Bell's Table by elwen of the hidden valley

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Bell Gamgee leaned in to wipe steam from her kitchen window and frown at the flat opaque grey sky, framed in the naked branches of the plum tree. “I hope as how that snow folks are talkin' of don't get here afore Yule.”

She turned back to the range to lift the lid on a large pan, releasing the rich aroma of Yule Pudding. Daisy paused in her potato peeling to inhale appreciatively as her mother added more water. “When I've finished these I'll take Sam up the hill with me to light the fires. Did Mr Bilbo say what time he was expecting to get home?”

Bell joined her at the table, taking up a small knife to begin scraping carrots. “I'm blessed if I know. He was ever a one for goin' his own way. Him and Master Frodo was supposed to be comin' back from Buckland with Tom Carter, but Tom called while you was feedin' the pigs to say Mr Bilbo had changed his mind and him and Master Frodo was walkin' back. Somethin' about stretchin' their legs.”

Daisy's sniff sounded so like her mother's that Bell glanced up in surprise. “I don't see why rich folk think it's such fun to walk. If I could afford the fare I'd take a cart everywhere.”

If Bell Gamgee agreed with her daughter she did not do so aloud. She considered it important to keep her tweenage daughter's feet very firmly on the ground. “There's nothin' wrong with walkin'. Tis good for a body. But mayhap tis not so good an idea at this time of year.” She glanced at the window again, it's glass already steamed up again, as the temperature outside continued to drop. “Leave the last of those taters, lass. I'll finish 'em. Ye call Sam and get yerself up to Bag End to light them fires. Mister Baggins and Master Frodo will be froze through when they get home at this rate.”

Daisy set aside her work and turned to wash her hands at the sink before calling through to the bedrooms for her younger brother.

Sam appeared at once, cloak over his arm and his brow lined with worry. “If the snow comes will there be a Yule Fire?”

His mother smiled fondly as she bent to draw the cloak about his narrow shoulders and fasten the ties beneath his chin. “T'will take more than a few flakes of snow to do that, lad. I saw Arty Sedgeburry, Bartimus and one or two others spreading an old oil cloth over it earlier and Arty's kept some dry kindlin', just in case. Don't you worry.” She turned back to her daughter, who was fastening her own cloak. “That reminds me. Mister Bilbo said their Yule Log was in his shed. Don't forget to bring it in and set it by his hearth for later.”

“I won't forget, Ma.” With those words Daisy shepherded her young brother out of the door and up the lane to Bag End.

-0-

Frodo Baggins was trying to decide whether it was more important to use his hands to hug his cloak closed against the freezing wind that had picked up over the past hour, or whether it would be better to slip them into his pockets. He finally settled for holding his cloak. The warmth of their hefty breakfast at the Beak and Whistle had long since worn off and, not for the first time, he was regretting going along with his uncle's decision to walk back to Hobbiton.

This was their second day on the road and they had passed very few other idiots upon it. Most were sensibly shut up in their homes by a roaring fire. Frodo blinked as a snowflake landed on the tip of his nose. It was followed swiftly by another on his foothair and then several more. He pushed back his hood and looked up at a sky now pregnant with snow and groaned. “This goes from bad to worse.”

“Oh, buck up, lad. It never snows for long in the Shire. You know that. And it probably won't even settle.” Bilbo's broad grin and overly bright demeanour did not fool his nephew one iota. Adventurer or not, Bilbo Baggins was as fond of his hearth and feather bed as the next hobbit. Frodo only pulled up his hood again and trudged on in his wake.

Within half an hour the light dry flurries had turned to fat wet clumps and soon it was deep enough to cover their toes. Frodo and Bilbo walked side by side now, heads down and leaning into the wind. It was fortunate that the Great East Road was a kings highway and kept in good repair. High hawthorn hedges ensured that they could not go astray but they kept to the centre, for there were ditches to either side, which were now filling with drifts. The only sounds were that of their own breathing and the moan of wind through the hawthorn's bare branches.

Frodo tried to still the chattering of his teeth for long enough to ask, “How much farther is it to the Bywater turn off?”

