Every golden summer must fade into fall, and all that is green and growing in Middle Earth eventually withers, even in the Shire. So it was that shortly after celebrating the twins’ twenty-seventh birthday in Bag End, Bungo Baggins was struck down by a sudden illness. They found him in the garden among the roses, lying still. His hands were cold and there was no life left within him.
Kili wailed and Belladonna trembled, so Bilbo ran to find a neighbor who would fetch the coroner. Whatever his faults might have been, Bungo Baggins was the great love of Belladonna’s life. She was utterly devastated by his passing. Without him for the first time in nearly half a century, she did not eat or drink except when prompted, and could hardly speak without breaking into tears. Kili was scarcely better. Every night he woke screaming, convinced that Bungo had been murdered by the monsters that stalked his dreams.
So it fell to Bilbo to make funeral arrangements. Hobbits take care of their own, and the Baggins clan perhaps even more than most. Not a meal went by without one family member or another bringing over enough food to provision an army. Fortunately, there were many helpful friends eager to press Belladonna to eat, or to watch over Kili while Bilbo arranged for grave diggers and flower wreaths.
Since Shire-folk have no religion to speak of, funerals are not lavish affairs. Mostly, they are simple gatherings held shortly after the loved one passes. Even so, speeches needed to be made, proper wine needed to fill the glasses, and a life well lived needed to be celebrated. For the first time, Bilbo had to organize an important event without parental help.
Despite the inexperience of his son, Bungo Baggins was laid to rest in a manner befitting the most respectable of hobbits. While his widow and younger son continued to mourn, Bilbo was left wondering if he was, perhaps, the worst, most ungrateful hobbit ever to walk the earth. Even during the funeral, he did not shed a single tear for his father’s passing.
Several days went by. Bilbo took care of his mother and brother. Making sure they ate a reasonable amount at each of their meals, he served all their favorite foods. Getting them outside for long enough to feel the sun on their faces, he cajoled both of them to help in the garden. Every other moment he had was spent coaxing smiles from his mother and brother in any way he could.
The deluge of visitors slowed to a trickle. The corresponding number of thank you cards he had to write every day dropped to a more manageable stack. Eventually, Bilbo found a little time to seek out a book in his father’s library.
Somehow, his hand fell upon an old primer instead of a learned tome. He opened it, looking at the illuminated letters. A was for apple. B was for blueberry. C was for cornflower. Suddenly, Bilbo dropped into memory. He was sitting in his father’s lap, smelling candle wax, ink, and old paper, learning to read. Bilbo’s father loved books more than anything. In the library of Bag End, he passed that love down to his son. Kili might enjoy telling a story and Dandy might indulgently listen to a bit of erudite babbling, but only Bungo ever truly discussed poetry or literature with Bilbo. Bungo Baggins prided himself on being a very ordinary hobbit, but his love of the written word had been remarkable. It had been something for them to share, and it felt like something that Bilbo would never be able to share with anyone ever again.
“Bilbo!” Belladonna knelt beside him, gathering Bilbo into her arms. “What are you doing on the floor?”
“Sorry!” Bilbo quickly wiped his eyes with his handkerchief. “Sorry,” he repeated stupidly.
“But whatever is the matter, my son?”
“I shall never hear his thoughts on the Brandybuck Floral Treatise!” Bilbo cried. Which was not a very sensible thing to say, but mourning is rarely a sensible activity. The truth was that Bilbo loved his father fiercely, and had been loved just as devotedly in return. For a time, shock masked his grief, but that only meant he had a great deal more to feel when it surprised him in the library.
Losing Bungo Baggins devastated the whole family at Bag End. It was deep winter before Kili and Bilbo once again picked up their violins, rested their cheeks against the instruments, and played anything but the most mournful lament. Spring came before Belladonna would again bake the scones which Bungo had loved so much in life. Only with a great deal of chivvying from Dandy—who visited Hobbiton expressly for the purpose—did Bilbo rediscover the joys of tasting beer and making merry at the Green Dragon.
Life eventually went on, but it took nearly a full year for the little family to find an even keel. So it seemed a deeply cruel joke that Kili and Bilbo should lose their mother only five short years later.
