For SpeedyHobbit, Harrowcat, and PearlTook for their birthdays.
Lotho sprawled indolently in a chair in his Uncle Tiercel’s hole in Nobottle. As Cousin Lilac Hornblower bustled through the room he watched her progress. “I don’t know that there’s any reason for us to be here,” he grumbled.
Lilac paused and fixed him with a gimlet stare. “You’d best be respectful!” she warned sternly. “After all, your uncle is dying today, and you were sent as your father’s representative to demonstrate your family’s concern!”
“He’s been mad for as far back as I can remember,” Lotho said resentfully, although he did straighten up—some—in the chair. “It’s not as if he’s done aught to add to the respect given the Bracegirdle name in all that time.”
“Mad he might be,” she whispered fiercely, leaning down to glare directly into his eyes. “However, he is your uncle, and deserves the respect of at least that position. And your cousin Timono doesn’t need for you to belittle his father on this day of all days!”
Lotho watched after her with even more resentment as she headed once more toward the sickroom with her mug of medicaments to try to feed to the failing Hobbit.
Tiercel Bracegirdle was actually a great uncle rather than a true one. He’d been born unexpectedly to Lotho’s Bracegirdle great grandparents many years after their last previous child had been born. Indeed, all had assumed that Great Grandmother Gardenia had been reaching the age at which Hobbitesses lost the ability to bear further children. Tiercel had been a rather surprising end to nearly a year of what had been thought to have been merely a growing tendency to suffer dyspepsia, as Cousin Lothario’s father Bigelow had told Lotho a few years back.
Tiercel had always been rather unsettled, and as a result his parents had tended to keep him close at hand, seldom allowing him to socialize with other young Hobbits his age. As he entered his tweens first his father and then his mother had died, leaving the overprotected young Hobbit able to follow his own desires for the first time in his life. He’d fallen deeply in love with a young Hobbitess from Threadneedle, married her in spite of the advice of his cousins who knew her to be somewhat delicate, and was devastated when his wife died after the difficult birth of their only child. His behavior had become increasingly irrational in the wake of his wife’s death, and his treatment of young Timono had been mercurial, one moment ignoring the child and his behavior totally, and the next seeking to force the youngster into some mold of his own invention that no other seemed able to appreciate.
Timono was said to be brilliant, but if so Lotho couldn’t see it. Otho had sought to give the youth such guidance as he could, and had convinced him to seek training as a lawyer. Cousin Lilac had sought often to sponsor Timono within society, although she’d regretted her efforts as often as not. There were tales told of a houseparty Lilac had given one summer to introduce her granddaughter Phlox to some of their more distant relatives much of an age with the lass. Timono had been one of those invited, along with a number of Tooks and others, including that foul orphan Frodo Baggins; and there were whispers that during the visit Timono had proved to be a peeper and a thief. It was certain that none of those who’d attended that party had ever invited Timono to any such party they themselves threw.
Lotho himself had paid but scant attention to Timono over the years. As his cousin once removed appeared from his bedroom, he found himself watching the Bracegirdle. Timono was presently more slender than was normal for Hobbits, but this was not totally uncommon to see among those of his mother’s family. He was of moderate height, probably no more than three foot six and a half. His hair was a modest brown, if thin, and his complexion unremarkable. His eyes were peculiarly light in color under sparse brows, and they did have a tendency to appear somewhat keen, if wary; and perhaps they seemed a trifle too close together. His forehead was his most remarkable feature, seeming rather large for one of his height and build, and his legs appeared markedly thin.
Timono peered at him uncertainly. “Hullo, Lotho,” he said, his voice, as usual, a bit questioning, as if he weren’t certain he ought to greet his kinsman.
“Tough luck, Timono,” Lotho returned.
“It happens to us all at some time,” Timono said, and Lotho had the idea he was merely repeating something he’d heard others say. Then he asked, “Want to go out to the Worm’s Bore?”
