The Willow Pattern

by Varda

For Bilbo Day

‘Did you see those plates?’ hissed Lobelia furiously. ‘The best willow pattern I ever came across! How did that bumbling, incapable Bilbo ever find them?’

‘Plates?’ asked Lotho in a daze. He had taken too much of Bilbo’s sweetened wine to care about the plates; only the food on them interested him. But he did not want to make Lobelia even more angry, so he replied;
‘Yes, my dear, a waste of good crockery!’ A waste of good wine too, he thought but did not say. It was dark on the road up the hill, and Lobelia’s indignation gave her wings, and Lotho was pushed to keep up, tripping on stones.
‘I only hope…’ panted Lobelia, her flowered hat quivering with indignation ‘..that when he does the decent thing and dies and leaves the whole set to us it is not all chipped and stained….’

‘Just disappear, Frodo!’ said Merry in an urgent whisper. ‘Here comes Lobelia, and she will want to buttonhole you and garner all the best pieces for herself…’

Frodo stood in the hallway of Bag End, watching the division and distribution of his uncle Bilbo’s goods. This was what he had to do before he left for Crickhollow, as he had given out to his neighbours and friends. But really, he was leaving the Shire, perhaps never to return, for the errand he was set on was perilous, and he might not survive even the journey to Rivendell….

‘Merry’s right!’ Frodo’s young cousin Peregrine Took interrupted his thoughts. ‘You just leave it all to us. By the way, what are we to do with that pretty blue china?’
‘The willow pattern?’ asked Frodo vaguely.
‘Yes, that one…’ replied Merry. ‘Your uncle Bilbo was uncommonly fond of it. He used to say it was the only service he had which was big enough for all the dwarves at breakfast, all those years ago…’

I’m going off into the unknown, and they are worried about plates! thought Frodo in exasperation. From the doorway of Bag End he saw silhouetted a hat with feathers and a fake bird. Lobelia! Iron entered Frodo’s peaceful soul then, and he hissed at Merry;
‘I am confounded if she will eat off Uncle Bilbo’s willow pattern plates; pack them up, Merry, and send them by cart to Crickhollow tomorrow. Fatty can unpack them and have them ready for us when we arrive….’

And at that Frodo disappeared into his room and shut the door. He could hear Peregrine arguing with Lobelia.
‘Why can’t they all go away?’ he thought miserably to himself. ‘It is only a lot of old crockery….’

But then he looked round his room, stripped bare now of all the pictures and tankards and books he loved, and he felt a stab of pain. It was as if he had already died and his relatives were squabbling over his goods.
‘I’ll be glad when I have left Bag End’ he sighed to himself. ‘..and Hobbiton. Then at least I won’t be tormented by memory. I am doing the right thing, I am, I know I am….’

Bilbo puffed on his pipe, and removing the mouthpiece he sent a large, wavering smoke ring wafting away on the still autumn air. It hesitated at the open casement, caught in the fragrant breeze from the wooded slopes below the House of Rivendell. Then it broke up and disapeared. Bilbo was going to blow another, when he thought better of it and put down his pipe and turned towards the bed with a sigh.

Gandalf and Elrond had told him he could sit with Frodo for a while, to give Sam a rest. Poor Sam! He had sat by his wounded master’s side night and day, till Elrond commanded him to go and get some rest.
‘Do as he says!’ said Bilbo gently. ‘I will keep watch a while. It is the least I can do….’

‘Although I have done enough harm already’ he thought, leaning over the bed and gazing intently at Frodo’s still face.
‘For it was I who passed this terrible burden on to him…’

His nephew was mortally wounded, and despite the ministrations of Lord Elrond Frodo was still hovering between life and death. And it was all on account of what he, Bilbo Baggins, had done; he had given him that accursed Ring….

‘But I wouldn’t half fancy it back….’ thought Bilbo. He knew that Frodo still wore the Ring around his neck, hidden under his shirt. Bilbo remembered how it shone, more brightly than any common gold. How it shone in Gollum’s cave, the day he won it from that dreadful creature. How he had felt the first time it slipped onto his finger, as if it wanted to be worn by him, Bilbo Baggins, and no other….

Bilbo shook himself and said sternly; ‘No more of that; it is gone from your grasp, Bilbo Baggins, never to be returned….even to take the burden away from Frodo…’

And he looked again at his nephew lying in the great wide bed, with ornately carved head and footboards and counterpane woven by Elven maidens, glowing with silken thread of gold and green and blue.
‘Even the blankets are beautiful here…’ thought Bilbo, grateful for any distraction from thinking of the Ring, and what evil it had caused Frodo.

