Bang! Bang! BANG! The sound of the knocks echoed across the hillside.
The green door shuddered in its frame but failed to yield. Bungo might have been useless in every other respect but Bag End had been his finest work.
The thought only enraged Lobelia further. She hammered harder on the green door that had been so close to being hers. “Bilbo Baggins! I know you’re in there!” She banged out another series of hard knocks, eyes darting to the leaf-obscured bay window, the meticulous garden beyond.
Movement caught her eye and she turned in time to see a curtain fall back in the smial down the lane. Bell Gamgee, the impertinent upstart. The year Bilbo had left Bag End in their hands had given them ideas above their station. Lobelia had a right to Bag End, no matter what they said. The Thain should never have given their words so much weight. What did they know of Bilbo’s fitness as a Baggins?
Lobelia glared at the cosy little smial, its garden as well manicured as Bag End. When Bag End was hers, they would learn their place. Bilbo had been sickly since his return. And with no children, Bag End rightfully belonged to her.
Soon, she hoped.
Lobelia raised her fist to knock harder, only to fall forward as the door finally opened.
Bilbo peered out at her from behind the door with reddened eyes. He was pale and thin, his hair hanging almost limp over his shoulders. If what Lobelia had heard was true, he had barely gone outside since his return. Unsociable. Bilbo was even odder than before he had run off on his unnatural adventures. Running away with dwarves! Bilbo had always been strange with his interest in the other races. Unbalanced. Now he looked like he was teetering on the edge.
And ill. The hand that grasped the green door was almost skeletal, trembling around the wood.
Maybe she could convince the Thain that Bilbo should stay with Primula. The stupid girl would be willing to take him in, leaving Bag End to Lobelia…
“Lobelia.” Even his voice sounded dead. Bilbo’s hand had tightened on the door, as if he was going to slam it shut.
Lobelia sneered, stepping forward and wedging a foot in the doorway. “You might fool the others, Bilbo Baggins!” No one shut their door on Lobelia Sackville-Baggins. She pushed forward, forcing Bilbo to stumble back, and made her way inside. “They say you’re too unwell for visitors but I know Hamfast Gamgee was visiting you this morning.”
Gladys Chubb had told her about Hamfast’s movements at lunch. That he had visited Bilbo early morning. And that he had stayed for morning tea.
Bilbo’s mouth tightened, his dull dazed gaze suddenly turning into a sharp stare.
Lobelia cut him off before he could say a word. She wasn’t going to give him the chance to use his silver tongue. “Surely you remain enough of a gentlehobbit to invite your cousin in for tea.” She gave him a sharp sweet smile.
Bilbo’s expression twisted – not at all happy to be caught in a corner. But even wild and and quite obviously unbalanced after cavorting with elves and dwarves, he still clung to his stubborn Baggins arrogance/pride. He wouldn’t refuse her now, Lobelia reflected smugly, when his reputation lay in tatters. Not if he wanted to preserve the respectable facade of Bilbo Baggins of Bag End. Not without starting more rumours.
And from the look on Bilbo’s face, he knew it. He stepped back, clearing the doorway. “Will you join me for tea, Lobelia?” It sounded like the words were spoken from between grit teeth.
Lobelia swept into the hallway proper, turning her nose up at his ink-stained attire. “Very well, cousin.” Even as she spoke, Lobelia’s eyes roved the foyer. The mighty beams and high ceiling with its fancy iron chandelier. Belladonna’s glory box stood nearby, on mocking display. A haughty proclamation of wealth that Bilbo always flaunted. But the chests that Bilbo had brought back were nowhere to be seen.
He must have hid them. And if Bilbo was hiding them, the chests must have been filled to the brim with dwarven treasure.
Treasure that Lobelia firmly intended to get her hands on.
“Well?” Lobelia turned to see Bilbo was simply standing there, his gaze fixed on Belladonna’s glory box.
On the scratches she had spotted at the auction. Scratches! Bilbo didn’t deserve Bag End with the carelessness he displayed!
Bilbo cleared his throat, turning away. “This way.” His voice was rough, his shoulders slumped.
Lobelia sneered at his back – she already knew the way, thank you! – and scanned the corridor. Noting the strange objects that had appeared since Bilbo had returned. More books and an orc helmet of all things! A dirty oversized tunic, frayed and stained with dark patches. Lobelia wrinkled her nose. Dwarvish, no doubt. A tangle of leather and metal sat tucked in a corner.
