Bella started, dropping her book into her lap. Annoyed at the interruption, not to speak of the loss of her page, she looked up, and up, and up, her angry expression melting into one of stunned surprise.
“Good morning!” she stammered, quite taken aback to see such a tall and shabby-looking traveller standing so casually in front of her fine hobbit-hole.
“Belladonna Baggins, I believe? It’s a pleasure to see you again,” The stranger said, smiling.
“Bella,” she said, then bit her tongue. She abhorred rudeness, and the man, no matter how odd, had spoken kindly to her. “I prefer Bella,” she said again, in a lower voice.
He looked at her with gentle eyes. “Of course,” he said. “You always have.”
“I beg your pardon,” Bella said, attempting to regain her composure. “You seem to have me at a disadvantage.”
He laughed. “Most people could say the same. But perhaps I can help you, in this case. I am Gandalf, and Gandalf means me.”
“Gandalf?” she gasped. “Not the Gandalf who was friends with the Old Took so long ago! The one who told such excellent tales!” This was shocking indeed. Gandalf, if that’s who he really was, had not been seen in the Shire for years, since the passing of the Old Took. She had vague memories of Gandalf, whom everyone claimed was a wizard, from the big family parties she’d attended as a girl. He was reknown for his fireworks, and sometimes Bella wondered if she was the only one who remembered that he told the most magnificent stories, ones about far-off places, where secret princes undertook impossible quests and lonely travelers found riches beyond imagining. Could he have returned?
“The same!” Gandalf replied. “And, Bella Baggins, I am looking for you.”
Stranger and stranger, she thought. “What can you mean!”
“I am looking for someone to join in on an adventure,” he said quietly, crouching down a bit, as if he didn’t want to be overheard.
“Oh! An adventure!” she whispered, because this was scandalous news. It wouldn’t do to have the neighbors find out. “Outside the Shire?”
“I should say so!” he answered.
“Further than Bree?” she asked, eyes wide.
“Well beyond,” he replied.
She leaped up, and took a step towards him, her book forgotten on the bench. “How far?”
“Further than you imagine. Further than any hobbit has traveled in your lifetime.” Gandalf smiled at her. “Would you care to discuss the matter further?”
Her face fell, and her shoulders slumped, dejectedly. “I… ought not.”
“Ought not?” Gandalf repeated, incredulous. “Since when have you cared for what you ought or ought not do? To think I have lived to be ought notted by the daughter of Belladonna Took!”
“See here, Mr. Gandalf!” she said, drawing herself up to her full height. “I have been scolded enough in my time that such a tone does not cower me. I will not be managed, not by my relatives and not by you, either! Good morning!” And with that she snatched her book and headed towards her door.
“Whatever do you mean?” Gandalf said, more pleasantly, stopping her in her tracks. “For it cannot be a good morning when I’ve made such an old friend so upset.”
Bella sighed and turned back to him. “Forgive me,” she said, “for I have been very unsociable today. But I cannot participate in your adventure. It would be most improper. Perhaps if you had come twenty years ago, or even ten. Not now.”
“Why not now, dear Bella? What happened to the young hobbit that loved maps and tales of faraway lands?” Gandalf said, gently.
“She grew up, I suppose, as we all must,” Bella said, clutching her book tightly and looking at the ground.
“Must we?” Gandalf asked, gravely.
“Yes,” Bella said, more firmly now. She looked up at him. “I have been reliably informed that I must, at the least. So you see, I cannot go on any adventures. But I hope you will come to tea, tomorrow.” She walked the rest of her way to the door, but stopped with one hand on the knob. “Please,” she said, turning to Gandalf, who had not moved from the path. “Please, come tomorrow. In fact, come tonight! I have a fine supper planned, and I would dearly love to hear some of your tales again.”
“I would,” he said slowly, as if lost in thought. “But I had planned to meet with someone. A foreigner. Adventuring business, you understand. Another time, perhaps. I’m sure I shall pass this way again someday. Perhaps another few years.”
“Oh! Do bring him!” Bella said, excitedly. “I would love to hear of his travels, if you think he would not mind.”
“I think you would hear a great many stories, if I had my meeting here tonight,” Gandalf said, enigmatically.
“Oh, you must,” Bella pleaded, quite taken with the idea now. “I insist on it!”