Bilbo paused to peer about them. “We passed the Three Farthing Stone about an hour ago so it shouldn't be far now. Don't worry. We'll not miss it.” He took Frodo's elbow and the two leaned closer to share what warmth they had.

It was only moments later that Bilbo pointed to their right, where a gap in the hawthorn indicated their turning. Frodo sighed with relief for the snow was swirling so thickly that he harboured a secret worry that they really had missed it.

Now, the Great East Road was well maintained, for it was used by more than just the folk of the Shire. Dwarves used it as a trade route and even the odd lone big person had been seen upon occasion, although the Bounders stopped most at the Brandywine crossings or the White Downs. Still, there was a tradition that it should be kept in good repair, in case the King returned to inspect it. Most folk in the Shire had neither seen nor wanted to see a king, but they were a people who respected tradition.

The lesser roads did not earn the same attention, however, and it had been a particularly wet autumn, necessitating this years' Harvest Reel being held in Tom Cotton's spare barn. The turning to Bywater was quite sharp and cart wheels had gouged deep ruts in the soft surface of the road. These had filled with muddy water, which had frozen overnight and were now hidden beneath a smooth blanket of white. Bilbo wished they had their walking staves, which could have been used to test the ground before them, but their decision to walk home had been made after their arrival in Buckland. Bilbo sighed quietly as he visualised their staves, standing neatly in the umbrella stand of Bag End's hallway. Well, there was nothing for it. Wishing did not result in having, so he stepped gingerly into the road junction.

Perhaps if he had been less tentative, he would have put his foot down more firmly and gone through the surface film of ice on one of the deeper puddles. But age brought some caution and his foot landed lightly and then simply slid away beneath him. Bilbo tried to keep his other foot in place but he was in danger of splitting more than his breeches if he did not move it. Frodo's grab was too late and Bilbo landed hard in the snow, with a loud yelp.

“Bilbo! Are you alright?” Frodo threw himself on his knees at his uncle's side, running hands up and down his torso to seek out any damage.

Bilbo batted his hands away. “Leave me be! Let me get my breath.”

Establishing that Bilbo was not so badly hurt that he had lost his usual irascible nature, Frodo stilled. “You seem to have breath enough,” he commented with a wry grin as he held out a hand. Bilbo humphed as he accepted and sat up, but when Frodo would have pulled him to his feet Bilbo winced, waiving him off as he looked up apologetically. “I think I may have twisted my ankle.”

Frodo hunkered down again. “Which one?”

“Right.”

Frodo checked that his uncle's foot was pointing in the usual direction before carefully lifting his lower leg. “Can you wiggle your toes?” Bilbo obliged. “Probably not broken then. Let me know when this hurts.” The Terror of Brandy Hall had endured enough examinations like this to know the drill and he gently began moving the foot this way and that. Bilbo gasped when Frodo manipulated it inward. Setting it down, Frodo surveyed their surroundings.

Snow was falling so heavily now that there were few surroundings to be surveyed. It was Bilbo who spoke first. “If you can find me a walking stick I can probably hobble along.” When Frodo only looked sceptical he continued, “Well, we can't stay here, lad. Nobody is going to be out and about in this unless they have to be and I don't think you could carry me.”

Frodo recovered his sense of humour. “Certainly not after the breakfast you put away this morning.” He stood, crossing to the hedgerow, but rather wary of the ditch. “Hawthorn isn't the best of trees for strong straight limbs,” he commented. As he suspected, there were no likely candidates and Frodo resigned himself to the roll of human walking stick.

Taking a moment to tear a strip off the bottom of his cloak he hunkered down at Bilbo's side and began to strap up the offending ankle. “You'll just have to lean on me, Uncle. Once we get closer to Bywater we may find some help.” Five minutes later Bilbo was upright, with his arm about Frodo's shoulders.

For half an hour they hobbled along, Bilbo's silence telling Frodo more than he cared to know about the level of pain he was in. Gradually, they grew aware of the soft footfalls of a pony and the rumble of wheels. They turned in time to see Ted Sandyman steering his cart slowly down the lane. When the walkers did not step aside he was obliged to draw to a stop.

