Bell's Table by elwen of the hidden valley

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As it happened, the next stall was that set up by the dwarves and Frodo wondered if Donnett had been listening to their conversation with Hardeband Bentwistle, for he doffed his hat and made a sweeping bow to both Bell and Bilbo. “Good day to you, gentlehobbits. Donnett at your service,” he offered with a broad and welcoming grin.

Bilbo released Bell to make a formal bow in return. “Bilbo Baggins at yours and your family's. We met last year but let me introduce my companions, Mistress Bell Gamgee, a neighbour, and Frodo Baggins, my nephew.”

Bell bobbed in greeting and Frodo made his best bow, feeling much more comfortable in the presence of this unpretentious fellow than he had before Master Bentwistle.

The black bearded dwarf's grin grew even wider. Jamming his hat back upon his head, Donnet turned to call over his shoulder into one of the covered carts. “Hoy, Bot! No need to go looking. Bilbo Baggins is here.”

“Well, of course he's here. We're in Hobbiton aren't we? I'm nipping up to Bag End this afternoon,” came the somewhat annoyed reply, followed by a long white beard and a large round face peering from between the curtains of the wagon entrance.

“No. I mean he's here,” Bot replied with a wave in Bilbo's direction.

“Oh. Well, why didn't you say so?” Bot jumped down from the cart and Frodo would have sworn that the ground trembled as he landed. He was followed by several more, who all stood in a line and bowed low to Bilbo. A chorus of, “At your service,” was followed by Bilbo's repeated, “At yours and your family's.”

Then came the introductions. Bot stepped forward to name his companions to Bell and Frodo. “I am Bot, the leader of this company. Let me introduce you to Gribble, Tibble, Kwilim and Dwilim. Donnett, you've already met.”

Bot seemed to be the oldest of the group, his white beard dressed with gold beads and so long that he tucked it into his wide belt. Gribble and Tibble appeared slightly younger, although it was difficult to tell beneath their bushy red beards. Tibble had on a large white apron and, from the stains upon it, was apparently the cook for their party. Kwilim and Dwilim had brown hair and arresting green eyes which declared them to be related in some way.

All were dressed in expensive looking tooled leather jerkins and fine linen shirts, but Frodo noted the gleam of mail beneath when they moved, and their huge boots were more than serviceable. The parting of the cart's curtains also provided a glimpse of an alarming assortment of axes and knives and Kwilim grinned and twitched them closed again when he saw Frodo's eyes widen.

“Now that we are introduced you must all promise to come along to Bag End later for supper,” announced Bilbo.

To his consternation, instead of replying straight away the dwarves formed a huddle, whispering among themselves for some time until Bot stepped forward. “We thank you very kindly for your most excellent offer, but I am not altogether sure that we would all fit in a hobbit hole. I understand that they can be quite . . . compact.”

Bell looked scandalised but Bilbo only chuckled. “Nonsense my dear fellow. Bag End is quite spacious and at one time entertained fourteen of your fellow dwarves.”

Frodo stepped forward to add, “And a wizard.”

Bot removed his hat and scratched his balding head. “What am I thinking? Of course. How could I have forgotten?” He turned to his companions and received a chorus of nods. “We would be honoured, Mister Baggins.”

“That's settled, then. Frodo and I will see you for supper. Will seven o'clock be too early?”

“That will be perfect,” Bot replied. “It gives us time to clear away the goods and make ourselves presentable.”

“Good, good. Well, good day to you, sirs.” Bilbo turned to leave but Frodo tugged at his sleeve.

“Uncle, they have quills.”

“What? Oh yes. Perfect.” Bilbo selected a couple of rather grand snowy white feathers and examined the tips.

“Is it pens yer wantin?” Gribble asked with a burr, his eyes acquiring an assessing gleam.

“Yes. We are down to our last couple and it is most vexing,” Bilbo replied. “How much would you like for these?”

“Before ye buy them let me see if I can interest ye in these.” He opened a small narrow wooden box to reveal something that made Bilbo's eyes widen.

“Oh my! Elven writing pens. You even have the spare nibs!” He wiped a hand on his waistcoat before reaching in to lift a fine, intricately carved wooden rod a hand-span long, with a beautiful silver ferrule at one end, into which he now pushed the delicate silver nib that Gribble passed to him. He held it up for Frodo's inspection. “I have not seen one of these since I was in Rivendell. The nibs last much longer than a quill and write so smoothly. They’re even better than the ones Tom Buckleby makes.”

Frodo leaned in to examine the fine floral carving that wound about the rod. Harry Mugwort could not have produced better and he had been the best woodworker in the Shire. “It is beautiful, Bilbo. But will we be able to get replacement nibs if we need them?”

