There are some in Middle Earth who still speak of the Old stories, the ones that tell of of the world’s making. They speak of Eru and his Valar, of the will that was given to all of the Free Folk of Middle Earth, that bright and fickle thing that sets them apart from the twisted creatures of Morgoth’s design. They say that, while all of the Free Folk are masters of their own fates - for better or worse - there are sometimes parts of a person’s life that are so set in stone they may as well be laid out in the stars, so linear and certain are these fractions of a person’s life. This is a comfort to many in hard times.
So it was for Bilbo Baggins. Though he was graced with that tricky thing called choice later in his life - a choice that would affect many more lives than he realised - this gift was meant to be offered when Bilbo was firmly in respectable bachelorhood. The first third of Bilbo’s time on Middle Earth was supposed to be filled with plenty, with the everyday ordinary things that make up a life that was blessed and peaceful. This is the way it goes, those who still whisper of Eru Ilúvatar would say - this is how it is, and not even the Valar can change it.
But no one had reckoned on Belladonna Took.
This is how Bilbo grew up.
He grew up a true fauntling of the Shire, strong and healthy, rosy cheeked and in love with all that was green. But there was something that set Bilbo apart, even in his earliest years, something that was overlooked by Bungo but not by Belladonna, who watched her child with ever-sharp eyes. Bungo was happy enough to see a flourishing son, and Bilbo’s eagerness for learning and reading caused Bungo to turn a blind eye to most of Bilbo’s behaviour.
Belladonna said nothing of her musings. There was no need to cause a fuss, and if there’s one thing she hated, it was causing a fuss. Still, she steered Bilbo as best she could in his early years, and when he began to show a tendency to wander off - even without his playmates - she took him aside and started to teach him plant-lore, so at the very least he wouldn't accidentally poison himself in his wanderings. She also took particular care to impress upon him the danger large bodies of water could be to Hobbits. She sat with him, late at night up on the grassy hill behind Bag End, side-by-side on an old blanket, a mug of hot tea for each of them, and showed him the stars above so that he could always find his way home.
When Bilbo reached his tweens Belladonna began to worry. Bilbo would wake bright and early every day, and would be off out so fast he never had time for breakfast, something that always caused Bungo no small amount of alarm.
‘Where are you off to?’ Bungo would call when Bilbo was already half-way out of the door.
‘Nowhere in particular!’ Bilbo would always shout back.
When he was younger it had been Elves, always Elves, but now Bilbo considered himself too old for such childish notions, or at least too old to say it out-loud to his father.
Belladonna knew exactly where Bilbo was going. She could probably even say precisely which path Bilbo was taking, her son walking in his mother’s footsteps and likely not even knowing it. With every passing month Bilbo steadily began to push himself further and further away from Hobbition, as far as he dare go, out to lush, quiet meadows, swaying fields of golden wheat and woods heavy with the presence of life, branches arching high overhead and turning the yellow sunlight a cool green. There was wonder to be found in the Shire, a beauty all of Yavanna’s own, but still Bilbo wandered ever-further, stretching out the miles between Bag End and the unknown, to the blank spaces on the map, always wondering what was beyond the next hilltop.
Every evening Bilbo would return without fail, mud splattered as high as his knees, cheeks red with the day’s exertion, and his eyes alight with joy.
Bungo would shake his head, huff around his pipe, and make some attempt at telling Bilbo off, even just for the mud that was inevitably tracked through the entranceway. But it would always be a half-hearted effort - as un-Hobbitly as Bilbo’s behaviour seemed to Bungo’s eyes, he could not begrudge his only son his adventures, especially in the face of Bilbo’s obvious happiness.
Gandalf came to visit late in summer one year, quickly quieting any murmurs of discontent with his liberal use of fireworks that so enchanted the younger Hobbits. Belladonna, always happy to see her old friend, was made happier still when Bilbo would not stop talking about the latest bangs, fizzes and pops he had seen with his friends. He even managed to persuade Bungo out to the Party Tree one night, to sit and have a picnic and watch Gandalf’s magic in action. Belladonna needed no persuading, and laughed fondly with Bungo when they both gasped at the largest explosions.
