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Unexpected Homecoming, The: 1. The Unexpected Homecoming
Gandalf leaned on his staff for a moment and looked down at Bilbo. “What was that?”
“It’s time for second breakfast.” Bilbo reached into his coat pocket and pulled out some stale cram crumbs. He tossed them off into the road. “That will never do. I want sausage! Eggs! Cheese!” His mouth began to water at the mere thought of cheese and he wished he’d taken the time to buy some in Bree. It wasn’t as if he didn’t have the money.
Gandalf shook his head at him. “Barely a week since we have seen our first hobbit in many moons at The Prancing Pony and already you talk like a hobbit who has never left the Shire.”
“I barely count as a hobbit as thin as I am. Why look at these trousers.” Bilbo tugged at the waist, a huge gap where once they fit snuggly. “Hardly recognize myself. You should’ve told me before hand.”
“If you’d known how little food you were going to eat on the journey, you’d never have left,” Gandalf pointed out.
“I can’t deny that, but had I known I would’ve brought enough provisions for an entire army. Cakes. Strawberry preserves.” Bilbo closed his eyes, imaginary cakes piled high before him. “Those would’ve done nicely, though the trolls would’ve taken them before we’d even arrived at the mountains.”
“Next time you’ll be better prepared,” Gandalf said with a chuckle.
“Next time? Oh no, I doubt I’ll have another adventure. One was quite enough for me.” Bilbo trotted briskly up the next slope as if to prove his point by heading deeper into the Shire, the long arms of the wide world safely at his back.
He stopped, second breakfast forgotten. Before him lay Hobbiton. To the unaccustomed eye, the hills all looked the same. Green grasses blended into one another, rolling gently behind the next like waves on the sea. To Bilbo, each was distinct, each held a story and should he want he could have easily spent an age weaving the tales of each hill in sight.
There was the hill where the Proudfoots lived. And there were the fields where the Chubb brothers planted strawberries every summer. He could just smell them now. Not quite ripe yet. And glistening more beautifully than the Arkenstone held in sunlight was The River. And just beside it was The Hill. His hill. Home.
So overcome he was by the sight that he sang. A song of roads unending and the slow turning from one season into the next, of hardships faced and adventures end and returning home again.
Gandalf laid a hand upon his shoulder. “You have changed.”
Bilbo smiled. “As have you. You are not the wizard you once were. Or that I thought you were at any rate. There is quite a bit more to you than fireworks.”
“Perhaps.” Gandalf smiled.
“But it is what I like about you best,” Bilbo added.
Gandalf laughed. “Me too, Bilbo. Me too. Would that the world was such a place where I could do nothing but fireworks I should be happy indeed. Now let us get you home. You have been gone quite long enough.”
“So I have.”
And with that, they walked down the path that lead into Hobbiton.
“First, I shall make us some stew. Then I shall pull out some Longbottom leaf and a bottle of wine and I will sink down into my favorite armchair and let the rest of the summer go by.” Already he could feel the soft cushions of the chair beneath him, the smell of pipeweed in the air, his stomach contentedly full. Careless afternoons of listening to young Hamfast Gamgee putter about in his garden.
Bilbo strolled down the path to the bridge and gazed fondly at the mill and surrounding homes.
“Look! Saradoc still hasn't put up a new fence. The old one blew over in the big storm one….no,” Bilbo corrected himself. “I guess that would be two springs ago. I wonder what Ham has growing. He is an apprentice of Holman. Last year, he told me he had some new bulbs that he harvested from the forest he was waiting to try. But it’s strange isn’t it? Being back? It feels as if I never left.”
“Don’t be so sure of that. Whether you wish it or not, the Shire is not the same as it always was. I promise you that,” Gandalf warned.
“Nonsense!” Bilbo said, as he crossed the bridge. “Nothing changes in the Shire. Except perhaps the number of children that Marigold Hornblower has. She has more than anyone I’ve ever seen. Can you imagine? Ten of them running around!”
As he came to the end of the bridge, a gaggle of hobbit children ran past them, their arms laden with dishes. A cup fell to the ground and rolled to Bilbo’s feet.
“I think there goes one of them now!” Bilbo said. “What are they doing out this way? They live in the South Farthing.”
Gandalf leaned over and picked up the cup. Bilbo took it from him. “I have a cup that looks just like this. It has a little chip in it.” Bilbo turned the cup around following the intricate design along the top edge. “Right there! This is my cup! Those rotten Hornblowers! Acting like dwarves in Smaug’s cave, stealing my things!”
Bilbo raced towards his house. A noisy crowd had gathered outside, all pushing and shoving. Words of congratulations hovered in the air, as the throng of hobbits perused each others’ wares stacked so high in some hobbit's arms that it was quite impossible to even see the faces of the hobbits holding them.