Gribble's eyes gleamed brighter at the prospect of repeat trade. “Absolutely, laddie. In fact, once we know that ye may need them we will ensure that we carry them on all future visits to the Shire,” he replied expansively. “But just one more moment, Mr Baggins. I see that ye are a gentlehobbit of discerning tastes, so I will show ye something very special.” He ducked beneath the table and much rummaging and clinking was heard before he re-appeared with another little box. This one was made of some fine white stone that was carved in deep relief with a design of entwining leaves and roses. With great ceremony he slowly lifted the hinged lid.

Nestled securely within padded green velvet was another fine pen, only this one was not made of wood. Glistening in the sunlight it appeared to be made of some clear crystal, carved into a fine twisting spiral, the tip ending with an eye to which was attached a delicate gold silk tassel. The ferrule was gold and so were the three nibs secured within their own little holder inside the lid. Bell Gamgee leaned in to inspect it, awe sounding clear in her little gasp. “Tis a thing of beauty. I can't imagine a body darin' to use it. It looks like it would blow away on yer next breath,” she declared softly.

Even Bilbo and Frodo were silent for a moment, then Bilbo reached out to run a finger along its length. “This surely came from Dale.”

Gribble smirked knowingly but it was Bot who replied. “No indeed. This was made by the elves, Master Baggins. From the hidden valley of Rivendell and the house of Lord Elrond himself. We were going to see if we could sell it in Mithlond but if ye take a fancy to it . . .” He blinked. “That reminds me . . . I have a package for ye. A gift from that verra lord.”

Kwilim vaulted back into the cart, reappearing in seconds with a large, cloth wrapped bundle that he threw to Bot. Frodo noted that it must be heavy for Bot flexed his knees as he caught it surely. Bilbo untied a fine blue satin ribbon that secured it, handing it absently to Bell, who ran appreciative fingers along its length before beginning to wrap it about her fingers in a neat roll. The fine figured green velvet fell open to reveal a neat stack of creamy paper and Bilbo beamed in delight.

“How very thoughtful of Master Elrond. He must know how difficult it sometimes is to get paper in the Shire,” Frodo noted with a smile.

Bilbo scoffed. “Yes, well, it would help if there were more demand for it. People here really do not read and write enough.”

Bell was not about to let that slide. “Readin' an' writin' is a wealthy hobbit's pastime, Mr Bilbo. Not that I don't thank ye for teachin' my Sam, but if he's got nothin' to read what's the point?”

Frodo was surprised but Bilbo only smiled indulgently at the good lady. “I confess that books are expensive, but isn’t it good to hear from May occasionally? If you could read and write you wouldn’t have to rely upon Sam and you could write to your sons, instead of having to wait for a message via Tom Carter.”

Bell was silent, and Frodo suspected that she was considering his uncle's words. With three of her children now scattered throughout the farthings, letters would be a comfort indeed. At least she got word from May, but Frodo determined to help Sam compose some letters to her sons during their next writing lesson. Sam’s brothers may not be able to read them but there was always someone in each community that could relate the contents.

Bot held out the package of paper and Frodo stepped in to accept it for his uncle. Bilbo smiled his thanks. “Thank you, lad. Just nip up to Bag End with it, would you? Pop it on the table by my writing desk.”

Frodo complied at once and Bilbo handed over to Bell the fine fabric it had been wrapped in. “Why don't you have this and the ribbon, Bell. I'm sure you will make better use of it than I.”

Bell accepted both with a wide smile and, having folded the fabric carefully, then stood stroking the fine stuff, her eyes distant as she considered what to make with it. Perhaps a new weskit for Ham or a couple of pretty cushions.

As soon as Frodo was out of sight Bilbo returned his attention to Bot. “How much for the pen?”

Bot pursed his lips and stroked a hand down the length of his luxuriant beard. “One silver penny.”

Bilbo's eyes widened. “Preposterous. I could buy a decent pony for that.”

All the dwarves leaned close to listen and Bot's bushy eyebrows rose. “But could you write with it? I could sell this easily enough to Lord Cirdan's folk on the coast.”

Bilbo had grown used to the ways of dwarves, however. “But carrying it that distance is a risky business. It's a delicate thing and the roads are not as safe as they once were. Better three farthings in your pocket now than a pile of broken bits in a few days time.”

“Three farthings is not what I was hoping for.” Bot waited while Bilbo considered further.

“If you throw in one of the wooden pens as well, you can have your silver penny. That's my last offer.”

