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6
The Invitation

Unlike most Tolkien writers, I don’t believe that Tolkien’s Dwarf women had beards, too. The Professor says they looked so much alike the males “when travelling” that no outsider could keep them apart – I took the poetic licence to decide that they wore fake beards.

The part about Bifur was originally Ro’s idea I fell in love with when reading “Of Fire and Stars”. There’s no canon proof about these three Dwarves visiting Bilbo so soon after the Quest of Erebor, but since they had to go this way to fetch their families from the Blue Mountains, I thought they would be a nice addition to the birthday party.

Hildifons and Isengar, the two Took adventurers, are canon characters, believe it or not.


~~~

PART SIX – THE INVITATION

It had been three months since Mr. Bilbo Baggins had returned to Hobbiton on the twenty-second of Forelithe, in the Shire year 1342 – after more than a year of absence, spent presumably seeking out adventures with thirteen Dwarves (who’d earned a rather questionable reputation in the Green Dragon, having made much noise and music and drunk an almost indecent amount of ale during their stay there) and that wandering old conjuror, Gandalf. He’d been riding a strong pony upon his return, and leading a second one, carrying some mighty big bags and a couple of chest with suspiciously clinking things in them.

The talk in Hobbiton hadn’t stopped ever since, which was no surprise at all, given the unusual circumstances of his… hasty departure. Everyone – well, almost everyone – had assumed that Bilbo had got in the worst kind of trouble out there, in the wide outside world that wasn’t very Hobbit-friendly, if you could believe the tall tales some of those restless Tooks spun who, too, got overwhelmed by wanderlust at times.

Of course, the fact that Mr. Baggins had a great deal of Tookish blood in him explained his… unreasonable tendencies. Still, one wouldn’t have expected something like that from a Baggins. Even less so from the Baggins, who was, after all, the head of a particularly conservative family of already conservative Hobbits.

As a consequence, Bilbo was no longer considered a safe Hobbit in the more respectable and reliable circles of the Shire, although the simple folk still considered him a warm one; more so as he remained fairly generous with them and their children. Which, in face of the fact what it cost to feed growing teens was an important factor, understandably enough.

The ones to keep the not-always-well-meant talk going were his cousins, Otho and Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, of course, who’d married shortly after his return… a reappearance with which they were still decidedly unhappy. They had done their best to have him declared officially dead, after all, and – as they were his closest kin and thus the heirs apparent – to lay their hands on his luxurious hole and on all his belongings.

“Why, if they hadn’t even hired Messires Grubb, Grubb and Burrowes to put Master Bilbo’s belonging on sale, so that they would have had enough room for their own furniture!” exclaimed old Missus Crabtree, livid with anger even months later. “And they had the cheek to question that he was indeed Mr. Bilbo after his return, they did!”

The Gammer was entertaining guests in her daughter’s home, at Number Three, Bagshot Row: a young nephew from the Goodchild side of the family, with his wife Paigle and their little daughter, Bell, who was barely more than a faunt, and ‘the sweetest child you could wish for’, as the Gammer repeatedly declared.

At the moment, the little lass was out in the vegetable garden of Bag End, though, watching Holman’s young apprentice, ‘that Gamgee lad’ working with the roots and taters. The young gardener-to-be had been ‘hilling’ or ‘earthing up’ long rows of vegetables for several days by now, and when visiting him to see how he was doing, Emro Goodchild – a gardener of some skill himself – was wondering what Mr. Baggins would need so much taters for.

“Why, the amount that must be growing under this piled-up soil would be enough to feed a large family through the Fell Winter,” he commented.

“Them aren’t all taters as is here,” explained Hamfast, using the chance to stretch his back a little, although he didn’t lay the hoe aside for such a short time. “It’s them strange roots Mr. Bilbo has brought with him from abroad.”

“What strange roots?” asked Emro, his professional curiosity now piqued. A self-respecting gardener was supposed to learn of any new edible plants, even the strange ones.

Hamfast Gamgee shrugged. “He got them from them Dwarves, Mr. Bilbo did. Seems to be some kind of green spargel, them does, only they’re white, not green. That’s what the hilling is for, Mr. Bilbo says: to keep ‘m all pale and tender.”

Emro shook his head doubtfully. Green spargel, as it grew wild, without the need of having tended to, was not considered a delicacy among well-to-do Hobbits. In truth, it was usually on the menu of the lowliest and poorest workers who had no chance to grow anything more refined, not having their own garden. That a gentlehobbit like Mr. Baggins would wish to grow it in his own prized kitchen garden was beyond Emro’s understanding. Mayhap Mr. Baggins had truly grown a little queer in the recent years.

