Morning's early light shyly peeked in the parlour
window of Bag End, then quietly slipped over the casement to brighten
the room with its pink-gold presence. Soft fingers of bright
light teased along through the sleeping hobbits' rumpled curls, kept
from their faces by the sides of the chairs. Foiled in waking them, it
then petulantly faded off into a clouded daylight and they slept
Bilbo woke first, bobbing up from his own vague dreaming mostly because of an increasing pain in his neck. He shifted, then blearily opened his eyes to a moment of disorientation. His sleep-filled mind tried to understand why he was looking at the parlour fireplace instead of his own bedroom walls, and why at such an angle. To his right, a hobbit-foot that was not his own poked out from under a rumpled lap-throw. Frodo. The chairs in front of the fireplace. What was the time?
He rubbed his eyes and slowly unbent until he was sitting upright, absently catching at his own blanket that slid towards the floor. Turning his head, he squinted at the now grey, overcast sky outside the window, then considered the cold hearth. Frodo shifted slightly, but slept on.
Bilbo slowly knelt by the hearth and set about rekindling the fire as quietly as he could. When he finally had the beginnings of a reasonable flame going, he very carefully set to building a little arch of twigs over it to catch. In the silence their small shuffling and cracklings sounded very loud. One gave a loud pop. He glanced back to find the flame reflected in a pair of very bright eyes that were watching him from over the edge of a blanket.
"It's a bit nippy." he commented to the eyes, by way of apology for making noise.
The blanket lowered as Frodo briefly stretched and got up from the chair with a grace that Bilbo only dimly remembered from his own youth. Ah, to be so flexible. "Brr." he replied, reaching for the blanket and wrapping it around his shoulders. "What's the time?"
"I don't know yet," Bilbo replied. He fed another bit of wood to the fire then glanced back up. "Happy birthday. How about some water for the tea?"
"Happy birthday yourself, " returned Frodo with a smile. He ran his fingers through his hair. "The kettle's already filled from last night, remember?"
"Is it? Oh, yes. Yes, well...Iah owoah ahwahn ow." he said, trying unsuccessfully to stifle a yawn.
"I said 'I remember that now.' How did you sleep?"
"I don't remember, except there did seem to be someone snoring at some point."
"Hmph. Wonder who that could have been?"
Frodo tried to sound nonchalant, but the corners of his mouth were twitching into a smile. "Oh, I don't know. Someone. Let's just say I'm thankful I have my own room."
"Hmph." Bilbo repeated, adding a small log and stiffly standing up. He looked down at his rumpled clothing from the previous day and brushed his hands over the worst of the creases. "Well. I suppose we'll have to put on a bit of birthday finery after breakfast, but nothing wrong with being comfortable a bit longer." he rubbed his hands together. "What would you like first? Eggs? Pie? I have some apples I thought we might bake."
Frodo was looking toward the window. "Actually I was wondering if we might start off with a walk outside, if you've anything we can carry with us..."
"Carry? Of course I do. Here, I've some of those little cornmeal cakes in that basket over there, just under the napkins. You know, the little ones that hold together so well. They're better with honey of course, but not bad just in hand. Capital idea!"
With the kitchen oven beginning to warm and the tea ready to go, they stocked their pockets with their pre-breakfast walking snacks and ventured out into the morning. The light breeze smelled fresh, and in spite of the chill of the overcast sky it felt invigorating and cheerful, walking together through the wet grasses and along the road once again.
"Good thing we didn't have that party after all," Bilbo spoke after they had walked some distance, chewing on their cakes.
"Why is that?"
He gestured with his chin, keeping his hands warm in his coat pockets. "Look at those low clouds there. They're coming our way, and fairly quick. I think we would have ended up with everyone all crammed together in the parlour to get out of the rain."
"Mm. But it smells good, doesn't it?"
The wind that swept over them in small gusts did have a certain fresh fragrance to it, a freshly-washed clean and wet rain-scent that made him think of spring, even though the damp autumn fields lay all around them. He breathed deeply of it, then popped his last bite of corncake in his mouth; it made a perfect seasoning. They left the Road behind and wandered up one of the footpaths that bordered the fields, occasionally speaking of memories of other times they had gone walking, together or alone or comparing their thoughts on the passing scenery. The morning seemed very quiet, though he couldn't place why at first. He finally realized what he was missing was birdsong. Well, it was getting late in the year...had they already gone south?
Wood and peat scented-smoke puffed and swirled from the distant chimneys, the only indication that someone's home lay anywhere nearby. They passed a handful of sheep that were clustered near their gate, waiting for someone to come let them through, made their way through the gaps in a well-used line of wood fencing and then across a tumbled field where the corn stood in its tall shocks among the irregular lumps of winter-squash, still slowly swelling on their slightly trampled vines.
