“Bilbo, so nice to see you out and about tonight.”
Bilbo mourns the loss of his pleasant evening by finishing his cider before he turns to face Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, in all her glory. Her dress and hat were made for just this night, Bilbo suspects. And she likely has no intentions of ever wearing it again. She'll have it all taken apart and done up again, and she'll do the same with next year's outfit. Bilbo pities her maid. Woman is a Bracegirdle of some sort, if he remembers right. Perhaps it would be polite to send a rather generous holiday gift to their family on the first autumn night. As their landlord, he usually gifts them something for their larder and some good bolts of fabric.
Perhaps this year he'll gift them some hens as well.
“I see you're enjoying the weather,” she says crisply, folding her hands over her waist. She has new gloves as well, he notes.
Some hens and perhaps a new goat.
“It is the summer, Lobelia,” Bilbo says mildly.
“So it is,” she replies, smiling. Sneering, really, but only on the inside. Lobelia is too polite to sneer in such a public setting, where someone she wants to impress might take notice. “Indeed, so it is.” Her eyes settle on his arm in a way she clearly intends to be noticed, as she follows with, “A hot summer, I suppose, to see so many in only their shirtsleeves.”
It's been an unremarkable summer, actually, but Bilbo's indulged more than he meant, and he's flushed from it. Keeping his sleeves rolled down had been torment, and he'd been far enough along in his cups he hadn't minded the few looks he still got.
He hadn't minded, because most of the lot he'd been sitting with all night were either too polite to say anything, or were too old.
Bilbo had been born with his full marking, something to talk about all on its own. Meant his match was already an adult, old enough for their own mark to have finished forming. “No chance of children, if that's the way of things” was usually what was said around the market and afternoon teas when his sort were born.
But no, Bilbo had to not only warp the mould, but crack it apart entirely. He was not only born with his mark; his was wrong.
He could look around now, and see everyone else's. Even Lobelia's is visible. She's had her sleeves done rather short this summer, and her gloves are only lace and to the wrist, proper summer attire. She has a rather lovely marking, though Bilbo's loathe to admit it even when they're not at odds with one another. It twists and turns up her right arm, the lines sometimes resembling camellia, sometimes the rosemary that grew hardy and strong in the smial of the Sackville-Baggins, and all ending in the beautiful penmanship of Otho's name, on the back of her hand, between her thumb and index finger. The green of hers is bright, and absolutely striking against her skin.
Bilbo though, he was born with a stark black mark up his left arm. It had been clear even at birth, growing with his skin. The wrong colour, and too big, stretching from almost his knuckles to past his elbow. Stark black, and no sort of plant. Geometric in design, harsh and plain, with something that could perhaps be letters set over the vein. Over the vein was a distasteful placement. Too intimate.
“Summers are usually hot, I've found. Be a shame if it changed its mind, wouldn't it?”
Her mouth quirks. “Very true. I've always found I enjoy the summer fashions more. I've always thought Otho looked a bit more handsome with some more colour in his skin.”
It's a weak jab, coming from her. Bilbo peers around, and isn't surprised to spy Cyanus “Button” Bracegirdle sitting at a table with a rather unnecessarily large metal cistern, presumably for tea, but Bilbo knows better. Button is known for her home-brew, mainly because even the hardest-drinking Hobbits can barely stomach three or four cups before the ground became their most cherished friend.
“Been visiting with Button, Lobelia?”
She gives him a haughty look, but it's not as sharp as it should be. “Even the blacksmiths came out tonight,” she says, tilting her head so he looks to the right. The travelling Dwarf blacksmith and two of the apprentices are sitting with the Gamgees. The third, a handsome lass with her hair shaved in a rooster's comb, is dancing with a Brandybuck girl, Caspia. Bilbo strongly suspects there's an engagement there, with how often her parents have been hosting the blacksmiths for suppers and the like, when they can hardly afford it.
Caspia's mark is somewhat similar to Bilbo's. It had been remarked upon when she was born. But Caspia's a Brandybuck, and barely that. Her parents are some of his tenants, the both of them in service to other families. Caspia herself cares for another family's children in one of the bigger smials. In the gossip circles of the Shire, she was a gnat barely worth swatting at.
“So they are,” Bilbo replies, even though he knows what she's getting at. Caspia is only a gnat; Bilbo is a fat rabbit, just waiting to be picked over.
