Nothing of Note

by Primula

Chapter 56: Hedge Row

Bilbo didn't really care why Lotho was there, at least not at first. His only thought was how awkward it would be to have him come tromping through the hedge just as the troublesome lad was talking with someone; he was sure it would be misunderstood as if he were skulking in the bushes to eavesdrop.  At least if he stayed where he was and just waited for them to move on he had some passing chance of going unnoticed. He slowly eased down to his knees among the mouldering, somewhat prickly leaves of the previous year. A dusty, shallow ditch ran beneath the lowest branches; he edged into it.

Without thinking, his hand strayed to his pocket, his fingers following down the familiar chain to the smooth, rounded weight at the end of it. He rubbed his fingers over the soft gold, trying to decide if he should just lay low, keep quiet and hope Lotho moved on soon or use his ring. His thumb slid around the smooth perimeter of it, the heat of his hand warming it and giving it a sense of life. It would be the least risky route, but at the same time he didn't like the way it tired him, somehow, when he used it and had taken to using it rarely if at all; so he hesitated, listening.  His hand slowly drew back out of his pocket - for now he would hope the hedge was sufficient cover.

Ever so slowly he lowered himself again until he was nearly prone under the shadow of the hedge. The smell of the dust, the dry leaves and slightly damp earth filled his nostrils strongly and made him grimace as he tried to breathe quietly.

Peering up through the leaves and branches, he could see very little of the hobbits on the road, only traces of movement. Bits of sky flecked through above him, layers of leaves. He hoped they would see as little of him. His main preoccupation was with a root that seemed determined to bore into his ribs, and he quietly shifted, then shifted again - until he heard Frodo's name.  He stilled completely, the root mostly forgotten, and strained to hear what was being said. The breeze whispered in the leaves all around him, muddling the faint conversation. He was too far away.

Recalling the other thing his ring had always seemed to do for him, his hand went to his pocket once more, this time with purpose, and after a moment of caressing the smooth circle, he slipped it on. 

All around him, the leaves and sky went somewhat dim, as if a light mist had sprung up from the ground. The hedge-shadow intensified. And so did the sounds around him.

"I'm the one who has to live with it, everyday," Lotho was saying. "Every morning, it's Lotho why didn't you this, and Lotho, why can't you that? She acts like, like we should do something about it, but then she doesn't. And my da, doing his staring thing all the time, breathing and breathing like some old bull in a pasture but he won't open his mouth and do something about it."

There was a murmuring of consent, or agreement, from more than one throat. Bilbo wondered if Ivy were there, with her chaperone. Realizing he now couldn't be seen except for a very faint shadow, he carefully raised himself to his knees to peer through the bushes. No, all of the legs he could see were clad in breeches, and at least one was fairly young, too.  Four of them then, counting Lotho.

"It should have been your family's," said one of them. A vaguely familiar young voice that Bilbo tried to place.

"Not it should have been - it was!" said Lotho. "It was ours, we had the rights to it. My da is next of kin to that old windbag, and he never did nothin' to deserve being treated like that.  My family has waited and waited for him to go and die and he just keeps on living."

"It ain't right, is it?" said another, the youngest one.

"Rooty!" said the first, mildly shocked. "He can too be alive..."

"No, I mean that he just....well, I wasn't..." stuttered the first.

Ah, thought Bilbo. Rooty. That would be Beetroot "Rooty" Grubb then, and his older brother, Hatch. Opal Grubb's youngsters who lived next door to the S-B's.  He didn't know them well, but they hadn't seemed the kind to so caught up in Lotho's tirades - then again, they had grown up with him nearby, no doubt listening to their mother's gossip as well. 

I'll have to listen to judge what manner of rot might have infected them, he thought. Hopefully it's not catching.

"You sounded like...like you wanted him to..." Hatch was saying.

"He's right," cut in Lotho. "He's got no right to just keep on living and living and living like that, he should have... " Lotho hesitated, apparently realizing what he was implying. It was to his credit that even he shied away from it. "...moved someplace else by now. Gone away on one of his brain-cracked trips and not come back or something. Moved in with those foreigners he likes so much."

"Yeah. What's he need with all that room, all by himself anyway?" asked Hatch rhetorically. "Why can't he get lost?"

"And stay lost." muttered Lotho.

"He keeps his treasure there," offered Rooty. "I heard ma talking about it. He has all kinds of treasure in there."

"I heard he has other things in there too," said the third hobbit, speaking for the first time. "Stuff from his trips. Strange stuff, from Outside."

"Like what?" asked Rooty, fascinated.

"I heard, well, I heard he has dwarf-weapons. So sharp they could shave the hair right off your foot if you even held it wrong. If you cut the head off a chicken with it, it wouldn't even know it had been cut, it would just keep walkin' and walkin' until it's head fell off..."

"Eew!"