The wet earth and musty-leaf scent of the corn sheaves lifted past them in the wind, mixing with the scent of the nearby trees. It was very refreshing, but also beginning to be a little chilly - Bilbo pulled his hat down and buried his hands in his pockets, hunching into his coat-collar. He glanced over at Frodo. The younger hobbit didn't seem to be bothered by it, so he didn't mention it aloud. As they neared the edge of the field, golden-brown leaves scattered past them more and more frequently, the wind lifting them from among the green ones on changing boughs and sweeping them into arcs in the air. The very beginning of fall....
The trees rustled and creaked. Bilbo paused, looking up at their swaying interlacing branches. "How far would you like to go? Looks like the wind is picking up a bit."
Frodo paused only slightly. "Just a little further? I've so missed just being able to go out like this - I guess I'm just not quite ready to be going back..."
Against his better judgment, Bilbo assented and let the lad lead the way. "As you wish! It's your birthday, after all."
"And yours," Frodo added over his shoulder as he picked his way through fallen branches. "So we can turn back if you want to."
"No, no.... just a little further, as you said. No problem at all..."
They rustled and crunched their way through the small copse of trees, following a path that wound among the trees and light brambles. A fork in the path gave them an option of straight or left, and Frodo turned left. Bilbo followed. They soon approached the growing light of the northern edge, where a tiny, ambling stream, shining dark with old leaves and grasses slipped along the tree-filled border of the fields. They jumped it with small effort and continued on to a neighboring field.
It wasn't until they stepped through the break in a low hedge and come out into the next field that they realized what a windbreak the trees had been. Bilbo's hat began to lift off of his head and he quickly clapped it back down even as his other hand reached to pull his billowing coat close and fumbled with the upper buttons. Ahead of him Frodo stopped, and he came up beside him.
"Whoo! Looks like we're in for a bit of blow," he said over the wind. "No wonder the birds were quiet, they've all the good sense to wait this one out."
"Birds?" Frodo's hair was lifting and whipping in his eyes and he hugged himself to keep warm in the sudden chill.
"I couldn't hear any - I thought they'd all just gone south already but they were holing up from this storm, that's what they were doing. They've good sense. I'd say we head back and hole up too."
Frodo was quiet for a moment, turning away from Bilbo and facing into the wind. Bilbo wondered if he was thinking of continuing on in spite of the weather, reluctant to give up their walk so easily. The lad suddenly held so still... he worried he had offended somehow.
He wrestled with himself inside, warring between wanting to encourage that adventurous streak in his new nephew, and wanting a nice warm kitchen with a hot kettle and a warm shawl for his shoulders. Steeling himself for the answer that he didn't really want to hear, he opened his mouth to ask if they should go on -
Frodo turned back to him, wide-eyed. "Did you hear that?"
"W - b...Hear what?" Bilbo's tongue stumbled as he shifted gears.
Frodo didn't reply, but looked past Bilbo's shoulder and his eyes went even wider. "Run!" he said and grabbed Bilbo's arm, yanking him along after him as he ran back towards the hedge.
Alarmed, confused and staggering to keep his balance as he was towed along faster than he normally could go, Bilbo ran after. They burst through the bush but Frodo didn't even slow down. He thankfully lost his grip on Bilbo's sleeve before the older hobbit ended up going face-first into the ground, but continued at a breakneck speed straight through the fronds and brambles. Bilbo tried to keep up; he was rapidly falling behind and still had no idea what was behind them that could inspire such terror so close to home. Whatever it was it appeared he would be the one caught, so he hoped it wouldn't be too painful.
He crashed out of the wooded copse back into the cornfield. The wind and rain hit him anew and he gasped for breath, looking for Frodo. The youth was nearly to one of the largest corn shocks when he glanced back, and turned, dashing back towards his uncle. He still looked frantic. They met about halfway to the corn shock.
"Hurry!" cried Frodo, all but pulling him along again.
"What....are we....running...from?" gasped Bilbo as he was bodily flung around the corner of the shock. He found himself in a sudden pocket of calm as the wind was blocked, the two of them pressing back into a little alcove among the corn stalks. Frodo began to speak but was cut off by a sound both of them heard all too well.
"Grrr...Arrrrooooo! Rah! rah! raroof! rah!" It was rapidly drawing closer.
Don't run from dogs, he told his body firmly. Don't run. It only makes them chase you. Don't....
His legs took off for home.
I hate dogs! he lamented as he was carried away by his sprinting legs. They always do this to me...