Belladonna turned to Bilbo on her left after a particularly spectacular shower of gold rain, to see the lights of the fireworks light up Bilbo’s features. His face was upturned towards the heavens, gasping in delight at the display, grinning fit to burst. But his gaze remained skyward long after the light of the firework died out, his expression of delight fading to be replaced by a fierce longing that Belladonna, with an inward sigh, recognised only too well. Belladonna watched her son watch the sky, and her thoughts drifted to a box tucked away at the bottom of a chest, back in Bag End.
The next day Gandalf took his leave of the Shire with promises to return, promises that Belladonna feared she would not live to see fulfilled. Gandalf had never had a proper sense of the time allotted to short-lived species. Bilbo was sad to see Gandalf go, but Belladonna knew exactly how to cheer him up. She drew him to one side later in the day, and asked if he would like to learn a new language. Bilbo was already intent on learning Elvish, undeterred by the fact that there was no one else in the Shire to converse with him in Sindarin, and so he was immediately intrigued by the prospect of another language to learn
’What is it, mum?’ asked Bilbo, ‘what’s it called?’
’It doesn’t have a name, Bilbo,’ Belladonna replied.
Bilbo looked even more curious, if that were possible, his young face brimming with the eagerness of the young.
’It’s the language of my family. A secret language,’ she went on, skirting around the truth, ‘would you like to learn it? It’s very different from Elvish or Westeron.’
‘Of course I want to learn it! When can we start? Can we start now? Please?’
When Bungo came into the family study that evening, it was to find his wife and child conversing happily in clicks and trills. He raised his eyebrows, shook his head in fond exasperation, and left them to it.
There were some, though, who began to whisper about Bilbo. Not his playmates, thank goodness, who all thought Bilbo brave and perhaps a bit of an idiot, which for tweens meant that Bilbo was hero-worshipped, for a while. No, the gossip came from parties who thought themselves well-meaning, who liked to talk behind the family’s back, though never in front of Belladonna - her sharp tongue and terrible temper was well known throughout the Shire. But words like improper and disreputable still managed to reach Belladonna and Bungo’s ears, causing Bungo to worry and fret and Belladonna to soothe her husband’s fears over late night fireside talks. Belladonna did little to tamper down the gossip, or to rein in Bilbo’s actions. What was life without a little scandal, after all? Besides, Bilbo seemed unaffected by any of it, and that was what mattered the most, and by and large Bilbo knew happiness and peace, and how to laugh at hardships, and Belladonna was glad for it.
And then the Fell Winter came, and the Hobbits knew true fear.
It bore down on them with the all ferocity winter could muster, a cruel blizzard whipped up seemingly from nowhere one grey, dull day, and suddenly the Shire was under several thick feet of snow. Hobbits, though not used to hardship, mustered themselves to action after a few days in a daze, during which the most commonly heard phrase was ‘where did all this snow come from? Can you believe this weather?’ Their larders were well-stocked, but rationing quickly caught on as it grew apparent the bad weather was not going to let up in a matter of days or weeks. Colds and flu spread among the youngest and the oldest. Bilbo was in bed for a week after he caught a particularly bad strain of flu, but like many of his age he was made of hardy stuff, and recovered quickly. Others who were more elderly were not so fortunate; although their years were long, there was still great sorrow among the Hobbits of the Shire as those who should have lived out their last years comfortably were taken in the dead of winter. The Hobbits grew leaner with every passing week, and there seemed to be no end to the accursed snow that increasingly sealed them inside their own homes.