“Very well,” Gandalf said. “You’ve convinced me. Best make it a hearty meal, however. No doubt you’ve heard of the legendary appetites of dwarves.” And then he was off, moving down the lane at a brisk pace.
Bella stood frozen, hand still on the door. “Dwarves,” she gasped. Then she turned, dashing inside for her shawl. She had to go to the market immediately.
Dwarves were uncommon, though not unheard of, visitors to the Shire, so this was not as great a predicament as it could have been. Bella’s father, Bungo Baggins, had been something of a scholar in his time, and had stocked Bag End with an excellent library, including many books about dwarves. Bella herself had always been partial to Elven literature, and rarely paid the etiquette volumes any mind, but she was a tidy little soul, and it was a matter of moments to find the book she wanted.
Dealings With Dwarrows: A Guide to Dwarven Castes and Customs, she read, settling into her favorite armchair. It was a large book, and quite heavy, and she wouldn’t have time to read even half of it before she had to start preparing supper. Happily, the first hundred pages or so seemed devoted to Dwarven origins and family trees. Later, she promised herself, she would look that over, as she was quite interested in history and genealogy, but for now she skipped ahead to Dwarven Etiquette.
Dwarves, she read, were a hardy folk that preferred to live in and under stone mountains. They were artisans and crafters that traded gems and metalwork for things like food and cloth, as they had few farmers or weavers among their numbers. Their smiths and carvers, however, were considered the best in the world, often devoting themselves to their craft with a focus and intensity not seen in other races.
One need not be over-concerned with table manners, the book went on, as most common dwarves did not study such things. Dwarven feasts were sloppy affairs, with the guests helping themselves to any food they wished, and often interrupting the meal to sing and dance or fight, as the mood struck them.
Bella frowned. Would her dwarf (for she already felt a bit proprietary about her upcoming guest) behave so? He was certainly welcome to any food in her pantry, for among hobbits it was considered the worst sort of rudeness to leave one’s guests hungry, but she preferred he not dance on the table, as one illustration depicted. Perhaps, she thought, she ought not put out her best dishes.
The book suggested that dwarves were not picky eaters, though they preferred meat and bread over greens, and after an hour or so reading, Bella felt quite prepared enough to do her marketing. She stood, leaving the book on her chair and straightening her shawl. On a whim, she flipped to the first page and glanced at it as she planned her shopping list.
Warning! the page all but shouted at her. She stopped, turning back to the book and giving it her full attention.
Under NO circumstances should one offer a gift to any dwarf! Among dwarves, gifts are given only among family (or as a sign of courtship, if given through an intermediary, see page 302). To gift anything to a dwarf is a terrible presumption, as it implies a familial connection, or the desire to create such a connection. Items shared among dwarves are considered loans, the length of which may last generations (food being the exception, as it obviously cannot be returned. Hospitality is expected to be reciprocated, however). Should a dwarf offer you something, the appropriate response is to thank him for lending it, and to return it at a convenient time. If he clearly offers it as a gift, decline politely, unless you wish to allow him family privileges (see page 458). Should you accept, (not recommended) it is customary to acknowledge the honor being bestowed upon you.
Well! Bella frowned, closing the book and heading for the front door. Imagine, no gifts, ever! How terrible! Still, she was glad to know it. She would hate to offer something so insignificant as a button or a handkerchief, and unwittingly cause offense.
So she spent the day cooking. Being rather good at pies, she made six, half sweet, half savory. She put a pot of stew on to simmer, and set a few types of meat to marinade. Her afternoon was spent baking dozens of rolls and scones, and a few other desserts (she dearly hoped her visitors would stay late, and she was not above bribery). As the shadows lengthened, she grew nervous, and could only pick at her dinner. After the washing up, she set out a few of her best cheeses and smoked meats.
As she eyed her overflowing table, it occurred to her that she had, perhaps, overdone it. The thought did not trouble her; one did not often entertain guests from outside the Shire, and she would much prefer to have leftovers than to chance anyone going hungry.
As the sun set, she paced around the front hall, sternly forbidding herself from glancing out the windows every few moments. Belatedly, she realized she hadn’t thought to put on any of her nicer clothes, and she was briefly furious with herself. Sighing, she supposed it did not matter much; Gandalf did not seem overly concerned with propriety, and the dwarf would no doubt be more interested in the food than the mending near her hems.
