Nothing of Note

by Primula

20: Only the Best

The inside of the home was neat enough, but had a shabby feel to it. Mrs. Todefoot merely glanced up at him before going back to her work. Their brief acquaintance at her door apparently was all he would get in the way of greeting. The smell of chicken roasting filled the small kitchen, and something bubbled on the stove. Bilbo was glad the noise of their entry had hidden his stomach growling.  He was surprised to see there was a dog after all, but it was hardly a threat. The elderly dog lay under the table, so unmoving he wasn't sure if it was alive at first; it lifted it's head partway up, gave him a clouded uncaring look and dropped it back to the floor.

"Beryl, this is Mr. Bilbo Baggins!" Hardno announced a bit too loudly to his wife. Her eyebrows went up slightly. "He's going to be staying with us for dinner, and gets only the best, of course!"

Bilbo was no fool, and Hardno was no actor. Bilbo could see this hobbit was a sour old miser and his only reason for letting this "guest" stay at all was no doubt the tales that circulated around the Shire regarding Bilbo's wealth. If he hadn't been so hungry and tired, he would have turned around and left right then, but having no other lodging available he reluctantly had to play along.

"Yes, yes." He said, with equally false cheerfulness and flattery. "I am so pleased to make your acquaintance, Mrs. Todefoot. You are most kind to allow me to share your meal. I am sure it will be the best in the Shire, or anywhere around it and look forward to sampling your cooking. While I wait, I will be glad to bathe the weariness of my travels away to be able to grace your table more appropriately."

They just looked at him.

"Do you have a bathing room I could make use of while the food is cooking?" he asked more straightforwardly.  Apparently the courtesy of his speech was wasted on them.

Mrs. Todefoot went back to cooking, leaving her husband to deal with it. Mr. Todefoot frowned, then remembered who he was speaking to.  The false smile crawled across his face again and clung under his nose like a parasite.  "Of course! Nothing but the best for our guest. We'll set some water to heating right away."

"Very good. Then I shall wait by the fire until it is ready. Thank you."

He turned to the sitting room adjoined the kitchen. The hearth was cold. Hardno followed him in. "The fire in the stove heats the house well enough for us, Mr. Baggins. If you're going to be wanting an extra fire and baths, you'll be making it up for us?"  It was a question yet not a question. Bilbo knew what he meant.

"Yes, I'll be willing to pay you a fair price for the water and wood."  He sat in the chair, very pointedly making no move to start the fire himself. Hardno hesistated and his smile flickered badly, but he moved to set the wood in the fireplace. He blew on the small sparks until they caught, grumbling all the while.

"Takes a lot of time to get wood, you know. Hard work too. Time that has to be taken away from other jobs. Then it has to be chopped too. My son, now he knows how to keep warm; good hard work warms him up just fine." 

The implication was obviously that his guest was lazy as well as greedy and demanding. Bilbo ignored it, determined to be pleasant but not to bend. "Thank you for the fire.  It is most welcome. Might I also have something to drink while I wait?"

Hardno stiffened again. "There's the well, right outside.  Just go 'round the corner."

Bilbo laughed hollowly at him, as if he had just told a joke. "No, no my dear fellow. Something warm of course.  I am sure the very best you can offer would include something warm to drink on a cool evening."

His host turned so Bilbo couldn't see his face and addressed his wife in a slightly strangled tone.  "Some tea for our guest, he needs something warm to drink. Price of tea has been pretty high lately, so I hope he will enjoy it."  He abruptly went outside, the old dog following him. Bilbo sighed. After being alone for several days it was annoying to have to deal with temperamental hobbits like this.  Seems every town had at least one. Maybe that was why they lived out here, so far from town - no one wanted anything to do with them.  Sad, really, but self-inflicted and Bilbo had little pity or patience for it.

