Nothing of Note

by Primula

Chapter 58: Putting a Spin on It

The next three days went by swiftly as Bilbo quietly packed away anything that he did not want to risk being touched.  He had gathered many small items during his years of visiting and traveling, and his old hole was rather cluttered up with them. Still, each one held a memory, a story or both. He wasn't willing to have them pawed over by Lotho and his followers, no he wasn't.

He spent several more pleasant hours tending to small tasks and social obligations, such as catching up on visitors and overdue correspondence. He had considered this problem, the steady trickle of visitors that came and went and realized he didn't want any of his friends or relatives stopping by his home unexpectedly this week. The obvious answer was to see to them as quickly as possible, assuring none coming by when his trap was set.  It had seemed a good idea, though by the time he cycled through the last of them and washed up his tea service for what felt like the hundredth time he was almost regretting it.  He looked at his pruny hands as he set the good teapot back on its shelf. At least he didn't have to cook again; the Cottons had sent him one of their very nice teacakes instead of coming to eat of his, and he gratefully finished it off as his supper.

He was grateful that Farmer Cotton had taken the jar with the Will in it without too many questions - he didn't even know what was in it, only that Mr. Baggins needed it kept safe and dry for possibly a week or two.  Bilbo had seen that it was stashed on a high shelf in Mrs.Cotton's pantry and had no worries for its safety, and been treated to a nice ale and chicken pie besides.  After this little romp was over, he might share the tale with them - they'd probably enjoy it - but right now he could risk no gossip, even unintentioned, and the younger Cottons might not know to keep their parent's words from others.

The fourth day a smattering of rain had come with the dawn, softening the earth and leaving it clear and cool; perfect for yardwork. Bilbo was out in it as soon as luncheon was past. He had been watching carefully for anyone hanging about the Hill, and did not fail to note the two Grubb lads had been sauntering past with forced casualness. Choosing his position and task carefully, he made certain he was out where they could see him, weeding the roses near the fence. Not being good actors, their nervous whistling and drawn out walking drew more attention to them than was seemly. He hoped no one else wandered by, they were being so ridiculous.

He worked in his flowers near the road, dredging up bits of clover that were sprouting around the base of his roses. When they saw him there, the brothers' sauntering stopped and there was a bit of whispering. The older of the two, nudged by his sibling, stepped closer to the fence.

"Good morning, Mr. Baggins." he said, a false cheerfulness belied by a nervous tremor in his voice.

Bilbo glanced up briefly and continued weeding. "Good morning," he returned a bit gruffly and waited.

There was some more shuffling and whispering.

"Nice garden."

"Thank you."

"Do you...stay home and take care of it... a lot?"

Bilbo grubbed around the stem of a young rosebush. He almost smiled at this clumsy attempt at gathering information, but managed to keep a straight face. "Sometimes. Sometimes I go out."  Training his eyes on the ground in front of his knees, he poked the clover with the tip of his trowel. Clover certainly grew fast. Good thing it was fairly easy to pull up. There'd been a lot of chickweed this year too.

More whispering.

"Are you...um... I mean, are you going out anytime soon?"

Bilbo's eyebrows raised. Even the lad seemed to realize this was too straightforward and blunt; he backtracked trying to amend it.

"Seeing as your garden looks so nice already, I mean. It looks... like, um, you've already done all the work on it."

Not a bad recovery, thought Bilbo. Clumsy, but at least he tried.

"Why, yes." said Bilbo carefully. "I do think I'll be going out soon. You're right, I'm nearly done here, and should be planning on a nice, long trip. A few days at least."

"Really?" squeaked Rooty, speaking up next to his big brother. Hatch jabbed him with an elbow. "Ow!"

"That sounds really nice, Mr. Baggins." said Hatch, sounding a bit too forced. "Where will you go?"

Bilbo considered. Yes, there had been more clover than usual, and just a few of those deep-rooted spiny weeds too. Those were the ones he really needed to watch out for; the thorny ones that spread slowly. Much worse than fast-spreading fluff...

"Where will I go? Oh, perhaps to Michel Delving. We'll see." He had chosen it for its distance and could hear Hatch's muttering as he figured traveling time on his fingers.

"That would take a long time."

"Not too long. I've been a lot further than that, you know. Perhaps in a few days, that would be pleasant, wouldn't it? Good day, now." Bilbo, having planted the seed of rumor in them was ready to send them off.  They would carry their news to Lotho as surely as bees carrying nectar to their nest, and they would be watching him closely in the next few days.  He was assured they would believe him well away when he wanted them too.