“Dwarves would eat spargel?” he asked, not wanting to insult Mr. Baggins, but not being able to hold back his astonishment, either, for Dwarves, too, were known as a people knowing and valuing good food.

Hamfast shrugged again. “Got it from them Elves, or so Mr. Bilbo says; which is why they call it Elf-root. Mr. Bilbo brought some pickled ones with him, aside from the seedlings, to show how different they are. Holman didn’t like them none at first – not ‘til Mr. Bilbo cooked them in wine and served them in cheese sauce with ham, that is.”

“And?” asked Emro impatiently. “Them any good?”

“They’re not bad by half,” admitted Hamfast. “Not my cup o’ tea, it isn’t – I’m more for taters and mushrooms, meself. But for gentlehobbits with a refined taste… they ought to be good enough, I suppose. I wonder if Mr. Bilbo wants to serve them on his birthday party – if there will be any guests, that is.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Understandable as young Hamfast Gamgee’s concerns were about whether anyone would accept his employer’s invitation to the birthday party, he needn’t have worried. Hobbits might be a tad snobbish, especially those who were gentry, but they also loved food, particularly if it came from someone renowned for his culinary skills (as Bilbo had been all his life), and they loved it even more if the upcoming party would promise to be an excellent source for gossip. Bilbo’s announced birthday party promised both, and beside that the chance to see whether he’d truly gone completely mad, as Otho and Lobelia had been telling everyone for months, also counted as a powerful motivation.

Admittedly, there were still those who’d refused to enter his smial ever again – Missus Rubinium Bolger Baggins being the first of those – and there were some, like Bilbo’s uncle Longo and his entire family, who hadn’t even received an invitation to begin with. That simple fact hadn’t hindered Otho and Lobelia from showing up anyway, though, declaring that as Bilbo’s heirs they had every right to attend, even if their invitation, obviously, got lost in the hands of the Quick Post – a fact about which they had already submitted a complaint to Mayor Burrows.

Unlike his father, the Mayor himself had accepted Bilbo’s invitation, together with his lovely young wife (leaving their babe in the care of Arnica’s own old nurse), his sister Rubia and her husband Timmo Grubb, his brother Rufus, together with Asphodel Brandybuck, and several of Bilbo’s Took and Brandybuck cousins.

Even some of the younger Bagginses had decided to accept, despite Missus Rubinium’s public – and rather vocal – misgivings. There was Posco with his wife, Gilly and his sister, Prisca. There was Bingo’s son, Falco Chubb-Baggins, whose presence counted as particularly significant, as he was supposed to become the head of his mother’s family, as Chica Chubb-Baggins had no brother to inherit that title from her father.

Not half as significant, however, as that of Rorimac Brandybuck, the Master’s Heir, who came with his wife Menegilda, and who finally managed to get away from their familiar duties in Brandy Hall for a while; or that of Adalgrim Took, or any other o the Tooks, Brandybucks and Boffins present.

Fosco Baggins was, sadly, absent – presumably, his wife had forbidden him to accept – but his oldest son, Drogo, apparently dared to challenge his mother’s wrath, as he was sitting side by side with Primula Brandybuck and barely had eyes for anyone else. The two of them had quite suddenly fallen in love after Bilbo’s return and intended to marry as soon as possible – which meant at least several years yet to come, as Primula wasn’t of age yet, and Master Gorbadoc didn’t want her to become a child bride.

However – perhaps as a proof that Bilbo had truly begun to crack as the Sackville-Bagginses were whispering – aside from the respectable Shirefolk, there were also some rather… unusual guests at the dinner table. Considering the recent events no-one was truly surprised that Bilbo had chosen to invite his eccentric uncle, Isengar; the real surprise was that the Mad Took actually accepted, as he hadn’t gone to any parties since his return from the outside world, as far as anyone knew.

But even stranger than the Mad Took were the three Dwarves – broad and stocky all three of them, and one quite enormously fat and heavy, all three wearing richly embroidered tunics and breeches in dark gold or pale green, heavy boots and wonderfully crafted golden belts, into which their forked and braided beards were tucked. Although no-one bothered to introduce them to the Sackville-Bagginses, Otho and Lobelia soon figured out that their names were Bifur, Bofur and Bombur (with Bifur being the smallest, most slender one among them, and Bombur the enormously fat one who’d have put Lalia Clayhanger Took to shame), and that they had obviously accompanied Bilbo on his mad adventure.