Frodo made a wordless sound of dismay behind him, and he frantically overrode his own self-preservation to turn back. The dog was crossing the field behind them, gaining at what seemed an impossible speed. He could hear it growling, excited by the chase and intent on its prey. Frodo slipped in the soft tilled earth and it was closing in too quickly - Bilbo knew if they could somehow get beyond this field it would probably turn back, but it was too far...
Without thinking, Bilbo ran back towards them, shouting something - he couldn't even remember what. He stooped as he ran, seeking a rock to throw, but there weren't any to be found in this neatly kept field. Bits of corn sheaves rattled uselessly past in the rising wind. His hand closed over a wad of dirt and he flung it with all his strength at the dog's face.
It fell short, but served to distract the animal from Frodo long enough for him to recover his footing. The dog hesitated, unsure which target to chase, then dashed for Frodo again. Temporarily forgetting his own fear, Bilbo grabbed up handfuls of clods and a small, mottled squash and began flinging them with hobbit-accuracy at the creature's slavering head. The squash smacked it on the side of the nose with a spattering of stringy pulp, making it yelp and snarl.
Angry, it turned towards its tormentor and lunged for him instead. He ran for the boundary fence again, trying to grab up more dirt to throw as he went, desperately wishing he had brought his walking stick with him. He grabbed a stray cornstalk for lack of anything else and kept going. His breath felt cold and ragged in his breast, and his blood beat in his ears. The dog stopped barking and settled into a low growl behind him which was far more frightening.
Something brushed his pantleg, breathed on his ankle. He frantically lashed out with the cornstalk, hitting the animal across the ears and gaining another yard of space. Where was Frodo? Across the fence, he hoped. He was nearly there. It was so close...
There was a low growl; he staggered and nearly fell as the dog laid its teeth into the hem of his coat. He lashed out with the cornstalk again, but it snapped off in his hand. Blindly he kicked at the dog in an utter panic, still struggling to reach the nearby fence.
"Eeeyah!" said Frodo someplace behind him.
There was a wet thump and a muffled yelp; his coat came free. Not sure what had happened but grateful it had, he reached the fence and forced himself between the boards. Falling to the grass on the other side, he rolled over and fought back to his feet to see what had happened. His hat blew off.
The dog was still there on the other side but its head was an almost unrecognizable mass of mud. Frodo was just pushing through the boards a few yards down, his hands, arms and shirtfront bearing witness to his part in the mud-flinging.
Why, he must have pulled up a chunk of dirt the size of a watermelon! Bilbo thought with admiration. Well done! He wanted to drop back to his knees, so glad that it was over, but stiffened his legs lest he alarm his young charge. He gathered his hat and stuck it, wet and dripping, back on his head.
They went to one another, and gripped each other's forearms with a long look, then assured of both being well, looked back at the dog. It pawed at its head, whining and snorting under the coating of mud, still stunned.
"So" said Bilbo, still trying to catch his breath, "that was a bit of an adventure." He appraised the muddied condition of his nephew.
"Only a bit?" said Frodo, bending to wipe his hands off in the wet grass. He looked up at Bilbo apologetically, squinting in the rain. "That was some throw, you did..."
"You too! How you lifted that dirt..."
Frodo laughed breathlessly. "I don't know. I was... just so afraid it... was going to hurt you..."
"So was I, if I say so myself..."
"I guess we shouldn't have run... it..."
"...Makes them...chase you. Yes. But..."
"I'm terrified of... big dogs. I'm sorry, Bilbo..."
"So am I. Terrified that is."
He reached to help Frodo back up. Together they turned towards home again, wiping at the mud on their clothes. The bedraggled dog barked after them a few times from his side of the fence but made no effort to follow any further. Still, just the sound of its voice was sufficient to move them along at a very quick walk. Bilbo realized he was still clutching a small piece of the cornstalk in his own muddied hand, as if it were a talisman that would protect him from further canine assaults - He dropped it, and shivered in the wet cold.
He wasn't even sure which he was trying to get away from more, the faint growling voice of the dog behind them or the cold, pelting fist of the oncoming storm. The wind pushed at his back, then knocked into him sideways, as if determined to sweep him off his feet. The dog's barking faded away but still they moved quickly. Coming over the rise to cross the lower field the wind suddenly hit them both with such force Bilbo had to grab his much-abused hat off and ram it into his pocket quickly lest he lose it entirely. Gritting his teeth at the cold, icy rain now pelting down his neck he clutched his coat-collar closed and tried to face it head-on.
Frodo had gone slightly ahead of him but now dropped back, a hand pressed to his side and his steps slowing for a moment. Wordlessly, they linked arms to face the force of the wind and rain together, leaning into it as the packed earth of the path beneath their feet began to turn to slick mud and rippling puddles.
