A Yule Time Story:
Request: A story about Young Bilbo spending Yule with his parents at Bag End or Great Smials.
Author's notes: I extend a nod of gratitude to Endaewen, who I do not know but who provided a long ago plot bunny to Shirebound’s bottomless hutch and saved this story from writer’s block purgatory. Admittedly, my all-time favorite holiday movie, A Christmas Story, played a role in it too.
Summary: There’s a good reason why hobbits and boats should avoid each other. Bilbo can’t resist a challenge from his cousin Otho Sackville-Baggins, but at the worst possible time.
Fifteen year old Bilbo Baggins normally enjoyed a gathering of the rapidly growing immediate and extended family, even with his tendency to sequester himself in his room to read, or if his room was beginning to elicit scolding from his mother Belldonna in regard to its untidiness, one of his father’s two libraries within the winding tunnels of Bag End. Bilbo’s room was the one room of the house that Mrs. Gamgee was forbidden to clean or to enter, which was itself a blessing, as likely as not she would be buried under a mountain of young Mister Baggins’ weskits, trousers, and papers and not seen for a week. For three weeks, she and her two daughters had been baking and cleaning, and her husband and young son Hamfast had been tending the grounds and making them even more immaculate than usual. The firewood was piled high, the hearths were swept clean, and all was in readiness by the time the carriages started rolling in, bearing all the aunts and uncles and cousins from the Tookland and other regions of the Shire.
And unfortunately one of the carriages contained Mr. and Mrs. Sackville Baggins and Bilbo’s least favorite cousin, Otho.
“Why did they have to come?” Bilbo pleaded with his mother. “Couldn’t they stay with Aunt Camellia’s family? Or have they been banned because of my cousin?”
“Bilbo,” his mother said reprovingly, although her lips twitched slightly. “You must be on your best behavior today. I know your cousin can be a bit…difficult, but he is family, and your nearest cousin, and we…I mean you, must make the best of it.”
Bilbo felt a little better knowing that his mother didn’t like Otho much more than he did, but he knew he had to try to get along in order to keep things peaceful for the Yule holiday.
“Now make sure your room is straightened,” Belladonna Took went on. “Otho will be sharing with you. All the other rooms are full…”
“WHAT?” Bilbo almost shrieked. “I have to share my room with OTHO? Why not with Cousin Fredregar? Or Cousin Todo? Or Cousin ANYBODY but Otho?”
“Bilbo, as future Master of Bag End, you must be used to playing host to any number of visitors, no matter how many or how unpleasant-or even unexpected,” Belladonna counseled her son. “Now please straighten your room. Have you finished the song you were going to sing for the Yule’s Eve party?”
“I am no longer in a song writing frame of mind,” Bilbo said mutinously.
“Then perhaps writing a song about cleaning your room might help put you in the spirit,” his mother said with a little less patience. “Go.”
Bilbo thought about getting into the Yule spirit, but his fingers were not strong enough to remove the corks from the Old Winyards bottles in the cellar, and he did not want to provoke a tanning from his father in any event.
He looked around with bemusement at the piles of untidy clothing and books and thought perhaps a little song about straightening his room might be helpful after all.
“So you have to do your own cleaning eh?”
Bilbo looked up with a start to see his Cousin Otho lounging in the doorway.
“I thought you weren’t expected until tomorrow,” Bilbo said grumpily, pushing a pile of books back onto a tall shelf where they tilted precariously.
“Your da invited us to come earlier,” Otho shrugged. He glanced around. “When did you clean last-in the spring?”
“I think Mrs. Gamgee has treacle tarts in the kitchen,” Bilbo hinted.
“Now, is that any way to treat your nearest kin?” Otho drawled. “I don’t think Aunt Belladonna should like to hear of it. And those Gamgees-they’re a bit odd, aren’t they?”
Bilbo bristled. “What do you mean? They’re no odder than any other hobbit folk, and certainly much nicer than some.” He glared at Otho meaningfully.
“I mean he has a boat; I’ve seen him rowing it. I saw it down by the river covered by a heavy cloth on our way here.”
Bilbo blinked. “So, he has a boat. He likes to go fishing. He takes his sons out in it when the weather is nice, and we enjoy the fish they catch.”
“Have YOU ever been out in it?”
“Of course not!” Bilbo said, scandalized.
“Why not? Are you scared?” Otho sneered.
“Of course I’m not…scared. I have just never been…invited.”
“Well, let’s go down and we will see just how brave you are. Let’s go.”
“Otho, it’s WINTER! The river is half frozen!”
“It is not,” Otho scoffed. “It’s been a mild winter. It is nearly the end of the year and it has barely snowed because it hasn’t been cold enough. Come on…the adults aren’t watching. Won’t Primula be impressed when she hears you took out a boat on the river in winter?”
