As Isumbard Took emerged from the public stable in Michel Delving he saw Brendilac Brandybuck coming out of the inn, accompanied by young Fosco. He found the sight of the young Baggins, now twenty-three, brought back memories of the year when he was twenty-five and Frodo Baggins was not yet twenty-one, when a wager made behind the ale tent at the Free Fair made it clear that Frodo was one of the best dancers in the Shire. His heart gave a bit of a twist at the thought of his lost cousin, and he realized that Brendi must feel the same twist even more often, as he and Narcissa were now fostering Fosco and his twin sister.
“So, you, too, are making a point of greeting our new Mayor to his office, are you?” Brendi called.
“Of course,” Isumbard answered. “How could I miss it? The Master of Bag End is now the officially elected Mayor of the Shire, a long-awaited development.”
“Although we’d always expected it to be a different Master of Bag End in that capacity,” the Brandybuck responded. Then, after a moment, he added, “You know, he told me that Sam would be the next Mayor. He showed the gift of foresight so often the whole time I knew him.”
“Even when you two were little ones?”
Brendi nodded. “At least this time when I stand up beside someone for Frodo’s sake it will be in a more pleasant capacity than it was standing by Lotho’s co-conspirators,” he commented. Bard smiled.
The door to Will and Mina Whitfoot’s house opened, and Will, Mina, and their nephew Gordolac Whitfoot came out, accompanied by Samwise Gamgee, dressed as he’d been the day his position as Frodo’s adopted heir had been officially announced, the dark green jacket with the deep blue brocade lining over the brocade vest, the watch chain with its pendant key stretched across his chest, the breeze ruffling his dark gold curls. If anyone looked like a mayor ought to look, Bard thought, it had to be Sam. The two lawyers and Fosco hurried across the square to the entrance to the Council Hole, determined to be there before Sam entered officially for the first time.
There were a number of Hobbits already inside the Mayor’s office, including the Master of Buckland, the Master of Long Cleeve in the Northfarthing, Odovacar Bolger, the Thain, and a few other notables from throughout the Shire, most attended by their heirs. Even Benlo Bracegirdle and his son Laslo were there, Bard noted. Pippin and Merry stood by their fathers, obviously proud to be there today for their friend.
The party that had walked across from Will’s house now stopped outside the door. “This is as far as I’m going, Sam,” Will could be heard saying. “I’ve waited far too long to give over responsibility for these, but I do so now with a good deal of pleasure and relief. The keys and the gavel are now yours, and I don’t ever want to be charged with them again, understand?”
There was laughter both within and without the office. “I see, sir,” Sam said solemnly.
“Now, let me be the first to greet you officially. It’s all yours, Mayor Gamgee. And I know as you’ll do right well by the Shire.”
“I’ll do my best--you can be assured of that, Will.”
“I know you will, Sam. Good luck to you. And now, Mina--shall we go collect the trap and head for the farm? It will be wonderful to be out of Michel Delving for more than a few days at a time, you know.”
“Good fortune to you, Mayor Samwise,” Mina could be heard saying. “Yes, Will, we’ll leave as soon as we have the last of the luggage and the hamper loaded.” And they could hear the two voices heading back toward the square as Sam finally appeared in the doorway, pausing, obviously surprised, as he looked at those inside the room.
Those within the office applauded, and Sam flushed, although he remained straight, his head high, as he waited for the clapping to die down. When at last all was quiet again he stepped inside and examined the gathering with interest. “Quite a number more here today than was here afore when Mr. Frodo come in the first time,” he observed.
“That’s true,” replied the Thain; “but on that occasion there was far less time for planning, you know. Although we look for you to do as fine a job as he did.”
“As I told the May--Will, I’ll be doin’ my best to see to that--not that I could truly match him none.”
Merry stepped forward to lay a thick envelope of silver silk, the flap sealed with black wax impressed with the White Tree of Gondor and seven Stars of the united kingdoms, in Sam’s hands. “Now that you’re Mayor, here is your first official dispatch from the King,” he said. “And yes, I know that Pippin’s the official messenger for the King’s business, but as senior cousin I insisted on the right to deliver it this time. After all, I’m the one who collected it day before yesterday from the messenger who brought it to the Bridge.”
