A bit late, I know, but written for The Birthday. For Kitty and Claudia for their birthdays.
Gandalf was looking forward to spending a few weeks with Gerontius Took in the Great Smial. He had spent several months trying to get the Men of Gondor, Rohan, Eriador, and Rhovanion working with the Dwarves of the Blue Mountains and the Iron Hills and the Elves of Mirkwood, Lórien, and Imladris to oppose the Necromancer, but it appeared that no one would commit to cooperating with anyone else. The Men of Gondor refused to recognize the remnant of the Men of Arnor as being worthy of any consideration at all, while those of Rohan spoke of Elves as if they were witchy beings likely to betray the trust of honest Men, and the Dwarves seemed to look on all other races with suspicion and intolerance. Surely within the Shire he could put his frustrations behind him for a time!
As he crossed the Brandywine Bridge he saw that the larders, storehouses, and barns of the Shire would be full this winter. Pumpkins and marrows ripened in the fields. He saw bushels of apples and taters gathered together into wagons intended for market, and stalls run by goodwives along the roads offering pots of jams and preserves, jars of pickles, and bunches of carrots, radishes, turnips, and beets to those who passed by going either east or west. He could smell the rich odor of baking everywhere, and the cider presses were busy.
Roofs were being thatched and mortar between bricks and stones renewed, barns cleaned, and the sheep were being given their final shearing for the year. Wise farmers were seeing to it that the walls of their barns and sheds were sound, and both hay and straw were being laid in for the needs of winter.
There was a fair in Whitfurrow as he passed through it, and for some reason he purchased a ball of knitted yarn made in bright colors, although he could not say why it had taken his fancy. A farmer’s wife near the Three Farthings Stone proudly offered him a serving of her apple crumble, which he savored with great pleasure and delight. How it was that such creatures as Hobbits could manage to produce such delectable foodstuffs from the gifts of Yavanna he could not fully understand, but he certainly blessed the Creator for such a gift given them. He offered the goodwife his sincere thanks and compliments as he returned the plate and fork, and called a special blessing upon her orchard that its fruit always be sweet and on her kitchen fire that she not fear burning anything cooked over it or baked in her oven for the next seven years. She was flushed and filled with wonder at such a “spell” offered on her account, but she was delighted on her own behalf to receive such a reward for her gift.
As he approached the turnoff to Bywater he paused, considering if he should go on until he reached Tuckborough or if he should stop briefly at the Green Dragon, which as he remembered it had the best roast chicken in the Shire as well as a passable brew. But before he could make up his mind he heard a hail from a mixed group of Hobbits approaching on ponies.
“Gandalf! I say, Gandalf! What luck! Do wait up, won’t you?”
“My heavens,” Gandalf said to himself. “It would seem I don’t have to go all the way to the Tooklands to see Gerontius after all. Gerontius Took, what in Middle Earth are you doing all this way from the Great Smial?”
“Going to see Belladonna in Hobbiton. Bungo sent over one of the Twofoot lads to fetch us. I’m going to be a grandfather again in short order, it seems. Do come with us, dear Gandalf, and stand by us. At least this time she was able to carry the child to term, and the word was that things were going fairly well. Bungo is said to be a bit overwhelmed, and surely you can help to distract him. Do say that you will come!”
“Another grandchild? And how many does this make?”
“Does it matter, my friend? And just how am I to keep track of precisely how many there are anymore? Come along now and walk by me and tell me how things are going in the outer world for what time it will take to reach the Hill.”
Laughing, Gandalf did as his friend asked as they took the road into Bywater. At least I appear to have a good use for this ball, he thought, and he began telling the tale of one of the daughters of the Steward of Gondor, who’d thought it a clever idea to set a turtle loose in her father’s fishpond in one of the gardens behind the Citadel. Soon all were laughing with glee. Gondor meant nothing to any of them, of course, but a child setting a hungry turtle loose where it could feast on kept fish they all could appreciate. Soon Gerontius was telling of the hedgehog his youngest had been keeping in his own room that somehow managed to find its way into the Mistress’s parlor. It awoke from a nap under a padded settle just as a good number of Took wives settled into their chairs to gossip over a formal tea, and crept out to examine a piece of dropped scone just as Cousin Honoria, who’d always been a bit tiresome, began boasting about how clever her little lad Benigard was. It rubbed across Honoria’s foot just as she began repeating for the third time that she had to have the most intelligent young Hobbit in the whole of the Great Smial, causing her ceaseless bragging to change to a most undignified shriek, at which Adamanta snorted with laughter and assured the Wizard that it was perfectly true, and how all the other Hobbitesses present had felt pleasure at the unexpected interruption.
