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10
Missing

Missing


“Where were you when I awoke?”

“I went early to the main barn.”

“To speak with Merry before he left?”

“Yes.”

“Did you learn anything?”

Sara was quiet for a time, then finally admitted, almost grudgingly, “I learned only enough to know I learned almost nothing. And he swore me to secrecy about what little he would say. He said to have any knowledge of the situation is itself dangerous, but that Frodo is trying to keep the Shire safe from an extraordinary danger, and he and the other lads are going to do their best to help him. I can tell you no more than that, Esme.”

She turned her attention back to her elevenses, a meal she and Sara had decided to eat in the Master’s parlor. As she split and buttered a roll she considered. At last she commented, “Whatever danger there is, they must have learned of it from Gandalf. Or do you think that this is but a lark of some kind?”

Sara shook his head. “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen Merry so serious, Esme. No, he doesn’t see it as any kind of a lark, and from what I’ve seen of Frodo in the past few months he also is very worried. One thing I believe to be true, however, is that Frodo doesn’t realized that the other lads know as much as they do.”

She nodded.

*******


They didn’t come that evening, but then neither she nor Sara expected them to do so.

They didn’t come the next day, either, nor the one following. Why not?

Esme herself had, throughout her life, known dreams of foretelling from time to time, although she wasn’t certain either as to how useful or how comfortable a gift such could be. Mostly when such dreams came to her they showed but a single scene shorn of almost all detail sufficient to give it meaning as a vision; and when they did come to pass she would recognize the portion experienced in the dream only as it was lived. Nor did she appear to dream of aught of any import most of the time.

She’d dreamed of a pony in a field; three weeks later her father brought the family out to show them the new pony he’d bought to pull the farm wagon. Yes, on occasion she’d ridden that pony; but it had proved neither particularly intelligent nor particularly important to the life of the folk on the Whitwell farm. She’d dreamed of sitting in such a way she looked past her own familiar toes at the sky beyond the canopy of a particular tree that grew near the front hedge; four days later her father hung a swing in that tree, and the first time she had a turn in it she saw just that view as she swung forward at the height of the arc. There had been a green bird on a twig that she’d seen in life over the open grave of her mother as the Thain had begun to speak; and a phrase of music and grey eyes she’d recognized the first time she danced with Saradoc Brandybuck at the Free Fair; but mostly her glimpses had been of mundane chores and commonplace walks made special only by a difference in weather or the chosen clothing of her sisters or what specifically her father was reading aloud to the family after supper on a Highday.

Recently, however, she’d had some dreams that were disturbing: looming black shadows following after the lads; the sound of hoofbeats of a few to numerous beasts much larger than even a good-sized draft pony pounding across turf; Frodo with something that served as a source of light held high in a dark place she couldn’t recognize, anxiety and defiance clearly to be seen on his features; grey eyes in a bearded, angular face examining something methodically and intently; some black structure far too straight and tall to be natural, way off in the distance; the sound of falling water singing just out of sight. Several nights after Merry left with the small wagon to welcome Frodo and Samwise to their new home in Buckland she awoke gasping for breath from a dream in which a vague shape with rather luminous eyes was watching after a dull grey form she knew was Frodo passing. She’d sat up as she woke, and had obviously roused Sara.

“What is it?” he asked, but all she could do was to shake her head. There was an echo of an unearthly screech in her mind, and she shook her head to rid herself of it--except that it appeared to be continuing on. Sara was also sitting up now, listening intently, then leaping from the bed to throw on clothing as rapidly as possible.

“The Horncall!” he exclaimed. “I’ll be needed. Dearling, Mac will need to go with me--you’ll have to deal with folk here in the Hall and those who come demanding to know what’s going on. Keep the womenfolk calmed and the children under control as well as you can--I’ll speak to Berilac and Dodiroc as I go out and have them take over with the older lads who’ll be keen to do whatever they can, no matter how misguided--Dodi can find ways to set them to doing helpful things.”

She was rising and pulling her dressing gown over her night dress.

Awake! Awake! Fear, Fire, Foes! Awake! Awake! Fear, Fire, Foes! She could hear it now clearly, echoed from several directions. Awake! Awake! Fear, Fire, Foes! Esme headed for the main dining hall where those not involved in learning the nature of the danger would be gathering.

*******


It was almost time for elevenses before Sara returned, pale with exhaustion and concern. He and many of the older and wiser Hobbits from the Hall gathered in the Master’s parlor, Adamanta, Liliana, Dodiroc’s wife Violet, and Esmeralda joining the menfolk.

“What is it?” Esme demanded. “Who sent up the call?”

“The first to sound it was Nerendas at Orchard Place. They’d been sound asleep for hours when they heard a pounding at the door, and opened to find Fredegar Bolger outside in a fit of terror. They say they couldn’t make out what the matter was, not at first. He wasn’t making the least sense--just going on and on about Black Riders and the Old Forest, and at last they thought he meant that the trees in the Old Forest were attacking the Hay. Mac and Marmadas went through the Hay Gate while I tried to get sense out of Fatty--there was nothing to be seen, although Marmadas says the forest is upset, but not at the High Hay or us.”

Mac was nodding. “The trees near the Hay weren’t paying us the least mind. They were focused toward the Road and Bree.”

“What’s this about Freddy? Where are the others?” Esme felt almost desperate. “Where are Merry and Pippin--and Frodo? What are these Black Riders?”

“We don’t know--Big Folk of some kind, from what Fatty could tell me.”

“Like the ones who came over the Sarn Ford in that report Aldo sent?” Esme asked.

Sara thought for a moment. “Could be--it certainly sounds much the same--got up in black, riding great black horses, dreadfully uncanny.”

“Where’s Freddy now?”

“On his way here. I sent Marmadas here to fetch back a trap once he came back from the Hay Gate--the lad’s still so shaken he can barely walk.”

“Did they attack him?”

“No--he said he felt as if something terribly evil was approaching the house, and he looked through the window in the front parlor and saw several huge black shapes entering the garden. Said his hair stood right up all over him, so he barred the door and ran out the back, heading for the nearest place. Said he’d never run so fast in his life. Said that when he was almost to Orchard Place he felt a shock of power, almost like one of Gandalf’s bigger fireworks at the Party going off, behind him, back at the house. He says the next thing he remembers after that was finding himself in the kitchen at Orchard Place with Nerendas and his family all about him and pressing a mug of tea into his hands.”

