"Ours are bountiful lands, Bilbo," his father had told him once when he was very young, after a lesson of gruesome history, of wars and dead kings. "The soil is rich, the nature vibrant. It feeds us well and it gives us great surplus. The Shire is blessed with easy winters and long summers, with an all but assured great harvest each year. For hundreds of years and more, no one has ever starved in the Shire."
Bungo looked over the maps they'd been studying, running a finger along the Green Way, from Bree and up to the north and to the mark for the ruins of Fornost, before tracing west, over Lake Evendim and the hills to the River of Lune, down to the Grey Havens.
"This is not how it is elsewhere," Bungo continued. "Not all lands are so kind, or so lively. Even as near as in Bree, people do not have such wealth of land. A little further to the north and harvest seasons grow shorter, the land colder, the soil rougher. And to the south the land grows drier and wilder. In those places, people struggle to make means. In those places, people starve."
The Shire was a small place on the map, nestled between the White Downs and the Barrow Downs, on the border of what some still called Arnor. It was markedly different from the lands around it, set apart by the fact that while most of Eriador was open wilds and hills, the Shire was drawn cultivated and surrounded in forests.
"The Shire is not rich in metals, perhaps. We have no gold to mine, no silver to unearth, and there are no gems or mithril beneath the surface to be found here," Bungo mused. "But ours is still a wealthy land, make no mistake of that. And many would kill to have such a land to call their own," he added quietly and looked at Bilbo. "Do you understand?"
"Yes, Dad," Bilbo had said then. And of course he had. It was an old lecture, one he'd heard hundreds of times through his childhood. It usually came preceded by the tales of the great kingdoms of the Dúnedain that the Shire had once upon a time, long ago in a different age, been a part of. Technically still was in some books and in some paperwork. They were still, to this day, led by a Thain who still, technically, reported to the Dúnedain kings.
"Anyone with people to feed would very much like such a land," Bungo continued. "Not perhaps elves, theirs being a race that does not grow fast in numbers, and not dwarves, seeing as there is nothing to mine here. But men? Or goblins…?"
Bilbo shuddered – he always did. He'd been getting lessons about the kingdoms and ways of men and the history and deeds of goblins all his life as well – he knew how both could be, how quick they were to reach for something they deemed theirs to take.
"We are not a large people," Bungo said, still trailing a finger over the map. "And we're not quarrelsome by nature. We're small and we're peaceful and we prefer to keep our noses to our own business. We have no warriors – even our Shirriffs barely carry weapons and our Bounders might be true of aim, but they are more like hunters than true guardsmen. The Shire is, for all appearances, easy pickings for anyone with an eye for conquest and a few well-armed men – or goblins – at his side."
Bilbo swallowed, like he always did, at that thought. He'd been hearing these stories for long enough to be utterly scared of the idea of an army marching up to the Shire, with the aim to conquer it and add it to some kingdom of man or goblin or some other warmongering race. Bungo smiled. "Why is it then," his father said, "That we're not conquered half an age ago?"
Bilbo smiled at that too, looking up, holding his left hand high – with his fourth finger tucked in so it looked like it wasn't there. "Because of people like Mum," Bilbo said proudly. "Because of the Underhills."
"Right you are," Belladonna Baggins said, equally proudly, as she walked over to her husband and son and pulled Bilbo from his father's arms. "And because of you too, my lad," she added, tucking him against her hip, where he could feel her belt and tools, the arm around his waist stiff with the concealed bracer. She tweaked his nose gently. "One day, it will be because of you."
Bilbo was born into a very special sort of hobbit family – or more specifically, to a very special sort of mother. He'd always known that. It was all very hush hush, though, and he'd always known that too – the stories his parents told him by the fire weren't the sort of stories he ought to share with his friends, outside the family.
Secrecy was something he'd been, almost literally, been fed in his mother's milk.
On the outside the Baggins family of Bag End was nothing unusual. A perfectly proper father, a Baggins through and through, an honest gentlehobbit who had, with his manners and charisma, managed to catch the eye of the daughter of the Old Took himself. A mother, fair and somewhat wild in her ways as the Tooks were wont to be, who'd been tamed by her husband's calmer demeanour. And a son, a tad unruly but altogether not an unpleasant child, secretive and sombre and eager to learn all he could.
