Nothing of Note

by Primula

60. A Better Mousetrap

The sun faded behind the hills, and the rooms of Bag End began to take on that  half-blend of shadow and color that was the herald of twilight. The fields and trees outside the few unshuttered windows were relentlessly blotted of their deep yellows and greens, washed in twilight's bluing to be left colorless; a blanket of faded whites, purples and greys began to be spread out upon the land, the crickets took over the duties of the nestled birds, singing to herald the coming night.

Other things were moving through the garden,  among the pale shadows. Things that did not sing, or sleep.

Bilbo's anticipation rose. He shifted slightly, feeling as if he were about to go before a crowd, or to make a speech.  He ran over his list in his head once more, ticking things off by running his fingers over the tiles lining his hearth.  There they were; he heard the first small noises, the faintest shuffle of feet, a rustle of the grasses on his lawn that might have been a breeze... a brush of leaves.  There was a brief silence, a hesitation outside.

He waited, drew his Ring out of his pocket and caressed it briefly.  Minutes passed and he waited. There was no hurry... 

The noises began again, at his front door. Very small sounds, no more than he might hear from a mouse in his pantry at night. The knob gave a slight jiggle, confirming it being latched. A small whispering of voices, like a soft wind in the trees. More silence.

Bilbo held his breath as he sat by the low, hot fire in his den. The sounds split up, one still near the front, another moving around towards the back. There was a slight sound of something tapping on glass. He winced slightly, fearing for the safety of his windows, but was grateful that so far the would-be burglars were being very careful. Hushed voices and the creak of the hinge heralded their discovery of the unlatched window.

There was some muffled grunting and muttering as they began to heft themselves in through the open window, going right up and over his newly reinforced windowbox. Bilbo had to smile to himself, knowing the type of flowers most likely would not be noticed in the growing darkness. But he was mildly surprised they had not found the unlatched back door. In too much of a hurry to scout it out properly - no doubt they were also too inexperienced at such things for it to occur to them. Bilbo smiled to himself, remembering his own naiveté about proper scouting, at the beginning of his adventure, long ago. How far I have come...

Thinking of his adventure brought his eyes back to the golden circle he still held curled in his palm, warm from the heat of his hands. He held it for a moment more, watching the dim fire and embers playing across its perfect surface.

He slipped it on.

There was the familiar shift in his hearing, the dimming of his sight. He wondered why it did this - and why Sting always continued to have a strange clarity, as did many things of Elvish make.  He had never wanted to bring up this aspect of his ring to Gandalf, though he expected the wizard would know something of it. He always became hesitant to discuss it,  as if there were something wrong or even shameful in speaking of it... of course there wasn't. It really was very odd.  Perhaps the next time he saw him he would ask. Besides, no matter what the reason, it was still a beautiful thing and very useful too, especially at times like this.

There was the sound of a body hitting the tile floor below his window, bumping into a nearby chair, and the beginning of a complaint hushed with a stern hiss from a second voice. He could hear the windowbox creaking with a complaint of its own and hoped it would hold up under the weight.

A second individual flumped to the floor, and a spate of whispering began. He grinned. Judging by their twitching that was also beginning, his powder had gotten to at least one of them - probably the first one in. He peered around the doorframe to see what was happening.

Half-crouched on the tile floor, Hatch Grubb squirmed uncomfortably, twitching slightly as he reached back and scratched his back. He tugged on his shirt and scratched again as he helped Lotho to his feet.

"What are you doing?" whispered Lotho, frowning at him.

"Sorry... I gotta itch..."

Lotho grimaced. "Well, scratch it and be quiet - we need to find where he keeps his papers."

"I am scratching it, it keeps moving around."

Lotho just rolled his eyes unsympathetically, but Bilbo noted that Lotho's hands were also absently scrubbing at his arms.  A little of it must have gotten to him too. Or maybe it was the flowers; Bilbo rather hoped it was both.  He turned and gathered up a pair of his wax packets for each of the fireplaces, hiding two in his invisible hands and setting two above the embers of the den fire to slowly melt.

There was a sound from the end of the hallway as Louey Hornblower and Rooty Grubb came on tiptoe from the back way.

"Hey!" Louey said in a stage-whisper. "The back door was open... How'd you guys get in already?"

"We came in the window," answered Hatch in a more normal tone. "It was..."

"Hush!" glowered Lotho, then rounded on the others. "And you, why didn't you say something sooner?"

Louey looked surprised and whispered "I'm sorry, Lotho, I only just found it. Actually, it was Rooty who..."

Lotho cut him off. "You're of no use to me if you're slow, so make yourself useful. Rooty, get back out there and keep watch, and don't leave the door hanging open!  Louey, get over here and help us look. We want to get out of here as quick as we can."

