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The Acceptable Sacrifice
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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66
66: A Conspiracy Stripped

66: A Conspiracy Stripped


Frodo looked up at the three Hobbits who faced him and the two Shiriffs who stood behind them. “So, although your names are on these contracts as the ones preparing them, you neither did so nor copied them?” he asked.

“I made two copies of this one, one of which was filed here,” the Grubbs lawyer said, “but this is the original, the one I was told I must keep for my own records.” He handed over a bound copy of a loan document. Frodo took and opened it, to find what was fast becoming an easily recognizable script.

“Why did you do this?” Frodo asked, although he had an excellent idea as to why.

“My son was one of those taken with Fatty Bolger. I was told if I didn’t, he’d not be fed and would be allowed to starve to death.”

“Why didn’t you come forward as soon as Groman was sent home to you?”

“The one who wrote this is still free, Frodo, and I was afraid he’d come after my family.”

“I assure you--he’s on the run at the moment but ought to be taken prisoner within three days--quicker if I know my Merry. Merry is very angry at what’s been done to Brandybucks and Brandybuck lands and property, not to mention what happened in the Marish and elsewhere throughout the Shire; he’s intent on taking Timono Bracegirdle.” Frodo changed his attention to the second lawyer.

“I was told if I didn’t present that, my daughter’s farm would be fired. Her husband was injured by the gatherers and sharers--no way would she of been able to get him out of there had the house caught. You know how heavy Londo is, Mr. Baggins--even with the help of the hands, they’d of never been able to move him to safety. And when I started to come to you last week one of the barns was set on fire.”

Frodo looked at the two Shiriffs, one of whom nodded support. “I helped put it out, Mr. Deputy Mayor, sir,” he said. “’Twas started with a torch, and not of wood from our neck o’ the woods.”

The third was Marco Smallburrow. His expression was more guarded than were those of the other two. “There were threats against my mother’s place,” he said. “You know how she’s been all alone since my dad died three years past--who’s going to look out for her?”

Frodo merely looked thoughtfully at the Smallburrow lawyer. Marco’s devotion to his mother was well known, as was his mother’s imperious treatment of her children and her long history of insisting that since she gave them birth they should always think of her comfort before their own. Marco’s sister Sissia had resented the constant demands on her by her mother, and had indicated in an extraordinarily public manner two years past at the Free Fair that she wasn’t putting up with it any more. Reports were that she’d been set upon and badly beaten by ruffians five months past as she was returning from market with some much needed milk, and that her home had been heavily targeted by the gatherers and sharers over the entire period of the Troubles.

Frodo made a decision. “I’d like to ask Bob Smallburrow to come as soon as he can,” he said, addressing the second Shiriff, who was Robin Smallburrow. Bobwhite Smallburrow was family head for the Smallburrows, and Frodo had the distinct impression Bob would cooperate in searching Alyssum Smallburrow’s (Alyssum Bracegirdle that was) place for items known to have been taken from other victims. Marco had always been more his mother’s son than his father’s child, he knew. While they were at it, they’d go through Marco’s own place, a house in Pincup which had formerly belonged to an Overhill family who’d lost it as the result of Lotho’s troublesome business dealings. Looking at Marco’s suddenly sweating face in light of the examination he was being given, Frodo decided to have the house Marco and his wife had moved out of as well as his brother-in-law’s dry goods shop also searched. That last was in Buckland near the Bridge Inn, and from his teen years he knew it well; Fred Oldbuck had been part of the gang when Frodo was a teen, and the shop then had belonged to his parents. Many of the gang’s ill-gotten gains had been hidden there in the bolt-holes and hidden cellar. He had a good idea where Marco might have convinced Fred to hide goods he’d not wish others to see. “And I’ll speak to the Master as well.”

At the increased paleness of Marco’s face Frodo knew he’d hit the mark full in the gold, and suddenly he felt cold and tired. It had been one thing when he was a teen, stealing from the farms in the Marish. He and his gang had never intended to hurt anyone, although he knew now they had. For him as the Master’s nephew it had been more a mental exercise in planning and execution and getting inside the heads of those they targeted rather than for any desire for extra food, something which would never have been denied him, particularly in light of his rather extreme (for Hobbits) slenderness as a teen--except for his raids on Maggot’s mushrooms. Even now he loved mushrooms, although in considerable moderation nowadays.

