In a flat above a small grocery in Linlithgow, there lived a hermit. Not a nasty tip of a flat, filled with the filthy dishes of a bachelor, nor yet an empty, sterile modern wasteland with nothing comfortable to sit on and only mineral water to drink. It was Bilbo Baggins’ flat, and that meant comfort.
Mr. Baggins was an entirely respectable man. He was the proprietor of the little shop, Bag End, which he had inherited from his father and from his father’s father before him, and he lived in quiet contentment in his tidy, warm flat. He kept to a strict schedule, managed his shop with as little contact with outsiders as possible, and maintained his figure as best he could with a daily walk around the quiet streets of Linlithgow. Once a year or so, he would travel as far as Edinburgh to stock up on specialty items for the holidays, and he considered that about as much excitement as a man might need.
His customers considered him a trifle odd, and were known to hide smiles behind their hands as they left his establishment. They were mostly fond of him in their own way - him with his mop of curly hair and mobile face, and uncanny ability to creep up behind potential shoplifters just as they were about to lift an item and politely murmur that if there was anything they needed, he was at their service. Mr. Baggins had lived above Bag End for fourteen years, since his father’s untimely death had brought him home from uni to manage the family business. The Tesco down the street didn’t seem to touch his business, and there was talk in the town council of having Bag End declared a cultural establishment. Bilbo Baggins was a prosperous man, content in his own life - and had you suggested a bit of adventure, he would have stuttered rather violently and asked if you might prefer a nice assortment of cheeses which he would be happy to show you.
So it came as an unpleasant surprise when the old man appeared at the door of his little shop, looking for all the world like he’d just been pulled from a dustbin. His clothes were old and tattered, in varied shades of grey, and he smelled less spring-fresh and more like the stoop outside the all-night takeaway around the corner. He didn’t fit in Bilbo’s usual view of the type of people who came through his door, and he was immediately uncomfortable. He cleared his throat once, then again, hoping the man might stop staring discomfitingly at him and shuffle away to bother someone whose produce hadn’t just been alphabetised.
After a long minute, his years of professional cheerfulness and hospitality took over, and he pasted on a smile. “Good morning!” Bilbo ventured cheerfully.
The old man snorted at that, shaking his head. “Bilbo Baggins. That you should have come to this.”
“I-” Bilbo began, opening and shutting his mouth rather like a goldfish. “I’m sorry? Do I know you? And I’m - I’m quite happy as I am, thank you!”
The old man ignored his question, wandering a few steps further into his store and looking around with sharp eyes, muttering under his breath. Bilbo wavered at the door, torn between following him and perhaps slipping out the door and hoping the man would vanish as suddenly as he had appeared. “You’ve done well enough for yourself, I suppose,” the grey man grumbled after a minute. His thick eyebrows drew together. “For a grocer.”
“There’s no shame in being a grocer,” Bilbo said stoutly, rocking back and forth on his heels. “My father and grandfather before me were both grocers, and fine upstanding men they were, too.”
“And your mother?” The sharp eyes turned now on him, and Bilbo swallowed, feeling like he was being examined inside and out. “My dear Bilbo. I don’t think she would have liked to see you end up like this.”
“My mother doesn’t come into it,” Bilbo snapped.
“There are things coming.” The man’s voice dropped low. “Things are beginning to happen, Bilbo. The violence in the cities? The stories the media will not tell? There are things coming that you need to be prepared for.”
“I think I am quite prepared enough!” Bilbo couldn’t help the way his voice went up as he tensed at the man’s words. Did he mean them as a threat? His hand crept to his pocket and grasped his mobile nervously, ready to ring for help if the man became dangerous. “Now, if you please, I’ll help you with any purchases you would like to make before you leave.”
“I think I have found what I was looking for,” he answered mysteriously. “And I must be off. I have messages to send, but I will be back, and then we must talk at length.”
“Err, certainly!” Bilbo’s agreement came quickly, unasked by him, in his relief at seeing the old man make for the door. “Any time! We can go to the Chinese down the street or something.” He hesitated a moment. “I’m sorry, but what was your name?”
“The ruffians in your street usually just call me Greybeard,” he said with a strange smile. “But you may call me Gandalf.”
“Gandalf, then,” Bilbo said. Cheered by the idea that the strange old man was leaving, and feeling more confident now that he had a name, he dared to smile more widely and bob his head at the old fellow in farewell. “Yes, let’s have a meal! Any time!”
Gandalf chuckled and shook his head, and made his way to the door. The business part of Bilbo’s brain kept a sharp eye on the man’s hands until he left the shop, needing to be certain he hadn’t lost any valuable little items into the baggy sleeves or pockets of the man’s long coat. He shut the door behind the old man gently, breathing a sigh of relief as the gentle jingle of the door bell assured him that the unnerving visit was truly over.
There wasn’t that much mystery to the man after all, Bilbo told himself as he closed up shop that evening. He was clearly a vagrant of some sort, down on his luck, and more than likely suffering from some sort of mental instability. His mentions of Bilbo’s name and his mother were clearly meant to evoke a sort of camaraderie that he could later draw on for a hot meal. Bilbo was well enough off not to begrudge that to a kindly old man, no matter how strange he might be; the Chinese a few doors down did a good takeaway anyway. If the man ever did bother to return, they could share a meal, and he would account the cost as part of his charitable givings for the year.
Bilbo swept a quick eye over the headlines of the papers that hadn’t all sold that day, sighing a little at the bleakness evident in the world. “More gang violence in Edinburgh? Environmental terrorism? Whoever they are, these Sons of Durin, I don’t like the sounds of them.” A quick shudder wracked the little grocer’s body, and he shook his head. The police were offering their usual assurances that they were in pursuit of the antisocial elements behind the recent spate of crime, but Bilbo was simply happy that it was unlikely that this unsavory activity would make its way to his sleepy little town.
Bilbo made his way out of the shop, locking it up carefully behind him, and then opening the next door over and disappearing quickly up the narrow stairs leading to his flat. Absorbed in the bright glow of his mobile as he checked for email updates on shipments that he was waiting for, Bilbo didn’t see the angular little sign that had been carved into the dull green paint of the door that led to his flat, barely visible in the low street-lights. And he didn’t see the pair of dark eyes watching him intently from the shadows across the street.
The Sons of Durin were coming to Linlithgow.