“Have you never hosted them for tea at Bag End?” she asks, quite cheerily. “No, I suppose not. That wouldn't be proper, for Bag End. Your father would never have allowed it.” Drunk she might be, but she's still managed to find the target.
Bilbo's loathe to let her get away with it, but it's been a pleasant evening, and he'd been enjoying himself before she decided to come toy with him. Besides that, if he lets her get him riled, the whole night is bound to end in ruin for everyone. And not only tonight. His and Lobelia's rows of the past have left repercussions for months, on occasion.
“No, he would have forbidden it,” he says, considering his drink before finishing it off, and rising to get another. “But once he did, my mother would have insisted on them all coming to supper.” And she would have. Belladonna Took did not take well to being forbidden anything. “Excuse me, Lobelia, but my glass is empty.”
She huffs, but she lets him pass.
While he's in the queue for another drink, Caspia and her partner fall in line behind him. One of them bumps into him; the Dwarf, to guess from how he almost gets knocked right off his bloody feet. The hand that catches him at the collar is also the Dwarf, the lass holding him upright as easily as Bilbo would a hat stand.
“Oh no! Master Baggins, we're so sorry!” Caspia says, helping Bilbo get himself back in order.
“No harm done,” he tells her. “We've all had a few too many, I suspect.”
Her marking is exposed too, hers as black as his, but smaller, less complicated. She's wearing a rather pretty bracelet on the arm too, the design complimentary to the mark. When she sees Bilbo's noticed, she flushes, and he raises his eyebrows. She looks around, and no one is paying them any mind, so she nods at him, the blacksmith's apprentice smiling wide as well.
“Congratulations, and best wishes to you both,” he says to them, low enough to keep it a secret.
He'll have to send a gift. Something nice. If he recalls correctly, Caspia is one of six. They'll not have been able to put aside much for her glory box. Some good bolts of fabric, the bits and bobs that go with that, and perhaps something more indulgent.
Caspia's blacksmith is looking at his arm, in a very funny sort of way. He knows that look.
“Master Baggins is the gentle-hobbit I was telling you about,” Caspia says gently, looping her arm through the Dwarf's.
“So he is,” she replies. “Eisha, daughter of Disha.”
“Bilbo Baggins, son of Bungo and Belladonna Baggins,” he returns, some sort of politeness of his mother's sort insisting it would be a bit more welcoming to use Eisha's style of introduction.
Eisha's eyebrows go up. She has two metal bars through the end of each of them. “Belladonna? Isn't that you lot's word for Death's Bell?”
“Likely we're talking about the same plant,” Bilbo agrees. “My mother always said she thought it was fitting. Had a bit of fight to her, my mother.” And because he's drunk, and it never hurts to ask, he holds out his arm for her and asks, “Speaking of names, maybe you can finally give me a proper answer on this one?”
She inspects it, and like quite a few others Bilbo has dared to ask, she eventually takes his arm and peers closer. She mouths something, and twists her head first one way, then the other, before she lets go and steps back from him. “Sorry,” she says quickly. “But it's the old alphabet. I never learned, not enough I can make pick or axe of that.”
She's lying, but good thing for Caspia, Eisha's a truly terribly liar. Bilbo had almost believed some of the others when they claimed the couldn't read Bilbo's arm.
“It's like I said,” Caspia says to Eisha. “No one can ever read Master Baggins'.”
They've reached the front of the line, and after Bilbo refills his glass, he parts ways from the pair. He's unsettled Eisha, as he thought he might, and he's not the sort to push his company where it's not wanted. It's unsettled him too, truth be told, so he calls it a night.
It's a good night for walking, as it turns out, so once he gets home, he pours himself something a little stronger into one of his father's whisky glasses, and sits outside. It's a good night for smoking as well, watching the stars and listening to the quiet sounds of the neighbourhood. He doesn't roll his sleeves down, instead waiting until he's finished the glass.
Once it's set aside, he leans forward, elbows on knees, and studies the mark. It's a nearly full moon, and bright tonight, so he has no trouble making out every solid black line.
The name that sits over the vein is neither long nor short. He supposes it's a male name, if there even is such a division in Dwarf culture. Bilbo would hope destiny would take notice of his preferences before inscribing a name on him, is all. Not that it seems as though it will ever really matter, since he can't read the bloody thing, and no one has the stomach to tell him.
