Nothing of Note

by Primula

Chapter 53: Smoke and Stars

Early evening approached, pushing the sun down into the west and turning the sky a deep golden bronze behind the western hills. The air stirred with a fresh, slight breeze and the cookfires kindled in their circles of rock appeared brighter by the minute. Here and there plump sizzling sausages and well-wrapped vegetables baking in the coals lifted their scent into the air. Plump hobbit wives presided over their nests of food and blanketed infants as their husbands played a few more rounds of checkers in the fading light, smoked and talked. The older children ran about tirelessly in the grasses pursuing endless rounds of tag and games of their own imaginations as the younger ones began to cling to their family's blankets, fret and sleep. 

Bilbo and Frodo set the last of their foodstuffs down among the informal potluck that was accumulating on the Cotton's tablecloth, then chose a place by the fire. Settling down on a section of log serving as a makeshift bench, they were comfortably near the cheerful, crackling blaze.  Farmer Cotton and his family offered their greetings, as did the others.

Mr. Cotton's calloused hands firmly held a large long-handled iron corn popper over the hot embers, shaking it so they could all hear the hard corn rattling and sizzling amongst the butter. Steam rose up from the star-shaped holes in its lid, reaching for the early stars just peeping out above them, curling away into butter-scented nothing.

The smell was very inviting, and Bilbo couldn't help but eye the basket that Will held ready for the popped corn, mentally dividing up the amount it would hold with how many mouths were present to see if he could get a handful or two without depriving them.  The tally was favourable, and his mouth watered right along with everyone else's.  His fragile hopes that any of the trout might be left had evaporated when he noted the few bones that were neatly stacked on a plate to one side, but popcorn was a welcome replacement.

Frodo nudged him and whispered. "Looks like the fish is gone." he said. "Do you want me to ask them to go catch another one for you? I want to watch you eat it."

Bilbo rolled his eyes slightly. "You aren't going to forget that one soon, are you?"

"It's still possible. They may not have a fishing pole, but you could just use your teeth."

Bilbo nudged him back, but hard enough to knock him slightly off balance. "What, is that how you Bucklanders do it?"

Frodo caught himself and grinned. "All right, I deserved that."

"You did." He felt a gentle tug from behind him and looked over his shoulder to find young Tom standing there, looking timid.

"Hullo, Tom."

"Mr. Baggins?"

"Yes?"

"I, um, I saved you a piece of the fish, sir. If you want it. It's really good." He extended a palm with a cold bit of roasted trout on it. It appeared rather mangled.

Bilbo smiled at him, recognizing a child's apology when he saw it.  "Why thank you, Tom. That was most thoughtful of you. Does it have any bones?"

"Nossir - I picked 'em all out myself! I'm good at that. I like fish."

"Ah, so I see. Tell you what. I've just been smelling that wonderful popcorn your Da is cooking, and I think I've gone and gotten into a bit of a popcorn mood instead.  How about I trade you this bit of marvelous fish for one of your handfuls of popcorn?"

Tom smiled. "Okay!"

"It's a deal then. Thank you, Tom." He watched as the lad headed back to his family. stuffing the fish in his mouth as he went and wiping his grubby hands on his breeches.

"That was a near escape." commented Frodo. "And here I thought you were going to have to eat it."

"Keep your eye on me, my lad, and you'll learn all sorts of useful lessons."


The Mayor Himself came by for a short time, wandering from fire to fire and Bilbo was sure he was not the only one grateful that no long speech was ensuing, due to the Mayor being allergic to something in the woodsmoke.  Still, it was a chance to introduce him to Frodo, which Bilbo did along with offering an extra handkerchief to the sneezing dignitary.

"Thag you very buch." said the Mayor and sneezed heartily then dabbed at his eyes. "I'm torry, I cab thtay. Choo! Hobe you are habbing a good pih-nic?"

"Yes, thank you." said Bilbo. "It's been a very fine picnic. So kind of you to come by, your Honor.  May I introduce my cousin, Frodo Baggins?"

" Yeh, I'b heard so much abow you, Frobo. Choo! Good to meeb you." He shook Frodo's hand briefly and moved away from the smoke with a series of barely intelligible apologies.

"Good evening, your Honor." Bilbo called after him. "Hope you feel better soon. That was the Mayor." he added as an aside to Frodo.

"So I gathered. He seems nice enough, though I can't help but wonder exactly what it is that he's heard about me."

"Ah, never mind that. Just a pleasantry. He'll have forgotten all about us by the time he reaches the next group."

"Then you won't be getting your handkerchief back, will you?"

