1. Food, food everywhere (and not a drop to spare)
Disclaimer: The Hobbit is owned by J.R.R. Tolkien, etc. Not me. I'm only dabbling my unworthy fingers in his magical world.
"Bother, bother, bother!" thought Bilbo, barely clearing the gates back into the Elvenking's palace before they snapped shut behind him. His cloak had been a whisper away from getting caught between the heavy doors and only a sprightly jump through the opening had saved him from near strangulation. "Magic gates are all very good and well if one has to keep out hungry spiders, but must they be quite so unfriendly towards hungry hobbits too? It's not as if I've set my sights on roast leg of elf!"
His stomach rumbled as he trudged back through the airy halls, leading him to imagine what a roast leg of elf might actually taste like; but the thought of eating one of his fair 'hosts' made him turn quite green.
Imagine! A leg of elf! And how exactly would he come by it? It was very unlikely that any one of the tall immortals would gladly part with a limb just to sate his hunger - which meant that if he had been so inclined, he would have had to come by it forcibly, and that would involve some very un-hobbit-like stabbings and choppings …
"I'd much rather eat my own leg, if it came to that," mused Bilbo. "It's all very well pricking a nasty, hateful spider without so much as a second thought, but an elf?"
He glanced downwards, wondering what roast leg of Bilbo might taste like. Not that he could see his own legs whilst wearing the magic ring - indeed, he could not see any part of himself. But he could feel his feet beneath the limbs as he padded silently over the twisting paths of the halls. If he were entirely honest with himself, though, the thought of feasting on his own leg was every bit as disturbing as feasting on an elf's. Besides, how could he be expected to slip quietly through the Elvenking's palace or get to the dragon's stolen hoard on just one leg? He would have to hop all the way to the Lonely Mountain! Bilbo the Hopping Hobbit. What a fine name for a hungry fool!
Elven song floated down the corridor ahead. Bilbo dismissed all thought of possible one-legged adventures as he approached the large hall to where the elves he had followed back from the hunt had carried their bounty. The rabbits and deer they had caught were being prepared for a feast to celebrate the birthday of the king's youngest son. Coming to a halt a few feet from the brightly lit chamber, he watched as they skinned and boned the meats, then sliced and diced and chopped and minced; and oh my! The smell of venison and rabbit turning on spits or stewing in pots almost made him faint! And while his mouth watered and his stomach cried out for something (other than the odd crusts of bread he had been pilfering from his unsuspecting hosts for the past week), their merry tribute to the king's son rang in his ears:
Greenleaf! Greenleaf! Fair and bright
Merry shall you be this night!
For a feast we now prepare
For Elvenking's youngest heir!
Bread and roll begin to rise
Golden delights for your eyes!
Venison and rabbit stew
We cook now to honour you!
Rosy fruits from forest trees
Golden honey from the bees!
Wine and mead and port and ale
Goblets full to make you hale!
"Well, isn't that a fine thing!" huffed Bilbo crossly. "It's quite bad enough that I have to smell what I can't eat, without hearing all about what else I'm missing out on!"
He briefly debated leaving the elves to their preparations and paying Thorin a visit in the deepest dungeons instead, but quickly dismissed it. No, he would much rather remain by the kitchens and pretend he was gorging himself on rabbit and sticky fruits, than be subjected to yet more grumbling because he had not yet thought of a plan to free all thirteen dwarven prisoners.
Bilbo stole into a dark corner a few feet from the brightly lit chamber and sat on the floor, fervently wishing he were back in his own hobbit-hole and sitting in his own warm kitchen with a pork-pie or three and a freshly baked seedcake; or perhaps a mince-pie with roast potatoes, peas and gravy? Then again, roast mutton with gravy was always delightful …
No! Not roast mutton. Not any more. Or at least, not for a good long while - those dreadful trolls had quite ruined his appetite for the delicacy!
"Confusticate and bebother!" he thought, very put out that he could not even enjoy the thought of a leg of mutton any more.
And whose fault was that? Not his! No, it was the dwarves' fault! If he had known before leaving the Shire that he would lose all desire for mutton because of this little adventure, he may very well have refused to become their burglar and told them to keep his share of the treasure to themselves, thank you very much!