Berilac examined his Uncle Saradoc. “Just after dawn a report came from the Brandywine Bridge. Old Cardoc Sandheaver was found about two hours before dawn, dead. Apparently he was ridden down by folks riding large horses. The smith there in Kingsbridge has examined the tracks--he says there were at least three and perhaps as many as five animals, and they were real horses such as Men ride.”

“You mean those Ranger fellows----” began Dodiroc, but he was interrupted by Beri.

“No, Cousin Dodi--we must assume it’s these black-cloaked Big Folk Cousin Fredegar speaks of. The very few times there have been reports of the Rangers riding through at night they’ve always walked their beasts through Kingsbridge quietly, and they have always given a quiet greeting to whatever Bounders or Shiriffs they’ve seen.” A few of the other older Hobbits who’d dealt with those in Kingsbridge nodded their agreement.

“But what of our lads?” asked Markos Longbottom, now head healer for the Hall. “You didn’t answer all of the Mistress’s question, you know.”

“They weren’t there,” Sara said, his voice now guarded.

“They weren’t there?” demanded Seredic. “Why not? Didn’t Frodo and Pippin arrive there a week back?”

“Yes,” Sara admitted, “they came over on the ferry, poling themselves, on the evening of the twenty-fifth, just after Rollo went off duty and left it on the Marish side so he could sup with his wife’s family near the ferry landing. One of our lads took it back over to fetch him the following morning.”

“Then where were they while Fatty Bolger was running for his life from Crickhollow to Orchard Place?”

Sara took a deep breath and held it before finally answering, “We don’t know where they were, or where they are now. Fatty closes his mouth when he’s questioned about them--will only say they left again almost as soon as they arrived. I’m hoping we’ll learn more once he’s here, and Markos, I want you to look him over thoroughly. With his great weight, running that far could easily have caused a serious strain on his heart.” A reminder, Esme realized, that his own mother had known training as a healer and midwife.

He continued, “Nerendas and two of his hands went with me to Crickhollow. There were signs of several horses--again, horses, not ponies, and big ones at that, for their hooves were very large--having been left outside the hedge near the gate, apparently being held by one Big Folk wearing boots. There were footprints made by Big Folks to be seen in the garden, approaching the house from different ways. The front door was hanging open, and that new oak bar I had installed last week was blasted to splinters, as was the part of the jamb where the latch and lock mechanism engaged. I’ve never seen anything like it. Even the main stone for the stoop was cracked across, and there was a smell like scorching. But it didn’t smell like Gandalf’s fireworks. Several panes in the windows were broken, missing, or cracked; but it didn’t appear they’d been struck with any object.

“There was something lying across the threshold as I came up--I--I thought it might be Frodo, for it looked like that cloak Mum gave him that last Yule before she died. I was right about the cloak, but wrong about it being him. You know how sturdy it was, Esme--someone had apparently started to rip it in half--the collar was torn right through, and the inner pocket pulled loose of it.”

“All Frodo’s things had been put away neatly from what I could tell, but not touched by him. But someone had been through his room and pulled out drawers and spilled them on the floor, and one small chest his dad made had been cleaved in two, but not with an axe. The wardrobe in Sam’s room had been wrenched open and the hinges twisted. I’ll have it repaired as soon as I can--that and the door.

“There was no sign of any packs or saddlebags save Fatty’s own, or any of the trail food we know Merry had Treasure put up for him. It appears Freddy had been there alone for days, apparently trying to make certain none of the stores we sent over went to waste,” he added rather dryly.

“The gate to the place was hanging open and there’s no sign of the pony that pulled the wagon. I found only one of the ponies Merry bought at the horsemarket, and it was skittish as a deer--wouldn’t let anyone near it. Nerendas’s son who does so well at breaking ponies is going to work with it and see if he can get it ready for use again. Something terrified it completely out of its training, apparently.”

They all exchanged looks in light of the Master’s report. At last Mac spoke. “Marmadas noted that the key had been moved and replaced from the last time he’d been through the Hay Gate a few weeks ago to see to the state of the hedge on the far side, and saw signs several ponies had been ridden through it. We saw a place where five ponies were halted just the other side of it, then some signs leading where there’s usually an open trail to the Bonfire Glade--we couldn’t find the trail this time, though--the trees appear to have shifted position since they went that way.”

“Then--then----” Esme found she had to swallow before she could continue in a hoarse whisper, “Then they went into the Old Forest?”

“So it would seem,” Sara said, and she saw his face was as pale as her own must be.

*******


“Fredegar Bolger, we need to know where they are!” Esme insisted.

“Please, Cousin Esme,” he answered her, “please don’t ask. You don’t know how dangerous it could be if they learn for certain where Frodo and the others were headed.”

“Who are they?”

Freddy’s face was pale, but set with purpose. “I don’t know, and I hope I never have to know at this point. All I know is that they’re an enemy to us and to the Shire.”

“Why are they following Frodo?”

“They were told to find a Baggins, and they’re evidently certain Frodo’s the Baggins they’re searching for. From what Frodo said they questioned Sam’s dad on Bagshot Row and Farmer Maggot, and who knows how many others.”

Esme straightened. “Maggot? What about?”

“From what Farmer Maggot told Frodo and the others, one rode across his fields to the lane leading to the house and byres, and on seeing him demanded to know where Baggins was. When he told the Rider that the Bagginses lived in Hobbiton, the thing told him he knew Baggins was coming to Buckland, and offered him gold if he’d agree to tell if any news came of Baggins’s arrival. Maggot said he was flat shaken and his dogs cowering. Then Frodo and Pippin and Sam finally found their way out of the woods and onto Maggot’s farm, and he found them and took them to the house and fed them and brought them in his wagon to the Ferry, where Merry was waiting for them with his pony. Merry said he’d crossed over with Rollo and had ridden a bit west in search of them, then poled the four of them and the pony back across the river himself. He said that after they were a good ways out he saw a great black shape appear out of the fog at the landing, a shape that even as far away as they were terrified all of them.”

Saradoc, who’d stayed quiet till now, sighed. “That’s basically what Maggot told me when he came to see me on the twenty-sixth, Esme. Said that as he drove away he felt the horror of whatever it was behind him, and his pony started to run in fear. Then he said that as he got the pony back under control he felt as if whatever it was had moved away toward Kingsbridge.”

Esme considered her next question. Finally she asked, “Why did Frodo move to Crickhollow, Freddy?”