And they were that, too. Bungo Baggins was well liked by his peers and he kept a pleasant house, he dealt fairly with his neighbours and business partners and made his living by loans and investments and the occasional dabbling in the markets of Hobbiton and Michel Delving. Belladonna was a bit unusual in her manner and ways, but she was a Took after all, and she was a pleasant enough conversationalist, could tell the most outrageous jokes that had all the neighbouring ladies tittering with outrageous laughter, and never shied from a good bit of gossip. And Bilbo was a good lad and all what his peers thought him to be – a bit bookish perhaps, but he never said no to a bit of adventure.
Underneath that, however, they were more.
"How did you get chosen, Mum?" Bilbo asked, many, many times through his childhood, never tiring of the stories.
"I didn't, love. I chose myself," Belladonna said, as they cuddled on the couch with him in her lap. As always, he was holding her left hand, examining the fingers in fascination. She had only four on that hand. "When I was a lass, much younger than you are now, I spied on one of my father's meetings and heard things I should not have, but which made me mightily curious. Before that I wanted to be a Bounder or, if I could not, then perhaps a Sherriff. Which of course was nowhere in the designs my Mother had for me – with eight daughters already wed, she would've much liked for me to develop into an old maid to care for her and father in their dotage – the nerve of her."
Bilbo giggled, running his fingers over the missing fourth finger.
"So I spied on the meeting, and made note of the man my father was talking with. A gentlehobbit, I'd seen him before," Belladonna admitted, watching him play with her hand benignly. "At my father's great parties – the last I'd seen him had been in a birthday party for my mother. And this gentlehobbit – a Longbottom – had been the worst sort of bore imaginable."
"But he wasn't a bore at all, was he?" Bilbo asked.
"Oh he was. In public, at parties, he was an utter bore. Four and sixty in years, he talked always about how it used to be when he was a child, how his own grandfather used to beat him over the head for every little slight. Always the same boring stories, sometimes several times in a row," Belladonna chuckled. "Everyone avoided him like the plague. I did too. Up until that meeting. After that, well. I all but stalked him."
"And he was an Underhill!" Bilbo announced.
"And he was an Underhill, yes, and you, my boy, are getting ahead of yourself," Belladonna admonished. "Do you want it in order or not? Yes? Then listen!"
Belladonna had followed the Longbottom gentlehobbit every time he had made an appearance, making a beeline to his side every time and hounding the gentlehobbit's every step, plaguing him with questions and inquiries, trying to solve the mystery of the strange discussion she'd heard – concerning dead goblins and poisoned water pouches. It had been a great mystery for her, like one of those stories written by men that she wasn't supposed to read.
She'd pushed it so far, that in the end old Gerontius Took, her father, had been forced to pull her aside lest she make a mess of things and make known secrets that ought not be revealed.
"He told me to be a good little girl and mind my own business. Of course I did nothing of the sort," she chuckled. "No, later that summer I figured out where the Longbottom gentlehobbit lived and ran off right away. Broke into his smial in the small hours of the night – this little slip of a lass, all dirty from running through mud, skirts all torn. Made a beeline for his pantry, I was so hungry. Which is of course where he found me."
Bilbo grinned happily, as she told him of how she'd been sure she'd get a beating or a scolding at the very least, and instead had been met with uproarious laughter of a very amused older gentlehobbit – and with what might've very well been impressed curiosity. She smiled, full of nostalgia. "I stole into his smial while he was asleep and he was none the wiser. Sure, Master Longbottom wasn't quite in the prime of his youth anymore, but it was still an impressive feat, to sneak up on one like him."
It hadn't been the only time she'd done it either. After Longbottom had returned her to the Tuckborough hall, she'd run away again – four times in total. The fourth time she'd snuck up on Master Longbottom in his bed chamber and drawn a moustache on his sleeping face. "After that, Master Longbottom pleaded with my father to have me for his apprentice," Belladonna grinned. "And so I began going through the very same training you're going through now."
"Yeah!" Bilbo cheered.