Sam examined the address given, slipped a finger under the seal and carefully opened it, then extracted the enclosed pages. His lip twitched as he unfolded and examined them. “So much for as just how official they is,” he commented, raising his eyes to Merry’s. “Most is pictures as the Princess Melian has done and wished to send to us and the bairns.” He gave a broad grin which Merry found himself returning. “Although apparently the family foresight’s struck her, it has.” He turned one to show to the rest, showing a rough figure that might have been a sea creature apparently sitting on a chair on one side of what appeared to be an uneven table. A line of words below in Tengwar lettering had been written obviously by an adult. “This one reads, Uncle Sam at his new desk, like my ada.” All laughed. Several had met the Princess some years previously when her parents had come north to attend conferences for the Northern Peoples, and she’d spent a good deal of time playing with Sam and Rosie’s children. Apparently the small children born to a Dúnedan and an Elf were just as likely to draw odd shapes to represent folks as did those born to Hobbits. Sam shuffled through a few more pages until he found the actual letter the packet contained, and read it rapidly. “Well,” he said finally, “her ada’s congratulating me on my election as well, so it appears the foresight isn’t limited to the royal daughter. And he’s askin’ as how the West Road is doin, and if it might need proper pavin’--seems as Arnor’s willin’ to send in proper stones for pavin’ it if we was to wish it. It is part of the official road system for Arnor, after all.” He looked up and around the room. “Next time as the family heads meet, shall we discuss that, then?”
There was a good deal of mutual sharing of questioning gazes before the Thain answered, “It sounds perfectly appropriate for the agenda.”
Sam gave a thoughtful nod as he set the papers on his desk, then reached into a pocket to bring out a green stone disk to weigh them down.
Both Bard and Brendi found themselves straightening with memory at the sight of that disk. “Where did you get that, Sam?” Bard asked.
“Found it in Buckland, first time as I went there after Mr. Frodo left,” Sam replied, surprised at the reaction the sight of the thing garnered. “Why?”
Merry was now sharing looks with Brendi, then turned to look again at the new Mayor. “Where did you find it, Sam?” he asked.
“In the old mill buildin’,” Sam answered. “Minded me of him, you know, so I asked Mac if he thought it’d bother any if’n I kept it.”
“Near the low space where the flour used to be scooped down into the bags,” Merry commented. “Yes, that was where he put it, just before he left to live with Bilbo.”
Brendi was nodding, smiling gently at the memories stirred. “Said it was part of his life in Buckland and part of the land’s own memories of when the Men of the West used to live there, and he wouldn’t take it out again. Left it in the Mill, which Cousin Rory and Bilbo both told us had been shown to have been built over the foundations of a much older mill, one built by Men.”
A slow flush had been creeping into Sam’s face. “You mean as it did have to do with Frodo after all?” he asked, looking from Merry’s face to that of the Brandybuck lawyer to that of Isumbard Took. He looked long at Bard’s face. “And how is it as a Took knows about such a thing as this as he didn’t bring west of the Brandywine?” he asked.
“Brendi and I both saw it the day he found it, you see,” Bard answered....
“Cousin Bilbo, when will it get here? I’m freezing!”
Bilbo looked at where young Isumbard Took stood by his pony’s head as they waited for the Buckleberry Ferry to reach the near dock here on the west side of the Brandywine River. “Stand on the other side of your pony so he breaks the wind for you,” the older Hobbit suggested. “Stand closer to him, too, and use his warmth to keep you warmer.”
“I don’t see why I had to go with you, Cousin Bilbo,” the young Hobbit grumbled as the ferryhobbit finally brought his craft bumping against the near dock. “I don’t care if I get sick, too.”
“That may be so, Bard my lad,” Bilbo shrugged as he watched the family coming off preparing to lead the ponies pulling their wagon over the gap between barge and dock. “However, as it’s your mother who’d have to take care of you if you did and she already has her hands full caring for your sister and your father, if she feels she doesn’t wish to have to care for you, also, I’d say she’s well within her rights to send you off for a time longer, hoping you’ll manage to not become ill as well. Besides, I think you’ll find you actually enjoy Buckland and some of your Brandybuck cousins.”
The central part of the Shire had been struck by an epidemic of measles, and it appeared more were ill than weren’t between Overhill and the Great Smial in the Tooklands. Bard had been visiting his grandmother in the Woody End when it struck Tuckborough, and his mother quickly decided she had no interest in having him contract it, too. Bilbo had been visiting Paladin on the farm at Whitwell and was preparing to head east to Buckland next, intending to spend a few weeks first with Drogo and Primula and then at Brandy Hall. A quick messenger was all it took to summon Bilbo to the Great Smial as he left the farm, at which time he readily agreed to intercept Isumbard and keep him away from the danger of contagion.
Once they were aboard the ferry and had the ponies calmed, Bard asked, “How come you didn’t get it?”