When they brought Frodo in wounded, carried in the arms of Aragorn, Bilbo had thought it was the worst day of his life. Many tricks and ruses had he played in his long life, to escape Elves and Orcs and Trolls alike. But now all his ruses were in vain, and in the light of the torches and flares he saw Frodo’s face, cold and white, and thought no trickery could undo this hurt…

‘Perhaps I was too cunning for my own good….or for his’ he thought.

But Fate was merciful, and Frodo was spared, or so it seemed. Elrond exercised his great skill in leechcraft, and Gandalf wrought his healing powers. But when they took pity on the old hobbit and let him sit with Frodo, it was clear they did not think he understood what he had brought on his young relative. But Bilbo was not so old and forgetful that he did not grasp the importance of what he had done. He hid his feelings with skill though, even from his friends the Elves….

But now Bilbo was alone in the room with Frodo, and his own thoughts.

Frodo was asleep, his breathing barely detectable. His face was still white and cold, beaded with sweat, and his brows knit as he fought off some menace in dreams. His pale lips moved and his thin hand twitched at the coverlet.
‘You shall have neither the Ring, nor me!’ he said under his breath, and Bilbo raised his head; that was what Frodo had said to the Riders at the Ford, just before they were swept away. Gandalf had told him. Bilbo shook his head and said to himself;
‘Better it were you who bore it at that moment, my dear Frodo. I really do not think I could have withstood them. Outwitted them, outbargained them, perhaps. But when it was just them and me and no refuge in trickery, I think I might have been found wanting…’

And Bilbo took a cloth from a brass bowl of warmed and scented water beside the bed and laid it on Frodo’s forehead. The door creaked open and Bilbo looked up to see Sam’s curly head peering round it.
‘I am going now, Sam’ laughed Bilbo, rising stiffly from his seat. ‘You can have your master back…’

Sam went red and mumbled his thanks. Bilbo knew Sam had sat with Frodo day and night since he had been brought in, as if he could will his master back to health. Bilbo frowned to himself; Frodo’s gardener had been more loyal to him than his own uncle, who had given him this fatal gift….Bilbo got up and went to leave, slapping Sam on the shoulder.
‘That is my lad, Samwise Gamgee. Your old Gaffer would be very proud of you…’
Sam ducked his head in acknowledgement, and went even more red.

Bilbo took a last look at Frodo before leaving the room; he noticed the strange translucence of his skin, suffused by a luminous glow. It could have been the light from the silver Elven lamp, but Bilbo rather suspected it was the result of his stabbing by the Morghul blade on Amon Sul, the deep wound that might yet hold some essence of the poison on that accursed blade, never to leave Frodo’s body…

After he was up and about, Bilbo did not see much of Frodo. He was surrounded by great ones, of Elves and men and of course Gandalf. Bilbo was left alone in his room, aware of a bustle of preparation, and raised voices and high spirits. But Bilbo felt a sense of foreboding.
‘Why are they so glad to leave?’ he thought crossly. ‘That is not a hobbit walking party…’

So busy was Frodo that Bilbo was taken by surprise when he knocked on his door one chilly November evening and peered in, his cheeks rosy once again, and a smile on his face.
‘Hello, uncle Bilbo! I’m not disturbing you, am I?’
‘Gracious, no, my lad.’ replied Bilbo, getting stiffly to his feet. ‘Come in, come in…’

And Bilbo walked slowly to the door and closed it after his nephew.
‘Sit down, sit down..!’ he said. Frodo looked round the cosy little room, adorned with smaller tapestries of Elven craft, and a wide arched window from which could be seen the waterfall beside the gallery. A cheerful fire burned on the grate…
‘Will you take some tea?’ Bilbo asked.
‘Tea?’ asked Frodo laughing ‘You have tea in Rivendell?’
Bilbo laughed too. ‘Yes, it is a bit strange. But you get tired of wine, however excellent. And the Elves bring it in for me, they are ever so kind. I do like a cuppa! Here, my lad, let me pour….’

Frodo drew up his chair to the table, and looking down he saw the teapot was white, with a pattern of blue willow trees…
‘The Willow Pattern!’ he cried. ‘You brought it all the way here?’
Bilbo laughed, slightly embarrassed.
‘Yes, it was quite foolish, in a way. I could have broken it, and it was heavy to carry in my pack. But somehow I wanted something from the old home…from Bag End. And that Willow Pattern tea service was always my favourite….’