This Dwarf must be known, he's concluded. Well known, and not well liked. A criminal of some kind, perhaps. Someone in exile. He's read Dwarves do that, to some amongst themselves who have proven themselves unworthy of being allowed in proper society.
So what does that say about Bilbo?
Best not to think on it too much, he decides, and sets out across his garden, until he reaches the gate and can walk onto the lawn. The grass has been cut low, Hamfast likely thinking of the summer picnic Bilbo will host for his tenants in a few days time. He hasn't put as much thought into it as he should this year, distracted by the distant pain in his chest that's plagued him all year.
Even now, he wonders what pain his other half is feeling, that it follows him so much.
Sometimes, times such as now, he indulges in daydreams of his match. A Dwarf, so Bilbo's imagined someone stockier than a Hobbit, a few fingers taller. Whether or not that would have been Bilbo's preferences without the influence of his marking is irrelevant. It's his taste, either way. He's never been entirely sure how he feels about beards, but since even Caspia's suitor sports one, he has no choice in that matter.
He's indulging, so he imagines blue eyes. He's always been fond of them, for whatever reason.
More importantly though, he indulges in the daydream of someone he can talk to, on all things. Someone with a sense of humour like his, quieter and dryer and sometimes even a touch mean, even if he never meant anything by it. No one ever seemed to understand that though. If he could choose, he'd like to have someone who'd smirk at Bilbo's little comments. Perhaps have some of his own to add, something to make Bilbo smirk in kind.
Someone who could understand. Understand Bilbo's grief, and his loneliness. Understand that even surrounded, he always felt apart, his whole entire life. Even were he not marked so differently, he thinks he would have felt this way in the Shire. Always dreaming of something more, something outside of the Shire. Searching for Elves in the woods, his eyes always looking East, instead of back to the Shire.
He had read as much as he could on Dwarves, had asked as many questions as he dared of the ones that travelled through the Shire. To give them credit, they usually talked to Bilbo quite a bit more than anyone else, more than one willing to show Bilbo the trick of what they were working on. He was never sure if they felt proper kinship with him, for being marked to be joined with one of theirs, or if they only felt sorry for him. Some mix, favouring one or the other, depending in the Dwarf in question, he suspects.
All had spoken of their lost home in the East, eventually, some more than others, but they all did. Erebor. Stolen by a dragon, they all said. To be honest, Bilbo was never all that sure that he really believed in dragons, not until he was a tween himself, and the smith travelling through at the time, an older one, had told Bilbo of the day. He had been a guard for the great gates, he had said.
He had told Bilbo of the day, that terrible day, without once looking away from the kettle he was mending. He had spoken of the fire, of the gates being smashed apart. Of the screams and the death, and finally, of fleeing.
“My wife, she was a carpenter. She worked in a shop in the Copper Borough. Heard after that only half of that neighbourhood got out before the supports collapsed. Trapped them that were left. Shop she worked in was an age away from the entrance.”
Bilbo's own eyes had been wet as he had laid a hand on the smith's shoulder, and only then had the smith's hands stopped at their task.
“He was the prince then, Thorin Oakenshield. Our king now. A prince, but he charged forward at that damned wyrm himself with his sword. And he's done right by us, every day since. He was too young to take the crown, but he still did, and he's done right by us. He's a king I'll follow 'til my last breath.”
He hadn't been the first to speak of their king, nor had he been the last. They all seemed to love him a great deal, praising him whenever the chance came.
Again, his mind wanders back to his own match, his own Dwarf. Had he been in Erebor when it happened? Had he lost his family as well? Were they the same in that sense?
Lying on the grass like this, he finds he can think of his mother and father without as much pain as there sometimes is. They always did love the picnic for the tenants. It was usually good fun, and everyone was usually pleased by the Solstice presents Bilbo handed out, even if these gifts are never much more than new hair ribbons or a set of brass buttons for a waistcoat. Candy for the children. The Harvest and Yule gifts were usually much better.
Still though, no one ever seemed disappointed, and Bilbo enjoyed feeling as though he were helping in the care if his tenants. Awkward as it was, he often found himself getting on better with them than he did with the Hobbits of his own station. The tenants never minded Bilbo's mark, not in the same way.
