“Tramping in the Shire:” My First Foray in Tolkien Fan Fiction.

“Tramping in The Shire.”

M.J. Downing.

             Bilbo looked up at the high clouds, blown over the Shire from the West, seeing things that Frodo could not. “Where do the years go, Frodo, when they leave us? I’m sure that they’re out there somewhere, aren’t they?  I remember them all, those days when I lived, moment to moment, no thought for tomorrow.  Inside my head was an airy place, full of music and laughter and Azalea Burrows.”

            Frodo was growing accustomed to this sort of thing. It happened often when they were out walking, ‘tramping,’ his uncle Bilbo called it. The old hobbit, still hale at eighty-six years of age, looking more like a hobbit of fifty years, was fond of rattling on about the old days to his favorite nephew, though Frodo had never heard of Azalea Burrows before.

            “Strange.  You’ve never mentioned her before, uncle. Who was she to you?”

            “She was…everything I wanted, for a time, a dark eyed, dark haired lass.  Worked in her grandfather’s inn, down Frogmorton way. She used to sing to me, she did. Voice like an elf maid,” he said with a sigh.

            “You were in love, uncle? When was this,…anyway, and why…didn’t you marry her?” Frodo asked, puffing harder as he trotted forward to walk beside Bilbo. These were details that didn’t arise on most walks. His uncle was never a solitary figure, but he’d never married, though he often appreciated the sight of a hobbit maid in the bloom of her beauty, particulary on fine days like today. It was another mystery about Bilbo, which Frodo collected.

 The Astron [May] sun, warming toward noon, burned hot upon their heads, laden as they were with full packs, making their slow way into the Westfarthing of the Shire. They were bound for Nobottle, this day, and on to Tighfield the next on ‘business,’ according to Bilbo. Such excursions had become a common feature of life for Frodo, who had of late come from Brandy Hall in Buckland to live with his infamous uncle.

            “Oh, I was still in my ‘tweens,’ I suppose, or hardly out of them, long before I made my trip east and away. And yes, yes, I was very much in love. I longed to marry her, have her set Bag End to rights, maybe raise a tot or two….” Bilbo grew quiet for a moment and sniffed.

            “What delightful fresh air, eh? If you ask me,” he went on obliquely, “I’d say Astron is the finest month for walking we have in the Shire, other than, Halimath [September], perhaps, when the leaves begin to change and the winds of harvest scent the air. The hops they grow around Nobottle thrive, then, my lad.”

            Frodo sighed, accustomed to these sudden intrusions of ‘sensible concerns’ into the midst of a good story. Bilbo would often drift into a tale of some kind and just as quickly drift away from it, deciding it foolish, perhaps, or not educational for the lad. Frodo had come to accept it as his uncle’s way.  Given time and patience on his part, Frodo trusted that the rest of the story would crop up again soon, although it rarely came to a satisfying end.  Frodo delighted in any story, though, so he played his part and drifted with Bilbo into other channels of talk.

            “Oh, the air is fine, uncle, but not my winds.  I’m nearly out of breath and ready to stop, fine Astron weather or not,” Frodo complained.  “Maybe that’s because I’m carrying most of the water and the food.”  They had tramped cross country along small lanes from Hobbiton.  The walking was easier once they reached the rolling road, but the younger fellow’s uncle wasn’t keen on stopping at any inn or farmhouse they passed. He was intent on pressing on, up and down small hills on the road that ran through fresh green fields, bursting with life.

            “Oh, stop whingeing, nephew.  It’s unbecoming in a fellow of your size and strength.  Why, you’re as well-grown a young hobbit as I’ve ever seen.  What are you now, three-ten or eleven? And I’ve never seen the size of your shoulders and back in my time.  You look almost like a dwarf.  Surely you can manage a few more miles before we break for luncheon?  There’s a rare old inn in Nobottle. Best beer in the Westfarthing, and vittles enough to satisfy even your tooth.

            “And,” he said, turning a bright eye to his toiling nephew, “the landlord there has a daughter, Iris, I believe she’s called.  As fine a hobbit lass as you ever saw in Buckland.”

            Frodo knew better than to take the bait about pretty lasses and force the story back to Azalea Burrows so soon.  That wasn’t how the game was played. “But, uncle, you say that about every maid who sells ale, from Stock to Michel Delving. I’ll reserve my judgement about her until I see her.”

            “Well then, step lively, my lad, or there won’t be light enough to look by!” the elder hobbit cried with a laugh. The sun had passed her zenith an hour since.