Bilbo had been slated to become his mother's successor right from the start. That was the way with Underhill families. He was his father's successor too, of course – one day, Bag End and all the responsibilities therein would be his. But Bag End was a location carefully chosen by Bungo and Belladonna, for the responsibilities laid upon the Master of Bag End were few and far between. All in all, all the Master of Bag End was required to do was to mediate the disputes of the lesser homes around it and to aid those families in more business like matters, such as law and ownership. And in a place as peaceful and quiet as Hobbiton, there was not much of that.
It was the perfect front for an Underhill – and Bag End itself was the perfect house. His father had never been anything but fully supportive of his mother – to the point where every aspect of Bag End had been designed for her. It was close to the road and on the outside it was unassuming, with its small garden and green door. It was large for a smial so new, but understandably so, by all appearances designed while keeping in mind the prospect of a large family to come – and yet it was not so large as to be overly arrogant. Inside, it was full of secret corners and hidden panels, a dozen and more secret hideaways littered through the smial, never mind the second cellar, the four completely unknown rooms, and the hidden window that led to the top of the hill Bag End was built under. And of course, one of the two back doors – the hidden one – led right into the nearby forest. It was the door Belladonna Baggins used the most.
"And to think, people considered your father altogether too proper for me," Belladonna laughed. "If only they knew."
Bungo Baggins, for all that he was an extremely proper sort of gentlehobbit, was a man of wits and learning and all sorts of intellectual curiosities – and Belladonna had been just that for him, before and after their courting.
"Your mother was the strangest of women, make no mistake of that," Bungo often told Bilbo. "She kept her secrets and she kept them well, but there was always this hint of mischief about her, even when we were too young to care for such things as romance. It always allured me."
Of course it was nothing a young lad of Bilbo's years wanted to hear of his parents, them being romantic and whatnot – but he liked the stories of their courtship, of how Belladonna had gone out of her way to mess with his father, playing little tricks, and how Bungo had investigated her like one would a great mystery, trying to get to the bottom of her secretive ways as if there was treasure to be found there.
Which, for Bungo, there obviously was – but Bilbo was far too young to care.
His parents always argued over who had caught whom – whether it had been Belladonna who'd lured in a husband, or Bungo who had unearthed a wife. However it had happened aside, it had happened, they'd fallen in love, and in that odd place of secrets and mischief and romance that grew between lovers, Bungo had found many secretive things. Underhills being one of them.
And when he'd learned of her lifestyle as an Underhill, he'd embraced it. Underhills were secretive people who didn't write their business down and didn't keep record, but he found the right books to read and the right articles to peruse and he learned many things – lot of them unknown to Belladonna herself. He'd made friends with Master Longbottom and learned more – he'd even met other Underhills too. He'd become a bit of a connoisseur of the Underhill lore and knowledge – and eventually, its undisputed expert, despite the fact that he was very much not one himself.
"Oh, I never could be," he said when Bilbo asked why. "I'm far too old for the training and I could never stomach it at any rate. It's an important service the Underhills provide, and I respect each and every one of them, your mother above all. And I respect them all the more, knowing that I do not have what it takes to be one of them."
He'd been such a stout supporter of the Underhills right from the start, and his wife's supporter most of all – to the point of building the perfect smial for an Underhill, as a wedding present to her. And that smial was now where he, and not his wife, taught Bilbo the history and lore of an Underhill – going even further than Master Longbottom had with Bilbo's mother in that he taught the history and the politics too, the social and even the economical value of the Underhills and their service.
"Underhills have been around since before the fall of the Dúnedain, of course," Bungo explained, smiling. "And their very existence is what made the Shire the peaceful place it is today."
But as many history and philosophy lessons as there were, the other lessons were much more plentiful. From since long before Bilbo could remember, his mother had been at his side, instructing him. He could not remember a time when she hadn't woke him with a cheerful, "Rise and shine, my lad, it's time get ready for the day!"
It took Bilbo nearly ten years to realise that for most faunts getting ready for the day did not, in fact, include a morning routine of physical exercise. Most faunts did not stretch so thoroughly or so elaborately when they woke, nor did they fall from their beds to their fingertips and toes on the floor, to do push ups, they did not shift from there to crunches – their bed chambers did not actually have bars for chin ups and the like. Nor did most hobbit mothers attach bells to their children's clothing in the morning, and then tell them to be quiet.
