1. Guests

POV - Frodo

In which a new friend with an old past shows up on the doorstep.


Evening, 22 Foreyule, 1389

‘I’ll get it, Uncle Bilbo!’

Frodo trotted over to the front door of Bag End, curious as to who would be knocking at this hour. He had a nagging worry that it might be one of the Gamgees; Missus Gamgee had not been feeling well lately, and Bilbo had been very insistent that Hamfast send Halfred if she took a turn for the worse. Frodo grasped the door knob, opened the door, and came to a startled stop.

On the doorstep was a dwarf. His black eyes caught and reflected back the light from the candles in the wall sconces, glittering like the facets on Aunt Tulip’s jet brooch. He swept back the hood on his scarlet cloak, revealing almost-golden hair in neat plaits, paler than his short, braided beard. His broad shoulders seemed to fill the door and for one fleeting moment Frodo wondered if the dwarf would get stuck in the doorway should he step in. The dwarf smiled at the young hobbit and bowed extravagantly, short beard nearly brushing the door jamb.

‘Dalin Steelhand at your service!’ he said in a cheerful, booming baritone voice. He stood quickly before Frodo could reply. ‘Dear sir, pray tell, is this the home of Bilbo Baggins, Lord of Burglars?’

Frodo could not answer. He could only stare at this huge person standing in the doorway. In all his life, he had never seen anyone so big. The top of his own head did not reach the dwarf’s shoulder. He’s bigger than Mac! was all Frodo could think. The young hobbit’s eyes got bigger and rounder as his gaze traveled down the visitor, taking in the enormously broad shoulders, the great barrel chest, forearms that looked as big around as an ordinary hobbit’s thigh, the tree-stump legs, and then he saw the boots.

Not feet, as one should see, but boots; big, thick, leather boots. They were black and spattered with mud. They had lacings across the tops that disappeared up under the turned-down cuffs. The leather on the cuffs was tooled in strange knots and whorls, with angles and curves fitting together in an endless pattern. The dwarf’s boots were bigger than the biggest hobbit foot. Frodo could not take his eyes off them.

A politely cleared throat shook Frodo out of his amazement. Blushing furiously, the young hobbit looked back up at the dwarf’s face, hoping he had not done something too terribly rude. To his relief, the dwarf’s face was crinkled up in amusement.

‘Dalin Steelhand, at your service, young master,’ the dwarf repeated in a softer tone, inclining his head in Frodo’s direction. Frodo grinned back. An adventure had arrived on the doorstep!

‘Frodo Baggins, at yours and your family’s!’ he replied properly, giving Dalin a bobbing little bow. Wait until Bilbo sees this! He could not stop grinning.

‘I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Master Baggins,’ the dwarf replied with a matching grin. ‘Are you by chance a kinsman of the illustrious Mister Baggins?’

‘Yes, I’m his nephew. Oh, what am I doing, keeping you standing on the doorstep?’ Frodo cried, suddenly flustered, knowing he was being rude to a guest, ‘Please do step inside Mister Steelhand. I shall fetch Uncle Bilbo right away!’

Even as the dwarf stepped in the round door, Frodo carefully closing it behind him, Frodo heard the soft pad of his uncle’s feet in the hall. Bilbo’s cheerful voice, tinged with worry, preceded him down the corridor.

‘Frodo, my lad, who is it? Is it one of the Gamgees?’ Bilbo came around the bend of the hall and came to an abrupt halt, delight lighting his face as brightly as one of the candles in the wall sconces.

Dalin repeated his bow even more ornately than before. ‘Dalin Steelhand, at your service, Mister Baggins, Lord of Burglars!’

Bilbo mimicked the bow with remarkable flexibility, considering his ninety-nine years. ‘At yours and your family’s, to be sure!’ he replied merrily.

Frodo stood to the side, scarce believing his good luck. Finally, a real adventure! After three months in Bag End, where the biggest adventure had been a long hike to see the Bindbole Wood clothed in its autumn finery, this was a marvelous turn of events. Bilbo hurried forward to take Dalin’s bright red cloak, handing it to Frodo to hang up as he himself turned to escort the dwarf towards a parlor. Frodo struggled with the large cloak, but eventually wrestled it onto a peg.