“Measles, lad, is a disease one can only get once, properly speaking. I had it many years ago when I was about twelve or so. Therefore I’m now proof against it and can’t carry it on to anyone else. You, however, are a different matter, and as it’s a disease that seems to hit older youngsters even worse than it does young ones, your mum is right to want you to stay away until it runs its natural course within the Great Smial. Then, if you do catch it anyway, your mum will hopefully will be more rested to deal with it appropriately; while if you don’t catch it at all, so much the better.”
“Why doesn’t Mum get sick?”
“I believe she had it when she was about nine or ten, when the measles were running rampant in the Northfarthing where she lived with her parents.”
The ferryhobbit cast off and began poling the barge back across the river to the east bank. Bilbo chivvied the teen between the two ponies and joined him there, then checked to make certain his cloak was properly fastened closed. “Here,” he said, “I think this ought to be about the best we can do to keep warm while we cross the river.”
“It is warmer between the ponies. Where did you learn to do this?”
“The Dwarves and I had to do this several times during our journey, especially when we were going through the mountain passes. A good pony can be a lifesaver in the wild, we found.”
For about the last three years Bard hadn’t completely believed Bilbo Baggins had indeed gone on his much-celebrated adventure, but now he found himself wondering if perhaps at least part of it might be true anyway. “I’m beginning to think spring is never going to come this year,” he said, looking up at the lowering sky. “We haven’t had a truly warm day for ever so long, it seems.”
The ferryhobbit looked up as he poled the barge past the midway point in the river. “If you two are wise, you’ll ride quick once you’re off the ferry. Looks as if it might begin rainin’ again. I’d advise you to get to the Hall as quick as you can and tuck yourselves in for the night. I suspect we’re in for quite the storm.”
Bilbo looked up also. “I fear you’re right, Obi. We’ll hurry on to Drogo and Primula’s smial, then.”
“They live in River Place, don’t they? River rises any this time, you may regret that before mornin’.”
As they docked on the western bank Bilbo looked again at the growing dark of the sky with an increased level of concern in his eyes.
They rode south from the Ferry along the river, past fields and orchards, farms and smallholdings. Ponies ran along rail fences to keep their mounts in view as long as possible, then turned back to shelter on the lea side of byres; and here and there a dog would run barking out of a dooryard, most quickly called back by their masters. Once they had to stop to allow a long line of ducks to waddle across the road from the river to shelter in a hedgerow; another time a child came running out of a dooryard to catch up a roaming hen and bring her back home to stow her safely in the hen house before the promised storm hit.
Following Bilbo as he was, Bard had to admit to himself that the old Hobbit rode his pony well. Bard hadn’t been aware Bilbo rode, as every time he’d seen him the elderly Baggins tended to be either walking or driving a trap. Since Bard had ridden one of his family’s ponies to his grandmother’s home, however, Bilbo had agreed to ride one of the Took ponies this time instead of driving.
Apparently feeling the weight of his young cousin’s awareness, Bilbo looked back. “Have I grown an extra pair of ears or some such interesting event, Isumbard Took?”
Bard flushed. “No,” the younger Hobbit answered. “I was only wondering when you learned to ride, is all.”
Bilbo gave a snort. “Do you think my mother would have countenanced me going without such training? She was Belladonna Took, and old Gerontius’s own daughter, after all. And how do you think the Dwarves and I traveled most of the way to the Lonely Mountain? We did have to walk some after the goblins stole our ponies, but did get the loan of more from Beorn until we entered Mirkwood, and later we rode from Laketown to the Mountain. I certainly rode one all the way home.”
“Then why don’t you ride more?”
“Why?” echoed Bilbo. “Well, first I can go some places on foot I can’t take a pony. Then there’s the fact I just happen to enjoy walking on my own feet, not to mention it’s much cheaper. You see, I don’t have to buy hay and pay for stabling for feet as I would have to do if I kept a pony. And, contrary to popular belief, I am not a spendthrift. Plus I can carry more gifts and luggage in a trap than in saddlebags or a pack when I do decide to take transportation. If your mother hadn’t charged me to bring you with me I would have walked this time, storm coming or no. Although, now we’re so close I think we should encourage the ponies to go a bit faster.” With that he kicked his pony to a canter, and Bard quickly followed suit.
The ridge into which Brandy Hall was dug was rising in the distance on the left when they approached a copse of alders and a spreading willow just short of a low hill into which a smial appeared to be dug. Looking up at the trees under which they were preparing to ride, Bard just had time to mark a figure on one of the wider limbs of the willow before it leapt out of the tree to light just before them.