A sudden, loud knock jarred her from her thoughts, and she ran over to the door. She paused there, not wanting to throw it open immediately and advertise that she’d been skulking about the entryway. But she could only wait a moment before pulling the door open, a welcoming smile at the ready.
She kept the smile on her face as she looked at the dwarf, but it was difficult. He was, without question, the most intimidating creature she had ever seen. He towered over her, nearly as tall as a man and almost twice as broad, and covered from head to foot in weapons and tattoos.
“Dwalin,” he growled jerking his chin up and down in a begrudging bow, “at your service.”
“Bella Baggins, at yours,” she replied automatically. They stood in the doorway like that for a few moments, before she realized she ought to let him in. Blushing, she stepped aside, and he walked past her.
“May I take your-” she started, reaching for his cloak, but he was already headed towards the kitchen, presumably following the smell of food.
He sat down at the table without so much as a by-your-leave, and started in on one of the meat pies. Part of Bella was annoyed at his lack of civility, but she supposed she could not take offense when the book had forewarned her. Besides, he looked like the type to have quite a few stories, and she intended to hear at least one or two before she let him out the door.
“So!” she said, brightly. “Do you know when Gandalf will be joining us?”
He shrugged, not looking up from his plate. Bella hesitated. Ought she sit and join him? It seemed improper to be dining alone with a strange man in her home. Yet surely it was even more rude to stand and watch him eat?
She was saved from deciding by a tap at the door. “That’ll be Gandalf!” she smiled, and ran back up the passage.
She opened the door and gasped. It was not Gandalf, it was another dwarf! An older one, from the looks of him, with white hair.
“Balin, at your service,” he said, as he gave her a proper bow.
At least this one knows his manners, she thought, as she replied politely. “Bella Baggins, at yours and your family’s. May I take your-”
“Brother!” Dwalin bellowed from the kitchen doorway. Balin smiled widely at the larger dwarf, and walked over to him. Bella thought they would embrace, and let out a startled squeak as their heads crashed together, but they did not seem to notice, being too busy catching up.
She then distracted by another knock at the door. Surely Gandalf this time, she thought, but she was once again mistaken.
The door opened to reveal two dwarves; “Fíli,” said the one with golden hair, “and Kíli!” echoed the darker one, as they bowed in unison. “At your service, Mistress Boggins!” Kíli finished.
She was quite tempted to slam the door shut again, but countless lessons in hostessing with her mother would not permit it. “Bella Baggins,” she nodded at them, not quite as graciously as she could have.
They did not seem to notice, as they were already making themselves at home. The shorter one, Fíli, was divesting himself of seemingly innumerable swords and knives, while Kíli, who had hardly any beard at all, was scraping his dirty boots on her mother’s glory box.
“If you wouldn’t mind,” she said, through gritted teeth, “that’s an antique.”
“Sorry!” he said, cheerfully, “I’ll just - Mr. Dwalin!” She did not know how it was possible, but he grinned even wider as he turned to greet his friend, tracking muddy boot-prints down the hall. Meanwhile, Fíli was looking for a place to store his weapons. Reflexively, she reached out her arms for them, but he shook his head.
“Bit heavy for you, I think, Mistress Baggins,” he said, lowering them to the floor near the coat rack. “Pity, I just had them sharpened.”
After that it was a bit of a blur; the door opened again and again as dwarf after dwarf arrived. They seemed to take no notice of her, though they greeted each other exuberantly and tucked into the food with gusto.
“Please sit down - can I get anyone anything - I beg your pardon, that is not a napkin!” Bella smacked the hand of whichever dwarf was wiping his mouth with one of her doilies. “That’s my crochet!”
“Oh aye?” he said with a wicked smirk. “Good game, I hear. If you’ve-” whatever else he was going to say was muffled as another dwarf clapped a hand over his mouth.
“Bofur, watch your tongue in front of our hostess!” the dwarf scolded gently. Bella smiled at him. “Mistress Baggins,” he said, “Please excuse Bofur. May I get you a cup of tea?”
“Sorry, Miss,” Bofur grinned, seemingly unrepentant, but he replaced the doily gently on her side table.
Bella was saved from having to answer by a familiar voice from behind her. “No tea, thank you Dori. A little red wine, I think, for me.”
“Gandalf!” she turned to him, hands on her hips. “What is all this?”