Bilbo glanced over the field, where the Mayor's generous silhouette was backlit by the next fire.  "Probably not, unless he notices the BB on the corner of it. That's why I had those embroidered that way."

The smoke shifted, stinging the eyes and scenting the hair and clothing of all in turn and making some of them cough and sneeze even if they were not allergic at all.  As they listened to the corn pop and exchanged general small talk, the fickle breeze changed yet again. There seemed to be no way to avoid it; no matter how many times he wet a finger and held it up to check the direction the air was moving, Bilbo found it occasionally puffing into his face.  A couple of the children tried moving every time it shifted, but after a while even they gave up. 

The corn was spilled, all white and golden and steaming fresh into its basket and another fat handful of corn was dropped into the popper. 

"Hey-yup. There you go." said Farmer Cotton. "We've plenty more, and to spare. Go ahead and pass the basket round, Tom. That's right."

"Nothing like nice hot popped corn for a picnic, is there?" asked Mrs. Cotton rhetorically. "Tom, you'll choke if you eat it like that. Put a couple handfuls on your napkin, like this, and pass it to the others. That's better."

Bilbo enjoyed the tender crunchiness of the corn, but found it all tasted of woodsmoke; it was a familiar problem with campfires that he didn't miss when he was indoors.  A little woodsmoke could be a pleasant scent, but too much of it made him feel like a ham being smoked for winter. 

Next to him, Frodo coughed slightly as the smoke shifted once again right into their faces.  Bilbo blinked to remove the smart of it.  When his sight cleared he was surprised and a bit nonplussed to see Lotho, of all people, seating himself on the opposite side of the fire at the edge of the light.  Lotho didn't respond to the greetings the others offered except with a nod, but simply sat and alternately stared into the embers or glanced around the ring of hobbits.  He kept looking to one side, and Bilbo followed his gaze to find the Goodbody family had also joined them, though they had laid out a blanket and were sitting on it further back.  Perhaps Lotho have been following Ivy, then, rather than looking for any trouble with Frodo.  Bilbo relaxed slightly, but still kept an eye on him.

Frodo nudged him and gestured slightly towards Lotho. Bilbo nodded just enough to show that he, too, had noticed he was there.  He ate his popcorn slowly, trying to make it last until the basket was filled again and trying to ignore the tension Lotho brought with him. The evening was warm and slightly humid, so while there was little need of the fires for warmth, their light was cheering and friendly.  There was no reason to let anyone ruin it. 

The popcorn basket went round a second time and a third batch was started as the younger ones started to sing fireside songs.  Considering what they were eating, it was no surprise to Bilbo to have the first one be the Popcorn Song.

The popcorn pops, the popcorn pops,
Put on the lid, mother!
It shoots up to the moon and stops.
Put on the lid, mother!
Popcorn popping every night,
Put on the lid, mother!
It keeps the moon all nice and white.
Mother, mother, put it on!

The children laughed as they hopped and clapped down the "lid" on each other's heads. Even little Jolly was trying to clap his chubby hands on anyone near enough to the ground for him to reach. Bilbo had to smile.

Frodo smiled next to him. "You know, I haven't heard that one before. I guess I'll have some catching up to do to learn the Hobbiton songs won't I?"

"What's a fireside song from Buckland? Maybe you could teach them one."

He considered. "I suppose so." Frodo looked over at Tom who was sitting nearby on his uncle's lap. "Do you know 'River's Song'?"

"No," said Will. "Why don't you sing it for us?"

"We'd like that." said Tom, his cheeks puffed out with popcorn.

"All right, " said Frodo and hesitantly started singing with the light, clear voice that Bilbo loved to hear. The tune was slightly melancholy, but the words were fair enough.

The sun, it sets beyond the River,
The trees put on their dinner gowns,
In gold and green their leaves a-quiver
To see the sun go sinking down.

The trees will sleep, nighttime a-borning,
The waters will go rushing on,
The sun returns to them each morning
And so they sleep to River's song.

Do not despair, oh trees that glisten,
The loving sun will soon return.
Throughout the night stand soft and listen
The River's song, his verse to learn.

He faltered slightly. "There's a few more verses, but that's the tune..."

"It sounds kind of scary to me." said Tom. "All the dark trees, and the River. But I like it too." he added hastily. "It's just... different."

"What can you expect from a Bucklander?" said Lotho from the other side of the fire.

Bilbo directed a glancing glare at Lotho and looked to Frodo, who had gone quiet and looked a bit hurt. That blow had hit too close, right when he had opened himself up with the song.  Bilbo tightly reined in his temper and his tongue, simmering, but before he could decide what to say Mrs. Cotton spoke.

