“Tell me the joke.”
Frodo and Sam looked up against the late morning sun and saw the outline of two hobbits. Had they been strangers, Frodo would have been hard pressed to identify the newcomers. These two were utterly familiar, though. “Masters Brandybuck and Took, pleasant morning, isn’t it?”
“What’s so funny?”
Frodo looked at Sam, who looked at Frodo. With all seriousness, Frodo said, “Our cart broke down.”
“I can see that.”
“So, Mr. Frodo here was going to…” Sam looked at Frodo, who looked at Sam. Simultaneously they shouted, ” Balance the wheel on his (my) head!” They dissolved into uncontrollable laughing fits.
Merry stood up, disgusted at not being able to get a straight answer and walked away to look at the wheel abandoned to the side.
Pippin was still smiling, but he was confused. “I don’t get it.”
“Come on, get up.” Merry bullied the pair off the ground. “Let’s get this cart fixed. Bilbo would not find this funny at all.”
The mention of his uncle broke through Frodo’s good mood. “My uncle sent you?”
“Said he was worried about you, that’s all,” Merry answered as he moved the wheel into position. He directed Frodo and Pippin to handle the wheel, while he and Sam would deal with the cart.
“He sent you to check up on me.”
Sam thought that a ridiculous idea, but kept his views to himself.
“Not exactly,” Pippin said, his voice straining as he and Frodo lifted the wheel.
On the count of three, Merry and Sam hefted, this time far enough, and the wheel was slipped into place. “We called after you at Bag End, and Bilbo said you and Sam were off to Michel Delving.” A large stick was shoved into place to serve for the broken pin.
“Madder then a wet hen, he was, when he came to the door,” Pippin interjected, “Seems we interrupted him.”
Out of breath, Merry sat down in the grass to rest. “Having nothing better to do, we set out looking for you.”
“Then Bilbo didn’t send you?” Frodo asked, sorry that his good mood had been spoiled for nothing.
“Hardly.” Lying back, Merry closed his eyes, enjoying the feel of the sunshine on his face.
“In fact,” Pippin said, joining his friend, “He told us not to bother you. Important business and all.”
Now that sounds right, Sam thought. Climbing up into the newly repaired cart, he rummaged and found his pack filled with their supplies for the road. He threw down the water skins, saying, “So, you followed us.”
Merry oofed when the water skin hit his stomach. “Good thing we did. You two would still be rolling in the road, laughing, getting nowhere.”
“I don’t know. We would have figured something out eventually.” Now that his giggle fit had past and the cart repaired, Frodo became aware of the time they were wasting and was anxious to continue. “We’ve spent enough time here. I think we should go.”
Sam had been watering the horse when Merry and Pippin hopped into the back of the cart. “Here now, you think you’re coming with us?”
“Of course they are, Sam,” Frodo said from his seat.
He thought about protesting, reminding Frodo that where ever those two traveled, trouble was a constant companion. Yet, they had helped with the cart, and, even though he would never admit this directly, he rather liked their company. “You know best, Mr. Frodo.”
With all four hobbits in place, Sam jangled the reins and the cart resumed its journey to Michel Delving after the unexpected delay.
“I still don’t see what was so funny.”
Merry just rolled his eyes.
The trip to Michel Delving had no further incidents. The four hobbits fell into an easy going routine of periods with idle conversation and pipe smoking silence. Pippin told them the story of how he had fooled his cousin into thinking he was a twin, (very rare in the Shire), simply by changing his jacket, and Sam shared the story of the time his two older brothers got locked in the mill overnight. Frodo listened to his friend’s talk and laugh about the exploits of all their family and he couldn’t help experiencing a touch of sadness. It was just him and Bilbo, that was it. His extended family was very large, but he would never know the joys of brothers and sisters. Of course, if you believed Sam, who had five, life in a large family was nothing but a nuisance and a bother. Yet, Frodo could tell by the many times he had sat around the Gamgee family table, theirs was a happy home filled with love. Maybe I’ll have a big family with lots of kids when I get married. But, a strange thought came to him then, it was one he had never considered: IF I get married.
“And I’m told they have the best ale in the four farthings.”
“Not better than the Green Dragon’s!”
That brought Frodo out of his private thoughts. “What? What’s not better than the Green Dragon’s?”
“The ale at the Crossed Bows in Michel Delving,” Merry answered from his place on Frodo’s right. Pippin had stuck himself between Sam and Frodo. Both hobbits stood, elbows propped up on the seat, looking with anticipation as the big city drew nearer.
“Now we know,” Sam said, a little perturbed that he hadn’t ask their true intentions before, “They mean to spend the day draining flagons and singing on tables.”
“Why should only Hobbiton hear us?” Pip queried. “We should learn to share the joy.”
Pippin laughed at his own joke and Merry joined in. Frodo chuckled a little, but Sam was all business. “Not ’til Mr. Bilbo’s errand is done. I’ll not go off and raise a mug until we’ve done what we came for.” Frodo had to agree with him, and the pair reluctantly acquiesced: no ale until the shopping was completed.