“He needed to get near the eastern borders of the Shire, ready to leave.”

“Why did he need to leave the Shire?”

“What he had--it’s dangerous--more dangerous than you can imagine. He has to get it away to where it’s safe to leave it. That storm Uncle Bilbo used to speak of--it’s building now, and that--that thing can’t be here when it hits Middle Earth properly--it would lead to the destruction of the Shire.”

“But what is it? How did it get into the Shire to begin with?”

But Fredegar Bolger would only shake his head. At last he said, “Please don’t ask me--it could mean you yourself would be targeted if they learn you know anything. I don’t know who or what they are, but I don’t want them anywhere near anyone I love or care about!”

By the time Markos ruled Freddy was ready to return home to Budgeford and Budge Hall they’d not been able to get anything else out of him.

*******


Sara and Farmer Maggot looked up as Esme joined them in the Master’s study. “I know you’ll want to hear this, beloved,” Sara said. “Come, sit down.”

Farmer Maggot waited until she was comfortable, and finally began his tale. “I don’t know as you’re aware, but I have--those as don’t usually come into the Shire who’ll have a word with me from time to time. I went to Haygate Farm the other day on business--we’re arrangin’ to have my herd bull cover his best cow in a few months’ time, you see, so we’ve been discussing how it’s to be done. As I was leaving, my--friend came to me. I was surprised--he doesn’t usually leave his own place once the rains set in, he don’t; but he says as his lady insisted he get word back to the Shire, to those as cares for them as he’d seen.

“He found your four lads in a mild spot of trouble, apparently--some of those as he rules pullin’ some mischief on them, he said--nothin’ too serious and soon put right. He hosted them two nights, then sent them on their way. They got waylaid, though, not far short of the Road. That Baggins lad o’ yours, he managed the business well, and--my friend was able to get to them free and safely on the road to Bree. He saw as one o’those Rangers was watchin’ for them--figures as that Gandalf--only he calls him the Grey Pilgrim--set the Man to seein’ to it they made it safe out of the Shire. Says that if they’ll allow the Ranger to join them they ought to be all right.”

“Then they did go to Bree, then?” Esme couldn’t tell if she felt more relieved or alarmed at the news.

“Apparently. He’s not always real clear on time, but from what he said of the rain, it ought to of been the twenty-sixth as he found them, what with the heavy rain we had that night and all the next day. ’Twas the day after I found them comin’ cross my fields, chased by those horrid Black Riders.” He shuddered visibly. “Fang’s never been cowed by anyone I’ve ever seen; but he was cowerin’ worse than the greenest pup as I’ve ever had on the place when that horror spoke to me.”

Sara asked, almost urgently, “Did they follow the lads into the Old Forest?”

Maggot shook his head. “I don’t think so. After I came here on the twenty-sixth I felt the shudders take me a few times over the next few days, I did, as if one of them was hauntin’ the road near our lane, lyin’ in wait for me, I’d wager. But I wouldn’t go off my own place until I’d not felt them for days.

“I’ve never felt anything, anywhere, like that ever in my life until the day as your lads come over my fields, and I wouldn’t care if the one as they’d wanted was the most horrid Hobbit in all the Shire--I wouldn’t turn anyone over to those--creatures. Don’t know as what they are, but I got my doubts as they’re anythin’ natural.”

*******


Garthfast, a young Bounder originally from the Northfarthing, knuckled his forehead as he made his report to the Master and Mistress. "Beggin’ yer pardons--but I thought as ye’d wish to know as that Gandalf was seen last night. He’s ridin’ the biggest horse as I’ve ever seen--silver as moonlight, runs smooth as smooth, if’n ye take my meaning--and come up the road through Buckland from the South, past the Hall, all the way to Kingsbridge and out of the Shire again. Paused to ask me if’n I know anythin’ about Frodo Baggins, and I told ’im as he’d left the Shire, followed by great Black Riders as rid down old Cardoc--an’ he curst, if’n ye’d believe it. ‘They found as where it’s been all this time, then," he says. "Will I be able to find them? Did that Strider find ’im afore he gets into too much difficulties?"

“Then he thanked me--said as he must go quickly, and hopefully find Frodo and help guard him against the others. Was gone about as swift as he come, and the horse--not a great clatterin’ with that horse--neat as neat he run, and quieter’n me pony.”

*******


Esmeralda sat beside her husband in a private dining parlor in the small inn that graced the village of Bucklebury, examining Lotho’s emissary. Why Marco Smallburrow had asked them to meet him here rather than coming to the Hall or to the Bridge Inn by the Brandywine Bridge she had no idea; she had even less idea as to how the likes of Marco Smallburrow had come to serve as a representative for Lotho--no, perhaps she did. Marco’s mother Alyssum had, after all, been born a Bracegirdle and older sister of Bigelow Bracegirdle, purveyor of crooked dice and dosed ponies, and long ago banished by the family to Westhall in the far Westfarthing where hopefully he wouldn’t be able to bring too much additional shame on the family name.

“Besides the plan to allow for the gathering of the Shire’s bounty for the benefit of those who cannot provide for themselves, it’s the intention of Mr. Sackville-Baggins to help improve the yield of our mills through replacement of older designs with new ones that will grind the grist more uniformly and with greater efficiency,” Marco explained. “He’s already seeing to it that new mills that run not by water wheels but by the power of steam are being built throughout the four Farthings, and hopes that you will allow him to purchase the mills of Buckland as well.”

“First of all,” Sara pointed out, “the two mills we have to serve Buckland are already idle much of the time, and have proved adequate to our needs for the past two hundred years. Save for the three years after the bed of the stream that powered the Hall Mill itself changed a hundred years back and we needed a new building constructed along the new course, we’ve always had more than adequate facilities to meet the needs of the whole of Buckland.

“Second, the mills of Buckland have always belonged to all the residents of Buckland and not to either the millers nor the Master, and thus I have no authority to sell them. I serve at the pleasure of the folk of Buckland, and were I to seek to sell one of its assets to any one individual or entity I’d be stripped of my duties and authority, and rightly so.

“Third, I already administer such a program as Lotho has outlined to meet the needs of those who are in want within Buckland and the Marish, and hold the responsibility to all of those of my family of name and who make demands on family ties to do what Lotho proposes to do with this scheme of gathering and sharing. It is an insult to all family heads throughout the Shire to even propose such a thing, and I must wonder what advantages to himself Lotho intends with such a scheme.