"Good day! Good day!" said the lads, walking then running down the road as they forgot to be clandestine in their excitement.  They were off, two arrows from a bow, not even knowing they had been aimed.

He was almost amused for a moment, but considering where they were going and why, he ripped up the rest of the clover in a sudden spasm of resentment against Lotho and his plotting. He opened his fist and looked at the crushed stems and dirt in his hand. No, Frodo would not be robbed by these....weeds.  Bilbo would see to that; his hands would be on the reins for this jaunt, not theirs. He smiled and wrung the clover into a juicy wad of greenery. He had pulled it too quickly, and the much of the root was left behind. Slowly, old fellow, slowly, he chided himself, time is on your side.  Time is on your side. He grubbed out the roots, and got to his feet.

Gathering the rest of the weeds into a small heap, he heard the Gaffer came around the side of the Hill. Glancing over at him, he found  the gardener's arms were full of small peat-pots. Bilbo had to smile to see that they most were primulas.  Hamfast said no word, but began silently pulling up the plants that he had in the other windowboxes, setting the new ones in place gently. With a set jaw, his silent disapproval of his Master's gardening decision was obvious - though it wasn't in him to take it out on the plants.

Bilbo offered no response to the silent, stiff shoulders. He tidied up, cleaned off his trowel and waited for the commentary to eventually come. Sure enough, as soon as he reached for the doorknob it bubbled over...

"You know," the Gaffer said to the plants he was handling. "I'm doin' my best with 'em, but they're just not very strong, Mr. Baggins. Not too many blooms left on 'em. You'll have naught but leaves from 'em pretty soon."

"Ah."

The gardener's fingers eased two plants apart and fluffed the roots. "Now," he told the plant. "I saw some right good fall mums in town, even better than the ones I've got goin' in the greenhouse. Red, orange, all kinds. Good an' strong. Bright. I could even put in some late snapdragons, a spot o' kale. Would look real purty in among the... primulas."

Bilbo smiled politely but was careful not to nod.

He opened the door and stepped partway in. "Thank you, Gaffer - they look very nice. No, I don't think I'll be wanting any other flowers right now. Oh, and could you send young Samwise to me? I have an errand that I think would suit him."

Behind him, Hamfast grunted an answer as the door swung shut.


II.

When Sam arrived at the door, he was both curious and mystified to find that Bilbo was sending him out to gather all of the dry maple-spinners he could find.

"And be sure they're dry ones!"

Sam nodded and scratched at his leg, considering. "Maple-spinners? But what're you goin' to do with maple-spinners, Mr. Baggins, sir?"

Bilbo put up a hand to still any further questions and looked the lad straight in the eye. "I just need them. Bring me all you can find, will you? There's a good lad. No more questions." He patted him on the shoulder, and got another nod. He watched with a slight smile as the sturdy lad promptly turned and marched off like some diminutive soldier out to fill his orders.

Knowing he was thoroughly intrigued, Bilbo was not surprised when Sam came back again very quickly, his pocket overflowing and more of the spinners in his hands besides.

Bilbo had him drop them into a pan. "Thank you, Sam - but I'll be needing more. Much more. Here, see if you can fill this for me, will you?"

"A whole bucket full?" The lad's eyes widened with surprise and he was obviously bursting with curiosity, but he accepted the small wooden bucket that Bilbo handed him and spent the rest of the morning until lunchtime going from maple to maple all around the Hill and the road, gathering them up. Bilbo was glad of his help, for he still had much to do.

While he waited for the rest of the maple-spinners, he worked on his red lamp. Carefully cutting an old leather apron, he pinned it together to form a slipcover for the lampshade. After he had measured it carefully and adjusted it, he stood back to admire the effect before carrying it to his den.

He rummaged in his kitchen, pulling out each of his pots and pans and banging on each one with a small hammer to listen to the tone.  Choosing the two with the deepest sounds, he carried them into the wine cellar, and laid the hammer with them.  Next he went out to the shed where he selected a length of heavy chain that had come from a broken wagon brace. Dragging it out from under a hay-tangled heap of discarded harness bits, he  ran his hands over it to pull off the worst of the hay and dirt. He carried it back to the Hill, past the sidelong quizzical look from the Gaffer who was working in the vegetable beds. It joined the lamp in the den, where he cleared a space and laid it out on the floor. 

There was a knock at his door. Brushing off his hands, he padded down the hall and opened it. Sam stood there with a brimming bucketful of the little brown whirligigs.