“We are on our way to the Blue Mountains, to fetch our families and take them with us to Erebor, now that the Kingdom under the Mountain is ours again,” explained Bifur – who seemed to have a rather high-pitched voice for a Dwarf – although still a great deal deeper than that of any Hobbit – to the Mad Took. “And since the Road practically runs by the doorstep of our esteemed burglar, we thought it only proper to pay him a visit. It would have been most discourteous of us to do so, after all that he had done to help us.”

“Most discourteous indeed,” echoed the two other Dwarves in their deep bass voices in unison.

Otho and Lobelia exchanged identical blank looks. What burglar were these hairy barbarians talking about? And how could any self-respecting Hobbit invite them into his hole to begin with? For starters, they were a head taller than your average Hobbit, and took up a great deal of place. And then, everyone knew that Dwarves ate a lot, got drunk quickly and had no table manners whatsoever. Hobbits – especially Breeland Hobbits who mingled with lesser races anyway – might trade with Dwarves, but to invite them to parties, and that within the Shire itself… that had been, so far, unheard of.

Bilbo, however, gave Bifur a genuinely fond look.

“You’ve always been a flatterer,” he said, “but I thank you nonetheless. Well, it would be most discourteous of me if I kept you here with idle talk, while, as old Missus Crabtree tells me, dinner has been laid out for us. I’m sure you’re famished after the long journey from Erebor to here, all three of you.”

The Dwarves admitted that it was true, and Bilbo gave the sign of the beginning of dinner. There was a little turmoil as the guests relocated from the parlour, where they had been gathering, to the adjoining dining room, each of them trying to get there as quickly as possible in a more or less dignified manner… which, considering the number of guests, wasn’t an easy feat to perform. Rumours about the magnificence of the preparations for this birthday dinner party had been coursing the Shire for at least a week, so naturally, everyone was eager to see the results.

The fact that there had been no settings provided for the Sackville-Bagginses caused a little turmoil again – and some grins of evil satisfaction from the younger Tooks’ and Brandybucks’ side. But after the rearranging of the settings, room was made for them, after all… not that they’d be all too pleased by it, as they found themselves seated between the Mad Took and the enormously fat Dwarf – and a narrow and uncomfortable place it was – facing the other two Dwarves, whose beetle-black eyes stared at them unblinkingly for the longest time… ‘til the Mad Took had mercy with them.

Or so it seemed at first, anyway.

“My dear Bifur,” he said to the smallest Dwarf sweetly, “why don’t you make yourself comfortable? I’m sure nobody would mind – and for this one time your cousins would look the other way, I think. After all, you are in the Shire now, in the company of most polite and well-mannered Hobbits. What possible danger could threat you here?”

At that, Bifur finally blinked – and seemed genuinely surprised, although neither Otho, nor Lobelia could tell for their lives why.

“You’ve noticed?” asked the Dwarf uncertainly. “But how…?

The Mad Took shrugged, and there was a reflection of pleasant memories upon his weather-beaten face.

“I’ve spent many years in the outside world,” he said. “I know how to spot a Dwarf-dam, even though I’ve rarely had the honour to meet one.”

While the Sackville-Bagginses still glanced at each other stupidly, not having the faintest idea whatever a Dwarf-dam would be and why it would be so important, Bifur shot the other two Dwarves an uncertain look, as if asking their opinions.

The one named Bofur shrugged his heavy shoulders.

“He already knows,” he said, “and he is right: we are ii the house of a friend, surrounded by peaceful folk. So what does it matter?”

“Well, in that case…”

To the general surprise and heartfelt shock of all hobbits present – well, with the exception of the Mad Took, of course – Bifur began to scratch his face where that long, beautifully braided beard of his began, and then… then simply removed it, carefully draping it over the back of his – his??? – chair.

Even Bilbo seemed more than a little shocked, which – considering that he’d spent almost a year in the company of this very Dwarf – was surprising.

“Your beard…. It’s fake?” he asked, stunned. “But why on earth…?”

“Because she’s a female,” explained the Mad Took calmly. “Contrary to common belief, Dwarves don’t carve their children from stone. However, we should feel greatly honoured by the trust showed towards us by the Lady Bifur. ‘Tis almost unheard of that a Dwarf-dam would show herself undisguised to anyone but her closest kin.”