"Stop it, Louey." said Hatch. "Even if he does have somethin' like that, he wouldn't use it on chickens. He'd probably just... I don't know..."

"I heard he has Dwarves that stay there." said Louey's voice, hushed. "In the wine-cellar, 'cause they like it dark. One of the chimneys really goes to their metalworking thing. Forge. They only come out after dark, with their faces all hidden in hair, and their sharp, sharp axes..."

Lotho cut in again. "No matter what's in there, even if it's a whole family of Dwarves, they're no better than rats in a pantry.  If they're there, they don't belong there - they're squatters, on my family's property!"

"Yeah." said Hatch. "But maybe you could at least, I don't know... get some of the treasure? I mean, if you can't have the smial, maybe you could still have some of the money?"

"No, that brat from Buckland gets that too," said Lotho. "Baggins is mad, I tell you."

"Which one?" asked Rooty.

"Both!" Lotho said, and spit on the side of the road, thankfully away from where Bilbo lay. "Both of 'em. But old Bilbo is the worse one. And that Frodo-thing, sitting by him day after day, acting like he enjoys listening to the old bag."

"Old bag. Baggins. Heh. Good one, Lotho." snickered Louey.

Lotho was not amused. He sounded sharp. "All those stories about him, some of them are true you know. He has strange folk in his house, all the time. Dwarves, conjurers. Why do you think they talk in ways we can't understand, huh? My ma says it's to keep us from understanding them. On purpose. Conspiring, that's what he's doing, on how to keep all the treasures for himself and his strange friends. He's not a proper Hobbit - there's something queer about him. And you notice how he never gets older? It isn't natural."

"I heard he had...." Louey's voice sank to stage-whisper. "Magic. Magic from the Elves that makes it that way. They gave him books of magic. And there's dragon-magic too."

"Dragon?" asked Hatch. "What do you mean?"

"You know... You remember how he talks about slaying a dragon once? A real one? Well, I heard that dragons can't really die...all the way, dead, I mean. They can't. They come back. And he kept a piece of it..."

"Of the dragon?" Rooty sounded slightly shaken

"Yeah....a piece of it, like a souvenir. And it's...not dead..."

"The piece isn't dead?"

"What part is it?" Hatch was morbidly fascinated.

"It would have to be pretty small, I'd think." said Rooty. "Like an ear..."

"Yeah. Or an eyeball, or a claw. He keeps it hidden, and talks to it sometime when no one else is there. And he has a magic sword that the dwarves made for him too, that moves all by itself... it goes around the rooms at night, all silent in the dark, stabbing anyone who tries to sneak in...."

"Louey, you're scarin' Rooty." said Hatch. He turned to the older tween for reassurance. "It's probably just treasures, isn't it Lotho?"

"Well, he gets all that money from someplace." said Lotho. "And he spends and spends it. My ma said he was trying to use it all up, so we couldn't have any of it."

"That's mean!" two of them chorused.

"It's selfish!" said Lotho. "And now he's giving it all to that creature just to keep it away from us. I'd bet on it."

Bilbo seethed quietly, ineffectually clenching at a double-handful of earth and leaves in his anger. Tiny dusty-grey roly-polys scattered from the trenches his unseen fingers had dug, burrowing into the earth or rolling into miniscule armored balls.

Lotho was working himself up into a righteous dudgeon. "I'm not going to just sit here and let it happen either. I'm going to do something about it."

"But what can you do about it?" asked Louey.

"I saw that Frodo-thing leaving this morning. Old Bilbo is all by himself now."

"Yeah? So?"

"The only thing that's making it all go to Frodo is that piece of paper that says it's supposed to be that way, right?"

"Yeah...I think so."

"That's what my ma said," confirmed Hatch. "And she knows."

"So, if we can get old Bilbo out of the way somehow, and get into Bag End, we can get that paper, right?"

"Get the paper?"

"Take it, you idiot. Take it and get rid of it. If there's no paper, then there's no will. If there's no will, there's no proof that Bilbo didn't just make it all up! Don't you see? If there's no will saying someone else is the heir, then it goes to the next of kin again!"

"Your da," said Rooty.

"Exactly! And I'm not about to let some stupid piece of paper stop me. Us, I mean. My family. We'll get what is rightfully ours, if I have to take every paper in that place to get it."

"But, what will you do with it? If you ruin it, won't they just make another one?" This from Hatch, apparently the more logical of the lot.

Lotho paused. Apparently this hadn't occurred to him. "Well, if we can't destroy it, maybe we can... change it or something. Make is say something different. Then we can put it back. And if that doesn't work, and it's gone, who can prove anything anyway? Maybe it was all a rumor, or his madness again. Everyone in the Shire knows he's cracked."

"But if Frodo comes back..." started Hatch hesitantly.

"Who's to say he isn't cracked too? Imagining he was going to get to stay there, just like that."