Traffic on the road grew as they neared the big city and, when the four drew in sight of the town, they had been forced to a slow crawl. All around them sprawled the city of Michel Delving. Buildings made of stone and brick, hobbit homes, rose above the ground and stood brightly in the sunshine. They passed Mayor Whitfoot’s home, (so many windows!), a huge oak tree sprawling across the roof. Sam had at one time thought the mayor had to be special, to hold such an important job. The day Mayor Whitfoot was to open Hobbiton’s Lithe Day celebrations, Sam had run to the Party Field early so he would be in the front of the crowd, to see that famous hobbit up close. But, the mayor had done nothing magnificent or out-of-the-ordinary. In fact, the previous year’s celebration had been opened with much more spectacle by Bilbo, and a little help from Gandalf’s fireworks. Sam spent weeks in a disappointed gloom. It was just like his Gaffer had told him, being mayor is nothing grand, Samwise. The only thing you need to do the job right is a liking to hear your own voice.
The hobbit homes bled into the largest and most crowded marketplace they had ever laid eyes on. Heedless of the way their open mouthed stares screamed to all ‘newcomer’, the four friends sat in their cart overcome by the bustling life of Michel Delving’s business district. Everything you could possibly want could probably be found here. And if it wasn’t readily available, where to find it was known. Hobbits rushed by performing an elaborate dance as they avoided each other in their haste to arrive at their destination in a timely fashion. No one looked particularly unhappy, but they didn’t appear to be enjoying themselves either. All this made the four friends realize just how far from the comforts of home they really were.
Now, Michel Delving was a mere hamlet compared to the other cities of Middle Earth. Minas Tirith, Lake Town, even Bree, in their own backyard, were gigantic by comparison, (and not just because there lived Big People). But, Hobbiton, Crickhollow, and Frogmorton were sleepy little villages when set beside Michel Delving. And since they had never visited those other cities of Middle Earth, this town became the grandest place of all.
“Here! Stop here!” Frodo shouted above the cacophony of voices mingling about them. He didn’t know precisely where they were, but he had spied a bookseller a few blocks back and thought that would be the place to start looking for Bilbo’s ink.
Squeezing the pony and cart in between two others, Sam breathed a sigh of relief when no sound of scraping wheels or complaints were screamed at him. While he saw to the horse’s needs, Frodo divided the list; Merry and Pippin would go north searching, and he and Sam would start at the bookseller’s and head south. With the list divided, the sooner they would be sitting and comparing ales.
“We’ll meet at the tavern at 4 o’clock,” Frodo called to his friends as they crossed the street. He didn’t have time to call again for they were instantly swallowed up by the crowd. “This way, Sam,” and he tugged his elbow to follow, “The bookseller was right up this way.”
A tiny bell tinkled as they opened the door. The shop was empty save an old, wizened hobbit folded into a chair by the hearth in the corner, most of the body engulfed in a patchwork coverlet. A silence prevailed in the shop that Frodo felt should for some reason be preserved. He said with a soft tone, “Excuse me?” A low grunt was his answer. After looking at Sam for a suggestion, who just shrugged, Frodo was forced to try again. “Excuse me, do you have any writing ink?”
A withered hand emerged from the coverlet, the fingers, crooked and skeletal; it pointed to the shelves on the far left. A feeling of unease washed over Frodo as he looked at that hand. He had never seen a hobbit this old before. By nature hobbits were long lived, longer than the Big Folk, or so Gandalf had told him. But this withered creature had to be well over 100 years old, maybe even more. To have lived so long, seen so much of the every day and end your existence sitting in the corner of an almost forgotten shop had to be the cruelest. Better not to live so long than to become what should be hidden away.
“Mr. Frodo,” Sam whispered loudly from the shelves, “I don’t see any ink.”
Tearing himself away from the ancient hobbit, whose hand had disappeared back inside the coverlet, Frodo joined Sam at the indicated shelves. There was a wide variety of things shoved on those shelves, but Frodo saw that Sam had been right. “No ink.”
“Maybe it’s on the top one, up there,” Sam suggested, pointing above his head.
The bottom shelf could have been filled with items also, for not all was visible from where they stood. “You check up there,” he directed Sam, “And I’ll look down here.”
Even though he was the taller of the two, Sam still could not reach the top shelf without assistance. Spying a footstool behind the counter, he glanced at the chair in the corner for permission before grabbing it. No reaction from the hobbit told Sam that he was not the first customer to borrow it. Setting the stool to the side, to give Frodo room at the bottom, Sam climbed up, steadying himself with a hand on the wall. When he peered over the top, he was greeted with the largest and most unusual collection of dust coneys he had ever seen. Priding himself on growing great ones under his bed, these were by far even grander. He blew softly across the shelf and watched them twirl and twist in the breeze. This collection must have been started years ago. Now he had something to aspire to.