Mrs. Todefoot came with a cup and handed it to him without comment. He took it and thanked her. It was a welcoming warmth to his cold hands.  He sipped it carefully, then looked at it more closely. It was tea, sure enough but so weak as to have almost no flavor at all - she must have simply waved a tea-ball through it to color it. He toyed with asking for cream, but decided to leave it be.  At least it was warm. No reason to harrass more than was necessary.

He fed the fire to keep it going and finished the 'tea'.  "Is my bathing water ready?" he asked.

She took a cloth and pulled a large kettle off of the stove. "Follow me." she said.  He followed her to a room at the end of a short hall. "Here," she said with barely concealed irony, "The very best."  She left him there and went back to the kitchen.

The bathing room was cramped, cold and musty.  He decided to stick with only the most necessary repairs and poured the kettle into a small washbasin, laving his face and hands, then using the single washing cloth to take care of his feet. He poured it out and returned to the sitting room. The smell of the chicken was making his mouth water and he was glad to see her getting ready to serve it up.

With a rush of cold air, father and son came in the door. The son directed a look his way, but Bilbo couldn't tell if he was surprised at Bilbo sitting there, or at the fire which was now crackling merrily as Bilbo had stacked on a generous amount of wood.

"Ma, got another one!" he held up a dark object that dangled. She turned to see, then made a face.

"Well, you can be the one to dress it then. I've already done my part for today, and we have two hens roasting already. Why'd you go and do that?"

Bilbo looked curiously from his place by the fire, then he heart contracted within him as he realized what the boy was holding. One of the brown and white seabirds hung from his hand, limp and dead.

"Aw, it was goin' after the chicken feed and wouldn't shoo. I chucked a rock at it. Didn't mean to kill it..."

"They make good enough eating," interrupted Hardno, "not like them gulls. No sense letting it go to waste. You'll dress it after we're done with dinner."  The boy opened his mouth. "No arguin'!"

Hasno took the bird back outside.  Bilbo sat and stared at the flames, trying to erase the pathetic look in its dead eyes from his mind. It was just a bird. Yet he sorrowed inside, remembering their glossy necks and bright looks in the tower. It was well that Mrs. Todefoot was slow on serving the meal - he needed that time to mourn.

They finally gathered at the table where two roast chickens sat upon a platter, along with a bowl of boiled potatoes, a bowl of boiled eggs and a pan of cornbread. More of the weak tea was poured and they set to. Bilbo was starved, and though he knew the farmer was begrudging him every bite, he ate heartily.  Hardno talked a little about the market he had been at that day, mostly to comment dourly that no one appreciated how much work it was to raise the best chickens in the Shire. He added comments about how expensive everything was nowdays and how everything wore out too soon, and mostly how no one truly appreciated the value of things.

Bilbo chewed, not really listening too closely. His host was an unimaginative bean counter. It was not the honest gold-lust that Dwarves had, who could tally values within an inch; it was a mean, scrabbling sort of gold-lust, the kind that profits from anothers misfortune or tries to gain more by trickery.  Like scavenger-birds, except worse as they might even create the accidents they scavenge.

Hardno rebuked his son for reaching for more chicken. Can't he see they have a guest and food is expensive and so on. The son obviously resented it, but was ignored. His father continued in his monologue, gloating to his family about having gotten rid of some elderly hens by slipping them into a lot that had been sold that morning. They nodded as if this were very clever; Bilbo kept his thoughts on such matters to himself.

The unpleasant meal wound to a close fairly quickly with almost no leftovers. Bilbo went back to the sitting room and fed another log to the fire pretending to not notice Hardno's grimace when he did so. 

"Well now, I have two favors that I must yet ask of you, Mr. Todefoot. For tonight I must have a warm place to sleep, and I require it be in the house, not the stable.  For tomorrow, I am in need of provisions for the road as I still have many miles to go."

Mr. Todefoot opened and shut his mouth. "I'm not a grocer nor an Innkeeper, Mr. Baggins and this is no Inn. We haven't any extra rooms..."