“Fourth, Lotho Pimple has always been a git of the first order. Considering the crooked contracts he has sought to foist on those of Buckland and the Marish and on members of my family of name outside Buckland in the past two years, advice has been sent out to all in the lands I administer and to Brandybucks elsewhere throughout the Shire that they should bring any contract held that binds them to your devious client to be examined before myself, the Mayor, and the Thain. Nor will I support any claims of your client against any of those under my authority and protection within or without Buckland and the Marish without a full hearing before a panel consisting of three of the elders of the family of name for the one involved, his family head, the Master, the Mayor, the Thain and at least two legal representatives for each, the family head for the Bagginses and his legal representative, and the family head for the Bracegirdles and his representative. This declaration has been filed also with the Thain and the Mayor, with Benlo Bracegirdle as family head for Lotho’s mother’s people, with Frodo Baggins as family head for himself and his father’s people, and last week with the family head for the Sackvilles as well, although I doubt Lotho had known sufficient time to read that communication at the time he dispatched you to meet with me. Warnings of this have also been given to all village heads and family heads residing within the lands under my jurisdiction. This proscription extends to all known to have presented contracts found to have been intended to cheat others, including you yourself.”

As he shoved a thick carton sufficient to hold several documents in front of Marco, he continued, “I don’t know what Lotho is playing at, but I won’t have him taking any more advantage of those under my authority. He’s already done rather too much--do you understand?”

Marco’s face had gone decidedly pale. “I’m certain I don’t understand what you mean....” he began.

“You don’t? But weren’t you the one who presented the loan agreement to Baradoc Brandybuck requiring him to replace his extraordinarily serviceable existing shutters with new ones manufactured by one family in the far reaches of the Shire and then painted pink using a paint mixed by another purveyor, again from the far reaches of the Shire, or he would lose the deeds to his own hole and lands to Lotho? It rather appears to me that it was your name on that document; and the list of those who would inspect to see that these nearly impossible requirements be met in the time granted by the contract included your brother-in-law and two of your cousins.”

Esme thought Marco looked rather like a fish just taken from the water--rather limp and surprised and gasping, trying to understand precisely what had just happened to him. At last he blurted out, “But Frodo Baggins has left the Shire!”

“Perhaps, but I am assured he named a family head after himself, and one I am further assured is in proper line for the position--and it most decidedly is not Lotho Sackville-Baggins. Nor is the fact he’s temporarily absent from the Shire grounds to give over his place as family head for the Bagginses--he filed a will before he left granting himself two years from leaving the Shire and Buckland combined before he might be declared dead, and he appointed a proxy for himself to stand in his stead until he returned home or two years had passed, should he absent himself from the Shire. That proxy document was filed six years ago, and the warrant to assume authority in his name was served a week after he left the boundaries of the Shire and Buckland as dictated by Shire law.”

“And who holds this proxy power?” demanded Lotho’s lawyer.

Sara smiled--a very calculated smile. “I do.”

Marco stared at the Master of Buckland and the Marish for some minutes. Sara’s expression had become stern once more. “I now suggest, Marco, that you leave. Rollo has been advised to take you across the river as swiftly as possible, and you are not to be allowed to return unless you come with your family head and three of the elders from your family to request pardon for the damage inflicted on my family and those under my protection and to make reparations for that damage. Do you understand?”

Marco Smallburrow stood abruptly, and taking up the carton turned, and stalked out of the room, sufficiently rigid still in shock that his footsteps could be heard. He found that those who’d accompanied him and who’d been intended to enter the private parlor to the intimidation of the Master at the signal he was to give had all been gathered to a single table in the common room, where they sat surrounded by a party of about twenty Brandybucks, all of them at the prime of their strength and particularly determined looking. Esme, watching from the door, found herself admiring her husband’s obvious preparations for this confrontation.

Once Marco and his party had been escorted from the inn’s premises she resumed her seat and examined her husband. “You never told me, Sara.”

“I’m sorry, love. Bilbo, after his last journey out of the Shire, had such a proxy document written granting my dad the authority to stand in his stead as family head for the Bagginses until Frodo should come of age once he’d adopted Frodo as his heir; Frodo filed a similar document within a week of the execution of Bilbo’s will. Six years ago it was amended to change the proxy from Dad to me. Then, when Frodo came to finalize the purchase of Crickhollow he requested a private consultation and let me know he’d become aware that Lotho had presented an inequitable contract to a widow running one of the smallholdings he’d inherited from Bilbo. This contract was supposed to have used the smallholding’s herd of cattle as collateral, but instead sought to use the deed to the holding itself; she’d forwarded a copy to Frodo as her landlord as she was required to do as the loan had been intended to help dig a new well on the property, and in reviewing it Brendi had noted how the contract was written in such a manner it was intended to cheat her. Apparently whoever wrote the contract hadn’t determined who the legal owner was before presenting it and obtaining her signature.”

Esme was shocked.

He continued, “You know how I had Berilac and several others riding off to various places in the North- and Westfarthing a few months back? That was to forestall Lotho taking title to Baradoc’s hole. When I told Frodo about it, he suggested we do something like what I described to Marco. What I didn’t tell Marco is that Brendi was working on writing out a similar instrument to be filed on the part of the Bagginses as I’ve done for the Brandybucks, Buckland, and the Marish. Brendi had me sign it as Frodo’s proxy when he served the warrant on me.”

“Who is it that Frodo has named his heir and family head for the Bagginses, then?” Esme asked.

Sara gave a shrug. “Apparently one of the Bagginses who lives in the Westfarthing who’s more closely related to Frodo himself than Lotho is, or so Brendi’s allowed me to know. However, until either proof is brought that Frodo has died or two years are accomplished Brendi won’t divulge the name of said heir, he says for the protection of that heir. Seems he doesn’t trust Lotho.”

“I wonder why,” Esme returned, her tone dry.

*******


Horto came out to the kitchens where Esme was helping prepare the next meal, as colds along the servants’ corridors had left the Hall decidedly understaffed. “Cousin Esme, Brendilac’s just arrived.”

“Good,” she said, then turned to Marigold. “Mari, would you please take over here--I must be busy about Hall duties for about half an hour to an hour.”

“Certainly, Mistress Esmeralda,” came the response. “There’s naught to do save to stir it and see as it don’t scorch from now on, after all, and I’ve the first loaves in the bake oven.”