When Frodo turned back from the peg he froze. Dalin was pulling a huge axe from a hook on his belt. The dwarf smiled as Frodo scuttled to the side, then carefully set the axe, head-down, against the wall near the cloak. Bilbo and Dalin walked to the parlor, but Frodo remained a moment, fascinated by this axe that was almost as tall as he himself. Like Dalin’s boots, the axe was etched with whorls and knots, worn away in places from use.

‘Frodo, lad! Where have you disappeared to?’ Bilbo called. Frodo hurried to the parlor, not wanting to miss a word. I’ve met a dwarf at last!

Dalin had carefully set his pack down by the wall, and was warming his gigantic hands at the hearth. Bilbo poured a glass of wine for each of them. ‘Here, my good fellow, is something to get the blood flowing after your tramp in the cold. Supper will be ready promptly.’

‘My thanks to you, Mister Baggins,’ was the gracious reply, as Dalin allowed Bilbo to seat him in the biggest chair in the room. Frodo loved to use it for reading because he could curl up completely in it. Dalin filled the chair entirely, and Frodo wondered if it would be sturdy enough to hold this boulder of a dwarf.

‘Now, my dear Mister Dalin, I don’t want to tax you too much before you’ve had a good meal and are fully rested from your travels, but may I be so bold as to inquire who recommended that you take time from your important journey to pay me a visit?’ Bilbo asked. He signaled Frodo to go begin laying the table in the adjoining dining room. Frodo moved quickly to comply, but was careful to make little noise so he could hear what was said.

‘Why, many people have laid this charge upon me, Mister Baggins,’ Dalin rumbled pleasantly. ‘But first and foremost, my own sire commanded me to present myself and be of service to you. I am Dalin, son of Dwalin, and both he and my uncle Balin send their fondest regards.’

‘You’re Dwalin’s boy? Oh, how splendid!’ Bilbo exclaimed. ‘Did you hear that, Frodo? This is Dwalin’s son! Come here and say hello properly, my lad.’ Frodo did as he was told and quickly found his hand enveloped in Dalin’s huge paw. Bilbo beamed at the two of them. ‘You should know, Frodo, that Dalin’s father, Dwalin, was the first dwarf I ever met! He was the first to show up that fateful day.’ Frodo found himself wondering how he would extricate his hand from the grasp Dalin had on it. Dalin gave it a firm squeeze, then winked and let go. ‘Finish laying the table, my boy, and let us get supper set out for our guest.’

Very quickly, Bilbo and Frodo had supper on the table. Dalin changed from wine to ale for the meal, while Bilbo stayed with the wine. A thick rabbit stew was accompanied by potatoes and warm bread and steamed greens. Mistress Rumble had sent a fine berry cobbler up the Hill that afternoon as thanks for their help with fixing her chicken coop that morning. Sweet butter, rich gravy, and cream for the cobbler finished the table off quite nicely. Aside from a few polite questions about the weather, Bilbo did not question his guest over supper.

There was plenty for all three, though there was not much left over. Dalin insisted on helping to clear the table when the meal was done, ignoring Frodo and Bilbo’s protests that he was a guest and should rest. Bilbo firmly shepherded the dwarf to the parlor once the dishes were in the kitchen, then scurried back to collect something. After a few minutes, and some alarming clanging and crashing, Bilbo reappeared bearing a tray with several cups and containers and a strangely shaped pot, and sporting a triumphant grin.

‘Coffee, Mister Dalin?’

‘Yes! I haven’t had any coffee since I left Bree,’ the dwarf cheerfully replied. Frodo watched in fascination as Bilbo measured a coarsely ground brown substance into a basket in the top of the narrow pot, and set it into the hearth to warm. Soon an odd, enticing aroma filled the room. Bilbo poured a black liquid into the cups and served the beverage with sugar and cream. Dalin sipped and gave a growl of approval. Frodo took a tentative sip and realized it would be terribly rude to spit it back into the cup. He managed to choke down the mouthful of the vile concoction, then set the cup to the side. Bilbo looked at him with a merry twinkle, obviously knowing how horrible the stuff tasted. The old hobbit seemed to be enjoying it well enough.

