Originally written in 2006 for Marigold's Talechallenge 35. Elements to include in the story were: a creature, Esmeralda, an exotic fruit, a landslide.
He would come with me, of course, if I asked him. In fact he offered to once, just before the party. But he does not really want to, yet. I want to see the wild country again before I die, and the Mountains; but he is still in love with the Shire, with woods and fields and little rivers. FOTR, Chapter 1
The study was even untidier than usual. Frodo trod carefully across the sun-dappled carpet, stepping over crumpled sheets of parchment, discarded quill feathers and pen nibs, and a crystal inkwell (fortunately empty). Leather-bound books spilled like tiny landslides from their once-neat piles tucked at the base of the panelled walls. Dust motes stirred up by all the activity danced in the shafts of golden sunlight that streamed through the windowpanes.
Such disarray was increasingly evident throughout Bag End of late. Bilbo was in a fretful, almost frantic, state; it was how he always got before going away, as if the planning was simply too much botheration, and he’d far prefer running out the door without his handkerchief (or anything else for that matter) as he had so many long years ago.
But this going away, Frodo knew, was more, much more, than some simple jaunt to Buckland for the holidays or autumn camping trip in the wilder country north and west of Hobbiton.
Across the cluttered room, three of the Dwarves who had accompanied Bilbo on his original Adventure, Nori and Dori and Dwalin, were huddled on the sofa with their heads together, long grey-brown braids mingling as they conversed in the low, guttural accents of their own tongue. They were intently studying a map that was spread across their laps. Even at a distance and upside down, Frodo could tell that it was Bilbo’s map of Dale and the Lonely Mountain. The blood-red outline of the dragon Smaug was clear to see upon it.
Frodo’s heart began to beat a little faster with excitement, but an equal measure of dread.
“Bilbo, may I speak with you for a moment?” he addressed the back of the upright figure seated on a tall stool at the desk. Bilbo was writing, the quill moving vigorously across a sheet of ivory hued parchment.
“Fiddlesticks,” muttered Bilbo after a moment, “that won’t do at all.” He crumpled the parchment in his hand and tossed it over his shoulder.
It hit Frodo squarely in the forehead, bounced off and landed in a pile with the others on the carpet. “Bilbo!” he exclaimed, putting a hand to his head, and Nori, Dori and Dwalin looked up and they began to smile, teeth a white flash in their bearded faces. But so, too, was Frodo smiling: with fond exasperation.
“What is it, Frodo?” Bilbo asked distractedly as he pulled another sheet of parchment from the stack at his elbow. “Can you not see that I’m busy? There are all these blasted letters to write, don’t you know, to go with the Party gifts. Come back later, there’s a dear lad.”
Frodo suppressed a sigh. He’d been trying to corner Bilbo for several days now, and every time he received the same answer: Bilbo was too busy to talk and Frodo should return later. It was difficult to tell with Bilbo, of course, but Frodo was beginning to wonder if he was suspicious and was deliberately putting Frodo off. Well, he was not going to succeed this time, Frodo vowed.
“No, Bilbo, I cannot come back. I simply must speak with you now,” said Frodo in a firm voice. “I promise you I shan’t take long.” Frodo spread his legs slightly, settled his feet in the soft pile of the carpet, and crossed his arms over his chest. His body language said quite clearly: I am not going anywhere until you talk to me.
“Oh, very well.” Bilbo conceded defeat. He set his quill in the stand and slid around on the stool until he was facing his nephew. He linked his ink-stained fingers on his lap and looked expectant. “What is it you wish to say to me, Frodo?”
“I’d like to speak with you alone, if you don’t mind,” Frodo said with an apologetic glance at the Dwarves, who were listening attentively. “It’s a private matter.”
Bilbo’s grey eyes were sharp as tacks. He pinned Frodo with them for a few moments, and then nodded his head. “Very well. Dwalin, Nori, Dori, you will excuse us, I hope?”
The Dwarves rose at once, and politely bowed. Frodo and Bilbo (a bit awkwardly for he was still seated on his stool) bowed back. They waited as the three picked their way over and around the obstacles on the floor, quite nimbly considering the heavy boots and mail they wore, and exited the room.
“Well, my lad?” Bilbo prompted when the Dwarves had gone, closing the door behind them. “Speak up. I am entirely at your service.” He spread his arms wide and smiled in invitation, his eyes crinkling at the corners.
