POV - Multiple
In which a party is thrown, a wizard is remembered, sisters of various types exchange various words, an infatuation occurs, and a husband and wife dance.
The Great Smials, Evening, 22 Halimath, 1320
Belladonna Baggins shaded her eyes and watched the sun set beyond the shallow valley below the Great Smials. Most of the valley was already in the soft shadows of an early autumn evening, and just the ridges north, south and east still caught her last rays. Someone, probably her nephew Gis, was encouraging the children to wave at the sunset and bid Mistress Sun farewell. She heard Bungo chuckle next to her, and turned to watch him join the children in their salutation. He gave her his best grin, and she could not help but laugh. Slipping an arm around her husband, she also waved and called out a farewell.
Father’s birthday party, if one could apply such a simple name to such an involved and drawn out celebration, had been underway since noon, and would last as long as there was food, drink and company to be had. She had traveled from Buckland with Mira, Gorbadoc and all the children a week before to help prepare the Smials for the event. They had collected Donna, Hugo and Dugo from the Yale as they traveled past. As soon as they had arrived, Willow, Lalia and Marmalda had kidnapped her and her sisters and put them to work. Gorbadoc and Hugo had been closeted with Father, her brothers, and her cousin, Wilson Chubb, most of the week, talking over Thain business. She scarcely had time to give Bungo a welcome kiss before he, his brother-in-law Rudigar Bolger and Willow’s brother, Rudolph Burrows, were similarly swept off after their parties arrived two days ago.
Bella laid her head on Bungo’s shoulder, circling his too-slight torso with her arms. Ever since his mother, Laura, had died on Yule day four years past, he had begun shrinking. Bungo had never regained his full weight after the Fell Winter, but he had been solid enough. Now his stomach was almost flat, she could make out his ribs, his joints were knobby, his plump cheeks hollow, and his thick, dark brown hair had turned a thin, yellowy-white. Bella hugged him tightly while he nuzzled her hair.
‘Mother! Father!’ Bilbo agilely dodged several small children playing tag, bestowed a kiss on an aunt in passing, elbowed a cousin out of the way, and hopped a tipped-over bench as he made his way through the crowd to their side, all without slowing down or spilling anything from the flagons of beer he was carrying. All three raised an informal toast in the direction of the tree under which Father was sitting.
‘Finally escaped babysitting duties, have you?’ Bungo joked with his son. Bilbo swallowed and grinned.
‘Yes, father! Lalia, Aunt Willow, and Aunt Mira took pity on me,’ Bilbo replied, then put on an innocent expression. ‘They said something about not wanting me to set a bad example for impressionable children, as I had done enough damage this week.’ They all laughed, though Bungo wagged an admonitory finger in Bilbo’s direction.
Willow had put Bilbo in charge of the older children, knowing Gis would not take this responsibility seriously enough. In addition to his usual five from Brandy Hall (Rory, Saradas, Amaranth, Drogo and Wili – though, truth be told, Wili was a tween and should have been looking after himself), Bilbo had another fifteen assorted Took and Took-in-law cousins to keep an eye on. Cheerful mayhem had reigned for most of the week, as Bilbo kept egging them on into mischief. A dog was found up in a tree, sugar and salt had been exchanged on a few dining tables, a great game of hide-and-seek had resulted in thoroughly disarranged linen presses and storage areas, some ponies had escaped from the barn, sweets barely had time to cool before they disappeared, articles of clothing were worn in rather odd manners, a few snoozing old uncles has woken to find their faces painted with soot, and some minor bits of crockery had been shattered. Bilbo had done his usual excellent job of keeping the youngsters out of serious trouble. He had even patched up all of the scraped knees and bruised elbows himself, though he was careful to tell her of any hurt, however minor, a child had taken that day.
Bella sipped her beer, watching Bilbo entertain his father with a few tales of the less incriminating adventures he had led the children on. She was glad that Bilbo had been kept so busy, with all of his attention on his small cousins. All I had to do to know what he was up to was listen for the scolding. That was a relief. After supper, she had no difficulty guiding her two weary boys off to their bed and tucking them in to sleep. They all shared a single chamber in their usual suite of rooms, since there were so many kin come to visit. In the mornings, she would peek around the curtain that separated the room at night, and breathe a sigh of relief at the sight of them sleeping soundly, Drogo’s face buried against Bilbo’s back, his frail arm draped over his big cousin.
Bungo and Bilbo’s heads were close together as father told son, in conspiratorial tones, of a certain prank he and Hildibrand had once played on Isembard that involved a goat, two chickens, and a great deal of flour. She remembered that prank quite well. It was what first brought Bungo Baggins to her attention. Bella was not certain she liked the thoughtful look on Bilbo’s face, and wondered whether he would importune Gis to help play the prank on Wili, or vice-versa. She would need to tell Lalia to get the flour secured, and tell Gar to keep track of the goats. The chickens could fend for themselves. Knowing Bilbo, he’ll make due with sheep and chaff, she sighed to herself. Her son was quite good at making do.
Her men laughed heartily as Bungo concluded his tale of misadventure. The day after Bard had come storming into the main north hill dining hall coated with flour, a frantic, flapping chicken in hand, and leading a bleating, uncooperative goat, she had met the author of that disaster. He was a round, handsome fellow, with a bright smile. His father, Mungo Baggins, was Mayor at the time, and had traveled from Michel Delving to conduct some business with the Thain. Bella and Bungo were present at the meeting to act as secretaries for their respective sires. The old men had spent most of their time reminiscing, while the two tweens had spent all of theirs flirting. Bungo had waited almost ten years after that, while she finished her healer’s prenticeship with Widow Gravelly, before they wed. Four years later, Bilbo was born.
She remembered Father was not the only one with a birthday this day. Has it truly been thirty years? It did not seem that long. Bella forbade herself to think about the birthdays that were no longer celebrated. Father and Bilbo shared a birthday, and she, Bungo and Drogo had held a private celebration that morning in honor of the fact. The same age as his father when I met Bungo. He reminded her a bit of his father at the same age; the dark hair, ready laugh, and deep brown eyes. The Took in Bilbo was strong, however, and he looked more Took than Baggins at this gathering. Bella gave herself a mental shake to be rid of her introspection and simply enjoy the party.
