Bell's Table by elwen of the hidden valley

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“Oh, Pip!” Frodo jumped back as Pippin smacked his hands gleefully in the bath water, showering mother and cousin alike in soapy suds. Eglantine laughed as Frodo used a towel to wipe his face and clothing. “It's alright for you, Aunt. I've only just got dry from earlier,” Frodo complained with a wry grin.

 

“Don't worry, lad. We've got plenty of spare clothes and towels. A little water never did anyone any harm.”

 

“That's what Bilbo said about the rain and look where that got us.”

 

Eglantine reached down to lift her squirming son from the water and Pippin's face began to crumple. “Oh no you don't,” she asserted as she buried him in a thick, thirsty towel. “Now where's my little Pip?” She tweaked a corner aside to reveal his giggling face and declared, “There he is!” This was obviously a regular bath time game for Pippin crowed with laughter as his mama covered him again. “Where is he?”

 

Pippin grabbed the towel, dropping it himself with an impish grin. “There he is!” Eglantine declared as she began to dry his hair. It took several minutes to pad his lower regions and wrangle him into his nightgown and then, to Frodo's dismay, Eglantine thrust her son at him. “Fow!” Pippin crowed with delight, clinging to him like a limpet, grabbing a handful of Frodo's curls and trying to stuff them into his mouth.

 

Frodo winced, disentangling tiny fingers. “Come on, Pip. Time for bed.”

 

“Tory!” Pippin announced indignantly and Eglantine steared Frodo to a rocking chair set beside the high sided cot and handed him a small and colourful book that had obviously seen better days. He settled in the deeply cushioned chair and sat Pippin in his lap.

 

“Once upon a time there was a little green frog who lived in a farmer's pond . . .”

 

Half an hour later Eglantine turned back the brightly coloured bedding as Frodo whispered, “And the frog and the duck lived happily ever after.”

 

Peregrin was fast asleep and Frodo bent to kiss blond curls, inhaling the sweet fragrance of lavender and faunt. Eglantine lifted her son from his cousin's arms, noting the softness in bright blue eyes with a knowing smile. Frodo watched as she tucked in her bairn and then she turned to him with a nod. “You'll do, lad. Give it a few more years and you'll be best friends, I've no doubt.”

 

Frodo followed her from the room as Pervinca entered to seek her own bed. The two youngest girls shared the nursery with Pippin, Pearl only recently having been deemed old enough to have a room of her own. Pervinca reached up to give her mama a hug and received a kiss in return. Frodo was surprised when the lass hugged him too and he bent to kiss her cheek. It was a long time since he had experienced such family interaction and he cleared his throat as he felt tears prickle behind his eyes.

 

-0-

 

As spring weather is wont to do, after the rain of the previous day, the next morning dawned bright and sunny.

 

Bilbo sighed with pleasure as he smoothed the fine wool of his own waistcoat, newly returned from the laundry. He felt much more comfortable in his own carefully co-ordinated wardrobe. Frodo had to acknowledge that he too felt better in his green suit. At least he could fasten the waistcoat, although he noted that the sleeves of his shirt were a little shorter than was usual for Shire fashion. He was still growing and it was perhaps time to pay a visit to one of his aunts in Brandy Hall to have some new ones made.

 

Like Brandy Hall, breakfasts in Great Smials were an informal affair taken in the largest dining hall, which could seat all its residents at once if required. At breakfast time, however, visitors and family drifted in an out over the period of an hour, helping themselves from the many warming dishes set on a long board to one side of the hall.

 

Ferumbras having taken breakfast in his own rooms at his usual horrendously early hour, Paladin was presiding over the hall as he finished his own repast. Sitting at top-table with the farm steward, Pal beckoned them to places at his other side. As soon as they were seated May Gamgee appeared to fill their cups with tea. Traditionally, coffee was never served at breakfast in Great Smials. She smiled prettily at Bilbo, gaze dropping as she served Frodo.

 

Bilbo began to add milk and honey to his cup. “Good morning, May. How are you settling in here?”

 

May glanced at the Master's son, who smiled and nodded. “Very well, sir. I'm learnin' a lot and everyone's very friendly,” she replied with a smile of her own.

 

Paladin nodded. “May is a hard worker and seems to get on well with the other lasses.”

 

“I'm pleased to hear that. Your mother asked me to pass on your family's regards.” Bilbo stirred his tea.

 

“Thank you, sir. I hope I'm not too forward if I ask you to give her my love when you return? I'm afraid I haven't had time to write of late, what with the spring plantin'.”

 

Bilbo's eyes widened as he sought the girl's scrubbed hands. “Surely they have not had you tending the fields!”

