"I thank you, my dear, for having me over for Yule Eve," Bilbo Baggins said with a bow. "Your hospitality is always much appreciated."
Primula Baggins smiled at her favorite cousin. "I just hate to think of you spending it all alone," she said, watching as he pulled on his cloak and clapped his hat onto his curls--still not a thread of gray in them. He was aging remarkably well, people always said--indeed, he looked younger than her husband Drogo, despite being a good twenty years older.
"I don't feel that alone," Bilbo said, but she thought a flicker of sadness passed over his face at her words.
In her arms, Frodo gave a little gurgling crow of delight, and Bilbo smiled fondly. "You like my brooch, don't you?" he said, leaning close so that the baby's chubby hands could bat at the sparkling star at his throat. They shared a birthday, which meant according to Shire lore their lives were linked--although Primula never put much faith in that silly superstition since she had found out that odious Otho Sackville-Baggins and she shared the same birthday. But there was no doubting that Bilbo doted on his newest relation, coming over to visit quite a few times in the months since Frodo had been born.
"Are you sure you won't stay and share a pipe with me?" asked Drogo from the library door.
"No, the hour is late and I must be getting home," said Bilbo, kissing Primula on the cheek and Frodo on top of his curly head. "But thank you so much, and a merry Yule to you all!"
"A happy Star Festival to you!" said Primula and Drogo as he waved goodbye and closed the door behind him.
"Remarkable fellow," said Drogo. "Remember how he used to travel off to visit his dwarves and come back with little baubles for all of the neighborhood children? I wonder why he stopped going."
"I'm sure I don't know," sniffed Primula, who did not approve of gossip about her beloved cousin. "But it certainly wasn't a quarrel. After all, he writes letters to that mountain once or twice a week, and there's always something coming in for him, it seems."
"Well, most likely he just grew out of his wild ways and learned better than to travel," said Drogo, who had never traveled further than Bree and had no plans to.
Primula peered out into the dusk after her cousin's dwindling form. "Most likely," she said doubtfully, remembering the brief moment of sadness in Bilbo's eyes.
Then Frodo started to fuss and Primula had to put thoughts of her dear, odd cousin from her head and focus on her son.
It was a long walk back to Bag End; usually Bilbo would have enjoyed a nice tramp, but the weather was ominous--an east wind tugging at his coat and causing clouds to scud across the winter sky until soon the moon was hidden entirely. Thunder grumbled in the distance, and Bilbo pulled his cloak tighter and quickened his steps.
As he walked, though, his mind kept turning to dark thoughts: there had been rumors of bandits roaming the roads between the Shire and Bree of late, figures on black horses. It was probably all gossip, and yet Bilbo found his hand straying to his breast pocket where he kept his golden ring. Between that and the brooch at his throat, any bandit would surely be lucky that came across him, alone on a dark road!
Far off on the wind, he heard a horse whinny, and remembered suddenly the nightmare he had a few nights ago: great iron gates opening, and black horses with hunched riders riding forth, riding--he did not know how he knew, but he did--west. He shivered, gazing wildly at the shadows blown by the wind across the path, and found himself nearly running, the sound of his breathing heavy in his ears. It was ridiculous to be afraid, he knew that--surely if any danger threatened, he could just slip on the ring and vanish away! And yet he felt terribly vulnerable in the rising gale from the east, alone and afraid indeed.
The road to Bag End had never seemed so long, so fraught with danger, and when his familiar green door finally came into view Bilbo nearly sobbed with relief. As the door slammed behind him and he turned the key in the lock, his hobbit-hole suddenly swam around him and he realized that his lungs were burning for air, his breath coming in harsh gasps. He sat down hard on the floor and struggled to calm himself as panic seemed to seize his chest in a crushing grip.
It seemed like hours went by before he could breathe easily enough to stagger to his feet once more. He stood in the middle of his hall, feeling frightened and foolish at once. Bilbo Baggins, you ridiculous being! Once you rode across the northern plains pursued by orcs thirsting for your blood, and now you're too nervous to cross the Shire without panicking! But that was a long time ago--twenty-seven years ago, he realized with a pang. He wasn't the same hobbit that sailed to Himring, or that crept through Moria, or fought brigands on the shores of the Long Lake.
You're a coward, Bilbo Baggins.
His heart heavy with the weight of that statement, he went to put the kettle on. What other word could he give himself? How he yearned to see Thorin again, to hear his voice! And yet every time he started to make plans, things would...come up. There would be responsibilities he couldn't evade, or a mild illness, or something that needed doing. And the times he actually made the plans and packed, tucked his ring away in its locked cabinet for safekeeping and left Bag End--well, those were even worse. He would suddenly remember he hadn't packed his handkerchief and have to turn back. Or he would be struck abruptly with a gnawing fear: he had left the kettle on, he had forgotten to lock the door, he had left food in the icebox. Back he would hurry to find the door locked and the fire cold and the icebox empty, and he would leave only to find himself uncertain once more, discover himself turning around again to check. Over and over, until the caravan left without him or darkness fell or he was simply too exhausted to go on and collapsed into bed with his heart pounding and his hands shaking.
The day that he had left Bag End at sunrise and then returned to check, each time convinced something was wrong, until he found the sun setting, that was the last time he tried. That was the day that he accepted that he was too much of a coward to leave the Shire, that the brave hobbit who had saved his friends in the depths of Moria was gone forever. For that was why he was making these ridiculous excuses, wasn't it? He lacked the courage to leave his comfortable home, it was as simple as that.
With trembling hands, he opened his mother's glory-box and lifted out Thorin's letter. "Help me, Thorin," he whispered as he unfolded it carefully and put it on the table with his cup of tea. On the bad nights, the nights like this where he felt the world narrowing down to just his little hole, where he wondered if he would someday be unable to leave Bag End at all, he would re-read Thorin's letter to him and imagine his hands and his voice, the amused crinkle at the corner of his eyes, and slowly as he read, the sick feeling of fading would gradually recede. But tonight even that comfort felt hollow. If his bond with Thorin was so strong, so real, he would go to him, not cower here in the Shire like a mouse.
That Yule Night, Bilbo Baggins knew that love was not enough to conquer all.
A gust of wind pelted raindrops against the windows, and Bilbo was startled out of his reverie. Rain on Yule Night! It would drench everything into cold soddenness, and he wouldn't even be able to get a glimpse of Yarndo's Star in the morn. It seemed the final straw, and for a moment Bilbo felt so crushed with despair that he felt he could never rise from his chair. But then he heard a rippling, tearing sound, and realized with a sense of dull resignation that he had to go outside and take down the star banner he had hung outdoors, lest it be shredded by the gale. In the mood he was in, he was tempted to let the wind take it and be done with it, but...Dís had made him the banner, long ago before things had gone so badly between them, and he couldn't bear to imagine it in tatters.
He hastily drained his teacup and pulled his cloak back on, then opened the door a crack.
The wind slammed it inward as a sudden bolt of lightning branched across the sky, unbearably bright.
And silhouetted against that searing light was a great black horse, rearing up practically on his doorstep.
Bilbo gasped and fell backwards as thunder crackled and boomed around him and the horse's hooves crashed to the stones.
The hooded figure on the horse leaned forward, reaching for him. "Bilbo Baggins!"
At the hobbit's terrified expression, the figure threw back his hood to reveal--long dark hair, blowing loose in the gale; a fierce nose; eyes as sharp and commanding as an eagle's. A face so familiar it snatched Bilbo's breath away, dimmed the world around him into unreality.
"Bilbo Baggins!" cried Thorin Oakenshield over the roar of the storm. "You must come with me!"