            “Very funny, uncle,” the younger hobbit replied. He watched Bilbo push on, stick in hand, under a pack just as large as his own—and likely heavier–marveling at the old hobbit’s vigor.  These days, he was well known for it.  His reputation for oddity might be firmly fixed in the heads of most of the Shire inhabitants, who still thought of him as ‘Mad Baggins,’ but that name wouldn’t be heard among poorer hobbits. They knew him as generous, without looking for return, which was, perhaps, an even a greater oddity than sudden excursions in the wild or the wandering, outlandish guests seen coming or going from Bag End’s door.

Seeing to the poorer hobbits was partly why Frodo chose to come live with his uncle, to do some good. He intended to leave in Buckland his reputation as a rascal and try and learn some hobbit sense from his uncle, if he could.  Others were doubtful about that, but not Frodo. Plus, he adored listening to the old hobbit go on about his travels outside the Shire. The lad had come to care deeply for his strange uncle. In Frodo’s eyes, Bilbo lived a gigantic life, so big, that when he thought of the Shire in its entirety, he pictured Bilbo Baggins. He lived in the grandest hole, threw the best parties, and got on with practically everyone, even those who still thought him ‘mad.’

 When they topped small rises on the road, Frodo could see the Tower Hills and further away, the peaks of the Blue Mountains, home to many dwarves. Each time they went out on long walks, Frodo hoped to meet dwarves on this westward road, for then he would hear his uncle talk with them about events in the Iron Hills and Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, itself, where King Dain’s kingdom flourished. The dwarves treated his uncle as though he was a lord, even those dwarves who had never ventured the trek on the eastern road through the Misty Mountains. Bilbo, equal parts legend and local curiosity, was a hero, like one of the figures from old stories. Frodo was blossoming under his shadow, but he had little sense of what that meant, other than the feeling that the ceiling of his small life was opened to the limitless sky, to opportunities, to a larger life, the very thought of which sent a thrill of undefined joy through his heart, even if walks with heavy packs taxed his legs.

            They soon passed into a grove of hawthorn trees that shaded the road, finding relief from the sun’s heat. She burned bright in a sky so blue and clean that it hurt to look upon. Frodo delighted in the heady scent of the pale pink or white hawthorn blossoms.  They heralded summer to come.  Those would be days of parties and outings to nearby inns, especially at Overlithe, Mid-Year’s Day, when The Green Dragon would be full of music and life. His cousins from Tuckburough would visit, then, especially Esmerelda Took, with her flaxen hair and green eyes, and the smiles she reserved Frodo alone.

 Here and there in the grove, clusters of old hornbeams rose amidst the bright hawthorn blooms.  The hornbeams were patches of darkness, with their many twisted trunks shading the ground.  He could almost imagine strange creatures sheltering there, watching his famous uncle, seeking to trap him.  It was a silly thought, perhaps, one of which his uncle would disapprove, but it made the young hobbit’s heart beat faster thinking about it.  He shivered, too, knowing that they traveled without weapons, then chided himself for being foolish. This was the Shire.  He was safe or Bilbo would not have brought him tramping.

            With the notion of dangers in his head, the lad asked, “Uncle, you promised to tell me more about the dragon someday.  Is today the day?”

            “What put that notion into your head, boy?” the old fellow said, casting a curious look at his nephew.

            “Oh, nothing.  I was just wondering, is all.”

            “Well, I don’t see how I can do justice to old Smaug by simply describing him. You have no frame of reference for understanding such a beast, and it is my great hope that you never will.”

            “Why not? Just because I’m young?  I thought you wanted me to ask questions,” Frodo replied.

            “Oh, I do, lad,” the elder hobbit replied, “but dragons, old Smaug, especially, are a complication.  A dragon isn’t going to make sense to a young fellow like you, other than being a curiosity, which you will never see.” They climbed an abrupt hill in the road, and the trees abated.  The land opened onto a series of farms, where stone walls, as well as thick coppice and hedges separated ordered plots. The lad could see hobbits at work there, weeding rows or dragging carts with manure with which to enrich the soil.  Further along the road, which ran up another small hill, stood a long, low farmhouse with its simple outbuildings set amongst a ring of hollies.  “I’m feeling the need of a little something to sustain me, lad. Let us just sit for a moment, and I’ll see if I can explain as we take our late lunch.”