“Good enough. And Lysette, you’d best do as you’re instructed with no reports to me of any sauce to her, do you understand?” The new scullery maid had yet to appreciate the way things were done here in the Hall. It came, she supposed, of accepting the application of a Sackville. “And you are to go to the lessons when you are done with cleaning after luncheon. Lessons, as we explained, are required by all who live and serve in Brandy Hall.”

“Yes, mum,” Lysette answered, her expression resentful.

Brendi was waiting for her in the Master’s parlor, his expression wary. She nodded as she entered, closing the door behind her. “Sit down, please, Brendi. I need to talk to you as Frodo’s lawyer and as his friend.”

Reluctantly Brendi sat on one of the few wooden chairs in the room. She sighed as she examined him. Finally she asked, “Did you know he was to leave the Shire?”

He didn’t answer, merely focused on the far wall over her shoulder.

“Please, Brendi, I need to understand what’s happening.”

His face was set, although she sensed a good deal of pain behind the mask. At that moment the door behind her opened, admitting Sara. He looked between the two faces, then focused on that of his wife. “You’re wasting your time, Esme. Frodo forced him to take the oath, as he’s done with the Goodbodies. He may not tell you anything regarding Frodo’s business until either Frodo returns and frees him of the oath, or whatever conditions were set by Frodo are met.” He looked at Brendi. “Horto told me you’d come. Did you have anything we need to know or see?”

The lawyer sighed, and finally nodded as he reached to the inner pocket of his jacket. “I was made to take the oath in this case to say nothing until now, a month after it was determined Frodo and the others left Crickhollow. Then I was to bring you one letter and see two others posted to the Westfarthing. I may not tell you what I know or guess about where they went or why. I sent the other letters from Kingsbridge.”

“To the Great Smial and Hobbiton?” Esme guessed, and with a sigh Brendi again fixed his attention beyond her as he produced a letter and held it out. She exchanged glances with Sara, and at a slight nod from him she took it, noting the flap of the envelope had been sealed not with mere sealing wax but with actual glue. She managed to open it and draw out the sheets it held, scanned the first page briefly to recognize Merry’s rather precise writing with that slight tilt to the last letters of each word, and began reading.

Dear Mum and Dad,

You both have chided me for worrying about Frodo trying to slip away, out of the Shire, some day. Well, the day comes, only it’s not just for an adventure.

Bilbo left something for Frodo that has finally proven to be terribly dangerous, far more so than any can imagine. With the evil growing in Middle Earth at this time, were this thing to remain here in the Shire it would draw that evil here to the destruction of all. Frodo has determined to leave the Shire to take it away, hopefully to a place where it might be hidden or destroyed that it not cause the Shire to fall. He’d planned to go alone, but we can’t let him do it--he’s quite impractical when it comes to his own safety, and he’d be dead or captured within a fortnight.

I know I appear to be running away from my responsibilities, but I swear that if I were to stay and if Frodo and what he carries were captured, within a fairly short time there would be nothing left for me to be Master of when my own turn comes.

As to the question of Gandalf being involved--only insofar as he’s the one who sought out the means to test to find out if this thing is what he’s come to fear it is, and he’s the one who told Frodo what it is and what it will do if it remains here with things changing in the outer world as quickly as they are. He was supposed to go with Frodo, but was called away and hasn’t made it back. We hope he’ll be back by Frodo’s birthday, but if he isn’t--well, we’ll just have to go without him. Frodo’s been feeling the danger out there growing and coming closer and closer to the Shire, and he knows if he doesn’t leave as soon as he can it will find our borders and cross over into our lands. He intends to draw the danger away from the land and people he loves, even if he has to sacrifice himself to do it.

Frodo won’t find out we’re going with him until just before we leave. The dear old Hobbit’s certain we know nothing--thinks he has the wool pulled nicely over our eyes. What he doesn’t know is that we’ve been spying on him for years--Sam, Pippin, Freddy, and me. I’ll admit that when I started it was because I was young and foolish, and because I feared my Frodo would grow so lonely for Bilbo and so full of Elvish knowledge that the Shire wouldn’t be able to keep him anchored any more, and I didn’t want him to have an adventure without me. But now--oh, Dad, Mum--he’s not just my Frodo any more. I’ve watched him all these years, and have seen how responsible he’s become, how caring, even for the S-Bs in spite of themselves. We need him, Mum, Dad. Will’s wanted him to run for Mayor for years, and he wouldn’t; but we need him as Mayor anyway. The Shire needs him and his example of decency and compassion and fair dealing and thoroughness. If we can--we mean to bring him back, safe and whole.

Please don’t devil Fatty or Brendi--they’ve been sworn to secrecy and can’t tell you any more.

I love you so, and will miss you terribly. But we’ll come back--all of us, if it can be managed.

Watch out for Lotho--don’t know what he’s about, but I have a feeling he’s got himself in over his head with what he thinks he’s doing.

Love, Merry

PS--Yes, Pippin’s going, too, but only because I can’t stop him, no matter what I say or threaten. He says if we try to leave without him he’ll just follow behind--better I let him go with us so we can at least keep an eye on him. Stubborn Bagginses have nothing on stubborn Tooks!


Sara and Esme looked to one another as he held out his hand to accept the letter and reread it. At last Sara sighed, leaned back in his chair, and rubbed at his forehead with the back of his hand. “Heavens above! What could be so very dangerous that it would have to be taken out of the Shire?” He looked at Brendi, who, looking equally miserable and determined, kept his silence. “Did you know they were spying on Frodo--Merry, Pippin, Sam, and Freddy?”

He shook his head. “No--not until Merry approached me about seeing the letters sent.”

“And you didn’t tell Frodo?”

He shook his head, frustration clear in his eyes. “I couldn’t tell him any more than I could tell you, any more than I could tell them what little I know of what Frodo told me. I can’t even tell you aye or nay as to whether what Frodo’s told me matches what Merry’s said in that letter. I can tell you only that Frodo, too, is terrified for what would happen to the Shire if he’d stayed here.” He took a deep breath. “The oath is very strong, and I’m bound by it, as are Ordo and Oridon. But I don’t think they know even as much as I do.”

Then they heard a voice, out in the passage outside the door. “Wait, you--what are you about, listening at keyholes?” They heard a scuffling sound as Sara and Brendi both rushed toward the door. By the time they got it open it was to find Gomez, Beri, and Mac holding what appeared to be a lass between them, the lass struggling to get away.