Belladonna Baggins took ill just after Yule. At first it seemed to be nothing more than a bad cough, but after a few days she went to bed. She never rose from it again. Lost in a lingering, wasting sickness that caused her great distress, her trouble was all the worse because the doctor could do nothing.
In the face of his mother’s pain, Bilbo felt truly helpless, unable to offer even the small comforts of the table. Belladonna could barely swallow tea with her sore throat, soup was far beyond her capacity, and toast was an inconceivable dream. Kili proposed that he and Bilbo should go questing to Rivendell, to seek the fabled healing magic of Lord Elrond. Sadly, Belladonna herself stayed him.
“It would take a month for you to travel there and another month for your return,” she said. “I do not doubt that you could convince some elf to come to my aid, only my own strength.”
“Indeed,” the doctor said. “She will not last the night.”
For the first time in a week, Bilbo saw a glimmer of his mother’s spirit as she glared at the doctor. He was half convinced that she would live simply to spite the fellow, and his heart rejoiced to see it. But then the Tookishness seemed to fade from Belladonna’s eyes, and she collapsed back into her pillows, wracked by terrible coughing.
“Perhaps I will not,” she admitted.
Deeply upset, Bilbo ushered the doctor to the door. Then, he paused in the kitchen to make his mother more tea. She would not drink it, but he could not shed tears in her sickroom. His sorrow would only damage her spirits even further.
“I think it’s a good plan,” he said brightly, returning to his mother’s bedside with three cups of tea and plenty of scones for Kili. “Or half a plan at any rate. Obviously that doctor is completely worthless. I shall go to Rivendell and fetch another. The road is a bit dodgy after Bree, as far as I understand, so Kili ought to wait here with you. But it cannot truly take me a month. Why, Dandy showed me a shortcut through Bywater that will have me to Bree in two days. And I have friends in Bree, you know. One of them will show me the fastest way to Rivendell.”
Belladonna interrupted Bilbo’s planning with another terrible cough, but she sat up a little and actually sipped at her tea. The small act gave him a great deal of hope.
“You are the strongest hobbit in all the Shire,” Bilbo said softly. “Surely with Kili to look after you, you can wait for me to return.”
“I visited Rivendell once,” Belladonna said. Her eyes were glassy, and it seemed to Bilbo that she was looking out on that fabled valley, and not seeing her sons at all.
“You had so many adventures before you married father,” Bilbo said, “and you will have so many more now that we are grown. Once you are well again.”
“This was after I married your father,” she murmured, turning to stare vacantly at the fire in the grate. “While I was pregnant with you. One last adventure before I became a mother. Though parenting is its own sort of adventure, one cannot travel with small children.” Belladonna coughed. “One should not travel with small children.”
“I will not take any children with me, mother,” Bilbo said. Suddenly he was resolved to go. It seemed to be the only hope of saving her.
Belladonna’s hand whipped out and grabbed Bilbo very tightly around his wrist. “You must not leave Kili alone.”
Instantly, Kili was at her bedside, stroking her hair. “I will not be alone, mum. I’ll stay here with you. I’m going to look after you.”
“You’re such a sweet boy,” she said. “I am so glad that I found you.”
Kili froze. “What?”
Belladonna coughed, great furious spasms that shook her entire body. When she finished, she straightened up and looked deep into Kili’s eyes. “I am dying, and you must know the truth before I go. I suspect your father kept a journal somewhere, but I have never found it. I think perhaps he burned it after, well, some time ago. So I am the last alive to tell you how you came to the Shire.”
“How I came to the Shire?” Kili looked dumbstruck. “I was born here!”
Bilbo was scarcely less shocked than his brother. “Whatever do you mean, mum?”
“It is as I said.” Belladonna reached for her tea and took the smallest sip, grimacing. Bilbo could not believe that so little tea could actually aid her, but when she spoke again her voice was a bit clearer.
“When I was pregnant with Bilbo, I went on one last adventure. In truth, I was rather upset with Bungo at the time. Though I do not now recall why. Whatever the reason, I decided to go to Rivendell. I thought perhaps the elves could tell me if I was to have a boy child or a girl. More importantly, I hoped they would tell me whether that child would be a stuffy Baggins or a fun-loving Took.”