After Dalin had finished one cup of coffee and had started on his second, Bilbo sat back in his chair and began to ask for news. ‘So, Mister Dalin, what sets you on a journey at this time of the year? What have you to tell us of the wide world?’

‘Well, as to why I am on the Road, I am journeying to the Blue Mountains to teach and be taught, Mister Baggins. I know something of making good steel, and I would learn more of gem crafting, so I travel. I am tramping with a group of dwarves who return to the Blue Mountains after a sojourn in Erebor to learn more about copper work. They are at the inn down on the Road. They all send their sincere regards to the Lord of Burglars.’ Dalin gave a small bow from his chair, which Bilbo accepted with a gracious inclination of his head. ‘As I said when I first was made welcome to your cavern, I was bid by several people to greet you and give you their fond regards.’ Dalin sipped his coffee. Frodo wondered how he could swallow it without gagging.

‘My sire, Dwalin of Erebor, sends you his greetings and bids you to make such use of my skills and service as you see fit. My uncle, Lord Balin, likewise presents you his loving wishes for health, wealth, and happiness in this and all years. All of the companions of your journey who dwell in Erebor or the Iron Hills offer kind felicitations. Dáin Ironfoot, King Under the Mountain, hopes that I will find you hale and well, and that I must convey to you his eternal gratitude. Ah, yes, Lord Elrond Half-Elven, Master of Rivendell, asks that I give you his most warm regard.’ Frodo could hardly believe his ears at the list of people who sent greetings to Bilbo. He looked at his uncle with no small astonishment. It was not exactly that he disbelieved Bilbo’s stories, but he had sometimes wondered at how many liberties his uncle had taken with them. From the sound of this list of greetings, there was not much exaggeration.

Bilbo smiled broadly and wiggled his toes. ‘Well, I shall have to find a way to convey equally fond greetings back to them, now, shan’t I?’ Bilbo hesitated a second, then asked, ‘You haven’t by chance encountered the wizard, Gandalf, in your travels?’

‘I have not. He was a visitor to King Dáin some eleven years ago on the occasion of Bain succeeding Bard as King of Dale, but I have not seen him in Erebor or Dale since then.’

‘I had thought perhaps he might be in Rivendell,’ Bilbo said, ‘as he has said to me he is often a guest there, but not to worry!’ Bilbo smiled cheerfully. ‘Please, drink your coffee and be at peace in our home. If you have news of distant places, we would dearly love to hear it, but do not tire yourself unduly on our behalf.’ Dalin bowed slightly to Bilbo again to acknowledge the courteous words of his host, and drank once more from his cup.

Frodo attempted to sip again from his own cup. The coffee was not quite so vile as the first taste, but still was not something he thought he could stomach. Hearing these greetings, sipping this strange drink, it all left him with an uncertain feeling, one that teased at the edges of his mind and sometimes jumped right into his face. Bag End was still so foreign to him. I’m a guest here, just like Dalin. The thought left him feeling a bit guilty for being ungrateful to Bilbo. It’s no fault of Bilbo’s, Frodo scolded himself. He has done everything he can to make you feel at home. He adopted you, Rat. What more do you want?

It had been so exciting and exhausting when he and Bilbo arrived from Buckland three months ago. Then, the adoption. In the first week or two, all he could think of was never being sent off or taken away again. He wanted to know more of his fascinating, adventurous Uncle Bilbo, and Bilbo wanted him to be at home in Bag End.

But Bag End was not home. Brandy Hall was home, and he missed it terribly.  He sometimes cried at night when he thought about Uncle Rory and Gammer, Esmie, Merry and Merle. It was such a relief to be rid of Sara, and of Bargo Burrows and his nasties, of the others who were cruel and callous towards him, that Frodo could make himself believe he liked it more here at Bag End. But then he would want to go throw rocks in the River with Merry, or teach Merle her figures, or sit with Gammer and do small things for her, just to be near her.

