18. The Hay-cut, Pt. II
1400, July 23 ~ Bonfire Night.
There was much jubilation when the Hobbiton haying ended a day early. Workers had kept pouring in from the South and East Farthings, swelling the ranks so that they brought in the crop in record time, the richest in years. It would be a fat winter for local stock, with hay left over to sell or trade.
Merry and Freddy still had not returned from Buckland, so Frodo and Rosamunda were granted a reprieve. “A sudden summer squall,” Saradoc had written with displeasure. Thunderstorms had smitten the east side of the Brandywine, sudden heavy rain soaking everything thoroughly. The roads were mud; the stacking had been brought to a stand-still. He was very sorry, but no hobbit could be spared to bring the lads west. Not for a week. Perhaps, longer. The drenched haycocks must be spread and dried (and so on and so on), Saradoc explained. But, when all this was accomplished, might it be convenient for Merry to stop at Bag End, breaking his trip to the Smials?
Bilbo smiled and shook his head. Every year he received the same request, written in Saradoc’s neat, elegant hand. And every year Bilbo wrote the same reply: of course, Merry might stay. And the Hall’s driver needn’t wait, because, of course, Bilbo would take them. And (of course), Freddy would go with them. But that was Saradoc. From childhood he had been uncommonly formal and reserved (so unlike Saradoc’s boisterous father). Rory’s son was not cold, precisely. It was just his way.
Rosamunda had shown Bilbo her own letter from Saradoc, which was written in much the same style. Might Fredegar wish to accompany Meriadoc into Tookland? (As if Freddy ever went to the Smials except alongside Merry.) Saradoc and Esmeralda would be along, but later, of course. But, later (‘of course,’ Bilbo added as he read). Why, they would not miss the Tookland visit for anything!
Every year, every summer, after haying, the lawns of Great Smials were covered with children; not just Tooks, but children from all the intermarried clans. Droves, herds of children played at games from dawn till dusk and long into the long summer twilight. They roamed the fields, pillaging gardens and leaping from stiles. They rode on ponies; they went on foot, carrying packs stuffed with food from the Smial’s kitchens, sleeping out-of-doors in the rolling land that stretched to the south and west, or in the woods, where they played Orcs and Elves and hunted, pretended or real. The forests of the Green Hills still had plenty of game, large and small. Rabbits and squirrels could be taken with a good shot lobbed from a hand or a sling. Larger animals, such as deer or the occasional boar, were taken down with bows and arrows.
But hunting with bows was the province of grown-ups, who did not play at Orcs and Elves. The children’s parents loved to visit the Smials, too. After a hunt they refreshed themselves at Tuckborough’s inns, which served some of the best beer in the four Farthings. They lolled about the grounds, munching dainties and catching up on gossip. They strolled the gardens, comparing recipes for brining pork, opining which wools wore best, and exchanging remedies for thrush. And all the while, they patrolled the grounds, watching over children at play, as well as the bushes and sheds where children played other sorts of games. And as they did, they planned alliances – alliances of children, money, and land – as eager for the increase of their families as of their corn and sheep.
Bilbo never missed the annual summer fête in Tookland, although he seldom stayed for long. No observer of hobbit manners could bear to miss it. But it was too big, too sprawling, with too many hobbits he’d never met.
He preferred Hobbiton festivals such as Bonfire Night, now underway.
On Bonfire Night, hobbits that lived near to could wash at home, or in the homes of their kin, but the travelling workers did their bathing in the Bywater Pool. Wet-headed they came, their still-damp bodies plastered with clothes creased from having been stowed in travel-worn packs. A throng of local hobbits was already gathered round the fire, singing and laughing or softly talking as they gazed into the leaping flames. Every now and then, whenever the fire found a knot of sap, fountains of sparks would spiral into the night, occasioning bursts of glee and cheers. The mood was festive but rich, bone-deep tiredness giving extra sweetness to their respite. Only small children seemed unacquainted with fatigue. With shouts and whoops, they darted in and out of their elders, waving sticks with their ends alight. As they chased each other over the new-mown fields, trailing giggles, their sticks made streams of light that wove through the dark like drunken fireflies.
Freshly bathed and dressed, Bilbo had come down from the Hill with Frodo to join the crowd. As was expected of them, they worked their way along the perimeter, greeting folk, shaking hands, clapping backs, and uttering many a ‘Congratulations!’ for jobs well-done.
“We’ll have no need to worry about the winter, be it ever so fierce!” Farmer Cotton was proclaiming with a sweeping gesture. “Let it come, I say!” His listeners looked with satisfaction at the indicated meadows which rose from banks of the Water, everywhere dotted with fat, high stacks. Under the waxing moon, they cast long shadows against pale, new-shorn stubble. Narrow timbers, stacked like angled toothpicks, railed them round to keep off foraging beasts.