Lanterns hung from tree branches and poles all around the lawn, illuminating the festivities. A sliver of the waning moon hung in the sky, and stars were coming out to share the dusk with the lanterns. Everyone was in a jolly mood, drinking, chattering, laughing, eating, and offering toast after toast to the Old Took. Most everyone was a Took in some way, whether by birth or by marriage, and one or two besides Bilbo shared this birth date with Father. The tables under the tents were mostly full as people came and went. At certain times, particular dishes or delicacies were presented, but there were no true meals. All helped themselves as they wished. There would be one last special dish, a herbed and seasoned roast, set out in an hour or so. Many who sat were just talking, picking at a few morsels on a plate while they drank and gossiped. The dishing was as much appreciated as the dishes.
‘Gar!’ Bungo called out, waving her younger brother Isengar over to join them. The tall hobbit strode over, hair in a ridiculous braid low on his neck. He had come back from his adventures just over ten years ago, having been gone for almost twenty. When Gandalf had departed following Father’s one-hundredth birthday and Bilbo’s own birth, Gar had gone with him, trotting at the wizard’s side south on the road to Longbottom. She and Bungo had stayed at the Great Smials through Yule, waiting until Bilbo was large enough to bear the rigors of a day’s travel back to Hobbiton, and Gar had not returned. After five years passed, they all presumed him dead, like Hildifons. He reappeared with the wizard on the occasion of Father’s one-hundred and nineteenth birthday, and helped to set off fireworks.
Gar was full of impossible stories about boats and oceans and Big People who wore their hair in strange ways and carried swords, and was not the slightest bit repentant about having plunged his entire family into grief. She greeted her truant brother with a cold stare and reluctantly offered her cheek for a kiss.
‘A wonderful party, Bella,’ he said to her, ignoring her attempt to snub him. ‘You and the girls have outdone yourselves. As usual!’
You’re being a goose, Belladonna Took, she scolded herself, a bit ashamed at her own rudeness. ‘Thank you, Gar, though you really must compliment Willow and Lalia. They are the ones who planned it all. Mira, Donna and me, we just let those two order us about and acted as their lieutenants.’
‘All we’re missing are fireworks,’ Bilbo added, ‘and I suppose you have to wait on the wizard for that.’ Gar grinned and nodded.
‘Right you are, nephew! Though I can’t imagine why the old conjuror would allow himself to miss such an occasion.’
‘Probably because he has more important things to do,’ Bella scolded, though it did seem odd that Gandalf would miss this birthday. After bringing Gar back home, the wizard had visited almost every year around the time of Father’s birthday. He had come back in the spring after the Fell Winter, wet and filthy from the Road, and had given great aid to grieving hobbits as they healed their sick and buried the last of their dead. He was Father’s guest, as usual when he visited, but had spent weeks walking the whole Shire, and did not depart until summer was well under way.
Gandalf had come to Bag End one spring morning during that visit, as she sat on the bench outside the door and tried to forget the smell of the cellars. The wizard inquired as to whether she was strong enough to accompany him about the mid-Shire, for he had need of a good Hobbit healer. She asked him to wait while she gathered her healer’s bag and left a note for Bungo. They borrowed a pony from the hostler in Hobbiton so that Bella would not be exhausted from walking, and set out. Bella had no time for her own grief as she tended and healed from Nobottle in the north to Pincup in the south, and all along the Road, from Waymeet to Frogmorton. They spoke of herblore as they traveled, and he would sing songs or recite poetry from long-ago times. Every night, they would be at a different farmstead, and she would write a note to Bungo and Bilbo. The wizard brought her back home a month later, and she was finally able to sleep the night through in Bag End, though she never again could go into the cellars.
‘Everything a wizard does is important,’ Gar teased back, ‘so why not bring some fireworks for an old friend? Father would wake up for that!’
‘His fireworks at the Free Fair three years ago were magnificent,’ said Bilbo with a sigh. ‘I guess we cannot expect to have such things all the time.’
‘But he will be back – he always is – and then I will show you some rather interesting things about fireworks, Bilbo,’ was Gar’s mischievous reply.
‘Isengar Took!’ Bella and Bungo said at exactly the same moment in exactly the same threatening tone. Bilbo and Gar both laughed. I’d best not leave Gar in change of the goats, then, Bella considered. A word to Bard will be more effective.
It was full dark, now, and the musicians began a lively tune. A cheer went up and space cleared out on the lawn for dancing. It was time to work up an appetite. Bella took Bilbo’s tankard and shooed him towards the tweens who were milling about and picking dance partners. Not all appetites were for food, as the youngsters’ giggles and flirtations showed. Bilbo gave her a quick peck on the cheek before dashing away to join the others. Gar was hailed by someone else, made his excuses, and left.
Bella and Bungo finished their beer and took the empty tankards back to the beer table to be refilled. They could see Bilbo dancing with his cousin, Lina Proudfoot. Soon, the tune ended, and another was called for, a ring dance this time. The men who had been left standing at the edges of the lawn quickly moved forward, some very boldly stepping in between a girl and her man as the ring formed. A few surreptitious elbows were thrown and some feet were none-too-lightly stepped on, but the dance got underway without any overt tussles. The men were older than usual, and the girls younger, and there were not enough girls to go around.
Bungo gave Bella a pat in the middle of her back to get her attention. ‘There’s Bingo and Belba. Let’s go chat with them for a bit, shall we?’ He gave her a pleading look. It is the least you can do, visit with his kin, Bella thought, and made her grimace be a smile. Bungo quickly guided them over to where his siblings were standing with their spouses.
Belba watched Bungo and his arrogant Took wife approach. I told him he would come to grief marrying into these Tooks. She and her sister Linda had always argued back and forth about Belladonna Took and what a wretched match she was for their eldest brother. Linda liked Bella, defending her strongly, but even she had come to her senses when the woman had abandoned Bungo. Mother was right, there’s no good as can come of a Took. They associated with queer folk, like that wizard, and went on adventures.
Belba had arrived with Linda and Bodo that morning, having spent the last two days in Bywater while Rudigar went ahead to conduct business with the Thain. When she had first laid eyes on Bungo in the early afternoon, she had wanted to cry. Watching her once-robust brother wearily make his way through the crowd made Belba see red. He had nothing but sorrow now, with Mother dead and his wretched excuse for a wife stealing his son from him. She and Rudigar were too far away in Scary to do much for him, though Linda and Bodo would invite him down to Bywater when Bungo was at home to cook him a true meal and give him some company as often as they could. But he was always tramping about, seeing to the Mayor’s tasks, though he was only acting Mayor. It frightened her to see how quickly he was aging – he looked twenty years older than his true years.