Primula Brandybuck was Bilbo’s favorite cousin, and she and her parents were making the long journey from Brandy Hall to Bag End for Yule this year. However, they were not scheduled to arrive until the next evening, and Otho was daring him to perform this feat right now. He might be dead of croup by then from his fall into the dark, cold water. The dark, cold water that could steal the air right out of his lungs…Bilbo gulped. But…Primula certainly would be impressed, as the hobbits of the Shire were known for their strong aversion to boats.
So, after concocting a story to the adults, who were too busy talking to really pay close attention, that they were walking down to Number 3 Bagshot Row to check on the status of the puddings for the Yule’s Eve meal, Otho and Bilbo sneaked down to the dock and pulled the tarp back from the small rowboat that had been carefully moored to the dock for the winter. Conveniently enough-for Otho at least-the oars were stowed on the sides of the boat, anchored with iron rings.
“Do you know how to use them?” Bilbo asked doubtfully. He understood the function of oars in theory, of course, but the action was another thing entirely. He was much more an indoor type of hobbit.
“You put them in the water and pull back and forth,” Otho said unhelpfully. “I’ll sit up front and give you directions.”
Bilbo was outraged. “You’ll sit up front and give directions? You are bigger and heavier than I am!”
“I’m not the one who is impressing Primula,” Otho shrugged.
The sky was growing darker despite the early afternoon; Bilbo could see the Yule candles shining in the windows of Bagshot Row and further up the hill toward his home. His stomach rumbled, reminding him crossly that it had been hours since tea, and his brain asked him if he had taken complete leave of his senses by allowing his least favorite relative to talk him into this nonsense.
Otho’s suggestion of putting the oars into the water and pulling back and forth served only to propel the boat in circles, splashing water onto their legs which, while not frozen, was definitely far from spring-like. In addition, they were getting further and further from the safety of the dock, and neither of them was dressed particularly warmly.
“You have to get us back!” Otho demanded, teeth chattering.
“This was your idea!” Bilbo snapped at him.
“Well, you didn’t have to agree to it!”
That was certainly true, but now was not the time to point that out.
“Oi! What are you two doing?”
It was Holdfast Gamgee standing on the dock. “Master Bilbo! Master Otho! Is that you? I thought it was two of my boys out for a lark! What are you doing? You’ll catch your death! Can you row back?”
The cousins looked at each other. “Not with any degree of sincerity,” Bilbo called back guiltily.
“Put the oars in the water, and row like this,” Holdfast Gamgee demonstrated with arm movements, but with the gathering dusk neither young hobbit could see him very well.
By this time a crowd had gathered on the dock, comprised of Bilbo’s parents, four of his uncles and aunts, several cousins, several neighbors, and Otho’s parents.
“Bilbo Baggins! You come back here with my son this instant!” Camellia Sackville shrieked. “Longo, do something!”
“What do you want me to do? As long as he stays in the boat, he’s fine! Do you want me to jump in the water and swim out there?”
“Bilbo, what were you thinking?” his father shouted. “Get back to the dock this instant!”
“I’m trying, Father, I’m trying!”
Amid shouts of encouragement from the dock, the cousins managed to make fifty yards toward the shore, but it wasn’t fast enough progress for young Master Sackville-Baggins.
“Here, look, I’ll take one, and you take one,” Otho said impatiently, grabbing an oar from his cousin’s grasp.
It was the worst possible move, because Otho outweighed his slighter cousin by nearly two stone, and in the action of grabbing the oar, the small boat tilted too far to the right and both hobbits spilled out into the water.
Everyone screamed in terror, most noticeably Bilbo and Otho. “I can’t swim!” Otho wailed. “I’ll drown!”
“Can you stand up?” Holdfast Gamgee shouted over the din.
Bilbo and Otho had rolled the boat into shoulder high water.
They were wrapped in blankets and Bungo Baggins, Bilbo’s father, got in his son’s face, so angry he could barely speak. “Whose…idea…was this?” he nearly choked. “What were you thinking? You could have died…stealing Mr. Gamgee’s boat…the very idea…”
Before Bilbo could speak, Otho broke in. “It was my idea, Uncle. I wanted to impress Primula when she came to visit since she knows I was so afraid of boats. Bilbo did his best to talk me out of it but I wouldn’t listen.”
Bilbo stared at him. Cousin Otho was taking the blame? Had he hit his head on the rowboat when it turned over?
Both of them were whisked to safety, and after two hours of scolding, spanking, and scalding hot baths, both of them were sent to Bilbo’s room and forced to spend the rest of the night away from the festivities with only hot broth for sustenance-and no pudding.
Bilbo glanced at him. “That was…good of you to take the blame for the boat.”
Otho shrugged. “My folks aren’t as hard on me as yours are on you. I figured it was better that I took the fall for it. Well, we both fell for it, if it comes down to that…”
Bilbo held up his mug of broth. “Happy Yule, cousin.”
Otho held up his mug and clinked it with Bilbo’s. “Happy Yule to you too.”