“Uncle Bilbo! Uncle Bilbo!” a small Hobbit lad clad in a warm brown cloak shouted as Bilbo and Isumbard found themselves working to master their startled ponies. “Uncle Bilbo, you’re here at last! You’re late! Where have you been?”
“Hold, hold, Frodo Baggins!” Bilbo laughed as he brought his steed under control. “Hasn’t your father taught you not to startle ponies by popping up under their noses like that?”
The child laughed. “My dad doesn’t know from ponies, Uncle Bilbo. You know that! And I didn’t pop up--I leapt down!”
“Another thing your predictable father would never have done, then,” Bilbo said, shaking his head. “Well, hurry on ahead and tell your mummy we’ll be there shortly. We must get the ponies into the stable, I think. I don’t know what you’re doing climbing trees in this weather and with a storm coming as it is.”
“She’s been at the Hall seeing the healers,” the lad said. He turned that way and smiled. “Here she comes--and Sara and Mac and Uncle Rory are coming with her. See?”
The wind was rising, coming over the river, blowing the cloaks of the seven Hobbits eastward as the four coming from Brandy Hall came even with small Frodo and the two from the Westfarthing. “Here you are at last!” Primula Brandybuck Baggins said with great pleasure as Bilbo and Bard dropped from their mounts. “It’s about time, you know. Frodo here ran out of patience sometime yesterday morning, and I see he was the first to greet you.” She turned to her son. “And where’s your father?”
“Went to the river bank with Uncle Dinodas to see if the water’s rising,” the child answered. “Aunt Esme was putting the bread in the oven when I came out. She’s supposed to be minding me,” he explained to Bilbo.
“And did you bother telling her you were going out?” his mother scolded gently. At the lad’s contrite look in response she sighed. “I see you didn’t. She’ll be worried sick you’ve wandered too close to the water now the current’s picking up. Come along, then.”
The three others were shaking their heads. Rory sighed. “This one’s more Took than either Brandybuck or Baggins I’m afraid, Bilbo. Good to see you at last. And who’s this?”
“One of our younger Took cousins, Rory. This is Isumbard Took, Hildigar and Lily’s firstborn. I agreed to bring him along with me. Have there been any cases of measles here?”
“No. Running through the Great Smial, is it?”
“Indeed it is. Bard here’s been with his Banks grandmother near Woods Hall for the past three weeks, so we’re hoping he’s not been infected. Both his younger sister and his da came down with it, though, so Lily has her hands full at the moment. He was due to return home yesterday, so I just picked him up along the way as I headed this direction.” He turned to the younger Hobbit. “Bard, this is your Uncle Rorimac; Rory’s Master of Buckland and Brandy Hall. And these are his sons Saradoc and Merimac. You ought to remember Sara as he’s husband to Esmeralda, who is Paladin’s sister. This is your second cousin once removed Primula, and this young rascal, as you can tell, is her son Frodo.”
Merimac smiled. “We’ll take your ponies for you. Drogo and Aunt Primmie don’t really have a proper place for them, you know.”
Saradoc looked at the rapidly darkening clouds, then turned to Primula with concern. “Perhaps the five of you ought to come stay in the Hall tonight, Aunt Primula, Bilbo. If we get much rain and snowmelt from the mountains to the east we could have flooding again.”
“Nonsense,” Primula said, shaking her head. “It’s only three years since the Brandywine overflowed its banks the last time. It’s too soon for it to happen again.”
“You really think the river counts intervals between flood years, Primmie?” Sara asked. “This storm shows every sign of being a nasty one.” At Primula’s scoffing expression he gave a sigh. “We’ll leave orders for the door to be left unfastened and the door ward is to admit you if you need it.” At that moment great drops began to fall from the clouds. All looked up. Saradoc looked to his father. “We’d best get these ponies back to the stables before the rain becomes drenching, Dad.”
“Wisely put, son,” Rory said. “If you’ll take your saddlebags and pack, we’ll head up to the stables then. And you are invited to join us for dinner, or at the very least for second breakfast tomorrow.” He looked down at Frodo, his expression indulgent. “Willow’s planning griddlecakes with brambleberry syrup, young Hobbit.”
“Ooh,” the child said, then looked at his mother. “Please, Mummy--can we go up for second breakfast, then? Please?”
Primula was already pulling her small son under her cloak as the rain became heavier. “We’ll see, Frodo,” she said, refusing to promise. “We’ll see what the morning brings first. Now we’d best get our guests back to the hole.” She smiled up at Bilbo, who was removing his saddlebag from his pony. “Let’s hurry, or we’ll be having to wring out our cloaks.” She smiled at her brother and nephews, accepted a brief kiss from Rory, and turned to herd Bard and Frodo toward River Place, Bilbo following closely behind with his pack on his back and the two sets of saddlebags over his shoulders.