For him, though, it was natural and an obvious part of life. As were the strange games his mother came up with. He played conkers and cards and even checkers, and all the other normal games. But he also played games like Skipping Logs – for which his mother stood a whole bunch of logs across the corridors of Bag End and then told him not to touch the floor for the entire day. When he was a little older, the game was upgraded to the ceiling beams – which Bungo had built thin and easy to grasp on purpose. For hours Bilbo and his mother would do nothing but swing from beam to beam, chasing each other across the smial, trying to kick each other down. Later, once the game got too easy for them, they'd do the same outside, in the forest, on the branches that added elevation to the game.
And for as long as Bilbo could remember, he'd been learning horticulture. And that too, he later figured out, was very different from the norm.
"Belladonna is my favourite, of course," his mother would whisper to him, while they went through the half hidden plants in a sheltered, unseen corner of Bag End’s garden. "It's a good and trustworthy sort of plant – and it's been blessed with the best of names. But this here, monkshood, has its own charm. Do you have your gloves, my lad?"
"Yes, Mum," Bilbo said, eyes gleaming with excitement.
"Well then," she grinned at him. "Let's see what mischief we can make, hm?"
At Belladonna's side, Bilbo learned how to cultivate plants. They tended to things as commonplace as tomatoes and peppers, of course, and onions and carrots too. They even had some potatoes growing here and there for fun, and their berry bushes flourished greatly under their care. Edible plants made the bulk of their garden, in fact. But the most important lessons were concentrated around that corner hidden behind the wall and a hedge and by all appearances covered in weeds, where the plants grew.
He learned to recognise the monkshood flowers and leaves in all their shades and types, and how to tell apart the different breeds of the plant – some of which were more useful than others. They have a type of monkshood growing in the front garden – the tamed, least dangerous sort that was bred to look pretty and not to kill. But in the hidden corner, they have the more interesting types.
"All parts of the plant are poisons in their own right," Belladonna taught him, as they chopped and minced and mixed the plant in different ways. "But it's the root that holds the most of the toxins."
The very first poison Bilbo makes by himself is a monkshood poison, made largely of the root. But it is not the only one. He learns to mix and blend and store the curare plants and to boil the deadly nightshade – he even learns the process of making poison from apple seeds, though Belladonna considers it too troublesome to bother with on a regular basis. They go through hellebore, larkspur, hemlock, privet, oleander, daffodil, moonseed and water dropwort, and all other sorts of plants that were easily at hand, and all had their uses for a skilled Underhill. And they go through more exotic ones too, the plants that had spilled to the Shire from travellers from distant lands, and which had found their home in the windowsills of busy Underhills.
"Each of us has our favourites," Belladonna said, while they coated a series of arrows in a thick, almost black paste made of about half a dozen plants. "And each of us carries our own preferred sets of them. In time, you will figure out what blends you prefer, and what works best in what situation."
Belladonna herself had four main poisons she used.
One that was as swiftly lethal as she could make it, made of deadly nightshade and oleander and monkshood and a handful of other plants, just to be sure. It seized the throat and the breath and the very veins of whoever came in contact with it, and stopped them all – and the recipient's heart stopped before they could even realise that they could not move, could not breathe, that their blood could not flow.
Another was a paralytic, a careful blend of five different plants that froze the muscles and seized the sinews, but kept the recipient conscious. It could send anyone to the ground, as stiff as a board, and they would remain that way for hours – and even after the poison wore off they remained numb for days on end, their movements clumsy, their senses dulled.
The third poison did the absolute opposite of the second, one that turned the one at the receiving end utterly lax and instantly unconscious – and when the recipient woke, they remained lax for a while, their limbs relaxed and numb, and their tongues thick and clumsy. They also, according to Belladonna, felt as if they were drunk.
And the fourth…
"The very smell of this," Belladonna whispered while holding a crystal phial of perfectly clear liquid for Bilbo to see, "Is incredibly painful. The tiniest, most infinitesimal amount of it will send any man, goblin – even a troll – into convulsions of the most intense agony imaginable. A drop of this in a pint of water could take down a dozen men."