            Packs off and feet sticking out in the road, they sat against a bank of heavy turf and eased their backs.  After some bread, cheese, and an apple each, the elder hobbit took a small pipe from his pocket and filled it from a leather pouch.  He kindled a small fire with flint and steel, just enough to light the pipe, reached into the lad’s pack for the water jug and took his first puff.

“I don’t suppose you have remembered a pipe?” Bilbo asked. The lad shook his head. “Well, we’ll share, as friends must do in a pinch.”  He fed the small fire which burned between them and without looking at his companion the elder hobbit said, “Use that vaunted imagination of your’s, lad, and tell me what sort of creature could be a composite of flesh and flame.”

After a while and a puff or two on his uncle’s pipe, he ventured, “I guess it would have to be a creature of pure magic, uncle—”

“Bread, not born, for one thing,” Bilbo added, raising a finger to underscore his point. “Destruction. That is what the evil Morgoth did in creating dragons.  It is—was, rather–a living, intelligent weapon, set loose to wreak havoc upon all that it comes across. That is the essence of a dragon, lad, which might help you grasp why we are better off without them.”  He passed the water jug to his nephew.

“But why did you say that you could not do Smaug justice?  Seems to me that you have.”

“Not at all.  I’ve just touched on what a dragon is. I suppose my wizard friend would say that I have described ‘dragon-ness,’ not Smaug, for I have left out one important thing, which Smaug possessed in abundance: Malice, schooled over a thousand years of evil life and refined by greed, lust, and malice, against any other life, even another dragon.  Smaug, they say, killed many of his own kind and gobbled them up so he could grow.  They do so, you know, as long as they are alive and Smaug was bigger than anything you can imagine. Worse, still, he could fly, which was impossible to consider, just looking at him. It was less his wings that his warped magic that made him fly.  And while you can see their age in their size, you can only begin to guess at the single-minded malice of a creature like Smaug. 

“I say intelligence, lad, but I think a better word would be cunning, a mind so warped that it learned to outwit any living thing it encountered.  That was what Morgoth created, a weapon that would turn even upon its creator in hatred, if it could. Just to listen to one was courting death.  Fool that I was, I sought to flatter him, thinking that I could outwit him.  It almost cost me my life, lad.”

“But you did escape, and it was magic that aided you, right, uncle?”

“Aye, magic aided me, boy, but it was love and loyalty, kinships between weak creatures, a man and a bird, that brought Smaug to ruin, along with his own pride.  Yet, he was mighty and deserves to be remembered as such and as evidence of malice’s power in the world.  We may flatter ourselves with the might of our enemies, especially when they have fallen, but we cannot take credit for their fall without seeing that their powers are still in the world, often, sadly, reflected in us. He would have killed us all, in our foolish pride, had it not been for that small, weak connection, the desire to protect one another.”

“And his need for all that gold?” the lad asked.

“The very weakness that almost destroyed us and did destroy him.”

“Was he really as big as you have said?”

“Lad, he was bigger.  You’ve nothing for comparison.” The elder hobbit pointed to the farmhouse across the small valley. “Lying down, he would have wrapped around the base of that hill.  Like a living mountain of impregnable stone, so ponderous that each step caused the earth beneath his feet to shake. Imagine this very hill where we sit coming alive and moving about. With a will driven by dreadful vengeance.”

“Vengeance? For what cause, uncle?”

The old hobbit smiled, capped the water jug and tapped out the small pipe. “For being created in malice, alone, always alone, never part of anything except his creator’s hatred of all living things, big and hobbit sized.  I think that’s why he craved the gold and jewels he could steal: he hoarded that with which people could do good for one another.”

Bilbo looked long at his nephew, who was clearly lost in thought’s about dragons, knowing he had been the same at Frodo’s age once and just as prone to the allure of dragons.  He said to himself, “I was asleep, in those days, asleep and dreaming. I almost wish I could go back to that airy place in my head.  But, no.  I gave those years away. That’s where they have gone. I just ran through them in a dream, though now I wake and know, for I have been marked by the dragon. I know.”

“We better push on, lad,” he said aloud,” if we want to make that inn at Nobottle before they cool their cooking fires.” The old hobbit rose, extended his hand to Frodo and hauled him to his feet. For a moment, after thinking himself safe in the Shire, Frodo was overcome by the idea of such malice in the world, by wills of the powerful seeking to bend life to their needs, and for what? Power? Control? Why hate? He did not know and kept his thoughts silent.  He didn’t want to look uncertain in Bilbo’s eyes.

