Nothing of Note

by Primula

34. Buckland or Bust

Bilbo was up early, well-breakfasted and on his way while the morning was still damp and cool. The ponycart awaited him in the courtyard as he had requested, though the pony looked none too pleased about it. He shivered slightly, blowing to see if it was cold enough for his breath to show and being slightly disappointed when it wasn't. The last of the pink, lavender and peach faded into blue above him as he gave the reins a little flap and clicked to the pony, who reluctantly began to amble forward and out of the yard of the Inn.

Turning back onto the East Road, he glanced back at the dwindling Floating Log to see if Lardy's peddler cart was still there. He'd half a thought to turn back and take a look through the books that the peddler carried, but seeing it already gone from its place, he sighed and turned his face back towards distant Buckland. Yesterday had been a slow amble to reach Frogmorton, but today he would need to move more steadily if he was going to cover the distance before nightfall. Mentally tallying up miles, he was grateful for the longer daylight of the season. It was going to be a long day.

Long, but not lonely. The weather was fair and every hobbit he passed was busy with some task. The smials had yards filled with children, wash being hung, candles being dipped and any number of other jobs being carried out. The fields and orchards were being tended and trimmed and hoed. Most travelers were walking, a very few went along on ponies or hauled hay and such in farm wagons. He smiled and greeted all he knew (which were several) but didn't pause to visit as he would have if he'd had more time. The sun slowly lifted upwards, and he ate in his cart to save time.

Halfway along he pulled to a stop at a Postal Office that kept a small stable of ponies for such purposes. His weary pony was grateful to be led aside and rubbed down as another took its place between the shafts, and the stable boy was grateful to pocket the coin Bilbo gave him for his willing service. Bilbo knew how to prime the pump of good service with a few well-placed coins in the palm and encouraging words in the ear. Top it off with a smile and a perky, grey-brown fresh pony was waiting and ready to go.  He gave a wave to the lad and set off on the second leg of his journey.

The afternoon was still and warm and he looked longingly at every shady spot he passed, steering the pony to whichever side of the road had the most overhanging trees and frequently pulling out his water-bag.  Stopping to water the pony he squinted up at the sun through the branches of the cottonwoods that grew along a small creek. It was lowering, and a low bank of clouds lay purple-grey and hazy to the west, so his light would be lost sooner than he had thought. As soon as he could, he was on his way again, occasionally jogging wherever the road lay level and straight. He sang little tunes to pass the time, slipping in and out of simple traveling songs and deeper verse.

Going to Buckland,
That's the way
Going to Buckland
We'll go today
Buckland it is, with river fair
With wooded land and ale so rare,
Buckland, oh Buckland oh Buckland ho ho!
To Buckland to Buckland to Buckland we go!

The pony slowed questioningly. He flapped the reins. "No, I said "ho ho and go, not whoa. And technically, it should be I  go, but then that wouldn't count you, would it?" he asked. It twitched its ears at him and continued on. He shifted around on the wooden seat trying to find a patch that didn't already feel beat to a pulp, though the East Road was fairly well-maintained. Yes, driving was faster, but it had its own price to pay.

When the stone bridge with the Bridge Inn beside it finally came into view he very pleased to see it. He paused only briefly at the nearly-deserted Inn to get a drink and small snack for both of them. He knew once the sun went down the small Inn would be alive with tired farmers looking for a bit of news and a pipe but he expressed his regrets to the Innkeeper that he really couldn't stay and moved on.

The pony's hooves clumped loudly across the wide bridge, over the sluggish waters of the Brandywine. Tiny clouds of gnats swirled up into the sun from the damp banks. He paused half-way over to just enjoy the view. The sun was westering a bit now, lighting up the trees on the Eastern bank bright as a painting. The river was a patchwork of grey shadow and golden mirrors, dotted with tiny ripples from feeding fish, bounded by greens and yellows. He watched a twig slowly rotating along through the waters and only reluctantly pulled away; the pony was nosing along the edges of the bridge looking for stray weeds to eat. He followed along after it, clambering back up and pulling up its head to continue into Buckland.

Turning south he followed the road that meandered along with the river, the sun glancing off the waters nearly blinding him at times until it began to settle into the cloud bank, dimming the Brandywine from gold to pewter, then dull grey. A breeze blew along the banks, bringing with it the rich wet smell of riverbank and grasses.  There were a few other travelers afoot and he nearby smials began to show lights in the windows and smoke from the kitchen chimneys. By the time he approached the well-trodden path to Brandy Hall he could hear children being scolded for being out past supper, and the light had dimmed until it would have been difficult to be sure of the path if it had not been so broad, a lighter stripe of road between the darker grasses and yards.

It was full dark by the time he had reached the Hall itself, an unmistakable Hill blazing light from its many windows. The sound of voices and the clink of plates carried to him as he pulled his tired pony to a stop and climbed down. He took the pony's bridle and led him forward, trying to remember where the stables were in the darkness.

"Hullo!" said the shadowy shape of a hobbit nearby.