Frodo was also finding out that Bilbo could be quite wearing when one was around him all the time. His uncle was an energetic, curious, fussy person, and Frodo was in constant terror of doing something foolish, or of making a mess of things. Everything in Bag End was just so; even the untidy stacks of books and papers that littered most every room had a rhyme and reason to them. Every inch of Bag End, except for his own room, was marked by Bilbo.

There had hardly been anything to bring with him from Brandy Hall on that wild day when he had fled with his uncle. All his treasures were in an old shed at the edge of a wood down the lane from the Hall, and they were not much to speak of. Only his mother’s linens were really his, here at Bag End. Frodo was always very, very careful with them. He did not want to mar them. They were the only tangible thing he had of his mother and it would not do to damage them in any way.

Our home. Bilbo said our home, Rat. Frodo looked down into the pale brown liquid in the cup, and tried another sip. The coffee itself was nasty, but the sugar and cream were rather nice. And now you’re getting to see a dwarf. This wouldn’t happen at Brandy Hall. Didn't you always say you wanted to see dwarves? He took another sip of the coffee, then decided he was curious.

‘Mister Steelhand?’ Frodo tentatively asked. Two sharp black eyes were fixed on him over the top of the dwarf’s cup. Frodo swallowed, suddenly realizing that it might be rude to ask questions over coffee. The dwarf finished his own sip and lowered his cup, looking back at Frodo with a not unfriendly expression. The young hobbit took some heart and forged ahead. ‘Is coffee a special dwarven drink? I’ve never heard of it before.’

The dwarf chuckled a little bit. ‘First, little one, I am called Dalin, not Mister Steelhand. I invite you to call me such. Coffee is a mannish drink that comes from the south, from Khand through Rhûn. Traders from these places bring us turquoise and emeralds, cloves and coffee, and we trade copper, gold, amber, and gems for their goods. Aside from The Pony in Bree and Master Elrond’s Homely House, there is no place between Erebor and Belegost where it is to be found. My father was quite surprised that Mister Baggins knew of it, let alone that he could make it.’ Dalin raised a quizzical eyebrow at Bilbo, whose eyes twinkled mischievously.

‘Oh, I had seen it in The Green Dragon, once,’ Bilbo replied in an off-hand fashion, ‘when Lob’s father ran the place, and it was so unusual that I had to try making some myself. But it took a visit from your father and his companions to teach me how to make and serve it properly. I don’t think Lob ever got the hang of making it.’ Bilbo took an appreciative sip, then cocked his head and pinned Dalin with a sharp glance. ‘So, what else moves along the Road these days, Mister Dalin?’

‘Dwarves, of course,’ Dalin replied in good humor, ‘and carts of things.’ His brow wrinkled a bit and he sipped his coffee. ‘Things move less easily along the Road through Mirkwood, though. The path is darkening again. You are not the only one wondering where the wizard is, Mister Baggins. King Dáin and King Bain would both like to take counsel with him over the Forest.’ Dalin sighed, then his face brightened. ‘Even so, Erebor flourishes and Dale grows apace! The north path around the edge of the forest is clear and well-traveled, even in the winter months, and trade along Anduin increases. My cousin, Gimli, took a trip south along the river shore, speaking to the woodsmen and Beornings but a year ago. They would like to trade for good iron and steel, and also for finished tools and weapons. A number have even asked about moving away from the River and settling the lands between Erebor and Esgaroth. There is room aplenty, and crafts to be learned and taught. The Desolation of Smaug is free, now, and ready to be settled once more.’

Bilbo began to question Dalin closely about the industries operating in the old Desolation, and Frodo quickly found himself lost in the conversation. He took another sip of the coffee and decided it was drinkable, if only just. Frodo tried to follow the rapid back and forth between Dalin and his uncle. Some of the names sounded familiar – Erebor, Esgaroth, Thranduil, High Pass, Beorn, Rivendell – things Bilbo had spoken of in his tales of adventure. Now, however, they were matters of serious discussion between hobbit and dwarf. All Frodo could really make of it was that things were getting busier and darker in those faraway places where elves and dwarves roamed about.