The doorway to the smial was a bit sunken; but the entranceway was comfortable and inviting, and the parlor quite cozy once their cloaks had been removed and hung to dry. A Hobbitess came from further back in the smial, from the kitchen, quite familiar to Bard. “Cousin Esme?” he asked. “Good to see you.”
“Bard? What in Middle Earth are you doing here?” she asked.
“Mum doesn’t want me to catch the measles, so she asked Cousin Bilbo to bring me here.”
“Well, it’s good to see you.” She fastened her attention on the small Hobbit who was hanging now on Bilbo’s waist. “There you are, Frodo Baggins! And where did you go off to the moment my attention was fixed elsewhere?”
“I went out to watch for Uncle Bilbo, and he got here at last, Aunt Esme. It’s raining now--did you realize? Uncle Sara says the river may come over its banks again.”
“Well, I certainly hope it doesn’t.” She turned to Primula. “What did the healer and the midwife say?”
The other Hobbitess’s face was now more serious, but still she smiled. “So far, so good. There’s no indication I shouldn’t be able to carry this one to term--at least, not so far.”
Bilbo gave a sigh of relief. “That’s good to hear,” he said. “I was wondering if you ought to try again, after the last time. Losing three out of four isn’t a good sign.”
Esmeralda’s sigh was even deeper than Bilbo’s. “I just hope it keeps so, Primmie. Well, I think your dinner ought to be ready in about twenty minutes--certainly the bread should come out of the oven then. I’d best hurry back up to the Hall if I don’t wish to be soaked by the time I get there.” She took the one dry cloak that hung on the pegs in the entranceway, hastily pulled it about her and fastened the cloak brooch, then after hugging each of the others she pulled open the door and slipped out, closing the door firmly behind her as she went.
Primmie hurried to peer out the window by the door. “Good,” she said, “Rory waited for her and will see her back safely to the Hall.” She turned to her guests. “Let’s go back to the kitchen--it will be even warmer there.”
Drogo Baggins came in almost before the four were seated around the table with warming mugs of tea. Drogo was tall, reflecting the tendency toward greater height common to his Bolger uncles, with the broader build common to the Bolgers as well, although his face was Baggins handsome. Young Frodo appeared to take very much after his father, although he’d obviously inherited his eyes from his mother--large, expressive blue eyes with finely arched brows and long, dark lashes. “Well, Cousin,” Drogo said to Bilbo, “I see that even if you’re a day later than we’d expected you didn’t come unattended. You’re Bard, aren’t you?” he asked. “Been a few years since we saw you last. You’ve grown a good deal. How old are you now?”
“Thirteen, Cousin Drogo. Almost fourteen, actually.”
“That’s right--you’re about five and a half years older than Frodo here. What an introduction to Buckland, though--arriving at the beginning of an early spring storm! But it’s beautiful country here this side of the Brandywine, you’ll find. A different type of beauty than in the Tooklands or near Hobbiton and Bywater, though. Dinner about ready, love?” he asked his wife as he pulled his son into his lap.
Dinner was wonderful. It was well worth the trip, Bard decided, just to eat Cousin Esme’s cooking. Certainly the chicken baked with mushrooms was fantastic, as were Cousin Primula’s mashed potatoes whipped with butter, sour cream, and herbs. All were cheerful and many stories were told, and Bard found himself laughing uproariously along with the rest.
Once the meal was done Bilbo and Drogo cleaned the table and kitchen assisted by the two lads while Primula prepared a second guest room for Bard’s use. Then as Drogo took young Frodo to the bathing room for a bath Bilbo and Bard found themselves in the parlor where Bilbo quickly built up the fire. “So,” Bard commented, “that’s my famous cousin Frodo, is it? He’s quite a bit younger than I’d thought. I thought you told me he can read and write and all.”
“He can,” Bilbo said as he pulled out his pipe and began filling it. “He’s one who turned out to be a natural at reading and writing. I’m teaching him Sindarin now.”
“You mean Elvish?” asked the Took lad.