There was little to be seen of Ted's face above the muffler he had wound about his neck and mouth, but his sneering tone told them all they needed to know of the expression beneath. “Think you own the road, do you, Baggins? Some of us need to be getting home.”

“Hello Master Sandyman. We were heading home ourselves but Bilbo has twisted his ankle. I don't suppose you could give us a ride in the back of your cart?” Frodo tried his most ingratiating tone.

'Ingratiating' did not work on Ted, however. “My pony's having enough trouble just pulling the cart through this lot. I've no mind to add the weight of two fat hobbits.”

Bilbo's silence was worrying Frodo so he tried again. “You've no sacks on the back so surely it won't be too much for him. If you could take us as far as the mill, I'm sure we could manage from there.”

Bilbo had lived around Ted Sandiman for long enough to know that pleading or even reasoning would be of little use and went straight for the only thing that would be likely to change Ted's mind. “We would pay you for your trouble, of course.”

Ted, who had been in the process of telling his pony to walk on, pulled on the reins and the poor beast snorted to a sudden stop. “How much?”

Bilbo fished in his jacket pocket, producing three silver pennies and some copper. Frodo managed to add two pennies to that. Tom Carter had been intending to charge them three pennies to bring both of them all the way from Buckland to their own front door, but Ted Sandiman was not Tom Carter. Bilbo held out his hand and Ted's eyes widened at the sight of the five silver pennies. He reached down to grab them before Bilbo had time to change his mind. “Hop in the back and be quick about it. I aint got all day. The Missus wants me home to lay the fire for Yule and all this snow has made me late.”

“Thank you.” Frodo helped his uncle into the cart and they settled side by side for warmth as Ted snapped the reins.

The only saving grace of the next two hours was that Bilbo did not have to walk. Ted ignored all attempts to socialise and Bilbo was in too much pain to care so Frodo was left to huddle close to his uncle and stare at the snow which was, thankfully, slowing as they neared Bywater. When they reached the mill Frodo tried to persuade Ted to take them on to Hobbiton, with the promise of more money, but he would have none of it.

“My missus will be wantin' me to help with the decoratin'. I aint goin' to keep her waitin' because two idiots couldn't take care of themselves. Off you get so I can get Tobin here into the stable.”

So Frodo helped his uncle down, taking an arm about his shoulders and helping Bilbo to hobble off up the lane. In truth, he was not altogether sure that Bilbo could go much further but he hoped they could at least make it to the Ivy Bush, where they may be able to hire a cart and driver to take them the rest of the way.

They had travelled only a few yards however, when Bilbo groaned. “P . . p . . . please, Frodo. I have to s . . stop. Just l . . let me have a few minutes.”

Spying a fallen tree at the roadside, Frodo brushed off the snow as best he could and lowered Bilbo to sit upon it. He hunkered down to see his uncle's face within the depths of his hood and was concerned to see it pale and pinched. “Will you be alright if I leave you here, Bilbo? I can run on ahead to the Green Dragon and come back with help.”

To his credit, Bilbo tried to paste on a smile, although it more closely resembled a grimace. “You go on, lad. I'll do well enough here. The snow has almost stopped.”

Frodo ignored Bilbo's protests as he removed his own cloak and laid it as another layer over his uncle's shoulders. “I'll be warm enough if I run and my jacket is thick. You need the cloak more than I do.” He paused to pat Bilbo's shoulder and then trotted off into the white landscape.

-0-

Daisy helped her Da off with his cloak and muffler. “Is it very deep?” she asked.

“Aye, lass. I've not seen snow this deep for three year or more. But 'tis often the way when you have a hot summer, and this one was a scorcher.”

Bell leaned in to peck his cheek and thrust a cup of hot, strong tea into his hands. “Did ye see aught of the Baggins' on yer way up the lane?”

Hamfast blinked in surprise. “Are they not home yet? I thought Tom Carter said he expected 'em to get here by lunch time.”

