Nothing of Note

by Primula

33. The Floating Log

Bilbo had been driving east at a leisurely pace throughout the afternoon, settling into the slowly bobbing pace of the ponycart until he'd felt half-hypnotized by it; a sort of long, wandering waking dream.  The gold, red, and grey-brown of the road slowly slipped past, punctuated by watering stops for the pony and picnics for himself, plus the occasional conversation with another traveler.  By the time the sun was setting behind them both he and his pony were weary and glad to see Frogmorton ahead. They perked up slightly at the thought of supper, each to their own kind. Their communal shadow stretched out long and thin, pointing the way down the hedge-lined road.

The yard in front of the Floating Log was ridged with mud and hay from the earlier rains, dried in ripples of hoof, wheel and footprints. The cart-wheels bumped over them up to the front post where Bilbo stiffly climbed down and waved a hand to catch the attention of a stableboy, watching to be sure the pony was well-cared for before turning his attention to his own empty belly. Back in the front, various hobbits lounged on the benches along the front of the building, smoking in the growing darkness with contentment, their pipes glowing softly orange from time to time.

Bilbo greeted two of them he had a passing acquaintance with and ducked past the carven wooden frog-on-a-log that decorated the doorway to enter the dimly smoky interior of the Inn. A pleasant hum of voices, kitchen pans clanging, glasses being filled with a soft glug of ale and the crackling of the fire all came together into a comforting familiar blanket of Shire-like sound.

The Innkeeper remembered him and was very quick to put down the mugs he'd been carrying and offer the best room he had, an offer just as quickly and gratefully accepted as it was given. With a warm bath for his outside and a few mouthfuls of a steaming rabbit-and-potato pie with a cloth-covered basket of biscuits for his inside he was feeling relaxed enough to turn his mind away from the weariness of the day's miles.  He paused, blowing on a hot forkful, scanning the room for any friendly diversions or familiar faces. A dart game was in progress, two farmers were comparing preferred fertilizers and near the bar he heard a somewhat spirited argument about weather patterns; it was sufficient diversion to bring him to the end of his supper.  He mopped up the last of the gravy with a fluffy biscuit and then settled back contentedly full, feeling for his pipe and pouch.

The leather pouch was only half-filled but that was more than enough for a short jaunt like this one. It was familiar and soft to his hands, the fragrance of the leaf lifting up from it sweetly. Patting his pocket for his pipe, he scootched his chair back and stood, intending to join the others smoking on the front porch when he heard a familiar, hearty voice offering greetings outside as it approached the front door. A slightly-rounder than usual hobbit with red cheeks pushed past those loitering by the entry.

"Hilalard Took - fancy meeting you out here," offered Bilbo with a smile for the rotund peddler who had brought with him a waft of fresh evening air. "I thought you would be down in Tuckborough at this time of year."

Lardy Took paused a fraction, then his eyes lit with recognition. "Mr. Baggins!" he said, offering his hand and seating himself uninvited but not unexpected at Bilbo's table. "A fine fancy meeting you also!  I must say it's been a while since I've come across you anywhere near your own town. You would make a fine peddler if you ever took it into your head; travel more than any hobbit I know, and I know a good part of the Shire...oh, and as to myself I am just on my way to Tuckborough so you weren't far off on that call, no you weren't." He chuckled with good humor, managing to eat the rest of the basket of biscuits that Bilbo had left on his table and talking all the while.

"I've been selling the last of my seeds and such for spring...mmmf...had some fine apron material for the ladies, too. Good prices to be had... everyone wants something nice and bright when the sun is out...gwaph...mmffmm...grass is so tall the scythe-blades are all but gone too..." He paused to reach for the butter and slathered the last biscuit thickly.

"Glad to hear it's going well." said Bilbo amiably. "I was going to write you to let you know the books met with my approval. You delivered them well-packaged, as you promised. My compliments."

Lardy swallowed the biscuit and lifted a dripping mug of ale from the innkeeper's tray as he went past. He took a long, thoughtful swallow, then set it down with a thump that spattered both of them. He brushed absently at the drops on his vest. "Books. You know, it was an intriguing thought you gave me, to try selling some books."

Bilbo wiped drops of ale from his sleeve with his napkin. "Selling them? Did you?"

"Try, I said. Try selling books. I found a few and gave it a good effort, but you know what?"

"Hobbits don't buy books. Leastways the folks that are my customers don't. No market for it, except for cookbooks it seems, and even that few and far between. I showed 'em to everyone, but they'd just look and look, like they were decorations for my cart or something. No, no market for books. Especially as they weigh so much. I even took an extra long loop into Buckland just this past week, to see if that old Brandy Hall there would be wanting any. They're said to have a library of some kind there."

"Any luck?" asked Bilbo, sipping at the last of his own ale.

