Written for Dreamflower for the 2017 Yule Exchange. Dreamflower asked for a rather fluffy story involving some of those in the family trees, although I couldn't let it get away without a hint of angst, could I? (Grins innocently)
Two days before Yule, 1320
“Are we there yet?” begged little Dudo as their ponies dragged the carriage up one last hill.
Relieved, Ruby Baggins finally said, “Yes, dearling, at long last we are.”
Drogo lightly punched his sister in the side with his elbow. “It’s only the fifty-sixth time he’s asked today. I swear, if he’d made it to sixty I had made my mind up to boff him alongside the ear!”
“You would not!” insisted Dora, horrified.
Dora and Drogo turned guiltily toward their mother. They’d come a long way in the last two days from a family wedding in Westhall, which was not all that far from Greenholm, after all, and they both knew that their mum was recovering from a nasty bout of catarrh and was as tired of Dudo’s constantly repeated question as they were.
“We ought to have gone home rather than here to Bag End,” Drogo grumbled as he took the food basket from his father preparatory to climbing the front steps up to the green door to the smial. “It’s just across the village, after all.”
Fosco gave a sigh. “You know why we came here rather than going all the way to Garden Place,” he said. “The heavy snow four days ago followed by that heavy rain held us in Westhall too long to be home long enough to warm the hole properly so we could decorate for Yule, especially as ill as your mum has been. And Cousin Bungo couldn’t make it across Hobbiton to do so for us, not with his hip the way it is. It’s simply never properly healed from the break he suffered during the Fell Winter. So, when Bungo and Belladonna’s letter arrived suggesting we stay with them for Yule, it only made sense to stop with them here at Bag End.”
“Bilbo could have done it,” Drogo suggested stubbornly.
His father shook his head. “But he’s been at the Great Smials to represent us Bagginses at the meeting of the Family Heads. After all, he will be our next family head. Chances are that he’s not home yet. Or, if he is, he would have only arrived within the last hour at the earliest. Now, take that up to the door while I help your mum. And be careful on the steps—they are likely to be icy.”
Fortunately the steps had been freshly swept clean, and salt sprinkled to make certain no one slipped. Bilbo held the front door open for them, welcoming them gladly and then hurrying down to help with the luggage. Dora, carrying her personal bag as well as Dudo’s, could hear her father asking about the trip from the Tooklands.
“The way to the Road from Tuckborough was bad—very slick, in fact. But the Road itself was mostly bare and clear. A bit muddy in a few places, but I suspect you found it much the same. I turned off to take the bridle trail near Sweetbriar Farm, and there I had to go more carefully, but it did make for a quicker return than it would have been had I come directly through Bywater. I’ve only just arrived myself—be careful as you go in, for I think I heard my pack fall off the bench as I came out to help you!”
Cousins Bungo and Belladonna were at the door to greet them, Bungo leaning on his stick and Belladonna with a basin of steaming water and several towels so they could wash and warm their feet. Behind them lay Bilbo’s pack, for it had definitely fallen from the bench as he’d surmised.
“Come sit here, and let Belladonna care for your feet,” advised Bungo, guiding Ruby to sit on the bench near Bilbo’s pack. Dudo immediately climbed up on his mother’s lap, and Ruby sighed as she pulled him back against her chest.
Belladonna smiled up as she knelt at Ruby’s feet. “I am certain you are the best of gentlehobbits, Dudo, so you won’t mind if I care for the lady first, and then the children from youngest to oldest, will you?”
Flushing at the thought of being a gentlehobbit, Dudo gave a thoughtful nod, and Belladonna quickly and efficiently saw to the cleansing of Ruby’s feet and swiftly dried them as well. As Drogo dutifully followed Bilbo up and down the front steps, they brought in the remaining bags, at which Bilbo indicated the younger lad should sit down near his mother while Belladonna cared for first Dudo’s feet and then Drogo’s. Bilbo, meanwhile was carrying bags through the house to the bedrooms beyond the kitchen, aided more slowly by his father and Fosco.
“You are certain that we are no bother?” Ruby worried. “You have plenty of room for all of us?”
“Room for all of you?” Belladonna sighed. “We had hoped to have at least half as many children as my parents, after all, although we have but one living child in Bilbo. We have more than enough room for your family, even if you were to have a room each, and still more to spare! Now, Dora my dear one, at last it is your turn, and you are so patient! Now, sit there and I shall see your feet done.”
Bilbo continued to bustle through first one way and then the other carrying bundles as Fosco returned to hang up his cloak and walking stick, which was more ornate although less functional than that used by Cousin Bungo.