"Here you go, Mr. Baggins, sir. An' if you need more, I found a whole bunch of 'em down near the Water, just heaps! Though some of 'em are kinda wet." He handed over the bucket and dug his hands into his pockets. "I've got some more here, too." he said, pulling them out. "But they're kinda crunched."

"Thank you, Sam. You did just fine, and yes I'd like the crunched ones too."

Sam emptied his pockets of spinners, putting them into Bilbo's waiting hands. "Um. Mr. Baggins, sir?"

"Yes, Sam?"

"What are they for?"

Bilbo considered a moment. "Perhaps someday I will tell you. When you're older," he said. He bent down to Sam's level and whispered "I'm not sure you're ready for this particular secret."

Sam's voice dropped to a whisper too. He leaned in conspiratorially. "Is it for something magic?"

"Sort of, in a way. That's all I can tell you for now. Trust me." He smiled and straightened up. "Here's a coin for your help, now off you go. And don't tell anyone, all right? It's a secret. Shhh."

Sam nodded seriously. "Shhhh." he echoed and tiptoed back toward the door, though obviously unsatisfied with the answer to his question. He started to obediently turn towards his home, then looked back. "Will you tell me someday, then? Maybe?" he whispered.

"Perhaps someday." said Bilbo, smiling, and gently shut the door.

Bilbo took the heap of maple spinners to the table, smiling at the thought of sharing this secret with young Sam. No, his parents would not have been happy having their son know this particular trick.  It was one Bilbo himself had only learned by eavesdropping on older lads, back when he was fairly young himself... not very nice lads, either.  He had only used it once himself, and for his efforts had gotten chased through the fields by an entire group of young tweens, all seriously bent on giving him a good drubbing.

But it had been worth it, he grinned to himself.

He spread out some paper on the table, and settled down with a handful of the little brown whirligigs. Holding them by the wing, he carefully rubbed them together until the tiny little slivers came off of them. He dropped the spent ones to the side and picked up more. It was a long process, but after a time he had a decent little pile of the fine, brown slivers. He carefully gathered them up into a paper twist and set about making another little pile of the perfect itching powder.

The doorbell jangled slightly.  He opened a book and turned it upside down over the little brown-golden pile of mangled maple spinner bits, just in case it was someone who would be coming in. He didn't want questions. Carefully wiping his hands clean on a damp cloth, he opened the door.  Bobwhite Smallburrow's red-cheeked face greeted him as he stood on the front step, three small packets in hand.

"Mr. Baggins, Good-day!"

"Good-day, Mr. Smallburrow..."

"I've brought some packets that came for you at the Post. The Postmaster said you had asked for anything that came in to be brought right away, but his lads were already out, so I told him I'd be the extra legs. Here you go."

Bilbo accepted them with a nod and glanced at the markings while making small talk. He was surprised but gratified they had come so quickly. It was only three days since he had posted his request. Perhaps the silver piece added to the letter had helped.

"Much appreciated. How's that family of yours doing, Bob? Haven't seen you around much lately."

"Just fine, Mr. Baggins. I've been a bit busy, you know. We've our brand new little Smallburrow, all fat and pink and she's got bright curls just like her mother. My Robin doesn't quite know what to make of having a sister yet, though the older lads are well enough with it.  He's a handful, that young 'un. Heh. My little cock-robin, who always wants to grow up faster than he can. Caught him trying to get into the ale just yesterday, heh heh."

"Glad to hear it. I mean that all is well, not that he's in the ale of course. Yes, good to hear you're all doing so well." Bilbo said it heartily, though he had no recollection at all of their expecting another child and only vaguely recalled the infant boy who was now referred to as older.  He covered it up with pretended familiarity. Time simply went by much too quickly.

Bobwhite nodded cheerfully. "Well, I won't be keeping you with my carrying on about my family, you know I can always talk about them, thank-you-for-inquiring. Perhaps I'll see you at The Dragon? I'm helping out with odd jobs there now, seein' as my family lives so close by it. I mean, when you're feeling better, of course. Good-day!"

"Feeling better?" Bilbo raised his brows, then looked down at the packets in his hand. "Oh. Yes. I'm sure I will be soon. Much better, thank you. Good-day."

Bob touched his cap and headed down the steps. Bilbo considered the small packets and their simple mark that indicated they had come from a healer. He didn't anticipate too much gossip, as he had deliberately ordered his odd items from a close-mouthed healer clear over in Waymoot to spare questions from his usual one. He just hoped the order was right.

