The Great Smials - Late evening, Yule Day, Afteryule, S.R. 1341
“There you go, lads, and Merry Yule!” Uncle Gar happily pronounced as he refilled his nephews’ tankards with ale.
“Merry Yule, Uncle,” Bilbo, Drogo and Rum responded in kind, clinking their tankards and trying not to spill the contents on the hearth. They were mostly successful. Bilbo took a deep swig of ale and willed himself to feel the cheer that belonged to the season. He was sitting in his uncle Isengar Took’s front room at the Great Smials with his young cousins Ferumbras Took and Drogo Baggins, trying to avoid the notice of Rum’s mother, Lalia, who was none too pleased with them after a certain practical joke had unfolded in the main dining hall during the great Yule feast earlier today. Not that Lalia is pleased with anyone, Bilbo sourly considered.
Lalia was the uncontested ruler of the Great Smials since Aunt Willow had died five years earlier. While the Old Took had strongly approved of her, and her husband Fort’s devotion to her was unshakeable, her imperious character has not endeared her to most of the rest of the clan. She had never cared much about her Took in-laws, nor they for her, and she most definitely did not care for the four youngest children of the Old Took, Belladonna, Donnamira, Mirabella and Isengar. She was jealous of the sisters’ prominence, and hated Isengar’s adventurous – Lalia called it “scandalous” – past. Bilbo’s mother Bella’s brush with adventure as a healer also earned her Lalia’s disdain. Thus, there was nothing Lalia hated more than Gar and Bilbo lavishing attention on Rum, filling the boy’s head with nonsense and queer ideas. Drogo was guilty by association, though in truth the tween rarely did anything mischievous unless drawn into it by Bilbo.
“Another story, Uncle Gar, please?” Rum begged. There was nowhere he would rather be than in the company of the most disreputable of his relatives, and not just because it would irritate his mother. Life was simply more – interesting – when they were around. Gar was full of tales from his long-ago journey with the wizard, Gandalf, and Bilbo always had some bit of mischief to suggest, though he was no longer the ringleader he had been in his youth. Drogo was a game participant in any scrapes Bilbo suggested, though he would usually tame his elder cousin’s more outrageous suggestions. The two elder Hobbits considered it their solemn duty to keep the Thain’s heir amused and adventurous, and not just because it would anger Lalia. The lad was clever, he listened to their stories with delight, not trepidation, and he would someday be responsible for the Shire. Though they could not have explained exactly why, they had agreed that it was better for all if someone with a bit of imagination was in charge, just like the Old Took himself.
Bilbo studied the youth from the corner of his eye. Not even twenty-five, the tween had been the center of attention at Wintermark the night before. The Thain’s son was always a catch, so there was no surprise at the young (and not-so-young) ladies flirting with him, but he had been the one the other young men had wished to impress as well. He was at least four feet tall already yet managed not to look gangling because of the muscle he was putting on, was the best dancer among the tweens, and brooked no rival. Those who did not care to impress him kept their distance. Ever since the incident at the farm two summers ago, people knew it wasn’t wise to cross Rum.
Isengar laughed at Rum’s wheedling. “Well,” he said, twirling the end of his long braid of hair, “I’ve told you everything I know, so I don’t think there’s much left to say…”
“Then tell a story again!” Rum demanded. “I can listen to all of your stories over and over! You must tell more!”
Gar, laughing, held out a placating hand. “Very well, very well, nephew! No need to shout. Let’s see,” he pondered, “what to tell? I know! The Yule I spent thirty-five years ago in the greatest smial I ever have seen, one built by men, not hobbits.”
Rum and Drogo cheered, for they liked this story. Bilbo liked it, too, but had heard it so many times it did not fill him with the kind of wonder it once did. He also secretly thought most of it was nonsense, though delightful.
“I had been traveling across the wide lands far south of here, a place called Gondor where once the Kings ruled, when the Yule season came upon me,” Gar began.
“And a prince had invited you to stay!” Drogo interjected.
Gar shook a warning finger at the tween. “Who is telling this tale, lad?”
“You are, uncle,” was Drogo’s meek reply. Even if Isengar wasn’t precisely his kinsman, let alone his uncle, Drogo always called Bilbo’s Took kin exactly what Bilbo called them. Indeed, most of them had long ago forgotten that Drogo wasn’t in fact Bilbo’s brother, but his cousin, and only a second cousin at that. He was much shorter and slighter than Rum even though he was eight years older.
“Then shush while I tell it!” Gar bristled, earning a ducked head and mumbled apologies.
“Talk faster and we won’t need to interrupt,” Bilbo cheekily said to Gar, getting the warning finger pointing at him. Rum and Drogo snickered, then tried to look contrite when Gar glared at them. With a harrumph, Gar returned to the story.
“I was told by two princes to pay my respects to the Prince of Dol Amroth. His son, Prince Angelimir bade me to call upon his sire and gave me a letter of introduction. Another prince, Lord Turgon of Minas Tirith, was sitting with his friend, Angelimir, and also urged me to go west to visit his friend’s kin. And so I found myself in the mild winter of the south walking up to a huge gate in the midst of all of these very tall Big People…”
Bilbo could have recited the tale word for word. Talked to two princes, did you uncle? One was not enough? He chuckled to himself. Bilbo did not doubt that Gar had spoken to two gentlemen in the south but calling them princes was a bit much. He spoke to the son of the Thain and the son of the Master, good men, no doubt. But not princes. Bilbo shifted a little in his seat on the hearth across from Rum, irritated that he had managed to think of the Master while sitting here in the Great Smials. He had come here so he would not think of Buckland at all.
“To my great surprise, the palace of the Prince was a magnificent smial, delved into the side of a great cliff that stood above the town…”
“Like the Great Smials, uncle?” Rum added, knowing when he was expected to interject so that Gar could spin his wild tale.