"Good find!" one said. "Great deal!" said another. "The sale of an age!"
Bilbo wanted to grab everything in sight, but didn't know what to go after first. From the corner of his eye he saw his favorite set of butter knives. It was just too much.
“What is this madness!” Bilbo yelled.
A hush descended on the crowd. Several hobbit women gasped. One might have swooned. A spoon hit the ground and clattered.
“Why bless my poor sunburned eyes, it is you! Mr. Bilbo, we all thought you were dead!” The crowd parted to let Hamfast Gamgee step forward. His arms filled with Bilbo’s gardening supplies.
“Is it not enough I pay you to keep my garden, you have to go and steal my supplies right under my nose?” Bilbo asked, hands clenched at his sides.
“Your nose nor any other part of you, hasn’t been seen for over a year," Ham explained. "And I wasn’t stealing. Master Holman let me take time off from guarding your gardens to get them. I bought these. Purchased them at the auction. The notice was posted weeks ago.”
Ham pointed at the sign hanging on the gate.
Messrs. Grubb, Grubb, and Burrowes:
SALE BY AUCTION!
The effects of the late Bilbo Baggins Esquire
of Bag End, Underhill, Hobbiton
June 22nd – sale to commence at 10 sharp
"The late Bilbo Baggins? The only thing I'm late for is my second breakfast! Now, out! Everybody out!" Bilbo yelled, mustering as much anger as any hobbit had ever seen. For even hobbits could get angry if pushed far enough, especially on an empty stomach.
Around him hobbits scattered. They were more concerned with keeping their purchases than finding out where Bilbo had been for the past year. Besides, they all knew how fast gossip traveled in the Shire. Before day’s end they would hear the story whether they dawdled about now or not.
Bilbo pushed through the front door, agitated as he followed dirty footprints into the house. "Couldn’t they have at least wiped their feet?"
With the exception of some personal papers that gathered like fallen leaves in a pile where once his favorite desk stood, Bilbo's house was empty. Room by room, Bilbo examined the losses, shooing out any lingerers.
But what made Bilbo cringe the most -- what made him wish he was back hungry, wandering through Mirkwood forest battling spiders and goblins and elves, was what he found in his bedroom.
Lobelia and Otho, the Sackville-Bagginses, with measuring strings in their hands. Lobelia bent over, placing her end of the string on the floor.
Bilbo grimaced. If Lobelia Sackville-Baggins was a fright to behold from the front, it was nothing compared to the view from behind.
"The bed will fit here with just enough room for the wardrobe as well," she exclaimed.
It was a well-known fact that the Sackville-Bagginses wanted to get their hands on Bag End. Debate had raged for years as to whether Bilbo was the rightful owner of Bag End, and they had tried to trace varying family lineages back to the area in a feeble attempt to secure the house for themselves.
"And will there be room enough for me?" Bilbo asked. "After all, it is my bedroom."
If it hadn't been for the circumstances, Bilbo would have enjoyed the looks on their faces. Lobelia paled, pulling the string taut. Otho staggered a few steps, his enormous feet tangling in the string and he toppled to the floor.
"Y- you're dead! And this house is ours. So be on your way, spirit!" Lobelia said, rising up to her full height.
"I am no more ghost than you, and I am going nowhere," Bilbo said, then grinned. "You are welcome to stay. I have just come into a small fortune, you know, slaying dragons, getting treasure, burglaring," Bilbo said off-handedly. "But I could use a butler and a cook. You can have one of the outer bedrooms near the kitchen. I like my breakfast a little after sunrise. Eggs with just a hint of garlic."
Lobelia pulled Otho to his feet and pushed him towards the door. Apparently, there were worse things than ghosts.
Once gone, Bilbo trudged back into the living room. Not even a victory over the Sackville-Bagginses could lift his spirits. He walked to the spot where his favorite armchair once stood, not quite sure what do to with himself.
Gandalf ducked his head and stepped inside the front door, setting the large treasure chest on the ground. Beside it he set the bags of gold. “Looks like the entire Shire turned out for your return.”
“If only we had arrived home sooner!” Bilbo said. “If only we had gotten up a bit earlier.”
Gandalf tapped his staff hard on the wooden floor. The sound echoed hollowly throughout the room, jogging Bilbo out of his reverie.
Gandalf shook his head. “More souls have lost themselves to what ifs than all the plagues of Middle Earth combined. It is a useless effort and all you’ll succeed in doing is talking yourself in circles. Besides, I think it’s fitting. A clean start for the new hobbit that you have become since your adventure.”
“But I shall have to sleep on the floor!”