Frodo gazed at the teapot for some time and Bilbo could see he was deep in thought. At last he asked;
‘Do you miss it at all, uncle Bilbo? Bag End, I mean, and the Shire….?’

Bilbo hesitated before replying. Frodo’s face, still worn and thin but with bright, burning eyes, was turned towards him in the firelight.
‘Not really, my lad!’ he answered heartily. ‘It is so beautiful here! There are books to read, and songs to learn, and music all day and all evening. The food is very good…’
he winked ‘..and they take such good care of me…’
Then his smile faded slightly.
‘Sometimes…sometimes I do miss my own front door, my own little place, and summer in the Shire.’
Frodo gazed intently at his uncle, and for one moment he saw a sadness, a yearning for that which was past and would never come again. Bilbo looked at him and said;
‘But what I have seen! We must not mourn what we have lost, but celebrate what we have gained….’

Frodo shook his head.
‘You’re right, as always, uncle Bilbo!’ he lifted his teacup and then paused. He set it down on the saucer and said, almost to himself;
‘I would miss the Shire though, no matter how beautiful Rivendell is. I am glad I am going home …’
‘Are you?’ asked Bilbo, lifting one eyebrow in surprise. Frodo nodded.
‘I brought ….it….here, Bilbo. Now it is someone else’s concern. I am ready to go home. The burden belongs to another now…’
‘The burden…’ echoed Bilbo, his face strangely vacant. He turned to Frodo and said;
‘My boy, I know I gave ….it…to you, and it is yours, until you give it to Elrond, or whoever. But I was just wondering, just thinking, could I see it again? Just for a moment?’

Frodo leaned back in his chair, away from his uncle. Instinctively he laid a protective hand on the ring, hidden under his shirt. To his own surprise he felt a horrid possessiveness overcome him; what did Bilbo want with the Ring? How dare he ask to see it….

Almost as if reading his thoughts, Bilbo said;
‘I don’t want to touch it or harm it. I …I just want to look at it, see if it is the same…’
‘It is the same’ said Frodo slowly, with some menace. ‘It is just as it was when you gave it to me…’

‘Gave it to you!’ said Bilbo.’Yes, I did! And I have often regretted it. Gandalf made me do it, you know, made me hand it over. Said it was for the best, for the good of all. But I say he wanted it for himself…’
‘Bilbo!’ said Frodo sharply ‘What are you saying?’
But Bilbo seemed wrapped in his own thoughts.
‘Then he could do what he wanted, have all the power. Yes, I should not have listened to Gandalf. And now you have it, and I want to see it. Show it to me!’

And with an agility that belied his years, Bilbo leaped to his feet and made a grab for the front of Frodo’s shirt. Frodo, still unsteady on his feet after his long convalescence was forced into sudden action, and moved as if he had never been wounded. Like a panther he sprang backwards.
‘Get away, Bilbo! The Ring is mine!’

At these words Bilbo uttered a sound somewhere between a snarl and a scream, and to Frodo’s horrified gaze he was for a second transformed from the kindly old hobbit with a twinkle in his eye and a grey shock of hair into a leering orc visage, grasping for Frodo’s precious with a long scrawny brown arm….

Trying to reach Frodo as he ducked back Bilbo overstretched the table and knocked it sideways. The Willow Pattern teapot was sent spinning to the floor, where it broke with a crash and tinkle of china….

The sound called both hobbits back to the present. They stared aghast at the broken pieces of crockery on the floor and the stain of spilt tea. Bilbo looked up at Frodo.
‘I’m sorry, Frodo my lad. I’ sorry….’

And unable to bear his nephew’s gaze he put a hand over his eyes and wept.

Later, as the stars were coming out, Bilbo stood on the balcony, listening to the endless waterfalls of Rivendell. Frodo came out to stand beside him.
‘Now I understand’ said Bilbo.
‘Understand what?’asked Frodo.
‘What Gandalf said when he made me give up the Ring. Give it up, he said, before it is too late. And I did not believe it, till now…’

Frodo did not answer, just gazed out at the myriad of early winter stars that covered the deep blue At last he said;
‘I am sorry about the teapot, uncle…’
‘It doesn’t matter, my boy’ said Bilbo sadly. ‘I daresay the Elves can fix it, or find me a new one. It won’t be the same, though, I suppose.’
‘It was a piece of home for you’ said Frodo. Bilbo looked at him questioningly.
‘And that is so important, for you may not ever see home again.’ Bilbo was nodding slowly. Frodo added half to himself;

‘And neither will I….’