Sara stepped forward and put a hand on her shoulder. “What is this?” he asked. At a nod from Mac the two younger Hobbits let the lass go, and reluctantly she turned around to face the Master of Buckland. Somehow Esme wasn’t surprised to find herself looking into the resentful, frightened face of Lysette Sackville.

Sara turned his head to catch Brendi’s eyes. “I think you and your father need to move back to the Hall.”

His face pale, Brendi nodded his agreement.

*******


Gil was drinking heavily from a mug. “Six parties of Men--awful, hateful looking Men, have entered the Shire across the Brandywine Bridge alone; and my cousin Phlox in the Southfarthing was able to slip a note along with a wagonload of peary being shipped to Stock. There’s been an influx of Big Men coming in across the borders there as well as here. Lotho’s somehow managed to buy up most of the inns throughout the Shire, it seems, and is starting to close them down. Has taken over the Shiriffs, too, and has named himself Chief Shiriff. Most of the Men have gone right to Hobbiton and then fanned out from there. He’s using them to take over the whole of the Shire.”

“We’ve been keeping them out of Buckland so far,” Mac said, “but we can’t do anything for those near the Bridge. Too many of the Big Men there, you see. Fred Oldbuck’s slipped us a warning to see to it that no boats are left for the Men to use to come across the river, and to keep an eye on the Bridge and the Ferry.

“They won’t get into Buckland at the Ferry,” Beri said determinedly. “Rollo sabotaged it once he got his wife’s family out of the Marish. Has a family cousin staying on the farm to look after it as he can. But until this storm is over we can’t do a thing.”

“Any word from Paladin and the Tooklands?” Sara asked.

“No, and none from Michel Delving either.”

Sara closed his eyes tightly, and Esme could tell that he was terrified for what might be happening to their kindred elsewhere throughout the Shire. Finally he opened them again, his face set with decision. “We have to see to the integrity of our own lands and folk, then. How can we make it difficult for these Big Men to get far inside Buckland?”

“Pretty easy for us to manage, I’d think,” Gil said. “These folk seem to be pretty stupid for the most part--dangerous, but stupid. Now, if we were to mine the roads....”

*******


“Beri’s back,” Sara told her as he came back to their bedroom to dress himself. “What little I’ve had of him isn’t hopeful.”

Esme threw back her covers, rose and began dressing as well. “You don’t need to get up now, dearling,” he admonished her. “It’s the middle of the night, and you’ve been pushing yourself so hard, trying to do the work of all the lads and lasses we’ve had to send off home to see to it their folks aren’t punished for them being here, working for the Hall.”

“It’s my brother and his family he’s bringing word from, not to mention all the rest of the folk we’re related to and care about throughout the Shire,” she said grimly as she tied a bodice lace. “I can’t pretend I don’t care; and I wouldn’t sleep anyway until you came back to tell me. May as well hear it first hand.”

Together they hurried toward the dining hall, which was filling rapidly. Melilot was gathering some of the lasses to go to the kitchens to see to it that tea and some kind of sustenance were made ready, for already most of the residents of the Hall appeared to be gathered there, including many of the younger lads and lasses who were being kept close by fearful parents.

Esme stopped short when she saw Berilac’s companion, for he’d not returned alone, evidently. A lass with ashen hair was being wrapped in a blanket by Absinthe, and a too-familiar, sharp-featured face was peering fearfully and defiantly about her, stopping only when the lass’s eyes met Esme’s own. Apparently Beri was going to let her speak first, as he patted her shoulder reassuringly.

Licking her lips, Lysette Sackville turned to the assembled Brandybucks. “I come to say as I’m sorry--sorry for comin’ to spy on you the last time as I was here. My cousin Lotho--he said as it was needful, and that you was enemies o’ the Shire, sidin’ with that awful Frodo Baggins against all decent Hobbits everywhere. Well, I’ve seen now what Lotho’s done to protect the Shire, and with protection like this there soon won’t be any Shire left to us as loves it. He’s brought in Big Men--awful Big Men everywhere, everywhere throughout the whole place! And he’s angered at those as won’t let him move in and tell ’em as to how to live and breathe--he plans to see the Thain and the Master captured--he already has the Mayor locked up in them old storage tunnels there in Michel Delving. None’s heard from him nor any o’ them others as they’ve drug off--anyone as questions Lotho or what the Big Folks do, they’re all drug off and locked up. Callin’ them storage tunnels the Lockholes, they are.”

She turned earnestly toward Sara and Esme. “You don’t want them to get you. Don’t know for certain as what they’d do, but you can hear them talkin’ about how once they get all of you--Master, Mayor, and Thain--as how they intend to make an example as the Shire’s not goin’ to forget soon.”

She accepted a mug of tea offered her by Melilot, took a large swig and almost choked on it, but continued, “Oh, I’ve seen what we’d come to; and what they done to my little brother....” Esme could see the lass was crying now.

*******


“We have the greater part of the stock on the farms closest to the Hay, and the roads are all mined. We can get our carts and wagons through the older, hidden roads through the wilder places, but the Big Men and those Hobbits who’re helping them aren’t going to get anywhere within Buckland once they leave Kingsbridge. And word from Maggot is that he and the farm folk there are being left alone, for the most part. Seems as the Big Men want food and stores almost more than anything.

“And there’s news from Bree--a cousin of Mayberry’s managed to slip past the Men at the Bridge and made it to the Hall last night. I have him sleeping in my own quarters--Addie’s taking care of him. Back in September four Shire Hobbits came there to the Prancing Pony--a Brandybuck, a Took, a Gamgee, and an Underhill.”

All straightened at that, and Esme herself was staring at Gomez with startlement. “Underhill? What Underhill? No Underhill from the Shire’s been out of it that I’m aware of in at least six hundred years--not even to Bree!” she said.

“I know. It appears as Frodo’s trying to hide his right name--well, we were already told those Black Rider creatures were asking around about Bagginses.”

There was a low rumble of agreement and quiet comment before the stablehobbit continued, “They caused a right to-do, right there in the common room of the Pony, they did. Were mostly bein’ quiet until Pippin started talkin’ freely about Shire doings, and was starting to tell about being at the Party and seeing Cousin Bilbo disappear the way he did, only Frodo appears to have got up on a table and interrupted. Oh, yes, from the description he give I’m certain as it was Frodo all right--‘taller’n most Hobbits I’ve known, dark hair, young-lookin’ chap with an air to ’im.’ I mean, who else could it be?”