Lobelia would clean out the dirty trinkets as soon as possible. And that study Bilbo always holed up in – a waste of a perfectly situated room! – would be cleared, the tattered books sold for the highest price, the rest thrown into the fire. Lobelia almost wished Bilbo would be around to see it.
Maybe he would if her next morning tea with the Thain went well.
Bilbo led her down the corridor to the dining room and Lobelia kept an eye out for the trunks. She didn’t see them but Lobelia knew they were tucked away somewhere. There were all kinds of hints to Bilbo’s new wealth. Belladonna’s prized plate that he had bought back for a small fortune. Bungo’s small carving of the party tree that had gone for only slightly less.
The wealth and riches of Bag End on display, just out of touch. It made Lobelia grind her teeth in frustration.
And then Bilbo led her into the dining room, gesturing for her to sit down at the table where a meagre pile of scones sat on plain plates. Bilbo might have come back from his wretched adventure with poor appetite – his clothes practically hung off him, it was unnatural for a Hobbit! - but it was an insult to try and afflict the same thing on her. With the added offence of presenting it on his least expensive crockery. Like she was a Bolger, not a Sackville-Baggins; at all!
Her eyes narrowed. He was doubtlessly withholding Belladonna's good Westfarthing china, like the silverware that was hers.
“I would like some tea.” Lobelia gave the old pot-for-one sitting on the table a disdainful look. “The Old Took’s brew would suffice, cousin.”
Bilbo’s eye twitched. He opened his mouth, no doubt to say something clever-
“If you can remember where it is, cousin.” Lobelia cut him off sweetly. “After all, it’s probably been a long time since you’ve had some proper tea.”
He actually flinched at that, shoulders drawing in and making him look even smaller, an almost stricken look on his face.
She’d hit a nerve, Lobelia thought with satisfaction. Punctured right through his smug all-too-clever façade.
Lobelia watched as Bilbo hurriedly left the room, almost tripping over his own feet, one hand pressed to his mouth. After waiting a moment to be sure he wouldn’t be returning any time soon, Lobelia made her move.
Easing silently from her seat, Lobelia crept across the room and out into the corridor. There was only one room where Bilbo would have hid the chests.
Lobelia eased down the corridor, scowling at the silver candlestick too large to salvage. This time.
Within moments, she had slipped into Bilbo’s study.
It was as messy as ever. Piles of books stood teetering against walls and alongside the desk. The small bronze statuette depicting a tempting cluster of mushrooms that Lobelia had coveted for decades was, as always, high out of reach. No doubt placed up on that niche by the wizard. His relationship with Belladonna had always been peculiarly close.
Lobelia scowled and scanned the room, looking for the chests she had seen so briefly. They had been small but she had not doubt they were crammed full of gold and jewels. She had seen the small ruby Periwinkle Brandybuck had won with her own eyes. There were more. And Lobelia was determined to have her share.
Papers. Books. Desk and side table. There was no sign of the chests. Lobelia’s eyes narrowed. Bilbo was clever, clever enough to divide his treasures. Her eyes fell on the desk and a small smile bent her lips. But he always kept them close at hand.
Scrunched balls of paper littered the floor and Lobelia kicked them aside as she made her way to the desk. Various papers sat on top, a frenzied scatter to hide whatever was underneath.
Lobelia tossed them aside, only to scowl at the map that lay beneath. Bilbo’s neat handwriting covered the span of mountain chains and forests. And in one corner, above a small dragon hovering over a mountain.
Lobelia snorted. The nerve to have claimed to have travelled so far when Bilbo probably hadn’t gone much further than Bree. Facing a dragon? He had likely gotten his treasure from the dwarves' pocket, not some mythical treasure hoard.
Lobelia tossed the map to one side, only to stop in shock when she saw the parchment that had lain beneath it.
A dwarf stared back at her. Eyes fierce and piercing below lowered brows. Long wild hair with barbaric braids flowing down past his beard. He looked like a savage but someone had tried to soften the lines of his face, to make him appear-
Lobelia let out a sound of disgust. Bilbo had lost all sense of respectability. The filthy dwarvish clothes were one thing, but this? Keeping the portrait of some savage dwarf half hidden in his study? Hidden away like some shameful secret…
A pile of papers caught her eye.