‘Bungo! Bella! A wonderful party, what?’ Bingo called out. He and his wife Chica embraced Bella and Bungo when the two were close enough. Belba quickly gave Bungo a hug. He was thinner than ever. She frostily nodded in Bella’s direction. The two women exchanged cold stares as their husbands greeted each other.
‘So, Baggins, where are you off to next?’ Rudigar asked, hand on his brother-in-law’s shoulder. Bungo sighed.
‘Eastfarthing, I think, Rudi. There’s some foot-rot in the flocks on the White Downs, and folks are wondering if they need to slaughter them there, or if the flocks can make it all the way to Girdley for proper tanning. Wilson’s properly concerned that if the sheep leave the farthing, the hides are not all going to make it back. The Bracegirdles charge a fair steep toll on hides coming through the tannery. So I’m off to have a chat with Harald Bracegirdle and see what can be arranged.’
‘Surely Wilson knows best the condition of sheep feet in Westfarthing,’ Belba broke in. ‘Why doesn’t he go traipsing down the Road and strike a bargain with those Bracegirdles himself? Why do you have to play errand boy in this?’ To her fury, he saw Bungo glance shyly at Bella and smile. So he can visit his run-away wife in Buckland, that’s why! The shameless woman smiled back and took Bungo’s hand.
‘Oh, I’m not simply an errand boy, sister,’ Bungo genially replied, ‘and whatever direction I go will give me something to attend to. If it’s not sheep, it’s corn, or cattle, or broken fences, or a wedding. You know that.’
‘But, brother, if you’re doing the Mayor’s work, then you should be the rightful Mayor.’ Bingo gave Bungo a stern look, then threw up his hands in exasperation as Bungo shook his head. ‘And why not? You’ve been doing Longhole’s job for him for seven years. You’re even named acting Mayor. Why this charade?’
‘He could get better,’ Bungo stubbornly insisted. ‘He talks more clearly than he did, and he can move his arm a bit again. I’ll not rob the man of his dignity.’
‘Brother Bungo,’ Chica chided, ‘Addlegar Longhole has addled wits. He can do nothing for himself, nothing for any other, and he is not going to get any better before he dies.’
‘No! His wits are as good as ever!’ Bungo snapped. ‘He understands what I’m saying to him. The frost that seized him is leaving him. Perhaps he will never be full well again, but he knows. He has enough shame to face. I’ll not take from him what he held so dear.’ Bella was stroking his arm, and murmuring soothing things in Bungo’s ear, and he let himself be placated. ‘If the work will come to me anyway, why not leave an old friend his pride?’ he went on in a calmer tone. ‘Besides, I have no wish to remove to Michel Delving. What is there for me?’
‘And what is left for you in Hobbiton?’ The words were out before Belba could think twice about them. The rest stared at her. After a moment, Bungo cleared his throat and pulled Bella a little closer to him.
‘What would Hobbiton be without the Baggins head?’ he quietly replied, though Belba could tell from the tightness around his eyes that he was angry. While he was talking, Linda and Bodo walked up, Fosco in tow. ‘There is no better place for me to be than Bag End, in the center of the Shire, for doing what needs to be done as acting Mayor. And though you are off in Eastfarthing, most of the family is right around Hobbiton, so why would I not wish to be there?’ The Took at least had the decency to blush a bit and look down. With Linda there to back her up, Belba decided to push a little harder.
‘There’s no wonder why you would wish to stay, brother,’ she said, throwing a sharp look at his wife, ‘but must your family stay further away from you than Eastfarthing?’ Rudigar’s fingers dug into her arm, warning her not to pursue the argument. Bungo’s expression was angry, the thinness of his face making his eyes seem larger than they should be. He clenched and unclenched his jaw several times before answering. His voice was low, flat.
‘I conduct my smial as I see fit, sister, and it is not for you to stick your nose into business not your own, seeking to cause trouble!’
Linda breathed a mild oath under her breath. Leave it to Belba to go put her foot in it! As soon as she had seen Bungo and Bella stand with Belba and Bingo, she knew there would be trouble. Belba had done little all afternoon save chew her ear off with complaints about Bella. Mother and Belba had never approved of Bella. Just because Bungo didn’t like the cow you two had picked out for him. Linda could not remember whom it was that those two had decided would be the best match for Bungo, but she had always been happy with her beautiful, intelligent, independent sister-in-law. She crossed her arms and fixed Belba with a warning look to button her lip and let it be.
Belba saw what side Linda had chosen, and could scarce believe it. You would choose against your own kin, would you? It was as if the Took cast a spell on those around her, or had some magic from the wizard to dazzle people’s eyes and hearts against what was right. This was a dangerous, adventurous woman who spread disorder wherever she went. It went against all common sense, this Tookish desire to poke into things best left alone, to unsettle what was barely back to right.
‘Do you truly not care, Bungo, that your wife flouts your authority and deprives you of your son?’ Belba demanded.
‘Belba, not here!’ Rudigar hissed in her ear, giving her arm a shake.
‘And why not here?’ she countered, ‘What better place? Mistress Belladonna cannot be bothered to attend to her husband in Hobbiton, but she is more than happy to walk past her proper home and come here. If she so much wishes to be a Took, then why did she marry a Baggins? I dare say she’s as like to wander off with a wizard as stay with her husband. Oh, but she has already done that. I forgot.’
‘Belba, dear sister, you have obviously had too much beer and have been out in the sun too long today…’ Bingo tried to joke, but Bungo cut him off.
‘You will apologize to my wife, Belba. Now.’
‘For what? For saying what is commonly thought?’
‘It is a very common, very unworthy thought, sister.’
‘And you have lost all sense of respectability, brother!’ Belba was not going to let herself be bullied by Bungo or bewitched by the Took. Things were improper and needed to be set right. ‘This woman walks off with your son and heir, and raises him among strange folk outside the Shire itself. She goes about as she pleases, consorting with whomever she wishes, and you are left alone and untended in your labors.’
Belba pointed an accusing finger at Fosco. ‘And what have you to say for yourself, cousin? She has walked off with your heir, as well. Does Drogo even know his own father’s face anymore?’
