Nothing of Note

by Primula

12: Up the Downs

The barn was warm and snug with the soft breathing of the pony and milkcows; after traveling so hard all day Bilbo slept deeply.  He awoke when the rooster awoke, being in close proximity to it and having no choice.  After doing what he could to comb the straw out of his hair and to somehow convince his aching legs that another day was a good idea, he pulled himself up out of the hay,  shook and folded the blankets and gathered up his belongings.  He could hear Farmer Brockhouse moving around in the yard outside and the excited squawk and rabble of the chickens as they bumped into each other, seeking the cracked corn he spread.  Bilbo smoothed his rumpled clothing as best he could and opened the side door, shivering a little in the early morning chill.  It was still overcast, but promised to break up and the morning sun was bright on the horizon.  The rain had finally stopped, though he still needed to navigate assorted puddles to reach his host.

"Good morning, Mr. Bracegirdle! Sleep all right?" asked Mr. Brockhouse. He twisted the feed sack shut and stepped away from the frantic crowd of hens. 

"Yes, yes. Thank you. Good morning." returned Bilbo, and followed the farmer's inviting gesture into the home where the kitchen wafted warm and redolent of griddle cakes, honey, butter and eggs. He settled himself at the table where a plate awaited him and with a mind to the cold and possibly sparse meals upcoming, ate heartily. 

Gulbo passed him another helping of eggs and topped his own stack of cakes generously with honey.  "My dear Mr. Bracegirdle! You enjoy my wife's good cooking? She is the best there is, I must say. I doubt any of your Hobbiton friends could cook nearly as well, no matter how fancy their clothes or dishes."  His wife beamed at his compliment and blushed a little, making her red cheeks even redder. 

Bilbo noted her pleasure and his pride; he went along with it.  "I must agree, Mr. Brockhouse. We should be most fortunate if we had any hobbit with such a light touch to the batter. She is a rare treasure, I am sure. Why, I would think even old Mad Baggins himself would love to fill his plate at her table, and he's had delicacies from all sorts of far-flung places. Nothing like good Shire cooking!"

"Aye, well, he'd be an odd one to have at table, eh?  Hah hah. We'll have to be sure to eat his share for him." Mr. Brockhouse cheerfully stuffed his mouth with an ample helping of cakes and caught the honey dripping with the tip of his tongue.  Bilbo followed suit, for they were in fact quite good and his flattery was not entirely empty.

"I shall gladly eat his share for him," Bilbo declared, and set out to do so with a will.

Gulbo swallowed and took a sip of his tea, then grimaced from the heat of it. "You'll be heading back to Hobbiton now?"

"Erm, well, yes." By a very long way around, but yes, qualified Bilbo silently. He filled his mouth again to avoid talking.

"Just stick with the road, takes you right into town. Be sure you're heading downhill, not up. Wouldn't want you to accidently head off in the wrong direction, ha ha."

Bilbo scooped up another forkful of eggs. "Hm, yes. Is it dangerous up that way?" They gave him such a look he paused his fork and added "Just out of curiosity - I'm sure no decent hobbit would want to go wandering out in the middle of nowhere, of course not." No decent hobbit indeed, he added to himself.

They both relaxed. Gulbo blew on his tea. "Well, now. Can't say I'd call it dangerous, but it's bad luck! Foreign...peoples sometimes wander on those hills. You wouldn't want to run into them, you know.  Nobody lives out that way anyways but a couple neighbors. Oh, when you get to town be sure you stop at our Inn! Good sensible hobbits there, they'd be glad for any news of Hobbiton."

Once the meal was finished, Bilbo gathered his pack and stick and taking his now-dry cloak, draped it over his shoulders.  Aster took up several of the extra griddle cakes and rolled them up into a packet for him to eat later. He accepted them with a small bow. "Well, I must be off; the road is long. I thank you again for your hospitality.  Most kind of you to take me in."  He offered a handshake to Gulbo and a nod to Aster as he politely eased out of their door.

"If you are ever out this way again, please stop in. We so enjoyed your tales!" Mrs. Brockhouse called after him. Bilbo nodded politely, gave a little half-wave and turned away, heading down the path towards the road once more. 

"Right decent hobbit." commented Gulbo to his wife as they watched him on his way. "Who did he say he was related to?"

When Bilbo reached the road, he turned east for a number of  paces until he saw them go inside their home, then he did an about-face and rapidly headed uphill.  The last thing he needed was their 'helpfulness' in directing him towards Hobbiton, and he thought they might argue with him if they knew he was going west.  Bad luck, after all. He rolled his eyes. 

