Nothing of Note

by Primula

Chapter 62: Aftermath

Early the following morning peering down at his plate, the thought of eggs for breakfast was enough to make Bilbo lose his appetite. The pervasive smell of sulpher still seemed to be everywhere in spite of his having opened the windows in the night to aired it all out as best he could. He hoped the stink would dissipate soon. He set the eggs aside and reached for his plate of muffins instead. He frowned over them as he ate - even his jam seemed to have the lingering flavour of rotten eggs. How did dragons ever live with their own stink? They must never eat...

Still, in spite of the aftermath and a shortened night of sleep, he had enjoyed a generous helping of satisfaction - yes, very generous - and that must count for something. He smiled; how he had enjoyed watching Lotho limping down the road! Yes, all the fuss and bother had been well worth it, truly it had been.  He brushed a few crumbs from the table and dabbed his finger into a bit of spilled jam, licking it off his finger as he set about cleaning up all the papers and mess that yet littered his home. 

He bent to gather up a stack of letters that had slipped across the floor and wondered to himself as he tapped them, methodically straightening their corners; How long would it be before Lotho discovered that his hard-won paper was a fake? Or would he?  Would he really keep it to himself, or would it end up in other hands? He tapped the edges of the letters a hard final rap and tied a ribbon around them before realizing that they were the garbage letters he had put out as props. He pulled the ribbon back off and dropped them in the wastebasket.

He didn't really think Lotho would pass it around; to do so would be to have to explain how he came by it. And besides, the tween was haughty enough to think himself very clever, therefore he would assume it was real... hm. Still, it would stand a bit of watching, to see.

He cleaned out the fireplaces quite thoroughly and gave everything a good sweeping, then went to the hall and gently lowered his blade to restore it to its proper place. The cool metal seemed to fit in his hand so well.

"Well, old fellow, what a time that was, eh? Not that frightening young riffraff is your type of work, but I appreciated it all the same."  He smoothed a finger along the coolness of the hilt, just feeling the familiar weight and balance of it for a few moments, then shook himself out of his reverie and lovingly wrapped it up, lacing it tight and snugging it into its place with the old, faded cloak.

With a silent farewell, as a parent might give to their sleeping child, he slid the drawer shut and locked it.

As he was placing his red lamp back into its accustomed place and opening shutters he noticed the light growing outside the window. The morning really was moving on apace - he best get going on the last part of his plan before it grew too late.  Leaving the shutters half opened, he quickly went down the hall to retrieve his pack from where he had dropped it the previous night. Slipping it on, he grabbed up his hat and walking stick. If he hurried, he would still have plenty of time to get around the far fields and come in from the other side of town before there were many folk about on the roads. 

He stuffed a bit of spending money in his coat pocket and headed for the back door, but stopped with is hand on the knob as he remembered the itching powder. A close call; he had almost been caught in his own trap.  He trotted back to the kitchen for a wet rag that he could carefully wipe it all up with, and that accomplished, tossed it aside to head out into the morning.  Even though he knew he hadn't got any of it on him, he itched for a while just thinking about it.  He scratched the phantom itch on his shoulder, then his side, then his leg... it seemed to keep moving. 

Keeping moving was one of his goals, of course, but he was thinking of his feet rather than itches. He scratched a couple more times then forgot about it as he cut through the back ways rapidly as he could, ducking through two orchards and climbing a short fence to reach the far end of the main track without being seen. Puffing slightly, he lightly jogged along a long hedge, crossed another dew-wet field and finally rejoined the path as it curved back towards Hobbiton proper from the east.

He paused to mop his reddened brow with his handkerchief and to catch his breath. There. Now he could be seen.  He began walking at a more typical pace for any passer-by to witness.  Passing a watering trough, he dabbled his fingers in the mud at the edge of it and lightly spattered his own breeches and the edges of his coat. Wouldn't do to be too clean if he had been traveling, after all...