“There are several Elvish languages,” Bilbo said as he took a long splinter of wood out of a holder on the hearth and lit it from the fireplace. “The two spoken mostly here in Middle Earth are Sindarin and Quenya, although I believe there are two or three sylvan tongues as well. I’ve studied mostly Sindarin as it’s the most widely known, although I will probably work on Quenya as well one day. I do know a very few words already.” He lit his pipe, snubbed out the splinter, and making certain no spark remained on its end he replaced it in the holder for use by Drogo or in lighting candles and lamps later. He puffed on the pipe to make certain it had taken, then commented around its stem, “Young Frodo is one of the smartest young lads it’s been my pleasure to know. He’s about the smartest and one of the most responsible as well, for all he’ll slip out in all weathers with no fear.”
“My mum would kill to have his eyelashes,” Bard commented as he pulled himself closer to the fire.
Bilbo laughed. “Most of the ladies and lasses of my acquaintance would. He and his mum have the most attractive and expressive eyes I’m aware of. May be from the Goldworthies--certainly the combination of Goldworthy, Took, Bolger, Brandybuck, Boffin, and Baggins in him has produced an extremely good looking little lad. Not that he’s all that small, of course. After all, he’s the tallest his age in the area. And you’ll find he’s quite a determined little thing. Let him set his mind on anything and he’ll see to it he gets it or it will get done.” He smoked determinedly for a few moments and produced a fine set of smoke rings. Finally he sat down in an easy chair with a great sigh. “He’s one of my favorite relatives, I must say. But then it’s often so when you find your presence is so strongly appreciated.”
Primula came in and sat down in the rocking chair that sat to one side, her right hand over her belly. “This one is finally moving some,” she said, her eyes introspective. “Frodo was the only other one who was so active. I’m so hoping this is a good sign.”
“Does he understand, do you think?” Bilbo asked.
“Not completely, I’m afraid. Because of the other losses we’ve not spoken a great deal about it, although we aren’t hiding the pregnancy from him. If I make it through the next month we’ll discuss it with him at length and explain he’ll soon have a little brother or sister. If I don’t----” She gave a sigh and an expressive shrug. “He was such a delightful bairn and is such a dear child, it’s a shame not to try at least this last time for another.” Her eyes were sad. “That Esme and I should both have difficulties wasn’t something either of us anticipated.”
Bard felt embarrassed. The knowledge that Primula Baggins had suffered multiple miscarriages had made it to the Great Smial, of course; but he’d not been aware that she was again carrying and wasn’t certain how he should react. At almost fourteen he was expected to know the reality of how bairns came into the world, of course; but his parents hadn’t discussed associated subjects with their son such as how they might be lost before their time. However, living in the Great Smial made it impossible not to learn of such things, for with so many families so close together it was inevitable there would be at least a couple such incidents each year along with the successful births. Adalia Took, Ferdinand’s bride of a year, had lost a child in December, just before Yule, at which time the subject of Primula Baggins’s repeated attempts to carry a child to term had been brought up, with the successful birth of young Frodo pointed out by Eglantine as an example of hope, followed by the loss of the next child after Frodo offered as a warning by Lalia. As one of Isembold’s grandsons, Isumbard hadn’t previously thought much as to why some Hobbit ladies had so many children while others might have but one or two. However, Ferdinand and Bard’s own father Ferumbard, one of Isembold’s several sons, were close friends, and so of course his own family and that of Paladin Took had been seeking to offer Ferdinand and Adalia comfort when Lalia admitted herself to the company and made all equally miserable.
Bilbo smiled as he finished his pipe and tapped it out on the hearthstone. “I’ll tell you what--I’ll prepare late supper for you. Would you like something like potatoes fried with bacon and eggs and mushrooms? And perhaps some toast?”
“Oh, that would be nice, Bilbo. And there is a pie made from the last of the winter apples in the second larder for afters.”
“Well, if there’s any heavy cream in the cold room I shall certainly see to it, Primmie.”
Moments later Bard was with Bilbo in the kitchen assisting in fixing the meal and setting the table when Drogo and Frodo emerged from the bathing room, both laughing, Frodo clinging to a wooden duck that had been painted yellow. Frodo was sent to join his mother in the parlor while his father turned to assist in the preparation of the meal. Bard could hear the sound of the child’s conversation with his mother, more laughter, and then the sound of singing, at first from the mother but swiftly joined by the small lad, who had a clear, sweetly high voice. Bilbo paused in his work to listen, a gentle smile on his face. “It’s always such a pleasure to hear those two sing, Drogo,” he commented. “And after what Lobelia had been saying I was beginning to wonder if Primmie would ever sing freely again.”
Drogo gave a snort. “Well, we know what sort the S-Bs are, Bilbo. Lobelia couldn’t dampen Primula’s spirits indefinitely, you know. At least here we don’t have to deal daily with the old harridan or hear others spouting all her mischief as if it were true.”