But the greed practiced by Lotho and Timono and the others, including Marco here, was beyond what Hobbits traditionally knew, a greed for goods and the fearful deference of others, a deference they tended to call respect. Marco Smallburrow, he thought tiredly, wouldn’t know true respectability if it struck him on his backside.

Frodo sighed. He looked up as Hildibrand Took entered. “Hillie, how are Longsmial and Branch coming at the modifications for the Lockholes?”

“They’re almost done with the second one,” Hillie told him. “The stone lining is just finished, and they’re putting in the inner walls. Ventilation ducts were completed yesterday. They don’t believe a fireplace will be necessary in this one, either.”

“Good,” Frodo said. “Mr. Smallburrow here is going to be the first guest of the facility. Robin, Tim, will you two please escort him over to them? Pinto Longsmial has agreed to serve as warden, and told me last night he’d be there today.”

Frodo had, after the experience with the Umbari, spent several sessions with Aragorn, Prince Imrahil, and Prince Faramir discussing prisons and the need for such facilities. It had taken a fair amount of explanation, but the three Men had successfully convinced Frodo why Men consistently needed to have such things; and in light of what had been done to his people by others of their own, Frodo had decided that the Shire truly did require a Lockhole, although he was determined it would be a distinctly Hobbity one.

As the two Shiriffs were escorting a now shivering Smallburrow out, Frodo turned to the others. “We’ll be having official hearings involving family heads, the Master, and the Thain, to look further into this pattern. You will be asked to testify. Now, if you will go with Hilly here, he’ll take our first official statements from you regarding what you were required to do and the pressure put on you. And thank you for being honest today.”

Algenon Grubbs paused in his turning away. “You’re going to lock up Marco Smallburrow, then? Why?”

Frodo looked at him steadily. “Are either of you actually better off now than you were before the Time of Troubles?” he asked.

The two lawyers exchanged glances. Finally Algenon answered, “No, certainly didn’t do either of us any good to speak of.”

Frodo gave a shrug as if the gesture was itself an explanation. “The same certainly isn’t true for Marco, is it?”

The two raised their brows, and it was obvious neither had thought it odd that Marco Smallburrow and his mother were considerably better off now than they’d been before Frodo left the Shire.

The other lawyer looked thoughtful. “Hmm. Never even considered that there was money to be made by the likes of me when Timono Bracegirdle sent for me to come talk with Lotho.”

“I’m glad you didn’t, or you might be joining Marco, you know.”

“No, thank you--have no mind to better myself at the expense of others,” the lawyer commented, and Frodo nodded his agreement.

After the two had gone over to a corner Hildibrand had made his own as he took down the descriptions given him of the atrocities which had been done in the name of the Chief, Isumbard stood up from the table where he’d been going over still more loan documents and came to join Frodo at the Mayor’s desk. Frodo was now leaning back, rubbing at his shoulder, the worry line between his brows deeper today than it has been even yesterday. “I don’t like the thought of the Shire having a prison, Frodo Baggins,” he said.

“Nor do I; but what else are we to do with those who purposely made the Time of Troubles even worse for our folk, Bard?” Frodo shifted his hand from his left shoulder to the gem he wore on the chain about his neck and closed his eyes. After a few moments his posture relaxed somewhat, his breathing deepened and seemed easier, and at last he sat up straight and looked at Bard again.

“I doubt the folks of the Shire will like shouldering the expense of having the lockholes fixed up,” Bard continued.

“I’m shouldering that expense,” Frodo sighed.

Bard eyed his cousin. “I thought you were out of money, and that was why you were selling Bag End?”

Frodo shook his head, pursing his lips. “You ought to know by now that I only put that about to explain why I was leaving Bag End and Hobbiton, Isumbard Took. But it’s not the money I have from my income here I’m using. I was granted the livings of a few estates and such in Gondor and Arnor; I’m using funds I brought with me for this. Let the income from Men’s dealings pay for the damage Sharkey and his Men helped inspire here.”

The Took was surprised. “Why do you have an income from properties in Gondor and Arnor?”

Frodo shook his head. “You’ll have to have Aragorn explain it to you, I think. But he said it was customary for such grants to be made along with ennoblement.”