Again the subdued buzz of comment before Gomez continued, “They all thought as he’d had a bit of a skinful, so some started to call out for a song from the Shire, and Frodo tried to say no but at last obliged them. Sang some doggerel of old Bilbo’s from what I can tell, one of his songs about an inn and the Moon gettin’ drunk and cows caperin’ about.” There were general nods of humored recognition throughout the dining room where all were gathered to listen. “But when he was done they liked it so much as they begun to call for him to sing it again, and apparently one as had come in with his own fiddle started to play along, and then, if Frodo didn’t start to dance as he sang--until he got to the end and the table he was on suddenly tipped over and he disappeared as he fell.”

He looked about, pleased to see the effect that last statement had had. He nodded. “Yes,” he said slowly and with some force, “as he fell off that table, Frodo disappeared, right there in front of everybody. Disappeared with but a little flash of gold. Although he did turn up again, over in the corner, sittin’ by a raggedy fellow in green riding leathers--big Man, but not like our Big Men--apparently one of those Rangers as rides through the Shire from time to time.”

Again all looked at one another. Merimac asked, “How long did the lads stay in Bree?”

“But the one night. Were apparently hopin’ to slip out quiet-like the next mornin’, but there was an attack on the inn that night, and all the horses and ponies in the stable was apparently run off or stolen. Rumor was one of the rooms was attacked, too, one in the Hobbit wing on the north side of the Pony, but no one was sleepin’ in it. Our lads left about time for elevenses with the Ranger. Heldi’s shaking his head about them takin’ up with this Ranger--says as no one has any good to say about this Strider fellow.”

But Esme, remembering Gandalf’s words to Garthfast, was reassured. If the lads had managed to fall in with someone Gandalf trusted, they ought to be all right.

Horto was asking, “What about the Big Men thereabouts?”

“They’ve had their own troubles in the Breelands. Bree was attacked, too, and the Men and Hobbits o’ Bree stood together and was able to deal with the invaders--drove them right out, those as didn’t end up dead of some farmer hittin’ him with a hoe or something like. Some was plain Men similar to those o’ Bree, but most was odd folks indeed--ugly fellows with odd-colored eyes and skins more grey’n any right color for skin. Most was broad and right ugly, Heldi says, muscular but more given to strikin’ blows than to planning on how those blows would be best struck.”

Esme didn’t know whether to be frightened or not by this news. A wary Hobbit could fairly easily avoid such folk; but if they were so brutal....

“The other thing as Heldi’s said is that the Rangers there around Bree’s not been seen for some time, and had apparently all left just afore all these Big Men ruffians showed up. No one knows where they went or why, but folks is beginning to talk about how no such things happened when the Rangers was about.”

*******


The winter had seemed interminable. Twice they’d had word from Paladin, both times early on. He’d received the letter Pippin had sent, and he and Eglantine were terrified as to what might be happening to the lads, and especially their son. Things were bad--the Tooklands had been surrounded by a ring of Big Men apparently intending to starve them out. They, too, had heard the news about Will being taken and imprisoned in the old storage holes, and the rumors that once Lotho had hold of Master, Mayor, and Thain all three he had plans to terrify all of the Shire and Buckland by what he intended to see done to them. And if he could ever get his hands on Frodo himself--well, the tales of the various things he intended to do to his Baggins cousin didn’t bear repeating.

Word trickled through the Marish that the Bolgers had been forced out of Budge Hall and made to live in an old storage hole that had been long abandoned as too damp for continued use, and that the folks of Bagshot Row in Hobbiton had been moved out of their own holes along the base of the Hill and into brick hovels Lotho had had erected on the site of a former common garden place for the folks living within the village who didn’t have room for their own kitchen gardens near their houses or holes.

There weren’t more than three or four inns still open anywhere from what anyone could tell, and now there were large mobs of Shiriffs everywhere, under the orders of the Big Men. And tales of shortages due to the actions of the Gatherers and Sharers abounded.

Then came the word that Freddy Bolger and a group of lads, mostly from the Westfarthing, had been raiding the stores of gathered goods taken by Lotho’s folks, distributing what they took to families who’d been robbed of all by the ruffians and the looters, and that they’d been hiding out near Scary. The news that Freddy himself had been captured and hauled off to the Lockholes came at the height of what Esme had thought of as the Dark Days.

The skies had become increasingly oppressive as the winter had drawn to its close. Even though the spring had officially begun, it seemed that nothing in the Shire wished to grow--trees were late to bud, and no green shoots yet rose over the carefully seeded fields and gardens. Even the willows remained stubbornly grey-looking instead of turning pink and bright yellow with rising sap.

To the south and east the skies were decidedly brown--not merely grey and colorless, but oppressively brown and dead-looking. Winds seemed to blow only from that direction for weeks on end, it seemed. One day the winds changed, and it appeared some winds from the southwest were struggling against those from the southeast; but then after two days of relative calm the easterlies resumed.

All felt the oppression of the skies, and watched the resumed march of the brown clouds north and westward with concern--until March twenty-fifth....

*******


"Here, Master, you drink this, and eat that wafer of the Elven bread there. Come on--don’t argue with me now--you need it worse’n I do."

"Sam...."

"Now, Master, what do you say as your Sam rides you pick-a-back, like we was home in the Shire, playin’ with the bairns? Up you come now--almost there...."


Esme woke with a start. She’d merely sat down, exhausted, unable to continue with her attempt to see the Great Hall dusted, although she knew she’d done barely anything. Liliana also sat, rubbing her forehead repeatedly with the back of her hand. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me, Esmeralda, but I feel--I feel as if a weight were on me.” She straightened, stretching her spine apparently without it bringing any relief. “Will this brownness never end?” she suddenly spat. “Or will the dark only grow until it covers everything?”

Esme had heard of all going completely still before, but this was the first time she’d ever experienced it. Suddenly she seemed to feel her heart seize in her chest, literally mid-beat; and she paused, her breath abated. Liliana’s own eyes had widened with shock and terror, and her mouth had fallen open. Outside the brown outriders of the clouds appeared to have overtaken the Sun at last, and all went drear and dead as the light no longer entered through the great round windows. The few birds who’d reentered Buckland had fallen quiet around the Hall, and there seemed to be no wind near the ground.

“The Ring is Mine!”

