Bell's Table by elwen of the hidden valley

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“Mornin’ Master Frodo. Tis a grand mornin’.” Hamfast Gamgee touched his forehead in greeting as he climbed to his feet in the middle of Bag End’s vegetable plot. Young Sam Gamgee jumped up too, grinning as he saw Frodo roll his eyes.

“It had the makings of a good one, Master Gamgee, until I burned the toast.” He lifted his mug in rueful salute. “I have been banished from the kitchen this morning.” As he spoke, Bag End’s kitchen door was thrown open and the unmistakeable odour of burnt toast wafted toward them.

Hamfast wrinkled his nose and knelt down, making a small furrow for Sam to drop in some seeds. “Aye. Mister Bilbo was never in his best temper afore second breakfast.”

Sam concentrated upon not sewing the seeds too close together. “I thought you and Mister Bilbo was goin’ to Great Smials today.”

Hamfast frowned. “And, if you’ll excuse me sayin’ so, Young Master, your uncle seems a mite put out by just the loss of a couple of slices of bread.”

Frodo took a sip of his tea. “I’m afraid my mishap has made us late and that’s another reason for my banishment. We were going to have first breakfast here and second breakfast at the Ivy Bush. But by the time we reach the Ivy now they’ll have finished serving breakfasts.”

Now Hamfast chuckled. “So now you’ve missed first breakfast completely and will have to take second breakfast at home afore you can set out. I can see why Mister Bilbo would be a bit upset.”

Sam straightened, his features puzzled. “Da, if they didn’t have first breakfast, on account of the burnt toast, won’t that make second breakfast, first breakfast?”

“Never you mind, lad. Get on with coverin’ them beetroot seeds afore the birds get ‘em. Yon robin’s a cheeky chap and would steel ‘em from your hand if you let him.” Hamfast nodded to where said bird was sitting boldly upon the handle of their spade at the end of the row, his black beady eyes fixed upon Sam’s every move.

At that moment Bilbo appeared at the kitchen door, hands upon hips. “Frodo! Come in and set the table or it will be lunch time before we leave.”

With a twinkling grin at the two Gamgees, Frodo spun about and jogged back across the garden. “Coming, Bilbo.”

Sam watched. “Do you think Mister Bilbo will be cross for long?” He had grown rather fond of Master Frodo.

“No lad,” his father replied. “Mr Bilbo’s temper is like a spring storm. Wild for a bit but soon blown over. Young Master Frodo didn’t sound too concerned to me. Don’t you worry. By the time they’re on the road they’ll be full of the joys of spring again.”

Hamfast was right. Once Bilbo actually had some breakfast inside him, whether it be first or second, his humour improved somewhat and the pair were striding down the lane before elevenses.

Frodo waved to Bell Gamgee, who was washing the front windows of number three Bagshot Row, but Bilbo hurried them on. “Come along, lad. If we make it a brisk walk we can have elevenses at the Ivy Bush.”

“Bilbo, we've only just finished breakfast. You surely aren't hungry again already.”

“Of course not. But by the time we reach the Ivy we shall have worked up a thirst and it would be rude to have a half and not have a bacon sandwich to go with it, now would it not?”

Frodo giggled. It was said that tweens were bottomless pits when it came to food but Bilbo could give many a tween a run for his money. Bilbo once ascribed his great appetite to the fact that rations had been short for at least part of his journey with the dwarves, so he made sure to get plenty of food nowadays, “To make up for it, you know.” Frodo was always amazed that his uncle's expanding waistline never seemed to slow him down and it was not long before they were striding across the bridge and into the village.

“Well now, if it aint the grand master of Bag End. Where are you off to in such a hurry, Mister Baggins?” Ted Sandyman was sitting outside his mill, smoking a pipe and gnawing on a cheese sandwich. Frodo rather got the impression, from his tone, that 'Mister' was not Ted's first choice of title. The miller was often known to refer to Bilbo as 'Mad Baggins'.