“I shall take the carriage into the village to the Ivy Bush and see to it your ponies are cared for for the night,” Bilbo volunteered when there were no more bags to carry away. “We can get them home to their own stable tomorrow, but tonight let them be pampered! That’s right, isn’t it, Dad?”
Bungo smiled proudly. “And don’t say anything about it, Fosco, as this is part of our Yule gift to you and your family!” Waving away the expected protests, Bungo’s smile widened. “Here, Ruby and children—I shall show you your rooms. Sit down, Fosco, and allow Belladonna to wash your feet. They must be ice cold, what with sitting up on that box for hours of travel today!” And with that he shepherded Ruby away.
“I hope,” Bungo commented as they passed through the kitchen, “that you approve of the rooms chosen. Now, there’s the privy and there the bathing room. The boiler is lit, so there’s plenty of hot water for baths if you’d prefer to do so before we eat. Now, this first room on the right we thought would do for the lads, and this one across from it for you and Fosco. The drapes will help block out sunlight in the morning should you wish to sleep in, although as the windows are to the western side of the Hill you shan’t get daylight too early in any case. And how about you, Dora—would you do well with a room with a window? This next one, then…. Oh, and we put some fruit and biscuits into your rooms to help take the edge off your hunger, what with the cold of the journey and all. Is it all right that the bags are set there for you and the children to sort out, Ruby?”
Cousin Posco Baggins was sitting by Bilbo on the wooden settle in the parlor when at last Ruby and the children emerged, their clothes changed and their heads and feet neatly brushed. Ruby had donned a deep turquoise shawl she’d received from the bride’s mother in Westhall, and was looking much restored as she was settled with her back to the parlor fire in a comfortable chair.
Dudo walked over to the newcomer with interest. “You look like my Cousin Posco,” he declared.
Posco rolled his eyes at Bilbo before answering, “I am your Cousin Posco, Dudo Baggins.”
“But Posco wouldn’t visit us here!” the child insisted. “We don’t live here!”
“No, you live across the village. And I didn’t necessarily come to visit you, you know. After all, Bilbo’s my cousin, too, and I can visit him all I like. But since you are visiting here, I can visit you and your sister and brother and mum and dad at the same time as me visiting with Bilbo and Cousins Bungo and Belladonna.”
“Come here, Dudo,” Bilbo said, holding out his arms. “You can sit with me if you like.”
Within a few moments the small Hobbit was sitting in his older cousin’s lap, and had been handed a gingerhobbit to appease him.
Cousin Bungo’s eyes were twinkling with suppressed laughter as he turned his attention to Dora. “I understand that you are becoming quite the expert on etiquette, sweetling. Would you like to sit by the tea trolley and pour out for us, then? We would be most honored if you would.”
At an assuring nod from her mother, Dora seated herself as directed, and with shining but determined eyes was seeing to it that everyone was served with a choice of mulled cider or milky tea, along with an assortment of small sandwiches cut out with stamps to look like leaves, wreaths, bows, or bunnies, and ever so many different types of vegetable spears and sweets. Ah, but it was all so good! At last, her chair turned so she could share the round pie-crust table with her mother, she took a nibble of a sandwich with bacon and chicken and assured Cousin Belladonna, “You have set us up such a nice tea table!”
“All the nicer with you to serve us as you have. You are a credit to your upbringing, dear Dora,” she was answered. She glowed with self-satisfaction.
When all were satisfied, Posco cleared his throat self-consciously. “I am sorry to follow such food with sad news, but I have to tell you that there’s been some damage to your place. The ice coated your roof tree, and a goodly bough broke off. It didn’t damage your smial proper, but as it slid down the hill it caused damage to the front windows. Dad has it in hand, but it will take a few days to get the replacement glass from the glassblower’s kiln in Michel Delving. We have the broken glass cleaned up and the frame covered so no rain or snow can get in, but your hole will be dreadfully cold until the window is replaced.”
“That was the first reason we thought to invite you to spend Yule here with us,” Bungo explained. “But when we heard that you’d been so ill whilst in Westhall, Ruby, that cut it as far as we were concerned. We couldn’t let you go home to a cold hole with covered up windows with no one able to fully effect repairs until after Yule is over, and particularly with so little time to prepare for Yule in your own hole. So we are so glad you agreed to stop with us, and we will do our best to make certain that this is the best Yule possible for you and the children. After all, we’ll be having the Yule bonfire right down there in the Party Field, so it will be easy to bring sleepy little Hobbits up to bed when they cannot hold up any longer.
