The Heir of the Hill

by Lothithil

II  III  IV  V

Chapter 16: The Proposition

Bilbo yawned and waved away the third slice of cake that Frodo was offering him. Not even the coffee he had drank for afterdinner had done ought to keep him wakeful. "It's no use, lad... I am as tired as tired! I am going to bed before I fall asleep in this chair." The older hobbit stood up and patted his nephew on the shoulder. "Leave the supper dishes and I will clean them up tomorrow. Go on with you and enjoy the evening. I imagine everyone is gathered down at the Dragon by now."

"It won't be the same without you," said Frodo, following Bilbo to his room. He made sure the hearth had enough wood on it to keep his uncle warm through the night. These early autumn days had cooled considerably. Already the late-blooming flowers had been bitten by frost once or twice.

"You'll manage, dear boy," Bilbo said fondly, settling into his warm bed and falling asleep almost instantly. Frodo tucked the blankets around the old hobbit snuggly and extinguished the candle with careful fingers, closing the door sofly behind him.

It had been a busy day for both hobbits, the latest in a long line of busy days that had seemed to be gaining momentum throughout the summer. Bilbo was making endless plans for the upcoming Birthday Party, now mere weeks away, and a steady stream of messengers were coming and going from Bag End. Deliveries from far beyond the Shire's borders came trundling up the Hill, in waggons driven by Dwarves or Men from distant lands. All the spare rooms and closets were stuffed with these mysterious deliveries, and Frodo and Bilbo kept the curtains drawn tight to keep the neighbours from peeking in, their curiousity growing more irresistable with every passing day until all pretense of respect for the Baggins's privacy had been abandoned. Frodo had caught several pressing their noses against the glass, trying to see inside, and Sam was constantly shooing hobbit-fry out of the garden. The doors were kept locked even during the day.

Bilbo just laughed when he heard about these incidents, and he answered all questions put to him by the curious with, "You shall see when you see!", and a wink and a nod. Interest was driven to ecstatic porportions, and everyone was looking forward to the Party.

Frodo was looking forward to it as well, but with both excitement and reluctance. He was pleased that he would be 33 and could now demand to be treated as the mature hobbit he felt that he had become. And yet he did not want the day to arrive, because he knew that it would mean that he would lose Bilbo's guidance and companionship, and he had become increasingly aware of how much he had come to love the old hobbit. In spite of all the preparations, he hoped that Bilbo would reconsider and stay with him in the Shire.

He tidied up the kitchen (disregarding Bilbo's instructions) and banked the fire. When he opened the front door the night had fallen soundly, and the stars were remote in the hazy sky. Clouds were welling in the eastern sky, blacker areas above the dark heads of the trees. Frodo pulled his cloak around his shoulders, then reached into the smial for an umbrella. Then he closed and locked the door, heading down the Hill toward Bywater. He passed the Green Dragon Inn, for there was so many hobbits crowded inside that they spilled out into the night. He decided to press on toward Bywater and see if the Ivy Bush was perhaps less busy this night.

Of course, Frodo had been in the Ivy Bush many times, with his uncle. They were always welcomed loudly and often the center of attention- Bilbo was, at any rate. Frodo usually kept quiet, listening and bringing drinks for them and whoever was sitting with them at their table. Bilbo was generous and popular, a colourful figure in his embroidered waistcoats and silk scarves tucked around his neck. Frodo liked to watch those who harkened to his tales, exclaiming loudly their disbelief but listening hard and eagerly repeating all they heard.

This inn was also noisy and crowded, light and gales of laughter spilling from the windows open in spite of the chill air. Frodo stepped into the doorway and immediately removed his cloak. It was warm inside with the fires and all the hobbits packed in like sausages. All the tables were filled, so that Frodo had to weave his way inside to find a place to stand next to the bar. He waited patiently for the overworked 'tender to catch his eye and bring him an half pint of ale. He spotted an empty seat near the window and waded toward it with his drink. There was an over-grown hanging plant screening him from the rest of the room, but he did not care. He gratefully breathed the fresh air coming through the window and sipped his ale. Then he heard a voice that he recognized, coming from behind the plant.

"A very nice well-spoken gentlehobbit is Mr Bilbo Baggins, as I've always said," Gaffer Gamgee was declaring. He was sitting with Daddy Twofoot and a couple of other hobbits that Frodo could not see because of the foliage. But because of that great plant, none of them could see him at all. He heard Ol Noaks asking about him, as if he hadn't seen Frodo almost every day since he moved to Hobbiton nearly twelve years ago. They were holding court with a half dozen other hobbits Frodo did not recognize immediately, and countless others eavesdropping (not unlike himself). Frodo felt a little thrill at his clansdine behaviour. He continued to listen, hiding his laughter behind his hand.

They were carrying on about the oddity of Bilbo's habits and the reputation of the family Brandybuck, with the Gaffer defending the Baggins's loyally and loudly. Frodo's mirth faded as he heard Holman talk about his parents, pity for Frodo in his voice.

Frodo did not feel as though he deserved any pity, and hearing the casual conversation about his parents drowning made the ale sit like a stone in his stomach. He was about to rise and exit quietly when he heard the Miller's voice commenting, "I heard that she pushed him in, and he pulled her in after him!"