Whether he was aware of the appellation or not Bilbo only smiled brightly and replied, “None of your business, Mister Sandyman.” He made great emphasis of the 'Mister' and, in a quiet aside to his nephew added, “Any speed beyond 'stop' would be considered a hurry by Ted. I don't think he has walked any farther than Bywater in his entire life.”

Once over the bridge they came into the village square, where the market was in full flow. Most of the traders were local but sometimes a small group of dwarves would appear, selling children's toys and cheap jewellery. Occasionally traders came from other villages in the Shire, bringing cheese or honey. Today Frodo noted that all the traders were local.

The Ivy Bush was doing its usual brisk market day trade but Bilbo and Frodo found seats in a small corner and ordered Bilbo's yearned for beer and bacon sandwiches. It was known throughout the three farthings that Borden Brewer served a grand bacon butty, the bread soft, warmed in the oven and dripping with butter. Half an hour later Bilbo wiped butter from his chin and sat back with a satisfied sigh. “Well, Frodo, shall we go on?”

Frodo grinned as he licked the last of the beer from his lips. “I think we'd better if we are to make Bywater for lunch.” He patted his waistline. “Although whether I will have room for it after that sandwich is another matter.”

Bilbo stood, lifting his walking staff and shrugging his pack onto his back. “Nonsense, lad. We will soon walk that off. Come on.” Frodo barely had time to hoist his own pack and staff before they were out of the door and back into the market day crowds.

“Well, now. Bilbo Baggins. I've not seen ye for many a week.”

Bilbo rolled his eyes at this further delay but turned with a wide grin when he recognised the voice. “Hello, Pansy! I've been out and about as often as usual and it is good to see you about too. How is your sister these days?” He leaned upon his staff as the flow of market customers parted around them as though they were rocks in a stream.

The old hobbitess' wrinkles arranged themselves into a bright smile and, despite her hunched back and gnarled fingers, her green eyes twinkled. “She's right enough, although that nephew of mine is still not settled.”

Frodo mumbled an apology to an annoyed gaffer, who tried to steer a barrow around them, but Bilbo and Pansy seemed totally oblivious to the obstruction they were causing in the middle of the thoroughfare. Bilbo continued good-naturedly, “That maid should get her father to tie the lad up and sit him down in front of the Mayer. I'm sure Penley Whitfoot will marry them fast enough and the whole of Hobbiton will attend, just to make certain the deed is done at last.”

Pansy gave a loud cackle. “He could have a worse task for his first term.” She glanced aside at Frodo and nodded toward their packs. “And where are the pair of you off to? Not going off to chase more dragons I hope.”

Bilbo shook his head. “Indeed not. My dragon hunting days are over. Frodo and I are on our way to Tuckborough. We've not seen little Peregrin since a few days after he was born and that's almost three years ago.”

“Well, ye'd best get on, then. Or ye'll not arrive afore dark.” Pansy nudged Frodo, knowingly. “Although, knowin' yer uncle, by the time ye've stopped along the way for lunch and high tea ye'll probably still not arrive until the stars are out.”

Frodo grinned, despite being jostled from behind by a rather large lady with a heavily laden basket filled with, from the smell of it, fish. “You may be right.”

Pansy turned away, only pausing to call back, “Ye'd best get a move on, lads. Butter Rumble says it's goin' to rain later. I hope ye packed a cloak.” She was swallowed by the crowd before Bilbo could reply.

“Did you pack a cloak, Bilbo?” Frodo asked with some alarm, knowing that he certainly had not.

Bilbo shook his head, with a confident, “We'll be well on our way before the rain arrives. And it's only water, when all is said and done. It won't do you any harm.”

Frodo was not convinced. Buttercup Rumble's arthritis was the best predictor of rain that Hobbiton had. If she said it was going to rain it usually did. He scanned the cloudless sky with some trepidation as they made their way out of the market and down the road to Bywater. But off to the left the pool mirrored a bright blue sky and after a while Frodo pushed Widow Rumble's prediction to the back of his mind.