“Whatever do you mean, my dear girl? You invited us for supper, and here we are,” Gandalf said, taking the glass Dori had quickly fetched.
Before Bella could reply, one of the dwarves approached her hesitantly. “Excuse me,” he said, softly, his voice reminiscent of Dori, “I’m sorry to bother you, Miss Baggins, but what should I do with my plate?”
“Give it here, Ori,” Fíli said, plucking it from Ori’s hand. “Kíli!” he called, and tossed the dish down the hall straight at his brother.
Kíli’s hand was up even before he saw what was coming, as if this was a game they played often. He caught the plate easily, and threw it onward into the kitchen.
From the lack of smashing noises, Bella assumed someone caught it, but she was too stunned to go and see for herself. Another dish flew by her, then another. More dwarves joined in, and they seemed to be making a game of it; throwing them more and more dangerously as they sensed her distress.
“Stop that!” she cried. “What are you doing? Don’t-” She raised her voice as the dwarves began pounding her silverware on the table. “Stop! You’ll blunt them!”
“Oooh, did ya hear that lads?” Bofur winked at her. “She says we’ll blunt the knives.”
And they were off, as what she could only assume was the singing and dancing portion of the evening began. She had expected a song or two, and preferred it to a fight, which the book implied was the other option, but she hadn’t anticipated that their fun would come at her expense! She blushed fiercely as the dwarves flung her dishes from one corner of her home to the other, laughing at her vain protests.
By the time they reached the end of their tune, she was furious, and even the stack of clean dishes and the tidy kitchen did not soothe her. Just as she opened her mouth to throw all of them out, there was another knock at the front door.
All mirth vanished from the room. “He is here,” Gandalf said, solemnly. Startled by the sudden silence, Bella followed him to the door.
She went pass him, but Gandalf stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. He opened the door slowly, and the dwarf on the other side nodded slightly in his direction. “Gandalf,” he said politely, as he stepped inside.
“Thorin Oakenshield,” Gandalf replied, though it was more of a pronouncement than a greeting.
If Bella thought she had been intimidated by Dwalin, that was nothing to how she felt now. Though Dwalin was clearly a dangerous fellow, this dwarf had a grave manner, and none of the gruff amiability of his comrades.
He looked around, taking in his surroundings, and settled his gaze on Bella. She felt quite sized up, and it took every bit of her mother’s training to keep her from wringing her hands in her skirts. She wished, briefly, that she’d put on a nicer dress.
“So,” he said, already looking away. “This is the hobbit.”
It was a clear dismissal, and Bella, who was already frustrated with her visitors, was pushed into fury. “Bella Baggins,” she said, lifting her chin haughtily. “At your service.”
He turned, one brow raised at her tone. “She looks more like a nursemaid than a burglar, Gandalf,” he said, his eyes on her face.
“I beg your pardon,” she said, as coldly as she could, because that was an insult any way you looked at it.
“Have you any skill with weapons,” he said, changing the subject and speaking directly to her at last. “Knives? Swords?”
“Oh yes, I am quite the swordswoman,” she said, scathingly, because this was really too much. “Why, last time the Tuckborough army marched on Bree, I myself beheaded twenty big men, and maimed threescore.”
The corners of his mouth lifted a bit, she thought, though it might have been a flicker of the lighting. “Very impressive,” he said dryly, and headed towards the others in the kitchen.
“You will explain yourself, Gandalf,” she hissed.
He seemed unperturbed. “In due time,” he said. “In due time.”
At least the dwarves were quiet now, she thought to herself as they talked. She could almost piece together the conversation; Thorin was the leader, and the dwarves in the room where the only ones who would join him. She was quite interested, in spite of herself, and tried to sit unobtrusively and listen.
She was amply rewarded for her patience: an old map, a secret key, a lost kingdom and a people in exile. A dragon. It was the stuff all the best tales were made of, and if the dwarves hadn’t looked so serious and so sad, she would have thought it all nothing more than a story.
“And what do you think, Miss Baggins?” Gandalf said, interrupting her wandering thoughts.
She hadn’t been following the conversation closely, so she wasn’t quite sure what she was expected to weigh in on, and was embarrassed to be caught not paying attention. She stood, clearing the empty bowl and silverware from the table in an attempt to look busy. “Well,” she hedged. “I don’t understand what can be done against a dragon. I doubt it would make a difference to him if thirteen hundred dwarves had accosted my pantry tonight. But I still think poorly of the others for not coming. Your home should be your own again.”