Frodo was outraged. He dropped his mug of ale, spilling what was left across the small table. A hobbit-lass in an apron appeared with a towel and began to wipe up the spill. "Are you all right, sir? Can I bring you another ale?" She noticed Frodo's reddened cheeks and smiled, "Perhaps you've had enough for the night..."

"Yes, another ale, please," he said with a slight cough. He handed her a small coin and sat down again. The Gaffer was giving Sandyman a piece of his mind, and Frodo felt his ire fade quickly. They talked on about Bilbo and his legendary treasure, and soon Frodo was chuckling softly at their foolishness. Tunnels stuffed with jewels? For such stay-at-home and un-adventurous folks, the flights of hobbit fancy seemed to have no limit.

The Gaffer eventually got tired of Sandyman's talk and rose to leave. He had not convinced his audience, but he had made his point, and he walked out proudly amid the snickering of the other hobbits. Frodo ordered another ale and sat back, watching the hobbits begin to head home one by one, now that the chief source of interesting news had departed.

The core of the Gaffer's audience had remained to continue to discuss 'Mad Baggins' and his Brandybuck relations. Their talk rapidly grew tiresome; nonsense not worth listening to at all. Frodo pushed back from the table and made to rise, when a dwarf stepped into the inn, causing all talk to cease suddenly.

The Dwarf paid no mind whatever, but merely walked straight to the bar and asked for a pint of beer. The 'tender handed him a stein, for it was not uncommon for Outsiders to stop at the Inns along the road, and they kept larger sized mugs on hand just for them. The Dwarf drained it in one draught and asked for another and a meal, if there was ought to be had at so late an hour. Then he turned and cast a look around the inside of the tavern.

Frodo leaned out and caught his eye, inviting him without words to join him at his small table. The Dwarf saluted him and came across the room, his boots clunking heavily on the sawdust-covered floor. The Miller and his cronies rose and departed abruptly, as if drinking in the same room with a Dwarf was beneath their dignity.

The Dwarf ignored them. He swept off his hood and bowed low to Frodo. "Narin is my name," he declared, seating himself. The chair creaked a little under his weight.

Frodo rose and bowed deeply, saying "Frodo Baggins is my name, and I am at your service and your family's."

The Dwarf's eyebrows raised at Frodo's polite and correct behaviour. "You have had some dealings with Dwarves," he sounded surprised.

Frodo smiled. "A little. My uncle knows many dwarves from the Lonely Mountain. Occasionally they come to visit the Hill, on their way westward to the Blue Mountains. I wish that my uncle was here tonight. He would welcome the chance to visit with you. Perhaps you can give me some small news of the Outside, though I can repay you only with listening, as I doubt that the doing of Hobbiton are of any interest to you, sir."

"This is a fortuitous meeting then, sir," said Narin, "for I am come in search of a Master Baggins. Could this uncle of yours be the very same Baggins that assisted Dain in becoming King under the Mountain?"

"In a manner of speaking, yes, I suppose one could say he did that," mused Frodo, "though he was actually assisting Lord Thorin Oakenshield to reclaim his birthright."

"Helped him get rid of ol' Smaug," Narin said with a smile, raising his mug in a now-common Dwarvish toast: "'Death to the Dragon'!"

Frodo clicked him mug with Narin's. He was pleased to find someone to talk to that did not think his uncle was peculiar or cracked. He waved to the bartender to send more ale for himself and his companion, but Narin insisted on paying for the drinks. "You can buy the next round, Mr Baggins."

And so they talked of the news of the Blue Mountains, where Narin claimed his family resided in great honour. He told also of some rumours he had heard from the south, vague tales of darkness and fear. Dwarves having less interest than hobbits in the doings of Men and such, Frodo did not learn much from him that he had not already heard from Bilbo.

As Narin's talk turned to the more distant lands to the East, Erebor and Dale, Frodo took the opportunity when the Dwarf paused to take a drink to as him if he had heard ought of Lord Balin.

Narin set down his mug and was silent. "What do you know of him?" he asked after looking hard at Frodo for a long moment.

"I have heard nothing of him since he was last in the Shire, some years ago. He came to visit my uncle. I had just moved to Hobbiton and had been ill for a while. I remember that he was kind and friendly, and very cheerful. Bilbo never told me where he was going... I had assumed that he was bound for Erebor again. He would hardly have discussed his business with a child." Frodo was a little taken a-back by the ferver of the Dwarf's regard. He began to wonder if he had spoken loosely when he should have remained silent. He looked into his near empty mug and decided he had drank enough ale for one night.

Narin said nothing more of Balin, turning the conversation abruptly to the local pipeweed crop, which he said that he had heard from somewhere had been unusually good this year. Frodo shared out his own pouch, grateful to have a 'safe' subject to talk about again.

The night was drawing in and Frodo rose to bid Narin good night, but the Dwarf entreated him to stay for a moment more. Frodo agreed, ordering a cup of strong tea instead of ale. The smoke and drink was starting to make him comfortably drowsy, and there was a long walk up the Hill to home to look forward to.