Bilbo laughed in surprise. “And instead you got twins, mixing both traits in equal measure.”
Belladonna looked at him gravely. “No. I was pregnant with but one child, and Lord Elrond himself told me that it would be a very healthy boy. Whether that boy chose adventure or the pleasures of the hearth would be entirely up to him, but he would always be welcome in Rivendell if he chose to visit that place.”
Blinking, Bilbo did not understand.
Kili seemed to. “Then I am not your son!” he cried in distress.
“You are my son,” Belladonna said firmly. “In every way that matters. But it is true that I did not give birth to you. On my way back from Rivendell, I happened upon a frightful scene. A large dwarven caravan, probably heading to the Blue Mountains, was in absolute ruins. The wagons were burning, and there were dead bodies everywhere. I faced a difficult decision.”
“What do you mean?” Bilbo was not sure if he was speaking in the general or particular. None of his mother’s words made sense. Kili was his brother.
“A hobbit’s best defense is to hide. If I went poking about in the destruction, I risked not only my life, but yours Bilbo. For I could not exactly set my unborn child aside to go adventuring.” A cough interrupted Belladonna’s speech.
Recalling himself, Bilbo pressed her to take a little more tea, but she refused. She did accept a handkerchief.
“What happened?” Kili demanded. “You found me among the wreckage and decided to raise me as your own?”
“No,” Belladonna said hoarsely. “I did not find you. Walking in the dark, everything lit only by the dying embers of the burned wagons, someone grabbed my ankle. A dwarf in muddy armor with a blood streaked yellow beard. ‘Save him,’ he begged me. ‘They will never stop looking for him.’ I did not know who he was speaking of, but I promised I would do my best. Indeed, I could hardly have said anything else. The moment I offered that assurance, the poor fellow died.”
“He was talking about me.” Kili’s voice was faint and he seemed unable to formulate the question.
“Yes,” Belladonna said. “I noticed that this brave warrior was lying half across a large iron chest, which he clearly died defending. When I opened it, I found his treasure. You were huddled within. Very frightened, but unhurt.”
Once more, their mother broke into a coughing fit. Bilbo fussed, Kili stared, and both of them tried to reconcile what they knew of the world with what she was telling them.
“I think he was your father,” she added when she was able. “You reached for him and called him something that sounded like Dad.”
“Adâd,” Bilbo murmured.
Whipping his head around, Kili stared at his brother with wide eyes.
“Yes.” Belladonna coughed. “Yes, that was it. But how could you know, Bilbo?”
“It means father in our secret language,” Bilbo said. “The language Kili taught me when we were children.”
Closing her eyes, Belladonna smiled. “I did not realize. You were always babbling in those days, Kili, but I thought it was baby talk. Perhaps it was dwarvish.”
For a moment, there was only the sound of coughing. Kili sat blinking, clearly trying to think of something to say. Finally, he spoke. “So my father entrusted me to your care. Did you ever learn who was hunting me? Or why? Was the caravan attacked because of me?”
“No. A hobbit’s best defense is remaining hidden. Once I had you in my arms, I didn’t linger. Indeed, I have always blamed myself for not getting you away from there more quickly. What you saw that day gave you the nightmares that plague you still.”
The hobbitess did not break into another coughing fit, but every breath seemed to rattle in her chest. When Bilbo could not bear the sound of her laborious gasping for a second longer, he continued the story for her. “You hid Kili in the Shire, then. When I was born, you told everyone that you had twins.”
“Yes. Bungo wanted to turn you over to the next dwarven trader that passed through, but I couldn’t. You were such a friendly little thing, and we never knew who the monsters that attacked your caravan were. They might have been another clan of dwarves. Besides, after a while, you were just our son. Perhaps you needed more protection and guidance than Bilbo. You grew up so slowly. But you are such a fine boy, Kili. I am so proud to have a son like you.”
With his eyes full of tears, Kili could not seem to answer. Yet he took his mother’s shaking hand in both of his and held it very tightly.
