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Due to various happenings in RL, I did not get the chance to finish and post this on July 1, so consider it a belated birthday mathom to all my friends!
"And so what year is it in the Shire?" Frodo was not concerned when he heard Bilbo asking Gandalf that question; it was not like he could keep track of the time either. For years they had counted on their old friend to remind them of special occasions. He would always alert them when their Birthday or Yule was coming up.
"It is the Year of Shire Reckoning 1429 across the Sea, and the two of you have been here nearly eight years now."
Frodo thought for a moment. "I'm to be sixty-one, then..." How odd. While it seemed to him they had been on Tol Eressëa much longer than that, he did not feel as though he had aged eight years.
Bilbo gave a smug grin. "I will have left the Old Took in the dust!" he said proudly. Frodo rolled his eyes. His cousin had long ago convinced himself that even if the Ring had not "interfered", as he put it, he would still have equaled or bested Gerontius Took in years lived. "I'll be one-hundred-and-thirty-nine!"
"How much notice are you giving us, Gandalf?" Frodo asked. The first year Gandalf had told them only the day before, and was berated soundly for not giving them time to prepare; the following year he'd told them almost a month in advance, and Bilbo had nearly worn himself and Frodo to a frazzle making elaborate party plans. After that he had usually given them two or three days to plan, and it seemed to work well.
"You have today and tomorrow; the twenty-second of Halimath in the Shire calendar will be the day after tomorrow."
The two hobbits exchanged a look. "Well," said Frodo, "I suppose we shall spend tomorrow cooking and receiving guests.
After Gandalf had left Frodo said, "At least there will be no mad scramble for gifts this year."
Bilbo nodded with satisfaction. They'd dealt with that at the height of summer after a visit to the countryside hole of their distant kinswoman Adamanta. There they'd gone a-berrying, and harvested such a bounty that Bilbo and Frodo had filled nearly half their larder with preserves: bramble, strawberry, blueberry and raspberry. There were many jars left, some of which would make their gifts to their friends.
After a check of the rest of the larder's contents, the two began to plan the menu for the party: a salad of chopped vegetables, blanched and dressed with raspberry vinegar; roasted potatoes; fresh hot bread with butter and honey..."We'll need to go to the poulterer's," said Bilbo. "I think some small game hens, spit-roasted and basted with that honey and tomato sauce..."
Frodo nodded. "We can take some of that seedcake down. Master Amaldon does love it."
The hobbits had discovered not long after arrival that the Elves of the Blessed Isle did not use money. They instead used an odd form of barter, more like an exchange of favours than of items of equal value. Gandalf had explained that living forever in a place of prosperity meant that the Elves valued things more for the pleasure they gave or for personal taste than any intrinsic value of the things themselves. And very frequently they simply gave things away, especially many of the artisans--it was considered that the pleasure lay in the creating rather than the possessing ("and," Gandalf added, "it is believed that is the way to avoid the pride that led to Fëanor's downfall.").
"Well, we will see how many game hens four seedcakes will bring us," said Bilbo.
As it turned out, while Master Amaldon did take the seedcake (for that delicacy had become highly popular among the Elves of Bilbo and Frodo's acquaintance, the reciept for which they still guarded zealously) he offered them nine or twelve birds, dressed and ready for the spit, "in honour of your special day! I will bring them up that morning. I have only nine on hand, but I may get more tomorrow."
A few visits to other Elves, and the two of them felt their party would have adequate food and drink. "Mind you," said Bilbo, "it wouldn't do in the Shire. But these Elves simply don't eat enough to be interesting to a good cook!"
Frodo smiled, and remembered the first time the two of them had entertained their friends here; they'd had leftovers for days. "You lived in Rivendell for seventeen years, Uncle. I would think you had noticed before now."
"I did notice that they only seem to pick at their food; but I'd rarely had occasion to entertain them except to tea sometimes."
They made their way back to the House of Elrond, and their own little home within it, well satisfied with their plans.
The next morning, after a simple breakfast of tea, toast spread with soft cheese, and fruit compote, the two of them began to clean the already pristine apartment in preparation for a steady stream of guests. Over the years, Elrond's household had become intimately familiar with hobbit birthday customs. Today they would bring gifts to Bilbo and Frodo. Tomorrow they would arrive for the party, and receive their own gifts.