"It was a nice song." said Mrs. Cotton, smiling a bit too widely, trying to get the conversations going again. She swayed back and forth, rocking baby Nick who had begun to fuss. "Thank you, Frodo. Now how about we all sing something we all know? What do you think, children? How about 'Sweet Potato Pie?'"

The children started off obediently, with some of the adults joining in to wash away Lotho's ill will. By the third verse the basket of corn was going around again and his comment was mostly forgotten, though those nearest to him had moved slightly away. Lotho did not sing.

It was some time before the singing died down. Some of the others bid the rest goodnight and gathered their baskets to go home. This included the Goodbodys, though their children talked the parents into letting them stay just a little longer.  The small potatoes that had been baking in the coals for later began to be raked out and cracked open. Pats of salted butter were dropped into them and they were passed, all dripping and steaming to be eaten as soon as they could be handled.   A kettle was heated on its small iron stand and hot tea was poured all around to wash them down.

Bilbo licked butter from his fingers right along with the rest, laughing as Frodo almost dropped his from the heat of it.  The tea was fragrant and pleasant after the salt.  Wishing he had thought to bring some honey for it, Bilbo sipped his steaming mug and looked up at the sky. The stars were now blazing overhead;  he watched the sparks, gold, silver and red flying upwards, disappearing into the darkness above him. Bits of flame, above and below. His imagination was drawn upward with them.

"They're so bright in the summer." he commented, thinking of starlit ships, silver-crested waves, sea-driven storms and the haunting and beautiful songs about them.

Farmer Cotton craned his neck back and took a look at the sky. "I s'pose. Must be this bit of wind's kept the air nice and clear. No rain anytime soon. My turnips and beets are both sorely in need of a bit of rain. Of course, it makes good hayin' weather. Tomorrow  I reckon we'll have to get ready to start in on that patch of alfalfa, the smaller one. Alfalfa's right nourishing for the milk-cows, you know."

Inwardly Bilbo sighed as his Elven ships were loaded down with sacks of turnips and beets, crashing down through the crystal waves to grind to a stop in a patch of alfalfa.

"Yes. Very nourishing."  He had a passing thought of leaving them, of taking Frodo and just the two of them going out walking, where stars and sparks and sea-waves could be spoken of freely.  But no, they were here for a reason, and this evening they needed to stay put.  The smoke shifted again, and he coughed as he unexpectedly took a full breath of it.  Frodo lowered his head and shut his eyes waiting for it to pass.

Farmer Cotton chuckled lightly. "They say smoke is attracted to beauty, y'know. Or was it age?"

"Or was it to money?" Lotho's voice spoke again from the other side, and none too kindly.

"Here now, none of that." rebuked Farmer Cotton. "No call to be unpleasant."

Lotho gave the farmer a look that was almost but not quite disrespectful. "Unpleasant?" he said. "You want to know what's unpleasant? Being expected to just sit by while some upstart takes everything away from your family. That's what's unpleasant."

He stood up abruptly, brushing bits of bark and grass from his breeches.  He was almost spitting his words. "Someday we'll have land, and money too. And when I get it, I'll get it myself, no one's going to hand it to me on some silver platter. No spoon-feeding for me. You'll see."

Farmer Cotton regarded him stonily.  "Maybe someday you won't be too big for your britches too, and you'll learn a little respect."

Lotho glared at him, then turned and started to walk away.  He turned back slightly. "Ivy! Come with me."

The lass, who had been sitting between him and her brother looked distressed, then turned her gaze to the blanket she sat on. Offal looked up at him. "She's not coming."

"She can speak for herself!" snapped Lotho. Offal faltered and lowered his eyes from Lotho's hostile stare.

Ivy looked up at him tremulously. "I'm... I can't, Lotho. My... parents said I can't go with you, not any more, not unless I have a chaperone. I can't."

Lotho just stood there for a moment, uncomprehending. Then his face turned hard. He gave Ivy, then Frodo a terrible look, and turned away into the night.

The others sat silently for a moment. "Well." said Farmer Cotton. "There goes a lad who needs a good whippin'. To bad his folks won't give it to him."

There was a general murmur of consent, then the others stirred and slowly started speaking again, about the weather, recipes, anything to restore the mood once more. 

"Maybe he was just tired..." Ivy started timidly, but Offal cut her off.

"He's been like that all day."

Ivy subsided unhappily, braiding and unbraiding the bits of ribbon at her waist.

After a pause, Mrs. Cotton stood and shook out her skirts. "I'm taking the little ones back home, Ivy. Would you like to walk with me? We can go right by your place." she offered.