Hoping to attract some small notice, he struck up a cheery walking tune, whistling and singing as he went lest the few folk up and about should miss him.  He knew there was a home coming up just past this hedge. Ah yes, he imagined them telling their friends, I saw old Bilbo Baggins just this morning. Looks like he's been off on another one of his journeys again, he was just coming back....

"Mmbllllaah."

He came out of his self-congratulatory reverie as he rounded the hedge to find a fat ewe curiously staring at him from her picket in the neatly kept yard.  She took a bite of the tall weeds she was apparently there to chew down and ground them placidly in her teeth. No hobbits were anywhere to be seen.  He paused and glanced around.  Just when he needed an audience... Well, there would be plenty of others as he came in towards the market. He nodded to the sheep, who dribbled weed-juice without comment, and continued on.

Humming and swinging his walking stick he made a point of greeting anyone he saw, even when it was only small children, or in one case just someone's backside sticking out of an overgrown bush they were trimming.  The sun was rising up towards the treetops by the time he reached the market square and it was already busy. He had figured it would be, though it wasn't a major marketing day; the local vendors and farmers had their customary stalls set up, overflowing as they were with the harvest-time produce.  Most were watched over by whichever family member they could most spare from the farm chores.  Harvest time was always busy.

Entering from the east, Bilbo decided to make a point of purchasing something from one of the first stalls he came to, which happened to be a cheesemaker. 

"Fine day for traveling, isn't it?" he commented to the sandy-haired fat-faced hobbit who remarkably resembled one of his own wares.

"Eh?" he replied. "Traveling? No further than I have to. Fine cheese this, good choice. Let me get your change for you... No, wouldn't want to go a-walkin' any more, these cheeses are heavy enough...

"Yes, I suppose they are. Good thing you didn't have to carry them clear from Michel Delving! It's quite a distance, I can tell you. Well, good-day." Bilbo took his change and the small round cheese he had purchased and began weaving his way through the various folk, very slowly progressing back towards his home, greeting and making small talk as he went. 

He had just chosen three small but firm cucumbers when he heard one of the voices he had been surreptitiously listening for.

He smiled at the hobbit-lady who was meticulously wiping the garden soil from the rest of her cucumbers with a bit of sacking, restacking them as if they were fine china, all the while tracking the voices behind him. "Fine day for traveling, but how glad I will be to be home," he said to her as she took his coin. "I'm sure these cucumbers will taste extra good after a long walk."  She nodded at him somewhat bemused, and turned to help another customer as he tucked them in his large coat pocket  Bilbo glanced around casually trying to see where they were....

Ah. There. Both of the Grubb boys and their mother, Opal, too. Very good.

He studied them for a moment. They all looked very tired, as if they hadn't had nearly enough sleep, the boys especially. He wondered why the boys were dressed as they were, their clothing appeared far too big for them, belted around their waists and draping from their shoulders voluminously. Young Rooty was tripping over the hem of his breeches as they caught on his toes. Their hair appeared to be strangely matted down.

As he approached them the lad's eyes grew wide. One went pale, the other blushed a bright red and both of them shied away from him, twitching.

"Eeeya." squeaked Rooty and half-turned as if he would have began to run, then stopped and hid behind his brother instead. Hatch was little comfort or cover for him as he himself was busy trying to hide behind their mother.

Opal was uncomprehending of their strange behavior and was quick to smack the nearest one a slap on the shoulder, a hen pecking her chick back into line. "Mind your manners!" she whispered and turned to Bilbo.

He nodded to her. "Good morning, Mrs. Grubb."

"Good morning - I'm so sorry, Mr. Baggins, I don't know what's gotten into them. And here they've already been grounded - they're having to spend the entire day with me where I can keep an eye on them after they ran off to gracious-knows-where last night, right when we had dinner guests too, and then the come into my clean house hollering that they're being eaten by bugs! Bugs! Can you imagine! What are my guests going to think of me as a housekeeper or a mother, if my children are ridden with fleas or lice or gracious-knows-what! Ach! So what am I to do with them?"