She saw him--Frodo--bright and shining--his face stern, his left hand still settling the Ring he now wore on his right hand, the ragged garments he wore reweaving themselves as she watched into robes of silver, his exhausted body filled with strength unimaginable, his intelligence suddenly reawakened, his terror-filled eyes becoming steely with purpose, his will enhanced past bearing. He was rapidly becoming far more than Frodo--and she saw the Ring he wore wreathing Its nature into a great Crown--or a mockery of a crown, one that would soon encircle Frodo’s brow--and when it did so, she knew the last of the Frodo she knew and loved so would be gone, devoured, transformed into an abomination the horror of which she couldn’t imagine.


“No! No, Frodo! Don’t let It take you! Frodo--take It off--before it’s too late!” Esme realized she was crying out aloud, and saw the glorious, monstrous Frodo-creature of her vision turning toward her, seeming to hear her words, the humanity of him struggling to reassert itself--just before something hit him.

Then Liliana was standing over her, and the world was moving again, and all life within Middle Earth seemed to be adding its own will to the struggle against whatever was even now seeking to settle the new order for the future. And she felt her heartbeat resume in defiance, felt her body insist on taking that next breath, heard the sudden calling of birds and cocks, and felt a great west wind rattling the windows of the room, heard windows and doors all along the Hall protesting against it, saw the trees leaning toward the Hall, rejoicing, it seemed to bow before that wind. There was a brilliant flash, and she realized the brown clouds were being torn asunder and the Sun shone out in transcendent glory.

Esme was suddenly surging to her feet, staring out those west-facing windows, seeming to see shapes standing there afar, watching the choices and actions of those who peopled the Mortal lands as if they were supremely important.

NO! YOU SHALL NOT HAVE HIM, BROTHER!

Better maimed in body than crippled in spirit,
advised a second voice, and she seemed to see the largest of the Western Shapes nod in agreement at the wisdom of those words.

And she felt the echo of agony in her own right hand, near where she’d seen that Ring on Frodo’s finger....

*******


The spring came in now, and the seeds sprouted with a vengeance, the trees began to leaf, the blossoms were a wonder to be seen, the Brandywine teemed with fish while it seemed singing birds settled in whatever crotches would accept their nests. In May ducks hatched out all along the river and about the margins of ponds, streams, and marshes; the Hall’s flocks and herds were marvelously increased; and the coops were filled with cheeping chicks.

Throughout the spring and summer the not-quite-declared war against Lotho’s folks went on relentlessly; and the little word that managed to find its way over the river indicated that it was the same about the Tooklands where Took archers were beginning to take their toll of the Big Men ringing their lands. One more message made it through from Esme’s brother--Ferdibrand Took had disappeared. He’d tried to make it from the Great Smial to Buckland, but had been caught, and identified as being a Smial Took to the Big Men, who’d begun kicking him in the head before they dragged his still and blood-covered body off westward toward Michel Delving. Whether or not he was still alive no one could say.

Lysette Sackville was helping amongst the healers, and spending a good deal of time by the bed of Brendi’s father, who’d taken ill in February and was still rather weakened as April moved toward its close. And Aldo was said to be courting her. Esme smiled at the thought.

*******


She watched Pippin, dressed proudly in black and particularly shining silver, walked before them, the Sword, it appeared, in his hands. At her side walked a great and glorious figure--one out of legend, a great Light encompassing him, and beyond it she saw another, golden Light surrounding the form of Sam Gamgee, his head held proudly as he walked with joy and purpose, his face wreathed in smiles.

When she rose that morning, the first of May, Esme went into the Master’s study and examined the Sword where it hung over the fireplace. It was said to be ancient, given to Bucca of the Marish by the son of Arvedui Last-king himself in recognition of the courage of those Hobbits from the Shire who’d joined the war against the shadows from the north and east.... Yes, very like the sword she’d seen in the hands of Pippin in her dream.

*******


She stood immobile in the hazel thicket, listening to the voices beyond it.

“Garn, I thought as I’d seed some of those ratlings gone this ways.” The voice, she thought, was easily amongst the most grating she’d ever heard.

“I know,” another, less grating but still filled with loathful purpose, returned. “They’re hard to catch if you lets them get into the scrub. Best to catch them out in the open fields.”

“I don’t know as why Sharkey wants them from this side o’ the river,” the first complained. “Why bother? We gots more’n enough booty that side, after all. And it’s not like we’d be able to use’m for more’n idle sport.”

“Baggins lived here,” the second one said. “Nasty little sprig o’ mischief that one turned out to be. Sharkey wants someone to trade for ’im, once he’s back.”

“I still don’t see’s why we couldn’t do’s well with some o’ those that side. There’s that skinny one as all’ve said as loved him once--bet as he’d give hisself up for her.”

“But these here’s the ones as all says as he loved back. No, if we’s to get leverage o’er ’im, it’ll be with some o’ the Bucklanders as was as family to ’im.”

“Well, let’s go closer to that Hall o’ theirs,” suggested the first, and she saw the black shadow of his shape turn the direction of Brandy Hall--and then stop stock-still and fall, his body filled with arrows; the next moment the other broke and ran at one of the positions that must have hidden some of the archers, and then he, too, fell, an arrow taking him in the throat.

Saradoc came crashing through the thicket toward her, sliding his bow over his arm as he ran. “Esme! Are you here? Are you all right?”

She came out into the open, and he turned her direction, sweeping her into his embrace, holding her close to him. “I’m all right, Sara,” she murmured into his shoulder as he held her possessively to him. “I’m all right--but it was so close!” Other hunters were appearing out of the scrub; then Gomez and Gil between them bent to drag one of the bodies away, while Dick and Beri leaned over the second one.

*******


All gathered outside the Hall, watching the group of Hobbits approaching from Kingsbridge. “It’s over!” Nilo Bridgemaster called once he was near enough to be understood. “Our lads--they’re back! They’ve raised the Shire, and we’re winning! They’re back! Merry, Peregrin Took, Sam Gamgee, and our Frodo--they’re back! Climbed over the gate and found the key and threw that awful Bill Ferny right out, they did. Reckon as he’s still running!”

And suddenly the folk of Brandy Hall were shouting questions, then someone broke out in song. Folks were running back to the Hall to fetch instruments, and then they were playing along with the song, and one song led to another. And all clapped and cheered as the Mistress and the Master began to dance together as lithely as they ever had when young tweens at the Free Fair, many, many years past. And as she swayed, stamped, turned and curtseyed wildly and with purpose and more energy than she’d known in years, Esme saw the same joy shining back at her from Sara’s eyes as she felt in her own heart.

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