“Hear, hear!” Bilbo agreed, striding up to clink mugs. “Let come what may!” Drinks were raised to that, with many an, “Aye, Mr. Bilbo, sir!”
But the handsome farmer and ostler was just warming to his theme, feeling the benefit of previous mugs of ale. “And thanks be to soil and sun and rain!” Cotton enthused, “And to folk that’s willing to work hard to have the benefit of it!” Everyone standing near said, “Hear! hear!” and mugs were raised again. Then the farmer clapped a calloused hand on Frodo’s shoulder. He moved in close, grinned amiably, and said, “And you, Mr. Frodo! You did yourself extra proud this year! You’re swinging a scythe as good as any of them – lusty and bold!”
Bilbo saw Frodo give the slightest start, as if he suspected another meaning hidden under the effusive praise. But Farmer Cotton’s smile was guileless. “It was the grip I showed him that did it,” he informed his listeners. “It’s all in the grip!”
While the other farmers nodded their agreement, Frodo recovered himself.
“Yes! Indeed it was, sir,” Frodo acceded graciously; “all in the grip. ‘Not far enough down the snathe,’ you said, and you were exactly right, sir. You saved me hours of toil with little to show for it. I’ve fewer blisters this year, too.” Frodo lifted his smooth-skinned hands and turned them about before the eyes of his viewers in evidence. “You see? Raw places only here and there. I am in your debt, sir!” He bowed courteously.
Cotton beamed and flushed beneath his sun-browned skin. He had not really been fishing for compliments, but he was a hobbit who took great pleasure in passing on his store of knowledge. His eldest child, Tom, just Sam and Freddy’s age, was known to turn a deaf ear on his father’s store of wisdom. But he would learn sense eventually.
“T’was nothing but a pleasure, sir, showing you!” Farmer Cotton said, and meant it.
Frodo pressed the farmer’s burly arm and moved on. Well done, Bilbo thought. Frodo would make a Master yet.
As they made their way around the fire’s perimeter, Frodo did not notice, but Bilbo was eyeing him as he scanned the faces of those assembled. Bilbo spotted Rosamunda first. She was standing with her back to them at the edge of a group of noisy hobbits, well away from the fire, which had grown very hot. Only children still went near, dashing in to light their sticks. The group in which Rosamunda stood was nearly in shadow; the whites of their eyes and their teeth flashed as they talked and laughed. The voice of a Boffin (was it Marco? – no, it sounded more like Folco) shouted an indecipherable remark, which was followed by general hilarity. The laughter of the Brockhouse brothers sounded above the rest; they bellowed like bulls being gelded. A clutch of Bolger cousins wiped their eyes and tittered; whether at the joke or at Marcho and Blancho Brockhouse, Bilbo could not tell.
With united purpose, he and Frodo made for the laughing group. But, before he could get there, Bilbo was drawn aside. Odo Proudfoot, his son Olo at his side, plucked at Bilbo’s sleeve, wanting a word. Frodo was keeping himself in check admirably, but Bilbo knew he was straining at the bit. Go, Bilbo told him. Go, and he’d catch up.
Bilbo attended politely as Odo shouted apologies for the alleged uneven quality of the fare. The old Proudfoot kept sheep and had sent a quantity of mutton to be roasted on the first day of the cut. Odo had been hearing complaints. Bilbo listened, but simultaneously watched Frodo being pulled into the group. After a round of embraces, back-thumpings, and cheek-pinchings, Frodo quickly insinuated himself next to Rosamunda, who still stood on the outside of the circle talking to the Bolger cousin opposite. Frodo glanced discreetly behind them, meeting Bilbo’s eye – his only observer. Frodo grinned, his eyes twinkling. Turning back to the group, he surreptitiously slipped an arm around Rosamunda’s waist.
“…But there was not a thing wrong with it at slaughter,” Odo was keening fretfully.
“Oh, dear,” Bilbo said, nodding sympathetically, letting the old hobbit unbosom himself.
Bilbo glanced again at the group. Frodo and Rosamunda were engaged in animated conversation with Marco and Folco, just across from them. Rosamunda was laughing at an apparent drollery when Frodo dropped his hand over the back of her skirts and burrowed it into the folds. From the sound of Rosamunda’s shriek, Bilbo could guess Frodo had found his objective.
The Boffins and Bolgers noticed nothing out of the way, thinking themselves funnier still, but Bilbo could not stifle a loud snort.