One of the nicest things about Bilbo, thought Frodo, was that no matter how busy or distracted he might be, when he agreed to give you his attention, he gave it to you in an undivided manner. Those keen eyes were entirely present and very kind as they regarded him.
But now that the moment had finally arrived, Frodo found it impossible to speak. He had rehearsed the words he meant to say over and over in the privacy of his bedchamber; but every single one of them had flown from his mind, leaving it empty and echoing like a cavern.
His eyes strayed to the sofa so recently abandoned by the Dwarves and alighted on the map they’d left on the table. There it was again: the image of the Lonely Mountain and just above it the red dragon with his great wings unfurled and the fire streaming from his open mouth.
Bilbo said nothing, only waited patiently for Frodo to begin. Outside the study, Frodo could hear the voices of Sam Gamgee and his father raised in animated conversation. No doubt they were discussing that new cultivar of apple, the Winter Banana*, that was nearly ready for its first harvest. It had been a chief topic of conversation for days as the lemon-yellow apples gradually ripened, acquiring a deep pink blush; according to Shire gardening lore, the flesh was supposed to taste exactly like an exotic fruit from lands far to the south, called a banana.
What exactly a ‘banana’ might be or how it looked, however, was a mystery lost in the mists of time, in the days before hobbits had settled across the brown river Baranduin. The Gaffer, of course, had seen no merit in adding some outlandish apple from the Southfarthing to the Baggins orchard, but Sam had dug his heels in, figuratively speaking. He had been eager to try his hand at growing them since Frodo had mentioned the exceptionally sweet taste of the apples to him several years back, and he was now on tenterhooks, awaiting the moment that the fruit was ready for a first taste.
Or a last taste… Frodo’s mind returned to the matter at hand. Bilbo was still patiently waiting, and his grey eyes were filled with understanding. Dear Bilbo. Where would I be without you and your many kindnesses to me? Frodo thought. I owe you more than I can ever repay.
Frodo cleared his throat. “Bilbo, I…” he began, and his heart started to race again and his palms grew damp with sweat. “I…” He clenched his hands into fists and blurted out, not in the least the way he had intended: “I want to go with you when you leave.”
Immediately the words left his lips, Frodo wished that he might snatch them back or unsay them. And yet… he had meant them. Oh, what was the matter with him?
“My dear boy.” Bilbo reached out and took Frodo’s white-knuckled hands in his own; they were warm and comforting. “My dear, dear boy,” he said, sounding truly moved. “I am deeply touched by your offer. But I think you know that my answer must be ‘no’.”
A confusion of emotions assailed Frodo then, but predominant among them was relief at Bilbo’s response- and a consequent sense of shame for feeling that relief. Perhaps that was why he could not think of one of the reasoned arguments he meant to muster if Bilbo turned down his request.
“Why?” was all he could find to say, “Why can’t I go with you?” And immediately felt ridiculously like a child again, one who knew no other way to respond but to ask ‘Why?’ in a plaintive voice. It would serve him right if Bilbo answered him by saying, ‘Because.’ “I promise not to be a nuisance,” he added, as if determined to make Bilbo think him a child in every way and entirely unfit to stir a step out-of-doors, much less go on an adventure.
“Of course you wouldn’t be a nuisance,” Bilbo chided gently. “You’re a Baggins.”
Frodo smiled reluctantly, but said, “Bilbo dear, I don’t like to think of you going off alone this way. Anything could happen on the road; you’ve often said so yourself.”
“First of all, dear boy, I won’t be alone. I’ll have Nori and Dori and Dwalin with me. And secondly, I am quite capable of looking after myself.”
Frodo stared down at their joined hands; there was a constriction in his throat. For all people called Bilbo ‘well-preserved’, his hands were those of an old hobbit: there were brown age spots dotting the backs and the knuckles were thickened. Perhaps once he had been quite capable of looking after himself. But was that still the case? Worried, he looked up and met Bilbo’s eyes. And he could see that Bilbo was quite as well aware as Frodo that, despite all appearances to the contrary, time was at last catching up with him. He would leave nevertheless, and count any risk to himself on the road well worth the cost.
There was a moment’s silence while they stared at each other, and then Bilbo said, “Now I must ask you a question, Frodo-lad. Think carefully before you answer it, and I want you to be completely honest with yourself as well as with me. Do you truly believe, in your heart of hearts, that you are ready to leave the Shire, quite possibly forever?”