“Greater!” Gar said with relish. “Put together the Great Smials, Brandy Hall, and all of the smials in Michel Delving, and you would not yet have a smial so grand as the keep of Dol Amroth!”
Not that Bilbo thought Brandy Hall to be very grand, not anymore. In fact, it was actually a rather wretched place, now. It was just as well he and Drogo were no longer welcome there, though Bilbo suspected Drogo could probably have wheedled Aunt Mira into letting him come visit. Rum had sent a letter half begging, half demanding, that they come to visit him in the Great Smials since Ta and Primula had gone to Buckland without him. A cold shoulder from Lalia was preferable to… Bilbo tried to concentrate on Gar’s story and stop thinking about Buckland.
“There were three floors above the ground and another three floors below, and the main floor, so seven in all. I asked the Prince, Aglahad, how it had been made, and he said that they had dug it out of the heart of the hill and then lined it all with stone.”
If only he could have a heart of stone, like this smial of the Big People far away in the south. It wouldn’t hurt so much, and he could be, if not precisely happy for Rory and Gilda, then at least indifferent. No, happy. I should be happy for them. It isn’t natural not to be happy when your best friends have a baby. And when have you ever been natural, Baggins? Bilbo drank some ale to cover his frown.
“Even the walls, Uncle Gar?” piped up Drogo. “Wouldn’t that be cold?”
“Well, yes it would, Drogo, if they were left bare, like some Dwarven mine, but these had thick tapestries hung upon them. And then the lamps! Oh, my boys, they were of brass, but gleamed like gold…”
The tweens glanced over at Bilbo for confirmation of this detail, and he nodded vigorously, just as though he had been at Gar’s side that day long ago, instead of being a child at Bag End, helping mind his little sisters, Danna and Berra. Secretly, Bilbo thought that this prince of Dol Amroth had a house much like one he knew of in Michel Delving. The house had a first floor like a smial, excavated from the side of a hill, then a part timber, part dirt upper floor reaching back into that same hill, all with a deep cellar beneath. There were a few houses here and there about the Shire, and supposedly even more than that in Bree, that had an upstairs on top of a regular smial. No doubt this southern place was more like a great hall than a single house, and probably did have beautiful things in it, maybe even some lamps of brass.
“At the Yule feast, there were more kinds of fish than I could name, more than I had ever seen,” Gar declared, waving his mug about and sloshing ale onto the hearth, “and that I could believe, for these were fisher folk and went out upon the Sea whether the sky be fair or storms threaten.”
“Is the Sea truly endless, Uncle Gar?” Rum asked, eyes big.
“Yes, lad, it goes on and on, and never does anyone reach its end,” the old Hobbit solemnly replied.
Nonsense. Everything has an end. It must. Everything must come to an end at some point. Bilbo wondered if that applied to a broken heart as well as to the Sea. He and Gilda were not supposed to come to an end, yet they did. For eighteen years he had waited and waited, first for her to be old enough, then for her to accept his suit, and she had brought it to an end. Even after she had wed Rory, Bilbo had not really believed it was true. A baby, though, that was the end to all of his dreams. She was well and truly and forever someone else’s wife.
“The ale was passable enough, I suppose,” Gar mused, “but nothing compared to what we have here in the Shire. I told the prince this and he said that, should he ever venture so far as the Shire, he would come to call at the Great Smials and enjoy good ale and good pipeweed.”
“Their pipeweed was bad?” prompted Drogo with a grin, full well knowing the answer.
“Bad? No, not bad. Not at all bad as they had none at all!” Gar shook his head sadly. “They know nothing of pipeweed down south, my boys. Imagine a place so far away there is no pipeweed. Imagine that!” The youngsters laughed in disbelief.
Bilbo always knew this is where the story became nonsense because there was no such place. Oh, perhaps places you couldn’t grow pipeweed, but nowhere you couldn’t find it. Every Dwarf had a pouch of it, and every Big Person, too. Even the old wizard, Gandalf, had pipeweed and he went everywhere, though the Old Took had a favorite story about how the wizard didn’t know good pipeweed from bad until taught. Imagine a place where there is no pipeweed. Would that be far enough to get away from an end?
Gar continued spinning his tale though the evening, making it more and more outrageous with how tall the Big People were, how many there were, how much gold and gems were lying about to be admired, how many ships filled the harbor, how many soldiers marched in the yard before the keep, how big and wide and rich everything was in all directions as far as the eye could see. It was all nonsense, but the tweens drank in every word as Bilbo himself once had, and they thought it was true. Well, except for the pipeweed, but even a Noakes wasn’t foolish enough to swallow that tadpole.
And when did you stop believing it, Baggins? Bilbo frowned to himself. He had once been just as gullible as Rum and Drogo. When did that happen? When Father died. When I had to stop being a careless tween and needed to be what Father was, head of the Baggins clan. Oh, he still could indulge in a bit of mischief if need be, but mostly Bilbo had settled into being a respectable Hobbit, one that didn’t tramp about too much, didn’t do anything to startle the neighbors and certainly didn’t go off to Buckland where folks were a bit queer and where he felt a desire to do things that weren’t the slightest bit respectable. Like kiss another man’s wife. Bilbo let himself indulge in that bit of fancy, dreaming of a very different Yule in Bag End where he had thought the coming year would make him a completely respectable Hobbit who would never believe in places without pipeweed.
The boys were yawning and rubbing their eyes by the time Gar ended his tale. In the halls, they could hear bells ringing, announcing the end of Yule and the start of the new year. Bilbo drained the last bit from his tankard and motioned for the youngsters to stand. “Up you get, lads! Time to go to bed and get some sleep. A new year is upon us, and who knows what adventures it will bring!”