“Not to say,” he added, noting the growing pout on Dudo’s face, “that Dudo won’t last the night through. But Dora might well grow tired before the adults are finished with the dancing and singing. Oh, and perhaps you, Dudo, would agree to reward whosoever it is that comes First-footing!”
“Deftly done,” Dora heard her father say softly to his cousin. The frown was gone from Dudo’s small countenance.
With a sidelong look at Bilbo, Bungo admitted slyly, “I’ve had a lad of my own, you know. He taught us a few things, Bilbo did. And he will go over with you tomorrow morning so you can see the damage for yourself.”
Fosco nodded. “Thank you so for your thoughtfulness, you and all of the family.”
Belladonna nodded her agreement. “And I shall now have so many hands at my disposal in finishing up the decorating here at Bag End. Will you help, children?”
It was the beginning to an eventful two days until First Yule. In the morning Dora went home with her daddy and saw the evidence of the damaged windows, and brought away their favorite toys and warmest winter clothing to Bag End. Then in the afternoon she and Drogo went with Bilbo and other older lads and lasses to choose more greens from the wooded area south of the Hill and over along the Water and the Pool as well. Dudo, who’d been rebellious at being left behind, was triumphantly holding up two inexpertly frosted cookies for them when they returned. “I made them myself!” he announced. In spite of the finger holes in the icing, they did prove to be very good.
Neighbors came and went, came and went, bringing in food to be stored in the cool rooms of Bag End for the night’s feast, carrying away baskets of treats for those working in their own holes and houses, asking about how much wood they might need to bring for the bonfire, and setting up stands for the musicians and tents for the kitchens down in the Party Field. Dora directed her mum and Belladonna in the placing of the holly and fir boughs, and her father lifted her up by the waist to hang the mistletoe in the doorway to the dining room. Silver stars were hung in each window, and when Dudo asked why Belladonna told them it was to light the way for the Rangers as they passed through the Shire upon the Road. “My Da learned when he visited outside the Shire that the Rangers are more important than we’d thought, and that their people actually help protect all they can, chasing ruffians and thieves away from where good folk live. He says that the Rangers wear silver stars on their cloaks, and so he put silver stars in the windows of the Great Smial in their honor.
“Also,” she added in softer tones, “we placed them there in honor of the Elves. Elves woke in the days before Day, before the Sun and Moon rose in the sky, when only the glow of stars gave light to Middle Earth. Da used to say that he hoped that if an Elf were to happen by, it would smile to see stars in our windows in the darkest of days in the year.”
Dudo leaned against her leg. “Are there really Elves? Really and for true?”
She looked down and laid her hand on his curly hair. “Elves? Oh, yes, there are really Elves, really and for true. After my mum died, Da left for a time with Gandalf, and it was an Elf, one of Lord Elrond’s sons, who brought him back home again. I have never seen such a beautiful being, not ever in my whole life. Gandalf had taken Da to Rivendell, and Elrond helped him heal from Mum’s loss.” She ran her fingers through his curls for a moment. “Now,” she said, “where do you think we should put this bough of yew?”
“When do you open your presents?” Bungo asked at supper that night.
Ruby eyed Dudo sternly, allowing Fosco to answer. “We open them after breakfast on Second Yule,” he said, “although each may pick one to open on First Yule before we go out to see the bonfire lit.”
Realizing he’d not get better than this now, Dudo nodded dutifully.
Belladonna asked, “Do you do lists to be burned with the bonfire or on the Yule Log?”
Dora’s eyes went wide. “Do you have a Yule Log? Your parlor fireplace isn’t all that large.”
Bungo laughed. “We do our Yule Log in the kitchen fire—it’s much larger than the parlor hearth. And why shouldn’t the Yule Log be useful while it burns, eh?”
It was an odd thought, that the Yule Log might be usefully cooking one’s meal as it burned, and Dora decided she would have to consider perhaps a long time before she decided whether or not she liked the idea. But there was still Belladonna’s question to answer. “We burn both our lists on the bonfire—to make certain that the Yule Dwarf gets his before he comes, you see.”
“I see,” Belladonna said, her eyes smiling. “Now, we shall be finishing up the plum pudding and the fruitcake today, and preparing a haunch of lamb and a large ham and a great goose for the roasting tomorrow evening. Oh, Ruby, I have always found your fruit salad so worth eating. Will you prepare one for the feast? There will be tables down on the Party Field, but if you don’t feel up to that we could eat here in the dining room and the children could go down with Bungo and Bilbo and their father while we keep warm here with the mothers of faunts and bairns, and with those not well enough to see the New Fire lit and the dancing first hand.”