In minutes they both had cloaks about their shoulders and were out in the lane, heading for one of the village’s two inns. As they walked, Timono asked, “And how are things in Hobbiton?”
Lotho shrugged. “Much the same as usual.”
“Is that Frodo Baggins still lording it over everyone?”
Lotho scowled. He ought to be the one living in Bag End now, not that misplaced and misnamed Brandybuck. “Yes. Has them all fooled, of course.”
Timono cleared his throat and asked, “Do you think he really did Cousin Bilbo in so he could become Master of the Hill?”
“It’s always possible, although he had a party this year he called the Hundred-weight Feast in which he toasted Bilbo becoming a hundred and twelve.”
“Makes a perfect cover, I suppose,” Timono said, and Lotho realized for the first time in his life that this cousin of his hated Frodo Baggins at least as much as he did himself.
“And what did Frodo do to you?” Lotho asked, stopping and facing Timono directly.
“Set me up, he did.”
“And when did he do that?”
“When we were lads, down in the Southfarthing.”
At that house party he’d been thinking on, Lotho realized. He’d not been invited, of course. Not that Cousin Lilac or anyone on the Hornblower side would willingly invite the Sackville-Bagginses to such a party—his mother was not precisely welcome amongst most of the Hornblowers.
Lotho examined Timono’s face and expression, and realized something else the two of them had in common—both resented the fact most people didn’t like them. At last he tendered, “I’d love to get my own back at them all, and especially Frodo Baggins.”
“So, why don’t you?”
Lotho turned away, thrusting his fists into his pockets and starting off toward the Worm’s Bore again, mildly amused to note Timono had to scurry to catch up with him. “It’s not as if I’ve not done my best. But no one will believe he’s done what he has when he sets himself against me—they always side with him and never with me. And now that he’s been made family head for the Bagginses, what with Bilbo disappearing as he did and Frodo being named as his heir in his will, no one appears willing to question anything he says or does anyway, not even Ferumbras in spite of his suspicions as to who glued Lalia into her chair a few years back.”
“I’d put nothing past Frodo Baggins,” muttered Timono darkly. The young Bracegirdle appeared to be brooding. At last he looked sideways up at his cousin. “Won’t your father stand up for you? After all, he’s family head for the Sackvilles, isn’t he?”
Lotho glowered. “Except Frodo is now at least in part our family head, seeing we are as much Bagginses as we are Sackvilles.” His voice grew in bitterness as he added, “And then there’s the bad luck that Dad showed such poor taste that he married my mother.”
Timono choked back a laugh and schooled his face to a look of commiseration. “There is that, I suppose. Cousin Lobelia has always been rather a trial to the family.”
Lotho shrugged. “At least she’s not as bad as some other Bracegirdles I could name. Bigelow and that lout of a son of his have done nothing to further the fortunes of the clan, after all.” Cousin Bigelow and his younger son Bedro, better known as Beasty, had so embarrassed the Bracegirdle name that the two of them had been sent north and west to internal exile in the village of Westhall on the northwest borders of the Shire, and there the two of them remained to that day. “At least,” Lotho said, “I’ll not have to deal with those two once Dad is gone and I’m the Sackville. Leave them to Benbo and Benlo.”
Benbo was the current family head for the Bracegirdles, and his son and heir, Benlo, was as boring and stodgy a Hobbit as Lotho could imagine. Still, in some ways he wished he were in line to become the Bracegirdle rather than the Sackville. The Sackville clan had been decreasing markedly for the last fifty years, or so his father told him. The only good thing about it was that the same was true of the Bagginses. But had he been in line to become the Bracegirdle—well, then he would indeed have been able to command proper respect!