Lardy shook his head. "No, no luck. They liked my bread-pans and late-spring bulbs, and bought up the last of my jam. Bought my wool. But no books. Think I only had one lad who was serious about them, and then he didn't have any money. I almost gave 'em to him just to be rid of the lot."

"And why didn't you?"

"Eh, what?"

"Why didn't you give them away?" Bilbo asked mildly.

Lardy laughed as if he had just heard a great joke. "Give them away? Hahaha! You think a peddler gives anything away? That's a fine one, Mr. Baggins! Haha!"  He chuckled into his ale and repeated himself a couple more times before he was over it. After he regained his composure he continued. "I wasn't serious."

"So I gathered."

"One thing any peddler worth his salt knows is you don't ever give anything away. I'll find a buyer for those books someday. They'll keep. Might even make a good trade with the bookseller in Michel Delving if nothing else. Nah. Won't give them away."

Bilbo finished his ale and stood once more. "Would you be wanting a pipe? I was just on my way outside when you came in. I'll even share my leaf with you, if you like. Not being a peddler myself I suppose I am allowed to give something away now and then, eh?"

Hilalard smiled broadly. "Gladly, Mr. Baggins, gladly. You make me hope to be finding you on the road even more often than I do if the outcome is a free pipe!"

"It isn't entirely free. I would like to ask one small trade."

Lardy took it in stride, instantly prepared to dicker. "All right. What might that be?"

"What did this lad look like, who wanted the books? Can you remember?"

"Oh..." Lardy looked up, considering. "He looked like most any other hobbit, I suppose... but maybe a bit fairer than most. Barely in his tweens if that, hadn't filled out yet. Well-spoken, he was too, I remember. Sorry I can't really say more."

"It's enough. Can you recall which book he wanted most?"

"Hm." Lardy closed his eyes and thought. "That would be...well, there were a few that he wanted, not any one in particular. Maybe the plant, no, the map book. Yes."

"Map book?"

"You'd probably know more about it than I would, being an educated hobbit and all. All I can tell you is it's a little book that has some map drawings in it."

"Thank you. I would like to purchase that book from you after we've had our bit of a smoke, if you don't mind."

"Mind?" Lardy laughed. "I don't ever mind making a sale or trade, Mr. Baggins. I'll fetch it for you before I turn in tonight. In fact, I'll fetch it before that if the leaf is good, haha."

Later, as he settled under the covers of his bed, Bilbo turned the slim volume over in his hands and leafed through it briefly. He would lay bets that the lad Lardy had met was his own Frodo. If not, it would still make a nice gift for him. There were not many pages enclosed in the dark blue leather cover, but the few that were there were well done and it even had a bit of woven ribbon to mark the page. The little trees on the cover were tooled and accented with a bit of silver, like birches in the winter.

There were maps of each of the Four Farthings, Michel Delving and even one of Hobbiton proper itself as well as a less-detailed one of the entire Shire.  As was all too common, the edges beyond the Shire proper were unmarked white spaces, as if the entire world ended where that boundary was crossed and all of creation fell away into nothing. Bilbo mentally penciled in various additions.  He wondered if Frodo had also ever lain wakeful at night to wonder what really lay beyond a map's boundary. What was in all those white spaces, and if a hobbit were to cross into them would he ever be able to go both there and back again....

Bilbo ran his thumb along the edge of the Hobbiton map, then turned to examine Buckland. A  small, fanciful illustration of a smial marked Brandy Hall, complete with minuscule perfect billows of smoke coming from a singular chimney. Tiny flowers dotted the too-large hedge. It wasn't exactly accurate, but it was charming.

If only the true world could be as neat and clean and well-swept, he thought. Nothing messy, nothing uncomfortable, nothing frightening. I suppose as long as a hobbit were to keep within the boundaries, and never go off into those white spaces, they have a fairly good chance at living that way. Better than most. There were many who were not so lucky...  What keeps darker things away from the Shire, I wonder? It's not the Bounders, nor the Sherrifs. They can hardly turn away a goat from a flower patch, much less a goblin or a troll. I don't think it's the Elves. I know it's not the Dwarves. But it's almost as if something is protecting us, letting us be at peace. I wonder.... He turned the pages again, but his head felt muddled with fatigue. He slipped the book into his pack where it sat slumped by his bedside and pulled the covers up, careful to keep his feet away from the bedwarming pan that radiated the heat of the coals within it.

Blowing out the lamp he soon slipped off into sleep framed by the round patch of striped moonlight that came thorough the shutters. He drifted, lost in a half-dream of great white spaces that ships could sail upon, white mountains, white rivers and silver trees that faded away into a bright winter's mist.

I like the sound of that...I ought to write that down....  His last thoughts whispered as he faded away.