Nothing of Note

by Primula

19: Little Rivers

Somewhere in the night he became aware of a change. The sound of the storm softened, the heavy rains gradually lessened until he could barely hear them outside the walls at all.  Bilbo awoke early, added wood to his banked fire then dozed again.  He was glad to hear the change, for his food supplies were low and he was still at least a day if not two from any farm or cothold that might be able to sell him some provisions.  It was too early in the year for foraging.

Late in the morning he allowed himself a bit of breakfast, then began to straighten up the tower rooms he had used. Almost all of the wood he had brought in was now gone.  Using a leafy branch as a makeshift broom he was able to sweep the worst of the bark and bits of twig back outside. He packed the nuts and one candle and put the remaining ones, the hatchet, the rain jars and  blankets into the storeroom chest. It was tempting to keep one of the blankets, but he didn't feel it would be right. They were a loan. The stool he left where it was. When all was reasonably tidy and gathered together, he faced the painting on the wall one last time.

"Farewell," he said with a nod to the silent singing harpist. "I rather hate to have to leave you here alone again, but that is the way of it, you know. Trust that I shall be looking at your harp in Michel Delving with different eyes after this!" The harpist regarded him seriously as he played upon the painted strings without ceasing. Bilbo reached up and ran his hand along the harp also. "I am sorry that I do not know your name..." he whispered.  He paused, then sighed heavily and slung his pack over his shoulder. With one last backward glance, he passed out of the room and then from the tower.

The storm had washed the air clean and clear, and while the wind still blew it was with a much gentler hand.  He listened to it sighing in the nearby trees and to the gurgling of uncounted little streams as the rainwater found its way back down the hill to the sea. The ground was wet, the grasses laying half-flattened and sodden as a newly washed rug. He set off eastward and down, skirting the trees that encroached up the water-filled gullies in favor of the openness of the downs. Off to the north he knew the road ran, but he cut northeast to cover as much ground as he could before he met with it. He'd had a late start and wasn't quite sure how far he was from the nearest homes.

The hours passed slowly, though the walking was easy as he was mostly going downhill. He ate only sparingly and rested only when he had to. The small animals and birds were out in abundance between the new Spring and their having been holed up through the storm also. Flocks of quick little birds swooped among the grasses and every now and then a movement underneath the stalks would tell him of some small animal startled by his approach. When he almost tripped over a rabbit at one point and it would have been difficult to say which of them was the more surprised. It skittered off into it's hole, something that he was wishing he could do himself at the time, if his hole had been closer.

He found his way to the road somewhat impeded by the countless little rivers that had sprung up from the rainstorm. Some he could jump over, some he could wade. Others were deep and wide enough to be real causes for concern, and with it still raining now and then there was little hope of their receding. He found his path bent again and again as he had to navigate these small waterways, following along them until they either spread out enough to be shallow or narrowed to be jumpable.  A few of the widest, deepest ones could have qualified at rivers and small ponds, right down to the waterbirds bobbing around on their surface.  He noted a few of the brown and white duck-like seabirds ducking their heads into the water, ruffling and preening and couldn't help but wonder if they were the same ones he had met at the tower.  They ignored his greetings, drifting away from him unconcernedly as he waded past.  A couple glossy brown feathers floated past him and he lifted one out of the water, shaking the drops off of it and tucking it in his pocket to remember them by.

Because of the little rivers it was much later than he had anticipated by the time he reached the road; as the day began to wane he still found no sign of any type of dwelling.  The weather was still proving very changeable, so he began to look in earnest for someplace he could shelter the night. At the foot of the downs he found a clump of woods and decided it would at least be an improvement over the open grasses.  Luck was with him, for shortly after he entered it he found a large tree that had fallen with a very convenient dry sort of cave where its heart once had been. And even better, it was unoccupied. He knew most dry hiding places in the wild already held one type of animal or another and had approached it cautiously with a stone in either hand ready for throwing.

He crawled in over the soft red loam and spongy bark, brushing away cobwebs and sticks. Breathing in the rich, woody compost scent;  he found it was quite dry inside and even had enough room to sleep if he didn't stretch out all the way.  He cleared a small area for a fire, being careful to keep it away from the walls of the tree lest he set his 'house' afire. The tiny warmth and light were very cheering after such a long, wet day though it did little to dry his clothing out. He ate the last of his seedcake for supper and wrapped himself up, too tired for anything more.

The next morning used up the last of the hazelnuts from the tower. He walked back to the road and set out eastward fairly confidently, but soon reached the point in the path where he had to choose north or south. If he turned south he would eventually end up back in Undertowers.  This did not appeal, and would add many unnecessary miles he thought. North should eventually bring him to Little Delving. He thought about cutting straight across country, but any houses or smials would be found along the road, not out there. North by the road it was then. 

At lunchtime he ate most of his remaining apple, and there still was not a home in sight. He had forgotten how truly uncomfortable it was to have to walk so much and not have anything 'decent' to eat. As he paced along he found his thoughts drawn to memories of food, of favorite meals and treats. As often is the case, the more he tried to not think of them, the more they intruded into his mind. Platters of roast and potatoes, eggs and bacon, fresh-baked nut-cakes, vegetable stew all steaming and fragrant and hot...