Gandalf laughed. “You have slept on the floor for many more nights before this one. Do not tell me that you have forgotten already?”
Bilbo’s hand went to his pocket, the ring warm in his fist as if it gave off a heat that came from within the gold itself. “No, I have not forgotten.”
“Good. Then here is where I say my farewell,” Gandalf said.
“Before you’ve had lunch?” Bilbo asked, horrified.
Gandalf laughed. “Yes. Even before that.” He knelt down to Bilbo’s level and studied him a long moment. “You have amazed me Bilbo. Who knew of what hardy stuff hobbits were made! It shall be our secret. Until our next adventure, at least.”
With a tip of his hat, he ducked out of the house into the sunlight.
“Well, that’s that then.” Bilbo said, to himself. Alone, he wandered to his pantries. If nothing else, the sight of food would be a comfort, since there was nothing else left in the house.
He pulled open the first door, to find it empty. No matter, he had stored away enough food for many winters, as was the way of all hobbits. Much to his dismay, the next pantry was empty as well. And the next.
Frantically, he ran down row upon row. All empty. The stores of wine – gone. The aged cheese – gone. Nothing was left. It was more than Bilbo could bear. His howl could be heard at the far end of Bag Shot Row. “They even took the food!”
For some time Bilbo sat on his front steps. His stomach growled. The sun had started to set. The Shire looked the same as ever, even if his hobbit hole did not. Before long supper would be served hot and fresh at The Green Dragon, and the beds turned down just waiting for guests.
The thought of supper was enough to get him to his feet and send him trudging down the road to the Inn.
Everyone else in the Shire must have had the same idea because the common room at the Inn was teaming with hobbits. Bilbo found a seat in the corner by himself and waited to be served.
Lily Cotton set a mug of ale and a bowl of stew in front of him.
“And I would also like a bed for the night,” Bilbo said as he reached for his spoon.
Lily wiped her hands on her apron. "Why, I am very sorry Mr. Bilbo, sir, but with the auction this morning, every bed and all the floors are taken. We don't have a speck of room left."
This was not he way he'd imagined his homecoming. No place to sleep for the night. Most of his belongings scattered to the four corners of the Shire. One glance around the room didn't help matters any. Barnabas Chubb was wearing his favorite vest, the one with the silver buttons. And Fastolph Bolger had on one of his fancy belts.
Bilbo took a long drink of ale.
Ham Gamgee slid into the seat across from him. “If you’re needin’ a place to stay, Mr. Bilbo, we’d be honored to put you for the night.”
“No, thank you, my lad.”
He appreciated the offer, but Bilbo tired of being a guest. It was exhausting. The need to be on ones best behavior, the inability to eat a snack at midnight in his dressing gown if he wished. He had been a guest for so long, and on the road for even longer, that all he wanted was the comfort of his own home. His own bed. Or at the very least, his own chair. Truth be told, Bilbo missed the armchair most of all. It was the center of his room, where he scribbled in his diary and gossiped with the neighbors and dozed with the sounds of the Shire drifting in through the window.
“Sorry about your things, Mr. Bilbo,” Ham said. “If you want, I’ll return your gardening supplies.”
“Don’t bother, my lad. You’re the one who uses them most anyway,” Bilbo said. “I don’t suppose you know who bought my armchair?”
“Why that’d be the Sackville-Bagginses.”
Bilbo almost choked on his stew. “You’re sure?”
"Yes sir, saw them both on their wagon heading back down the Bywater Road soon after you got back. Riding fast too, you must have given them a fright," Ham said.
"And my armchair was on that wagon? The red one?” Bilbo asked, leaning across the table.
"Sure as I've drunk my weight in ale," Ham said.
Bilbo reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of gold coins. A surprised murmur rushed through the Inn. "Take this, buy a round of drinks on me, good lad."
"Yes, Mr. Bilbo!"
Bilbo could put up with a lot of things. No food. No clothes. No bed to sleep in. Those things could be easily bought. But the thought of his favorite armchair in the possession of the Sackville-Bagginses was more than he could stand. The chair was irreplaceable. There was none like it. It had taken him years of hard sitting to get it to mold to the perfect contours of his body. No amount of money could replace it.
Who did all these hobbits think they were, anyhow? Carting off with everything Bilbo owned, laughing at his return from the dead like he was the Old Took himself on one of his absentminded wanders. They didn’t know who they were dealing with. He was more than just Bilbo Baggins, of Bag End. He was a burglar. And a professional one at that!
"And why shouldn't I go after it? I am a burglar after all!" And so, Bilbo finished up his ale and headed out into the warm summer night.