Lunch was taken at the Green Dragon in Bywater barely two hours later. Bilbo ordered a meat pie with vegetables but Frodo settled for bread, cheese and pickles and watched in bemused silence as Bilbo cleaned his plate.

“Are you sure you don't want anything else, lad. There are no more decent eateries until we reach Tookbank and that's near on five miles away. The Frog and Bucket doesn't serve food.”

Frodo grinned. “I have eaten plenty, Bilbo. I promise not to keel over from starvation before we get to Great Smials.”

Bilbo only collected his walking staff. “Very well. But don't say I didn't warn you.”

Soon they were strolling down the Bywater road and in the distance Frodo could see the dark line of hawthorn that marked the edges of the Great East Road. When they reached the junction it took all of Frodo's persuasive powers to prevent Bilbo stepping into the Frog and Bucket for a swift half. Instead they turned left onto a broad, flat road, kept in good repair by order of the Mayor and bordered upon both sides by ditches and sharp hawthorn hedges. Already, those thick hedges showed a pale green haze of spring buds.

They made good time, although the hard metal of the road was not as comfortable under foot as the grassy lanes of Hobbiton. As they stepped out Bilbo taught his nephew an old walking song so the time passed pleasantly, with few others on the road. It was with some surprise, therefore that Frodo glanced up to see that the sky had turned from blue to a pale pearl white which was rapidly darkening to grey.

“How much further is it to the Stock turn off, Bilbo?”

“Just on that bend ahead. Why?”

Frodo pointed upward with his staff. “I think Widow Rumble was right, after all. It looks like we're in for some rain.”

Bilbo pursed his lips. “We'd best get a move on, then.”

They picked up the pace but after turning left at the junction they had only walked for a few minutes more before the first fat drops of rain began to fall.

“Oh, bother,” Bilbo announced.

Frodo smiled mischievously. “It's only water, remember?”

“It's not the rain that bothers me. It's the mud it will create.” Bilbo grimaced, hunching his shoulders against the downpour. Frodo followed without further comment. If there was one thing guaranteed to anger Bilbo it was having his carefully selected outfit ruined and, having annoyed his uncle once today, Frodo was sensible enough to hold his tongue.

The rain dropped from deluge to downpour only half an hour later but the two travellers hardly noticed for, by then, they were already soaked to the skin. Bilbo scowled down at his feet, where the grey colour of his foot-hair was lost beneath a layer of dark mud. Indeed, his feet, ankles and calves were covered in the sticky stuff to the point where he began to wonder whether they would ever be clean again. He could not remember having been this filthy since his travels with Thorin and company. And it was just too bad that he should be arriving thus at one of the grandest establishments in the Shire.

Suddenly, Bilbo heard a yelp, followed by a loud splash and he spun about. There, spread-eagled upon his back, was Frodo, in the centre of a large puddle that Bilbo had only just managed to skirt without incident some moments earlier. It seemed Frodo had not been so lucky. For a moment Bilbo thought that the lad was having trouble catching his breath and that was no wonder, having landed hard upon his pack. Then he realised that his nephew's strange convulsions were actually caused by laughter.

Bilbo sighed and reached down to help the lad at least make it to a sitting position. But the mud was slippery and Frodo was laughing so hard that he was making very little effort to help himself. It was almost inevitable, therefore, that Bilbo should also lose his footing and land on his bottom at Frodo's side in the huge puddle. This only made Frodo laugh even louder and for a stunned few moments Bilbo could only splutter in indignation. Then imagination provided his mind with a picture of the two of them, head to toe in mud and sitting in the middle of the road like a couple of mischievous faunts. Soon he was joining his laughter to Frodo's guffaws, so helpless that they had to lean upon each other.

Two hours later, in almost full dark, two muddy and soaked travellers battered upon the huge round door of Great Smials.