It intimidated Frodo a bit to see Bilbo this way. His uncle hardly seemed a hobbit, what with his emphatic speech and endless curiosity. Frodo sighed to himself and gazed into the fire, letting the conversation blur into noise. There was little halfway, here in Hobbiton. Bilbo, or the rest of the relatives. Overwhelmed, or ignored. Adored, or detested. The Sackville-Bagginses simply refused to acknowledge he was a Baggins, and persisted in calling him “that Brandybuck.” Uncle Dudo and his wife, Aunt Tulip, had paid him little mind the one time he and Bilbo had gone to visit. Aunt Dora never even bothered to write him, let alone visit. This left Frodo mostly at the mercy of his uncle’s insatiable curiosity and daunting erudition.

They had not visited very much, truth be told. Bilbo was not overly fond of his Baggins kin in and around the mid-Shire, and preferred to spend his time reading things in his study or else tramping about the countryside. This had been interesting, if not precisely adventurous. Frodo now knew all the hills and dells around Hobbiton and Overhill, knew how to get to Bywater and back by several routes, and thought the Bindbole Wood quite beautiful, though he was a little disappointed by it - he had hoped there might be elves there. He had quickly learned how small and inadequate the library at Brandy Hall was. Frodo was proud of the few books that Bilbo had specifically given him as his own: an elvish grammar, a collection of elvish poems that Bilbo had translated and transcribed himself, a book of delightfully silly children’s stories, and a blank bound journal. Frodo had not yet dared to write in it. When he had important enough thoughts, he would write them down.

Frodo tried again to listen to the conversation, but gave the effort up as hopeless. They were discussing some point about trade, and getting lumber out of northern Mirkwood over the objections of the elves. This sounds nothing like an adventure, Frodo thought crossly to himself. He knew he should try to pay attention, as Bilbo would approve of him learning new and strange things. Frodo sipped again at the coffee, decided it was too tepid to be worth drinking, and set the cup on the hearth. He would make himself pay attention to Bilbo’s discussion, even if he did not understand it. It was important that he do things to earn Bilbo’s approval, things that would make Bilbo forget other things Frodo had done and which Bilbo most definitely did not wish to see repeated. The young hobbit gave his attention to the other two.

‘So, we mostly let the Dalemen and the Lakemen talk to the elves,’ Dalin concluded, shaking his head, ‘and I don’t envy them. These Wood Elves are a dishonest lot and always fingering their knives a bit much when they see a dwarf.’

‘I am saddened by this, Dalin,’ Bilbo replied. ‘I had hoped some affection might grow up between Mountain and Forest as times grew more prosperous.’

Dalin shrugged. ‘These Dark Elves have always hated dwarves. There was no love between our peoples before Smaug, so why should there be any after?’

‘But you are welcome enough in the Last Homely House, are you not?’ Bilbo persisted. ‘You speak well of Lord Elrond, and were his guest not so long ago. Why cannot good faith exist between these other elves and Durin’s folk?’

‘You sound like the wizard,’ Dalin half-joked, ‘always nagging at King Dáin to pay court to Thranduil. Let him pay some court to us, if he would have goodwill between our folk! We have offered naught but good things to Mirkwood for fifty years. But they are petty elves, not High elves like Lord Elrond and his folk. They’re scarcely above the beasts of the wood. I half expect them to twitter like birds or chitter like squirrels.’

Frodo watched Bilbo give Dalin a long, disapproving look, then laugh a bit and shake his head. ‘Well, friend Dalin, the enmity of elves and dwarves confounds a poor, simple hobbit like myself. Thankfully, there is great amity between hobbits and dwarves, so I may enjoy your company in these dreary days!’

Dalin smiled in return, then slapped his forehead and bounded to his feet. ‘I have forgotten the gifts! My dear Mister Baggins, please forgive my wandering thoughts. I have not only been sent with greetings and good wishes, I have been entrusted with some small gifts for you!’