“A Dwarf… what?” asked Otho stupidly. The Mad Took simply ignored him.

“Dwarf women are few and highly respected,” explained Isengar, “and when they leave their homes at all – which is a rare enough thing for them to do – they clothe themselves like males and wear fake beards to their own protection.”

Bombur, undoubtedly a highly respectable and important Dwarf himself, despite his less than flattering looks, glanced at him with respect.

“You seem to know our people well, Master Took,” he said. “That is highly unusual for outsiders.”

“I used to travel with Dwarves from the Blue Mountains to the Grey Havens of the Elves,” replied Isengar. “They taught me much.”

“They also must have trust you a great deal,” said Bofur, “if they revealed such well-kept secrets to you. As rare as it is for a Hobbit to go off and seek out adventure, it is even more unusual for one to become a Dwarf-friend. In fact, I have only heard of one aside from you and your esteemed father: Bandobras the Bullroarer. Not to mention our friend Bilbo here, of course. I’d love to hear how it came to your friendship with my people.”

“Mayhap one day I shall visit your halls and tell you about it,” promised Isengar. “Right now, it wouldn’t be nice to keep these good Hobbits from their dinner any longer.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

This declaration was met with complete agreement from the other guests’ side, and thus old Missus Crabtree and her daughter, Sunflower, could finally begin to serve dinner, to the general satisfaction of everyone present. For Dwarves, albeit capable of going on very little food for a long time if they must, enjoyed a nice feast every bit as much as like any Hobbit – and a nice feast it was, indeed, the one Bilbo Baggins gave to celebrate his birthday; indeed, the nicest that anyone in Hobbiton had attended to for a very long time.

Many of the various dishes contained mushrooms, for Bilbo, just like his young cousin Drogo, was inordinately fond of them, even by the measure of generally mushroom-crazy Hobbits. There was a casserole made of mushrooms and taters and hard-boiled eggs, baked over with cheese sauce. There was poultry, cooked with ham in mushroom sauce. There was a salad of the finest greens and herbs with a vinegar of walnut oil, with pieces of roast mushrooms strewn all over it. And so on, until even the Hobbits were feeling that they’d had enough mushrooms for the next month or so.

After the first couple of courses, however, they paused a little to allow their stomachs to deal with the food. Holman Greenhand, who’d been hired with his entire family to help with the serving of the dinner, brought several bottles of the Old Vineyard from the cellar, and the talk soon turned to the production and enjoyment of various wines and stayed on that topic for a while.

Finally, when the guests seemed to have recuperated from the first courses, Bilbo gently knocked on his wineglass with a fork to get their attention.

“My dear friends,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for a special occasion to introduce you to something wonderful I’ve found on my journeys. This is the only thing I’ve ever found to come close to mushrooms in its excellence, and I find it a shame that no Hobbit has encountered it so far.”

All of a sudden, every Hobbit in the dining room pricked his or her ears. Almost as good as mushrooms? That had to be a rare delicacy indeed!

“I regret that I can only offer them pickled,” continued Bilbo, “as their season is in early Forelithe, and quickly over, at that. I hope, though, that next year we’ll be able to grow our own, and then you can enjoy the full flavour of it. But even so, it’s quite nice, so I decided to add it to the birthday menu. Missus Greenhand, if you don’t mind…”

Having waited for the Master’s signal during the whole speech, Sunflower Greenhand now begun to distribute warmed plates covered with the nicest ever silver half-globes among the gusts. As the globes were removed – and Lobelia’s quickly taken away, before she could find the right place to hide it for further use – on the plates lay some kind of pale white vegetables, shaped like small spears with flared heads, twice as long as a Hobbit’s hand and as thick as a finger. They were generously splattered with melted butter and served with ham and boiled eggs, cut into small pieces and golden-brown breadcrumbs roasted in butter. The scent was mouth-watering, and the eyes of the Hobbits widened in anticipation.

“This noble plant, believe it or not, is related to the common green spargel,” explained Bilbo, while Holman was refilling the glasses with a fine yellow wine, matching the exceptional dish. “The Elves call it asparagus, I think, in the Noble Tongue, while the Dwarves know it as…”

“Elf-root!” exclaimed Bombur, the fat Dwarf, excitedly as the plate was placed before him and the silver globe removed. “Wherever did you get your hand on Elf-root, you lucky Hobbit, you?!”