Images flashed through Frodo’s mind then: rolling green hills and quiet shaded lanes; bright masses of flowers in the garden and trees ablaze with the glory of autumn colour; clear swift-flowing streams and deep still pools; peaceful evenings by the sitting room fire with a book, and noisy ones at the Green Dragon with a mug of beer; visits from his dearly loved cousins and friends, and the comforting constant presence of Sam and his father.
All the inexpressibly dear and familiar scents, sights and sounds of his home rose up before him and seemed to say, as softly as a whisper on the wind, No, not yet. Your time has not yet come.
“I’ve dreamed of adventure in far away places, of dragons and mountains,” Frodo said quietly, “but, well, the Shire is very dear to me, and I should not like to think that I might never see it again.” He hesitated. “I suppose the truth is that in my heart of hearts I don’t really want to leave,” he admitted, owing Bilbo the honesty for which he’d asked, hoping he would not think him disloyal.
“Of course you don’t, Frodo, no more than I did at your age, and that’s precisely as it should be,” Bilbo replied at once. “Besides, for what did I make you my heir and train you up to be Master here if you depart Bag End the very moment you are of age and finally ready to step into your rightful place?” He added with a glint of humour, “Not to mention that I’d hate to see the Sackville-Bagginses get their hands on the dear old hole after I’ve gone to such lengths to thwart their designs all these years.”
“But don’t ever think, even for one moment,” Bilbo said then, as seriously as Frodo had ever heard him speak, “that I am insensible of the honour you’ve just done me, Frodo-lad. I know it cannot have been easy for you to make such an offer.”
Frodo shook his head, flushing a little. “Bilbo, you’ve given me so much and been so very good to me. There is nothing I would not do for you, you know.”
“Well, well,” Bilbo said, squeezing Frodo’s hands and releasing them. He blinked his eyes rapidly. “We won’t say any more about that, for I never did a more sensible or intelligent thing in my life than to steal you away from your Aunt Esmeralda and bring you here. You’re a credit to the Baggins name, my boy.”
“Oh Bilbo,” Frodo said again, and leaned forward to embrace him. He buried his face in the scratchy wool of the old hobbit’s jacket as Bilbo’s arms came around him. It smelled of pipe weed and peppermint and rosemary and, even more, of love and security. “You will tell me if you change your mind, won’t you?” Frodo asked, drawing back.
“Word of a Baggins,” Bilbo said, his eyes suspiciously bright. “Though I think that it will be some years before you set out on an Adventure of your own, Frodo.”
At that moment, an excited voice came from just outside the study window. “Mr. Bilbo! Mr. Bilbo!” It was Sam Gamgee, his curly head framed by red and gold nasturtiums. “Oh sir!” He saw Frodo standing with his master, and added, “Oh Mr. Frodo! I’m that excited. They’re ready at last.”
“What is ready, young Sam?” Bilbo asked. He slid off the stool, and together he and Frodo went to the window.
Sam stretched his brown hand across the sill. On the palm rested a pale yellow apple with a rosy pink cast. “The Winter Banana apples, sir. Ain’t it a beauty?” asked Sam, with pardonable pride.
“It is indeed,” replied Bilbo as he took the apple from Sam and admired its glossy perfection. Then he held it out to Frodo. “Here, my boy,” he said, smiling, “it is only right that you should be the first to taste it.”
Frodo could almost hear the words Bilbo didn’t say: For you will be the Master here soon. Frodo took the sun-warmed apple in his hand, and bit into it, aware of Sam’s anxious eyes upon him. “It’s wonderful, Sam,” he said, the sweet juice running down his chin and over his fingers. “You’ve outdone yourself.” Sam blushed and ducked his head.
“Well,” Frodo added with a glance at Bilbo, “I’d say this calls for a little celebration, wouldn’t you? Fetch your gaffer, Sam, and meet us in the kitchen and I’ll pour us all a pint.”
“Right away, Mr. Frodo,” Sam said, grinning, and dashed off.
Bilbo gave Frodo an approving look. “It will ease my heart on my journey, Frodo, to know that I am leaving Bag End in such good hands,” he said.
“Sticky ones, I fear,” Frodo replied lightly, but his heart was full.
Bilbo pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and gave it to Frodo to clean the apple juice from his hands. “I don’t always run out the door unprepared, you know,” he said, and they understood each other perfectly well.
*The Winter Banana apple does in fact exist.