Circling his arms around bent legs, Bilbo clasped his hands together and rested his chin on his knees. This burglar business was all becoming a bit too much for him, truth be told. Tookish proclivity for adventure aside, the entire journey was little more than one mishap after another - most of which seemed to revolve around him becoming someone else's dinner! First the hungry trolls, then the hungry goblins, then (for him at least) the hungry, sneaking Gollum, more hungry goblins (riding equally hungry wolves) and, finally, hungry spiders!
And they hadn't even reached the Lonely Mountain yet, where, according to the dwarves, a ferociously ravenous, dwarf-eating dragon awaited them!
"I wonder if old Smaug eats hobbits too?" he thought dismally. "But then, why shouldn't he? No doubt I shall seem a tasty treat to him after swallowing hundreds of Thorin's tough, bearded ancestors. Well, I shall soon be the first to find out, if I don't take care when I burgle him."
If he ever burgled him. At the rate things were going, Bilbo and his dwarven friends would be trapped in the Elvenking's halls forever! Not that he was in any particular hurry to discover the extent of Smaug's appetite; but at this precise moment, it seemed slightly more preferable than wasting away in the dark corner of a foreign palace. Why, even Thorin was better fed here than he was. As were Dwalin and Balin, and Fili and Kili, and Dori, Nori and Ori, and Oin and Gloin, and Bifur, Bofur and Bombur - and they were all prisoners!
It was enough to make a hungry hobbit feel very put out indeed!
"Oh, what's the use of sitting here and wasting what little energy I have left feeling cross?" thought Bilbo. "If I'm so anxious for a proper hobbit meal I should do something about it!"
But what? That was the question at hand.
"Well, I have three options open to me: either I can leave Thorin and the others to their fate - which isn't so bad actually. After all, they are well treated by their captors. Perhaps the lodgings could be fairer, but they haven't been harmed and they are fed three times a day. How many prisoners could say the same?"
He mulled over the thought for a few seconds before dismissing it. No; he would not abandon the dwarves to even this pretty prison - not when he had already promised to help them recover their treasure. It would be extraordinarily rude and very un-Baggins-like to desert them in their hour of need (and anyway, he was not entirely sure about how to get home without them).
"Option number two," he mused, scratching his knee idly. "I could take off my magic ring, walk right into the kitchen and allow myself to be captured …"
Hmm. Might that not be a little extreme? True, he would at least finally get a decent meal or three (per day!!), but it would be at the cost of his freedom. And the elves would not take kindly to the fact that he had been skulking through their halls for almost a week, spying on them. The Elvenking may even order his summary execution for the affront - though at least the elf lord did seem fair enough to offer the condemned a final request. But would Bilbo feel charitable enough at that time to request the freedom of his friends over the possibility of a last (huge) meal?
"Perhaps I shan't do that," he decided with a frown, not trusting himself to choose wisely enough when faced with certain death (and simultaneously possessing an empty stomach). "So, option number three: I settle for the next lonely crust of bread I find sitting at the next lonely table I pass on the way to the dungeons."
Oh, dear! The prospect did not exactly fill his hobbit heart with delight. Bread was all very good and well when it was hot from the oven and covered in melting butter (and a thick layer of raspberry jam), but it rather lost its appeal when it had been lying abandoned for hours on some well-fed elf's dirty plate.
After a long while lost in miserable thought, the merry sound of laughing and singing roused him from his silent dilemma. Bilbo shook his head and raised it to find a dozen elves departing the kitchen with silver trays of hot, dripping meat, warm platters of bread and vegetables, and a rather large pot of something that smelled suspiciously like gravy. They passed him by, their happy voices lifted in song, and he gazed after them wistfully, inhaling deeply through his nose and wondering if perhaps he could snatch a morsel without them noticing. But the elves were much taller than he was and, consequently, the trays they carried were too far from the ground for him to reach the treasures they held.
If only one of them would stumble and drop his load! That way, he could grab a tasty handful or two of roasted meat in the confusion that followed!
But the chances of a graceful, dextrous elf stumbling about clumsily in halls he knew at least as well as the back of his own hand was so remote, that Bilbo abandoned the thought as a bad lot.
He tracked them with his eyes as they made their way back down the torch-lit corridor, then sighed when they turned left and all the delicious food vanished from sight with them.