So Dora helped her mother with her fruit salad, after Drogo and their dad went across the village once more to fetch her largest bowl and favorite fruit knives to use. The salad was even more interesting than usual, for a box from the Great Smial contained a number of fruits of a sort that Dora had never seen before. One looked like a great yellow-brown pinecone, and others were various sizes of orange balls, all with a sweet taste with such a hint of tartness that Dora was enchanted immediately. “Oh, but I do like these!” she told her mum. “I wish we might always have some of these orange fruits!”
“My Da’s friends amongst the Dwarves and Elves have always sent different foods from far away,” they were told by Cousin Belladonna. “I rejoice that they continue to send them still.”
“I’ll say this,” Bungo confided when his wife went off to answer the door. “I never, never thought there’d come a day when I looked forward to food from outside the Shire. But the Old Took has taught me better, wise old Hobbit he is, in spite of being an odd Took from the top of his head to the soles of his feet!” Then he, too, left to visit briefly with well-wishers from Overhill.
“It feels like Yule now,” Dora murmured to her father as they peered out the front window at the last-minute preparations for the bonfire in the field below. “I didn’t think it could if we weren’t in our own hole, but somehow this feels just right.”
Fosco hugged her to his chest. “I know, sweetling,” he said. “When I realized our beautiful windows were damaged I was so disheartened, but it has all turned out for the best after all. And when we return home we shall make things even better!”
“Will they be using the limb from our house-tree in the bonfire?” she asked.
He was already shaking his head. “No, for your younger brother has asked that it be saved so that he can see the wood. He thinks we might make some chairs from the slabs we can cut from the bough. And he may well be right, you know. He so loves the feel of well treated wood.”
Whilst in Westhall, Dudo had been spending time in a cousin’s woodshop, where he’d watched in fascination as wood was cut into slabs for use in making cradles and such. Drogo had spent time there, too, more interested in seeing how wood was joined together to make chests and cupboards. Dad had spoken with the two lads of the possibility one day of apprenticing them to woodworkers, and Drogo at least seemed well pleased with the prospect.
Again Dora was not certain what to think. That her brothers might want to make livings for themselves from what they made with their own hands seemed so incongruous. Yet, to know that they wanted to make things that were both useful and beautiful felt so right for them, somehow!
The hole was growing cooler around them as the fires were allowed to die. Once they were all quenched, the hearths would all be swept clean and new fires laid—all save the flames, which must come from the New Fire of the proposed bonfire down in the Party Field. Even now a team of Hobbits was carrying the great fire drill out and setting it into place at what would be the heart of the bonfire, once it was lit and the wood laid upon it to burn high into the night. She watched as they set it upright in its housing and then worked to set the ropes out properly for the teams of Hobbits to pull in order to set the New Fire burning. She felt her chest tighten at the thought of the effort that would be set in motion that the fires might again blaze warmly and protectively in every house and hole throughout Hobbiton and even into some portions of Bywater and Overhill and beyond. Drogo and Bilbo would be among those set to carry coals and torches to light the Yule Logs and new fires in each household within the region, and that made her proud—and somewhat incongruously frightened—for the pair of them.
At last Belladonna drew her away to do her part in preparing for the coming of the New Fire by sweeping clean the hearths in each of the bedrooms, and then in helping her mother to set out the tinder on the empty hearths, with more wood in buckets in each room to lay on once the New Fire was started.
There was clean bedding on each bedstead, clean towels hung out in privy and bathing rooms, new cloths spread over the tables, fresh toweling by the sink and dry sink in the kitchen. Green boughs brightened mantels and doorways and window frames. Red and white berries hung in bright array. New candles of fresh bees wax and bayberry were in all fixtures and candlesticks, and the lamps were all freshly filled with scented oil and sported new wicks. And in the windows silver stars hung, reflecting back the least sparkle of light from elsewhere—from candles and torches and the dying sunlight as the last of the sundown glory withdrew from the western sky.
“It smells of Yule,” Ruby said softly as she drew her children about her, all dressed in their Yule best and warmest, Drogo holding to himself the stuffed terrier he’d had as a gift from Dora, his one gift he could open before going down to the feast and the lighting of the New Fire. Fosco took his wife’s arm as they went out into the cold evening air. It had been raining at dawn that day, but the clouds had rolled away before noon and all had gone still and dry. The frost was now chill underfoot, but even that was somehow reassuring at the same time. There were pockets of earth dug where potatoes were being laid all about the edge of the platform where the New Fire would start. There they would bake under the coals once the fire was lit and the dancing begun, not to be dug up and feasted upon until the middle of the night was upon them all, smothered in melted butter, herbs, and salt, perhaps with bacon and chives sprinkled over all. Dora’s mouth watered at the very thought of how they would taste then, hours from now!