"Thank you, ma'am." said Ivy with relief. "Yes I would." She gratefully helped Mrs. Cotton gather up the extra napkins and dishes to carry in the empty basket. Rosie was gently lifted from the grassy nest where she had been sleeping and bundled into a blanket to be carried home. Mrs. Cotton balanced Rosie with one hand and carried baby Nick in her other. Ivy took sleepy Jolly on one hip and sleepy Tom's hand on the other to lead him along. Everyone was bid good night, then the two lasses walked away into the night, faintly seen taller grasses springing back as their skirts brushed over the tops of them.

Offal had spoken quietly with Ivy as she left, then came over to sit on the other side of Frodo. Frodo hadn't said a word since Lotho's comment.  Bilbo sat, staring at the fire, trying very hard to eavesdrop on them without appearing to be listening in.  He was glad to note that Frodo relaxed as soon as the other lad came to him, as it if signaled the end of something troubling.  Not wanting to distract them, he sat very quietly and contemplated his nearly empty mug.

Offal picked up one of the longer twigs and poked it into the fire until the tip turned red. He pulled it out and blew on it, thoughtfully watching it turn to silver-black ash.

"You know, it's almost too bad you aren't as old as you seem to be sometimes.  I wouldn't mind chaperoning her if she would just pick someone nice, like you."

Frodo looked at him sidelong then rolled his eyes slightly. "I guess I appreciate the compliment, but I'd rather have the time without her along, no offense of course." He picked up a different twig and poked it into the embers. "Would you like to visit, or go fishing or something maybe?"

"I wish I could. I can't, though. We have to finish working our orchards, then I'll be starting an apprenticeship this Autumn, with a sausage-master. He's a cousin of my neighbors, and my neighbor and Da arranged it last spring."

"Where? Here in Hobbiton?"

"Clear down in Deephallow." he sounded forlorn. "So far to go! I don't know what I think of being so far from home yet. Ivy is going to come with me for a fortnight at least, maybe longer, but after that I'll be alone.  I mean, I won't be alone, alone, of course, but I won't be..." he faded off.

"Home." Frodo looked up at him.

Offal nodded. "Home. With my family and all. It'll be a big change."

"It would be a big change, moving clear to another part of the Shire." said Frodo softly. "I can understand that. I hope it goes well for you. Maybe we'll still see one another sometimes." He gradually fed the length of his twig into the flames.

"Why would you ever be in Deephallow?"

Frodo's mouth quirked slightly. "Who knows? I never thought I would be here in Hobbiton someday either."

"I suppose. I hadn't thought about that. After all, you are from clear over in Buckland, aren't you? I'd heard the folk in Buckland were a bit queer, but you don't seem to be."

Frodo laughed lightly. "I'll take that as a compliment also."

Offal looked somewhat abashed. "Sorry. I wasn't meaning to say anything against the Buckland folk..."

"It's all right. I've heard worse. I'm sure the Deephallow folk are less queer than Bucklanders. And you'll be busy getting to learn a trade too."

"I guess. At least it will be a good-tasting trade, once I get the hang of it. He's got an arrangement with a pork-farmer down there, and I guess the spices are supposed to grow extra quick... My Da says I'll be able to tell the difference between all kinds of pepper, and how to properly smoke the links too..." There was a long pause. "Well," he said a bit awkwardly. "It's getting late and I better make sure my sister really went home.  I'll see you around maybe, then. Sometime."

"Sometime," said Frodo. "I'll have to buy some of your sausages from you, when you're a sausage-master yourself."

Offal smiled slightly at this vote of confidence. "Well, goodnight..." he stood, tossing the rest of his twig into the fire also and brushing bits of ashen bark off of his hands.

Frodo looked up at him from where he still sat by a silent Bilbo. "Goodnight...and thank you."

Offal smiled at that. He bowed slightly to the elder hobbits who were still nearby. "Good night, Mr. Baggins, Mr. Cotton, Mr. Cotton." he said politely and turned, pacing away into the darkness outside the ring of firelight.

Frodo watched him leave, then turned his gaze back to the fire. Bilbo glanced over at him, then turned his own eyes back to the stars.

They seemed to be even brighter as the fires were allowed to die down. Their own fire cracked and rustled as the embers began to settle. It wasn't long until tired children, still and heavy were all being carried to their beds, older ones loaded down with empty baskets, tottered along behind their parents with half-open eyes. The bruised grasses in the dark smelled sweet among the woodsmoke and the crickets were singing. It was time to go home.  Bilbo and Frodo bid goodnight to Farmer Cotton and left him there with his brother Will, talking about alfalfa amid the stars and firelight.