Bilbo shifted, then pulled a wallet from his pocket and tilted it, deliberately making the coins clink together. He eyed his host. It had the desired effect.

"....but I'm sure we can work something out." He turned to his son, who was running his finger around a bowl in the kitchen and licking it off. "Hasno! Mr. Baggins will be taking your room tonight."

"But, da..!" began Hasno, silenced by a stern look from both of his parents.

"No, no," said Bilbo, who didn't even want to know what the boy's room looked like, the bird-killer. "I'll not need his room. I'd prefer to just sleep here by the fire, if you don't mind."

This brought relieved smiles all around. "Not at all, Mr. Baggins. That would be fine."

"Now, about those provisions."

"Only the best! Only the best. Beryl here will fill your pack with only the best we have, of course."

"Only the best." said Bilbo drily. "Yes. And I shall be glad to watch her do so, lest she need any help or suggestions."

They were unhappy with this but nodded, Hardno went to his wife and after speaking softly with her for a couple moments returned more cheerfully. "As you say. But once it is packed, I will need you to settle our score before we retire. I'm sure you'll be wanting an early start, and that way you won't need to wait for us."

It seemed very solicitous, but Bilbo knew they really were afraid he would slip away in the night without paying them. He went along with it. "Of course. Now let's see what we can fill my poor, empty pack with, shall we?"  He went into the kitchen with it in his hand, opened it up and set it on the table. Then he pulled up a chair and waited to see what would happen.

"Hasno, come with me. The chickens need to be watered and readied for night, and you still have that bird to clean.  I'll be back." Father and son went out. Bilbo mildly gazed at Mrs. Todefoot. She seemed uncomfortable, but set about filling his pack.  He watched without much comment, and was quite surprised to see what she put in. She really did put in the best, pulling items from deep within her cupboards. She gave him seasoned chicken jerky, jam, a packet of cornbread, a small pot of sweet butter, tea, dried fruits, a pouch of candied nuts, several carefully wrapped boiled eggs, and even a small bottle of wine. As she continued to tuck even more things in, his brow furrowed. She even added two reasonably nice cloth napkins.  She was so generous he was suspicious. Was she doing it hoping her husband wouldn't find out? It seemed entirely out of character. The pack was stuffed to the brim and would be heavy to carry, but he wouldn't be going hungry for a long time if these were in fact to be its contents. What was the catch?

Mr. Todefoot returned. He looked at the filled pack, gave his wife a look, then turned to Bilbo with another of his artificial smiles plastered between his nose and chin.

I really wish he wouldn't do that, thought Bilbo, it's most disturbing. I'd rather have an honest frown...

"Does it meet with your approval, Mr. Baggins? Only the best!"

Bilbo quirked his eyebrows questioningly, sensing something odd going on. "Only the best," he agreed. "She was very generous, in fact. I doubt my old pack has been so well filled in many a day. I am most grateful."

"Are you? That's fine, just fine. Fine...yes, fine..."

Enough dithering. Bilbo got straight to the point. "What price are you asking for these provisions, Mr. Todefoot?"

"Well, it is only the very best, as you agreed. Considering the way prices have been at the market lately, and the long winter... and then there's the water and wood, and dinner o' course, and lodging...."

Bilbo was not inclined to indulge his dickering for very long. He chose a fair price then stuck to it until the farmer was obliged to give in. The starting sum had been nothing short of astronomical, but it had not been unexpected. As it was, Bilbo still felt he was paying too much for what he was getting but was willing to pay it just to be done with the matter. He silently counted the coins into Hardno's eager hand. The payment done, they took their leave of him very quickly more than once mentioning his need to be on his way bright and early. 

Probably counting and recounting it in their room, thought Bilbo. 

He hadn't been offered any bedding, so he pulled a rug over to the fireside and used his own blanket and cloak. It would do. He had added so much wood to the fire to spite Hardno that it was almost too warm, but after a while he dropped into an uneasy sleep.