Linda wanted nothing more than to give Belba a good slap. Bodo knew this and had hold of her arm to keep her from jumping at her sister. Poor Fosco looked lost. Of all the family, Linda felt most sorry for Fosco. He had never really been right after Ruby’s death. She and Bodo had done most of the caring for Dudo once Bella left for Buckland, because Fosco could barely care for himself, let alone a small child. Dora had lost all her gaiety, dedicating herself to tending her grieving father. She was a stern, humorless girl now. Linda was not entirely sure Fosco always remembered that he had another son, though he had been happy enough seeing Drogo today.
‘Now, Belba, that’s a mite harsh, cousin,’ Fosco slowly said. ‘Drogo called me “Papa” not more than a few minutes ago. I’m in Bella and Bungo’s debt for looking after my boy when I’ve got little Dudo to care for, and no proper mama for him.’
‘Well enough, cousin,’ Belba shot back, ‘but why can she not care for him in Hobbiton, where you may see him? Baggins men belong in Hobbiton! And a Baggins wife needs to be respectable.’
‘And I should think that a Baggins woman would have pinch of good sense between her ears and a cupful of charity in her heart,’ Linda snapped, pulling away from Bodo. She was amazed that Bella had not yet given Belba a piece of her mind. Bella’s face was perfectly still and composed, only the flare of red on her cheeks giving sign that she was listening to horrible insults. ‘You know very well that Bella is a good and proper mother to both of those boys, and a much needed healer in the eastern parts. As for not being in Hobbiton, she has perfectly good reasons.’
‘As if she was the only woman whose children died!’ Belba snarled.
Bella abruptly handed her beer tankard to Bingo, turned on her heel and marched off into the crowd. Bungo glared at Belba, shoved his tankard into Bingo’s other hand, and hurried after his wife. Linda lunged at her older sister, grabbed her by the arm, and marched her off into the dark just beyond the edge of the party.
‘Why did you say that?’ Linda demanded.
‘Because she is being a bad wife to your brother, or hadn’t you noticed? What she is doing isn’t proper. It’s not respectable for a wife to leave her husband like that!’
‘Bungo and Bella are content enough with how things are. Why must you stir up trouble?’
‘That, that Took has made my dear brother wait upon her since she was a silly tween! She made him wait to marry so she could be a healer. She made him wait for a child, and then gave him few. She made him wait for her while she took care of other people, left him tending the children by himself. And now he waits upon her again, and walks himself into a shadow of what he was! Wasn’t it enough for her to Missus Bungo Baggins, to be his wife and mind their smial? Any proper woman would have found pride and duty enough in that, but not Mistress Took! No, she must always be the spoiled daughter of a disreputable family.’
‘You know why she can’t bear to live at Bag End. To say such a thing was rude and cruel!’
‘And I did not see my children die in my smial? I didn’t have to bury my own kin?’ Belba hissed back. ‘Why does she act like this? Why must she continue to keep the Winter alive with her willfulness? She’s not out of her head, like Fosco. This is all part of her pride.’
Linda backed away from her older sister in disgust. ‘Sister, I begin to think you are the one out of her head. You are a jealous and wicked-tongued woman, Belba Bolger! You have no call to speak of Bungo or Bella that way.’
‘Be blind to the hurt she is causing Bungo if you wish, Linda. What she does is wrong and wicked and improper. Are you ensorcelled by her, or do you not care that she sends him to an early grave?’
Linda walked off.
Bella moved swiftly through the crowd, heading for the oak tree at the crest of the hill above the Smials. When Bungo caught up with her, he said nothing, but stayed close to her elbow as they passed the dancers. She halted just beyond the oak, looking out across the valley. After a moment, his arms circled her. They stood silent.
It felt odd. Bella knew she should be angry, insulted, but she was not. She felt… relieved. Finally, someone had said it. Someone had not offered false sympathy to her face and vicious gossip behind her back. I should thank Belba, I think, for saying the truth. I am a wife and a healer, and I watch my husband fade away and do nothing. Bagginses are an honest lot, that is certain. Bungo pulled her into a closer embrace.
‘I am sorry, love. I will get Belba to apologize.’
‘Why? She only spoke the truth.’ Bella turned to face Bungo. ‘I am a poor wife to you and a poor mother to Bilbo. You need your wife at home. I have not suffered more or more greatly than any other. I need to steel my weak heart and come home.’
Bungo shook his head, and reached up to work his fingers into her hair. ‘No, my love, I would not place more pain on you. I wish you with me, I won’t deny it, but I won’t break your heart.’
‘I can’t keep you from your son, or he from you. It is wrong. Belba spoke truly about that. I want Bilbo with you, husband.’ I want him away from Buckland, away from the men he looks at. It is wrong. ‘When you go back to Bag End, he will go with you. Perhaps Drogo should go back to Fosco as well.’
‘I won’t take your child from you, Bella. And put the thought of returning Drogo to Fosco out of your mind. You would simply add to Dora and Linda’s burdens. I fear cousin Fosco is now as much a child as Dudo.’
‘But I hate that you are alone, Bungo! I have Mira and Gorbadoc and all of the Hall to look after me. Besides, Bilbo is hardly a child. He needs his father to teach him to be a man, not have his mother nagging him as though he is still in a nursery. Bilbo must go with you, and I will follow as soon as I may afterwards.’
Bungo sighed and shook his head. ‘No. I will not ask that of you. And if I cannot be with you, I want Bilbo to be there so you are not alone. I don’t give a snap what others think, particularly not Belba.’ His eyes glinted a little in the starlight as he searched her face. ‘Answer me true, my wife – do you want to come back to Bag End?’
Do I want to? Oh, yes, more than anything. I want, I want, I so want to be with you. She had to swallow before she answered, for she disliked tears and quavering voices. ‘I wish always to be where you are, my husband, but I still hate Bag End. I want for me to not hate it, so I can come back to you.’
Bungo gave her a tender kiss, then pulled her close. ‘I think it too soon to speak of coming home, then. I am much about on the Mayor’s business, and am scarcely in Hobbiton at all. As long as I may see you on my tramps, I am content. Forget Belba’s harsh words. Let us celebrate – you gave me a fine son this day thirty years past! If that isn’t a thought to gladden a man’s heart, I know not what will. Where is that rascal? Why don’t we go find him?’