*

The inn at Nobottle, “the Haywain,” by Otto Hornblower, was a long, low building of old stone, reportedly harvested from ruins at Fornost, away to the north. It was a solid, comfortable building. The gold of its thatched roof caught the last of the day’s light as they approached, tired and as hungry as only hobbits can be. Frodo thought himself near famished, since all he’d had since breakfast was an apple, some cheese, a hunk of bread, and the half the contents of a water jug, hardly a meal by hobbit standards.

The common room of Hornblower’s place lacked a proper bar.  Food and drink were dispensed from a kitchen off the back of the structure, whose fires and cooking smells had enticed Bilbo and Frodo to cover the last two miles in haste.  Frodo found its beer quite palatable, though hoppier than he liked, so he switched to a heady blackberry wine for which Hornblower clamed fame.  It went well with the mutton stew that young Iris served them.  Frodo found her quite enchanting, as well.

Her eye was equally drawn to Bilbo’s tall, handsome nephew.  Iris, quite pretty in her own rose-cheeked country way, made free with her lingering touches on Frodo’s shoulders as she went by.  However, as another of the Shire’s darkhaired, dark-eyed hobbit maids who drew the appreciative eyes of the country lads all around, she had many an admirer at the inn.  One, Emil Banks, who fancied himself the best hobbit in the Westfarthing, dared Frodo to ‘turn out and show what he was made of.’

Now hobbits, generally a sensible people, do not engage much in fisticuffs. Punching a hard hobbit head is likely to leave a hand or two broken, and a broken hand can do no work.  However, they are accomplished wrestlers and have a deep store of knowledge concerning joint locks, trips, and throws, all of which were the near constant occupation of young hobbit gentlemen raised in Brandy Hall. There, Frodo had learned all that he could to the point of defeating even his older, stronger kin.  Emil had no clue about Brandy Hall or Frodo’s prowess.

He rushed at Frodo as soon as he entered the yard of the inn, with Bilbo’s “Don’t hurt anyone, lad!” still fresh in his ears.  A quick dodge to his left, Frodo’s stout right leg making a bar over which Emil would tumble, left his adversary sprawled in the dirt, face down.  Iris, standing at the door, applauded.  Frodo bowed to the maid and gave his hand to Emil to help him rise. Emil tried an old move, grasping Frodo’s hand and falling back to the ground, his leg rising to catch Frodo in his middle and propel him over to the ground.  It was a daring move, to be sure and a dangerous one—for the one who falls, especially.   

Frodo, having taken such a fall a time or two, knew well the counter move.  It was child’s play for him to sweep aside Emil’s leg with his left arm and drop his solid bottom down hard on the country hobbit’s middle.  The air burst from Emil’s lungs like a kettle letting off steam, and Emil, red-faced and gasping for air, lay beaten in two moves. For added measure, Frodo kept hold of Emil’s hand, used it to turn his adversary onto his belly so that he was, again, face down in the dirt, and twisted the captive wrist into a hold that would not let the country hobbit rise.

“Iris, are we finished?” Frodo asked, knowing that she was the one for whom the contest was staged.

“I should think so,” she said with a smile. “And shame on you, Emil Banks, for not showing hospitality to travelers,” she added in reproach. Emil, in the care of his companions, was carried away to regain his breath and bandage his pride, which was what hurt him most.

After telling Bilbo that Iris wished to show him the sights of Nobottle, Frodo walked away in the opposite direction of Emil and his friends, with Iris on his left arm and a bottle of her father’s blackberry wine in his right hand.  Bilbo chuckled and nodded as he watched them walk away.

*

“I hope you have left no hard feelings, broken hearts and such, behind us in Nobottle, Frodo my lad?” Bilbo called over his shoulder, the next morning, to his sleepy nephew.  Frodo, who was still pulling strands of straw out of his hair, hoisted his pack higher on his shoulders, stared at the sun just rising, and replied,

“Not unless we take a different road back home. Iris expects me back this way, and I intend to oblige her.”

“Indeed, we will be back this way.  Old Hornblower and I have a piece of business to conclude tomorrow about marketing his wine in Hobbiton. He has loads of it he says.  Do we need to speak of his daughter as well, Frodo?” Bilbo asked, giving his nephew a penetrating look.

“I should certainly like your permission and his to see her again,” Frodo said, smiling at the memory of Iris. “I should like that a great deal. That Banks fellow had asked for her hand away last Afteryule, then seemed to think better of it.  She is certainly free and willing.”