They rode across the bridge over the Water in single file, Gandalf following the Thain’s Lady closely, and were soon climbing the lane from Bagshot Row to Bag End. Children poured out of the gaily painted doors along the Row and ran alongside of them, all chattering excitedly while two tweens ran ahead, banging the gate in the hedge surrounding Bag End loudly as they took the steps two and three at a time, calling out, “The Thain! Thain Gerontius is here!”
The green door of Bungo and Belladonna Baggins flew open, and Donnamira came out upon the porch. “Mum! Do hurry! It’s almost here!”
Adamanta slid off her pony with no ceremony and hurried up the stairs, gave her youngest daughter a pat on the shoulder as she pushed by her, and disappeared into the hole, closely followed by Donnamira. Donnamira was replaced by her sister’s husband, who was visibly shaking as he greeted the Thain and his party to Bag End in a voice that tended to squeak with excitement.
“Welcome, Adar Gerontius! Cousins! And—and Gandalf? The Grey Wizard here, in Bag End? My stars, but the neighbors and my kin are likely to be scandalized! Oh, but who cares for them? Do come in—all of you! And thank you, Naddo, for riding off to the Great Smial for me! You, too, Gandalf. Do come in. I think that you will be able to stand up in the parlor—Belladonna had so hoped you might deign to visit us here, you know, so she insisted we have at least a couple of rooms where you wouldn’t have to stoop.”
As he followed Gerontius through the entrance hall, taking care to duck under the hanging fixture for candles so as not to bang it with his head, Gandalf murmured, “Adar? He calls you that?”
The Took turned slightly to smile wryly at him. “He’s a Baggins, you see, and could not bring himself to speak to me as his father-in-love in common terms as Dad Gerontius as if I were a common Hobbit, not when I am the Thain of the Shire. So, when he learned that adar means father in Elvish, he decided that was how he should address me. And I fear it has stuck. The majority of my children all address me as Adar or Ada or just as Da now rather than Dad. I must suppose it is better than all of them calling me Father—that would be far too stuffy, don’t you agree?”
Gandalf tried vainly to suppress a snort of laughter, and he saw answering amusement in his small friend’s eyes. It was going to be quite a visit, he supposed.
He had to admire the smial as he followed his host and his friend into the parlor, for it was quite as lovely as any home he’d seen anywhere throughout Middle Earth. In fact he suspected it outshone a few homes he’d seen in his old life, before he came here as one of the Istari.
How do they do it? he wondered as he finally straightened below the arched ceiling. How do Hobbits manage to make a home dug into a hill or bank seem so open and comfortable, as if it were constructed of wood, stone, or brick?
Bungo Baggins was making introductions. “My brothers Longo and Bingo, and my cousin Fosco. I fear my father’s been ill, so he and Mum are staying close within Number Five for the moment. I shall most probably take the bairn down to show them once the midwife assures me all is well with it and Belladonna. My sister Belba is busy in the kitchen, while Linda is back in the bedroom assisting the midwife with Belladonna alongside Donnamira. You know Thain Gerontius and his sons Isengrim, Isumbras, Hildigrim, Isembold, and Isembard, don’t you, Longo, Bingo? And I must suppose that Hildibrand is staying close by Crocus right now as she is also due within a few weeks. And this is Hugo Boffin, Donnamira’s husband. They have chosen to live in the Great Smial. I’m not certain as to when we should expect Mirabella, who’s been visiting in Buckland. I suspect that Gorbadoc will be escorting her here. We sent off word yesterday by way of the Quick Post as soon as we were certain it wasn’t a false alarm this time. I suspect they won’t arrive before three days, although if they left Brandy Hall when they got the message we sent a few days ago when we thought the bairn was coming they might be nearly here now. I do wonder when they will admit they are smitten with one another and that they intend to marry. Oh, well, there’s no rushing romance, is there?”
Bungo was quite prattling with nerves, the Wizard noted. Although he supposed it was only to be expected. There had been at least one other pregnancy before this one, one that ended tragically at five and a half months, as Gandalf remembered it.