Bella allowed Bungo to lead her back towards the party, until they could see Bilbo. At first, she was displeased, for he was standing with a pack of other boys, not out dancing, but then she could see the reason for the group. A handsome young girl, with black hair and a fair face, but lacking much of a figure, was holding court. The girl was not precisely pretty, but she was striking, and her air of certainty reminded Bella of someone. Most of the boys were teasing and flirting, but Bilbo simply stood and watched the girl intently.
The musicians struck up a new tune. Bella saw the boys gesture and entreat, each trying to convince the girl to pick him for the dance. Bilbo did not move for a moment, then he smiled that charming Baggins smile, the one he shared with Bungo, held out his hand and cocked his head to the side, not saying a word. The girl stared back, then a wry smile touched her face and she took his hand. Bilbo grinned, gave his competitors a mocking bow, and walked off with the girl. Bella heard Bungo chuckle at Bilbo’s success. He stepped away from her and held out his hand, a perfect mirror of their son. The starlight softened the sharp lines of his face, making him younger, less worn. Bella laughed and laid her hand in his, letting him lead her into the dance.
It was a sprightly jig, leaving them both breathless. Bilbo had called out a hallo when they whirled past. After their dance, they stood near the dancers, chatting with whomever came past, proudly watching their son. He obviously favored the dark-haired girl, but she would decline him and pick another if she had just finished dancing with him. He did not appear to have any problem finding another partner, dancing with any number of girls, but his first choice was always the young lady with the commanding air.
It was with a start that Bella realized the hour was late. ‘Bungo, we need to go pay our respects to Father,’ she said, and began threading a path through the revelers towards Father’s spot, where her sisters and sisters-in-law were standing.
Much to her surprise, Father was awake, with Mira sitting on the couch next to him, helping him hold Primula, his last-born grandchild. Bella stopped and watched, savoring the scene. The sisters agreed that Donna was the most beautiful, Bella the smartest, and Mira the strongest. Mira, unlike herself or Donna, had not been made barren by the Winter, and unlike most women, had two girl-babes to show since then. Her sister was a tall, strongly built woman, with a large bosom made enormous by her milk. Mira’s hair was an untidy tangle of clips, pins and curls, and her face was lined from equal parts grief and joy. There was always a few biscuits in one pocket, a few handkerchiefs in another, and someone’s baby on her hip. Mira was never without her apron, no matter how formal the gathering. She always joked that her calling in life was collecting strays and feeding them up. No one was ever turned away from the Hall, not hobbit nor beast, and most who made their way through the door ended up staying quite some time.
Mira looked up and saw Bella watching her and Father. ‘Get over here, sister,’ she cheerfully called out, ‘hurry before he falls asleep again!’ Everyone nearby laughed at this, even Father. Baby Prim laughed at the laughter, waving her wonderfully chubby arms and drooling. Sixty-years old, and a new baby, what was I thinking? Mira caught one of Prim’s fat hands and squeezed it. Bella had told her another child at her age might be her death, especially given how badly the previous birth had gone, but when she knew she was carrying again, Mira could not help but be happy. It was nearly her death. But it all ended right, and I have you. She plucked Prim from Father’s arms and stood aside so Bella and Bungo could greet him properly.
‘My dear,’ he said, laying a gnarled hand on Bella’s hair as she leaned down to kiss him. All the siblings knew Bella was his favorite child, though no one begrudged it. She was the best of them all, after all. Mira was glad Bella had agreed to come live in Brandy Hall and not stay among all the snooty Bagginses in Hobbiton. Bungo’s not snooty, she chided herself as her brother-in-law took Father’s hand and offered birthday good wishes, he is as generous as a Brandybuck and as cheerful as a Boffin. Father had strongly disapproved of all of Bella’s beaus until this one came along. Too bad we can’t convince him to live in Brandy Hall, too. That would be best. It was so unfair that these two had suffered such grief in their life. Bella stayed next to Father, holding his hand in hers. Mira could tell from the droop of his eyelids that he would sound asleep again within a few minutes.
‘I am utterly exhausted,’ Willow said, leaning on the back of Father Gerontius’ seat, ‘but I dare say this party has been a grand success.’ She stooped and planted a loving kiss on the top of her father-in-law’s head.
‘And well you should be exhausted, my dear,’ Donna gently scolded her sister-in-law, ‘you have been running about and hardly allowing anyone else to do the work! I thought Lalia and Marmalda were going to stuff you in a pickling barrel and lock you in a pantry to get some rest!’ The women in question threw in some assenting jeers from their spot on the ground nearby where they sat and held Lalia’s twins.
‘Weaklings!’ Willow scoffed with a grin. She had been the mistress of the Great Smials since Grim’s wife, Cora, had died in the Fell Winter. Summer and Grim (or Summer and Winter, as many in the family teased them), had shared the duties of the Thain since then, when Father Gerontius had become too weak to get around very easily. They jointly instructed Fort in these duties as well, as he was their mutual heir. None of Grim and Cora’s children had lived beyond infancy. She was assisted in her own duties as mistress by her sister-in-law Marmalda, Brand’s wife, and her own daughter-in-law, Lalia.
Thank goodness for the Trio, or we would never have been able to put this party on! Willow looked fondly on her three Took sisters-in-law. Donna and Bella were fussing over Prim, while Mira stood by and chatted with Bungo. The Remarkable Sisters, indeed! Willow was always just the tiniest bit jealous of these three beautiful, witty, talented women, but never so much that she did not love them dearly. She enjoyed being their big sister.
Mira reached out with one of her handkerchiefs and deftly caught a string of drool threatening to drop from Prim’s chin. She did not think twice about reaching a little further and wiping Father’s drool away with the same handkerchief. He twitched and snorted a bit at the touch, but did not wake. The sisters all giggled.
‘So, Brother Bungo,’ Donna asked, ‘what have you men been talking about while we poor girls worked our fingers to the bone this last week? Hugo has not been particularly forthcoming.’
‘And you want me tell tales on your husbands, is that it, ladies?’ he teased.
‘Of course we do, brother,’ Donna teased right back, ‘but we promise not to tell them who our source is.’ It always annoyed her that Hugo tried to shield her from “men’s talk”, as if she was not a daughter of the Took and used to Shire business.