He finds himself humming, as he lets his mind wander a bit more freely, the whisky helping in the task. Idly, he blows smoke rings, finding a familiar enough tune. A nonsense little song he'd learned to dance to, and slowly, he falls into the soft place between waking and dreaming.
A pleasant sort of pull tugs just below his breastbone, and he can almost feel another body lying beside him on the grass.
“I do not know that tune,” an imagined voice says, but it's enough to startle Bilbo more fully awake.
He's alone, of course, but for pity's sake, he almost thinks he might have indulged in Button's home-brew without realising. He had been passed several cups, after all, not thinking before he drank them. Amused, he chuckles at himself, getting to his feet after putting his pipe out.
He gets himself to bed without further ado, still laughing at himself, too much drink making the whole thing more funny than it really was.
In the morning, he sets himself to face the task of preparing for the picnic. He goes to the shops, and chooses a good variety of ribbons, keeping to the more expensive ones that the lasses wouldn't be able to indulge themselves in usually, taking the shop-girls' opinions about what was in fashion.
“It's lace they'll be after, Master Baggins,” one of the girls, Dianthus, tells him. “Lace and blues and violets.”
“Of course, everyone will be happy just to have a new set, no matter what,” the other girl insists quickly. Daisy, he remembers, and she's the daughter of one of his tenants. She's looking at Dianthus in a rather embarrassed way.
When she excuses herself for another customer, he asks Dianthus, “Does she like the lace?”
“This pattern here, Master Baggins,” she confides, catching on quick. “And this little blue here, she loves it, but she won't say.”
He makes sure the paper is marked on that set for the lass, so he doesn't forget, and then moves on to next shop for buttons. The lads are always a bit easier, Bilbo choosing sets of either brass or pewter, intending on dividing them up by the lads' colouring.
The last shop is at the confectioner's, and it's the trip he saves for almost last, just two days before it, and they've already gotten the little bags of sweets ready for Bilbo in anticipation. “This should be enough for all of them, Master Baggins,” the confectioner, a Hobbit with more grey than brown in her hair now, called Ivy, says. “But I've put in a baker's dozen extra, just in case someone is a little dishonest. I've got a good mix for you this year, more than usual even! You can thank those Dwarves that are at the smithy for it, I don't mind saying.”
Bilbo isn't sure he understands. “What do you mean by that?”
“They were in here just the other morning, fixing the oven, and they heard my girls fussing up a storm because the sugar hadn't been delivered. I thought we'd be limited to what we had on hand, and I was sorry for it, but next thing I know, in come all of them carrying the order themselves. Turns out the driver was taken ill in Bree! Though the way they worded it, I think it might have been the kind of illness brought on by too much drink, if you catch my meaning, but either way, the sugar got here, and all the little ones will be very happy indeed.”
He mulls it over, but decides against inquiring further. Instead, he approves the order and directs it delivered to Bag End, before he makes his way way to the butcher's to settle the order for the meat and cheese.
He's not surprised when he crosses paths with one of the blacksmith's apprentices. Not Eisha, but instead the youngest one, or rather, who Bilbo thinks is the youngest. He's the one with least beard and beads, in any case.
What is surprising is that the lad stops when he sees Bilbo, and nods to him. “Master Baggins,” he greets, and nods again. He looks rather nervous, really, though Bilbo can think of no reason why, except...ah. The lad's eyes keep flicking to Bilbo's arm, even though his shirt is long-sleeved. Eisha must have mentioned it.
“I am,” Bilbo answers, indulging him. It'll do not good to anyone to let himself get flustered. “What are you called, then?”
The lad all but gawks at him for a moment before he says, rather quickly, “Badr! I am called Badr, son of Bahudar!” He inclines his head again. “Do you require aid?” He hitches his chin at Bilbo's shopping.
“I wouldn't want to take you away from your master -,” Bilbo attempts to say, but the lad has already gotten most of the lot of it off of Bilbo, holding it all with much less trouble than Bilbo had. He thinks to argue, but the lad is only trying to be helpful, and Bilbo's not interested in making a scene. “Thank you, then. Well...off we are then.”
Badr follows dutifully, and by the time they reach Bag End, Bilbo can admit he's grateful for the help. His own basket is proving enough of a burden in the summer air, and he's not at all sure he could have managed on his own the whole way.
