Bell Goodchild pulled open the gate outside of Bag End and stepped through, twisting to avoid knocking her basket against the post. The early morning sun cast a golden light over the Shire, but wasn't warm enough to make her uncomfortable. Her skirts brushed the sweet peas twining up the post, dislodging two blue and green butterflies.
The gate swung shut behind her with a thud. A smiling, ruddy face beneath a mop of brown curls appeared from behind a rosebush. "Miss Bell! Fancy us being here at the same time!"
Fancy it, indeed.
"Getting some extra pruning time, Mister Gamgee?" she asked. No matter what time she chose to arrive, the Gamgee lad always managed to be on hand.
Hamfast Gamgee blushed, although it was hard to tell behind his naturally red complexion. "Well, Mister Bilbo should have the finest roses, now shouldn't he? It's only right. Besides," he shuffled his large, hairy feet, "this bush grows just outside the kitchen. I figured, with you spending so much time in there, baking those delicious seed cakes and suchlike, it might be nice for you to have something pretty to look at while you're about it."
Bell gave a rueful smile. Hamfast Gamgee was so very thoughtful. She almost wished she felt any inkling of care for him, beyond the simple affection of a neighbor and fellow employee. It would make her father happy. It would make Hamfast happy. It would probably even make Bilbo happy. She could just imagine how he would light up with glee at the notion of his gardener and housekeeper setting up house.
"I'm running late," Bell said, by way of escaping before Hamfast could unconsciously make her feel even worse about herself. "Thank you for the kind thought."
"Say nothing of it, Miss Bell," he said, trying to bob a polite bow and accidentally sticking his head into the bush.
Bell crossed the last few steps to the door. Something odd caught her eye. A strange scratch. More than one scratch.
She bent and ran a finger along the bare wood where the paint had been sliced through. It almost made a letter, but not one she was familiar with. She nibbled her lip. It might be Elvish. Or Dwarvish.
Or nothing at all, foolish girl. She straightened and knocked on the door.
"Good morning, and no thank you!" came Bilbo's voice from behind the door. "I've told you already, I've no use for adventures!"
Bell cocked her head. "Mister Bilbo, it's me-Bell."
The green door swung inward. Bilbo slipped past her, puffing on his pipe in an agitated manner. He glanced up and down the path. "Did you see anyone?" he asked.
"Only Hamfast Gamgee. Mister Bilbo, didn't you just have your door repainted last week?"
Bilbo focused his attention back on her and blinked, as if finally noticing her for the first time. "Yes, of course I did. Why do you-" he looked down at her basket and his eyebrows raised. "What's that you've got there?"
"Oh," Bell said, distracted from her question. "Father was fishing this morning. He sent this trout along. Thought you might like it for your supper. I should put it on ice before it gets any warmer."
"Splendid! How very thoughtful your father is. Come inside," he herded her through the door. "I have to ask a favor of you today, Bell. You see, I've rather rashly gone and invited a . . . gentleman . . . to tea. I've eaten through most of the seed cakes. Do you think-if it wouldn't be too much bother-"
Bell entered the pantry and opened the lid on the ice box buried in the ground. She slipped the trout inside. "Of course I'll whip something together for you and your guest, Mister Bilbo. I was planning to do a spot of baking today anyway. I like to keep your larder full."
Bilbo rubbed a hand over his belly. "You do keep me well looked after. If you don't mind, I'd like to go into my library and catch up on some reading."
"You go straight ahead, Mister Bilbo," Bell waved him out into the hallway. "I'll just get your things laid out for tomorrow, then see about the cooking."
"Too kind," he mumbled as he vanished down the curving passageway.
Bell shook her head and smiled. A halo of golden curls had managed to work their way out of her braids, as they always did. They swayed, tickling her cheeks. "Whatever would he do without me?" she pondered aloud.
With a shrug, she disappeared into his bedchamber. It was a matter of minutes to pull out his usual Monday things and lay them on the dressing table. Lastly, she pulled out a pressed handkerchief, embroidered with an ornate 'B' for Baggins, and set it beside the pair of brown trousers.
Satisfied, she went back to the larder and gathered flour, sugar, eggs, and the other necessary items for an afternoon of baking. Outside the kitchen window, golden roses smiled in at her. She pressed her lips together to smother a sigh and turned her attention to her cooking.
Back in her own hole, much further down the hill along the eastern road, Bell finished her last slice of buttered toast and settled herself beside her mother's chest. She didn't open it often-too many things inside sparked painful memories-but she thought she remembered an old journal with notes on both Elvish and Dwarvish.
The mystery of the scratches on Bilbo's door had weighed on her mind, especially after she left Bag End. Bilbo had looked so agitated, and wouldn't divulge the name of the "gentleman" he was expecting to tea. And what was that he'd said about adventures before he opened the door?
Bell smelled a mystery, and mysteries were just the sort of thing to draw her attention. She tried to keep her Took-ish tendencies hidden, and most folks had forgotten the old bloodline on her mother's side, but it lay there nonetheless, waiting for moments to surge to the fore.
She found the journal beneath a stack of neatly-folded linens. Large and leather-bound, its pages had been filled, not by her mother's hand, but a grandparent, or great-grand, or perhaps even greater than that.
Bell pulled it free, settled it over her crossed legs, and set about flipping through the pages. She quickly discounted Elvish, but the shape over the scratches was definitely reminiscent of Dwarvish.
Daylight had faded enough that Bell had to light a candle to see by before she found a rune that matched what she'd seen on Bilbo's door. She followed her finger across to the far side of the page and found a translation: Burglar wants a good job, plenty of Excitement and reasonable Reward.
"Burglar wants a . . ." Bell leapt to her feet, nearly knocking over the candle. "Mister Bilbo!"
She grabbed her cloak and raced out onto the road. The nearly full moon hung low in the sky, giving enough light to see by. She hurried along the curving path but stopped short when she spotted a stranger standing in the middle of it, hands fisted against his waist, muttering under his breath in a language Bell didn't recognize.
Taller than any man she'd ever seen, his long, dark hair, laced with traces of silver, glinted in the moonlight. The drape of his cloak revealed broad-shoulders and a solid build. This was no hobbit, and from the tone of his voice he was more than slightly vexed.
Bell contemplated backing away on silent feet, but the mystery of a strange man-surely a Dwarf, for despite his height it was far from enough to be a Man-combined with the Dwarvish rune marked on Bilbo's door were too much to resist.
Her heart thudding against her breastbone, she moved forward. "Excuse me, sir. Is there anything I can do to be of service?"