Few ventured out during those dark days. Then there came the howling of wolves, their piercing cries high and terrible to Hobbit ears, and no one went out at all. The Baggins family found themselves trapped in their own home with the only news of the outside world rumours of terrible beasts that had torn apart a poor Hobbit not far from their front door. They took comfort from each other, wrapped up in front of the hearth, too subdued to talk, Bungo’s brow furrowed with worry as he stared into the fire, Bilbo curled up at the foot of his father’s chair, nose in a book. He wasn’t reading it as far as Belladonna could see - he had not turned a page in half an hour, and his eyes kept flicking towards the doors and windows. Bilbo was almost of age, now, and Belladonna was proud of the young Hobbit who sat before her. She could take a moment for pride, she thought - any small moment of happiness in this endless winter should be cherished.
On one of the darkest nights, after the cry of wolves sent them into the grip of fear, tense and huddling together and listening for every hint of a sound until they were sure the danger had passed, Belladonna went alone to her old wooden chest and unlocked it. She burrowed down under the books, hand-drawn pictures and broken pieces of jewellery that had never been mended until her fingers brushed a long thin box of varnished wood. She drew it out and marvelled as she always did at the warm wood, the dim light of her candle causing the orange-brown tones to almost glow with a warmth of their own. Belladonna opened the lid and in the half-dark took her fill of looking at the long feather held within, burnished gold and wondrous in her hands, and thought about the future.
But all things pass, as they always do sooner or later, and soon the great wolves were met in battle by the Rangers from the North who had come too late for some but were still a welcome sight to the exhausted Hobbits. At long last the winter loosened its grip and receded, and the revealed green vegetation had never looked so glorious.
But winter had sunk its claws into Bungo, and it would not let go, even with the first stirrings of spring. He was taken ill with a fever even as others rejoiced in winter’s end, exhaustion and worry taking its toll on his body. Bilbo seemed sure that he would be up on his feet in no time, and he sat by his father’s bed and told Bungo of the all things he had learned whilst stuck inside. Belladonna stood in the doorway of the bedroom, and did not correct Bilbo’s hopeful assumptions. Her heart was already crying out in anticipated sadness, and later that night her worst fears were realised when Bungo fell into a sleep from which he did not wake.
Bilbo had never known real grief, and Belladonna did her best to comfort him in the following weeks, but she was only half there most of the time - sometimes her mind would wander and she would come back to herself hours later and find she was sitting in Bungo’s chair, her hands wrapped around the varnished box so tightly her knuckles creaked when she loosened her grip. There were some in the Shire that had always questioned her love for Bungo, even after years of happy marriage and after Belladonna had bore him a child. In it for his money, they had said. And yet Belladonna had loved Bungo like no other, and she knew she was proving it now. She was fading fast. There was no time to regret this. It was time to make plans.
She wrote a letter to Gandalf and hoped it would get through in time. If her plan worked it would be the greatest scandal the Shire had ever seen. Belladonna delighted in that. If she were to die, then let her have the best sending off she could muster. Bilbo knew something was going on, and Belladonna despaired at keeping things from him, especially when he was still grieving. He was confused and hurt at her withdrawal, and terrified, too, that Belladonna was following Bungo. His father’s death had opened Bilbo’s eyes to reality, and a little of Bilbo’s naivety and innocence had died with Bungo. If things were left as they were, he would be alone soon, and Belladonna would not have that. Bilbo had never been taken by any of the lads or lasses that had attempted to court him, though there had surely been some dalliances in his tween years. There would be no little fauntlings running the halls of their smial, and no family for Bilbo save distant cousins who were quickly becoming respectable Hobbits and shedding their adventurous airs. But Bilbo would have a family after Belladonna died. She would see to that. It might not be the family Bilbo was expecting, but it would as true a family as any found in the Shire.
A letter arrived in the post one autumnal day, and Belladonna had her answer. They would arrive in five days, and then her son would face a choice. It had come not a moment too soon - there was little life in Belladonna these days.
‘Bilbo,’ Belladonna called to her son, ‘Bilbo, come here.’
‘What is it, mum?’ Bilbo said as he rushed into the room, ‘do you need something? Cup of tea? are you warm enough?’