Lord Elrond, Lady Celebrian and Lady Galadriel were, of course, the first to arrive. Elrond and his wife presented them with a book of some lesser known tales of the First Age.
Lady Galadriel had for them a wooden box with the Baggins monogram engraved on the lid. Her smile was both mysterious and mischievous. Bilbo gestured for Frodo to open it. Frodo burst out laughing. "See how you have corrupted the Elves, Uncle?" He tilted the box so Bilbo could see.
Inside were the cards and markers needed to play the Shire game named for its creator, Bilbo's Uncle Bingo! "Well, I suppose we know how we'll be entertaining our guests at the party!"
"You've only yourself to blame, old friend," said Elrond, a twinkle in his eyes. "You should never have taught it to my household in the first place!"
"Had I known it would follow me across the Sundering Sea, I don't suppose I would have." But there was a twinkle in his own eye. He still enjoyed the old game as much as ever.
"But it is so amusing, Bilbo," the Lady Galadriel said. "One learns much by observing the players at the height of the game. And it is something only hobbits would have thought of; Elves could never have invented such a thing."
After tea and biscuits (which served their guests as refreshment and themselves as second breakfast) the three took their leave.
The next to arrive was Lord Elrond's friend Lord Gilfanon, who happened to be visiting at the time. He had made the acquaintance of the two hobbits a few birthdays back, when several of their friends conspired to gift them with a small golf course and the equipment they needed to play the sport. Lord Gilfanon was fascinated by the sport, and soon had clubs made to his size. He and Frodo frequently played a round or two whenever the Elf came to visit Lord Elrond.
He brought Bilbo a box of sweets; he knew the older hobbit was fond of them, and also that Bilbo did not entirely approve of his influence on Frodo. ("He brings out too much of the Brandybuck in you, lad!" he'd told his cousin after a match in which Frodo was very nearly defeated by the Elf early on in their acquaintance, and had come home quite cross over his near miss.) Since then the Elf had defeated Frodo several times, and it always made Frodo cross afterwards. Frodo rarely cared much about winning or losing—except when Gilfanon was his opponent.
But he brought Frodo what looked like a mere coil of wire. "One of the smiths at my House of a Hundred Chimneys came up with this on a whim." He placed the coil on the edge of the table and flicked the top of it. The upper part of the coil bent over and slowly it dropped from the tabletop to the empty chair in front of it, and then without further prompting, to the floor below. "You should see it descend a staircase!"
Frodo was thrilled with the novel device, and Bilbo was intrigued enough to forgive the Elf-lord. Neither hobbit had ever seen such a thing before.
When Gandalf arrived a few minutes later, Lord Gilfanon left, avoiding the Maia's gaze. The hobbits invited him to join them for elevenses, and he quickly accepted. The three of them went out on the terrace with their tea and scones and boiled eggs and a bowl of apples.
He held a package out to Bilbo. "This isn't from me. It's from your…correspondent."
Bilbo felt of it. "It's a book," he said, and he opened it. The Princess and the Shoe?" He looked puzzled. "That's an old Shire children's tale. I shouldn't think it would interest him."
Frodo looked surprised as well. "I shouldn't think he'd know anything about it," he said.
"You would both be wrong, and on more than one account. First of all, the tale did not originate in the Shire. No one knows where it originated. He's collected a dozen different versions of the story from various countries and times and translated them. Each one is quite different than all the others, and yet is still recognizable as the same story. He thought as a linguist you might find the differences interesting, Bilbo. He chose the tale because he knew it was one that you had in the Shire."
"How did he know that?" asked Frodo skeptically.
"I told him, of course. It was the version I'd heard Gerontius tell his own children."
Bilbo nodded. "Thank you for bringing it, Gandalf. I shall write my thanks to him as well, if you will, as usual, carry it to him."
Their old friend nodded, and pulled two long and smallish packages from the pocket of his robe, and handed one to each of them. "This is simply an earnest of the rest of my gift, which I shall present tomorrow evening."
"Squibs and crackers!" said Frodo.
"Which means," added Bilbo, "that you have fireworks for us?"
Gandalf nodded, and pulled out his pipe, incentive for his hosts to do the same. The miniature fireworks were simply a way of satisfying hobbit etiquette, so that the gift was presented the day before the actual birthday celebration. The three sat back in contented silence, puffing on their pipes and blowing smoke rings. Other than changing the colour, Gandalf did not try anything fancy; this was simply a time to relax.