He didn't know what it was that woke him up, but suddenly he was looking at the red embers of the fire and listening in the dark for...something. There. A soft stealthy sound of movement, back in the kitchen.  He didn't recall the old dog coming back in. It was so small it made him wonder if their kitchen had rats, or some other vermin. There was a small bumping-shuffling noise and something that sounded to him very much like his pack carefully being moved off of the table, where it had still stood.  The sound moved down the hall, away from the room he was in.

Now fully awake he considered what to do. His host was up to something,he was sure of it, and nothing honest he would bet. His hand slipped into his pocket and fingered a concealed chain, following it down to a familiar smooth weight.  He didn't like using his ring, though he couldn't put words to why, it just... it was like being pulled, somehow, when he did....It wore him out in an undefinable way.  He carried it with him for safekeeping, but rarely ever put it on. Except at times like this. 

It slipped onto his finger and the world changed to shadows. He got up and checked the table. Sure enough, the pack was gone. He quietly slipped down the hall. 

In their room, Hardno and Beryl were bending over the pack, quietly taking out everything that had been put in. Beryl took out the beeswax taper he had brought from the tower and fingered it  At least she had the decency to look unhappy about what they were doing. Her husband had a smug look about him that galled his guest. He dug deeper into the pack as if looking for something, pulled the notebook partway out and looked at it curiously for a moment then put it back. 

Beryl gathered up the foodstuffs into a basket and after a pause added the taper to it, then covered it with a heap of clothing to hide it. Hardno took the now nearly empty pack and began filling it back up from a stack of small pieces of wood that lay ready at hand. Once the pack was nearly filled with wood, he added a small canteen of water and topped it off with the packet of cornbread so it appeared to be full of food.

"Water and wood." he whispered to her with an ugly smile. "Just as he agreed."

"What if he tells the town...?" she whispered back.

He waved it away. "Everyone knows he's daft. He said he'd pay for water and wood, and that's what we gave him, right? We only gave him what he asked for. If he wants to fill his pack with it, that's his affair."  He tightened the top and gave it back to his wife. "You be sure to put it back just like it was. We'll send him off early, he won't even look at it until he's well away, and then who would believe him anyways? 

Bilbo was seething. Of all the underhanded, lowdown, trollish...  He was glad he'd kept his wallet with him or no doubt it would have been likewise emptied. Probably what Hardno was digging into the bottom of it for.

He stepped well back to allow her to pass him with the pack. She furtively carried it back, set it on the table, then slipped back to her room. Bilbo considered what to do.  Keeping the ring on, he settled himself into the corner and waited as they whispered together, then climbed back into their bed and blew out the candle. Once their breathing had evened out, he set to work..  First, the pack.

In the kitchen, he slipped off the ring so he could see better, then set about removing all of the wood from his pack. He opened the kitchen cupboards and placed wood where the food would have been. For good measure, he added several of the pieces of firewood from the sitting room as well and filled the frying pan and teakettle with twigs and wood-ash.  Once the pack was empty, he put the ring on once more to slip into their bedroom and retrieve the basket of food. He'd paid for it, it was his. What a way to have to spend a night, burgling a burglar!

The concealing old clothes were lifted off and he carried the basket back to the kitchen. Transferring the contents back into his pack was quickly done. The empty basket was filled with more wood from the woodpile plus the bones from the chickens that had been consumed that evening and taken back to the room where he covered it up with clothing once more.

Mission completed, he put the ring back on its chain in his pocket, gathered his cloak and blanket up and hefted the pack onto his shoulders.  Enough was enough. He'd had a meal and a little sleep and now he had provisions. No more reason to spend even one minute with these fools. He unlatched the door and went straight out into the misty night.  It was still a good three hours before dawn and the starlight barely showed him where the driveway lay but he didn't hesitate to set out. By the time he was back on the main road he had walked out the worst of his anger and offense, and began to chuckle to think of what their breakfast would be like in the morning. 

Only the best, of course. Only the best.