"What more do you wish to speak of, good Narin?" Frodo heard himself say, suppressing a yawn.

"I do have some business in the south, business I cannot elabourate on until we are in a more private setting." Narin was almost whispering. Frodo had to lean close to catch his words: "It involves some mystery and a little danger. I came here hoping to find the famous burglar, to contract him for employment."

Frodo blinked. "Bilbo? Well, I suppose there's no harm in asking, but I am sure he won't be available. He is retired, you see."

"Well, what about you?" Narin said, setting a full halfpint next to Frodo's teacup. "Surely your uncle has taught you some of the tricks of the trade? Would you like to go on an adventure, and become as famous as your uncle... and as rich?"

Frodo felt a tickle of nervousness in his belly. This whole conversation had begun to smell fishy to him... that or he was becoming ill from the thick pipesmoke.

He rose unsteadily to his feet. "I am afraid you are mistaken, sir. I am not in the trade. Good night to you." Frodo offered a short bow and left a coin on the table for the service. He walked out of the inn into the chilly night with his cloak over his arm, so eager was he to get gone from the strange dwarf. He headed for home, wrapping his cloak around him hastily.

Halfway down the Bywater Road Frodo looked up at the stormclouds that had gathered as the evening had worn on, realizing he had left his umbrella behind at the inn. If he returned to fetch it, he would end up using it for sure, but if he hastened home perhaps he could beat the weather. He went on toward home, pusing his luck mostly because he had no desire to see the Dwarf Narin again.


II.
Eavesdropping

High above the valley of the Water rose the Hill. The road snaked away from the bridge to the right, passed the mill and then wove between the holes and houses of Hobbiton before climbing up to meet the path from the green door.

Occasional drops of fat rain were thumping on Frodo's hood as he crossed the bridge, so he decided to go left and cut through the field rather than walk through town. It was dark, but no one knew the ways of Hobbiton and the Hill in the dark better than Frodo Baggins. He loved to walk at night and he knew every inch of his home soil... even blindfolded he could find his way.

The light rain ceased and the wind died to a whimper. Frodo dashed along the hedgerow, feeling that the weather given him a reprieve. There was a low place along the row, and here the agile young hobbit leaped over and landed on the thick grass, making not a sound. He turned to the left again around the boggy sink-hole and then up a steep slope, and as he walked he recalled his nervousness and fear in the Ivy Bush, and he felt a little ashamed.

Frodo supposed he must have sounded quite rude to the Dwarf, but it had been such a surprise, when Nárin had asked him to go away on an Adventure, as if he were the burglar instead of Bilbo. Frodo could not deny he felt a little flattered, and now that he was outside the pipesmoke and the close heat, the offer sounded rather interesting. Could he be the burglar his uncle had been, full of wits and resources enough to outsmart a dragon? Courageous enough to face giant spiders in Mirkwood or even goblins in the mountains?

Frodo laughed at himself. He knew he could never be the hobbit his uncle was, even if dreaming could somehow make things real. He thought of himself as just a simple hobbit who loved to read and talk to elves and other than that, he was quite unremarkable.

Ahead there was a darker darkness rising across Frodo's path, a ring of pine trees that looked like an impenetrable wall in the night that cut off the field from the lower pasture. Frodo knew where the branches parted and he ducked inside to shorten his walk, but he halted abruptly as he heard voices ahead. Someone was inside the pine trees. He could hear them talking:

"... Sittin' comfortable inside the inn, drinking Shire ale and eating a hot meal, he is, while we sit out here in the cold with no fire! This is not my idea of fair circumstances! Why couldn't we wait in the inn, too?"

"We can't afford to be seen, Bolg, as well you know! We can't be heard neither, so keep your voice down," said a second voice, whispering harshly but just as loudly as the other had spoken. Frodo could hear them clearly, though it was too dark to see even shapes beneath the trees. He stood perfectly still and listened. He could hear them moving sligtly, shifting their boots or the rustling of stiff, wirey hair. They must be Dwarves, Frodo thought suddenly. Dwarves hiding in a shelter-belt in the middle of Hobbiton!

"Well, if ye ask me, Nárin's wastin' his time trying to hire one o' these Shire-sheep! What are they for, anyway?" The first voice said again.

"For one thing, they are quiet!" his companion answered, with more than a touch of irritation.

"Ease off, Tiege! Nobody is 'round to hear us. But I'd be obliged if ye'd come to explain to me, why do we need a sneak-thief for this job at all?"

"We don't! What's the purpose of having a thief when we can just walk in through the East Door? It's the little fellow's relationship with Balin that we need. He's got a crowd of his own kinfolk there working all those mines for ore and gems, and he's no need or want for more hands, especially from a lot of drifters like us. But with Baggins with us, he'll let us in and with welcome! We'll never see the true-silver lode without him." Frodo could hear greed naked in their speech.

"So it has to be Baggins, eh? Would be easier if we could just take along any hobbit. I've a bag big enough!" Rusty laughter answered this jest, and Frodo realized there were more dwarves lurking than just the two talkative ones.

"It has got to be Baggins, or one of his kin. Debt to the family, and all that. And he won't be much help if he's not willing."