The dwarves formed another huddle in which there were some heated but whispered exchanges. Finally, Bot turned back, holding out his hand. “Done.”

Bilbo pumped his huge fist. “Perfect. Now I shall have a new pen and the other I shall set aside for Frodo's birthday present.”

Bell wondered which would go to Frodo. The lad was still a tween, although more careful and sweet natured than some. Even so, a crystal pen would be a little fancy for him, in her opinion. Then again, Bilbo Baggins was known for his extravagance. He'd be just as likely to gift it to her little Sam, upon a whim.

Now Bilbo grinned as Gribble held out his hand for the coin, testing it between his canines before disappearing it into his pocket. Kwilim began to wrap both purchases in strong brown paper and string but when he made to hand the parcels over Bilbo waved them away. “I've no room in my pockets at present. Why not bring them along to supper?”

“Right you are, Mr Baggins.” Gribble turned to Bell Gamgee and the gleam returned to his eyes when he saw her gently stroke a little polished stone threaded upon a fine silver chain. “As a friend of Mr Baggins I may be able to do a good deal on that for ye, Mistress.”

Bell snatched back her hand as though scolded then sniffed. “Tis a mite too rich for the likes of me, even with a deal. My Ham needs new shirts more than I need that.” She moved on to a box of brightly coloured ribbons. “How much fer a ribbon?” she asked as she fingered the fine weave.

“There's over a yard in each so, as yer a friend o' Mr Baggins, five for a farthing.” Gribble tried for an innocent expression and failed.

Bell snorted, sure of her ground when it came to ribbons. “I'll give ye a farthin' for ten,” she announced, hands on ample hips.

Gribble knew the game well. “Seven for a farthing. Ye'll not find better this side o' the Misty Mountains and portage this far does nay come cheap.” He folded his arms.

“They're pretty, I'll grant ye, but I could buy material to dress my Mari with that much. I'm only wantin' to trim Daisy's frock.” She frowned, folding her own arms. “Eight for a farthin. Take it or leave it as ye wish.”

The two protagonists eyed each other good-naturedly over the box of ribbons as Bilbo looked on with some amusement. Gribble pursed his lips and held his ground until Bot nudged him with an elbow. “Ye drive a hard bargain, Mistress.” Gribble held out his hand and Bells eyes shone as bright as the copper farthing she dropped in his meaty fist.

Bilbo left his neighbour to her selection but drew Bot aside for a quiet word.

-0-

“There you are, Ham,” Bilbo announced brightly as he claimed a space on the grass by the side of the Gamgee's replenished picnic cloth.

Hamfast grinned. “I reckon I weren't that difficult to find. Someone's got to watch the faunts and food an' I'm not one for shoppin'. Is my Bell still at it?”

Bilbo popped a bright red radish in his mouth. “I left her selecting ribbons for Daisy's new dress.”

Hamfast shook his head, offering Bilbo a cup of cider as he noted his eyes watering. “Them radishes are a mite stronger than usual. I got the seeds from a fella down Hardbottle way last year. I told my Bell to get summat for herself, but she always puts the bairns first.”

The cup was half empty before Bilbo could continue. “She was admiring a little pendent brought by the dwarves, but she settled upon the ribbons instead.”

“A pendent you say? I wonder how much they're wantin' for it. I've some coin set aside for my birthday and I wanted to get her somethin' special this year. She's been missin' May.” Hamfast smiled as his youngest held out a napkin and Bilbo accepted it to mop his brow and dab at his still watering eyes.

Bilbo selected a sandwich, lifting a corner to peep at the contents to check for any more radishes, before taking a bite. He swallowed politely before replying. “Would you like me to accompany you to discuss the price? I have some experience haggling with dwarves and would be happy to place myself at your disposal.”

Hamfast cut a chicken sandwich into fingers before placing it on little Marigold's plate, whilst the avidly listening Sam pealed a hardboiled egg. After a moment's consideration Hamfast shook his head. “I can't see 'em drivin' a harder bargain than Ted Sandyman.”

Bilbo grinned. “You have a point. Would you like me to watch the faunts while you go across? I think Bell was considering going to check upon Daisy. If she returns here I shall keep her occupied.”

“Thank you, Mr Bilbo, sir. I'll be back in a jiffy.” Hamfast jumped to his feet and wove his way through the crowds.

Bilbo chuckled and gave the returning Frodo a wink. “A jiffy? I doubt that if I know Gribble.”

-0-

That evening, while the party was still in full swing down in the field, a line of dwarves made their way quietly up the lane to Bag End. Bell Gamgee was the only person who noted them, as she stood at the kitchen window wiping Marigold's face and hands. Her heart caught, and she murmured to her youngest, “I hope as how Mr Bilbo ain't goin' to go travellin' again. He's got young Master Frodo to look to nowadays.”

