1. Looking For Dragons
In all his wanderings, Gandalf had found no better way to rest than this: sitting against a sun-warmed oak tree in the gardens of Great Smials, smoking the finest leaf in all of Middle-earth, and watching the placid summer skies. In the distance, several hobbit children enjoyed a sumptuous picnic under the watchful eyes of their mothers, Adamanta Took and Laura Baggins. The Took's solicitor Mungo Baggins had been invited to bring his family with him while he spent a few days advising Gerontius on legal matters. Gandalf could hear the loud laughter of Adamanta and the smallest Tooks alternating with the giggles of the more subdued Baggins children.
Speaking of merriment, the squirrels in the old apple tree near his oak seemed to be very busy. Gandalf could hear some commotion in the apple tree's branches. He did not bother to look, for he could detect no evil creature, and he did not care to disturb wild beasts without good reason.
Thwack! A small, unripe apple hurtled down and hit Gandalf's hat. Fortunately, the hat resided not upon Gandalf's head, but on the ground within the reach of his hand. A good strike, though. The branches in the apple tree rustled again. The wizard heard new, high-pitched sounds that slightly resembled the chatter of squirrels but were made by no wild thing.
"Now you've done it! He'll be angry!"
"No, he won't! He's a good wizard!"
Children! The good wizard was more amused than angry. Young hobbits were usually well-mannered, content to stare at him with big eyes and cheer his fireworks.
"I heard you," Gandalf rumbled. "You may come down if you wish. I do not turn good children into frogs." He did not turn any children into frogs; but there was no reason to tell these rascals of his forbearance. He wondered which of Gerontius' great brood had the temerity to strike a wizard's hat. Perhaps the apple-thrower was young Hildifons, a cheeky lad who could not keep still.
He heard more rustlings, the sounds of little creatures moving swiftly through the tree. Then Gandalf saw a small hobbit shinny down to the lowest branch, hang from it, and then jump down some three feet to the ground with a whoop of victory.
As the hobbit bounded over to him, Gandalf realized, to his surprise, that it was a maid-child, wearing a smock over her dress and ribbons in her flying braids.
"Pleased to meet you, Master Wizard," the tiny girl said, bobbing a curtsey. She could not have been more than twelve years old, which placed her close to eight years of Men and nineteen Elven-years in the scale of growth. The lass was slender for a hobbit of her age, but fit, with a pink-cheeked, freckled face topped by reddish-brown hair. She was not a beauty by hobbit standards. Yet her lively features were appealing; and would remain so, Gandalf believed, throughout her life. The eyes that fearlessly appraised him were dark and merry. He could not help but be charmed.
"I'm Belladonna Took!" the maid informed Gandalf with a gap-toothed grin. Ah yes, this was Gerontius' oldest daughter.
Gandalf stood up and inclined his head. "I am Gandalf the Grey, young lady; at your service."
He reached out and pulled his hat closer, in case the hobbit-maid might decide to practice her marksmanship upon it once more. Gandalf was about to speak again, when a second hobbit clambered down from the apple tree, with considerably less ease than Belladonna. This one was taller and older: a hobbit-lad who stumbled slightly as he landed, then ran up and placed himself between the maid and the wizard.
"I was set to watch her, Sir Wizard," the boy cried; "Please don't blame her for the damage to your hat; I am responsible."
"And who might you be, lad?" Gandalf asked.
"Bungo Baggins, son of Master Mungo Baggins, Esquire, sir." The boy was shy and a little fearful, but held his ground. Gandalf liked that. He had met the lad's father, the solicitor Mungo, yesterday; and found him a dull and rather rabbity fellow.
"Well, then, young Bungo and Belladonna, sit you both down here and tell me why it was necessary to use my hat for target practice."
"I made the shot," Belladonna said proudly, alighting cross-legged on the grass with a flounce of her red skirt. Her companion knelt down, but remained between the lass and Gandalf. "Bungo wouldn't believe I could hit the hat and not your hands or feet, so I showed him! I don't think I bent or wrinkled it."
"No," Gandalf said slowly, turning the hat over in his hands. "My hat is undamaged. You, Belladonna, are a fair shot. Yet it is ill done to practice your skills on your father's unwary guests."
She had the grace to hang her head in acknowledgment of guilt. "I am sorry, then. Will you tell Mama?"
"It is not so severe an offense that I would inform on a friend," Gandalf answered with a grave smile. "But you should not throw hard objects at people and their belongings, unless the goblins invade the Shire again."
"Oh, do you think they will?" Belladonna asked, her eyes brightening. She ignored Bungo's sharp intake of breath. "My father and brothers will drive them off! Maybe they'll let me help!"
"Then I doubt any goblins will dare cross into hobbit lands; having doubtless heard of the prowess of the Tooks," Gandalf answered. His words would prove true if he had any say in the matter; for as occupied as he was with the affairs of the Great, the hobbits of the Shire were very dear to him.
"I will try not to throw apples at people, Master Gandalf," the little scamp swore. "Not even Hildibrand, and he pulled my hair last week."
"Very good of you, I'm sure," Gandalf replied. "Call me Gandalf. And tell me, what were you doing up in the apple tree?"
"We were looking for dragons!" declared Belladonna. "I heard you telling Papa about the dragons of the old days last night at dinner, and how there are still some left. Sometimes, when I climb trees, I can see a hawk circle high above. I hoped there might be a dragon. I know that dragons are bad creatures, but I'd still like very much to see one!"
"Have you seen any dragons, Gandalf, sir?" Bungo asked, his fear forgotten.
Something prickled the back of Gandalf's neck; a faint shiver at the thought of a hobbit actually getting close enough to a dragon to clearly see it. Bungo Baggins was clearly not the sort to go off looking for dragons! And Belladonna, for all her adventurous spirit, would find enough to occupy her in the Shire. No hobbit-lass had ever ventured farther than the Breelands, at least since the Shire's founding. But as he looked at the young hobbits, the premonition that he should never under-estimate their race grew stronger.
"Yes, Bungo; I have seen them." Gandalf inhaled a good draught of pipe-weed, blew out a fine smoke-ring and began to tell the children, in words that would kindle wonder as well as respect and fear, about the dragons.
Thanks are due to Larner, author of many outstanding fanfiction stories on this site; for beta-ing; and to Linda Hoyland for encouragement.
Bungo Baggins and Belladonna will eventually marry and become the parents of Bilbo Baggins; as most readers know.
Mungo Baggins' position as Gerontius Took's solicitor is my own invention, though it does not seem far-fetched.
It is implied in The Hobbit that Gandalf thought highly of Belladonna Took, and that they had a friendly relationship. Their first meeting is not recorded, but since Gandalf was also a friend of Belladonna's father, Gerontius, I thought it possible that a friendship between the wizard and the Old Took's daughter could have begun in her childhood.
The "Hildifons" who Gandalf mentions as a restless child is noted as having left the Shire on an adventure, never to return. Hildibrand, who pulled Belladonna's hair, is the sibling closest in age to her.