“Eh? What is that you say?” Odo importuned so loudly some of the Boffin-Bolger-Brockhouse group looked their way.
“Nothing, nothing at all – a bit of a tickle!” Bilbo coughed, assuring the old hobbit of his renewed attention. “You were saying about the tainted mutton, Mr. Proudfoot...?”
Bilbo glanced back. Rosamunda’s hand was groping behind her, seeking the culprit. She seized Frodo’s hand in hers to subdue it, but Frodo’s hand would not be subdued. With a twist, he seized hers instead. Leisurely, he pressed and squeezed and rubbed until it opened to him. Like an animal stretched on its back to receive its master’s attentions, her fingers flexed and stilled. He delicately stroked her palm with his fingertip, until her fingers quivered. Then his hand was captured in turn; she held it fast, giving it a hard press. Signalling his capitulation, his hand relaxed in her grip. She released his hand, but only to curl her fingers around his, squeezing them in a sort of rolling caress. As if soothing them into compliance, she ran the flats of her nails along their backs. When Frodo seemed thoroughly subdued, she interlaced her fingers with his and held his hand lightly to the hollow of her back. There it lay, meek and submissive. Only his thumb continued to move, which stroked the heel of her palm with soft, brush-like touches.
The sight of this exchange had been so sensual, Bilbo had thought to turn away. But the tenderness, the extreme intimacy of it had held him captive. A pang of unhappiness smote him, which took him by surprise; he clutched the brocade of his waistcoat. He felt unspeakably old, old and extraneous.
He gave himself a shake. This would not do at all. Unworthy sentiments. Unworthy. The two of them deserved their moment.
He looked about himself. Where had the Proudfoots got to? There they were, making their way towards the refreshments. Bilbo could not recall bidding them a proper good night but he must have done. Glancing down, he saw that he still clutched the brocade at his breast. As if were smoothing a wrinkle, he ran his hand down the embroidered satin. His palm skimmed over the circlet of metal in his pocket, and he felt encouraged. He seized a bracing breath, propelled himself forwards, and joined the merry group nearby.
He made his courtesies to the rest of the company, who shook his hand and gave him hearty hugs, offering jovially to “freshen his mug” for him. Bilbo graciously declined these offers, and, with a proprietary air, drew the pair he sought aside. “Come. Come walk with me, won’t you?” he said, taking the arm of each. “The moon is bright. We shan’t take a tumble.”
They waved to the others as they moved off into the new-shorn meadow and soon found the river path. Behind them, the flames of the bonfire leapt higher as more hobbits continued to arrive, each throwing on his token stick of wood. One of Bilbo’s songs rose from the children’s voices. Bilbo stopped to look, but he could not see them, on the far side of the fire. Then peals of laughter rang from the Boffins and Bolgers, and the Brockhouse brothers honked and brayed as they all lurched off towards the drinks and food, holding their sides and clapping each other on the back.
It must have been a good one, Bilbo thought, watching their stumbling progress.
Near the refreshment tables musicians had taken up their instruments. Fiddles, pipe and drum struck up a different tune that rose and crackled like sparks from the fire.
“Things are hotting up,” Bilbo remarked as they walked along.
“A dance! A dance!” a voice was calling out. Folco, again? Bilbo cocked his ear. No, too low-pitched. A Bolger. Loud assent followed.
“Would you like to go back? We could, you know,” Bilbo offered.
Frodo tipped his head back and closed his eyes. He filled his lungs with air, which still was sweet with new-mown hay. In the moonlight, his expression was euphoric. Softly he said, “No, Bilbo. Let’s just keep walking. This is so nice.” Frodo clasped his hands behind his back and leaned into a quicker pace, as if to emphasize his wish.
Bilbo cast his eye inquiringly towards Rosamunda. “There is music here, too,” she said.
They had walked on together in the quiet, but the further they walked, the less quiet it became. Away from the party, they could hear the sounds of night all around them. To their left the Water ran behind the poplars, whose leaves shook high above them whenever the breeze freshened. Beyond the willow break, frogs sang in the marsh grass high and shrill, or low like the thrum of bass fiddles being bowed.
Occasionally the chorus would stop, as if between musical selections, and suddenly the three could hear their own breathing. Then, as if at a given signal, a creature would rustle the leaves or a fish land with a plop and the frog chorus would strike up once again.
Finally they reached the place where the path ran up from the river to Bagshot Row and the Hill. Bilbo stopped. Frodo and Rosamunda followed suit.
“You could walk to the cottage from here,” Bilbo said, thinking out loud, “going round by the Row. Or you might save time cutting straight up through the fields and by-pass the Hill all together. You’d have to climb a few stiles, but you two could manage that, I should think.”