Lobelia shuffled through the new papers; distracted scrawls and lines that made her stomach turn. Unfinished letters. Pleas for forgiveness. Love letters.
She had a good idea of what Bilbo had been doing with those dwarves now. What he had been keeping secret.
But Lobelia knew about it now. She knew the depth to which Bilbo had fallen. Following some dwarf around until even he had become disgusted and cast him out.
Lobelia’s eyes narrowed. This only proved Bilbo was unfit to own Bag End. This was beyond perversion. Bilbo wasn’t even a Hobbit anymore.
Skin prickling with revulsion at the implications, Lobelia shoved the portrait aside, trying not to even touch it. The letters, which she had dropped in disgust, she refused to even look at. Instead she began to thrust aside other piles, looking-
A glint of colour caught her eye. Lobelia thrust aside a pile of accounts only to let out a gasp as parchment slid aside.
It glittered in the dim light. A flash of jewels, far larger that the tiny fragment Periwinkle Brandybuck had flaunted. Deep green and blue amid the icy flare of diamonds, set in delicate silver. Lobelia had never seen anything like it.
It was more than a trinket. It was a gift worthy of a queen.
Or a king’s mistress.
Lobelia’s mouth twisted. Dwarvish gift or no, it was worth a fortune. And if Bilbo had simply left it lying around, he deserved to lose it.
No doubt he had more.
A sharp jab between her shoulderblades stopped Lobelia mid-reach. She jumped, spinning-
To find Bilbo standing eerily silent behind her, his ridiculous sword in hand.
It didn’t look so ridiculous pointed to her throat, sharp edges glittering malevolently in the light from the window.
“Bilbo.” Lobelia took a step back, the desk pressing into her skirts and parchment scattering to the floor. She scrabbled at the desk, pretending to catch her balance. If she was quick, she could palm the bracelet, Bilbo none the wiser.
“Don’t.” The hard word froze Lobelia a finger’s breath away from the glittering piece. Bilbo gestured with the sword and Lobelia slowly stepped away from the desk.
Bilbo kept the sword trained on her as he stepped toward the desk. His mouth flattened as he saw the mess of papers strewn all over its surface. He picked up the portrait and carefully set it on the centre of the desk before he reached for the bracelet.
“It’s time for you to leave, Lobelia.” Bilbo’s eyes were cold when they fixed on her. As he spoke, he fastened the bracelet around the wrist of the hand holding the sword. He did it easily, with only one hand as if he had done it thousands of times before.
There were tan lines on his wrist, Lobelia suddenly realized. Faded lines that fit perfectly with the bracelet that now hung on Bilbo’s thinned wrist.
Lobelia’s face twisted. “You may have fooled the others, Bilbo Baggins, but I know what you did with that dwarf.”
Bilbo’s eyes widened in surprise and Lobelia hissed with satisfaction. “It’s unnatural. Disgusting! No wonder the dwarves cast you out, no better than a thieving whore! And you have the gall to come back to the Shire, like you belong here-”
Lobelia’s mouth shut with a click.
Bilbo’s eyes were cold, his face frozen in a mask of rage. “Now.”
Lobelia took a step. And then another. She practically ran from the room, feet slapping against the wood floors, reaching out for the front door.
She froze, hand on the door handle. How had Bilbo followed her so fast? She hadn’t even heard him.
“If I ever hear you talking about my Company-”
Lobelia’s face twisted to hear the possessive affection in his voice. As if he was proud of what he had done.
“-or any other dwarf,” his voice had lowered to a dangerous calm. “With less than respect, know I will tell the Thain exactly what you have done these past two decades.”
Lobelia wrenched the door open and raced down the steps, taking them two at a time. The gate banged open and she didn’t stop to close it. She didn’t stop until she was down in the valley, out of sight of the hill. Grasping at one of Violet Bracegirdle's fence posts and breathing hard, her pulse fluttering in her throat.
Mad. Bilbo was mad.
Mad enough to carry out his threats no matter what it did his reputation.
Lobelia straightened and raked back her hair, tucking lank strands up under her lopsided cap.
But she knew now. Knew exactly what he was.
Her lips thinned. There was more than one way to get her hands on Bag End.