"If he isn't willing, we've a few hundred leagues to talk him into it!" More laughter and movement. The clouds drifting overhead broke a fraction to allow some little light from the gibbous moon through, and Frodo saw a few stocky shapes in the darkness. He shrank down lest they espy him as well. He knew that dwarves had very good sight in the dark.

Frodo did not know what to do. He had no idea what the dwarves were talking about, except that it involved Balin, his uncle's friend Dwarf, and that it all sounded very wrong. He felt he must get home quickly, wake his uncle and tell him all of this incredible tale, but he dared not to move lest the strange dwarves hear him and use their bag to catch him.

It all seemed too fantastic! All the Dwarves that Frodo had met before this night had been honourable and decent folk. They were sometimes coarse and gruff, but you could trust them and there was no need to fear, at least when Bilbo was there. But Bilbo was not here, and these Dwarves were not like Balin or Ori or Oin. It all seemed so strange that the whole situation felt like an odd dream.

Frodo waited, beginning to shiver a little as the cold crept into his bones. The ground was damp from the intermittant rain, and the lagging wind was beginning to blow again. The rift in the clouds healed itself and the night grew dark again.

Frodo was considering creeping out of the trees and trying to get around them when he heard heavy footsteps coming behind. Someone was pushing through the entertwined branches of pine, some feet away from Frodo's position, grumbling as his beard and clothing caught on the rough bark and needles. He recognized Narin's voice cursing. He quickly thought that he could escape under the cover of all the noise the dwarf was making, but his curiousity kept him rooted in place. These dwarves had plans for his uncle, and Frodo did not like what he had heard. He wanted to learn more before going to Bilbo with this news.

~~~~~~~


Nárin was not pleased. "Don't you lot know how to be quiet? I could hear your gabbing all the way down the field. You're lucky the rain is keeping the hobbits inside their tunnels, or we would have the whole town down on our heads!"

"We're freezing to death out here," said Bolg, sounding a little contrite. "Did you learn where we can find this Baggins fellow? How much longer do we have to stay hidden?"

"Until I say otherwise! I found out what I needed to know. He lives on top of this big hill, just as I thought. I met his nephew in the inn; a frail, skittish little fellow. But he will do for the role, or would... if he wasn't such a coward. After meeting him, I am hoping that Baggins himself will come along. He's bound to be getting on in years; maybe he'll fancy a little easy gold to make his later years even more comfortable, eh?"

"Can we go down to the inn for the night? I can't feel my toes anymore, I am so cold," complained Bolg. The others muttered.

"No! You stay here and I'll call on Baggins first thing in the morning. You can endure it; you are a dwarf, are you not?"

"I am, but that doesn't mean I don't like warm feet," muttered Bolg, and Teige chuckled softly. Nárin shushed them.

"I'm going back to the inn. I've taken a room there and it will look strange if I don't go back. Wait here and stay hidden until I come. Be ready to move at a moment's notice. If he won't come willing or he's too dotard to be of use, we can 'enlist' his nephew for the project."

"What if he won't? You said he was too scared."

"He'll be more scared not to help, when I get through with him! We've earned the right to the spoils of Khazad-dum. Our fathers and uncles died fighting orcs with Náin and Thráin and Thorin. No reward or weregild were they paid for their duty to Náin, but the right to bury their own dead. Now we will claim that reward, and take it as it should have been given, were the folk of Durin more honourable."

Frodo couldn't wait any longer. He was afraid and cold, and the words of the dwarves confused him. He very slowly crawled out of the trees, stood up and tip-toed around the grove, careful to make absolutely no noise at all. He tried not to forget the names he had heard, all dwarvish and strange inside his head.

In the distance, a dog began to bark. Frodo started violently and took off at a run, leaping up the grassy slope like a goat, no longer caring if he was heard or seen. He reached the road and scrambled over the rear gate of the garden, dropping to the ground under the hedge, where he sat panting and trying to gather his wits.

Once inside the garden, Frodo's fear ebbed. He breathed deeply the fragrant air, grateful of the soft soil and grass under him. He was safe now. He was home.

III.

Hobbit-Nappers

The sky finally loosened and began to rain. Frodo did not move. He sat under the hedge and let the water drip on his head. His clothes were already soaked and muddy. He still felt stunned by what he had seen and heard that night and he needed a moment to collect himself before going inside and talking to Bilbo.

He rehearsed the tale to himself in a soft voice, and it sounded strange and unbelievable even to him. Had he over-reacted to Nárin's offer? Yet the conversation he had overheard in the pines proved to him that the Dwarves were up to some wickedness, even if they felt justified by whatever debt they believed was owed to them. Frodo and Bilbo did not owe it to them. Frodo had learned enough about Dwarves to know that they took matters involving famly debts and honour very seriously, and their memories were far longer than even their considerable lifetimes.

But who had ever heard of a wicked Dwarf? That part did not make sense to Frodo. Dwarves were good, noble, and honest; and when they couldn't be forthright, they were stubbornly silent. They did not kidnap people or steal. This went against all Frodo had learned from Bilbo about the character of Dwarves.

Still, Frodo knew hobbits who acted in odd ways, seeking wealth while taking no pleasure in what was earned, their appetites never sated no matter how much they acquired... Otho and Lobelia's obsession with Bag End came to his mind, and their thinly veiled 'concern' about his health, all the while waiting for him to die...

Frodo blinked and shivered. His mind ran away from that thought. "Bilbo will never die!" he said rebelliously. Though he knew that it was not true, all the same he felt a little better saying it aloud.

Well, even if he could make no sense of what he had witnessed that night, Bilbo must hear it, so Frodo stood up and headed toward Bag End's front door, as his key would not open the kitchen entrance. He wiped his eyes on with a soggy sleeve, then picked up the edge of his cloak, wringing water from it as he walked.