“Which means what?”

“Which means merely that Aragorn has publically embarrassed Sam and me.”

“You and Sam? Why?”

But Frodo merely shook his head and changed the subject.

When Frodo went home for afternoon tea he found that his cousins Saradoc and Merimac were in the kitchen sharing an ale with Will and Bucca. Sara rose quickly when Frodo came in, holding out his arms to embrace his younger cousin. “Frodo, it’s so good to see you! They are keeping you very busy, I’m told.”

“Uncle Sara, Mac--it’s wonderful to see you, too,” he responded. “Let me get rid of my cloak and put these documents I’m planning on reviewing tonight in my room, and I’ll be right back.”

After Frodo had disappeared back into the passage to the bedrooms Sara looked at Will with concern. “I’ve never seen him this thin, not even when he was a teen,” he said, his voice worried.

Will nodded. “He’s starting to put a few pounds back on--his face is starting to fill out some, at least. But he barely eats much of the time.”

“Has he told you how he lost his finger?”

Will shook his head. “We didn’t even notice for days until Paladin pointed it out to us, and he only knew, apparently, ’cause Bard told him. He refuses to say anything more than that it was something to do with getting rid of the bad thing he took out of here.”

Saradoc looked back toward the passage to the bedrooms again. “Merry says the same, and that we should be glad.”

Will was startled. “Glad? Glad Frodo lost his finger? What does that mean?”

“I wish we knew. But the King’s Men immediately asked after Frodo’s health, soon as they came near the Gate, as did the one Brendi and I met with at the Bridge Inn. He appears to know who this Sharkey was, and indicates he caused a good deal of trouble for them down Southways as well as here.”

“These are truly King’s Men you met with?”

“Yes. Merry stopped by day after I met with this Lord Gilfileg, and said he’d been told the name by Lord Halladan, King Aragorn’s Steward, who is also one of his cousins. Said that the second who came to the gate sounds like Lord Berevrion, another of the King’s kin, one he met; but that he has no idea who the third one was, the younger one with the hound. What Lord Gilfileg says pretty much matches what the lads have said, though.”

“Lord Gilfileg?” asked Frodo from the door as he reentered the kitchen. “You met Lord Gilfileg?”

“Yes. Do you know him?”

“No, I’ve not met him as yet. However both Aragorn and Halladan have spoken of him. When Halladan, Halbarad, and Hardorn went South with the Grey Company to search for Aragorn to help him with what he needed to do, they left their kinsman Gilfileg in charge here in the North. Apparently Gilfileg has served in Gondor in the past, but didn’t feel comfortable going back there at this time; and they did need someone to lead those of the Northern Dúnedain who remained here in Eriador. Aragorn told me that his name in Bree is Black Glove, and that he’s left-handed.” He sat down at the table.

“Well, that definitely describes him. Wears a black glove on his right hand, and he certainly used his left hand when he ate with us. Do you know why?”

Frodo shrugged. “I understand he’s just naturally left-handed, and Aragorn told me he wears the black glove to hide the--to hide the fact he lost a couple of fingers.”

“Accident?”

Frodo’s face became closed as he looked down at the table top, but he did answer. “No, it wasn’t an accident. It was due to torture. He was captured by enemies of Gondor, and was held as a captive for several years before he escaped and returned home.”

Saradoc noted that Frodo had his own hands in his lap, under the table. “Why did the King tell you about it?” Frodo shrugged and didn’t answer. “Was it when discussing your own finger, Frodo?” Sara continued, shrewdly.

Frodo looked up to meet his older cousin’s eyes briefly, then looked down again, once more giving merely a shrug to his shoulders.

The Master gave a soft sigh as he looked at his former ward. It was almost like trying to speak with seventeen-year-old Frodo determined not to respond to questions about reports of raids on the fields and dairies of the Marish. He knew all too well that when Frodo went stubborn, you simply couldn’t get him to speak against his will. But, then, Frodo was not a teen now.

Merimac asked, “What’s this about work on Lotho’s Lockholes?”

Frodo looked up and sighed himself. “When we find Timono, we’re going to need to have a secure place to keep him. He’s already tried successfully to frighten folks out of telling how they were forced to cooperate in Lotho’s gathering of goods and properties.”