“Now, for the feast!” exulted Cousin Bilbo. “I’ve been awaiting this for weeks!”
Oh, and did it not prove better for that wait? Apples and berries, cakes and pies, roasts and fried foods, pots and pots of beans of all sorts seasoned with unimaginably good things! There were nut meats and sweet meats as well. Biscuits and jellies brightened each table. Root vegetables to fill bellies; salads to delight the heart! All ate heartily, and drank teas warming and cold, ale and beer, wines and cordials, spiced cider and wassail! No one was wanting for any food or drink when at last the sign was given to blow out the lamps and candles, and to douse the torches and cooking fires.
At that the first teams stood up to strain at the ropes for the fire drill.
“Will it light?” Dora asked her father, suddenly anxious that this year, when their hole had been damaged and they must sleep elsewhere, that the miracle of the New Fire might be denied them.
He held her closer, smiling down into her eyes. “Oh, but it shall. Wait and see, my dearest of sweetlings!”
The first team was mostly of older Hobbits, gaffers and village elders. The song of the New Fire was begun, a song that had definite words, even if many of them had passed out of memory for their specific meanings. More and more Hobbitesses, gammers and mummies and so on, stood to sing it, to pound out the rhythm of the song with clapping, more and more stamping of feet, and with increasing drumming upon small tabors, spoons on pot lids, and a few decided drums that had appeared as if by a secret conjuring.
New teams stood to relieve the older Hobbits. Now it was dads that were pulling at the ropes, some with their grown sons at their backs. Now the grown daughters were adding to the song, some carrying their bairns in packs on their backs or against their breasts. The song went faster, and so went the whirling of the fire drill. Now and then a spark would spring out, but so far none had touched the oil-soaked tinder.
Then the third team stood up, carefully relieving those who’d gone before so as not to break the rhythm of the pulling at the ropes, the whirling of the fire drill. Now the older lasses were joining the singing, entering the circle of singers as far as they dared without impeding the menfolk at their pulling. Sweet voices rose alongside those that were rough but certain, and the pace increased once more. Dora could not bear it any longer, and left her brothers to run forward to join in the singing.
And, at that moment, the New Fire finally flared. A single spark and then a second and third caught amongst the tinder, and flames shot up around the fire drill. A great shout went up, and those working the drill together lifted the ancient device free from its base, and eager feet and hands saw to it more tinder was flung upon what flames were already lifting to the skies. Then branches were added, and dry lumber ends, and finally larger and larger limbs and logs until at last the bonfire stood bright and shining in the night. Musicians crowded the stand and began tuning their instruments.
At that moment Bilbo swept up Dora into his arms to dance with her, handing her circlets of bells to put round her wrists, and soon all were dancing the Springlering all about the glowing flames. As she danced with her face skyward, Dora could see the sparks from the bonfire streaming upward to add to the great display of sparkling stars overhead, and as she caught a glimpse of the windows of the Bag End and the Hill she could see silver stars shining into the night, reflecting back the splendor of the flames.
Yes! she thought exultantly as she whirled in what she realized were the arms of her father, who danced divinely. This is right and as it should be!
She wasn’t certain when she was bundled up the steps into the hole. New flames were rising upon the hearth in the parlor, and the flames in the kitchen hearth already blazed about the great Yule Log. She was given mulled cider to warm her, and Cousin Belladonna was stirring something upon the stove that smelled divine. “Hot chocolate,” she explained, pausing, her spoon held momentarily in the air with something brown dripping back into the pot. “I understand that the bean that it is made from grows in the far south where winter seldom comes. The Elves of Rivendell trade for it from the Elves at Mithlond upon the edge of the Sea, and this was given as a gift to the Thain as they passed through the Shire.”
Dora was soon circled by a mug of the hot chocolate, a plate of candied cherries, and glazed apple spears. She tasted and exulted again at the magic of Yule. “Who would know that such wonderful things are possible!” she exclaimed.
“Just so!” Belladonna answered. “Magic foods for the most magical of seasons! If only we had some of Gandalf’s fireworks to add to the glory of the night!”
Only that thought could have pierced the bubble of glory for that night. Somehow the name of Gandalf, with his reputation of drawing Hobbits, even two of Cousin Belladonna’s brothers, out of the Shire to unknown adventures, frightened Dora as no other name could. He was a disturber of their quiet happiness, or so she thought it. Her smile faded, but somehow when she tasted it the hot chocolate still tasted excellent.