Bell filled a basin with warm water and laid a towel by the sink as Ham rolled up his shirt sleeves. “The fires have been lit since first thing so 'tis warm enough. I've had Sam keepin' an eye out through the window but he's not seen 'em go past. Truth told, I'm gettin' a bit worried.”

Ham splashed the soap from his face and hands and Bell held out a towel that had been warming above the range. “Aye. Tis a bit worritin, I'll grant you. Mayhap they decided to stay overnight at an inn when the snow came in.”

Bell rehung the towel to dry and turned to dish up some beef stew, while Daisy sliced bread and set it by her Da's plate. The rest of the family had eaten earlier but now they all sat down with cups of tea to join Ham as he ate his luncheon. Bell buttered a slice of bread, cutting it in half and sharing it between Sam and Marigold. Daisy frowned but said nothing, only recently having learned that being treated as an adult had it's down side.

“Mayhap, but Mister Bilbo was so sure he would be home to start the Yule flame.”

Sam washed down a swallow of bread with a big swig of milky tea. “Will there be no Yule if Mister Bilbo doesn't come home?” He eyed with dismay the draining board, where the chicken was dressed and waiting to be put in the oven tomorrow morning. Their kitchen was filled with the sharp, earthy smell of greenery hung about the hearth and the rich spices of the giant fruit pudding already steaming on the hob.

Bell reached aside to hug her son. “Don't you worrit about that, lad. If they're not back in time the Yule flame will start with us instead. Still, 'tis not like Mister Bilbo to leave us without word and this snow will make hard walkin'.” She frowned across at her husband. “You don't think they're in trouble, do ye?”

Daisy's eyes lit up. “Mayhap they've been attacked by wolves,” she offered almost gleefully. She was still of an age when wolves meant excitement, rather than potential death.

When Bell felt her son flinch she fixed her eldest daughter with a gaze that would have skewered an orc. “Don't be daft, lass. There've been no wolves this side of the Brandywine since before I were a lass.”

“What's a wolf?” Marigold asked.

“Just a big dog, love. They don't come in the Shire so don't you fret,” Ham assured his youngest, even as he frowned at Daisy.

“Sam, lad. Why don't ye take yer sister for a nap? Then ye can come back and help me with the ironin'.” Bell helped Marigold down from the table and accepted a kiss as Sam led his little sister back to the bedrooms.

It took a lot to worry Bell Gamgee and her husband knew it. He also knew that both Baggins were not as sensible as most hobbits. When they were not wasting their time reading books they were traipsing all over the Shire for no particular reason that Hamfast could see. Visiting family upon occasion was one thing but walking to somewhere just to see what was there served no purpose that he could fathom.

“Would you like me to go down to Hobbiton to see if they're about?” he asked as he used a slice of bread to mop his plate. “If I don't see them there I'll try the Bywater road. The snow's probably only slowed 'em down but mayhap they'll appreciate the company the rest of the way and I can take a lantern. Tis the shortest day after all and with all this cloud it'll be dark earlier.”

Bell chewed her cheek for a moment, contemplating her husband out alone in this weather, and then Daisy spoke up. “I can go with you Da. If they've got into any bother an extra body wouldn't hurt and mayhap we can call for Barty on the way.”

Suspecting that the prospect of spending some time with Bartimus Brockbank was the main reason for her tweenage daughter's sudden altruism, Bell nonetheless kept the thought to herself. “Thank ye, lass. Go put on Halfred's old breeches and a warm jacket under yer cloak. Ye'd best fetch yer Da a dry muffler and mittens too.”

“Oh, Ma! I look horrible in breeches,” Daisy pouted.

Bell sighed. “Bartimus won't notice 'neath yer cloak and ye'll be thankin' me if the wind brings more snow. There's nothin' worse than tryin' to walk with yards of wet skirt flappin' around yer legs.”

“But Ma . . .”

“Don't 'but' yer Ma, Daisy Gamgee. Go change while I set the lantern.” Hamfast rarely chided his children so when he did they heeded him.