In spite of the fact there were so few Bagginses left within the Westfarthing (not to mention the stain of eccentricity attributed to Bilbo), the Baggins name still carried with it the highest air of acceptability, and particularly now that Frodo was family head as well as Master of Bag End and the Hill. Bilbo might have gone off for a year and a day and made it obvious that he was a friend and admirer of Dwarves and Wizards (or at least of one Wizard), but he had definitely added to the Baggins family wealth and influence in spite of his disdain for convention and the opinions of others. There was no question Bilbo Baggins had been astute, and had an eye for recognizing good investments. Add to that his tendency to be generous without proving notably profligate, and he had been definitely well liked throughout the Shire—or at least warmly tolerated. His willingness to share his good fortune while promoting the interests and wealth of his own family had been respected, if not his tendency toward defying what most considered proper propriety.
“I ought to be looking forward to becoming both the Baggins and the Sackville once my dad is dead,” he grumbled, balling his fists in his pockets. “That Frodo has no right to that post!”
“Challenge the will,” advised Timono.
Lotho gave a great Herumph! before admitting, “We did. But Bernigard Took and Bilbo’s Grubbs personal lawyer worked together to craft that will, and we’ve been assured that it can’t be broken. By five separate lawyers, the Thain, and the Mayor,” he added with a glare cast at Timono.
The Bracegirdle’s eyebrows rose as they reached the Worm’s Bore and he opened its door and held it for Lotho to enter. “Not even if you can prove one or more of the witnesses to it either did not understand what he was signing or was convinced to do so under duress?” he asked once the door was closed behind them and they turned to the common room.
“Do you really believe Old Rory Brandybuck would indicate he didn’t know what he was signing, or Gaffer Gamgee admit to having been convinced to do so against his will? Or any Took, Boffin, Hornblower, or Bolger? Even Cousin Benbo witnessed it!”
Timono gave a low whistle as they found a table by a window. “They took precautions to make certain this will shall stand, then.”
Lotho limited himself to shrugging his eyebrows before turning his attention on the barkeeper.
“What would you like me to order?” Timono asked, turning toward the bar.
Lotho shook his head, his mouth in a thin line. “No, they can come to us to get our order. Sit down.” He stared right at the barkeeper, who glanced his way and turned his attention back toward those patrons who stood at the bar.
Timono uncertainly took his seat, watching the wordless battle of wills. Mattimeo Sandyfoot could be markedly stubborn, but Timono quickly realized that his Sackville-Baggins cousin could equal the barkeeper any day of the week. It took perhaps a good ten minutes or more, but at last Matt emerged from the bar and approached their table, wiping his hands on the towel he had girded about his waist as an apron, trying vainly to hide his disquiet behind a too-thin layer of hospitable veneer. “And what may we bring you gentlehobbits this afternoon?” he asked.
“Two of your best ales,” replied Lotho, his attitude superior, adding as if it were an afterthought, “and a plate of thinly sliced cheeses, cold meats, and flat breads.”
“Two brasses and three coppers,” Matt responded.
Seeing that Lotho made no move to fetch out a coin purse, Timono brought out his own and paid for the promised food and drink, then after giving both Matt and Lotho sideways glances he replaced it, fixing his attention on the view outside the window. Lotho did his best to suppress a smirk. He had no intention of spending any more coin during this required visit to Nobottle, as the Sackville’s heir, than he had to. Let Timono pay out of his own pocket for his father’s great social gaffe in choosing this moment, of all possible times, to die.
After Mattimeo returned to the bar and conferred with his wife, as cook for the establishment, regarding the desired food, the two cousins were left to consider one another as they waited for their orders to be filled. After a moment of silence Timono said, “Since Bilbo’s will cannot be broken, how else can you embarrass Frodo Baggins? Attack those who are his more common companions?”