Dudo was curled up in Bungo’s chair with a shawl pulled closely about him and his dog, and he most sleepily bestowed the prizes for First-footing upon one of the Boffins who arrived first after the signal was passed that the New Year was officially upon them. Dora took the gifts of salt, wine, oil, and wood and set them in the middle of the table in the dining room to be admired in the morning; and the Boffin lad was given a large cup of Wassail, a warm scarf and mittens, and a bottle of wine to share amongst his mates to carry away with him.
Ruby finally laid her younger son to rest in the bed he shared with his older brother—once Drogo finally dragged in, at least. He had attached himself to Bilbo for the evening, and was determined not to give up until Bilbo and Posco had done similarly. Bilbo, having completed his assigned runs as a Bringer of the New Fire, was now dancing with Fosco Baggins down by the bonfire, learning what he could from his gifted cousin, who had the reputation as the best dancer within the whole of the Shire and Buckland. Drogo was not to be outdone, and was dancing beside his dad and his older cousin with abandon, while Fosco, encouraged by the abilities and interest of his son and his younger cousin, was doing his best to dance the night away.
“What shall we do?” asked young Missus Twofoot, whose little bairn was tucked up in the otherwise empty nursery opposite the Master and Mistress’s own room. “I mean, until our husbands come to take us home.”
One of the older gammers suggested, “Why don’t we allow Mistress Belladonna here tell our fortunes? You have lead and something to melt it in, don’t you?” Then turning to the other Hobbitesses present she confided, “She’s quite good at reading the melted lead, you see.”
Most gentlehobbits tended to keep some lead in their homes, and with it they fashioned sinkers for their fishing lines and sometimes balls for slings and hand catapults when they felt they needed to hunt or protect their gardens or fields.
Belladonna, who somehow didn’t appear perfectly happy with this suggestion, although Yule was considered the best time during which to read one’s fortune by any means, went out and eventually returned with a large kerosene lamp with a special seat over it on which one settled a steel crucible in which one melted the lead. In the distance they could hear Bungo closing the front door, telling Drogo it was well past time for him to be in bed, and directing Bilbo to join the ladies in the dining room. Drogo came past the door to the dining room and poked his head in to tell his mother that he’d had a perfectly marvelous time dancing with his father and Bilbo, and offering them a basket of potatoes gathered from beneath the fire. He wished them a joyous Yule and, with a glance over his shoulder at Bungo, agreed he was on his way to join his brother, and disappeared through the kitchen toward the privy and his bed.
“You’ll be reading the lead, will you, dearling?” Bungo asked his wife. “Then I shall fetch the tumblers and a pitcher of cold water from the pump.” He headed also off to the kitchen, and returned a short time later with a tray of heavy glass tumblers and a plain pitcher of water. He set it on the table, and fetching a splinter from a glass of such things, he held it in the fire until it caught and brought it to light the lamp, then settled the crucible into its ring.
“Will you have your lead read, beloved?” Belladonna asked.
He shook his head. “Oh, no, not this time. Let’s leave it to amuse our guests, shall we?”
Bilbo came in with a tray filled with plates and forks, butter and sour cream, green onions and crumbled bacon, grated cheese and minced ham, and set it down for the Hobbitesses to use on the potatoes Drogo had brought before seating himself at the far side of the table and taking one potato for himself. He watched with interest as his mother poured a number of lead pellets into the crucible. “What is this for?” he asked, pausing with a spoonful of butter over his potato.
“It’s a means of reading the future commonly used in the Northfarthing. I learned it when as a lass I spent Yule with my Cousin Crystal at Long Cleeve. It is supposed to be best when practiced on Yule Night, just as the year is turning.” She did not look up at him as she finished her task.
They all watched as the lead pellets slowly melted into a single pool of a dull silverish color. At last Belladonna turned to young Missus Twofoot. “Now, you must choose a tumbler and fill it with cold water from the pitcher. Then, take up the lead spoon there, and take up some of the melted lead in it and pour it slowly into the tumbler of water.”
Obviously working hard to keep her excitement under control, the young mother paused with the lead spoon raised. “Can I do this for my bairn, and not for me?” she asked.
Belladonna shrugged. “I suppose you might, but I suspect that the fortune will still reflect you as well as your tiny lad, as you are the one dripping the lead.”
