Nothing of Note

by Primula

14: Up the Steps


Bilbo and Finch started up the steps together. The ground very quickly felt very, very far away. Too far for comfort, but each encouraged by the other they bravely went on. The steps followed the curve around and they soon found themselves climbing up through a sort of hole in stone flooring.  The morning light filtered in two windows here, a narrow slot on the east and a wider one facing the west with elaborate empty shutter fasteners.  The room appeared to be mostly empty. Opposite the side they had come up another set of stairs lifted upward.

Both of them nervously moved away from the stairway hole.  Bilbo went to the western window and by standing on tiptoe was able to look out.  The view towards the Sea stunned him anew with its beauty.  Then he looked downward and the world felt shaky and insubstantial as he saw the ground so far below. It was an uncomfortable feeling and he made himself look back up at the horizon.  Finch came up beside him.

"Here, have a look. Just don't look downward; keep your eyes on the horizon."  While Finch timidly peered out the window, Bilbo poked around the edges of the room. The walls were smooth and unadorned, though there were carved details in the stonework around the stairs and the sills of the windows. There was one additional room, shaped like a half-moon with one window slot, a few more wall-hooks and a graceful if dusty tall oak table. If anything else of interest or value had ever been left there, it was long gone.  He took out his notepad and jotted a couple first impressions about the stairs and the view from the window.  Closing it again he walked over to the base of the second set of stairs and looked up them.

"Well now, young Master Cornfield, what do you think of this set of steps?"

Finch left the window and gave them a good look. "I don't like them at all. They give me a twisty feeling inside."

"I agree. Too narrow, aren't they?  And look at the cracks above us. I don't think the floor will be as sound. Should we chance it?"

Finch looked a bit white. "I..I'm sorry, sir. I don't think... I want to."

Bilbo gave him a long look. "That's all right, lad. I don't particularly want to try it myself. Tell you what: if you'll hold my notebook here, I'll try going up them, but only to look at the top.  Then I'll come right back down."

He handed off his notebook and gathered up all the odd bits of courage he could scrape out of the corners of his being.  They made a rather pathetic pile at the moment. Still, he wasn't going to leave this place saying that he hadn't the nerve to even look!  He put his feet to the narrow stairs, practically hugging the wall. He had already determined that it was best to keep his eyes on the goal ahead and never to look down or back. This same conclusion had held him in good stead in the past and it served well now.

Step by step his reluctant feet took him, farther and farther from the ground, above Finch's head, then to the ceiling of the room. This was an especially unnerving moment, something about being at the ceiling.  He willed his feet to keep moving. He entered a small dark space between the floors, then his head came out into another open room. He stopped to look around.  Like its companions, it was also empty but in worse repair. There was the smell of dust and dry droppings from old bird nestings. He could see where lamps had hung, the shutter brackets, the carvings on the sills. Each level being a progressively smaller circle, there was only a set of closets where the room had been below.  Another shelf, another small fireplace. Notches in the walls where something once hung.  Drapes? Tapestries, perhaps?  The cracks in the flooring were not so obvious from here - he was glad he had noticed them below.  Yet another set of steps went upward, but he dared not cross to them.

It was so sad, so empty and bereft of color.  So many wondrous things gone forever out of Middle-earth, the dwellers of the towers among them no doubt. Sunsets would light this room with red and gold fire, everyday giving it a glory from the past. But no eyes would be there to behold it.

He began working his way back down. This proved even more scary than going up and he soon was hugging the wall as he went down nearly crawling backwards. He was terribly grateful to feel the floor under his feet again, and suddenly this floor didn't seem nearly as high as it had before.  The two of them cautiously and slowly made thier way back to the ground level.

Once back in the main room Bilbo breathed a little easier. While his reasoning mind knew those steps were sound and he had been in no danger, some hobbitish part of him still protested the height greatly, made his heart squeeze with a brushing of fear.

Finch spoke timidly beside him. "Do you...know anything about...Elves, sir?"

Bilbo gave him a little smile. "Perhaps, a little. How about we see if this fireplace works. We can both warm up a bit and have a talk that way."

Finch helped him gather dry branches from the shrubs until they had a fair heap. He knelt and kindled a flame at the hearth, blowing on the small spark gently until it caught the grasses and twigs. Full of resin, the twigs sizzled, snapped and burned hot and quick. They both huddled near it, basking in it's small warmth.

"Well now, what would you like to know?" asked Bilbo expectantly.

"I can't rightly say," said Finch shyly. "Maybe something about their singing? And where were they going?"

"They often sing as they travel, same as we do.  But their songs are about things that are much, well...bigger and older and more...starlike, if you understand my meaning? Our language really is quite clumsy, we don't seem to have the right words for what they sing of." He glanced at Finch. "Would you like to learn about their language?"

Finch cocked his head as if thinking. "No, I don't think so. What would I do with it, not having any to talk to?  And if I could talk to them, I wouldn't know about the same things anyway.  Where were they going as they sang?"