"Well," said a familiar feminine voice from the direction of the gate to the terrace, "I see I have come just in time!"
"Adamanta! How delightful!" Bilbo exclaimed. All three of them smiled to see her—the Maia named Mirimë, who had transformed herself into a hobbit to wed her true love an Age ago.
Frodo rose to open the gate and let her in for her hands were full. She was carrying a large basket covered with a linen cloth, and Frodo's nose twitched. "These are for the both of you," she said, "and they were freshly harvested this morning."
She placed them on the table and twitched the cloth aside: in the basket was a bounty of beautiful honey mushrooms.
"Ah! Adamanta! These are wonderful! And so many of them!" Bilbo was overjoyed. There were enough for him and Frodo to have some at their supper tonight, and yet leave plenty to make a dish for tomorrow's party.
Gandalf smiled to watch his friends respond to Adamanta. Truth to tell, it was how he thought of her these days. She almost never took on any other form now than that of the elderly hobbitess she wore for her distant descendants. After seeing her this way, he had occasionally thought of taking on hobbit form himself for a while; but he knew that however much he loved being around them, he was not himself a hobbit and he was of much more use and comfort to Frodo and Bilbo in the guise in which they had always known him. He finished his pipe and excused himself. "I will see you both tomorrow just before luncheon," he said. He rose, and exited by the gate through which Adamanta had come.
Adamanta invited herself to stay and help them with the party preparations and for luncheon, which consisted of bread, cheese, pickles and cold sliced meats. After the meal she assisted with the washing up, and then giving her "grandsons" a kiss on their cheek, she saw herself out the same way she had come in.
After she left, the two realised they had finished everything that they could do ahead of time. Frodo took the book that Elrond had given them, and Bilbo took The Princess and the Shoe, and they both settled into their armchairs in the front room to read. Bilbo dozed off first, and his gentle snores soon lured Frodo into slumber as well.
They were startled awake by the sound of knocking. "Frodo-lad, get the door," said Bilbo, sounding so much like he had when they both lived in Bag End that it made Frodo smile.
Several Elves stood in the corridor, the one in front with his hands upon a rolling cart, on which stood an immense birthday cake, a true work of art. Elrond's head cook and head baker were on either side of the cake and behind them were the entire staff of the kitchens.
"Master Bilbo and Master Frodo," said the head cook, "We hope that you will accept this gift in the honour of your birthing day." He'd been getting it wrong for eight years now; Frodo was of the opinion he did it on purpose, but it was funny. He ignored that and gestured for them to come in.
The hobbits admired the cake. "Even Lily Cotton could not have done a better job," said Frodo. In truth, it was far above Mrs. Cotton's abilities, but just as the head cook feigned that he did not know the word "birthday" Frodo pretended that he thought Sam's mother-in-law the finest baker ever. And after all, she was the finest baker in the Shire.
They invited the Elves in to take refreshment, but their visitors demurred, saying they had to get back to their work.
Bilbo glanced at the mantel clock. "Shall we have late tea or early supper? And should we eat here or go down to the dining hall and then the Hall of Fire?"
"I'm for early supper here, and an early night as well. We have a very busy day tomorrow."
They made omelets with some of the mushrooms, and while Bilbo did the washing up, Frodo set a pot of porridge in the embers for their breakfast in the morning. Then they went off to their evening ablutions, and their beds.
They sat at their table after first breakfast the following morning, ready for their birthday tradition of exchanging their gifts to one another; since both of them were giving a gift, and both of them were the byrdings, they were able to do this on the day, rather than the day before.
Since coming to Tol Erressëa, the gifts they exchanged with one another were sentimental tokens, rather than the sorts of elaborate gifts of the past; mathoms that recalled to them their lives together in the Shire.
Frodo took from his pocket an irregular shaped-object, draped in a handkerchief, put it down and slid it across the table to Bilbo. Bilbo lifted up the handkerchief, and his face lit up.
"I found it on the beach a few weeks ago!" said Frodo, pleased with the expression on his beloved uncle's face.
It was a large seashell, creamy white with some bands of golden brown on the outside, and rosy pink within. "As soon as I saw it, I knew you had to have it," Frodo added.