Marigold beamed a gap-toothed smile and Bell gathered her up. “Come along my little lass. Time ye was in bed. Ye've had a long day.”

Taking a last gulp of his milk and stifling a yawn, Sam followed his Ma and younger sister from the room.

-0-

Both Baggins' looked up at a loud knock upon Bag End's round front door. “That will be our guests. Go and turn the sausages Frodo, while I let them in.”

Frodo hurried off and Bilbo straightened his waistcoat and threw open the door with a, “Welcome, welcome! Please come in gentle sirs.”

The dwarves, led by Bot, wiped their huge boots on the doormat and stepped into Bag End's wide hallway. At least it usually seemed wide, but crowded with six dwarves it did not seem quite so spacious. Each carried a parcel and Bilbo waved them to a large, flat topped, chest, above which was a line of pegs. “Please, put your packages down over there and hang up your hats.”

Bot glanced about the hall and then surreptitiously handed over two smaller packages to Bilbo. “These are the purchases you made.”

Bilbo accepted them with a nod and tucked them away in a corner, behind a large potted plant. “Come into the dining room. Supper is almost ready. We're just waiting for the sausages.”

“They're here, Uncle.” Frodo arrived with a huge platter, piled high with Bill Bracegirdle's best herbed sausages. Gribble rubbed his hands, several of the company inhaled appreciatively, and everyone hurried to follow Frodo and the sausages into the dining room.

It was two hours before Bilbo heard anything beyond, “Pass the sausages,” or “Any more beer?” or, “Excellent mashed potato”. Then, having helped with the washing up . . . for what good guest would not . . . they all adjourned to the parlour. There they settled down and lit their pipes, listening to the fading festivities down the hill.

As he opened the window Bilbo saw several revelers staggering arm in arm up the lane, and noted that there would be many a thick head tomorrow morning. He had taken his role as guardian quite seriously today and was relieved, when he turned back into the room, to find Frodo's clear bright eyes watching. “Shall I ask Master Gamgee to take his wheelbarrow down to the field? Some of them may need help up the hill.”

Bilbo shook his head. “No. It's a warm dry night. It will do them no harm to sleep in the field and may even teach some the cost of over indulgence. Hamfast works hard all year and deserves a good night's sleep in his bed.”

Gribble's teeth flashed in the candlelight. “Aye, and he's got a braw lass to warm it for him. Ouch!”

Bot kicked his companion's foot soundly and Frodo smothered a giggle when Bilbo flashed him a warning glance. “Bell Gamgee was considered quite a catch in her day and she's raised her brood well. Hamfast is blessed and he knows it.” Bilbo settled into his chair by the hearth, with Frodo on the hassock at his side. “How does your lady wife fare, Bot?”

“Gild is doing well, thank you. We're grandparents now and she's doting on the little lad. He's already walking and she found him playing with his Da's hammer and chisel just before I left. The lad's a born tunneler,” Bot replied proudly.

“Congratulations! I know children are very precious to dwarves . . . not that they're any less so in the Shire . . . but I understand that your people tend toward smaller families.” Bilbo drew deep on his pipe and blew out a large, fragrant, smoke ring.

Were the candle light brighter Bilbo had no doubt that Bot would be blushing. “Yes, well. Even after all these years not everyone has returned to Erebor. We've plenty of halls yet to fill and Dain Ironfoot has issued an invitation for any dwarf who would like to move. We've a lot of rebuilding still to do.”

“Even torn by Smaug as they were, I remember your halls were quite beautiful,” Bilbo offered wistfully. “I wish I could see them now that they are being restored.”

Frodo dropped his head and Bilbo laid a hand upon his shoulder. “But not until I see this young lad come of age at the least. He is family and I have few enough of them. Frodo here is my heir and I mean to teach him everything I know before I even consider taking to the road again.”

Lifting his head with a smile, Frodo laid a hand over his uncle's. “And I promise to be a good pupil.”

“I'll settle for a good nephew, lad, and you only need to continue to be yourself to achieve that. But here, now . . . This conversation is becoming quite maudlin. Did I see a fiddle among the packages our visitors brought with them? How about some music, Bot? I think I may even remember the words to one or two dwarven songs. . .”

So it was that half an hour later the last stragglers up the hill above Hobbiton heard the merry music of pipe, drum and fiddle, accompanied by the bright voices of Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, dancing on the pipeweed scented air that floated from Bag End's open parlour window.

 

 




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