Not listening to Bilbo’s answer about how he’d got several sealed cans of the pickled delicacy on some Elven valley, the name of which she couldn’t have remembered anyway, Lobelia Sackville-Baggins glared at her plate suspiciously. She took in the shape of the vegetable, and thought to understand – which caused angry red spots to appear on her pale face.

“What an indecent name for any kind of plant!” she hissed in barely controlled outrage to her husband. “Your cousin has truly no shame to serve something like this to his own birthday party!”

Bifur, the female Dwarf, glanced over to her in surprise.

“Indecent?” she asked. “It’s called so for the Elves were the first to grow it; and it’s the Elves who usually sell it to us. Why ever would you find the name…?”

She trailed off, apparently seeing the root in a different light for the first time in her life. Her round face, now smooth and rosy without the fake beard like that of any Hobbit lass, suddenly became beet red with embarrassment.

“Really, Missus Sackville-Baggins,” she said stiffly. “I must wonder about the working of your mind. No self-respecting Dwarf would ever think of an Elf that way – not even the males!”

She paused for a moment, allowing her words to sink in, then delivered the final blow as sure-handedly as she had been wielding her axe in the Battle of Five Armies. Dwarf-dams rarely showed mercy towards those who’d insulted them, and Bifur of the BroadBeam Clans was no exception.

“Tell me, Missus Sackville-Baggins,” she said sweetly, “do you often have such indecent thoughts when looking at completely innocent food? And if it is so, have you thought of seeking out the help of a competent healer?”

The laughter that followed her merciless questions would follow Lobelia Sackville-Baggins for years to come. She never spoke to a Dwarf again.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The stories about Bilbo’s first birthday party after his unexpected return spread quickly throughout the Shire. For months, people were laughing over Lobelia having been bested by a Dwarf woman.

“You truly didn’t know she was a female?” asked Isengar Took his Baggins nephew after the Dwarves, too, had left fort heir former home in the Blue Mountains.

“How could I?” retorted Bilbo. “You know as well as I do that Dwarves are a secretive lot. It seems that all we’ve been through together wasn’t enough for them to trust me.”

“It wasn’t a particularly long time,” pointed out Isengar, “nor did you have much chance to discuss private things.”

“True,” admitted Bilbo grudgingly. “I wonder how many of them were females, in the end – and why did their fake beards never come off?”

“They use special glue,” explained Isengar, “some kind of gum made of the sap of certain trees. Not sure which ones, though.”

“You seem to know an awful lot about them anyway,” said Bilbo.

His uncle nodded. “I lived among them in the Blue Mountains for a while, before I want to the Sea. Seeking for my brother Hildifons, I was.”

“Have you ever learned what has become of him?” asked Bilbo.

Isengar shook his head. “Only that he supposedly went southwards, to Gondor, aboard one of the Elven merchant ships. He never came back; neither did the Elves he’d gone with, as they sailed to the Undying Lands from Edhellond, their southern haven near Dol Amroth.”

“Edhellond,” Bilbo repeated the word as if he’d tasted something delicious. “It means Elf-haven, doesn’t it?”

The Mad Took nodded. “The Falathrim – the Elves of the Grey Havens – say there’s a great tower in the harbour; one that can be seen from afar from the sea. I never was there myself, though. Worked with them Elves from the Grey Havens; helped build and repair their boots. Went out to the Sea with them, fishing.”

“What were they like?” asked Bilbo curiously.

His uncle shrugged. “They’re said to be different from other Elves; an older tribe that has always lived in the Havens. Their Lord, a decent old fellow named Círdan, has a long grey beard that reaches down to his knees, he has. Only Elves who grow beards live in the Grey Havens; them are a strange lot, ‘tis said. Fight with axes in a battle like them Dwarves, I heard. Never got into a fight with them, though.”

“Elves who grow beards?” said Bilbo doubtfully. “It’s hard to imagine.”

“Takes them a real long time, it does,” explained Isengar, “but the Lord Círdan is mighty old. The oldest of the lot, they say. Was born before the Sun and the Moon, he was; when there were only the stars on the dark skies, and no other light.”

“Older than the Sun and the Moon?” repeated Bilbo in awe. “And a seafarer, is he? I wish I could meet him one day. I wish I could see the Sea myself.”

“Who knows,” said Isengar after a long pause, “mayhap you’ll get your wish one day. You know what they say about being right careful what you wish for, though. You might get more than you can stomach.”

~TBC~

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