The dwarf hurried over to his enormous pack and dragged it before the fire. Frodo began to feel interest return at the news of presents, and craned his neck to see into the bag. There were many things in the pack, but all were neatly and perfectly stowed. Dalin pulled a few items out and laid them near his own feet, then extracted a stiff leather tube, a small, heavy leather pouch that clinked when set down, and a small wooden box. The items he had first removed were swiftly restowed, and the pack laced shut.

‘A scroll from Rivendell?’ Bilbo enquired, looking hungrily at the leather tube.

‘Yes, entrusted to me by Lord Elrond himself to be given to your hands,’ Dalin confirmed. He handed the round case to Bilbo, who wasted no time loosening the leather cap and sliding the scroll out of the case. Frodo scrambled over to look at the parchment with his uncle.

It was, of course, in elvish, but as far beyond the simple script that Bilbo had been teaching him as a fine cake was beyond a mix of water and flour and honey. The letters were perfect, crisp and clear, with no blots or smears in evidence. The first letter of each paragraph was larger and more ornate than the others, and was in a deep purple ink touched with gold and decorated with a flower. All along the edges of the scroll were diagrams and drawings of hands, arms, feet, and legs – there was even a sketch of a cheek, jaw and eye. Frodo could see finely drawn plants as well. Some were the entire plant, while others were but a leaf, vine, or flower. Bilbo read the first part of it carefully, soundlessly mouthing a few unfamiliar words, then gave a satisfied grunt and rolled the scroll back up.

‘Thank you, Dalin, for being such an excellent courier. I have been awaiting this scroll for some time.’ Bilbo carefully replaced the parchment into the leather tube and set the cap in place.

‘The honor is mine for being entrusted to bring it to you, Mister Baggins,’ Dalin politely replied. He picked up the leather sack and held it out. ‘This is a gift from King Dáin to the Lord of Burglars in honor of your great service to Durin’s folk.’ Dalin bowed deeply, extending his hands and holding the pouch towards Bilbo. The elder hobbit bowed deeply in return, then picked up the pouch, nearly dropping it in surprise at its weight. Bilbo sat the small bag on the end table before trying to work the drawstrings loose. Frodo saw Bilbo’s eyes grow large as he looked into the bag, and watched his uncle reach in and pull out something gold. Bilbo looked at it in the palm of his hand, wonder on his face, then extended his hand out to Frodo to see.

It was a large golden disk, more than two inches across. Seven stars made an arc along one edge, and a crown sat beneath them, surmounting the hammer and anvil that was centered in the circle of gold. Frodo reached out a tentative finger and lightly touched the disc. It was cool against his fingertip, and the design was raised from the surface.

‘A gold Crown of Durin,’ Bilbo said in wonder, turning his palm gently so that the great coin would catch the light. Frodo just stared. Once, Uncle Rory had shown him one of the silver Crowns he had. It could not compare in size or beauty to this coin, though “coin” seemed far too modest a term for what lay in his uncle’s hand. Then Bilbo turned it over and Frodo let out a cry of amazement.

On the obverse of the golden disk were images. In the upper left third was a mountain with an army arrayed before it. In the upper right third was a dwarf with a great beard lying on a stone bench, a faceted stone between his hands. In the lower third, a dragon’s head looked out, and before it stood a small figure with bare feet.

‘Uncle Bilbo, that’s you!’ Frodo exclaimed, not caring at all that his voice squeaked and broke. He held out his hands, and Bilbo carefully placed the Crown in them. The weight of the coin astounded Frodo, and he sank to sit cross-legged on the floor before the fire, supporting his hands on his legs. When he moved the gold a bit, he could almost see Smaug’s head move, could imagine the figure of his uncle making a mocking bow to the creature. There were even scales to be seen on the dragon’s face, and the curls on Bilbo’s head were just defined enough to be felt with his thumb.