Missus Twofoot nodded, and carefully she dipped up what she could in the lead spoon, and with a good deal of concentration and the tip of her tongue showing between her teeth, she carefully drizzled it over the glass.
The lead separated into several lumps. It was allowed to cool, and at last Belladonna lifted it and poured off the water into an empty vase from the sideboard, straining it through her fingers. As she poured she said, “I don’t think that your bairn will go too long before he finds himself a big brother—twice! No, wait—there ought to be three more, two of them strapping lads, and the third—well, that will be as comely and merry a little lass as one could look for!” So saying, she handed four small bits of lead, three shaped like tear drops and one a smooth lozenge shape, to Missus Twofoot, whose eyes were shining as she accepted them.
“Oh, I’d so hoped for a little lass. But, to know that one is coming!” She beamed at her hostess, blinking away tears of happiness. “I shall have these set on a bracelet chain to wear in hope,” she decided.
The older Hobbitess went next, and she was told that her garden would grow marvelous flowers, and she ought to win at least two prizes at the flower show at the Free Fair in the coming summer. She was definitely pleased, and held her circular ring of lead tightly in her palm. An older lass who was there because her little sister lay asleep on the small sofa in the study was told that she would have a beau, and that his name would begin with a G. She was excited when her parents came to fetch her and her little sister, and she thanked Belladonna effusively as she left.
Dora tried next, and her hand shook as she poured the lead into the tumbler full of water. Bilbo leaned forward to see, obviously interested to see what shape her lead would take and what his mother would say about it, while Bungo simply sat back and watched between his son and their young cousin.
Belladonna was frowning as she poured the water away into the vase, which was nearly full by now, and she held the shape for some time, turning and twisting it until at last her eyes cleared. “Oh, but you have yourself a dragon here, Dora Baggins,” she said.
Dora was alarmed. “A dragon?”
“Oh yes, but you mustn’t be fearful of it. A dragon indicates that sometime you will meet someone most exciting, someone who will be able to show you marvelous things. If you accept your dragon when you finally meet him, he will be able to bring you unimaginable happiness—except that he will also go with you through great sorrow as well.”
“What do you mean—if I accept him?” Dora asked.
Bilbo’s mother shrugged. “If you don’t accept your dragon when you meet him, then you will be safe. But you will miss out on so much joy.”
It was a disturbing fortune, to be certain.
“Let me try,” insisted Bilbo. He filled the last tumbler and took the lead spoon into his hand. Carefully he held it over the water and dripped the molten lead into the glass, watching the shape it took.
Belladonna accepted the tumbler and poured the water through her finger into the vase, which was almost overflowing now. She took up the cooled lead shape, and again had to turn and twist it until she suddenly went still, her face going pale, then flushing. “This is the strangest thing,” she murmured. “It is two shapes at once—the Wizard’s Staff and a dragon at the same time! How curious!”
“Well, what does it mean?” demanded the older Hobbitess who still clutched her lead ring firmly in her hand.
“Well, he, too, will find himself facing his own dragon—or not, depending on his choice. If he accepts his dragon, he will live fully and with great satisfaction afterwards—it may well lead him to a great fortune. But if he doesn’t----” She shook her head. “Oh, he may remain safe, but he will regret it for the rest of his life. He will always wonder and fret for what he did not go to seek.” She looked into her son’s face. “I’ve never seen such a combined shape before, although I’ve heard of it. And I cannot say which I’d wish to see you choose—to face your dragon or avoid it like the plague!”
“But what does the Wizard’s Staff have to do with it?” demanded the young Hobbit.
“That indicates you will be led to your dragon—it won’t be coming to you.”
The bell rang, and Belladonna rose to go answer it, having dropped the shape into her son’s hand.
Dora left the room and retreated into the study, sitting down upon the quilt with which the other lass’s little sister had been wrapped, looking down at the shape in her hand. She could see that it did indeed look rather like a dragon, and she shivered as she considered it. The door was pushed all the way open, and she looked up to see that Cousin Bungo had come in after her.
“Does the thought that there may be a dragon for you in your future frighten you, Dora?” he asked.
She shrugged. “I’m not certain what it means,” she said.
He smiled and sat down by her. One hand was in his waistcoat pocket, and he brought forth a small lead shape that looked eerily like her own, holding it for her to see. “Years ago I believed myself in love with Bettina Bottomly, a lass from Pincup. I met her while visiting with some of our Hornblower relatives in the Southfarthing. She was going to the Great Smial for Yule, to spend it with her Took grandmother, so I wangled an invitation to extend my stay from the meeting for the Family Heads that year through Yule also at the Great Smial. She appeared to be happy I was there, too, until the night of Yule, when a number of us younger folk gathered in one of the common rooms and the Thain’s oldest daughter was coaxed to read the lead for us.