“Say no more, lad. Mustn’t stand in the way of romance and a lucrative business deal into the bargain,” Bilbo replied.  Truth be told, many hobbit marriages had been arranged on less glowing pretexts, since they were an easygoing people. Hobbit women were free to marry as they chose, with few insisting on some vision of happily ever after. Commerce, family connections, and good hobbit sense drove most enterprises in the Shire.

As they walked along, Frodo’s thoughts were still on Iris, for the most part.  He had little time to wonder about their destination until the small settlement at Tighfield came into view. Her liveliness, warmth and good, hobbit sense drew his thoughts to wondering if he wanted her in his life permanently.  Seeing her again, and again, would help him know, he thought. She was his own age give or take a month. And while she loved Nobottle and her Dad, she wanted to see more of the Shire, meet and work with more of its people. Together, Frodo thought, they could both prosper.

 They had spoken deep into the night, Frodo telling her about Buckland and Hobbiton, sharing in her eagerness to meet his friends. Yes, he wanted to see a great deal more of Iris Hornblower, who was only a good day’s walk away, which could be much shortened by a pony trap. Soon, with her father’s and his uncle’s plans, business would also bring her to Hobbiton. He had heard of good, long marriages based on less than that. Frodo glimpsed a bright future, even as they made their way into Tighfield.  Surprisingly, Bilbo did not head into Tighfield’s center, atop its small hill.  Instead, he and Frodo took a muddy, broken lane down through a thicket and came upon a solitary, small hobbit hole. To Frodo’s young eyes, there would be no business done there. Lost in his thoughts of a glowing future with Iris, Frodo cast a dubious eye on the mean hole, barely more than a poorly dug burrow.

“We’ve walked all this way just to come here?” he asked, looking at the shuttered, glassless windows and rude, unpainted door in the small hole. A pile of unsplit logs lay scattered in the muddy yard. Dingy clothes with many holes mended hung on a rough cord between two leaning posts. Frodo wouldn’t have kept gardening tools in a place so run down.

I have walked all this way to come here, yes.  You, on the other hand have walked with me to learn something, my young cock-a-whoop,” Bilbo said to him in suddenly stern words as he approached the door. “You may stay out here or go on to the inn in the village proper, if the surroundings are not to your liking!”  And with that, he unshouldered his pack and knocked on the door.

His words hushed Frodo.  For his well-heeled Uncle Bilbo to turn angry words to him so quickly seemed out of character.   The lad had come to think of him in the context of the resplendent Bag End. He remembered, belatedly of Bilbo’s growing reputation for doing good.

The door to the hole scraped open on its one working hinge, revealing an old, shrunken hobbit woman within. Her threadbare clothes hung loose of her thin frame. Gray curls escaped her old-fashioned bonnet. Though she looked ancient, she must have been near the same age as Bilbo, but the shock in seeing the difference between them rooted Frodo to the spot.

“Azalea, my dear,” Bilbo cried in a tender voice, “you’re as radiant as ever!”

She gave the old hobbit a tender smile that sent her face into a mass of crinkling lines and said,

“Bilbo Baggins, you’re just as full of wind as you always were.” Her voice had grown raspy with years but still held in it some music. “And I’m so glad that you have come. Won’t you come in?  And bring that handsome lad with you. I’ll put the kettle on. Here’s Lindo next to the hearth.”

Bilbo turned to his nephew, raised a finger, and whispered, “If you think you can mind your manners…” and went inside.

Frodo needed little more than those few brief remarks to see a history unfold before his eyes: Bilbo had come to help the girl he loved and lost, long, long ago.  Once his eyes adjusted to the dim, chilly interior, he saw that Bilbo had pulled up a stool next to a cot before a struggling fire on the hearth. There lay a fellow shrunken with age and sickness.  Frodo took one look at the scene, left his pack by the door, and went out to work on the firewood with the rusty axe nearby.

He split oak logs that were more than seasoned enough.  Many of these he carried inside and used to build up the fire.  The very idea that Bilbo’s Azalea had been forced to do the work pushed him back outside to split the rest of the wood, child’s play for one as vigorous as Frodo Baggins.  He stacked the wood next the door, within easy reach, and went inside, where he found a cracked mug of tea waiting for him.  Azalea’s eyes soften as she saw him.  She hugged him and whispered,

“Thank you so much, son.” Frodo was overcome and could only smile in return, with her trembling hands on his shoulders. Azalea went to stand beside Bilbo and her husband, Lindo, with whom Bilbo sat, talking in quiet voices.

