Nothing of Note

by Primula

9: Peddler's Lunch

The clear morning was beginning to wane into an overcast afternoon as Bilbo walked along the road to Undertowers. The road was not as well-maintained so far out from the Shire's center, and the wagon ruts and muddy holes had become more frequent the farther he went. Traffic was very sparse, with only three other hobbits seen all morning, a Gaffer and Gammer in a light pony-cart who had been pleasant enough and a Post rider who had returned his polite greeting as he went past.  Bilbo decided it must be nearly noon and began looking for a nice dry spot in the grasses where he could settle down for a midday meal.

He had just begun to slip his pack off when he noticed a peddler's wagon approaching from the west.  He had a passing acquaintance with most of the peddlers in the Shire, so this was a welcome sight. He hoped it might mean some familiar company to share his lunch with and an update on whatever news there might be.

He smiled a greeting to the peddler as the wagon squeaked and clanged closer, then lifted a hand.  "Hullo! Care to share a bit of lunch and a bit of news?  I'll make it worth your time."  He could see the driver a little better now. Ah yes, he remembered this one. And he knew this peddler, Hilalard "Lardy" Took, wouldn't stop for anything less than a paying customer so far away from town. And the peddler knew he knew it. The wagon squeaked to a stop as he reined his mismatched pair of ponies in. As he gave his customer a good looking over his bushy eyebrows lifted with surprised recognition.

"Mr. Baggins! A bit far away from home, aren't you?  Of course I shouldn't be too surprised.  Think we've had the good fortune to meet up in almost every farthing over the past few years, eh? Good to see you, yes very good, and I'd be glad to share a bite.  I've a small keg of reasonably good October ale if you've a mind to broach it. Not too dark, but a good brewing.  Also a top-notch cheese from Tuckborough.  Just wait until you taste it! Best they've ever made, in my opinion, and I've sampled plenty, believe me."  He wasted no time shifting his bulk down from his seat and opened up the panel on  the side of his wagon to display what little foodstuffs he carried.  His curiosity about Bilbo's current wandering would have to wait until business was done.  "I've some jams too," he continued, rummaging into a padded box and pulling out two glass jars. He polished them with the hem of his jacket to make them shine.  "Blackberry and strawberry..."

"Thank you." said Bilbo.  "I see your wares are as good as ever." Lardy gave him a quick look, unsure if that was a compliment or not, but Bilbo was simply looking at the cheese.  He perused the selection and paid for a small circle of the softer goat cheese, a small jar of the blackberry jam and a sampling of the mild ale. Being far from a proper store, he also added a few winter apples and a packaged seedcake for later. Even though Bilbo ignored the not-so-subtle offers of a silver spoon for the jam, a new linen tablecloth, a pair of mittens, a set of embroidered napkins and a large umbrella, Lardy was well pleased to see such good coinage so far out in the middle of nowhere.  Greatly cheered, he was quick to offer his own loaf of bread to go with their lunch and took down two elaborately carved mugs from his stock to drink the ale from. 

The peddler then turned to his wagon to loosen the ponies' harness and hooked a nosebag with a bit of grain in it for each one. He settled onto the blanketed grass alongside Bilbo, taking up most of the space. 

"So," said Bilbo around a mouthful of excellent cheese and bread, "What news can you give me?  I'd especially like to know something of where I'm going.  Tell me about Undertowers.  You must have passed through it, at least?"

Lardy spread his bread thickly with the jam Bilbo had purchased from him. "Oh, that I did. I get to most of the farthings, you know, but I...don't usually mention that I sometimes go outside the borders."  He looked around, as if to be sure no one was listening to them. "I'm not often out this far I admit, but I made some good trades taking seed and bulbs to the farmers out there.  They grow a good mint - I have three big sacks of the finest dried mint you've ever smelled, and good sweet butter too.  A block of butter, this big, clean and white all the way through.  There's an old fellow further up the road here who keeps bees. I'll be stopping there tomorrow and I bet I'll trade that butter for the best beeswax and honey you ever..."

"Tell me about the town," interrupted Bilbo. "And the towers on the hills. Have you ever been out to those towers?"  He toyed with a coin in his hand.

"Towers?" said Lardy.  He took a long drink of ale and wiped his mouth on his sleeve, watching the coin. "Don't know anything about them. Even the folks that live over there don't go to 'em.  They think they're haunted or something. Probably just some outsiders skulking about the things, but I don't care to find out."  He took a big bite of his bread and Bilbo was obliged to wait while he chewed. 

"Is there any kind of path to them that you know of?" he asked.