He made it as far as the path before several shapes sprang upon him. A coarse, smelly fabric bag was tossed over his head, muffling his surprised outcry. He felt himself lifted; even though he kicked with all his strength, his captor did not release him. He was slung around dizzyingly, then suddenly his wind was knocked from him as he was thrown up over a hard shoulder; it was like a knee in the gut. He gasped and struggled not to become sick.

He landed hard on his back, after only what seemed an instant later. Stars danced in his eyes, inside the darkness of the burlap bag. He heard cries of pain and curses all around him, and footsteps running and fading away. Also he could hear a thin, piping cry, like a bird or some stranger creature, shieking nearby. When he could move he searched his pockets for the quill-knife he hoped he still had. His hands shook so hard he could barely get it unsheathed but managed to cut through the tough fiber of the sack with the small sharp blade. He gulped the fresh air gratefully, ignoring the rain.

Of Frodo's attempted abductors there was no sign, except the booted foot-prints in the soft mud, slowly being erased by the steady rain. Frodo kicked the bag off of his feet and inventoried himself for injuries. He had a small bump on the back of his head and one of his legs were numb, as if it had fallen asleep. He stood up carefully and limped to the door, hoping that he had not dropped his key in the mud.

The door opened before he reached it, and Bilbo peered out, holding high a lamp spilling bright light from his hand. He took one look at his bedraggled, rainsoaked nephew and said, "Coming in a little late, aren't we, Frodo-lad?"

Frodo couldn't help himself; he started to laugh. Bilbo's eyebrows scaled up his forehead. "And a batch of new ale in you, too, eh? We'll, come inside! You can't get any wetter, so stop trying!"

Frodo stepped inside, feeling that he had never until this moment, been truly grateful to hear the front door of Bag End close and lock behind him. He peeled off his cloak. It was dripping wet and coverd with mud and leaves. "I am sorry, uncle," he heard himself saying. "I don't mean to makes such a mess..."

"Never mind, Frodo!" Bilbo answered, taking the wet garment from his hands. "Do you think I've never come home after the cows? Just go get yourself dried off, lad. You'll catch your death standing around in wet clothes!"

"But it's not that, sir..." Frodo began to explain, but Bilbo took his elbow and steered him toward the washroom.

"It's all right, Frodo," Bilbo repeated. "You have the right to make merry all you wish. I for one am glad to see you relax a little. You are too serious, sometimes. However," he added gently, "I think you might have been wiser to take a room at the inn than wander home in the rain. Why didn't you take an umbrella?"

"I did! I left it..." Frodo started to say, but could not finish because Bilbo had pulled his tunic over his head to help him with the heavy, sticky cloth.

"You can do the rest yourself now, Frodo. I will makes some tea to help you get warmed up. You can tell me then whatever it is you feel that you need to say."

"But, I..."

Frodo was left alone in the washroom, staring at the door his uncle had closed behind him, his protests dying on his lips. A cold feeling that had nothing to do with his dripping hair and soggy clothes had taken hold in his stomach.

A thought came to assail Frodo: Bilbo would not believe him! He would think his nephew had drank too much ale and his active imagination had taken him on an Adventure inside his head!

He did not want to look a fool in front of Bilbo, especially not mere weeks before The Party, the day Frodo would officially become an adult. What would he say to Bilbo? He could say that he had not drank a lot of ale, but that would be a lie- Frodo had drank enough- and had stopped when he felt it. Had he not stopped soon enough? He had met a strange dwarf, and Hanson the bartender at the Ivy Bush could tell Bilbo that much was true, but not what was said. And no one could corroborate what Frodo had heard and seen in the fields below the pines in the rain.

Frodo stripped off the rest of his clothes, depression settling heavier than his aching head. He would have a bruise to keep him company for a while, hidden neatly beneath his thick hair. His leg was still numb, but was beginning to 'wake-up', tingling almost painfully. He filled a basin with unheated water and dunked his head into it. It felt almost warm against his icy skin.

Frodo wrapped his bathrobe tightly around him. He felt cold indeed now, and sick and foolish and tired. He emptied the basin and refilled it with warmed water, setting his soiled clothes to soak. He ran a comb though his hair until it cease to drip.

He then carefully washed his clothes and hung them to dry. He felt reluctant to come out of the washroom, to face his uncle's doubt and possibly his disappointment. Standing with his hand on the door and trying to force himself to open it and step out, Frodo knew, at last, some measure of what Bilbo must have felt, facing Smaug the Dragon alone in the dark.

Frodo knew Bilbo was no dragon and foolish as he might look, he had to tell his uncle what had happened, whatever Bilbo may think of him afterword.

He sighed and turned the knob. "It would be nice, right now," thought Frodo as he opened the door, "to be invisible."


IV.

Frodo's Tale

Frodo stepped into the kitchen. The whole room was blazing with warmth, and there was an early breakfast as well as hot tea on the board. Bilbo nodded at his nephew, who hesitated in the doorway. "Sit down, Frodo, and have a bite. You look peaked, and then you can tell me what has been going on."

"I'm sorry," was all Frodo could think of to say. As good as the food looked, Frodo was not hungry. His stomach was knotted. He knew he'd have to get the story off of his chest first or he would make himself ill.

Cradling the warm cup, Frodo began his tale, telling of what he had seen and heard in the Ivy Bush earlier that evening. Details he had not recalled came to him as he spoke. Bilbo listened and did not interrupt again. He moved only to keep Frodo's cup filled with tea, and said nothing other than offering a gentle protest when he heard what the miller had said about Frodo's parents.

When Frodo described Nárin the Dwarf, Bilbo's face creased with a frown that did not fade away quickly. His hand wandered to this waistcoat pocket, and Frodo suddenly realized that his uncle was fully dressed and had been so when he had opened the door to let Frodo in. "You haven't been to sleep, uncle?" Frodo spoke his observation aloud.