"I don't know," said Bilbo mildly. "What did you do with them?"

"Why, I had a houseful of guests and a dinner to tend, Mr. Baggins, I didn't do a thing! I gave them over to Mr. Grubb to deal with, of course, they're his sons, after all, and sometimes just as worthless around the house, I say. Gracious! And the hollering we all heard coming from that bathing-house after he got them in there, such a racket, you'd think he was killing them, and that before he'd even given them a strapping."

The boys hung their heads, their ears burning red at their mother gossiping about them out in the square this way. Bilbo almost would have felt sorry for them if he hadn't been enjoying their fate so much. He hoped they would at least think twice before ever following someone into burglary again.

"Well, they do look nice and clean this morning, Mrs. Grubb. Positively glowing with cleanliness."

She glanced over her sons critically. "They should, nigh on had their hides scrubbed off. Kept us all up late enough with the hollering and splashing and then having to air out their bedding and wash their clothes and all. I doused both of them good with mayonnaise in their hair too, to get rid of it. And nightmares too! And then we had to find clothes for them to wear to market this morning, with their own all still being wet and all. Good thing Mr.Grubb had plenty of extras. Where would they go picking up lice and such like that, I'd like to know."

Bilbo met Hatch's eyes. "Oh, you never know. A louse can be a persistent nuisance, Mrs. Grubb, you never know where you might find one, especially the larger varieties." He looked back up at their mother. "I do hope the rest of your day goes better."

"Well, it should, I should hope to shout. Kind of you to say so, Mr. Baggins..." her thoughts came away from her own troubles long enough to take in his own mud-spattered coat. "Oh, have you been away? I didn't know!"

"Just a bit of a jaunt, before the season gets colder you know. It's been fine traveling weather and I didn't want to let the opportunity go to waste."

"Really! Well, I'd love to hear about it..."

"Oh, nothing happening that's worthy of note, no, nothing of note really. I can see you have your hands full with your family obligations right now, so I'll bid you a Good-day, Mrs. Grubb," he said politely, and left them with a smile.

He continued on past a lad hawking birdhouses made from hollow gourds, dodged around a small wagon of corn and another of squash. He had just about given up on the idea of finding out Lotho's fate when Otho Sackville-Baggins came around the wagon's end, several of the small yellow squash balanced in his hands, as well as a basket of pears on one arm and a bunch of onions tucked under his other. Bilbo perked up more than he normally would have at the sight of them and watched with interest as Lotho trailed in behind.

Like the Grubbs, Lotho appeared to have slept very little. he had an untidy, rumpled look and his father wore a frown deeper than his usual day-to-day one. Otho's arms were filled, but Bilbo noted that he didn't use his son as a packhorse as was his usual habit. In fact, he didn't even speak to him.

Lotho limped along behind with a loose shirt, his hair matted down, his bright red hands and legs thoroughly smeared with his mother's home remedy, his ankle bound in strips that appeared to have once been one of Lobelia's aprons. He scratched feebly. Bilbo remembered Offal's comment that it was a remedy a person wouldn't want to smell, and as he came nearer he had to agree. It had to have some sort of fish oil in it to be quite that rank - and the crushed seeds and cucumber bits in it made it look exceptionally grotesque. Gnats circled the unfortunate tween, attracted to the scent and he waved his arms ineffectively at them. Neither of the relatives appeared to be in a mood to visit even if Bilbo had been one they normally would converse with - but he had seen enough to be content for now.

Well, perhaps one small jab. He walked up to them where they stood by the squash wagon.

"Good morning, Otho. Fine idea, squash. Must be a good price. I've been walking so long I'm famished, so everything looks good."

Otho grunted a greeting at him. "What do you care what price they are?" he said,  scowling slightly. He turned away.