“Er, pardon me, Uncle Bilbo, but should I take our packs on to the inn and perhaps bring something back?”

“Just unpack mine, first, and set the stuff on the table there,” Bilbo said without taking his eyes off Lindo.  Frodo did just that, finding that Bilbo’s pack was full of food stuffs, flour, bacon, sugar, tea, and an assortment of baked goods ready for consumption. Two bottles of Old Winyards rounded out the load, as well as a small, silver flask, at which the boy stood looking.  He had never before seen it with Bilbo’s things.

“I’ll take that, my lad,” Bilbo said, appearing at his side. Flask in hand, he took it to old Lindo, removed its cap, and, after a few quiet words, held the flask to his friend’s lips. After a few sips, he gave a weedy chuckle, and lay back, closing his eyes. Bilbo gave the flask to Azalea, whispering, “Just a few sip every day, my dear, and he’ll rest better.”

For his part, Lindo did fall back into rest. He breathed deeply, then, and the very lines of his body eased as sudden sleep took him.

Bilbo stroked the old fellow’s scanty hair, and Frodo went outside again, blinking tears away. He tidied up around the yard as Bilbo stood in the doorway, holding Azalea’s wrinkled hands in his.  After a few quiet moments together, he closed the door on Azalea and her husband to keep the heat in.  He cleared his throat, shouldered his empty pack, and set off up the hill to Tighfield proper.

Frodo walked in silence at Bilbo’s side.  They went straight to the inn, which bore a sign calling it “The Broken Strands.”  Everywhere in the town’s small square, little more than a graveled space between the inn and the smith’s forge, showed signs of rope making and the industry that goes on with that craft.  Bilbo marched inside and spoke to the inn keeper.  Frodo took their packs and sat them down beside the hearth within, where a few old gaffers and gammers nursed small pots of ale. Frodo might as well have been invisible, for all the attention they paid him. 

The innkeeper, after his brief talk with Bilbo, announced, “For those interested in work for this gentleman, your next round is on the house!” The cheers that arose were strangers to that place, Frodo thought, but they were welcomed like long lost family. Bilbo left a small pile of coins and a list with the landlord, shook hands with him, and motioned Frodo to join him.  After a mug of ale each, Bilbo and Frodo left the place.

“I feel like doing some walking, nephew,” Bilbo announced. With Bilbo taking the lead, they walked back down the hill in the dusk.  They did not take the lane that would lead them back to Azalea’s home. Despite the growing dark, Bilbo led them off the road and into low hill country.

“This will cut off a league at least and get us back to Nobottle quite late, though I can imagine that your Iris will make us welcome, even if we rouse her from sleep,” Bilbo said.  Frodo said nothing, his thoughts a jumble of seeing Iris again so soon, as well as all that went on in Tighfield.

“That flask you left with Azalea and Lindo, Bilbo, what was in it?” Frodo asked as they walked along beneath the silent trees. They made no sound, being hobbits, of course, and made their way past hunting foxes and sleeping deer, who only raised their heads at the soft voices.

“Mirruvor, the cordial of Imladris,” Bilbo replied. “It won’t repair his broken body, but it will ease him to sleep and, perhaps, lengthen his last days.  Rope making can be a hazardous profession, lad, and decades of it have taken their toll on a hobbit who was once as strong as you are. Stronger maybe.  Had a grip like a wooden vice, did Lindo, once.”

“And Azalea, she is…”

“A beautiful, charming as ever, though she carries hard years in her life with Lindo,” Bilbo whispered.

“Did she…well, I’m not certain I should even ask,” Frodo started to ask.

“Did she choose him over me, you mean? Yes, she chose a fellow her father preferred. I lost track of her for a long time. Lindo had good work, at the time, but he never gave her children.  Oh, I had a small income, then, but her family thought me unsuitable. Over the years, without help to make his business grow, it failed.  It happens, Frodo.  He worked through the injuries until they became too much for him to bear.”

“But you never sought another bride, uncle? You could have married for, for…”

“For convenience? To find a wealthy bride, perhaps? Why would I?  Azalea was the one, and I missed her. Never occurred to me to try again. My heart was hers. Besides, my life turned out so…different.  Would Azalea have had happiness with me? My adventures would have torn us apart, and where would I be without them? No. I have a different life, now, one in which I can do for her what I always desired to do: to see her well. I could never touch the happiness born of love and struggles, the wealth of small joys they shared, the life she made with Lindo, now could I, lad?” Bilbo asked, his simple words pressing an enormity of meaning into the young hobbit’s head. That simple plans for life hung in so precarious a balance chastened Frodo. He wished to retort a great many things, for his thoughts whirled around notions of what was fair, what people deserved. 