"Well then; bread it is," he muttered, feeling very sorry for himself as he stood and prepared to hunt down a solitary crust from a vacant chamber.
But, wait a minute …
Cursing his own stupidity (which he blamed completely on his lack of a decent meal - no self-respecting hobbit could think properly on an empty stomach after all), Bilbo's fixed his hungry gaze on the nearest vacant chamber.
Of course! All the elves had abandoned it to take their beautifully cooked dishes to the great hall, which meant …
"That it's empty!" he cried in delight, very pleased at the prospect of licking the gravy pot clean, or perhaps finding a slice of roast venison that they had not deemed fit for their prince. "Well, if it's not fit for their prince, then I shall thank him later for his discerning tastes, for it shall certainly be good enough for me!"
Thrilled at the prospect of venison scraps (with gravy, if he was very lucky), Bilbo crept towards the open door of the kitchen and cautiously stuck his head around it. To his relief, the room did indeed appear to be entirely empty of elves. How wonderful! It would be so much easier to burgle their stores without witnesses.
Delighted with his luck, Bilbo slipped inside. The kitchen proper was a vast chamber with three fireplaces; shelves were carved into the rocky walls and held stacks of plates, bowls and goblets; wooden spoons, sharp knives and metal whisks hung from hooks suspended from the ceiling, which he guessed were for the preparation of food. At the far end stood a carven door, slightly ajar - possibly a pantry, or so the hobbit guessed. In the middle of the room was a tall oak table, long enough for thirty hobbits to sit at comfortably (although thirty hobbits could never sit entirely comfortably with their feet so far from the ground). And upon that great table, just behind a stack of pretty golden plates and spoons, was a large silver tureen from which wafted the unmistakable scent of stewed rabbit!
Almost giddy with anticipation, Bilbo stole towards the table, wondering how to get up to it. There were no chairs available, but he did not wonder at that; elves would hardly sit to eat in the kitchen, as elegant as they were, and they hardly needed to sit to carve meat either. He did spot a metal bucket by the fireplace though and quickly carried it to the table (puffing all the way - it was very large and heavy) before clambering on to it and peeping over the edge of the table.
"Well, there's a fine thing!" he thought aloud, staring in wide-eyed wonder at the sight before him. "An entire pot of stewed rabbit and three trays of bread rolls! Why did the elves not carry them away too?"
Had they decided stew was not quite fine enough for the king's son after all? Perhaps they had simply cooked too much and left the surplus food for later? Or maybe they had simply forgotten the stew and would return for it? Not that it mattered to him - he would have happily sated his burning hunger before they ever came back!
With the most enormous smile on his face, Bilbo prepared to climb on to the table and stuff himself silly with stew and bread - he had, in fact, raised a leg onto the table to hoist himself up - when suddenly, a silvery voice made him jump in fright.
"Ho, ho! What have we here?"
Bilbo jumped so violently, that he slipped from the table, slid off the bucket, and landed with a soft smack! on the paved stone floor. Alarmed at the thought of capture, he rolled neatly under the table and watched from beneath it as a pair of green-clad legs exited the pantry and made their way towards the table.
How silly of him not to wonder why the pantry door was still open! But what had the silly fellow been doing in there when everyone else was heading for the feast? Searching for salt?
Whatever he had been doing, Bilbo thought no more about it when his eyes fell upon the bucket.
The elf would spot it for sure and wonder as to its purpose. Clearly, none of his equally tall friends required it to see over the table, so it was bound to make him suspicious …
Easing himself out slowly, the hobbit hooked his arms around the top of the bucket and lifted it. But he had quite forgotten how heavy it was: far too heavy to carry without lifting it by the handle - a handle that was now at the bottom of the bucket because he had turned it upside down to stand on in the first place. The weight took him by surprise and his arms snapped down …
The bucket was going to hit the floor! The game would be up: the elf would know there was an intruder! He would alert his friends and soon the palace would be crawling with sharp-eared elves hunting a hungry (if invisible) hobbit (much as they had hunted the deer and rabbits, though, hopefully, this time without the bows and arrows).