Frodo was having the same luck with the bottom shelf. It did not hold as grand a collection as Sam’s, though. In fact, it didn’t hold anything of interest at all. Anything except a red leather bound book. Pulling it from its obscure resting place, he was amazed to see that no dust lay in the creases, the pages were not cracked and yellow tinged as everything else in the shop seemed to be, including the proprietor. It was heavy in his hand, yet not uncomfortably so. He flipped through the pages and saw that they were blank. This is a journal, he thought with surprise. This is it! He had been unable to find the perfect gift for Bilbo on his birthday even though he had turned Hobbiton and his corner of the Shire upside down looking. He had finally settled on a new set of pens. Bilbo had been pleased, but Frodo had not. He had wanted to give something special and unique. His fingers traced the silver star weaved into the leather. It was almost as if it was pointing the way, showing the path to follow. Whether it was saying to go north or south, Frodo did not know. Or was it east or west?
“No ink anywhere up there,” Sam said, stepping off his perch. He replaced the stool behind the counter without looking at the corner this time. “I’m beginning to think there’s no ink at all.” When Frodo didn’t answer, Sam knelt down beside him. “Any luck down here?”
Frodo reluctantly pulled his gaze away from the journal. “Huh? Oh, no, no ink. Just this.” And he held out his find.
Sam took it, sizing up its weight. “Mighty heavy. Must be some important words in here.”
“Actually, there aren’t any words at all. The pages are blank. See?” He flipped through showing Sam the beautiful nothingness.
“So you can put your own words down.” Handing the book back to Frodo, Sam’s eyebrows shot up. “This is it, Mr. Frodo! This is the perfect gift!” He had traveled with Frodo on the unsuccessful quest for Bilbo’s present. And to think all the time it was sitting right here on the bottom shelf in the back of a hole in the wall store on the busiest street in Michel Delving. It’s a wonder we didn’t find it before, he thought sarcastically.
Standing up, Frodo held out his burden. “How much for this?”
The bony hand appeared again and one almost tranparent finger beckoned Frodo to come nearer. Swallowing, Frodo obeyed. Each step brought him closer to the chair and each step was not close enough. When he was standing right beside the ancient and could come no closer, his anxiety grew into fear. He didn’t know why, the old one could not possibly harm him; he couldn’t even get up from the chair. Still, his heart was trying to escape his chest as he held out the journal again. “How much for the book?”
Two pale eyes, color leeched away over times past, peered to the side and Frodo’s heart ceased its escape attempt by stopping altogether. “Name,” a paper-thin voice asked, “Name.”
“He means yours, doesn’t he?” Sam asked as he peered over his friend’s shoulder. He had followed Frodo the few steps across the small shop for what seemed to take hours to stand with him by the chair. He wasn’t going to have Frodo face danger alone.
Giving Sam an annoyed look, Frodo croaked out, “Baggins. Frodo Baggins.”
“From Hobbiton,” Sam added, trying to be helpful.
Hitching up his shoulder, Frodo forced Sam’s chin off. “How much for the book?”
Those eyes, caverns in a craggy face, looked Frodo up and down, the gaze making the young hobbit feel naked and exposed. So unnerving was the experience that he was ready to drop Bilbo’s present and bolt back into the afternoon sun.
The voice hissed only one word before disappearing beneath the coverlet. “Free.”
Frodo just stared. He had been prepared for many responses, even ready to haggle if the price asked had been too much for him to afford. But, he had never expected to hear that word. “Are you sure?”
“He’s sure, Mr. Frodo,” Sam said, dragging Frodo behind him as he literally ran from the shop, “He’s sure.” Not content until the distance between them and that shop was greater, Sam pushed and shoved his way through the crowd with Frodo in tow. After several blocks, the intense feeling of discomfort dissipated and Sam believed it was safe enough to stop. “I don’t mind telling you, Mr. Frodo, that was one of the oddest things I’ve ever experienced.” He sat down heavily on a bench and signed with relief. “And I’ve known Mr. Gandalf now for years.”
The star on the front of the journal sparkled in the sun when Frodo tilted it. Again, he wondered which way it was pointing.
“Yes, Sam,” he answered, tucking the present under his arm, “I quite agree. Not something I would like to repeat.” He sat down beside his friend. “It was free, at least.”
“Almost too high a price to pay for the fright, I say.”
Frodo’s growling stomach made him suddenly aware of the time. Here they had wasted a good 30 minutes and still had not one thing on Bilbo’s list. He stood up and nudged his friend. “Its all behind us now, Sam. We’ve got the rest of the list.”
“Right you are, Mr. Frodo. Where to now?”
Pulling the list out of his pocket, Frodo read aloud, “Tea, loose, green only.”
“Then tea it is.” They stood there, looking left and then right, not knowing which way to go. They looked left again: that way would take them further into town and unknown territory. They looked the other way: right would take them back to the familiar sites and the booksellers.
They went left.