He took them to the table, and carefully opened up the first one.  Saltpeter. Yes, and the copper sulfate he had asked for. And the third one... he peeled it open and poked at the powdery yellow substance inside, wrinkling his nose. Sulpher. Perfect.

Turning back to the table, he finished packing up the itching powder in paper twists and carefully wiped down the table. He tossed the bucket of crumbled spinners into the parlour fire, made up a quick snack of apples, summer squash and cheese then went back to his work.

Outside he heard the scraping and creaking as the rest of the old windowbox was pulled away from the smial, followed by various shuffling and banging noises.  He peeked out the window to see the Gaffer, two brightly whittled wooden pegs sticking out of the side of his mouth as he carefully fit the sound pieces of wood back together again.   He took one of the pegs out of his mouth, spit the loose shavings to the side and began tapping it carefully into place. Nearby, the smaller wheelbarrow stood filled with compost, and several more of the leafy little flowers he had asked for.

Content that all was proceeding well he went back to his work, though he surreptiously scootched a stack of books across the table to block any accidental view from outside. He didn't need questions right now.

Pulling up a chair, he sat and carefully divided the copper sulfate up on six little papers, stirred in some salt and sulpher then folded them over and twisted them shut.  Fetching a fat handful of old candle stubs from his stash under the sink, he melted them down in a pan and carefully dipped each of the packets into the wax, several times.  When he was done he had a small row of oddly-shaped finger-length wax blobs.  Pleased with the result, he set them aside on the mantelpiece for later.

Outside the scraping and banging had given way to sweeping sounds. The Gaffer sweeping up the last of the spilled dirt, no doubt. Both Bilbo and the Gaffer preferred his yard to be neat and tidy. He peeked out the window again, just in time to see the wheelbarrow being rolled down to the next windowbox.  The broken one was fixed 'right as rain' as he had said, filled with fresh soil and the flowers of various colors. Some of them did look a little withered, but at least they were there, and still blooming.

Taking a small bowl, Bilbo stirred some of the saltpeter and sulpher together then dissolved the mixture in a bit of hot water. He dipped a thick cotton twine in it, draping it around his kitchen to dry.  What anyone peeking in would think of it, he didn't know but he couldn't think of any other way to dry it. Ah well. Let them think what they liked....

Humming to himself he went down the hall to his room.  He went to a chest with a locked drawer.  Fetching the key, he quietly opened it. The scent of mothballs made him wrinkle his nose.  He gently moved an old travel cloak aside and then lifted a heavy packet of oiled leather from its hiding place.

Undoing the laces, he gently lifted his short sword, Sting, from out of its wrappings and considered the shine of the blade, sharp and deadly as ever.

"Eh, you haven't seen much use of late, have you old friend?"

He turned it in the light, watching the reflection from the window sliding up and down the blade. Such memories, such memories.... His hands caressed the hilt. I am sorry to have awakened you from your sleep, I can see the question in you. But no, we're not off, not yet. Someday, my old friend, we will see more adventures, you and I. Someday. But for now,  no. I just need a little of your aid if you'll allow it.

And who would have ever thought you would come to such a use? It's a bit of a lark, I suppose, for the likes of you. Just a bit of a lark. Not dishonourable at all.

He considered the neatly folded cloak, and the battered black scabbard that lay in the drawer, then after a long moment sighed slightly and shut it again.

It took some jury-rigging and a small bit of leather scrap, but by working carefully he finally managed to suspend the blade from a length of strong black button thread in such a way it was at an angle, as if held. He stepped back and dangled it to examine his handiwork.  Early on in his ownership of his other treasure, he had discovered whatever he was holding or wearing went invisible with him, but if he dangled something by string, it would be seen. Sting must be seen. His thoughts strayed to the Spiders, as they nearly always did when he considered his wondrous Elf-blade. They had seen its glow of course, not the sword itself - and, Bilbo chuckled to himself, while Lotho was rotten he had far, far to go before he would be rotten enough to make an Elf-blade glow. 

He ran the length of thread from the end of the hall up and over a root that bent conveniently down near the back door, then along the hall.  Tying one end to Sting and the other to a cob of dried corn, to make a handle, he experimentally pulled on the thread down in the pantry. The sword lifted and lowered down from the ceiling into the hall on its makeshift pulley and hung there, rotating, gleaming slowly. Yes, it would do.  He pulled it back up into hiding near the ceiling and anchored the thread.

It was getting late. Singing an old battle song he had picked up from Dale, he went out to water the new flowers in the windowboxes. It was turning out to be a very good day. Yes, very good indeed.