Nothing of Note

by Primula

10: Undertower Tales

It was still early in the year and while the days were lengthening they were far from the long summer hours they would later show. Bilbo passed along through somewhat marshy lowlands where the road had been built up with gravel, then back upward towards the distant downs with only the occasional bird or rabbit for company.  In his mind Kings and Elves and mysterious beasts of the past waltzed and wandered to the rhythm of his walking feet and he felt not one bit alone.  His mind was good company, peopled as it was with all that he had studied over the years.

Somewhere along the way he knew he had passed out of the bounds of the Shire but he wasn't sure where.  Someone really ought to mark the boundaries out here a little better, he thought. Why, to the East you certainly know when you've left. A body ought to be able to know when they are in their own land and when they are not.

The shadows of the downs lengthened out, overshadowing the road as it entered a copse of poplar, maple and birch. The effect was a wonderfully treeish tunnel.  He paused to consider whether it would be better to make camp there, or to continue on to the town which was sure must be just ahead somewhere.  After Lardy's less than complimentary words regarding the Inn he wasn't sure he wanted to stay there. Of course there were plenty of places that had no Inns at all...

Stepping a little off the road and brushing his way into a small clearing he was very tempted to stay right there in the little woods and pretend he was far, far away in some much wilder place. He just stood in the clearing for a time wishing it were summer. When it came right down to it, though, the woods were still quite damp and the rising breeze was chill.  The clouds were still in the sky and could easily turn to rain.  He sighed and stepped back out onto the road.  Sure enough, not long after he had left the little copse behind the smoke from the chimneys of Undertowers came into view and it began to sprinkle.

By the time he reached the town, the lamps were being lit and children called in for supper. He entered the main gate with only one question from the bored-looking gatekeeper and walked up the main road. If there really was that Inn, he didn't see it. The town was not really that large, but it felt that way out of unfamiliarity. Nearing the far end he passed a small smithy where a leatherworker sat under the shelter of his shop's porch mending a bit of harness. 

"Excuse me, can you direct me to an Inn?"

"Inn?" said the hobbit, glancing up at him then back to his work. "We've only the one Inn, if you're traveling on, though we've a decent boarding house if you're staying."

"Staying? No, no. I'll be going on.  And also, can you tell me if it is it far to the towers, themselves?"

The hobbit gave him an odd look. "Towers?"

"Yes, the Elf-towers. You know, the ones this place is named for." At the continuing silence he clarified, "Out there." and gestured west and slightly upward with his walking stick.

The hobbit went back to his leather-mending. "No one goes there," he said, slowly and deliberately. "It's said to be bad luck. All sorts of dark tales about those towers."

He recalled Lardy's mention of this now. He decided to press it anyway.  "Tales? What sort of tales?"

He just shook his head and tightened his lip. "Take my advice and choose yourself a different path, sir.  No one lives out there and it's just not done. If you take my advice, you'd not mention such an idea at the Inn, neither.  They'd toss you out for sure and certain. Bad luck it is. You're not in the Shire anymore, you know."  He seemed proud of that last statement.

As if you yourselves weren't more than a rock's throw from the bounds, thought Bilbo. He was not put off by the warnings. They had quite the opposite effect really, for that would mean that no one had been there recently and it might be all the more interesting to explore. Untrampled.

"Well, thank you. Good evening." he said and when he received no reply he continued on.

It wasn't until he had left the hobbit a ways behind that it occurred to him he had never had his first question answered and still didn't know where the Inn was.  He also realized that he didn't really want to go there anyway.  If it was an establishment that might deny an honest traveler a bed because of superstition...well, he would begrudge giving them any of his coins then.  He would just go on until he found a warm barn if need be.  There were still plenty of farmhouses with small lights twinkling from their windows in the gathering dusk. His decision was made.  He didn't stop in the town.  Marching straight through Undertowers, he headed out the seemingly unguarded far gate into the rapidly cooling darkness of the westernmost countryside.

After a mile or so, he figured he was far enough away that he wouldn't just be waved off to the town.  He turned off the road to try a friendly looking farm to the north. Beside the way was a post with a small handlettered sign.  He peered closely at it in the last of the light and could just make out "Brockhouse." As he neared the low farmhouse a yapping dog barked twice and was shushed.  The farmer, a sturdy hobbit with a dishtowel hanging from his belt, held up a lantern as it was now full dark.

"Hullo?" he said.

"Hullo," replied Bilbo putting all the friendliness he could into that one word. He stopped walking and leaned on his stick. "Just a traveler, on my way to visit some relations.The time has quite gotten away from me, I fear. Would you happen to have a dry, warm corner that I could sleep in until morning, and perhaps a bit to eat? I can pay you for it." 

"Eh." the farmer said, relaxing at the sight of an unthreatening plain Shire hobbit. "I suppose. We haven't much room inside, but you could share a meal with my wife and I if'n you don't mind sleeping in the barn after."

"No, no. I don't mind at all. Thank you very much."

"Where are you coming from?" he asked as he led Bilbo towards the thatched house.

"Hobbiton."

"Hobbiton? That's a fair pace.  You must know of that Bilbo Baggins they have out that way then. Maybe you could tell us a tale about him, eh? Is he really mad?  I heard he rode right through the square on a pig, done up like a pony it 'twas too, harness and all, eh? Must have been a sight to see.  We could use a good story."

Bilbo had almost stumbled over the threshold at the mention of himself in this light. He entered the kitchen with his mind going very quickly, trying to see the best way out of this awkward situation. The farmer greeted his red-cheeked wife.

"Darlin' Aster, this is...eh," he turned to Bilbo. "I'm sorry, didn't catch your name?"

"Bracegirdle. Adelard Bracegirdle."  said Bilbo, randomly sticking together names he knew.

"Mr. Bracegirdle. Gulbo Brockhouse, at your service." The farmer bowed slightly then turned to his wife. "Mrs. Brockhouse, Mr. Bracegirdle. He just needs a sup, darlin' and then I'll find him a warm place in the barn. He's come from Hobbiton to visit relations and saw Mad Baggins go ridin' that pig in broad daylight himself he did. Fetch us a sup, darlin' and some blankets. He's goin' to tell us a tale or two, perhaps, eh?"

Bilbo offered a mild noise that was neither negative nor affirmative and drew off his wet cloak.  Mrs. Brockhouse took it from his hands and spread it over a chair by the fire to dry, then bustled to set an extra place at the table and to serve up the meal. 

The "sup" was good and hot and filling, even though it was split three ways instead of two.  Bilbo needed every minute of it to try to think of what to say.  As soon as they had finished, the other two hobbits pulled the seats over to the fire. The farmer generously offered Bilbo some pipeweed for his pipe while his wife started the washing up. They warmed themselves and spoke of small things; the rain, the approaching Spring, how cold the winter had been.  Mrs. Brockhouse came back over to the fire and offered each of them a thick slice of sweet bread for dessert, then wiped down the table, hung up her apron and slipped in beside her husband on the settle. They leaned back comfortably and looked at him with expectation, apparently ready for a tale of....Mad Baggins.  Bilbo coughed slightly over his pipe, then began.