The dwarves cheered at that, except for Thorin, who was watching her speculatively. “I would rather any one of the dwarves at this table than an entire army from the Iron Hills,” he said, turning to the others. “Loyalty. Honor. A willing heart. I can ask no more than that.” Another cheer, louder this time, and Thorin looked at Gandalf.
“Indeed?” Gandalf said, with a raised brow. Bella had no idea what he was implying, as Thorin had seemed sincere enough, but the dwarf seemed to take his meaning.
“Balin,” he said, looking back to the others. “The contract for Miss Baggins.”
Balin stood up cheerfully, patting his many pockets and finally producing a thick document, which was passed down the table and into the hobbit’s hands.
“What?” Bella said, because she could not think of anything else.
“It’s a standard contract, Miss Baggins, nothing terribly unusual,” Balin said calmly, as if this were quite the usual thing for him, which perhaps it was. “Give it a glance over, and let us know.”
“What?” Bella repeated, since she was no closer to understanding what was going on. No one answered her this time; the dwarves were talking amongst themselves, and Gandalf was blowing smoke rings as if he hadn’t a care in the world.
She looked down at the contract, as if it could enlighten her. Some words stood out: death, death, funeral expenses in the event of death, loss of life, loss of limb, compensation for loss of life and limb, next of kin notification, and oh, death.
She took a deep breath, and willed herself to be calm. Then she fainted.
“You,” she said, accusingly to the wizard.
“Excellent, you’re feeling better,” he said, serenely, straightening and walking over to her mantle. He seemed quite interested in some of the old family portraits, but Bella knew a feint when she saw one.
“Gandalf. Explain.” Her mother would be shocked at her tone, but there was nothing else for it. Clearly nobody was going to tell her anything unless she dragged it out of them.
“You seem to have fainted,” Gandalf said, moving to look at an old sketch of her father.
“Gandalf,” Bella said, overcome with exasperation. “Clearly this is all by your design. Why are these dwarves here? What do they want from me? What is this contract?”
Gandalf turned back towards her. “The contract is to secure your services as a burglar for the company of Thorin Oakenshield in their attempt to reclaim the kingdom of Erebor. I believe you’ll find the terms quite fair - a fourteenth share of any profits, and all expenses paid.”
Bella gasped. “A burglar? I am not a burglar, Gandalf! I’ve never burgled so much as a spoon in my life!”
“Nonsense,” Gandalf replied. “If I say you are a burglar, then a burglar you are! Besides, everyone starts somewhere.”
“I’ll wager that most do not start by stealing from dragons!” Bella said, furiously. “But even setting that aside, I told you! I cannot go on any adventures!”
“No, you told me you ought not go, which is another matter entirely,” Gandalf said.
“In the Shire, what you ought not do, you cannot do! Everybody already thinks me strange enough, Gandalf, for living on my own as I do! As it is, I cannot visit my relatives without hearing what an odd lass I am, or explaining why I’ve never married. If I wander off into the wilds with a group of dwarves I may as well not come back!” Bella cried, putting her hands up over her face.
There was silence for a moment, then Bella felt the air move as Gandalf crouched down beside her. “Would you want to come back?” he asked, very quietly.
Bella looked up quickly. Hope bloomed in her heart, and thoughts she had long since forced herself to put aside resurfaced. Tears stung her eyes, and she blinked them away. Gandalf did not avert his gaze, but he said nothing, giving her a moment to compose herself and order her thoughts.
She opened her mouth to speak, then closed it, then tried again. “...No,” she whispered, and there it was. The secret Bella had hidden for years and years was out now, and she felt lighter for it, as if a great weight had been lifted from her chest.
Gandalf smiled at her, almost blindingly. “Well, there you are.” He gestured towards her writing desk, where the contract lay waiting. “Sign it. Help the dwarves. Leave the Shire and begin again.”
“But Gandalf,” she protested, though she was already moving towards the desk. “What can I do against a dragon? Even if we succeed, what will I do afterwards?”
“Against the dragon you will do what you must. You may find there is more to you, Bella Baggins, than even you know. Let afterwards take care of itself.”
“Very well,” she said, though she had no idea how her voice was so steady. “Yes, I accept.” And, thus decided, it was easy enough to pick up her pen and put her name to it.