"It looks just like the one I had from Uncle Isengar! Thank you, my lad! It's wonderful to be reminded of it!"
"I gave the original to Fredegar for my birthday one year. He seemed to love it so. And Lord Faramir gave one to Merry just like it; Merry gave it to me after the Quest. I left that one behind. I can't believe I found another so like it!"
Bilbo placed his own offering on the table. It too was irregularly shaped, but it had been wrapped up in paper and tied with a string. "Be careful opening it, Frodo! It's breakable."
Frodo untied the string and pulled away the paper. Then he burst into laughter. It looked much like a dried blob of mud with a hole in the top. "It's a good thing Merry's not here—he'd be burning up with embarrassment! It's always amazed me that you'd been able to keep yours. Mine crumbled to dust many years ago."
The object was seven-year-old Merry's attempt at pottery. That year he had created a number of "vases", all of them rather misshapen. He was quite proud of them at the time—none of them had cracked in the firing and they all held water. He gave them as his gifts to all and sundry, but Bilbo's was the only one which had survived. He'd even taken it to Rivendell with him, along with a few other mementos, and then brought them West when he came.
The two of them embraced briefly, and then scurried to begin their final preparations. Some of the food had been prepared the day before, but other things had to be cooked today. The jars of preserves were put into large baskets by the door to the apartment, chairs and tables were re-arranged slightly to accommodate the number of guests, and a final tidying up was done. Second breakfast consisted of the rest of the porridge, and elevenses were eaten on the fly as they worked on luncheon. The birds roasted on the spit, lending a toothsome smell to the kitchen.
Bilbo left Frodo to tend the kitchen while he went to bathe and change his clothing; then Frodo went to do the same while Bilbo saw to the setting of the large table where they would entertain their guests. The weather was mild, and a couple of Lord Elrond's servants had seen to setting it up on the terrace the day before, along with some large folding chairs. At each end of the table was a taller chair, where the hosts would sit; a third taller chair had been placed next to Bilbo's seat.
Only a few guests were expected for the luncheon: Of course Gandalf and Adamanta would be there; Elrond, Lady Celebrian and Lady Galadriel; Lady Galadriel's brother Lord Finrod and his wife Lady Amarië (who had arrived only that morning); since Lord Gilfanon was guesting at the House, he too, had been invited to the luncheon.
The other guests would arrive a few at a time, coming and going throughout the afternoon and evening, until the party ended. These would be Elves of Elrond's household, some Elves they had met since arriving, artisans of the city, a scholar with whom Bilbo had made acquaintance at the archives, a minstrel whom Frodo had met one day singing upon the shore…
The meal was, as meals prepared by hobbits are, quite incomparable. Bilbo and Frodo basked in the compliments of their guests. Afterwards, Frodo showed off his gift from Gilfanon to the fascination of the rest, while Lady Galadriel persuaded Bilbo to set up his new game, for of course her sister-in-law had never played it.
Master Naliendil, the minstrel, was persuaded to play and sing; as teatime approached, the large table was filled again, this time with breads and fruit and cheeses and cold meats and other foods that could be eaten while walking about and talking. As the Sun went down to her rest, the cake was brought out, and Gandalf himself raised the toast. "To the byrdings! To Bilbo Baggins, one-hundred-and-thirty-nine years; and to Frodo Baggins, sixty-one years! May they have many more blessed returns of the day!"
Amarië leaned her head against the shoulder of her husband. "They are such delightful small creatures; but it seems such a brief time to be celebrating, husband."
He smiled. "It is a brief time to us, but it is quite a long time for their kind. They live so fully and burn so brightly because their lives are brief. Mortals dare much, for they know they will leave the world behind before they have done most of what they would do."
As the indigo curtain of night spread itself across the sky all gathered to watch as Gandalf displayed the skill that gave him his greatest delight, and the skies were lit by the bursts of red and gold and blue and green. These were not the fanciful shapes he had often displayed in Middle-earth; but as the colourful sparks rained down with a burst of fragrance, like the scent of niphredil, the sounds of "Ooh!" and "Ah!" were music to his ears.
Bilbo turned to Frodo. "I'd say this party has been a delightful success,"
Frodo just smiled at him and draped an arm around his shoulder. Life was good.
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