There was a great deal of muttering to be heard through the stout barrier before it swung open on well oiled hinges to reveal the sparkling, tiled floor of the Thain's entrance hall. The ancient servant's eyes widened when he saw the state of the two visitors and he pointed immediately to a large tray of clean water set by the door. “Who shall I say is calling, sirs?” he asked in a voice that seemed to form around some large invisible plum in his mouth.

Bilbo took a perverse delight in letting his muddy pack land with a loud splat upon the clean floor. “Please tell Master Palladin that Bilbo and Frodo Baggins have arrived. I believe we are expected.”

“Please wait here, sirs,” the servant instructed in a tone that almost begged them not to spread any more mud upon his nice clean floors.

Frodo waited politely while Bilbo dabbled his feet in the basin and by the time he had attended to his own, Paladin arrived. “Good grief! What have you been rolling in? You look like a couple of drowned rats. Did you not bring cloaks?” he demanded as he saw for himself the state of his guests.

Bilbo had to bite back a chuckle. “We set out in a bit of a hurry.”

“My fault. I had a bit of a mishap with first breakfast,” Frodo explained as he blew rain drops off the end of his nose.

Knowing better than to ask for a more detailed explanation until his guests were dry, Paladin led them to one of the many guest suites, heedless of the line of muddy footprints they left in their wake. There was only so much mud one could wash off in a basin of cold water after all. “I'll send some lads with baths for you and tell Eglantine to hold supper until you're ready,” he announced as he left. “Join us in the family parlour when you're ready.”

It was clear that the hobbit who had answered the door had leapt into action before his master's instructions had been relayed for, within minutes, the promised bath's arrived and the two visitors peeled off their wet and muddy clothes with some relief. They were removed to be cleaned and fresh ones promised, there being sufficient residents in Great Smials to be able to provide temporary clothing. Bilbo was soon sitting, wrapped in a blanket, before a very welcoming fire.

Frodo stepped from behind the dressing screen, towel draped low about his hips while he dried his hair with another. At that precise moment there was a light knock and the door opened to admit no other than May Gamgee, her arms piled with an assortment of garments. Frodo dodged back behind the screen but not before a bright blush flashed in May's cheeks.

The stunned silence was broken by Bilbo's soft chuckle. “Hello, May, lass. Just pop the clothes down over there while Frodo makes himself respectable.”

From the safety of the screen Frodo glared at Bilbo, even as he threw a blanket about himself, knowing that his own cheeks were as pink as May's. He cleared his throat as he re-appeared. “Hello, May. It's good to see you.”

May bobbed a little curtsy. “It's good to see you, too, Master Frodo.”

Bilbo swallowed another chuckle as both youngsters blushed even brighter at the unintentional innuendo.

May set down the clothes and all but bolted for the door, pausing only long enough to call over her shoulder, her accent thick with embarrassment, “The Master and Mistress is waitin' for ye in the family dinin' room when yer ready, sirs.”

Bilbo gave up the battle and let out a loud guffaw as he stood to examine the clothing and Frodo's glare dissolved easily enough with the prospect of a good meal. All hobbits set a good table but Eglantine Took's dinners were not to be missed.

Half an hour later Bilbo and Frodo stepped into the noisy dining room. With three pre-tween girls in the family it could only be so, particularly with a two year old Peregrin protesting loudly about being seated in his high chair. His wails could be heard all the way down the hall and a frustrated Paladin was trying to bend his little son in the middle with no success at all. Peregrin was holding himself ramrod straight, his little face a bright beetroot red that did not sit well with his golden curls.

Bilbo winced. Long used to the peace and quiet of Bag End, he found visiting his relations in Tuckborough or Buckland a little stressful, until he sampled the food, that is. After all, what hobbit did not enjoy a meal that he had not have to prepare for himself?

Having finished seating the girls, Eglantine held out her arms for her son and Paladin relinquished the lad with some relief. Peregrin ceased his wailing at once and Paladin gave a frustrated huff as his son submitted meekly to being placed in the chair he had taken such a dislike to but minutes before.