The Master nodded thoughtfully. “We were able to get hold of Bedro Bracegirdle from Westhall, who was one of the more violent of Lotho’s Shiriffs working in the Brandywine area.”

“What was Beasty Bracegirdle doing in the Eastfarthing?” Frodo asked.

“You’ve heard of him?” Sara asked. At Frodo’s nod, he answered, “Lotho seems to have set the biggest and most intimidating Shiriffs along the River and around the Tooklands. This Bedro is one of the more troublesome of the ones sent our way. We’re holding him in a converted storage hole on the old Treegarth place. If you’re doing proper holding cells here, maybe we should haul him here to Michel Delving.”

“We have one unit finished, and they’re almost done with a second one. The first one already has a tenant, though--I just sent Marco Smallburrow there. Which reminds me....”

Frodo was intent and normal-seeming enough as he discussed how Fred Oldbuck’s dry goods shop needed to be searched, and described the locations of the hidey-holes there where some of the loot that might have come Marco’s way could possibly be found.

Will listened intently. “I certainly never thought I’d see Hobbits ever treat other Hobbits this way,” he said.

Bucca nodded his agreement. “I just don’t understand how all this could happen in the Shire.”

Frodo looked around at each in turn. “Gimli calls it the Dragon Sickness--the infection of the spirit with the desire to gather as much wealth, power, and prestige as you can around you. He says that exposure to evil influences tends to cause it to flourish, and that it’s been common enough among the Dwarves, especially after--after the seven Rings of Power were given to the Dwarf Lords. He’s rather glad they’re all destroyed or lost now, actually. And it appears to be even more common among Men than it is among Dwarves.”

“So who infected Lotho?” Will asked of no one in particular.

Merimac laughed without humor. “Face it, Will--he and his folks have always been that way. Doesn’t seem to have taken a great deal of influence from that Sharkey to have convinced him to begin acting out on it, though.”

“Timono’s never been much better,” Saradoc continued. “Remember when we spent that month with him in the Southfarthing when you were fifteen, Frodo?”

Frodo was sitting, obviously thinking and automatically nodding his agreement with that last statement when he suddenly stopped, a picture forming in his mind’s eye. The summer when he was fifteen he’d gone with Uncle Sara and Aunt Esme, baby Merry, and Merimac to spend a month with Hornblower relatives in the Southfarthing. It was something of a family reunion, and several of the younger relatives with other last names were invited to spend the month on the second Hornblower pipeweed plantation, getting to know one another better being the intent of Great Aunt Lilac Hornblower, whose houseparty it was.

Timono Bracegirdle was one of the invited relatives, and one all, including eventually Great Aunt Lilac, wished hadn’t been part of the group. Several of the lasses complained about him peeking past shutters and curtains or clumsy attempted pawings in the gardens; most of the lads came to detest him intently as he was found to be a liar and a thief.

It had been thought Frodo and Timono might just hit it off, as both were known to be exceptionally intelligent as well as being interested in odd things compared to most Hobbits; however, Frodo had developed a marked distaste for the lad.

In spite of his intelligence and the deviousness of the schemes he’d developed to annoy everybody else, Timono displayed a decided lack of imagination in some ways. He’d done his best for the first two and a half weeks to ingratiate himself with the other teens and tweens and would push himself into their games and amusements. One of the favorite games for the young ones seemed to be I’ll-Hide-and-You-Seek-Me, a game at which Timono came to believe he excelled, as no one appeared able to find him. The truth was, however, that in the first game he hid in a leaf-drying shed in a low cupboard under one of the drying tables, and he was seen there early in the seeking. The one who was It, however, didn’t wish to bring this one back to his base, so just left him there, and went out to find all the others. Once all had been found he told the rest where he’d seen Timono crouching, and they all decided to leave the unpopular teen there. They switched to other pursuits, only calling “All out there come in here!” when they were called in for tea.

After that, Timono always hid in the same place, and they deliberately failed to “find” him. And when they wanted to rid themselves of his odious company for the afternoon someone would suggest the game, and all would run off long enough for Timono to get himself into his cupboard in the drying shed, and then do more interesting things without the benefit of his company.