Bilbo hid his own disappointment at the subject being so lightly turned aside. "They were going west, to the Sea. Sometimes they grow weary of the troubles we have here, in Middle-earth. Did you know they do not age?"

Finch seemed a bit skeptical.  "Everything ages. And how can you leave the Middle-earth? I wanted to know where they were really going."

Bilbo nodded. "And I am telling you.  What you say is true enough for Hobbits. We don't leave these lands to go over the Sea because it isn't for us to make that journey. Only Elves do that. They aren't like us, Finch, not at all. I was not teasing you when I said they do not age either. But living forever has its downside, yes it does. It means all of the things you loved when you were younger pass away, but you live on.  It means seeing things you loved age and fade and not being able to do anything about it. When they cannot bear that fading anymore, then they go West.  They have ships, and they go over the Sea."

Finch had that "polite" look on his face youth will wear when listening to a doddering Gaffer. "I don't know, Mr. Baggins. I don't think they live forever. Nothing can do that. Maybe they just live a really, really long time.  And my da says people that go on the Sea always drown, or disappear and are never heard of again. It would be very dangerous and foolish for them to try doing that."

Bilbo considered this as he fed the fire with more twigs. "Don't you think it would be a great adventure, don't you think it would be a wondrous thing to go over the Sea?" His voice was soft and wistful and he realized even as he said it he was speaking as much to himself as to the young hobbit beside him.

Finch shook his head. "No. I think it would be awful! It would be cold and wet, and there wouldn't even be any land. It must be terribly deep, with strange creatures that would most likely eat a hobbit whole.  I would never go out on a boat, not for anything! I don't know why they do it. Maybe that's where their bad luck is from, maybe it comes from the Sea."

Bilbo looked at him a little sadly. "Would you really rather stay on your parent's farmland, on solid Shire ground and grow crops, and visit the same town all of your days?"

Finch looked at him strangely then gazed into the fire and gave it thought. "If I left, I wouldn't get to be at my own home anymore, nor see my family," he said slowly. "I wouldn't get to help my da with the planting or harvesting, and, and my relatives would miss me. I wouldn't get to tell my aunt that I am taller than her this spring. I don't think I would like it at all, I would miss them.  And if I left them just to go drown, that wouldn't make too much sense, now...would it?"

"No, no I suppose it wouldn't. You have a good home, after all. Why wander?" Bilbo fed the fire more twigs. It was burning so rapidly they were almost out already. He studied Finch's face and attitude.

Inwardly he sighed. He had not realized how badly he wanted to find a young hobbit who would go adventuring until Finch had raised those hopes. But he could see it was only a passing fancy for the lad. His true desire was the same hobbitish desire that Bilbo knew well, to stay home, to have his own kin about him, to have the same comforts each year. He didn't sense any spark in Finch, not really. It was more like the lad was living out a curiosity, a hearth-side tale. It was no more than a tale to him; it didn't reach his heart. He would "grow out of it."  He was disappointingly normal.

"So," he said tossing in the last of the twigs. "The morning is moving on. You better head back to your family soon or you won't get back before dark! They'll be worried for you."  He began to gather up his things and snugged his coat around him. 

Finch stood, watching the last of the twigs blacken and crumble on the hearth. He nodded and obediently picked up his own small lunch satchel and water bottle. "I suppose so. Are you going to be going on or coming back with me?"

"I'll be going on. But if you are ever in Hobbiton, you are most welcome at my home. Go on now, young Master Cornfield. You have a long life ahead of you to live. Thank you for your pleasant company, and I wish you safe travels!" He paused in the doorway of the tower as the boy moved past him and out into the sunlight. One last try.

"Will you be coming back here again sometime?"

Finch paused and looked back at him for a moment. He glanced up the height of the tower above him and thought about it. "No sir, I don't think so. It's quite a long ways to go, and I've seen it now, after all. But I am glad you were here to look at it with me. Thank you, Mr. Baggins."

"Yes, yes. Already seen it all, as you say. What more could there be to see? Off with you now, and have a care you don't fall this time." Bilbo waved him away.

"I won't! Goodbye!" Finch waved back over his shoulder as he turned and like a puppy rapidly bounded through the grass back towards the downs. 

And so it goes, thought Bilbo. How I wish it could have gone differently. To have a young hobbit with some spirit, some real sense of adventure would have been too much to hope for, I suppose. He was a good lad, but with no more adventure in him than some of the lot back in Hobbiton when it came down to it. I wonder if it runs in families. If I had ever had children, would any of them have been...like me?  Or would they have ended up like this one, or worse, like Otho?  Maybe it was just as well I haven't. It would have been hard to bear having an heir with no sense of adventure in him.

He stopped in his tracks as he was passing the tower's walls.  What was he thinking? He already had an heir with no adventure in him. Not a scrap. Otho seemed to embody a sort of *anti-adventure* even.  Even a lad like Finch would be an improvement over him. Now there was an odd thought, he considered as he continued on. Replacing Otho with a lad, though he'd have to be related of course.  It would bear more thinking later on.