The meal was quickly on the table, and soon they were all sitting down to enjoy it. Primula was sparkling with pleasure, Isumbard decided. He hoped that when he was old enough to marry he might meet such a lass as she.
They had repaired to the parlor again to hear a story by Bilbo when the knock came. Drogo opened the round blue door to admit Dodinas, one of Rory and Primula’s brothers. “Thought I’d come in and dry off for a time,” he said, smiling after hanging his wet cloak in a corner of the entranceway. “I’ve been walking the banks of the Brandywine. The rising of the river slowed about an hour ago, so it appears that the threat of flooding is past now, particularly as the rain has also slowed down a good deal.” He turned to lift small Frodo onto his shoulder. “And what have we here? Isn’t it the question box? Tell me, Frodo Baggins, why is the sky darker at night than it is in the daytime?”
“Because the moon doesn’t give as much light as his sister the sun,” Frodo explained.
“Ah, very good--you remembered,” the older Hobbit laughed.
“Why are the stars so small?” Frodo asked.
“That is a question to ask your Uncle Bilbo, Frodo. He’s certain to know the Elves’ story for it.”
“Well, as it happens,” Bilbo said, “I happen to have a book with the story of how the Lady Elbereth scattered the stars in my pack. Shall I fetch it out, lad?” And in moments he had done just that, bringing out a book bound in leather dyed a deep blue with silver stars embossed on it, then sitting again in the easy chair and taking the child in his lap before he opened the volume.
“Did you bind this one, Uncle Bilbo?” the child asked.
“Yes. I translated it a few months ago from a work Lord Elrond sent to me, and I sent it back while on my way to visit Paladin and Eglantine on the farm at Whitwell.”
“Do they like it there since the bairn came?”
“Pearl is already two, Frodo. And they say it is a wonderful place to have a child, away from the gossiping of the Great Smial.”
“Away from Lalia,” muttered Dodinas as he accepted a mulled cider from Drogo. “I swear she’s as bad or worse than Lobelia Bracegirdle.”
“Don’t you dare refer to her as that should you see her again,” Bilbo warned. “She’ll give you an earful and then some about how she’s a Sackville-Baggins, thank you very much, and then begin making up some story to tell Peony as to how you are suffering from some dread disease and will die an awful death.”
“She still predicting your death due to dire circumstances, Bilbo?” Dodinas asked him.
Bilbo laughed. “She’s finally about given up on it, as I’ve outlived three such predictions already, and I’m bound and determined to outlive her and Otho both.” He found the page he wanted and said, “Here we are now. Now, attend, all, and hear the story of how it was that Light was given to the world, according to the Elves.”
Frodo’s face was alert and his eyes bright as he listened to Bilbo read. Now and then he’d stop Bilbo and ask how particular letter combinations were pronounced. He was an attractive child, his skin pale, his cheeks nicely colored, his intent blue eyes clear and watching everything. He was clearly following along the story as Bilbo read it aloud, and would reach to turn the page for Bilbo without being told when. Only when the story was finished did he sit back and take his eyes away from the pages of the book. “I wish I could meet an Elf,” he sighed.
“You undoubtedly will some day, Frodo Baggins,” Bilbo said. “And I think you and the Elves will get on famously. They admire intelligence, you know. When you’re older and your mum and dad allow you to accompany me on my rambles I’ll be certain to introduce you.”
“Who are the ones in the grey and green cloaks who ride along the road, Uncle Bilbo? Are they Elves?”
“Elves? No, those are Men, although I’m told they’re Men who have some Elvish blood in them.”
“Not particularly fair to look on,” Dodinas sniffed. “Although they tend to be taller than the Men of Bree, I think. Their faces tend to be rather grim.”
“If you faced the dangers their people have faced over the millennia, you’d look grim, too, Dodinas,” Bilbo sighed. “I’ve met with a few of their folk over the years. Don’t like to talk that much about themselves--very private folk they are. But they’re very honorable, and associate with the Elves of Rivendell.”
Dodinas didn’t look particularly convinced.
At last Dodinas took his leave, and those remaining in the smial of River Place went to bed.
It rained all night, and continued raining the following day. They did go up to Brandy Hall for second breakfast, where Frodo, who’d obviously charmed Willow, the main cook, reveled in griddlecakes, brambleberry syrup, and sliced ham. They visited with the Master and Mistress and Saradoc and Esmeralda, but were back at River Place by elevenses.
