for him to finish. He took his time. He took a few deep breaths, chuckling to himself occasionally, and gazed up at the sky. And then he finally turned his head and gazed at them, green eyes full of mischief and a sunny smile on his face, and said:
“I may or may not have sent her a single-worded letter that said ‘No’.”
There was a brief moment of silence during which Bilbo and Frodo turned the words over in their heads. They imagined briefly how Lobelia must have opened the letter, expecting a simple solution to her problems. And then Frodo and Bilbo made the mistake of glancing at each other.
They promptly burst into laughter.