As he continued on the road was little more than a wagon-track through the grasses. He trotted westward along it he until the curve of the hill finally hid him from view then slowed to catch his breath, wishing now that he hadn't eaten quite so heartily. Having warmed up from the exercise, he paused to put the cloak away and to decide what came next.  He knew the towers were somewhere along the tops of the hills, but it appeared the rolling downs that lead to those hills were wider than he had first thought. For lack of any other direction he decided he would simply follow this track until it ran out.  The slopes were gentle enough they shouldn't be too bad.  He suddenly realized he had forgotten to inquire about the neighbor-boy who had heard Elves.  Well, they were already jumpy enough about the subject, he probably couldn't have brought it up anyway.  Maybe he lived around here. He'd have to keep an eye out.

After a couple of hours he had passed up the last of the small farms with no sign of any young hobbit, nor any hobbits at all really. The track had slowly dwindled to a simple footpath.  He followed its faint line upward over one hill and then the next. The breeze was chill and he was glad for the sheltered intervals as every hilltop meant facing it anew.  The few trees were small and sparse and soon ceased altogether, yielding to the waves of tall windswept grasses and clumps of brush. The sun came and went as the clouds scurried overhead and he was dazzled anew with every sunbreak.

About noon, topping yet another rise he found the remains of a stone wall in its shelter, built from the light-colored but brittle stone that littered the ground.  Judging by the grown-over heaps alongside it, it must have once stood twice its height.  A sheepfold perhaps? Whatever it was it had been long abandoned.  A little further on he spied more ruins, and left the path to investigate.  More stone, tumbled in a rough circle, but little else...ah! What delight! Was that a well?  If that was the sheepfold, this must have been the shelter for the shepherds. He picked his way over the uneven lumps of grass-covered stone to the well. The grass grew thick and green to one side of it as the water seeped along the ground.  He peered over it's low crumbling edge and was delighted to find clear water nearly up to the top. He dipped his water bottle in and drank his fill. It was cold and sweet. He laved his face and hands, and then rested in the windbreak formed by the tallest part of the walls. Rummaging in his pack he brought out the packet of griddle cakes from that morning and snacked on part of them.

Setting out again, he soon discovered that the path ended at the ruins, or at least had become so faint that it made no difference.  He glanced up at the position of the sun and set out approximately westward again.  After a a few more seemingly unending climbs he topped a rise, panting, and looked back at the lands spread out below him to the east. It was a lovely sight.  The wind had blown the air clear of any haze of dust or smoke and the distant farmlands, fields and woods sparkled as if newly washed.  Somewhere far below him to the east the tiny farm of the Brockhouses was hidden, small and isolated as its owners.  He opened his arms and let the wind billow his coat; it was a marvelous feeling, a free feeling. If his legs hadn't been so tired, he probably would have cut a caper along the ridge. 

He turned around and shaded his eyes against the now westering sun.  Slightly above him there was yet one more ridge, but then...yes! There, to the north a bit.  Something white.  He could only see a part of it from this angle but he was sure it was the first of the Elven towers.  Much heartened, he set off again, singing loudly about Elves just to spite the absent Mr. Brockhouse for his own amusement.

Elves, foreign Elves
How I'd love to meet with Elves!
Sweeping and strange, their Elvish songs
Sweeter than honey. They say it's wrong,
Bad luck you say, but strangers ways
Will outlast all of our nights and days...

He knew it wasn't a very good verse, set to a child's tune, but it seemed suited to the childishness of hobbits who would cower, fearing to even speak of them lest they hear.  It would do. He laughed to himself, making up for being unable to laugh at the notion the night before.  Not speaking of them for fear their Elvish ears would hear it.  The funniest thing he'd heard in a long time.  He sang it a couple more times with variations, shouting Elves! Elves!  in between just for good measure, then faded off as the climbing used up his breath, frustration gone.

It was nearing nightfall by the time he reached the final ridge and had a full view of the first tower. The others beyond it were fading in the twilight, but the nearest was a sight to behold.  The last vestiges of light glowed on its western side, and he was utterly enchanted.  Nothing stirred except the wind and the occasional startled fieldmouse as he slowly worked his way over to it.  Even when it was full dark he kept on, stumbling over hillocks of grass and matted roots in the darkness. By the faint starlight he could still make out his goal, standing as a tall shadow against the sky where no stars shone. As he approached it seemed faintly luminous, as if the stones were reflecting the starlight itself. 

He stopped. In the darkness and the silence it was a bit overwhelming and even a little frightening.  He had originally been thinking to look at it once the moon had risen, but now that it was so close he found he did not dare.  Waiting until morning before going closer to explore seemed the better choice, and with none around to know of this small cowardice, he felt free to indulge it.  Angling away from the tower a short distance he managed to find a clump of brushy shrubs that would serve for a windbreak if he hung his blanket up over part of it and slept on what was left.  He lay down, bundled up in his cloak with his pack close beside him and watched the stars wheeling overhead near the tower's peak until he fell asleep.