Bilbo's frown softened as he smiled at Frodo. "I had intended to, and I got perhaps a good hour of rest before the doorbell rang... but this is not my tale. Continue with yours, dear boy. One story at a time!"

Dutifully, Frodo relayed Nárin's proposition, and as he spoke he again felt that surge of desire to wander and seek adventure, his feet itching for the feel of the road and his ears to hear songs in strange tongues, sung to alien music. He sounded almost wistful as he admitted he had rejected of the offer.

"And I left your umbrella at the Ivy Bush," Frodo said with his head bowed over his cup. He glanced upward with that blue, penitent look of his, that 'look' that had in his childhood made it impossible for his elders to punish him. He offered a wry grin.

Bilbo laughed and tousled his hair affectionately. "Never mind, Frodo, my boy; we'll fetch it later. What happened next?"

Darkness, rain, bridges and shortcuts; Frodo told what he had heard, and what he had thought he had seen, in the pitch-black shadows under the pines. Here his tale began to sound uncertain, as his own doubts surfaced in his recollections. The names he had heard sounded incorrect on his tongue, and his telling broke off when he recalled his panic. "If it hadn't been for that stupid dog..." Frodo muttered darkly. "They must have heard it and seen me running. I thought I was safe once I reached the garden, but they were waiting for me. I have no idea how they were driven away. I am glad they were! I was also glad to see you after. I had feared the would come and... take you away." And I am still afraid, Frodo thought, though he could not say this aloud. He became intensly interested in a small flaw on the rim of his teacup.

Bilbo sighed. Frodo glanced up to watch him; his tale now told, he waited to hear what Bilbo would say. He seemed to believe him, or at least he had been interested enough to listen to the whole tale. The silence in the kitchen seemed deafening. Frodo looked at the cold meal and felt his dormant appetite begin to stir. He waited.

Bilbo stood up and wandered to the kitchen window, his hands clasped behind his back. He looked out, even though the night was still dark and the rain spitting against the glazed panes with a musical tinkling. He seemed very far away suddenly, and Frodo knew that soon he would be in fact very far away.

"Uncle," the words were out of his mouth before Frodo could halt them, "You will be careful, won't you, when you go on your Adventure? I could still go with you, if you want me to."

Bilbo bowed his head. His back was to Frodo, but the younger hobbit could see his uncle's face reflected in the glass. There were tears in his eyes that he did not want his nephew to see. Frodo obediently glanced away, blinking to clear his own eyes.

"It wasn't this hard... before," said Bilbo at last. Frodo's head jerked up. They had remained silent for so long that Frodo had begun to drowse in the heat of the kitchen hearth. He felt frayed and frazzled, and all his bruises were singing softly on his skin.

Bilbo turned from the window, the sparkle was back in his eyes. He urged Frodo to eat something, "Your face is as grey as a Feburary sky!" he said.

Frodo picked up a piece of toast. "What do you mean, uncle? What wasn't hard before?"

"When I left Bag End all those years ago, I ran off without a look back, an impulsive decision and one I soon regretted, even if most things turned out well in the end. This time, I am planning everything, and it is much more difficult. It is harder now because I have a better reason to stay here than I had fourty-eight years ago.

"It is the right thing to do, my going away... you see that, don't you, lad? I want to do it, so much so that I can think of and dream of nothing else. This place is lovely, but there is other beauty to see, other people to know. I have out-lived everyone... buried more friends and relations than any hobbit should have to. This has become a place of ghosts for me." Bilbo's face looked so grey and sad that Frodo placed a pale hand gently over his uncle's weathered one. Bilbo patted it gently, smiling at him.

"You are more like me, as I was then, than I am myself, now. And yet, you are so much more. You are going to be all right."

"Bilbo," Frodo said softly. His cheeks were wet with tears, and he felt a tearing inside his heart; to stay and be what his uncle wanted him to be- what Frodo wanted to be- and to cast away everything and take the hidden paths that he had heard of so often.

"Not yet," Bilbo said, as if he could read Frodo's thoughts. Perhaps he just remembered his own thoughts, that day in spring when he had harkened the singing of the Dwarves and the desire for Adventure had awakened in his heart. "It is the right thing for you to do; stay here. Live happily in the Shire. That is what I want you to do for me."

"I want that, also, Bilbo, but I want you to stay, too."

"Well, we can't have everything we want, all at once," Bilbo responded cheefully, "That would take all the fun out of life!"

V.

Bilbo's Tale

"You're tired, Frodo," Bilbo said, after they had finally consumed their neglected meal. Frodo was blinking into his teacup, his eyes looking bruised from lack of rest. "Why don't you go to bed and we'll talk more in the morning."

Frodo stifled a yawn. "I think it is already morning. But how can I sleep with what is going on? What is to keep these villains from returning? You... you do believe me, don't you, sir?"

Bilbo hastened to reassure him. "Of course I do! I heard a scuffle outside, I opened the door to see you roughed up most distressingly... I admit, at first I thought that you had tipped a few too many, but I could tell by your manner that something was wrong. Also, I have a tale of my own to tell, but it is nothing that won't wait until later. I promise you that we are not in any more danger."

"I believe you, uncle, but I can't help wondering how you know this. Sould we alert the shiriffs? But what can they do... they are sheperds and messengers merely, not soldiers." Frodo rubbed his eyes. There was no way he could relax and sleep at a time like this.

Bilbo saw this and he nodded, moving to fill the kettle again. This would require at least one more cup of tea, or coffee rather, if he had any beans left. That would be just the thing to perk the lad up enough to hear something to quiet his anxiety.