She did have other poisons, for other purposes – and she tailored new ones as she needed them. But those four were the ones she had at her side, the ones she coated her arrows and knives and throwing darts with – the ones which she used the most. In them, the four most common tasks of an Underhill were plainly obvious.
"This is the one I use the most, of course," she added, showing Bilbo the first poison, the instant killer. "This I've made by the bucketfuls. And you will be making a blend very much like this, I imagine, and you will be making as much of it as I've made my personal blend."
While learning plants and poisons from her, in the midst of games of speed and stealth and agility, Bilbo also learned other things. More impressive things – the things which he sometimes wished he could've shared with his unknowing, ignorant peers.
While Otho branched about, flaunting his accuracy at conkers, Bilbo learned how to throw blades. In the forest not far from Bag End, there was a tree stump that felt the brunt of them, either from Bilbo's hand or from Belladonna's as she talked him through the throw and how to make it right, where and when to release, how to control the angle and the spin if he added one – how to read the wind. He started small – and big – with a simple set of throwing knives, heavy and big in his hand, to train his throw. When he figured it out and his muscles grew to know it, his mother handed him a more slender set, faster in the air, more likely to spin – and so much sharper than the practice knives. He also learned how to throw darts, though his mother told him early not to get used to it.
"They're accurate and easy to handle, but you cannot get a proper range out of them," she explained. "And if you can get close enough to throw a dart, then a knife can often do you much better. For proper range, however…"
A bow was nothing new to Bilbo – there'd always been a bow at hand at Bag End, always out of sight of guests, but still at hand. It was the most favoured weapon of most of the Underhills – it is quiet, quick, deadly, and safe to use. Since long before Bilbo could remember, he'd been playing with one of his mother's bows, testing his draw on the string, playing at aiming. By the time his mother started to properly teach him how to use one, he already knew enough of them to very nearly make one.
"Which we will teach you to do properly, in time," she assured him. "But first you have to learn how to shoot."
And not just shoot, but shoot the way Underhills did. They weren't Bounders and they weren't hunters – they often didn't have the peace to take their time. No, they had to aim quickly and they had to fire fast – and often many times in a row, in the span of seconds.
"Like this. Always like this – never mind what you're shooting," Belladonna said, taking her arrows and aiming her bow – one arrow on the arrow rest, two in hand, the fletched ends held against her palm by her thumb, the two extra arrows almost parallel to the one on the string. "Watch," she said, and quickly drew the bow string three times – and three arrows were on the tree stump before it stopped vibrating from the last draw, with her never having had to reach for the quiver.
"This is how the elves shoot – this is the style of archery we learned from the Dúnedain, according to your father. Wherever it came from aside, it is what sets us apart from the Bounders, hunters, and human archers," Belladonna explained, looking at the stump, where the three arrows stood in a neat row. She smiled and looked at him. "We must be fast, Bilbo. We do not have the time to fetch more arrows. They all have to be in the air, all at once – and once they land, we must be finished. An Underhill who reaches for the quiver a second time is a dead Underhill."
"Yes, Mum," Bilbo said, looking at the stump in amazement. "How many can you hold in hand and still shoot accurately?"
She chuckled. "Five," she said. "But I've heard of elves who can balance more than a dozen and have the last one in the air before the first lands."
Bilbo never learned how to shoot with only one arrow in hand – from the beginning it was with several. It was clumsy at the start, and he dropped the arrows at first, but in time he learned to balance the arrows between his fingers, and to instantly put a new one on the string after the first had been shot. Arrow on string, draw, fire, arrow on string, draw, fire, arrow on string, draw, fire.
It was a balance of speed and accuracy – and Belladonna was merciless in drilling him in both. The first week into his archery training, Bilbo broke the skin of his forefinger several times and learned to hate the damn tree stump whenever it didn't catch his arrows, and he had to go and fetch them instead. But in time, his motions evened out, he found his rhythm, and under Belladonna's relentless patience, he found accuracy.