This being de rigeur for Otho, Bilbo was unfazed. He stepped past them and picked up a squash, pretending to examine it, then glanced at Lotho as if just noticing him for the first time.

"Good heavens. Whatever happened to you?" he asked him.

He had to give credit to Lotho for keeping his face fairly unreadable. There was a scowl and a twitch, but little else to show what he was thinking. "Nothing my real family can't cure." he replied, "We can't afford fancy doctors, after all, but my mother...."

"Hush up." cut in Otho.

Lotho went silent, but managed to look briefly gloating and frightened at the same time., stemming any further contemptuous replies. Ah, thought Bilbo, he's shaken, but he still thinks his prize is real then....

"Well. I do hope you recover soon; no doubt Lobelia's doctoring is exactly what you need. Good day."

Turning back to the waiting farmer's wife who had been trying to appear uninterested in this exchange, he chose two long yellow summer squash and tucked them under his arm. He didn't really need any; his own gardens were overflowing with vegetables but it seemed the right thing to do after walking right up this way.  "Thank you, they look very nice." he told her politely.

He found himself toying with the notion of following Lotho as he trailed back the other way with his father, or going by the S-B's home itself but decided it would be much too unusual to go without comment. Since when did he go calling on Lobelia?  He took his change and turned to the Hill once more.

Smiling suddenly at the memory of  Lotho's frantic nighttime departure, he paused on the fringe of the market to purchase a pair of well-dressed hens as an accompaniment for the battered onions that he had used the previous evening. Some onion and sage stuffing would be just the ticket.  Would go well with his squash too. All it took was the right ingredients to make a pleasant thought.

His arms full, he headed home and cheerfully took himself straight to his kitchen. The chickens were stuffed and set to roasting for dinner, and the squash sliced up and layered with butter and pepper, ready to bake.  He had began wiping down the kitchen when he noticed the breadbox Louey had pilfered the night before and realized he needed to give thought to getting the rest of the cleaning done before someone...

The doorbell jangled politely.

He quickly whipped away the towel he had tucked in his shirt to keep his weskit clean.  Who could it be? Hopefully only a delivery - he wasn't ready for company yet.

"Just a minute. Coming!" he said as he shot his wet rag straight across the kitchen into the basin and trotted for the door. It better not be Otho... or the Gaffer. He wasn't sure what he was going to say about that windowbox yet... He opened it.

The lawyer, Mr. Egnog Banks, stood at his door. His brown coat, shiny pocketwatch chain and brown waistcoat, topped with a perfectly matching brown hat made Bilbo suddenly feel very untidy.

"Mr. Banks! Good morning..." he fumbled, he could feel his cheeks growing warm. 

The lawyer removed his hat. "I came as soon as I could, once I received your, hm, letter Mr. Baggins." he said. "May I come in?"

"Oh, of course, of course! Come right in. Please, let me hang up your hat and coat. Have a seat. I'll have tea on in a just a moment."

Mr. Banks stepped in over the rumpled floor mat and looked askance at the papers that still lay scattered about the parlour, the damp rag that had wiped up the itching powder laying on the floor where Bilbo had dropped it that morning. He sniffed slightly and wrinkled his nose but made no comment. Going to the parlour as indicated, he pulled out a seat, wordlessly removed a large pinecone from it and sat down to wait. In his business it was often wisest to simply hold his tongue. Confidentiality was part of what made his profession successful.

Bilbo, who had just swung the kettle over the fire to heat, winced slightly to himself. He had forgotten about the pinecone, which he had placed there on the off-chance Lotho might have a seat; he was quite grateful that Mr. Banks had not ended up sitting on it instead. He fetched down a pair of mugs, a small plate of soft butter and a basket of rolls then seated himself across from his waiting caller.

"I apologize for the disarray. But I am very pleased to see you."

"Hm. Pleased to be of service, Mr. Baggins. How can I be of help?"