Only ten minutes later Daisy and her father were walking down the hill. Daisy paused at Brocklebank smial long enough to add Bartimus to the party and they continued down into Hobbiton. Hoping that the Baggins' had taken a room at the Ivy Bush they checked there first, before moving on to Bywater. They found no news of the Baggins' at the Green Dragon in Bywater and, their concern growing, were about to move on just a little further, when Frodo Baggins burst through the door.

“Has anyone . . . got a . . . cart I can borrow?” he called between gasps. It was clear that he had run some distance and he began to cough as soon as the warm air of indoors hit his cold-seared lungs.

Hamfast pushed through the gathering crowd. “Master Frodo? What ever is the matter and where's Mister Bilbo?”

The obvious relief that washed over Frodo upon seeing his neighbour's face brought a glow to Hamfast's heart. “Master Gamgee! It's so good to see you but what are you doing so far from home on the eve of Yule?”

Hamfast allowed himself a lopsided grin. “My missus was worritin' and she would have nothin' but that I should go look for you. But you haven't said where Mister Bilbo is.”

“Bilbo twisted his ankle. Ted Sandyman gave us a ride as far as his mill but Bilbo couldn't walk any farther. I've left him on the side of the road and run straight here.”

The landlord stepped forward. “I don't have no pony but you're welcome to borrow my hand cart. Bartimus there can bring it back on the morrow or my lad can fetch it.”

“I'll do that,” Bartimus replied. “And thank you.”

“Come with me, then. My missus will let you have spare blankets and some warming bricks to keep Mister Baggins warm.”

“Where's your cloak, Master Frodo?” Hamfast asked as he led Frodo to the hearth and someone thrust a mug of hot cider into the lad's hands.

Frodo gulped gratefully before replying. “I gave it to Bilbo. He needed it more than I.”

Five minutes later the small party set off down the road. Bartimus pulled the cart and Daisy walked at his side. Frodo, wrapped in a blanket, led the way with Hamfast.

“I wish I could say I was surprised at Ted Sandyman leavin' you to fend for yourselves,” Hamfast muttered.

Frodo nodded. “Don't think too badly of him. I suppose it was our fault really. We should have known better than to walk any distance at this time of year, but it's been a while since we've had snow this deep. There he is!”

Bilbo was a sorry sight, hunched over on a log at the roadside. Even bundled in two cloaks his teeth were chattering and he could only manage to say, “T . . t . . thank y . . y . . you,” as Bartimus and Hamfast helped him into the handcart and swaddled him in half a dozen heavy blankets.

“Just you lie there, Mister Bilbo. Me and Bartimus will have you both home in no time.” Hamfast would not hear of Frodo helping and he and Bartimus took a handle each to pull the cart; no easy feat through three inches of snow.

By the time they reached Bagshot Row the afternoon was waning and Daisy was now walking ahead with the lantern. So it was that Sam, who was sitting by the window again, spotted them climbing the hill and Bell met them at the gate to Number Three.

“Mister Bilbo! What has happened?” she asked as she saw the blanket wrapped bundle in the handcart.

“He's alright, Bell lass. He's cold and he's turned his ankle, but he'll live.” Hamfast wrapped a meaty arm about his wife's girth as Frodo took his place at a handle of the cart.

“Daisy, you go inside and look to yer brother and sister. I'll go up the hill and see what I can do fer Mister Bilbo,” Bell instructed. Daisy paused only long enough to flash Bartimus a steamy glance before she headed indoors and Bell decided that she needed to have a word with Bartimus Brockbank some time soon. He was well used to dealing with his sister Ruby's shenanigans, but it would not hurt to remind him that Daisy was not yet of age.

-0-

“There, now.” Bell Gamgee dropped a rug over Bilbo's knees and Frodo handed over a mug of tea.

Accepting the tea gratefully, Bilbo smiled at his helpers. “You have all been so good to me that I am already feeling much better.” He was sitting in an arm chair before the fire, in the informal sitting room he and Frodo used for everyday. Bell had re-bandaged his injured foot, propped it upon a footstool and helped him into one of his thickest winter jumpers. The shivering had ceased some time ago and this second cup of tea was doing a very good job of warming him from the inside.