"He'll make a good archer yet," Belladonna said proudly to Bungo, the day Bilbo got all three arrows on the stump. "He'll have bigger hands than I do, our lad, I'll bet he can have more than half a dozen arrows in the air by the time he's official!"
"I guess it's time we get him his own bow, then." Bungo said, ruffling Bilbo's hair.
The bow they got him was a short recurve bow made for a hobbit's hand, a composite make of hickory and horn, beautifully laminated. It was not a bow that would stay with him for the rest of his life, Bilbo knew. But it would be the one he was the fondest of, because it was the one he'd learn to truly master archery with.
"From here on you can practice that by yourself and master it however you will," Belladonna said, watching him as he drew the string and tested the draw. She smiled. "You've learned how to fight at a distance. Now it's time for close quarters."
And so they moved from throwing knives and darts and arrows to swords.
"Why is it that Underhills must remain secret?" Bilbo asked, during one of those quiet nights, when Belladonna was not home, and Bilbo and Bungo waited for her to return.
"There are many historical reasons," Bungo said thoughtfully, leafing through his notes. "The one I believe to be the most accurate is that originally the Underhills were servants of the Dúnedain kings – their secret servants. Hobbits served occasionally in the armies commanded by the Dúnedain, after all. We are keen of eye and make good archers – your mother and all like her attest to that. And we have many useful qualities besides, qualities the other races do not possess. We are small, quiet, and easily overlooked. We can move unseen very easily. We make good thieves and spies and… well. Assassins."
Bungo glanced at him and smiled. "The last days of the Dúnedain kingdoms weren't kind for anyone," he said. "The war against the Witch King of Angmar was… hard and desperate. Every talent on the battlefield, however unseemly, was used – every skill utilised. I imagine at some point someone looked on as a hobbit made his way through a battlefield in ways a man cannot, and saw an opportunity. Perhaps that very night, a hobbit was sent into the night with a bow and a pouch of poisons, to sneak into the enemy camp."
"It doesn't seem like a very honourable thing to do, does it?" Bilbo asked thoughtfully.
"Honourable? No, not as men, or elves, or dwarves see it. Honour in battle is, I think, a very hollow thing," Bungo said, tucking his son against his side. "It is the sort of thing that gets you and your allies easily killed, that spills blood, and makes widows and widowers and orphans. We hobbits are not an honourable breed of people. We are a pragmatic one. And that is why we have the Underhills – rather than armies."
"Hm. But why must they remain secret?" Bilbo asked.
"Because, my boy," Bungo chuckled, "Other races are honourable. Of all the recordings and tales and songs written during the wars where I believe Underhills first made their mark, not one of them mentions inexplicable deaths in the night. It is unseemly to them, the victories made by poisoning cooking pots and sticking knives into sleeping enemies. It is dishonourable, whatever that is supposed to mean. It is not the sort of thing people like to hear happening – it lacks the sense of… equality most big people expect of battle."
The older hobbit chuckled and ruffled his son's hair. "We hobbits have a reputation for being peaceful and homely and perhaps somewhat simple. We are not quarrelsome, as a whole. And that is how we ought to remain for the world to see. Besides," he chuckled. "Can you imagine the hullabaloo that would rise, should our gossip loving neighbours find out what your mother can do, the things she's done?"
Bilbo shuddered at the thought.
"Hobbits like things simple. They prefer to think that the world outside the Shire does not exist, most of the time," Bungo continued, amused. "And I think, should they get the choice, they would always choose not to know what it takes to keep what is outside the Shire outside. So, your mother works in secrecy. As will you, one day."
"When?" Bilbo asked, both eager and uneasy. Belladonna did not go out every day or every night but she did go out often, and sometimes she came back looking tired and worn. Bilbo wanted to help her, to put his skills to use. He was into his tweens now, almost twenty one, and well into his swordsmanship training – while he could not beat his mother in single combat, he was sure he could beat anyone not expecting him to know how to fight. Which, outside Bag End, was everyone.
Bungo looked at him levelly for a moment. "In time," he said gravely, and took Bilbo's left hand in his. He looked at his son's fingers, callused from bow and knives and practice swords.
With a smile, Bungo kissed Bilbo's fourth finger gently.