Lardy swallowed. "Naw. Leastways I don't know of one. Not safe out there anyways. Too far. It's bad enough being outside the Shire, trading with folk clear out here. I don't need to go poking my nose into foreign ruins, nor should anyone else. There was talk at the inn there that them towers are bad luck of some kind, but they don't talk about 'em much. Can't really say."

Bilbo nodded as if in agreement but kept his thoughts on it to himself. He casually flipped the coin towards Lardy, who just as casually slipped it into his pocket. They both continued eating as if it hadn't happened.

"So, there's an inn? That's welcome news." Bilbo finished the last of his bread and stood up, brushing the crumbs off his coat.

Lardy nodded and also stood.  "There's an inn. The Twinin' Rose, but it tain't near as pretty as its name. All thorn and no flower, y' might say. It's not much to look at and even less to sup at.  Innkeeper holds every penny pretty tight, and the ale is watered down. No bedwarmers neither. Sorry I can't give you a better report, but that's the way of it. And you'll need to get there before dark, otherwise you'll have to get the gatekeeper to open the doors again for you. It's fenced, bein' outside and all."

Bilbo nodded his thanks, his mouth full of the last bite of the cheese. Lardy gathered up the empty mugs and then picked up the half-used jar of jam and eyed it.  "Will you be wantin' this, Mr. Baggins?"

"Yes, thank you Mr. Took." Bilbo pointedly took the small jar out of his hand. Half empty, it wouldn't be too heavy, and he would enjoy having it along later in the day.  He slipped it into his coat pocket, then reconsidered and put it in his pack.  He shook out the blanket and began rolling it up. 

"If you don't mind my askin', Mr. Baggins, what brings you so far afield from Hobbiton?"

"Just visiting relatives."

"Ah."

"Speaking of relatives," Bilbo said, struck with a sudden idea, "Would you mind earning a bit of silver acting as a delivery service?  Nothing large, nothing alive.   I have some books at a relative's home in Michel Delving that need to get back to Hobbiton. Will you be going that way perchance?"

"Hrm," considered the peddler. "Perhaps so. No reason I can't go through there instead of further south this round.  The season's markets are all about the same. How many books? My wagon won't get any bigger..."

"Not many at all," Bilbo assured him. "I'll write you a letter. Once you get them to Hobbiton, they're to be delivered to Bagshot Row, #3.  I'll collect them there upon my return."  He deliberately jogged his wallet to make the coins jingle.  Lardy brightened noticeably at the sound.

"Of course, of course. They'll be safe and sound there or my name isn't Hilalard Took! Just leave it to me. Soft as eggs I'll carry them."

While Lardy hitched his ponies back up and closed up his wagon Bilbo drew out his notebook and penned his letter to Hugo.

My dearest Hugo,

Please forgive me that I must have this delivered to you thus instead of coming in person. It appears my business will keep me away from my home for some time still, but the one who bears this letter has generously agreed to help you in my stead. I have decided that I can spare room for those books you so kindly offered to me after all, and have chosen the following titles from among them:
(here he listed all that he could recall that were his, ending with a flourish) 
I am pleased to be able to free up space in your bookcase for the new ones you no doubt were hoping to purchase, and look forward to many a gracious and merry meal with you in the future. 
Yours cordially,

Bilbo Baggins

He sealed it, then wrote out instructions for Lardy, a small note asking the Gaffer to keep the books someplace dry until he could pick them up, and a reciept for Lardy to sign.  He gave him some money including a little extra to buy a nice tight box to keep them in. The peddler carefully counted over the coins and a smile spread across his fat face.

"Thank you, Mr. Baggins! I'll be glad to oblige. And if you ever need some more delivering done for you, just call upon me!"

"Be assured that I shall." said Bilbo dryly. "If I've a good report. I shall be inquiring about the manner of your delivery, as well as inspecting the books most closely, Mr. Took."

Lardy bobbed a little bow. "Of course, of course. Carry them like fine glass, I will. And I know how to pack things properly too."  He smiled again and climbed up on to the seat of his wagon.. "Well, it was a fine luncheon, Mr. Baggins! I hope we may meet again sometime. Good traveling!"

Bilbo waved a mild farewell. "Likewise. Travel safely."

The peddler flapped the reins and clicked his tongue at his ponies. As they began ambling forward again he leaned over and gave a little wave of his hat then continued on.  The wagon squeaked and rattled away down the road, picking up speed as Lardy began trying to make up his lost travel time.

Bilbo watched him go, then shifted his pack into place on his shoulders and set out in the opposite direction with a lightness of step.  It felt very good to know things that had been out of place for so very long could be set to rights at last. This mood bouyed him along for a nearly a mile before thoughts of the upcoming town slowly brought him back down.  He would have to keep up a dwarvish sort of  pace to get there by dark, so he set his mind to do so.