He bids Badr to follow him inside, and he places everything on the kitchen table. “Do you need any help putting it all away, milord?”
Bilbo starts at that. “Beg your pardon?”
“Milord?” the lad asks again.
“We seem to have a misunderstanding. I am a landowner, yes, but I've no title.” He cannot imagine where Badr even got the idea.
The boy bites his lip, then says, “Of course, Master Baggins. I'm sorry, I've never left Ered Luin before now. It's how I'd address you there, is all.”
It makes some sort of sense, but it does still puzzle Bilbo. “In any case, you've helped me quite a bit. This is all for the picnic in a few days, for my tenants.”
Badr frowns a bit. “Yeah, Eisha mentioned that.”
It has the air of jealousy, and Bilbo notices. It's not for now to wonder about though, and instead he pulls two coins out of his purse and presses them to Badr, whose eyes widen.
“No need to thank me,” he protests.
“It was good of you to offer, and I'm grateful.” The lad doesn't protest again, pocketing the coins and smiling up at Bilbo a bit more than warranted. “You should head back now, before you're missed. I'd hate to see you reprimanded on my account.”
The lad scurries off, and Bilbo sets out what needs to be set out. The rest will be delivered on the day of, after Hamfast and some of his boys come and help Bilbo set up the tables and chairs and what-not.
The next day, Bilbo thinks to stop in at the smithy. The great doors are open, but the lot of them are sitting for their midday when Bilbo looks in on them. Eisha notices him first, and gets her master's attention. When the blacksmith makes out who he is, he invites Bilbo in with a welcoming hand.
“I don't want to interrupt,” Bilbo says, but the blacksmith shakes his head.
“We are glad to welcome you, Master Baggins,” he says. “And there's not much work today, in any case. Too much picnicking, not enough wear and tear in the kitchens proper. Was considering giving this lot the afternoon to themselves.”
“Yeah, 'cause Eisha needs more time to stare at Caspia,” the third apprentice says snidely.
“Shut it, you,” Eisha warns them off, raising her fist halfway. “Just 'cause you had to leave your own lad back home, don't mean you need to be nasty.” Her accent is a good deal more common here in the smithy, but then, he supposes she wants to keep up a good impression in the Shire, for Caspia's sake. He doesn't doubt Caspia's own accent is a good deal more common when she's not speaking with the likes of Bilbo.
It's Badr who asks, “Is there something you need of us, mi-, Master Baggins?”
It startles him back to himself. “I'm afraid it has to do with picnicking. I'm hosting a picnic for my tenants in two days time, Caspia's family being one of them.” Eisha preens, but the other two look put out. It's as he thought then; Eisha has been invited by Caspia, and the other two have been left out. “I thought to come and invite you as well. The fact of the matter is, I own this smithy.” When they all look up in surprise, Bilbo holds up a hand. “I'm not very versed on the keeping of shops, and as such, the agent manages the three tenancies I have here in the village. She's who you dealt with. But you are my tenants, and you're very welcome with everyone else.”
Both the other two apprentices turn to the blacksmith. “Can we go? Really?”
The smith looks at Bilbo in a very odd way, then inclines his head. “We've very much obliged, Master Baggins. To be invited, and tenants of yours.”
Bilbo decides it's too much trouble to press about what that's supposed to imply, as he's always decided in the past.
“We could help, if you like?” The third apprentice offers. When Bilbo looks at them, they nod at him. “Nahesh, son of Zahesh. I mean, we could help you get it all set up, if you need us to?”
“Oh, no, lad, my gardener will come with his own, to get it all settled,” Bilbo protests, but there's not much heart in it. Hamfast would probably be grateful for the help, in all truth, with the way his boys were when any chance of mischief was presented. “If you really mean it though, he'll be set to start at eight, the day of.”
They do come, all four of them, and Hamfast swears when he sees Badr lift an entire keg onto the stand all on his own. “Pardon my language, Master Baggins,” he adds, but Bilbo shakes his head and holds up a hand.
“You might have said it, but we were both thinking it.”
The group of them work better than Hamfast's own lads manage on their own, and everything is set to rights much quicker than usual, so Bilbo has the time to offer them second breakfast. It's nothing fancy, but it goes over well, especially with the Dwarves.