Rooty seemed all too ready to back out and quickly wasted no time taking himself back outside the smial. Louey came reluctantly forward, scratching at his neck. His eyes shifted to each of the flanking doorways as he came. Bilbo judged him to be the jumpiest of the lot, and remembered he had been the one with the wildest tales about the very place he was now in.

In spite of his earlier sneering bravado, Bilbo could also tell that Lotho was nervous too. He kept looking around, scratching at his arms, hands and neck, legs.  For all his swagger, he knew he was out on a limb coming here...

It was time for a little touch of uncertainty.  Bilbo slipped over to wine cellar entrance and felt around until he found the small hammer where he had left it in the dark.  He peered back out at them for just a moment, listening for a good point in the conversation.

"What was in those windowboxes?" asked Lotho, rubbing at his hands, then his neck.

"Flowers," said Louey.

"I know it was flowers, dumbhead. What kind of flowers?"

"I don't know, ask one of them Gamgees - how should I know flowers, especially in the dark?"

"Smelled like pansies or som'thin' to me," offered Hatch. "My ma has pansies in her yard..." Bilbo carefully tapped the large metal skillet.

  tonk

"...what was that?" Hatch said.

"What?"

"That...sound. Like something metal, or something...didn't you hear it?"

"I heard something..." said Louey in a hushed voice.

"Quit it," said Lotho. "There's nothing here. No matter what you heard."

"But...what if he's...."

"He's not here. He's off on some fool journey again. And I'm not afraid of old Baggins either,  he's harmless,  I've been here lots of times..."

Bilbo gave it one more careful metallic tap.

klong

As he slipped out of the wine cellar and past them where they now stood in an indecisive huddle he had to grin.

"I heard it again." Louey's voice whispered. "Dwarves..."

"What if we get caught?" Hatch was saying, wide-eyed. "Their axes..."

Lotho was not to be cowed. "There's no Dwarves. There can't be. It must just be some rats or something."

Trying not to breathe too loudly, he tiptoed into the parlour where he slipped the other pair of wax packets onto the embers of the fire. He knew Lotho's was a false bravado, he was sure of it: he had seen the trembling of Lotho's hands.

"Can't we at least light a candle or something? It's....getting kinda dark." Hatch whined.

Lotho's voice was sarcastic. "Well, you're the one who forgot the dark-lantern. I'm not lighting any candle now, you fool, the light would show through the windows. We're wasting what light we have. Go find that paper!"

The other two nodded and moved as if to obey but without heart. Louey's eyes were still wide.  Hatch began to eye the window they had entered by. His voice trembled slightly. "Remember that dragon...?"

Louey nodded solemnly. "It was still alive..." he whispered.

"I wanna go home."

Lotho, who had been heading back into the parlour, heard them. "Cowards." he spat with contempt. "You don't leave until you help me, or I'll tell your folks where you've been."

It was obvious they believed it of him, too. Hatch looked miserable, but moved towards a bench that was covered with papers. Louey turned to Lotho. "What exactly is it we're looking for then, so we can get out of here? What's it look like?"

Lotho brushed it away as he rifled through a sheaf of letters. "It's paper! I don't know what it looks like. No one's seen it. I asked, and didn't hear of anyone who's really seen it. But it's made of paper, maybe done up all important somehow. We'll know it when we see it."

It was plain to Bilbo that the lads didn't know much about the process, hence the additional aura of mystery about it. They wouldn't know that several other hobbits had not only seen it, but signed it. It was a testament to the trustiness of Bilbo's chosen witnesses as well as to the company Lotho and his family kept that it was 'unseen.'

They begin with searching the bench and table in the entry, then hesitantly approached the parlour where Lotho was already leafing through stacks of papers and books. Hatch continued to scratch at his back and neck and then his arms. Bilbo couldn't help but wonder how long it would take for the small bit of powder to work its way further down; the discomfort it would bring then should be sufficient to send any hobbit jumping for home.  He smiled to himself as he quietly went back into the den.

While the others began their foray into the parlour, Louey prowled around the dim kitchen. Judging by the sounds, he was opening jars and cupboards and even the oven. Bilbo had to roll his eyes at that. Why would papers be in the oven?

"Find anything?" whispered Hatch, who had edged back into the entry.

"Mnffng" replied Louey, his mouth full of something he had found in his search. He came out of the kitchen with his cheeks bulging.

"What did you find? Is there any more? I'm hungry."

"We aren't here for a picnic, you dimwits - keep looking!" growled Lotho as he pawed through the stack of letters that lay heaped on the parlour console. "Hatch - you come look through that stack over there, look in that chest. Louey, try the den."

Louey came the rest of the way out of kitchen, licked off his fingers and timidly peered into a small adjoining pantry before hesistantly nearing the den.