The elf had already pulled the pantry door firmly shut behind him and was now drawing nearer: Bilbo could see that from between the legs of the tall table. Knowing there was but one course of action open to him, Bilbo stuck one large, hairy foot under the bucket to smother the sound of its fall. His quick thinking saved him: the bucket missed the floor (though it landed quite painfully on his poor foot). Biting hard on his tongue (lest a yelp of pain give him away instead), he hoisted the bucket up more firmly in both arms and silently transported it (limping) under the table where he set it down carefully and took a seat upon it (to rub his aching foot).
"They have forgotten the stew!" said the legs, which had now arrived at the table (though, of course, he knew it was not the legs themselves that had spoken, but rather the elf they supported. Still, from this angle, it may as well have been the legs, for he could see naught else). "I shall have to take it after them, lest Prince Legolas fade without its herby goodness."
"I may well fade without its herby goodness," thought Bilbo in irritation as the legs wandered away for a few seconds, then returned. The hobbit heard the thud of wood against wood, then some small scrapes and more thuds as the tureen and trays of bread rolls were raised then lowered. With one fluid motion, the legs pivoted then walked away, and Bilbo saw they were connected to a slender torso with two arms and a head (of very shiny blond hair). As fascinating as the discovery of the rest of the elf was, though, it was rather overshadowed by the fact that said elf was walking away with a broad wooden tray of what should have been his dinner.
Feeling very put out, Bilbo dragged himself from under the table and pulled himself up straight. He brushed his cloak off and rubbed his elbow where it had banged against the floor before glaring at the elf's receding back.
What was he to do now? His splendid meal had gone the way of the venison and would soon be lining the stomach of a (very pampered) prince. As for him?
"I shall have to do without!" he muttered bleakly, casting his gaze back to the now-empty great table. "Unless …"
A very funny feeling came over him as he watched his dinner floating ever farther out of reach. A sort of tingly, reckless feeling.
A very Tookish feeling.
Normally, Mr Bilbo Baggins, Master of Bag End Under the Hill, was a very sensible sort of hobbit. He was a great lover of books, had the finest garden in all Hobbiton (and, therefore, the entire Shire), stocked his larder with goods bought fresh from the marketplace every Monday (apart from his mushrooms and turnips, which were specially delivered to him by Farmer Maggot's youngest lad every Tuesday afternoon), took excellent care of his hobbit-hole (for a bachelor), was both kind and generous to his neighbours (particularly to his gardener Holman's young apprentice, Hamfast Gamgee, who was showing great promise in the garden), and he never did anything unexpected or foolish. As a result, Bilbo was held in very high regard by all his neighbours and fellow Shire-folk (except for the Sackville-Bagginses, who were, in his opinion, a thoroughly bad lot).
But his fellow hobbits would not think him so respectable now if they could see him; trapped in the Elvenking's palace and skulking about like a thief; overcome with the very same Tookish tingle that had got him into this mess in the first place (or was it the burning heat from his empty stomach? He could not say for certain), His plain hobbit sense had deserted him the moment he had rashly decided to leave the comfort of his cosy Smial and join thirteen dwarves and one (now absent) wizard on a rather silly quest to find treasure (buried under a vicious dragon, of all things). And it was deserting him again as he watched his stew disappearing from sight. He was now very far from the rolling green lands of his comfortable home and farther still from his share of dwarven gold; he had evaded consumption by trolls, goblins, Gollums and spiders; Gandalf was long gone on some jolly adventure of his own (and no doubt enjoying six square meals a day while he was at it), the dwarves were imprisoned in the cellars of an angry elven king (but still enjoying three meals a day more than Bilbo) while he was left to wander the halls of this vast, earthy palace feeling cold, lonely, hungry and thoroughly miserable.
"Well, I shan't stand for it any longer!" he vowed firmly. "Hobbits were not made for adventures. Or starvation. The adventure I can do little more about; like it or not, I am quite in the middle of it, and the way backwards is equally as long and dangerous as the way forwards. I may as well stay and finish the job I was hired for, if I ever think of a way to free those silly dwarves. But I can't do that on a stomach lined with little more than bread crusts - and few of those to boast about! I am for a hot meal this evening, and a hot meal I shall have, come what may!"
And with that, Bilbo slipped out of the kitchen and crept silently behind the tray-laden elf, hatching a clever scheme to get that which his heart desired more than gold or renown or the good opinion of his fellow hobbits: a very large bowl of steaming hot rabbit stew.