Spotting their guests, Paladin tugged his waistcoat straight, and advanced with a smile. “Hello again, Bilbo, Frodo. You're looking a bit more the thing.”

Bilbo looked down a little ruefully at his brown trousers, yellow jacket, blue waistcoat and red paisley cravat. “Not my usual style but they are at least clean and dry.”

Frodo grinned, having had to resort to blue trousers, pink shirt and green waistcoat himself. The waistcoat he had left open for it strained across his chest and only just reached his waist.

Paladin led Bilbo to a place at his right and directed Frodo to a seat between Pearl and Pimpernel. Pimpernel grinned a greeting and Pearl nodded aloofly, in the way only an almost tween lass was capable of. Frodo squirmed a little uncomfortably, wishing he had been seated closer to Bilbo and Paladin. He was feeling a little outnumbered by the female side of the family, with little Peregrin too young to assist him at this point.

Eglantine frowned at her eldest as she rang the bell and Pearl dropped her gaze to her plate. The door opened to admit a string of maids, laden with platters and dishes. It was usual for family to serve themselves so the dishes were placed in the centre of the table. Soon they were being passed from hand to hand and the conversation began to flow as good food began to loosen tongues.

As the main course was being cleared and the deserts arrived Frodo looked up to find a pair of hazel eyes staring intently. He smiled and little Peregrin grinned broadly. “Hello Pippin.”

Pippin offered him a piece of soggy, slavered-on bread and Frodo shook his head. “That's alright, Pip. I'm going to have some pudding soon. You finish that and then you can have some too.”

Eglantine smiled at her guest, even as she steered her youngest's hand back toward his mouth and used her napkin to wipe drool and other less identifiable substances from Pippin's little pointed chin. “Your cousin, Frodo, doesn't want your half chewed bread,” she assured him with a smile.

Pippin was a generous little soul, however, so once he had taken a nibble he held it out again with a shouted, “Fow!”

Frodo chuckled and that was all the encouragement the faunt needed. He gave a bright little giggle that had the whole table grinning in response. “I think he's taken a shine to you, Frodo,” Paladin commented. “You don't fancy a job entertaining him tomorrow do you?”

His question was met with a vigorous shake of Frodo's dark head and a hasty, “I think he would soon tire of my company.”

“Nonsense lad. You've a good way with youngsters. Little Sam Gamgee has been following you about like a shadow ever since you moved into Bag End.” Bilbo helped himself to some plum duff and Paladin passed the custard jug.

“Sam is a little older than Pippin. I don't think Pip would be very interested in learning to read at his age.”

Eglantine placed a little bowl of cooled custard on her son's tray and concentrated upon keeping his fingers out of the dish as she spooned some for him. “He can't read yet, that's true. But he does like to listen to stories before bed.”

Frodo selected some rice pudding. “If he wants exciting tales Bilbo is our storyteller.”

“Oh, I don't think Pippin would be much interested in dragons and trolls,” Bilbo replied airily.

Eglantine frowned. “And I hardly think those are the sort of tales to be filling his head with just before sleep.”

Bilbo widened his eyes in what was only partially feigned affront.

“His favourite tale is one about a duck and a frog. It's from one of our old story books,” Pimpernel offered around a mouthful of plum duff and custard.

“Don't speak with your mouth full, Pimpernel.” Eglantine was a stickler for table manners and Frodo hurriedly removed his elbow from the table.

The conversation changed direction and Frodo forgot all about Pippin's love of stories until Eglantine gathered up her faunt. “Come along, Frodo. Time you learned how to deal with bairns. You'll have some of your own one day so you may as well learn now.”

Frodo shot a pleading look to Bilbo but the older hobbit only waved him off with a twinkling grin. “Off you go, lad.” No doubt he was relieved not to have been set the task himself.

Pearl and Pimpernel sniggered and Pervinca looked from one to the other in confusion, blissfully unaware of the undercurrents of adult conversation.

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