Bilbo often replied to Frodo’s many questions with answers such as “You will see,’ or “Time will tell,” but the most maddening to Frodo was, “You are only a young hobbit after all.” Though Bilbo offered nothing of the kind, in this instance, the young hobbit still heard him in his thoughts, because Frodo realized that Bilbo was right about dragons or love: he simply had no experiences to help shape his understanding.

They walked in silence for a long while, after that. Then, Bilbo stopped. Ahead of him, as silent as a tree shadow, Bilbo stood still, his head cocked as though he listened.  Bilbo reached into his pocket as though looking for something.  Frodo stopped, too, hearing what had given Bilbo reason to stop.  Two deer overtook them to their left, passing the still hobbits as though they were part of the forest.  Two sets of footfalls, Frodo heard, as Bilbo turned and drew his nephew behind the bole of a tree.  The footfalls grew louder. Two people, were running through these woods.

One, the nearest, made more racket, crashing through brush, panting and muttering in a harsh voice full of panic, to Frodo’s ears. Through the trees, twenty yards away, Frodo saw a pale, ugly face bobbing, pale arms flailing.  It had a long knife in its right hand and the shattered remains of a round shield still clutched in its left. It was dressed in black.  Its heavy boots thundered.

“Goblin,” whispered Bilbo, watching the creature trip and fall, sprawl on the ground, rise and run on.  The second set of running steps had been softer but heavy, larger than any hobbit Frodo had ever heard.  They stopped and turned away.

“The hunter,” Frodo whispered. “Did he lose the trail?”

“Hardly likely, given that racket—and the smell! Phew!” Bilbo said, hurrying forward. “You spend as long in goblin tunnels as I have, you never forget it. That orc is headed for Nobottle, or I’m and elf.”

Frodo followed, as quiet as only hobbits can be.  The hares escaping their approach made more noise.  The goblin didn’t hear.  Frodo paused to look over his shoulder once or twice to see if the second runner, the large one, was close.  He heard nothing of pursuit.

“Hurry Frodo. Goblins are devilish fast.  This one will be in Nobottle before us, and there’s no knowing what mischief it may get up to, once there,” Bilbo said, not bothering to lower his voice. 

Frodo rushed past his uncle, thoughts of Iris on his mind. They left the woods behind them, coming over the low hill, approaching Nobottle from behind and above.  The goblin was visible in the cloudless sky.  It was late. The stars of Menelvagor were bright above them. Frodo saw the goblin approach  old Hornblower’s sleepy inn from the rear. He cried out as the creature threw its shoulder into the small kitchen door and broke it asunder.

The fires within the inn gave little smoke from the chimneys.  There were likely no hobbits inside, but he heard Hornblower’s shout and Iris’s scream as he leapt over obstacles in the rear yard, pelting, empty handed into the shattered kitchen door, while Bilbo called for him to slow down.  He entered the dim common room at a run, only to trip over a hobbit lying on the floor, moaning. The goblin had Iris by her hair, dragging her out the main door.  She screamed and fought but couldn’t keep her feet.  Frodo was upon the goblin at a dead run in the next instant, slamming his shoulder into the thing’s foul chest, but it kept one clawed hand clutched in Iris’s hair, even as it fell.

Frodo grasped the thing’s knife hand, trying with all his might to wrest the weapon away. A head taller and much heavier, the goblin’s desperate strength was too great, though Frodo had his feet braced wide and would not give up.

“Drop to your knees, Frodo!” Bilbo called to him from the inn door.  He saw no sense in the action, but his trust of Bilbo was complete.  Frodo dropped, and in the next instant, the sharp hiss and thud of an arrow filled his hearing.  The goblin grunted ands dropped his knife, which Bilbo kicked away.  Iris was free. She rose and ran toward a group of hobbits who had emerged from their holes, makeshift weapons in hand.

The goblin fell over backwards, the long, clean feathered shaft rising from its chest. Frodo turned around and saw the second pursuer, a man, hooded and cloaked, mighty bow still in his hand. He had seen men before, down in the Southfarthing, where they came to barter for ale and pipeweed. But he’d never seen a man like this.  Twice Frodo’s height, broad of shoulder, the man pushed back his hood to reveal his dark, silver-shot hair and beard. His expression was kind as he raised a hand, saying in a deep voice,

“Fear not. I am friend to all here.”