‘Not much to say, really, just Thain business. I told your brothers and the Thain and the other family heads how things fare across the Shire.’ Bungo averred. All the women gave him a narrow-eyed stare.
‘And just how are things across the Shire, Mister Acting-Mayor?’ Willow archly inquired. ‘You are aware that we ladies live here, too, and have more than a passing interest in the state of things.’ She did not really mean to put poor Bungo on the spot, as Summer would tell her everything of importance once the furor of the celebration (and the drudgery of the clean-up) was through. The Trio all nodded vigorously. Bungo sighed and gave in to the inevitable. His lean face became grave.
‘Things are much as they have been for the last several years. Most do well enough, but few flourish. At the Free Fair, the township heads delivered the year’s records to me and to the Mayor. Deaths still out-number births by a small margin, and there are not many marriages. At least among deaths there are few who are young.’
Bungo went silent, looking out at the lawn and the dancers. Willow glanced at Bella, who had obviously heard this particular information before. She never could figure these two out, not since the Winter. They were not just well-married – they were in love. Anyone who watched them for a few minutes could tell that. So why are they apart? It was not at all proper for a wife to march off like that, especially when there was no ill-will. If she cannot bear Bag End, why do they not move to a new smial or cottage? Willow sighed softly, knowing she was seeing another example of Took queerness, and there was no common-sense to be had when that mood took hold of a Took. Bella was the queerest of the sisters, that was for certain. No one could believe that such a sensible, respectable fellow as Bungo Baggins would marry the imperious, intimidating daughter of the Took, but there it was.
‘The Watch is being decreased,’ Bungo continued as though there had been no pause, ‘as there have been no sightings of wolves or strange folk in the farthings. There are a few Dwarves on the Road, and a Big Person or two, but they stay on the Road and mind their own business.’ The women all murmured a round of thanks for that. ‘The Road itself is not in the best repair, and lesser roads, like the one down below to Longbottom, could stand a good deal of work. The bridges, too. But we’ve not enough free hands and strong backs to take away from the fields when the weather is good enough for such work. The harvests are acceptable, though the gaffers swear it takes more work to raise a stalk of corn than it did ten, twenty years back.’
Donna and Mira exchanged a look. Hugo’s known that for a fact for years. He might try to shield her, but she had ears and men’s voices were loud. Mira confirmed that Gorbadoc knew it to be so in Buckland, too, though the harvest was better than usual this year. All through the Yale, the goodwives would confide in her, saying they worried over making the harvest stretch through the winter. Meals were enough, and no one went hungry – not while the Boffin cellar had food to spare, to be certain! – but there were fewer servings than people would like and hogs did not have so many table scraps. The bacon had been lean since the Winter.
‘So, things are well enough, but not as good as they might be. I would fear if we had another harsh winter.’ Bungo went silent again for a time before he could continue. ‘The greatest concern that I share with the Thain is there is not much gold left to buy needed things if fortune should take a poor turn. Getting gold means selling leaf, and we’ve few places to sell it. The folks to the east, in Bree, they don’t need our leaf, having their own, and the traders are not coming up from the South any more. They stopped coming after the Winter, and we never knew why. Bard got word this last spring that makes sense.
‘He was watching the road south when he saw a Big Person walking north. Not a Breelander; taller, and very lanky, with a bow and a sword and a silver pin on his cloak. Good-mannered for all that, though, and gentle-spoken, like he had a bit of learning and was civilized. The tall fellow asks, all polite, if Bard knew where he could purchase leaf, as he was out. He pulled a few pennies from his purse in earnest. Bard took a penny and gave him what was in his own pouch. The fellow thanked him kindly, so Bard suggested they smoke a pipe as good folk should. They spoke of leaf, which led to Bard saying they had not much trade anymore. The tall fellow said there was no traffic for anything from the south, as a bridge over a great river had been washed away in the floods following the Winter. That was really the only news that we spoke of, and it was not very heartening.’
‘But not so much disheartening, brother,’ Mira replied, cradling a dozing Prim against her breast. ‘The births will happen as the youngsters grow up, and the Master says the land is finally shaking off the poison snows of the Winter. Harvest was good, and will be better across the Shire next year, or I’ll drink the Brandywine.’
‘And I have no doubt you could do it, too, sister,’ Willow jested, and their laughter broke the somber mood. ‘Thank you, Bungo, for your report. I’ve no doubt there was both better and worse to tell. It sounds that we should take heart, for babes and full barns will come soon enough. Worry not overmuch about the gold.’ She was glad to see a smile come to his face. There must be some way to get you back with your wife. Willow decided that would be the next order of business for the mistress of the Great Smials, once the party was cleaned up. Bungo was hailed by someone beyond the tree, and bowed himself out of the group surrounding the couch.
A small shout of greeting from Lalia caught Willow’s attention. She looked over to see her favorite nephew, Bilbo, approaching, a striking, dark-haired girl on his arm. The girl pulled her arm from his, and trotted ahead to Lalia, leaning over to embrace the older woman. Willow noted that Bilbo appeared to rather appreciate the sight of the girl’s rump up in the air, and chuckled to herself at the single-mindedness of young men. Lalia scrambled to her feet, and escorted the girl over to the other women, Bilbo trailing them. Marmalda stayed behind, holding the sleeping twins.
‘Mother Willow, aunties, this is my cousin, Gilda, Menegilda Goold,’ Lalia introduced the young girl. Bella looked her over carefully. No wonder she hasn’t much of a figure – she is barely old enough to have a figure. At least the mystery of whom she resembled was solved. Gilda and Lalia shared the same expression and set of chin and the same black hair. ‘She has come down from Northfarthing for a visit.’
‘Ladies, I am honored to make your acquaintance,’ Gilda spoke with collection. Young or not, she certainly was not at all uncomfortable in the presence of the great ladies of the smial. Bella could see the appeal the girl would have for Bilbo. But she’s too young! She’ll grow up. Fast enough? Bella glanced at Bilbo. His eyes never left Gilda. Fast enough.
To her surprise, the girl addressed her directly. ‘Missus Baggins, I am particularly honored to make your acquaintance. Your reputation as a great healer precedes you. It is my hope that I shall be a healer, too.’
Bella searched the girl’s face for any sign of falseness or flattery. No, she’s as blunt as her cousin. Bella gave Gilda a measuring look.