Frodo cleared the table and tried not to peer out of the window every few moments. He felt that he was being watched somehow. He longed to draw the curtains and yet wanted to see out, for the sun to rise and show that he garden was not full of dark, suspicious figures lurking with ill-intent. He had to restrain himself from checking to make sure the doors were locked; he knew that they were.

They settled down again at the table, and Frodo's eyes were on his uncle's face. Bilbo was considering what he would tell Frodo. "You remember that day when we drove from Buckland to Hobbiton, that first day I brought you to live here in Bag End with me?"

"I remember it vividly, Bilbo. I was one of the best days of my life."

Bilbo smiled fondly at him. "One of mine as well, my lad. I remember that I said to you that we should have no secrets between us, though that conversation took place some time later. But I recall both moments now, for I fear that I have a bit of a confession to make to you, and yet I cannot reveal all things to you, even now. I will tell you a little and then ask you to trust me."

Frodo said nothing. He remembered that day, too. When they had made that promise to each other, Frodo had known that it did not mean that they should never have any secrets- certainly Frodo had some that he saw no need to trouble his uncle with, little things that a young hobbit did that would be embarassing to repeat. He knew his uncle had business that he did not elabourate about, and Frodo respected that. It thrilled him to know that he might learn a little more, now. He felt the need as he never had before, to know what was going on, to alliviate this feeling of helplessness and fear.

Bilbo waited until Frodo had time to digest this, then he went on. "That day we camped in the Woody End and you fell asleep with that angelic smile on your face, I stayed awake and spoke to some visitors that came by later. Elves, of course; I was expecting them. They were bringing me a message from an old friend, and I was glad to hear it. They were pleased with you; they told me that I had chosen well. As if I had been to market and bought a prize cow!" Bilbo laughed. "Elves have such strange senses of humour!" Frodo laughed a little. He had often said as much himself.

"On that night, I spoke to an Elf that has often returned to me with other messages, over the years. Earlier tonight, after you had gone out, he came by Bag End, tapping on the window like a thrush on a rock."

That woke Frodo up. "An Elf, in Hobbiton?" he said, incredulous.

"Yes! I was just as surprised. I had not expected to see him again until after... well, until I was on the road again. But he had tidings of some import and would not wait. Among the things he relayed to me, he spoke of a warning that came from Dwalin. It seemed that a group of wandering dwarves had passed through the Blue Mountains, seeking others to join a party that was setting out to claim an ancient debt owed to their famlies... and this is something I cannot go into detail about, lad. Forgive me, it is not that I don't trust you."

"It's all right, Bilbo. I trust you," Frodo said.

"Thank you, my boy. Anyway, these dwarves are appearantly not very popular among the Dwarves who still dwell in the Ered Luin. These dwarves are not of Durin's Folk, let me make that clear. Who can say which families they truly belong to? They likely don't remember themselves. They made mention of 'acquiring a stealthful assistant' from the Shire, and word trickled down to Dwalin's ears. He, of course, thought instantly of me- bless his beard! and sent a message with my Elven friend. So while you were talking to this Nárin at the Ivy Bush, I was hearing that I should be very sceptical and cautious about 'employment opportunities'. It never occured to me that they would accost you, lad. I should have sent for you the moment I learned of this plot, if I had suspected that you were in any danger."

"I understand, uncle. How could you know? You and I, we don't think like villains; how can we predit them?"

"An excellent point! At any rate, when you came down the path and was attacked, I was in the kitchen talking to my friend, and he heard the disturbance before I did. He leaped up, nearly cracking his head on the ceiling, and said, 'Fäeorn!', and then dashed out the kitchen door, telling me to lock it and wait for him to return. I did this, hearing then the sounds of struggling outside. I ran to the front door, for I did not lock it after I let the Elf inside, and I heard someone coming up the walk. I opened the door and there you were... you really did look a mess, lad. Forgive me for thinking you were tipsy. I was just relieved that you were all right." Bilbo poured more coffee into Frodo's cup. "The Elf came back in while you were in the washroom. He told me that the dwarves had been... taken care of. There is no more need to fear them."

"What does fäeorn mean? I am not familiar with that word. Is it Elvish?"

"My friend refused to elabourate. But he did tell me that we ought to leave a large bowl of sweet cream outside the back door every night from now on. He said only, 'They have earned a reward this night.' A typically cryptic Elvish statement, and one I mean to bring up next time our paths cross, I assure you!" Bilbo smiled and sighed. "He insisted on leaving imediately, but assured me that Bag End would be watched and that you would be kept safe. I could never set a foot out of here without knowing that you would be looked after."

Frodo looked at Bilbo with wonder in his face. "Well, I'll be blessed..." he said softly. "It really is all over? Bilbo, this whole night seems like a strange dream, but I am so tired; I know I haven't been asleep! I should have trusted that you would be on top of things, and that I could trust you to believe me. I almost did not believe myself!"

"Forget about it, lad! It is all over, and your cup is empty, so get you to bed and get some sleep. I will be doing exactly the same, as soon as I set your cloak in the washroom to dry," and Bilbo bent and picked up the still-damp, muddy garment. He dropped it suddenly, "Ouch! What is this... did you fall into a briar-patch, too?" He shook his hand and flexed his fingers. "My whole hand has suddenly gone completely numb!"

Frodo took his cloak carefully in his hands and examined it. There were several long thorns stuck into the hem of the thick fabric. He pulled one out and held it up. It was as sharp as a needle, with a tiny barbed point, with very delicately fletched pinfeathers; a wee arrow no longer than Frodo's littlest finger.

Frodo looked at his uncle, who was staring at the thing and rubbing his hand. "This would be one of those things that your friend could not speak of? It would seem that not all mysteries are to be solved in one night of talk and tea."