The young gentlehobbit identified as Longo gave a single shake to his head, apparently in response to his older brother’s babbling. Quite a handsome fellow, or he would be if his expression weren’t quite so sullen and discontented. Bingo was a much merrier chap, while there was no question that Fosco was very handsome indeed, tending to be both taller and more slender than average for a Hobbit, with a warm, intelligent manner. Almost a Took for looks, thought Gandalf, feeling himself well disposed to Bungo’s cousin.
There was a cry from the back of the smial, and Bungo Baggins grew pale with distress. “What is happening?” he gasped in anguish as he turned toward the passage back to the bedrooms.
At that point, however, Gerontius came to put his hand on the Baggins’s shoulder. “Best stay here if you don’t wish to hear things said about you your wife will not wish you to have heard within a short time,” the Thain advised him. “Believe me, this is women’s work, and it’s best you stay far, far out of the way.”
Bungo turned eyes that were even more alarmed his way, and Gandalf had to again suppress a snort of amusement at just how disconcerted Bungo appeared. There was another great cry of mixed pain and triumph, after which there was silence—a profound silence that was unnerving. At last, however, that silence was broken by a different wail as an infant took exception to having been forced so violently out of its warm womb into a new environment.
“Well,” Fosco commented, raising the mug of tea he’d held since their arrival, “it appears that the bairn is now officially born! Don’t look now, Cousin Bungo, but it does seem that at last you are a father!”
It still took a while before Adamanta Took came out carrying a small bundle warmly wrapped in a shawl, her face filled with pride and gentleness alongside a healthy share of humor. “At least it wasn’t me lying there cursing you, my love,” she commented to her husband. “I do think that our daughter had even more horrible thoughts of what she might do to Bungo than I ever dreamed of toward you. But there is a new lad within the hole now. Come here, Bungo Baggins, and meet your new son.”
Bungo’s expression of alarm and terror changed as the bundle she’d carried was forced into his arms, swiftly transforming to wonder and joy. “A son? I have a son now? How wonderful!” With a tentative fingertip he gently uncovered the face and looked down into it. “Well,” he said, a big smile upon his face, “he’s no real beauty, is he? Just look at how scrunched up his face is! And he’s so red! But----”
The infant opened its eyes, looking up at his father with as much wonder as one could see in the older Baggins’s expression, and Bungo smiled happily down at him. “He knows his old dad, doesn’t he? Don’t you, my beloved son? You know your old dad, you do! Oh, yes, and I shall take you out and teach you to play roopie and conkers and----”
Adamanta laughed aloud. “Not today you won’t, my dear lad. No, today he’s going to rest alongside his poor mummy and get used to living out where there’s light and air. Now, give him to my dear husband before he snatches the child away.”
Gerontius Took was definitely a practiced hand at holding babies, and soon had the child exposed so all could see that all the bits were in their proper places and all perfectly formed. “I agree, this one isn’t perhaps as beautiful as many bairns I’ve seen. But there’s no question he’s already learning as much as he can about the world he sees. I predict he’ll be a smart lad indeed, and definitely one to be proud of. Here, you take him, Gandalf! And just maybe you’ll have a blessing to give him?” The Thain looked up hopefully at the Wizard as he lifted up the child for Gandalf to take.
A blessing? And just what kind of blessing am I expected to offer a Hobbit child? the Wizard wondered as he reached down to take the infant into his hands. How small it was! Even Men’s babies usually needed the support of his arm, but not this child! It barely extended beyond the palm of his left hand as he lifted it up to peer into its face. Again those blue eyes opened wide, staring short-sightedly up into the face of its new bearer, and Gandalf was enchanted—first enchanted and then surprised as he was presented with a succession of images of what this Hobbit’s face would undoubtedly look like as he matured. He saw the same type of alarm he’d seen earlier in Bungo’s expression, and the determination he knew so well from the baby’s mother and grandfather. He saw the type of compassion he’d so often seen in the face of Adamanta and the stubbornness he’d seen so often in the Thain’s other children. And he saw courage….
Suddenly he knew the blessing appropriate for this child, although, he thought wryly, it’s as much a curse as it is a blessing. Aloud, he murmured to the baby, “May you live in interesting times. And may you always face such times with humor and fortitude.”
As Gerontius received the child back and prepared to return it to his wife, Gandalf could see the satisfaction his friend felt. No, the Thain and the Took did not want his progeny to live too comfortably….
It was with mixed feelings that he fished the wooly ball out of his pocket and presented it to the baby’s father.