 

Paladin snorted. “Don't be a goose, Bilbo. What do you take me for? Eglantine would have my hide if I asked the smial staff to work in the fields. This isn't Hobbiton. Extra folk and family come from round about to help with the planting and they have to be fed and found beds. That means the indoor staff have their hands full. But May here is pulling her weight well enough.”

 

May blushed at the compliment, bobbing a little curtsy before bustling off to answer a call for more tea from another table.

 

Frodo buttered some toast. “When does the planting end? I think it's just finished around Hobbiton.”

 

Paladin nodded. “Aye, we're almost done here. In fact we would have almost had it yesterday, but for the heavens opening. I reckon two more days will do it. Then things will calm down a bit.”

 

Frodo kept one eye on May as she flitted about the large room. She had filled out again in the past year, in more places than her waistline, and her freckles did not contrast so sharply with her complexion now that her cheeks had regained their roses. The sandy curls that she had so often been teased about were now tamed into glossy ringlets that bounced pertly as she moved. Perhaps it was being away from home and having to fend for herself, but she seemed more mature. Even her way of speaking had changed, losing some of the contractions of her country roots.

 

In his turn, Bilbo kept one eye on his nephew. He suspected that Frodo would probably end up settling down with someone of more fire, but there was no denying that May Gamgee was growing into a comely lass. Seventeen was a bit young to be thinking about courting but Bell's brood had always been mature for their years and May was no exception.

 

-0-

 

“Good morning Aunt Eglantine.” Frodo finally tracked down his aunt in the nursery.

 

“Fow!” Pippin, who was sporting an alarmingly bright pink jumper, was sitting in the centre of a large, thick rug, surrounded by a the detritus of his morning's play. When he clambered onto unsteady feet and began to stumble his way to Frodo, Eglantine wisely swept everything out of his way.

 

Incredibly flattered by his little cousin's display of affection, Frodo dropped to his knees and held out his arms. Three more steps and he was clasping a wriggling Pippin, who placed an incredibly sloppy but loving kiss on his older cousin's cheek. “Hello, Pip.” Frodo grinned as he settled the faunt upon the rug at his side and used his sleeve to wipe slobber from his cheek.

 

Eglantine dropped her head to hide a smile.

 

There was a chuckle from behind. “We were wondering when you would turn up.” Frodo turned to discover a grey haired matron sitting in a rocking chair, a large pile of knitting in her lap. “I knew once they'd met proper he wouldn't be able to stay away. Our Pippin draws people like flies to honey.”

 

Eglantine Took beamed. “I don't think you've met before. Frodo Baggins, this is Margery. Margery has been in charge of the Great Smials nursery since Pal was a faunt. Margery, this is Bilbo's nephew. Drogo and Primula's son.”

 

Margery's brown eyes narrowed and she fixed him with a gimlet gaze, pursing her lips. “It's good to see you've taken no harm from yesterday's adventures.” She sniffed as she started another row on her project. “Never understood this fascination Brandybucks have for water. It only ever leads to trouble. Your father learned that the hard way.”

 

Frodo felt anger rise. Ever since his parent's drowning he had been hearing similar comments and still they had the ability to make him see red.

 

Eglantine cleared her throat hurriedly but before she or Frodo could say anything Pippin, who had been watching his older cousin creating a tower with his building bricks, knocked over the edifice with a loud, delighted squeal. Frodo's ire melted into a giggle. “You little terror. I suppose I shall have to build that all over again,” he asserted with mock dismay.

 

Pippin gave a wide grin and held out a brick. “Fow, fix.”

 

Eglantine laughed. “Now you've done it, Frodo. He'll have you building towers all day.”

 

Frodo began to pile the bricks that Pippin solemnly handed him one by one. “I don't mind.”

 

“How are you liking Hobbiton,” Eglantine asked as she began to collect up some of the other toys scattered about them. “I expect it feels very different to Brandy Hall. Do you miss all your friends?”

 

Pippin crowed loudly as he toppled the bricks and Frodo patiently began to pile them again. “I do miss Fredegar and Merry but Bilbo has promised that we shall visit regularly.” He paused before adding, “I suppose it's the same for May Gamgee. Uncle Paladin says she's settling in well but I suppose, coming from a large family, that she misses her brother and sisters.”

 

Eglantine handed Frodo a stray brick that had rolled under the rocking chair. “I knew she had a large family in Hobbiton but I'm afraid I haven't had much time to talk to the girl. She seems to have made friends with her room mates, Primrose and Bluebell.” She smiled as Pippin knocked over Frodo's carefully constructed tower once more and helped corral the bricks. “I wonder if she'd like to visit home for a few days once the planting is done. I'm certain we could spare her and she can take her first year's wages home to her parents.”