~~~~~



Many miles away, just before dawn came and scattered the vestiges of the rainclouds, a group of Dunédain and one Elf were escorting a party of six dirty and very disgruntled Dwarves to the borders of the Shire.

Tirhen looked down with displeasure at them. He had had to restrain himself from excersising or voicing his ire on them. He was glad of the presence of the Dunédain; in front of them he would not act out his anger. He contented himself with an open glare at Nárin, who returned it without fear.

"Go you from these blessed lands, and return not! If you be not entirely faithless, swear an oath before me and the witness of these Men and your own people that you will never return here, nor seek again to harm those we protect!"

"And what will you do if I refuse?" Nárin asked. "Would you kill me, and my folk, just because we sought to gain what our fathers had forsaken? We would not have harmed Baggins or his heir."

"We would not and will not kill you, but without your oath we do not trust you. We are not the Enemy, to deal out imprisonment or death. We have no need of such devices. But I can and will cripple you, Dwarf. You will mine little ore without your hands or eyes. This is your choice: live free as a beggar or be bound by your words."

Nárin grumbled and tugged his beard. He knew that the Elf did not speak idly. "Very well. I so do swear by my father's name, N'bol, seventh Father of the Dwarves, that I will never enter the Shire's boundries again." The Elf did not move or speak, but waited until the Dwarf continued, "Nor will I harm any that are therein protected! I swear it!" The Dwarves all echoed his words.

Tirhen nodded to the Dunédain, and the Dwarves were freed. "I have heard your words, Dwarves. And as the One has gifted me with life eternal, so too is your oath spoken before me eternal. It shall be remembered until the End of Days, and if ever you or your descendents break this oath, swift death shall fall upon them, from the air, from the waters, and from the earth. I swear this by Arien and Isil and the Stars born before Time."

The Dwarves went on their way, swiftly hurrying upon the road to the South, for they would not be welcome in the North again, when tales of this misadventure were spread to the Blue Mountains. They went to seek what adventure they could find without the aid of a burglar, and so Frodo and Bilbo were safe from them.

Tirhen thanked the Dunédain, who bowed and returned to their positions of watchfullness on the borders of the Shire. The Elf set out imediately for Mithlond. He had tidings to bear again, and he hoped that he would find Gildor there, returned from Imladris. He hoped to accomplish all his tasks and return swiftly. There was expected to be quite a party on the Hill soon, and he had an invitation.

Here ends this chapter of Heir of the Hill. Next chapter will begin a new tale, as Frodo Baggins comes of age and receives from his uncle his fateful inheritance and the title of Master of the Hill. Thank you for reading these tales and inspiring me to write more!

Long Live The Ring Bearers!

a footnote: fäeorn is, of course, Elvish for 'wood-sprite'! ((LB))