Lotho replied thoughtfully, “As those are close cousins to him and are closely related to the family heads to the Bolgers and Boffins, that’s rather difficult to do. It’s true that Fatty Bolger is considerably younger than Frodo, but all agree that Frodo helps bring out the best in the lad. As for Folco Boffin, not only is he closely related to the Boffin family head, but he has strong Tookish ties as well and close friendships also with his cousins in the Thain’s family. Young Merry Brandybuck spends a good deal of time visiting at Bag End, but as he’s receiving tutoring from Frodo during his stays in how to keep family records and how to carry out family duties, of course Old Rory and Saradoc are all for it and will allow no rumors to flourish regarding what Frodo might be allowing whilst the Brandybuck brat remains in Frodo’s home. As for young Pippin Took, his parents seem glad that Frodo is allowing the lad to visit frequently in Hobbiton and so avoid Lalia. Lalia doesn’t appear to appreciate her husband’s heir’s son at all, at all. As Frodo appears better able to keep the child in line than even Paladin and Eglantine, no one appears willing to believe that he might in the end prove a bad influence upon the lad. But mark my words, one day Frodo will most likely lead all of them to a bad end. There will come the time when Frodo won’t be able to restrain himself any longer, and he will leave the Shire in search of Bilbo and his own adventure. No one else will admit it, but the old Baggins has managed to infect Frodo with the desire to see the world outside the Shire. Once he decides the time is come to do so, he will leave, and,” here he leaned close so as to keep the words strictly between himself and Timono, “those who care for him most will be moved to go with him. Just you wait and see!”
Timono’s bright eyes grew even brighter with curiosity. “You are certain of this?” he asked.
“Oh, yes indeed,” Lotho assured him, leaning back again. “We know. You see, Frodo doesn’t lie. Among all his many virtues, of which I’m reminded forcibly constantly by our other mutual relatives, he is honest to a fault, even when it would do him better to—dissemble—at least some. And he’s been overheard more than once assuring one or another of his cousins that he will one day go in search of Bilbo, just to make certain the old reprobate is still living and doing at least as well as might be expected. Oh, he won’t do it now, but he will do so one day. On that you can lay a wager with a certainty that you will win!”
Timono began to smile. “It is hard to imagine exactly how you might get your own back on Frodo Baggins, but I can see how this certainty of yours could lead to the ability to put one over on other people. You know how old Fortumbald used to state that everything should stand basically as it did at the time until the King’s Return, and even used to write that specifically into his contracts and all? What if you were to start writing the clause ‘as long as Frodo Baggins remains resident in the Shire’ into your contracts, then put what you truly wish out of the other party after that, so that when the day comes that he does leave you can call in the surety for the contract, leaving no one with any means of keeping it from you? That would make them realize you were far more astute than they’d ever thought, don’t you think? You could set your contracts to end, say, twenty years from now, and everyone would think it a joke now, but that you had always possessed a high degree of foresight when the day comes that he does quit the Shire indeed.”
For the first time Lotho began to appreciate just why others referred to Timono Bracegirdle as brilliant, for he’d never imagined anyone writing such a clause into a contract and then using it to coerce from the other party more than he meant to pay. He straightened and examined his cousin more closely. “You mean we can do such things and no one would question the words being included?”
Timono shrugged. “To everyone else it would appear a mere whim, like Fortumbald’s ‘until the King’s Return'. Fortumbald meant to indicate that in the unlikely event the King should return all current contracts would be subject to review to make certain they fit with the laws of the outer realm, but nobody else has taken that possibility seriously since the Last-king disappeared and Bucca of the Marish returned as Thain. Old Gerontius often included the phrase ‘until the Sun no longer shines’ in his own contracts, indicating that the end of Middle Earth as we know it would nullify any contracts anyway.”
Lotho leaned forward, fascinated. “And how did you learn what Fortumbald and the Old Took wrote into their contracts?”
“Well,” Timono began, his mouth twisting slightly in a disgusted grimace, “when I was studying law my master had studied in the Great Smial with old Bernigard Took, and when studying how to write contracts they were allowed to read examples taken from the Took archives, including some written by several of the Thains. It was fairly easy to get my master off the main thrust of the lesson for the day if we were to ask questions regarding particular individuals and how they wrote their contracts.”