Knowing the saltpeter would make it burn very slowly with a nice thick smoke, Bilbo had held one end of his coated twine to the embers until it ignited and it was now smoking nicely. The wax packets had begun to melt into this fire also, so the flames flickered up all green and yellow, scented of sulpher.  More sulpher hung in the pale smoke that curled upward from the twine and crawled across the floor in swirling tendrils.

Bilbo was pleased at the fireplace in the den making a rather nasty stink, and the yellow-green flames were effective, but the sulpher wasn't as strong as he would have liked or gathering quite quickly enough. He wrinkled up his nose.  Dragon was not a pleasant smell, more brimstone and rot needed, but this reek was nearly as bad - maybe worse in such close quarters.  Still it needed to be more dramatic.

At least he knew if the flames were changing color in the den, they were bound to be doing so in the parlour also.  He peeked out, past Louey who was dithering in the hallway.

Lotho, done rummaging the console, was bent over a pile on the table, peering at the papers in the dimming light.  Hatch stood still and stiff, one hand on the wooden chest, looking towards the fire with round eyes and his mouth agape. The green flames that lifted up, all twined with an unnatural yellow, gave a sickly glow to his face. 

"L...L..." said Hatch.

"What?" hissed Lotho irritably, then looked up from his papers and froze. For just a moment, fear and indecision flickered on his face. He tried to cover it. "Aw, it's just...a, a fire."

"But...Lotho..."

"Stop gaping at it and get to work." snapped his leader, hiding his own fear in bluster. He scratched at his arms nervously and turned his back on the strange fire.

Bilbo, cheered by the apparent success of this simple effect, went to the pan of hot rocks he had ready over the coals but then considered and decided to first reach for the bellows.  He moved them slowly open and shut a few times, to circulate the smoke faster and to make it sound like...

"Breathing." said Louey in a barely audible squeak. "Something's breathing. I heard it." He had been scratching his back and froze when he heard it, his arm halfway down his shirt.

"What?" said Lotho.

He pulled his arm out. "I...I...uh, asked if you f...found it yet?"

Lotho, who had only just abandoned the pile on the table and, scratching, moved towards the small desk turned and gave him a hard look. He looked towards the other. "Hatch - anything?"

"No," said Hatch in a small voice. "Nothing here b-but some kind of notes with pictures of plants on them, and some b-blankets..."

"You go help Louey look in the den. I think Baggins has a desk in there. Well? What are you just standing there for? And stop twitching!"

"I'm not twitchin', Lotho, I'm itchin' - I've been itching ever since I got here..."

"Get over there - or do I have to come make you?"

"No Lotho, you don't have to..."

Bilbo took the kettle up and slowly poured a small stream of water over the heated rocks. There was a very satisfactory hissing sound, and steam billowed up.

Hatch came around the corner to where Louey still stood. He looked at the smoke and steam curling out of the darkened den where only the slightest flickers of unearthly greens came from the fire. He stopped.

Lotho didn't notice, having already turned to the small parlour writing desk . He opened the first drawer and dug around in it.

Bilbo took ahold of the piece of heavy chain that he had placed there earlier for this purpose and very carefully and slowly dragged it across the floor.

"Hear that?" squeaked Hatch to Louey.

"Y-yeah..." whispered Louey back in a strangled whisper.

Lotho's voice came to them from the gathering gloom of the parlour. "Hear what? And what's that awful smell? That isn't you, is it? What did the old coot leave in his kitchen, a bunch of rotten eggs?" In the silence, Lotho's clothing rustled as he scratched at his back and arms restlessly. He opened the top of the desk.

The rocks hissed. The bellows moved slowly.

"Smells like....a dragon to me...."

"A what?"

"A...d..d...d-dragon..."

Carefully trickling some more water over rocks and slowly working the bellows in the midst of the stench, Bilbo felt like he could hardly breathe himself and struggled to not cough, but it was worth it. Hissing and a miasmic fog obscured the room as the steam combined with the sulpherous yellowed smoke. 

Lotho's voice rebuked his cohorts from the other room. "Quit babbling. How would you know what a dragon smells like, even if there was such a thing?"

Bilbo trickled enough water to keep the steam going and moved the chain across the floor once more. The sound of something heavy, and slightly metallic slowly scraping across the floor made Hatch twitch and cower towards the scant comfort of Louey's side. The thick smoke from the twine began to creep out along the hall floor in tendrils.

"Hey, I think I found it...."

The shutters, which he had pulled closed along most of the windows made it even darker, and the den now showed no light at all except for the faintest unearthly green glow of the embers.  The two younger hobbits stood in the hall, torn between their fear of and loyalty to Lotho, and their own imagined dread.

"Yes! I have it...!"

It was time. Bilbo reached smoothly for his red lamp, where it was lit under its obscuring leather cover. He slowly opened the flap he had cut in the leather.

The glowing red eye of the dragon opened slowly within the darkness of the curling steam and smoke...