They looked at him abashed, saying nothing.
“Such faces!” he said. Good-humouredly he took their arms. “Come, you deserve to make an early night.”
“You – you would’t mind?” Frodo’s voice was hesitant, but his eagerness could not be hidden.
“Mind? Of course not! You know I always love a party! Besides –” Bilbo stopped and held his breath. They did, too. “Do you hear? They’ve just begun to play my tunes. Why, if I am not there,” he laughed, “they might make an awful mess of things.”
They continued to stand about, as if unsure.
Then Rosamunda stepped forward. “Thank you, Bilbo,” she said. She touched her fingers to the back of his hand, and leaned towards him to kiss his cheek. The press of her lips was light but warm, her hair and cheek fragrant.
He always enjoyed her shows of affection, but, somehow, not tonight. He wished she would leave him alone. Well, not quite that. It was not as though she was doing anything she did not usually do. But, for some reason, her every touch; the smell of her; the warmth of her proximity; all conjured up things he had put away years ago. It was as if she were raising the lid on a trunk full of memories long discarded or tucked away. Spectres from his amorous past rose up to haunt him. He wanted the lid shut tight.
Frodo had thanked him, and Rosamunda was stepping away, turning to go.
“Wait,” Bilbo said, “I almost forgot.” He drew forth a small vial, warm from its place in his pocket. “Here.”
Rosamunda extended her hand and Bilbo slipped it into her palm, closed her fingers around it, and gave them a press. “It is your turn tonight, I fear, Rosamunda,” he said with an exaggerated look of sympathy.
Emotion suddenly crowded the back of his throat, but he willed it down, saying with an avuncular tone, “Don’t forget, ‘a little goes a long way’.”
Rosamunda uncurled her fingers and held the bottle up the light of the moon, turning it to and fro. Frodo peered, too, glancing at Bilbo curiously.
“Why, it’s oil for the rub!” Rosamunda cried, illuminated. She unstoppered it and waved it under her nose. “Ah, how lovely it smells! Oh, Bilbo!” she enthused. “You are too good.”
He stepped back, in case she should throw her arms about him, but she did not.
“This is much finer than anything I have at the cottage.”
“It’s not very much,” he said apologetically. “But I thought you might like some to use tonight for Frodo’s rub. Someone must do it, Rosamunda, or this lad of mine won’t be fit company when I shall be forced to have him back again!” His laugh sounded strained, even to himself as he looked everywhere but at her. He dropped his shoulders and lifted his eyes to meet hers. So loving, so sad was her gaze, it was almost beyond bearing.
“Anyway,” he struggled, trying to feign even greater heartiness, “It’s the best! And I would wish him to have the best!”
“Thank you, Bilbo,” she said, the quietness of her voice making his seem that much louder. “I shall not waste what is precious.”
Bilbo did not miss the directness of her gaze.
Inwardly he breathed his relief as they bade each other goodnight and the lovers turned up the hill path.
“Oh!” Bilbo stopped. Bother! Would he never get away? But he would have to say something. “I should mention … there is in the oil the essence of a rather fiery plant from the far South. It works wonders on aching muscles and joints, but, well … erm …”
They looked at him, waiting. He felt his face heating. Thank goodness for the cloak of night.
“Well, the thing is … you may not wish to use it … everywhere.”
Frodo made a choking sound, but Rosamunda burst out laughing. Relieved, Bilbo laughed, too.
More seriously, Rosamunda looked at him and said, “You know, it is a very good thing you spoke.”
They laughed again, embraced, and went their separate ways.
Bilbo watched as Rosmunda and Frodo disappeared up the hill into the night. He sighed, turned, and headed back towards the party. Up ahead he could see the bonfire’s glow, although he could not yet see the flames. Ah, well, he would be in a fitter mood when he arrived. Merriment always was a tonic.
Over the fields a few random notes floated, reaching Bilbo’s ear slightly distorted by the distance and the noise of the Water. He listened harder, but the frogs were bowing and chirping. Suddenly their chorus ceased and he heard what it was.
Sweet and clear, two fiddles twined in close harmony, beautiful almost beyond bearing. Almost melancholy it sounded, aching with hopeful yearning.
It was his own tune, he realised, made when he was young and had thought himself in love. All at once he wanted to weep.
Stop it, he told himself. Was he returning to his infancy? Everything would be fine.
All would be well.
He marched ahead, but had to stop in the path to push his knuckles into his eyes. He stilled his breaths, measuring them; in and out, in and out; and was heartened beyond measure to hear the musicians switch to a sprightlier set.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.