‘King Dáin has ordered that all golden Crowns struck between now and the fiftieth anniversary of Smaug’s death and the Reclamation of Erebor shall show the great moments of that time. The spying on Smaug, the Battle of the Five Armies, and the restoration of the Arkenstone were accounted the greatest,’ Dalin said simply. Frodo looked up at Bilbo in awe. The greatest of all the feats… Bilbo himself seemed rather amused at the thought. Dalin continued, ‘King Dáin selected five Crowns from those first struck and entrusted them to me to deliver to you; one Crown for every decade that we have been returned to our home.’ Dalin stepped back and gave Bilbo a deep, reverential bow. ‘Thank you, Bilbo Baggins, Lord of Burglars.’ Bilbo returned the bow in kind, obviously affected by this tribute.

Dalin stood up, and his solemnity melted away. ‘I have one last gift for you, Mister Baggins, from my Uncle Balin.’ He scooped up the ornately carved wooden box and presented it with a flourish. Bilbo accepted it with an equally ostentatious bow, and lifted the lid of the box. From his place at Bilbo’s feet, Frodo could see a dragon had been carved into the lid, though it was upside down from his perspective. Bilbo chuckled, then began to laugh, and ended up roaring in mirth at whatever he had found in the box. After he had gotten his humor under control, Bilbo lowered the box so that Frodo could see inside. On a velvet lining sat a handful of solid gold buttons, fourteen in all, each set with a small diamond.

‘Ah, Balin, that wag,’ Bilbo chuckled, ‘I should have known he wouldn’t forget!’ Seeing Frodo’s puzzled face, Bilbo explained, ‘These replace the buttons I lost from my waistcoat when I escaped from the Orc den and snuck past Balin into camp.’ Frodo did not see why this should be quite so funny, nor why there would be so many buttons for a single waistcoat, but Bilbo’s good humor was infectious, and he grinned back in return.

‘My uncle sends a message with the buttons,’ interjected Dalin. ‘Balin says “Take these in memory of our adventure together. I shall see you again when I have finished a certain adventure of my own. Then I shall give you buttons to match your mail. Farewell, Bilbo Baggins, until we meet again!” ’ Bilbo looked up sharply at these words.

‘He’s off on another adventure, is he? Where is he going to?’

Dalin’s face grew wary. ‘I am afraid I can’t really say, Mister Baggins. My uncle’s business is his own.’

‘Of course, of course,’ Bilbo soothed. Frodo watched Bilbo’s expression get faraway, his mind thinking of distant things. ‘An adventure! Oh, how I should like to go on another adventure before I die.’ Bilbo stared off into nothing, lost in memory and wish.

Frodo stared up at his uncle in no small consternation. Go off on an adventure? What about me? If Bilbo went off on an adventure, Frodo was certain that he would be left behind.  Am I old enough yet? He won’t think I’m strong enough to walk out of the Shire. This was not a good turn of events. Bilbo was his guardian now, more so than even Uncle Rory had been, for Bilbo had adopted him whereas Uncle Rory had simply kept him about. You’re responsible for me now. You can’t leave! Not without me! If Bilbo left, where would he go? Frodo could hardly think. Bilbo just stood there, dreaming of things that did not include a young nephew. After a minute or so, Bilbo shook himself out of his reverie and smiled at Dalin.

‘Friend Dalin, you have given me a delightful gift of your company in this Yuletide, and have brought gifts and greetings from long parted and dearly missed friends. I hope you will accept the hospitality of my smial and will rest the night here.’ He bowed to the dwarf, who bowed in return.

‘If you are so kind as to offer me a place of rest, I shall not be so churlish as to spurn that kindness,’ Dalin courteously responded.

‘Excellent!’ Bilbo replied, then cocked his head and pinned Dalin with a calculating gaze. ‘I say, my new and dear friend, are you going to be able to travel all the way to the Blue Mountains before Yule is upon us?’

Dalin shook his head and grimaced. ‘Nay, I shall be tramping upon the road and sleeping under a tree in a week’s time, I fear. The journey from here to Belegost is at least another fortnight by foot. Longer, if the weather is foul.’

‘Are you under any great duty to arrive there as swift as may be?’ asked Bilbo. Frodo recognized that particular tone. It meant that Bilbo was planning something.