Bilbo looked down at the confused roly-polys, who kept unrolling and rolling again every time he moved. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. Invisible or not, the hedge began to feel like a trap to him; his emotions were running high and he wanted to move. He wanted to... he wasn't sure what... something!  He desperately wished they would leave, or stop talking, decide it was a foolish notion and they wouldn't even dream of it,  but he had to know what they were thinking and planning now. Even if they did leave, he would have to follow.  He would have to know what to expect.

"But getting it, that would mean, well, going in without his permission."

"Of course it would, dimwit, do you think he's just going to open up the door and let us get it, and serve us tea while we're at it?"

"No. Of course not. But..." Hatch faltered.

"There's music that comes out of that place sometimes, when no one is home I heard. Strange music, and..." said Louey.

"Are you with me or not?" said Lotho. "I'm beginning to think all you Hornblowers are about as skittery as a nest of quail."

"No we aren't," said Louey, his pride stung. "But... I don't know how..."

"Well I do. Now you listen up. All we have to do is wait for old Bilbo to leave his home. He's always going off, you know.  When he does, we just go in!"

"But what about the Gamgees?" asked Hatch.

"What?"

"The Gamgees are always watching it when he's gone. I tried to get some peas from his garden once, and Fastred boxed my ears for it."

"You should've ducked quicker." said Lotho without sympathy. "Your ma is friends with them, right?"

"Yeah...?"

"Have her invite them over for tea, or supper or whatever. Tell 'em they're needed to fix something that's broken, right away. You can come up with something.  As soon as they're gone, Rooty can run an invitation over to Bag End and we're set."

"Oh, yeah. You're pretty smart, Lotho."

"He should be in charge of something, like being the Mayor, I think." said Louey admiringly.

"Oh, wouldn't that be great! If Lotho was the Mayor, and lived at Bag End and had all that money and everything." Rooty said enthusiastically.

"Which I won't if you don't listen up." said Lotho. "And if I'm not in Bag End, then my friends won't be there either."

"Your friends? Like us?" asked Rooty.

"Be quiet Rooty." said Hatch."Right. So Mr. Baggins leaves, and then we have Rooty here get the Gamgees out. Then what? How do we find it?"

"It's not like he's expecting someone to take it," said Louey. "It's probably just in his desk."

"We'll find it." said Lotho grimly. "If we have to knock out the walls to do it. You'll help me. Hatch will keep lookout by the door, and Rooty will be our lookout by the road." 

"What will we do with it? When we get it, I mean?  Throw it in the fire?"

"Nothing! You don't do anything with it. You just give it to me, you understand? If we have to, we'll send it with Rooty and he can hide it until later. But if you try to make off with it yourself, it'll be my hand boxing your ears this time, and a lot worse. But," and here his voice took on a strangely oily tone. "If it works, then I'll share some of that treasure with you."

Bilbo had clenched his hands so hard that they hurt. Though he was careful to remain silent, inside he was a roiling confusion of anger, offense and strangely, amusement at the audacity of Lotho.  I will not be robbed, he thought fiercely, nor will Frodo. As he considered it, yes, it was the sheer audacity of what Lotho was proposing that hit him so strongly. Robbery, forgery, trespassing, deceit - and all of it justified with his own self-righteous, unfounded 'insult'?  He had known the lad was up to no good, but he was amazed that such drastic things would even be considered, much less plotted out to this extent.

Still, they were young. And... yes, and... they were looking to beard the old fox in his den, were they? 

The tangle of his confusion settled into a determined knot. He considered them again. Lotho was the oldest of the lot. The two Grubbs weren't even into their tweens. Louey Hornblower appeared to be closer to Lotho's age, but still no more than a croney, as Frodo would call him. Followers to be bribed with promises of sweetmeats and titles of rank. Quick to imitate, and quick to fall away.

Yes, they were young. And they were afraid of him. He had seen that too. What would be stronger, their loyalty to Lotho or their fear of Mad Baggins? He took the knot of cooling anger in his breast and turned it to strategy, a plotting of his own.

By the time Lotho and his group had completed their whispering and plotting and gone their way, Bilbo already had the beginnings of a plan of his own hatching out. He knelt in the shadowy hedge and listened to their footsteps fading, considering many things.

Grateful that he was finally able to remove the ring, he pulled it from his finger and reentered the world of color and light. It seemed so heavy sometimes. He briefly considered its beauty in the afternoon sun, then dropped it back into the darkness of his pocket. His thirst, nearly forgotten in the involuntary eavesdropping, came back with a vengeance and he thought longingly of the cool ale at the Dragon but no, he would head straight home. He had work to do.

He clambered up from the ditch, dusting leaves and dirt from his hands. Something squiggled agaist his hand and he flapped it with involuntary surprise, sending the last of the roly-polys shooting helplessly back into the mould.  Carefully poking his head through an opening in the hedge, he checked the road.  No one was to be seen, and the way remained empty of onlookers all the way back to Bag End.