“So, how does one include such clauses within a contract without the Mayor rejecting the contract altogether when it comes to registering it?”
“Well, when you are the Thain, who is going to contradict you? But, if you were to insert such a clause after….”
When at last their cold meats and cheese arrived they barely paid attention, neither noticing that Matt failed to bring the drinks until the food was already on the table. Timono, Lotho learned, had for years been making a study of how Shire contracts were written, and had already found ways to make sales contracts benefit his clients at the expense of the other parties. “So far no one has had the courage to allow me to use some of the more common phrases used in purchasing and selling property to force a seller to default on the sale of a home, however,” he said.
“You can do such a thing?” asked Lotho, his eyes bright at the thought.
“Oh, yes—easily. Think—how do we Hobbits usually verify that the top of a hill into which smials are dug is stable and the hill sound?”
“We check the health of a roof tree, of course.”
“And if the home is a house, how do we affirm that the roof won’t leak?”
“By examining the state of the thatch or roofing tiles and the rafters that hold them.”
Timono gave a sly smile. “We want our homes to be stable and our roofs not to allow weather or dirt down into the rooms and hallways. But the typical Shire lawyer tends to be sloppy when writing contracts, and will often use the same clause in all contracts for sales of homes whether the home is a hole or a house. Usually those from the Yale and the Marish will always indicate the thatching should have been renewed within the last three years, while those from Michel Delving and the regions about the Hill and the Tooklands will almost always indicate that there must be a healthy rooftree atop the domicile, whether the place is a smial or a house. In their minds it doesn’t really matter that a smial can’t be thatched or a house support a roof tree—they are simply wanting surety for the purchaser that the house is stable and there are no leaks. But by writing their contracts in such a manner it is possible for the purchaser to prove that the seller defaulted by not planting a tree on a thatched roof or by failing to thatch the hill or ridge into the smial has been dug.”
“Really?” demanded Lotho. Oh, but the possibilities that such a realization opened up….
It was quite late when they returned to Timono’s home, and neither paid a good deal of attention to the fact that both the knob and the bell pull had black ribbon bound about them, and the door bell had been draped in heavy black cloth to silence it, or that yew boughs had been hung over windows and doors to indicate there had been a death within the smial. Tiercel Bracegirdle was dead, and Timono was now master of his own home. Lotho had his arm about his smaller cousin’s shoulders as they went in, and if Cousin Lilac thought this meant that Lotho was seeking to comfort and in the future possibly be willing to sponsor Timono within the Shire, to become his patron, it meant little to the Sackville-Baggins. Timono had little disposable wealth as yet, but it appeared his fine mind, which so few had found particularly admirable so far in Timono’s life, was likely to make the both of them quite wealthy and powerful in a matter of time.
Oh, but Lotho Sackville-Baggins had plans. He didn’t need to hurry the process, for to present too many such deliberately twisted contracts too quickly would most likely lead to an uncomfortable investigation. He needed to be careful whom he targeted and when. At first he needed to present them to individuals who had more than one property and who were too proud to admit they’d been cheated in accepting a cleverly worded contract from him. Second, he wanted people to use homes as collateral for loans he might grant them for other purposes and insert into the loan agreements the clauses indicating that they were good as long as Frodo Baggins was resident within Bag End and the Hill, with said loans suddenly coming due should he leave the Shire. He looked forward to using that clause particularly on individuals who had always been closer to Bilbo and Frodo. As long as they saw the inclusion of such a clause as merely a nasty jibe at Frodo’s expense people were likely to accept its inclusion as typical Sackville-Baggins dismay that they weren’t likely to ever dwell in Bag End themselves. And there was always a reason even the most solvent Hobbit might need a personal loan, after all. How he could raise resentment throughout the Shire toward that foul orphan by such means, when they realized that had Frodo not held the secret dream of following Bilbo one day they would never have fallen victim to his—and Timono’s—schemes.