Frodo was seeing Timono, now a devious, sly adult with the absolute worst of the Bracegirdle potential, sitting in that drying shed, the cupboard door open to allow him to slip inside it into hiding if he heard anyone approaching the shed door. He smiled.

“I know where he is,” he said, looking up to catch Saradoc’s eyes. “I know where Timono is--on the second Hornblower leaf plantation, in the first drying shed. If he hears someone coming he’ll hide in the cupboard under the fourth line of drying trays. That’s where he always hid that summer.”

Saradoc exchanged looks with Merimac. Mac smiled a particularly satisfied smirk. “I’ll wager you have the right of it, Frodo. Well, I’ll be meeting with Merry tomorrow in Overhill, and we’ll head down that way. Bet he was looking to slip out of the Shire Southward the way all the pipeweed went.”

“With Saruman dead now,” Frodo sighed, “there’s just not going to be much in the way of buyers for leaf that direction, for the Men of the South don’t smoke it. They use the leaves instead to deter vermin, and soak them to get a wash they pour over gardens to kill insects that hurt the plants. About the only customers we’re likely to find that way will be those of Aragorn’s kindred from here in the North who serve in Minas Tirith--those and whatever Dwarves will be working to repair the city walls.”

Bucca asked, “What happened to the city walls?”

Frodo looked up at him, a sad look on his face. “Well, Pippin told you that he and Merry fought in the war; the largest battle of that war took place in the farmlands before the city gates for Minas Tirith, the capitol of Gondor. The Enemy’s forces cast boulders at the city using great catapults for most of the first day of the fight; and that night used the same catapults to send balls of material that caught on fire over the walls to burn what could be burned. Most of the houses and buildings are made of stone, actually; but the interiors use a goodly amount of wood, and many roofs were severely damaged by the boulders so many of those flaming balls caused a great deal of fire and smoke. Merry said that when he arrived with the Rohirrim they thought the whole first two levels were on fire, for the amount of smoke was quite thick, even seen from the ridge on the far side of the fields of the Pelennor.”

The Master paused. “Merry wasn’t with you in the city?”

Frodo looked down again. “Sam and I weren’t there then. We didn’t rejoin them until after the last battle on the East side of the River Anduin. Pippin had been taken to Minas Tirith by Gandalf for safekeeping, and Merry was left with Aragorn and King Théoden of Rohan. When the Grey Company from Eriador arrived and met with the King’s party, however, Aragorn had to change his plans so as to hurry to gather a special force to oppose a fleet of ships coming up the River Anduin from Umbar with reinforcements for the Enemy. He and Legolas and Gimli and Aragorn’s Dúnedain kin had to ride quickly, so they left Merry with the Rohirrim, who were just beginning to gather their own army so as to ride to the defense of Gondor at Minas Tirith. King Théoden didn’t wish to take Merry with them, but one of the Riders took him on his horse and so Merry came anyway, and it’s good he did. The battle would probably have been lost before Aragorn could arrive with his forces if Merry had not have been there. He was quite the hero, Uncle.”

“Did Pippin fight there, too?” asked Mac.

“He was inside the city and had sworn himself into the Guard of the Citadel, and was serving the Lord Steward Denethor, but he wasn’t fighting--not then. Although he did help save Lord Faramir, Lord Denethor’s remaining son. He did march to fight in the last battle, though, where his defense helped save at least three others who were by him as well as a number who were behind them. He, too, is quite the hero.”

“What were you and Sam doing?” Saradoc asked.

Frodo shook his head, his face going pale. “Hiding, mostly,” he said finally, “hiding and trying to make it where we needed to go.”

“Did you make it?” Bucca asked.

Frodo’s eyes were again haunted looking as he looked at the Sandheaver. “Oh, yes, we finally made it.” He looked down. “We made it, before I was lost.”

In the distance toward the front of the house they could hear the door open as Mina, Aster, and the children returned. Frodo rose hastily. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but I need to get back to the work.” He hurried back toward his room, and came back fastening his grey-green cloak about him as he went out the back door.

Sara watched after, shocked by the mercurial changes in Frodo’s moods. He looked at Will. “But he didn’t stay to eat anything for tea!”

Will shrugged, then looked at the now closed door, and shook his head. “It’s the most he’s said yet, Sara,” he said. “It’s the most he’s said yet.”

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