His words, though, had the opposite effect on the crowd of hobbits, who grouped together in a tighter bunch, Iris in their midst, shivering in her shift.

“Mae govannen, Dunedain,” Bilbo called out, raising his own hand in greeting. To the other hobbits, Bilbo called, “There’s no need to fear this man.  He is a friend!” He might as well have addressed himself to the stones of the inn.

“Well met, elf friend,” the man said with a smile and loud enough for all of them to hear. “I’m sorry to have broken the peace, this night. “This one,” he pointed with his bow to the pale orc that lay in the street, “was part of a band of marauders who escaped our leaguer last night. Several Shire shiriffs, bounders, I believe they are called, were wounded when they attacked. I stopped only to aid them and have been on this creature’s track since last moonrise.  He was desperate.  I’d hoped to detain him for some questions, but…”

Frodo stared at the man and the easy way in which his uncle approached him and shook his hand.  Old Hornblower limped to the door of the inn, holding his hand to a cut on his shoulder, which soaked his nightshirt sleeve dark red.  The party of hobbits moved in his direction, though Iris stayed outside and walked slowly towards Frodo, her eyes shifting between him and Bilbo and the huntsmen, who spoke quietly together.  Her fear of the man seemed to Frodo as great as her fear of the dead orc, though the man was clearly friendly, indeed, had saved them. The goblin lay dead, another creature driven by malice, slain by the man they all feared as much of more.  How could they not know?  How could they not see? Frodo looked at the other hobbits who stared at him, too, from the inn door, where Iris stood.

“Iris, dear. Are, are you hurt?” Frodo asked, reaching to take her shaking hand. She pulled back from him, staring hard at Bilbo and the hunter who walked up to the corpse.  Emil Banks came out of the inn and placed his hands on her shaking shoulders, pulling her close.

“Come away. These are not our people,” Emil said as he pulled her towards the inn door.

“Iris, please,” Frodo whispered. “There’s no need to fear…”

The man pulled his arrow from the orc’s body, grasped its two hands in his large one, and heaved the body up, over his shoulder as he would the carcass of a small deer.  “Farewell, Bilbo Baggins,” the man said with a smile, as Iris and Emil stared at him with wide eyes. “I hope we have no cause to meet again.”   

“Sidh na cin, Araglas of the Dunedian!” Bilbo said, as the man walked away into the night with his quarry.  He was soon lost to sight.

The elder hobbit turned to his nephew and said, “You see, Frodo? Bonds of loyalty and love have saved yet another life or two. And that is a power much greater than a dragon’s, lad, Much greater.”

Bilbo’s words were lost to the lad, though Iris gaped at them. Frodo stood looking at her as she backed away towards the now lighted door of the inn.  She looked at Frodo as though he was a stranger, too, their time together the night before forgotten. Emil urged her inside.

“Iris, let me exp—” Frodo started to plead.

“No, Frodo,” she said taking Emil’s hand. “Goodbye,” she said, turned from him and closed the inn door behind her. Frodo stood staring at it for some time, realizing that, though she had been first in his thoughts, she was now lost to him. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right.

“Come lad,” Bilbo said to him in a quiet voice. “You have become…strange to her. I, I’d hope you would learn something but not this.  I’m sorry. Time, perhaps…,” Bilbo said, taking his arm and leading him away, down the street, away from Nobottle.

*

In a matter of time, the blackberry wine did come to Hobbiton, and Hornblower and Nobottle enjoyed much profit from the meeting with Bilbo.  Azalea and Lindo, too, received the care that Bilbo had sponsored. The citizens of Tighfield did well by him, and he was always welcome there, even after Lindo died, peacefully, in his sleep and Azalea moved back to the Frogmorton to live out her days with her father’s people. Bilbo made sure that she had good care. Once or twice, Araglas visited them after nightfall, with news of the Northfarthing. There was often little to tell, though, in those days.

With Hornblower’s wine coming to Hobbiton, too, came news that Iris married Emil Banks within a month of Bilbo and Frodo’s visit. What his thoughts were, he did not say, but Frodo never spoke of Iris again.  As Bilbo’s nephew and heir, there were bonds of loyalty and love that Frodo helped tend to.  There was always much to do, more lessons to be learned, much more tramping through the Shire.

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