Shortly after noon the weather grew worse, and the rain grew heavy, blown by strong west winds. The windows on the side of the smial toward the river rattled, and Bilbo went out to fasten the shutters closed. It seemed dark and unaccountably dreary, particularly compared to the preceding night when all had seemed warm and cheerful inside the hole. Dinner and late supper were light, and all tended to be distracted during them, listening to the wind as it slammed at shutters and the creepers growing on the side of the hill.
Primula was feeling heavy and uncomfortable and went to bed with little Frodo soon after late supper; and once her door was shut Bilbo and Drogo, without a word between them, began going through the smial, rolling up rugs and stowing them on higher shelves in the store room, and with Bard’s help picking up items off the floor and seeing them stowed securely. Finally Bard and Bilbo went to bed while Drogo went to take a turn watching the river’s level.
Bard woke in the night with no idea as to where he was. Things, he noted, sounded odd, as if there were a strange echo from the floor. Then he heard the movement of water as his bedroom door was opened. “Bard,” called Bilbo, his voice carefully controlled, “are you awake?”
“Yes,” the younger Hobbit answered. “I just woke up. What’s wrong?”
“That flood they were predicting has hit, Bard. We’re going to have to leave the smial by the back door and go up to the Hall. We may be able to come back tomorrow to fetch things, but I suspect we’ll have to wait at least two days. But we need to go now. The water is rising pretty quickly, and I have no idea how high it will rise in here. It’s ankle deep at the moment.”
Bard quickly located his pants where he’d placed them on the chair in the corner of his room, pulled his shirt and jacket over his nightshirt, grabbed his saddlebags off the chair, and joined Bilbo in the hall. Bilbo had Frodo in his arms while Drogo was carrying a protesting Primula, who’d been wrapped in a blanket and a thick cloak.
“I can walk by myself, Drogo!”
“You were starting to spot earlier this evening, love. I’ll carry you now, so you may as well stop the complaints.” Drogo’s voice was steady, but Bard could make out the deep shadows around his eyes as he moved to hold his wife more securely. He looked at his son in Bilbo’s arms. “You have your arms about your uncle’s shoulders, son?”
“Good. Don’t let go, but try not to choke him. Is he properly covered against the rain, Bilbo?”
“As well as I can.”
“Bard, will you go into Bilbo’s room and get his pack and put it on, then his saddlebags. And I have a bag there on the table in the kitchen I wish you to take before we go out. Your cloak is there, too.”
Bard fetched the saddlebags and Bilbo’s pack, made certain they were carefully closed, settled the bag from the kitchen table over his right shoulder; and they crept into the pantry beyond the kitchen where a side door led outdoors. The water was now midway up Bard’s calves, and he felt a wave of anxiety rise in him as Bilbo opened the side door and saw to it the rest left ahead of him. Water was pouring down the ramp into the pantry from the level of the garden, and it was difficult walking up the incline against the current out of the slightly sunken smial, but Bard made it and offered what support he could to Drogo and then Bilbo. They were now working their way through the flooded garden and out the side gate in the low hedge. It was impossible to shout over the noise of the wind, and Bard found himself grateful that it was at his back. Two Hobbits, one of them Dodinas, were headed their way carrying canvas cloths they wrapped around Frodo and Primula, and with their extra help they worked their way up out of the rising water the half mile to Brandy Hall where Saradoc was helping another family into the larger smial.
Water was being heated in the old boilers in the bathing rooms, and soon all were being washed clean of the mud they’d gathered along the way, the memory of the chill of the rising river’s overflow cleansed away by the hot water in the great copper baths.
Then Merimac was showing Bard and Bilbo to a large guest room in which Bard learned Bilbo usually stayed when visiting the Hall, and the older cousin insisted Bard, now wearing a clean nightshirt loaned by a younger cousin, get into the bed and then drink some chamomile tea. “I’ll join you in a moment, but right now you should get as warm inside as you are outside. I want to go check on Primula and make certain she didn’t take any harm. This was a great disappointment to her, and I don’t want her so distressed she loses the child.”
Bard nodded, and sipped again at his mug. He was three quarters asleep when the door opened to admit Bilbo again. He felt the mattress give on the opposite side of the bed, heard a brief, indistinct mutter as the old Hobbit settled his dressing gown over the back of the chair on that side of his bed and blew out the low flame of the lamp, and felt the tug of the blankets as Bilbo pulled them over himself.
“Is she all right?” Bard asked, yawning.
“She seems to be, although she’s been crying with disappointment,” Bilbo sighed. “I think she’ll be well enough. I certainly hope she will, at least. You comfortable, lad?”
“Yes. Night, Cousin Bilbo.”
“Good night, Bard. Sleep well.”
And in moments Bard was doing just that.