They were just turning onto the Road when the wind-driven rain became an out-and-out icy downpour. They both began to run again; bits of twigs and leaves whirling past them as they dashed up the steps and burst through the welcoming door of Bag End.
The door closed behind them with a thump and the quiet, mild warmth of the smial felt as hot as summer after the chill. Unable to follow them any further, the frustrated wind smacked a parting handful of cold rain against the windows with a small spattering sound and hissed its disappointment.
Bilbo leaned his head against the wall and gasped, looking down at the water trickling off of the hem of his breeches and down into his already soaked and matted foothair. Beside him, Frodo was drawing great ragged breaths. He flopped down on the floor and leaned his back against the wall, looking up at Bilbo. He looked as elated as someone who is completely out of breath, chilled and soaked to the skin could look.
"We...did it! We're....safe." he said with a note of triumph.
"That....we....did...." managed Bilbo. "But next....time....you want.... a walk.... I won't listen..."
Frodo shook his wet hair out of his eyes and would have laughed if he could. He leaned over and propped himself on the side of a bench, closing his eyes to give more attention to regaining his breath.
Bilbo slowly slid down and sat beside him. His face felt like it was tingling between the sudden warmth and he felt lightheaded after the running. He glanced over at Frodo, whose face was already beginning to flush pink, then closed his eyes also.
There is companionship between those who face dangers, he mused. A camaraderie that goes deeper, delving into concern for one another's very life. Strangers facing great danger come from it closely bonded, bound together by a mutual fear and mutual survival; he knew how even those of other races, strangers separated by looks and customs and language could become fast friends after they had run for their lives from a mutual enemy. For some reason, what came to mind was Ori's nose sticking out of a mass of spider-webbing. Maybe because it had made him so breathless, even after he was out...
He opened his eyes and pulled a jacket that had fallen from the coat-hooks a bit closer. He wiped his face with it.
"Breakfast." said Frodo.
"Eh?" Bilbo handed him the dampened jacket, which he took and swiped over his own face and hair.
"We haven't had breakfast. No wonder we're feeling faint." He levered himself up off the floor and nabbed a pair of apples from the basket on the hall table. Polishing them briefly on his wet shirt, he tossed one to Bilbo and sat back down beside him again.
Bilbo wondered how Frodo had known he was feeling a bit faint. I must look worse than I think I do, he thought. He accepted the fruit gratefully and took a large, crunching bite. It was juicy and sweet and perfect, and he felt better almost immediately. Beside him, Frodo was already a third through his, his cheeks bulging with apple.
Now freeing dwarves - that had been dangerous. This wasn't true danger at all. A dog and a rainstorm were hardly life-threatening, but to a young hobbit with little experience in the world perhaps it could seem so...perhaps it was a good thing... Not that he and Frodo didn't already have much in common...even their...
"Happy birthday." he said. Frodo rolled his eyes, said something unintelligible and took another bite.
Bilbo took another bite also, then climbed to his feet. "I'll get the fire built up, then we can change into dry clothes. We've a grand breakfast still to make, after all."
Their breakfast was grand, as grand as Bilbo could contrive with a little help from Frodo's willing hands. Warmed and dried, they were soon so hot from the oven's heat in the kitchen that they cracked open one window to the dying storm to cool it off. The table was spread with a fresh cloth and clean plates heated at the warming shelf were set upon it.
They eagerly spooned up hot coddled eggs with thick slices of buttered toast as they waited for some of the apples, all stuffed with spices, ground nuts and raisins to bake. A frothy batch of pancake batter yielded huge, golden pancakes as big as they could make them in the pan, generously drizzled with strawberry syrup and sprinkled with hazelnuts, or spread with swirled honey and butter.
After the eggs and pancakes were gone, the baked apples came from the oven all steaming under their topping of clotted cream, smelling intensely of rich sweet fruit and spices. Slices of soft white butter melted into the filling and dripped with the juices from their forks. The apples in turn were followed with small slices of sweet squash pie and more cream, then rose and pansy petals set in sugar and hot tea.
Finally full as only hobbits can be full, they sat contentedly filling up the corners with tiny pancake droplets they had made from the last of the batter, dipping them in soft butter and the sugared flower petals.
"Ah." Bilbo said. "This is more like it."
"Like what?" asked Frodo, sipping his second cup of tea.
"Like a birthday ought to be." He lifted his tea mug. "A toast."
"A toast!" said Frodo obediently lifting his mug also. "To what?"
"To nephews and uncles. And giant dirt-clods."
Frodo laughed. "One of the oddest toasts I've ever heard. But I agree wholeheartedly. To us! And dirt-clods." He took a sip, then lowered his mug, his blue eyes laughing across the table. "And thank you for the walk, Uncle Bilbo. Happy birthday."