‘I’m fine, sweetling,’ Belladonna lied easily, ‘come sit with me.’ Bilbo took the seat opposite her, concern wrinkling his brow.
‘There’s something I need to tell you,’ she said to him, ‘and some of it will be hard to hear. But you’ll have to be strong for me, can you do that?’
He reached out and took one of her cold hands in both of her own, fear flickering over his young features. ‘I can try, but what are you talking about, mum?’
‘We will be having some visitors, soon. They will be unlike anything you’ve seen before, Bilbo. Ha! I can’t wait to see your face,’ she smiled ruefully and the thought, ‘they’re old friends of mine, from when I was a young Hobbit like you and went off on an adventure of my own. Their King owes me a favour,’ and Belladonna continued even over Bilbo spluttering, ‘their King!’, blithely continuing, ‘and you will be given a choice. Listen Bilbo. This is important. I’m sorry to push this on you when you’re so young, but I am to going to be around much longer, I fear.’
‘Mum,’ Bilbo whispered quietly, startled by her sudden admission. Neither of them had spoken their fears aloud until this moment, ‘don’t say that, please don’t -’
‘It’s the way it is, sweetheart. I’m so sorry I couldn’t live to see your coming-of-age. No, don’t try and deny it,’ she said as Bilbo shook his head and tried to hold back a sob, ‘We both know what’s happening. But I will not die without first giving you this.’
Bilbo bit his lip, trying to stem the flood of tears, but he couldn’t hold back a few fat drops from rolling down his cheeks.
‘You have a chance at knowing another family,’ she told him, ‘not many people get that. These visitors will - ha! - well, I suppose they’ll take you under their wing. They will provide you with love and protection, if you want them to. Not only that, but you’ll get to go out there and see the world, Bilbo! You’ll get to see the mountains and the great woods and things that you could only dream of, things that aren’t even to be found in your books. It’s what you’ve always wanted. I know that. You’re Bungo’s child, but you’re mine too, and I would never have wanted you to stay in the Shire and never have your own adventures.’
‘I don’t understand,’ Bilbo burst out suddenly, ‘I don’t want a new family, I want you here, mum, that’s all I need, never mind adventuring!’
‘Well,’ Belladonna said with a small smile, leaning back into the embrace of what would always be Bungo’s armchair. ‘We shall see.’ She was breathless from their conversation, and she could feel a great weight lifting from her chest. Not long now. Bilbo did not understand, but he would soon. She was loath to leave him like this, but she had done her best.
‘You may wish for things, Bilbo, but that doesn’t mean they’ll come true. I can’t stay with you much longer - that won’t change. In the coming days you’ll be faced with a choice: stay here in Bag End and live an ordinary life - which is no bad thing, let me tell you. Or you can choose to go with our visitors let your world open up. It’s your choice. You must know that I will not think less of you, should you choose to remain in the Shire.’
Bilbo was crying out-right, unable to hold back his tears any longer, clutching at her hand as though he could press warmth back into her numb fingers.
‘But enough of that, now,’ she said to him, gripping his hand back as tightly as she could. ‘Tell me one of your stories, Bilbo, if you would. You have such a good way of spinning a tale, have I told you that?’
In spite of his raw grief, Bilbo managed a watery smile. ‘Mum, you say it at least once a day,’ he said weakly, but he obliged her all the same, and sat with her through the long night until she fell asleep with Bilbo curled up by Bungo’s chair, a shawl over his shoulders, still clinging to his mother’s hand. In the morning, when he was woken by the clammy sunlight filtering through an overcast sky, he found that what little warmth had been in Belladonna’s hand the night before had vanished, and she would not wake when he tried to rouse her.
And so Belladonna was laid to rest back into the good earth, from which all Hobbits were thought to have come from. Bilbo watched his mother’s burial with eyes unseeing, and would not be consoled by any of the numerous numbers Hobbits who attended the funeral.
Three days later, the Eagles of Manwë descended on the Shire.