He finally gave in and ate the last bits of his apple. It didn't help.

Another thing that didn't help was the continuing problem of little rivers. The road frequently had them crossing it along this stretch, waters coming down off the hills and heading for the marshy lowland on the other side. He soon was greatly wearied of having to wade and jump through cold muddy water, and of trying to avoid the pale worms that lay scattered along the flooded ways. Only thing worse than stepping on dead worms was stepping on slugs, and he encountered a few of those along the side of the road as well, grimacing and scraping the bottom of his feet in the dirt to get rid of the feeling of them.

By the time the day was waning he was muddy and miserable enough that any food or fire would have been welcome, and when a farmhouse finally came into view he would have run to it if he hadn't been so footsore.

He walked up the cartpath. It did not look particularly welcoming, but there was smoke coming from a stovepipe so he knew there had to be someone about. He noted there were three barns which were low and in ill repair. When a whiff of the barns blew his way he sincerely hoped he didn't need to sleep there; he heard and smelled a great many chickens, but to his relief no dogs barked.

The brown door was in need of fresh paint, and a sour smell rose up from the old hay that was scattered about the yard. Two stacks of empty chicken crates leaned against the house. No, it wasn't promising. He could find neither bell nor knocker, so he tenatively tapped on the door with his knuckles, and waited. Inside there was some movement then the door abruptly opened to reveal a somewhat pinched-looking hobbit-lady with a stained apron tied over her dress.

She frowned at him warily. "Yes?"

Aware of his muddy and bedraggled appearance, Bilbo could only assume she was taking him for some sort of begger or worse, especially being so far out from any other home.  He smiled at her and tried to set her at ease. "Good evening! I've just been traveling to visit relatives and seem to have found myself rather far from town. Is there any chance you might be able to offer some shelter for the night, and a bite to eat?"  She looked so unhospitable he added, "I am willing to pay you a fair price for it." Topping this information off with a slight bow, he waited for a reply.

"You'll have to wait." she said, and firmly closed the door.

He blinked at the shut door. How very strange. Wait for what, and for how long? He looked around for a place to do as instructed and finally had to settle onto a stump that was apparently used for chopping wood. There was another nearby that judging from the embedded chicken feathers and stains had been frequently used for something other.  Having no other options around, he would wait. At least a little.  He rubbed his tired legs and brushed at the worst of the mud on his clothing.  The smoke curled out of the chimney into some nearby trees. The shadow of the hills crept out towards him as the sun settled behind them. He finally stood up again and tapped at the door.

She opened it again. "What?"

" long shall I wait? It's getting rather late..."

"You'll wait until my husband gets home, of course!"

"Ah. I see!...And is he expected anytime soon?"

She looked past him and frowned even deeper than before. "Right now." 

He wondered at her dour look, then turned. Back up by the road, a cart was turning in the drive. He turned back again only to discover the door shut once more. An unhappy household, apparently.  Well, he would speak with the master of the home then, if the mistress was determined to be less than hospitable. He could understand propriety, but such rudeness to a stranger was unexpected. He walked to meet the cart as it creaked his way.

The pony pulling the cart was thin and mean-looking. Not to be outdone by his animal, the hobbit driving it was meaner, the sort of face that would have looked better hidden by a dwarven beard if such a thing were possible. At least that was Bilbo's initial impression, one that he hoped was quite wrong. The cart was nearly filled with empty crates.

"Good evening," greeted Bilbo as the cart slowed. "I've been traveling to visit relatives and find myself in need of some shelter and a bit to eat..."

"What, does this look like an Inn to you?"

Bilbo was a bit nonplussed at this brusque greeting, but it matched well with the mistress of the home. "I am fully prepared to pay you a fair price for your kind hospitality."

"Hah. You are are you? Well, we'll see about that." He climbed down from the cart and started unharnessing the pony. "I'm no Innkeeper, and I don't intend to become one. Folk think just because we live out here near the road that they can just come trespassin' on our land, walkin' right up and eatin' up our hard-earned food, they think we..."

"Now look here." Bilbo frowned and bit his tongue for a moment looking for polite words. "I said I would pay you. If I had another place to go, I would be glad to do so. Is there a neighbor nearby I might inquire of?"

The hobbit grunted as he lifted the harness off and slapped the pony to send it to the barn. "Nah. No neighbor. You'll have to stay, but you'll have to pay too, is that clear?"

A stubborn set showed in Bilbo's chin but he kept his voice civil. "For the third time, I already said I would."

He was given a hard look, then dismissed. "Hasno! Get your lazy, empty head up off those sacks and stable the pony! I'm going inside."  There was a movement in the back of the cart and a nearly-tween hobbit staggered up sleepily, then climbed down and headed for the barns. Bilbo didn't think he'd even realized there was someone besides his father in the yard.  Lacking any other direction, Bilbo followed the hobbit back towards his house.

The farmer glanced back at him as they walked. "So, what's your name?"

"Bilbo Baggins."

There was a pause, then a slight change in tone - a sort of hideous attempt at being cheery. "Hardno Todefoot." He opened the door. "Come in, Mr. Baggins, come in! I'm sure we can find you some, eh, hospitality. You like eggs?"

The brown door shut behind them.