By hobbit distances, the Sackville-Bagginses lived a good day’s walk away. This took into account all meals that had to be eaten, and added additional time for all the visiting that would be required which was just as important, if not more so, than the destination itself. Bilbo, however, had grown accustomed to dwarvish walking and since it was night and there was no need for visiting, he crossed the two leagues to the Sackville-Bagginses' home in no time at all.
By the time he arrived it was well after midnight. Not a sound could be heard, except for the chirping of crickets. The house was dark.
The anticipation of what he was about to do made him near giddy. It was only after the fact, that getting the treasure from the Lonely Mountain had been enjoyable. This adventure was fun right in the midst of it. All he risked now was his reputation rather than his life, and he had never much cared for reputations to begin with.
He reached into his pocket and slipped the ring on his finger, and waited for the first few strange moments of going invisible to pass before heading towards the house.
Hobbits never locked their doors, so there was no need for elvish phrases or secret keys to get inside. All he had to do was open the door.
Since he’d been under cover of night on the entire walk over, his eyes were already adjusted to the darkness. One quick glance into the house and he saw it. There, sitting in the middle of the room, was his armchair. Surrounding it on all sides were various other items from his house. His silver spoons. His best wines. Several of his favorite books.
All he wanted to think about now was his chair, the rest he would worry about later.
It took some time to clear a path to the front door. The boxes filled with spoons were especially noisy and it took a very gentle hand and slow movements to clear the boxes away. Though with Otho snoring loud enough to wake the dead, Bilbo doubted that one of Gandalf’s fireworks would be enough to wake them.
Finally, he took the back end of the armchair and slowly dragged it to the front door.
Being invisible wasn’t as easy as it sounded. Bilbo stubbed his toe, and muttered some dwarvish curses under his breath. The snoring from the bedroom stopped. For long seconds Bilbo wondered if he’d been caught, but soon the snoring resumed its uneven noisy pace. Bilbo let out a sigh of relief. And with a few huffing pulls, he tugged the chair right out the door.
Pleased with his own brilliance at burglaring, Bilbo crept back into the house, silently thanked the Sackville-Bagginses for their hospitality and grabbed one of the bottles of wine to accompany him on his journey home.
What Bilbo hadn't considered was the journey back to Bag End with his armchair in tow. It was not the easiest of things to carry, big and bulky as it was. By the time the sun started to rise, he had barely gone half a league, though he had no trouble at all drinking half the bottle of wine.
He set the chair down in the center of the road, sat down and pulled some bread and cheese out of his pocket that he’d taken from The Green Dragon the night before. He ate his breakfast, enjoying the sound of the birds as they awoke.
Rory Brandybuck rode by in his wagon on his way to the market place.
"Good morning, wonderful day isn't it!" Bilbo said, cheerfully nibbling on a piece of cheese.
“Yes, yes it is indeed.” If Rory thought the sight of Bilbo eating breakfast while sitting in his armchair in the middle of the road odd, he didn’t say so. He simply continued on his way.
Bilbo spent the better part of the morning struggling over several of the steeper hills of the Shire. Occasionally passing by a friend or neighbor, he would take a seat in his chair and chat a while, resting his legs. He caught up on the gossip of the past year, and told a bit of his own tale, though by the sound of it, most of the hobbits had come to their own conclusions already about his adventures. And if the stories happened to be wilder or more fanciful than anything Bilbo could have told them, well, he didn’t prove them wrong.
If it hadn’t been for the weight of the armchair and the heat of the day, it would’ve been one of the most pleasant afternoons that Bilbo could recall.
Bilbo wiped his face with the red handkerchief. Then stopped and stared at it. It was made of the finest silk, one Elrond had given him. Thinking back on it from a distance, it hardly seemed that Rivendell existed. And it seemed even less likely that he should have a piece of it with him in the Shire. What a wide world it was indeed!
By late afternoon, when he made it all the way to the bridge, a crowd had gathered to watch his return. Word of his feat had preceded him and mumbling accusations followed him all the way up the steps to his house.
“'Twas his time spent with the elves that makes him act so strange. Queer folk they are.”
“Never should’ve left the Shire.”
“It’s not right, none of it. He’s an odd one.”
Bilbo walked up the steps and closed the door behind him, gratefully sinking down into his chair. From the comfort of his own home, the cushions were even softer than he remembered. The voices outside faded away.
So they thought him queer? An odd hobbit?
Let them think what they like. He dared anyone to go on a journey such as he had and not come back changed. He dared them to even survive such a journey. Not all hobbits would have made it as far as he had. The Sackville-Bagginses would’ve died of fright at the first sight of a troll. Of course, Lobelia might have looked so rotten that the trolls would’ve refused to eat her and let her go.
The thought made him laugh. So he did.
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