‘Is that so? To whom are you prenticed?’
‘No one as of yet, Missus Baggins. My parent will not let me prentice until I am twenty.’
‘And when shall that be?’
‘Just over a year’s time. My birthday is in Afteryule, and I am now eighteen.’
‘Give me your hand.’ Gilda immediately offered her right hand, which Bella took, turning it palm up in her own. In a moment, Bella dismissed all the party hubbub about her, letting her healing sense guide her mind and perception. It was like Father’s feel for plant and beast, an unbidden knowing of what was true under the ground, below bark, inside of skin. The girl’s hand became earth, her bones like stone, the blood transformed to water, clear and sweet, though icy cold. Across it blew a powerful wind, almost a storm, the kind that made you want to rush out into it and laugh as it buffeted. Bella looked up into Gilda’s eyes and saw a look of astonishment, then joy. And you see me in return. Bella let go of the girl’s hand.
Donna was spellbound by Bella and this young girl. She could be our little sister, or Bella’s daughter, they are so alike. It was not so much the look as the presence. In looks, she had a general Tookish cast to her, which was not to be wondered at, given she was a Goold, but she held herself exactly as Bella did – stern, proud, uncompromising. Feeling eyes on her, Donna glanced at Willow, who had a tiny smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. The two looked at Mira, who nodded a little, hiding her own smile behind the baby. She knew they were all thinking the same thing.
‘Well, then, if you’ve made no promises, Miss Goold,’ Mira broke in, ‘do not make any until my sister has decided if you would be a proper prentice for her.’
‘My uncle would not permit her to go off to Buckland, I fear, Aunt Mira,’ Lalia interjected. ‘It is too far. I believe Uncle Menecar has already made arrangements with the healer in Dwaling for Gilda to be prenticed to her. The woman’s of kin to Gilda’s mother. Her parents wish her to stay with kin, so all will be respectable.’
‘Well, Lalia, Menecar will simply have to un-arrange things,’ Willow interrupted, ‘if Bella decides this is whom she wishes as her prentice.’
‘With all respect, Mother Willow, I think it for her parents to say,’ Lalia countered.
‘I think it for me and for Missus Baggins to say, cousin.’ Gilda’s voice, cool and certain, cut through the debate, though she never stopped looking at Bella. ‘If Missus Baggins will have me as prentice, then it would be most impertinent of me to turn her down, would it not?’
‘Menecar will not agree to you going to Buckland, child, even if Aunt Bella would take on such a cheeky girl as you!’ Lalia was getting incensed.
‘Healing Mistress Belladonna Took is pleased to accept Miss Menegilda Goold as her prentice when Miss Goold shall reach the age of twenty,’ said Bella. That brought a grin to the girl’s face, and her glee made her look so very young.
‘Not. In. Buckland!’ Lalia’s face was very red.
‘Don’t be a fool, Lalia,’ Bella smoothly relied, ‘of course she cannot go off to Buckland.’ A very fine idea had taken root in Bella’s head, and she could scarcely keep a grin off her own face. Everything is solved. This is too simple. She wanted to laugh and dance about. ‘It would be most improper to send such a young girl to live among strangers. She shall come here to the Great Smials, where you, her kinswoman, can mind her, and I shall come here to live among my own kin and to train my prentice.’ I am a Took, Belba! And I’ll not be a Baggins any more. But I’ll be close, and Bilbo will be with his father, and I shall raise up a proper wife for my son. Bella had no time to savor this thought, as Willow threw her arms around Bella and hugged her.
‘Oh, sister! Yes, say you will come back and be here with me! We have so missed you here, and Mira and Donna have had you all to themselves for too long. But will you make me wait a year before you come here?’
‘Oh, no you don’t, Miss Willow!’ Mira laughed and shook a finger at the older woman. ‘You’ll not get her away from us so easily.’
‘I fear she will, sister. I intend, with Willow’s permission, to move back here in Afteryule. I will need a year to get my healers garden planted and ready. I’m sorry Mira! Do say you are not angry with me?’ entreated Bella.
‘I can never be angry with you, sister. Though Donna can.’ The four older women embraced and laughed. Lalia curtly ordered Gilda to help her take the twins to bed, adding that it was high time for her to go to bed as well. Bilbo and Gilda did not exchange any words of farewell, though Bilbo smiled and gave her a small bow as she left in Lalia’s wake. He watched the women walk off, then came to Bella’s side.
‘We are moving here, Mother?’ Bilbo did not appear terribly distressed at the thought of leaving Buckland. No, it will not do for you to be too much around her while she is so young. Bella shook her head.
‘No, Bilbo, I shall be moving here. You will need to stay with your father. You are nearly grown, and it is more than time that you should be learning how to tend the family’s affairs from him. I dare say he could use your help on the Mayor’s business. I do expect both of you to be visiting here on a regular basis.’
That plan did not please him so well. ‘If that is what Father thinks…?’
‘It is,’ Bella lied with great firmness. ‘We were just discussing it earlier this evening, and his concern was that I would be off in Buckland by myself, as if I did not have two sisters, Gorbadoc, and who knows how many others to take care of me! This will reassure him, I think.’
‘What about Drogo, Bella?’ Mira piped up. ‘Will he be here, too, or will he go to Hobbiton?’
‘Oh, I had not thought of what to do with Drogo, probably bring him with me.’
‘You could just leave him with me and Gorbadoc,’ Mira suggested, ‘goodness knows I have so many little ones underfoot, what’s one more? Also, he’s going to miss his cousins terribly, and you should not be having to worry about him when you are training Gilda.’
‘Perhaps, Mira, but that needn’t be decided tonight.’ Bella felt giddy and wanted to dance some more. The musicians, however, were packing up, and she noticed guests were dispersing – some back to the Great Smials, others to wagons in the north meadow to drive home. She could see Bungo, Linda and Bodo heading her direction, Fosco and the assorted children following. Dora had her father’s arm tucked in hers, and little Reed Burrows, Linda and Bodo’s niece who was Dora’s best friend, held her other hand.
The boys, Drogo and Dudo, walked to the other side of their father. Fosco looked happy. When they arrived, Linda began to embrace Bella, but then drew back, uncertain. Bella gave her a firm hug.
‘Please forgive Belba her rudeness, sister,’ Linda whispered. ‘You know how protective she is of Bungo.’