“My boys,” she whispered. “My sweet boys.”
“We need you to get better,” Bilbo said softly. “Won’t you take a little more tea? Or have a rest?”
“Rest.” Belladonna’s eyes fixed on a point very far away from her sons. “Soon. But you must promise me. Bilbo. Kili is a dwarf. And so a child, yet, I think. He must be. Barely a tween, even now. By their reckoning. Take care of him. I promised his father.”
“I will,” Bilbo swore. “I will always keep him safe. He is my brother.”
“Kili.” Every word seemed to be a struggle, but Belladonna Baggins was not a hobbit to give up without a fight. “My son.”
“Mama!” Tears spilled down Kili’s cheeks shamelessly.
“Be safe. I love you.”
With that, she closed her eyes and slept. She did not wake again.
Kili threw himself against Bilbo’s chest, sobbing. Bilbo felt he was on the edge of a precipice. Only Kili’s arms around his middle held him steady. Of course he knew. He had always known. That Kili was different. That Kili was his mother’s favorite, even as their father favored Bilbo. Yet a part of him wanted to give in to the fury that swelled in his heart. For the whole of his life, he had been lied to. Over and over again, he had chosen Kili’s happiness instead of his own. Looking down at the choking, tear streaked face of his little brother, Bilbo knew he would make the same choice a thousand times more.
“Don’t let it go to your head,” he said gruffly.
“What?” Kili’s brown eyes were as wide and confused as a baby faun’s.
“Technically, you may be older than me, but our birth certificates say differently. I shall never treat you as my big brother.”
A surprised laugh sprang from Kili’s mouth, and he blinked up at Bilbo. “But you heard mum! I am the eldest, and you have to do as I say.”
Huffing, Bilbo smiled his most put-upon smile, but then he looked at his mother’s still, lifeless form, and it fell away. Clutching Kili close, Bilbo ushered him out of their mother’s bedroom. “When treacle rains from the sky,” he said, doing his best to raise Kili’s spirits.
“Bilbo.” Kili paused. “You heard what mother said. I am not really your brother.”
“Oh? So it was someone else who walked in on me kissing Dodinas Brandybuck in the toolshed at Brandy Hall last year and spent a month writing songs about a non-existent romance in a language that only he and I speak?”
A smile twitched in the corner of Kili’s mouth. “No. That was me.”
“Then you must be my brother, for I should never have tolerated that from anyone else.”
“Do you—” Kili paused. “Bilbo, do you really think the people who killed those dwarves are still hunting me?”
Fear filled the hobbit’s heart then. He had always been quite certain that Kili’s nightmares were only imagined monsters. Now he knew better. In his mind, he heard his mother repeat the caution. ‘They will never stop looking for him.’ Taking a deep breath, he answered his brother.
“I think you are protected in the Shire, as long as you are hidden. No one will come to Bag End looking for a dwarf named Kili Baggins, and there will be no gossip to suggest that there is such a person living here to spread outside of Hobbiton. After all, none of our neighbors will ever suspect that my twin brother is a dwarf. Mother and Father kept you secret, and so they have kept you safe.”
Nodding, Kili bit his lip. He still seemed very nervous.
“Try to get some sleep, little brother.” Bilbo sighed. “Tomorrow we will have to. Well, there is quite a lot that needs to be done tomorrow.”
“Will you tell me a story?” Kili asked softly in the secret language that always gave him comfort. He had not asked for a bedtime story for several years, but only one answer was possible.
“Of course,” Bilbo said warmly. ”Something distracting? The Witch King of Angmar? Eärendil the Mariner?”
“The one about the prince and the dragon.”
Bilbo laughed. “That is your story, though. You made it up.”
“I know,” Kili said. “But it gives me comfort. The Prince Under the Mountain can beat any monster.”
“Very well.” Smiling sadly, Bilbo pulled the covers up around Kili before getting into his own bed. “In a kingdom so wealthy that everyone ate off golden supper plates, there lived a mad, greedy king...”
It was a good story, and so familiar that it managed to comfort the two brothers for a time. Eventually, Kili fell asleep. Bilbo lay awake, though, worrying that dawn was too early to summon the coroner.