“'tweren't nothin', Mr Bilbo. Just you rest there and Me and Ham will start off the Yule flame this year. Nobody will think badly of ye,” Bell assured him as she raked ashes from the grate and added another log to the blaze. “Yer own Yule log is set ready in the parlour and I made an extra puddin' for ye and Master Frodo. It only needs a while in the oven tomorrow to heat through. The rest of yer Yule dinner is in the pantry and if Master Frodo has any trouble with it he can pop down to Number Three and Daisy will come up to give a hand.”

Frodo was quick to jump in, before Bilbo was gracious enough to accept. Although he and Daisy had reached some accommodation since she started courting Bartimus, Frodo was not about to test it. “It's alright. I'm sure I can manage the dinner by myself. Although I thank you for the offer, Mistress Gamgee.”

Bilbo hid a smile behind his mug and Bell managed to dampen her own before turning to the youngster. “Well, just you make sure that pride don't get in the way of a good dinner,” she chided as she wiped her hands on her apron.

Bilbo settled himself more comfortably. “And there's no need to break the Yule tradition. Frodo can light our log and carry the flame down to Number Three. I shall be quite happy to sit here by the fire but there's no reason for him not to attend the bonfire.”

A new voice asserted, “There's no reason you can't come yourself, Mister Baggins.” Bartimus and Nedis Brocklebank stood in the doorway and between them sat a sturdy kitchen chair, trimmed with ivy and ribbons. They laughed when they saw Bilbo's eyes widen. “It wouldn't be the same without Bilbo Baggins. Me and my brothers can carry you down the hill and bring you back. Mayhap you won't be able to join the dance ring but at least you can watch and wish everyone a happy Yule.”

“The fire's going ahead then?” Frodo asked in surprise.

Hamfast Gamgee chuckled. “'twill take more than a few inches of snow to stop that and we'll all be warm enough once it's lit and the dancin' starts.” He winked. “Warmer still when the cider jug is passed around. We covered the fire as soon as the snow started so the wood will be dry enough.”

Bell Gamgee pursed her lips as she assessed Bilbo. It always amazed her how fit he was for his age and how quickly he recovered from the few illnesses he suffered.

Bilbo set down his cup and rubbed his hands with glee. “That sounds like a capital idea, Bartimus. If you and your brothers really don't mind I would love to attend.”

“Nothin' too it Mister Baggins. We'll have you down there in a jiffy and you just need to let us know when you're ready to come home.”

Frodo leaned down to hug his uncle. “I'll fetch your warmest cloak and some mittens.”

Bell Gamgee took Bilbo's empty mug to the kitchen, pausing to call over her shoulder, “Don't forget to fetch one for yerself lad. It's fair nitherin' out there now the sun's gone down. And ye'd best get back quick if yer goin' to set yer log in time to light the Yule flame too.”

“Bell and Ham, you'd best get back to your own smial to make ready. If Bartimus and Nedes will oblige I can hobble into the parlour to help Frodo deal with the log. The kindling bag is on the mantle.”

Hamfast moved to shepherd his wife to the door but she held back. “Daisy says she dressed the log for ye but are ye sure ye can manage?”

Bilbo waived them off. “Away with you both. I am certain that Daisy would cope at Number Three if she had to, but the Yule flame should be accepted by the head of the family.” When Bell would have hesitated again Hamfast tucked her arm in his. “Come on, lass. They'll manage.”

So it was that Bartimus and Nedes Brockbank joined the Baggin's family for the lighting of their ivy dressed Yule log. A much muffled-up Bilbo was carried down the hill to pass the candle flame to a grinning Hamfast Gamgee at the gate to Number Three Bagshot Row, along with the traditional blessing . . .

“May you have hearth to comfort, fire to cook and candle to guide you home.”

As Hamfast had promised, the bonfire in Hobbiton's Party Field lit easily from the candle that young Frodo Baggins thrust deep into its' heart and soon everyone, even those too old or infirm to join the ring of dancers, were joining the age old chant of . . .

“Tis the time of endings.

Tis the time of beginnings.

Health, Hope and Happiness.

Light, Love and Laughter.

Prosperity and Peace to all!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 




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