"Hullo!" returned Bilbo. "I've just arrived and I've a tired pony here. I thought the stable was somewhere nearby?"

 "Just a second." said the other. There was a pause and a small clanking sound as a lantern was taken down and lit. The flame flared up to reveal a stout hobbit with an unlit pipe clenched in his teeth. He lifted it up to light Bilbo and the pony. "That's better. You're headed in the right direction, stable's right over here."  He led the way around a small bend that had been hiding the light of the open barn doors. "There you go." 

"Thank you. Much obliged." said Bilbo, guiding the pony forward. Not that the beast needed any encouraging with the smell of oats and alfalfa nearby; he was hard put to not be dragged along. The helpful lantern-bearer turned back the way he had come without so much as a single inquiry: a mute testament to the number of hobbits in the Hall, that a stranger would not even be recognized as such. 

Bilbo handed the care of his cart and pony over to the stable master with the promise of a generous tip if  they were both well-cared for. That tended to, he turned his own steps at last towards the waiting Hall.  There was more than one 'front door,' in fact there were several. Going off of a somewhat uncertain memory, he worked his way around to the westernmost door.  He could hear voices conversing, laughing, arguing inside. Some shutters were pulled snug against the night, others still lay open to the breezes, some dark some lit.  He passed his earlier guide who was now lounging on a bench, his pipe puffing a little glow of red in the dark. A few hobbits walked past him with a small lantern, their attention only for one another's conversation so that they didn't give him a glance.

He shifted his pack to his shoulder more comfortably and came around the last bit of bending garden wall to the western 'front.' Here the walk was wide, paved with a criss-cross of soft moss and flagstone. He walked up to the door and pulled the bell-rope, hoping someone would hear it over the noise coming from inside. He had just begun to reach for it a second time when there was a jiggling of the knob, then the door swung partway open. The light spilled out across the stones. 

"Hullo, yes?" asked the short lass with long curls who had answered the door. There was a baby balanced on her hip and a breadloaf tucked ignominiously under her arm. She seemed harried.

"Good evening. I've only just arrived, and would like to inquire for young Frodo Baggins, if you know him?"  He knew better than to assume everyone in this house knew everyone else they lived with.

She paused to consider. The baby peered at him with round eyes then hid her face in her mother's hair. "Hm. Oh yes. Frodo. I'm sorry I don't really know where he is right now, but you're welcome to come in and I'll send a lad to look for him."

"Most appreciated. Thank you." said Bilbo as she opened the door up the rest of the way and stood aside for him. The baby peered at him from under her hair and suddenly gave him a toothless grin. He returned the grin. "Sweet child."

The mother smiled a crooked smile. "When she's not being fussy, she can be." She looked down at her tiny daughter who promptly hid in her hair again. She turned to the nearby doorway. "Berilac! Can you or one of your friends there go find Frodo Baggins? He's got a visitor here.  Go ahead and be comfortable" she said, the last directed to Bilbo. "Now, I've got to go take care of the sauce or it'll burn, if you'll please excuse me."

It didn't matter if he excused her or not, as she turned and was gone down one of the halls, the baby peering back at Bilbo around her arm and grinning again.  There was a stir in the adjacent room and a stripling lad bounded out, then stopped when he saw Bilbo sitting on the entryway bench. "Hullo! Are you Frodo's visitor?"

"Guilty as charged," Bilbo returned mildly.

"He's gone out."

"Out?"

"Outside. He left after supper. He goes out a lot."

"He does? Any idea where?"

"I followed him once. He went down by the river. We aren't supposed to do that alone like that, so I got him in trouble." The lad seemed strangely proud of that.

"I see. Well. I'll be off looking for him then. Thank you." Bilbo stood back up

"It's dark outside." stated the lad.

"Yes, I'm aware of that fact. Thank you." said Bilbo, shouldering his pack and reaching for the knob.

"We aren't supposed to go out alone."

"Yes, I suppose you aren't. Isn't Frodo lucky."

He ignored the odd look the boy gave him as he slipped back outside. After the blaze of light inside he was blinded in the dark and had to lean back against the plant-covered wall and wait for his eyes to adjust.

The sweet smell of flowering herbs hung around him as the flagstones slowly came back into view.  Passing over the stones, he followed the ghostly shape of the lighter colored path leading off to the south. His guess was that Frodo would have wanted to walk away from the light and the noise, but wouldn't go off into the forest so it was the logical direction to take to begin his search.

He walked along until the noise and light faded away and the dark was peaceful again. Overhead stars had come out, a though the moon hadn't risen their small light was enough to walk by. The air was cool and he could hear the river's soft watery sounds off in the distance, along with a handful of singing frogs.

He walked up another small rise and was just considering going back the other way to circle around the Hall when he noticed a dark hobbit-sized silhouette just up the slope, against the sky.  He smiled and called out. "Frodo! Frodo, my lad!"

There was a movement, a pause and then a sudden rush as the hobbit up on the slope turned and suddenly ran towards him joyfully through the starlit night. "Bilbo! Is it really you? I can't believe it's really you!"