‘I need only arrive sometime before spring,’ Dalin cheerfully informed them, but with an inquiring look. He appeared to be aware that Bilbo had a proposition.

‘Well, that raises some interesting possibilities, my dear Dalin,’ Bilbo responded in his mildest, friendliest voice. Frodo knew something was going to happen. ‘You see, on tomorrow morn, Frodo and I set out to Buckland so we may enjoy Yule with our kin. It saddens my heart to think that you would be cold and alone upon the Road when we are warm and gay.’

‘Think not upon it, Mister Baggins,’ Dalin assured him. ‘I am a dwarf, and we are made for hardships! And I do have traveling companions.’

‘Oh, to be sure,’ agreed Bilbo, ‘there are no people more sturdy than the dwarves, and none amongst them who are more enduring than Durin’s folk. But still it pains my heart to see anyone bereft of shelter and mirth in the darkest part of the year. Can you be convinced, friend Dalin, to tarry on your journey and accompany us to Buckland, and there join us in celebrating the turning of winter?’

Frodo could see that Dalin was pleased by the idea of a merry Yule. He himself thought Bilbo was up to more than offering a nice place to spend the holiday.

‘I think that such a celebration would be greatly welcome, Mister Baggins, but I would wonder as to whether I would be welcome at it,’ Dalin hedged. ‘I would not presume to impose upon your kin, and they might not be terribly pleased at a large, thumping dwarf in the midst of their Yule, generous though they undoubtedly are to any well-intentioned traveler.’

This exchange was getting more fascinating as it grew more elaborate. Bilbo beamed munificently at Dalin, who gazed back with aplomb. Frodo kept very quiet, not wanting to distract.

‘I think it would be a gift to my kin should you grant them the honor of your company, my dear Dalin. The Master of Buckland, Rorimac Brandybuck, who is my first cousin and as close as a brother, is a sharp fellow who is always interested in opening up reputable trade in Buckland. While your noble father, Lord Dwalin, has bid me to make use of you as I see fit, I think that I would prefer you to speak to the Master and see what opportunities for business might lie in his holdings.’

Dalin’s look sharpened, and he regarded Bilbo with an appreciative eye. ‘Mister Baggins, you place a most interesting proposition before me. King Dáin has laid it upon all of his subjects who travel in the wide world to look for honorable and respectable folk with whom to do business. The Shire has always been regarded by dwarves, even before your own celebrated exploits, as a kindly place. I do believe that between the command of my King and my duty to my sire, I must halt my own eager journey and pay my regards to your kinsman, the Master of Buckland.’

‘Would you? I would count it a great favor to myself and my family if you would be so kind as to accompany me and my nephew on our journey tomorrow,’ Bilbo said with great cheer. ‘We shall leave early and go to Whitfurrows by evening, then set out the next day for an easy stroll to Brandy Hall for Highday table. Your company upon the Road will be delightful! We shall speak of the places you have been and shall talk of adventures. Perhaps we shall plan one!’

‘I look forward to being of service to you and your family, Mister Baggins,’ Dalin jovially responded, and gave Bilbo another ornate bow, though rather exaggerated for humor. Bilbo laughed and responded in kind.  ‘I fear this means I shall have to return to my companions tonight and let them know that I shall not be going on with them.’

As the talk turned to adventures, Frodo’s humor receded a bit. He really is going to plan an adventure. With Dalin, not with me. Frodo looked down at the Crown that still rested in his hands. Maybe things will be better at home. That was a cheering thought. Perhaps Bargo had found someone else to bully. Maybe Sara would not be so… Frodo cast about for a word to describe his cousin, but nothing polite came to mind. Uncle Rory may have changed his mind by now. Maybe they miss me and want me back. Frodo turned a bit and carefully laid the Crown on the table next to the bag holding the other four. Bilbo left the room with Dalin, escorting the dwarf to the front door and arranging for the time the next morning when they would meet at The Green Dragon. Maybe I can have my room back. If Bilbo goes off again, I can go home.


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