“What, you never had clotted cream before, or something?” One of Hamfast's lads asks, after Nahesh has a third helping on top of the strawberry scone the baker had sent this morning.
The three apprentices exchange a rather derisive look, before Eisha asks, “And where, by Mahal's forge, were we going to get clotted cream sleeping on the road from Ered Luin to here?”
“For that matter, -----,” Badr adds, taking another scone, showing what he meant clear enough, though the word must be in their own language.
“Scones,” the blacksmith says, quietly. “The word in Common is scones, lad.”
“Scones,” Badr repeats.
The deliveries come, and everything is set up as it should be. The guests arrive, and before long, Caspia is by Eisha's side, playing the bag toss while Eisha watches. The lads are not left on their own either, though Nahesh looks as though he dearly wishes he was. The pair are being followed about and all but mobbed by the tweens, and some seem a bit more interested than polite. Badr takes it in stride, but Bilbo does recall Eisha saying that Nahesh had a lad waiting for him at home.
Oddly enough, or perhaps not, Bilbo finds himself in the blacksmith's company by the late part of the afternoon. He's called Thoko, something Bilbo had known but not quite been sure enough of to call him by until he heard the Dwarf introduce himself as such to one of the laundress' as such.
He's good company, in any case.
“Our marks are not as yours,” he says curiously, after everyone is good and drunk. He extends his left hand, to show the very neat markings on his wrist. “Why is that, do you think?”
Bilbo's thought on that before, as a matter of fact. “I do believe it might have something to do with your lot being of stone, and craft-work. Your marks are purposeful. Hobbits though, we grow, and so our marks grow on us, as our matches grow.”
“Good enough idea,” Thoko agrees. “But I know yours has grown a bit differently than other Hobbits. Yours is like Caspia's. It's not grown, and it's not quite forged. Something in between.”
“I am very aware that my match is a Dwarf,” Bilbo says. “It was already covering my arm when I was born. From what I understand of how you age, he was likely already an adult by the time I came about.”
Thoko nods, and says, “You are only around fifty, I think?”
“I am,” Bilbo agrees.
“How funny it must have been for him,” Thoko says, more to himself than Bilbo. He looks up at Bilbo again, and smiles. “It wouldn't be the first time a Dwarf had to wait a moment longer than everyone else to get their mark. But it must have been very odd for him, in any case.”
Bilbo hedges his bets, and then asks, “He is a him then?”
Thoko looks down at him and says, “He is.”
“So you lot can read it?”
But Thoko shakes his head now, “I wish it were my place to tell you, Master Baggins. And I suspect that is why none of our kin who have come through before have ever told you so much as a hint?” He raises his eyebrows, and Bilbo shrugs, answering the question. “Our sort have never been too keen on talking too much to outsiders. In this, know it doesn't have anything to do with any fault of yours -”
“But rather, fault of his?”
Thoko looks at him, long and hard, and then takes Bilbo by the elbow and brings him close. After a moment, he gently knocks their temples together, then steps back, though his hand stays on Bilbo's elbow. “There is no fault with him, Master Baggins. Just as there is none with you. Only...as I would not talk about your business, we will not meddle in his.”
Bilbo huffs, and says, “Could you at least read it out to me?”
“No,” Thoko says, shaking his head. “But not for why you think.”
Again, Bilbo huffs, and now he is the one grabbing at Thoko. “Could I at least have a hint?”
Thoko laughs, and then traces some of Bilbo's mark, the bit on the back of his forearm. “This is Erebor, you know, in our way of writing. Erebor is written in you, Master Baggins.” Again, he knocks their heads together. “Don't you worry, Master Baggins. Erebor is written you, and so are the birds. It won't be long now. And he'll answer all your questions.”
Thoko takes his apprentices home soon after the picnic. Before he does, Caspia and Eisha are married, and Caspia leaves with them, back to Ered Luin, and her new life, as the wife of a Dwarven blacksmith.
Bilbo does not watch them go, but instead sits at home with his pipe, on the garden bench, his shirtsleeves rolled up. Idly, he pinches his pipe between his teeth and drags his fingers up over the name, the one right over the blue-green vein of his forearm. Then, his fingers trace over the parts Thoko told him meant Erebor.
He looks East.