‘It’s all right, sister,’ Bella assured her in a low voice. ‘I can’t say more now, but all will be well very soon. You’ll see!’
‘You’re coming back?’ Linda asked eagerly.
Bella squeezed Linda’s hands. ‘You’ll see.’ The women kissed and bid each other good night. Bodo and Linda left with Fosco, Dora, Reed and Dudo, while Drogo stayed behind.
Willow excused herself to oversee getting the dining tables cleaned up for the night, and Marmalda went with her. Mira called loudly until Gorbadoc (only slightly tipsy) and their brood gathered. The sisters made plans to meet for breakfast tomorrow, then Mira led her mob away. Hugo wandered up in Brand and Gar’s company, and got his ears chewed off by Donna for not knowing where Dugo was. The two of them left, calling for the boy. Pretty soon the rest of Bella’s brothers arrived: Grim, Summer, Hildy, Boulder and Bard. After some joking and a bit of horsing about, the brothers hoisted Father, couch and all, into the air, and carried him back to the Smials. Bilbo took Drogo’s hand, Bungo put an arm around Bella, and they followed at a distance. For one terrible moment, Bella imagined the couch was a funeral bier, and her brothers pall bearers, and she shivered. Bungo rubbed her arm and said they would be out of the cold in a moment.
Neither of the boys made any fuss about being sent to bed at once. Bella enjoyed watching Bungo tuck them in, and kiss them good night. By the time they had changed into their own nightclothes on the other side of the curtain, the boys were asleep. Bungo could not resist peeking around the curtain to watch them. Soon, you will have Bilbo with you all the time, husband. How have I been so selfish, to keep this joy from you for so long?
The room was warm, and they only needed a light sheet. Bella rolled over until she was resting on Bungo’s chest, looking down at him.
‘Would you like to hear what I’ve been plotting, husband?’ she whispered.
‘Will it not wait until morning, wife?’ he whispered back followed by a yawn.
‘I’ve taken a healers prentice.’
‘Very good. May I sleep now?’
‘It is Lalia’s niece.’
‘I’m going to sleep now.’
‘I will be moving here to the Great Smials next Afteryule, so I may be closer to Hobbiton and to you. Bilbo will be moving back with you, as I do not need him flirting with and distracting this young lady.’ Not yet.
There was silence from Bungo, then, ‘Are you certain, Bella?’
She leaned down and kissed him. ‘Very certain, love.’ His arms circled her, and they kissed again. ‘I will come back, a little step at a time, my husband.’
I will be waiting, my wife.’ Their kiss deepened, and Bungo’s hand slid down her back and kneaded her rump.
There’s more than one dance. Her joy from earlier became something hungry, raw, turned rough and wanting. She growled into her husband’s kiss, and slid a leg between his, pressing her thigh into his crotch. His cock thickened under the pressure of her touch, and his fingers dug into her rump.
He broke their kiss. ‘Bella, what are you doing?’
She slowly ran her tongue along his throat, then nipped his ear. ‘Fucking my husband. Don’t you approve?’
Bella starting hiking up her nightgown. ‘Stop thinking. The rest of you quite agrees.’
‘But the boys!’ Bungo weakly protested. ‘What if they hear?’
‘What of it? Be quiet. No shouting allowed.’ She bit his shoulder lightly and rubbed her thigh against him. He pushed her nightgown well up past her waist and rolled her onto her back. She giggled a second as they confounded each other’s efforts to get his nightshirt pulled up out of the way, then let out a sound as familiar flesh touched, pressed, entered and was embraced. He answered in kind.
He pressed more than moved, pushing her down, pinning her in place, making her stay where he wished. His hips shifted just enough to let him press and rub, but so carefully the bed barely creaked. Together they worked the front of her nightgown up more until he could reach her breasts. They kissed while his fingers caressed her, gently pinching and rolling, then flattening out to stroke and cup.
Bella ran her hands over his thin, hard back, and did not mind how his hipbones bruised as they ground into her. She tried thrusting her hips up into his, but he grabbed her and pressed her back down. She understood, and let him lead, relaxing into the bed.
Bungo took his time, and she savored the weight of him upon her. She felt herself warm and wonderfully fat, filled with him. A wave of sleepiness came over her, and Bella imagined that she could fall asleep to the rhythm of him against her, and then be woken by the same touch. After a while, they stopped kissing because his breath was coming too hard. He buried his face in the side of her neck and panted.
He reached back and pulled on one of her thighs, signaling she should raise her legs. Bella wrapped them around his rump, tilting up to him. Bungo paused, then thrust once, very hard, driving the breath out of her. Another pause. Another thrust. And once more, turning his head and letting the pillow listen to his cry of ending.
Speaking parts, in order of appearance:
- Bella (Belladonna) Took Baggins – Wife to Bungo, mother of Bilbo, daughter of Gerontius, the Old Took
- Bungo Baggins – Head of the Baggins clan
- Bilbo Baggins – Son of Bungo and Belladonna Baggins
- Gar (Isengar) Took – Youngest son of Gerontius, the Old Took
- Belba Baggins Bolger – Bungo’s oldest sister, wife of Rudigar Bolger
- Bingo Baggins – Bungo’s youngest brother
- Rudigar Bolger – Head of Bolger clan, husband of Belba
- Chica Chubb Baggins – Wife of Bingo Baggins
- Linda Baggins Proudfoot – Bungo’s youngest sister, wife of Bodo Proudfoot
- Fosco Baggins – Cousin of Bungo’s, father of Dora, Drogo and Dudo
- Mira (Mirabella) Took Brandybuck – Wife of Gorbadoc Brandybuck, youngest daughter of Gerontius, the Old Took, mother of Rorimac, Saradas, Amaranth, Asphodel and Primula
- Gerontius Took – The Old Took
- Willow Burrows Took – OC – Wife of Summer (Isumbras) Took. Must have existed because he has a legitimate child, but all else is made up.
- Donna (Donnamira) Took Boffin – Middle daughter of Gerontius, the Old Took, wife of Dugo Boffin of the Yale, mother of Dugo Boffin.
- Lalia Clayhanger Took – Wife of Fort (Fortinbras) Took, mother of Ferumbras and Fortalda (OC), fraternal twins
- Gilda (Menegilda) Goold - Cousin to Lalia Clayhanger, eventual wife of Rorimac Brandybuck