“Bettina’s lead looked like letters, and she was told she would be asked to marry someone whose initials were JH. She was most excited, and I was most upset, for I thought she intended to say yes when I asked her, which I had hoped to do the next day at second breakfast on Second Yule. Don’t ask me why I thought that would be a propitious time to make such a proposal, but I don’t understand myself at times. Anyway, when she realized I was so disappointed, she just shook her head and quoted the old superstitious saw, Change the name but not the letter, change for worse instead of better, and that was that. She left, and at last I tried my hand at dripping the lead into my glass of water, and I, too, got a dragon, with much the same explanation that you have.”
“And did you meet your dragon?” At his nod, she continued, “Did you accept it?”
He laughed. “Oh, I’d met my dragon—and it was Belladonna herself. Who would have thought that I, as unprepossessing as I am, could win the heart and hand of Belladonna Took? I mean, I’m quite the smallest of the four of us brothers, and nowhere as handsome as your father or Drogo. I can’t even dance, not as well as the Old Took or your father or Grandfather Balbo. At least Bilbo has inherited that gift, as well as Ada Gerontius’s quick wit and imagination. And, yes, I accepted Belladonna, obviously, and I’ve never, never regretted it. I would never have started the excavation of Bag End if it weren’t for her; I would never have built the wine press at Old Winyards if it weren’t for her; I would never have done a good deal of what I have done and accomplished if it were not for her. Oh, yes, there have been sad times, too—very sad times, mostly about the children that weren’t born alive, or weren’t conceived at all. She and I both wanted a large family, you see, but we have only Bilbo. He was only aware of one babe lost, and saw how ill his mother was afterward. That was the last one—she could not conceive after that, and she was so very weak and sad for so long. You cannot imagine how much it hurt me to see her in such pain of loss for the other children she could not have, to know that all the rooms we had so happily prepared would not house our own family.
“But the joy she’s brought me—it has made it all worth it. Oh, and don’t mention how proud I am of Bilbo’s fine mind to him—he still thinks there’s something shameful about having an imagination.” He looked thoughtfully up and out of the window, and once more his friendly smile shone on his face. “Oh, my, but will you look at that? Here, Dora dear, let me lift you up so you can see over the desk!”
Outside a gentle snow could be glimpsed falling, and down below a few remaining couples were headed home from the Party Field.
Years later, Dora, now approaching her majority, rang the bell at Bag End two days before Yule. Belladonna answered the door, dressed in a pink robe that Dora remembered from the Yule her family had spent at Bag End so long ago.
“Welcome back to Hobbiton,” Belladonna said softly as she hugged her late husband’s younger cousin and drew her into the smial and closed the green door. “Your mother is laid to rest?”
“Yes, there in Westhall with her mother’s people. It’s where she wanted to be buried.”
“Where’s your father?”
Dora couldn’t contain the tears. “He stayed there, there in Westhall. There’s a large smial there where a number of older gentlehobbits who have lost their wives stay, and he’s decided not to come back to Hobbiton. He says that the hole is ours, once I come of age. But he asked that we stay with you until I turn thirty-three.”
“But why did he stay there?”
She shrugged. “He says that it’s not home anymore, not without Mummy there, too. And he’s never completely recovered from that brain storm last spring.”
Belladonna nodded her understanding. “I see. It doesn’t seem like home here, either, not since Bungo died. But I couldn’t leave Bilbo here alone. Did you see him in the village?”
“Yes—he and the lads are bringing over what they think we will need while we stay with you. It is all right, isn’t it?”
“Oh, dearling!” Belladonna said, pulling Dora close to her shoulder. “You don’t have to ask. You know that! Come—choose which room you would like to have for your own.”
She chose the same room she’d stayed in back when they were still young, and after she’d taken off her bonnet and cloak she set her reticule upon the table by the window. It promptly tipped over, and out of it fell a small shape that clattered upon the wood. Belladonna caught it up before it could fall off the table altogether and looked at it. “Your dragon! You have kept it all these years?”
Dora nodded, looking at it askance as it lay upon Belladonna’s now wrinkled palm. “Oh, yes.”
Belladonna examined it thoughtfully. “Did you ever meet your dragon?” she asked softly.
At last Dora again nodded. “Yes, I think I did.”
“And you did not accept him?”
But Dora was now shaking her head. “No, I didn’t. I thought I wanted to stay—safe.”
Two days before Yule, 1320