 

“I'm sure she'd like to see her mother again and I know Bell misses her terribly.”

 

“Tom Carter is due the day after tomorrow. She could ride back to Hobbiton with him. I don't like the idea of a girl walking the Great East Road alone and I'll give him a couple of coppers for his trouble.”

 

Margery interjected dryly from her corner. “Mayhap Masters Bilbo and Frodo could do with the ride as well. That way, if it rains, they'll not get so muddy.”

 

Frodo grinned and rolled his eyes. “I'm told mud is good for the complexion.”

 

Margery was never at a loss for words, however. “Then you two must have the prettiest backsides in the Shire.”

 

-0-

 

Two days later Tom Carter was feeling very cheerful. Carting packages did not bring in much money but passengers paid more and, if they were of the right sort, provided good company too. Bilbo and Frodo Baggins now, they were definitely the right sort. Before the cart wheels had left the courtyard the gents were singing one of Mister Bilbo's compositions, and young May Gamgee was joining in by the second chorus. Most hobbits can carry a tune but Master Frodo had a particularly fine voice and Bilbo persuaded him to sing a solo. If the lad noticed May Gamgee's admiring gaze he said nothing but Tom and Bilbo shared a smile.

 

At the Frog and Bucket they stopped off to stretch their legs and tend to nature's call. Whilst food was not a speciality of the house, the establishment was renowned for it's cider so, of course, Bilbo insisted that they all sit down for a half. As Bilbo offered to pay for all, Tom decided it would be rude to refuse. May was a little young for cider but Bilbo only winked when she pointed that out. “One half will do you no harm.” Frodo proved himself to be the perfect gentlehobbit, holding May's chair for her, and Bilbo suspected that her blush had very little to do with the warming effect of a mug of cider on a brisk spring day.

 

When they climbed back onto the cart Bilbo moved up to sit with Tom and the two lit their pipes. That left Frodo and May amongst the parcels at the back. Even as he made small talk with Tom, Bilbo kept one ear tuned to the conversation behind him. For several minutes there was silence. Then two voices spoke at once.

 

“Are you looking forward to getting home, Master Frodo?/Are you looking forward to seeing your Ma again?”

 

That was followed by a chorus of embarrassed laughter. “I love visiting relatives but I've grown to enjoy the peace and quiet of Bag End. It was difficult at first, being used to all the noise and bustle of Brandy Hall, but now I love having space and time to myself, and Uncle Bilbo is very good company.”

 

Bilbo felt a warm glow within his chest, for he had always worried that life at Bag End, with a crochety old bachelor, would not suit the youngster.

 

“I can't imagine rattling around in that big smial. I like havin' family around me. It was bad enough when Hal and Ham left home and mayhap Daisy won't be far behind.” May rummaged in a basket at her side and offered Frodo an apple.

 

Frodo was a tween so he accepted readily. “I hope you don't mind that Sam showed me your letters. Are you really happy at Great Smials or are you putting a good face on it? Because I'm certain Bilbo can arrange for you to come home if you want to and the Thain won't mind.”

 

May passed a couple of apples up to Bilbo and Tom and selected one for herself. “Oh, no. I love workin' there. I've made lots of new friends and they're gettin' to be like family. I don't see the Thain much but Master Paladin and Mistress Eglantine are nice and I'm learnin' so much.”

 

Bilbo smiled to hear May's country accent creeping back, the closer they got to Hobbiton.

 

“Ferumbras is not one for standing on ceremony and Eglantine and Paladin are good people. They treat everyone like family. Great Smials is at least a little less formal than Brandy Hall. Much as I love Rorimac, he can be a bit of a stickler for rules.”

 

“Hah!” A blackbird started out of the hawthorn, with a scolding chatter of alarm, at Bilbo's exclamation. “The Master of Buckland is a stickler at applying the rules to everyone else. Not so much to himself.”

 

Frodo joined the general laughter. “He says there has to be some advantage to being the Master.”

 

By now they had reached Bywater and there was some discussion about whether to stop at the Green Dragon for some food, but home was beckoning to May and the Baggins. Tom would be happy enough lunching at the Ivy Bush in Hobbiton for he had no post to deliver in Bywater that day and several pieces for Hobbiton.

 

Tom had to navigate his pony and cart carefully through the market and, with a chorus of thanks to their driver, May, Frodo and Bilbo set cheerful feet onto the lane, over the bridge and up the hill toward home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 




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