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The Tenant from Staddle
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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26
A Conspiracy of One

A Conspiracy of One


“You have time now to go to Annúminas?” asked the young Ranger Eregiel of Master Alvric. Denra Gorse and Carnation looked from one to the other, waiting for the reply.

“Yes--I’ve been in communication with Lor--Master Frodo, and he’s allowed me to know it will be two and a half weeks after Midsummer before the next group will be able to come out to study with me. It appears as if there will be about five in this group from several places about the Shire.”

“How about those within the Breelands?”

“I’ve finished with the training of Master Watercress and his friend Meldioc Pennywhistle who joined him after the leaving of the Bracegirdles. It appears there will be six from Bree, one of them Rodric Sackins, a lawyer who was not very certain he believed in Minas Tirith or Annúminas when your kinsmen and I spoke before the Guild of Lawyers and the Breelands Council. I was most surprised that he asked, most humbly I must say, to attend the next class.”

“If we leave in the morning and ride quickly we could be there within a week’s time, and you would have about ten days to see the work being done and to review the records we hold and have recovered in the past year, and to speak more fully with Berevrion and a few of the others who oversee the rule of law amongst us.”

The smaller Man’s expression grew thoughtful and rather unsettled at the thought of the ride, but at length he straightened some and said, “Then the sooner we get started in the morning the sooner we might arrive and the more I can accomplish before I must return. And this will give me more knowledge to share directly with those with whom I must deal in the next class. It would not do to seek to hold classes this time here in Mistress Denra’s home with so many. How much do you think I might be charged to use the Grange building for the classes?”

Shortly Alvric, Denra, and Carnation were working to see his things readied for the journey northwards. “Ye’ll not be a’takin’ the wee dog, will ye?” Carnation asked.

Alvric smiled. Carnation had developed a strong affection for Holby, and had begun secretly slipping him treats at odd times during the day. He had a suspicion that if he were to leave the dog here while he was gone he would return to find Holby almost a round sphere. “Oh, but I couldn’t dream of leaving him behind, not after he’s ridden with me all the way from Minas Tirith and as he follows me all about the village here in Bree,” he explained gently. “I’d be lost without him, I fear.”

One of the Blackroot children was sent off to the Prancing Pony to speak with Bob and the stableman, and arrangements were made to bring Jongleur, Abia, and his grey cob shortly before dawn that they might be readied for the ride to come. “So you’re going to be gone for a while?” the oldest of the Blackroot children asked Alvric.

Something in the manner in which the question was asked gave the lawyer pause. “I will be gone a few days,” he admitted, “but will return. And the King’s kinsmen will be keeping an eye on Mistress Gorse’s home while I am gone to see to it that she is not importuned during my absence.”

The boy wasn’t quite able to mask the concerned expression that last gave him before he smiled and wished Alvric a good journey. He had an idea that one or more of Denra’s suitors had set the children of the Blackroot family to spy on him for them. There had been two more visits during the last couple weeks, and during visits to the marketplace he’d been glared at by Bender Cotman. He decided that this evening he would go into the village and seek out any Rangers who might be at the Prancing Pony, or at least speak with Barliman Butterbur about sending one of his fellows out if none of the King’s folks were within Bree at the moment. He didn’t like the thought of Mistress Denra perhaps being pressured by the likes of Cotman while he was gone.

*******


Delric Safflower watched the approach of Bender Cotman with a level of suspicion. He didn’t really like Cotman with his abrupt manner and his belief that he was an authority on about everything, and there was the fact they’d been rivals for the attentions of Denra Gorse to consider.

“Hullo, Safflower,” Cotman growled. “It’s lucky I am to find ye here, I think.”

“And what do you want, Bender?”

“Seems to me as we have a mutual problem.”

“And what’s that?”

“That lawyer from down south-aways. The one what’s stayin’ at the Gorse place. Him with his threats of the King’s folks....”

“Didn’t threaten me,” Delric said, turning his attention back to his ale.

“Well, him certainly did me,” his companion said as he sat heavily opposite him, his mug on the table between them. “Seems to me as this one’s a bit too big for his waistcoat.” He took a thoughtful swallow of his ale.

Safflower snorted as he took another sip, then wiped his mustache with the back of his hand. “Too big for what? He’s half a head shorter’n any Man as I’ve ever seed afore. And if’n that Denra prefers the likes of him--well, she’s no longer got my attention.”

“Oh, no? Then why’d I see ye lookin’ after her in the marketplace t’day, watchin’ ever’ step as her took?”

Delric looked away, fixing his attention determinedly on the color of his drink, giving an expressive shrug. “A Man’s got to look’t sommat,” he commented as offhandedly as he could.

“So ye follows the steps o’ the woman as give ye the brush-off, then?” The farmer gave a half smile, and took another pull at his mug. When Safflower didn’t respond, choosing to drink more heavily for a moment, Cotman continued in low tones, “I’ve a mind t’ see the last of this Master Alvric.”

“And you’ll see it done how?”

“Him’s gonna be gone for a bit--off t’ the north with some Rangers, it seems. If’n when him gets back someone was to meet him as him leaves the stables here ’t the Pony and mayhaps see to ’t as him doesn’t make it back to Miss Denra’s house....” He delicately left the sentence unfinished.

Safflower gave another grim snort. “And you thinks as mayhaps I’m the one t’do that? Na--I’m no footpad.”

“No? But ye could send one t’tell me if’n him comes while I’m away from the inn--yer here most evenin’s, after all.”

“Why not set up an ambush outside the Breelands? There’s only one main road headin’ north if’n you’re ridin’, after all.”

“Yes, but him’s travelin’ with Rangers, and none’s as wise’ll seek t’ tangle wit’ them. Once him’s back here though, ye really think as them Rangers’ll follow ’im across the village?”

Delric finished his drink, then sat with the empty mug between his hands, considering his companion. “You hate ’im so much?” he asked.

“Him threatened me, him did. I don’t take well to threats.”

“Not less’n you’re the one as is givin’ ’em,” muttered Safflower.

Bender Cotman fixed him with a glare. “What’s that as ye said?” he hissed in a dangerous voice.

“Forget what I might o’ said, Cotman. You wouldn’t hurt ’im seriously, would you?”

Cotman shrugged. “Just enough to make ’im realize as ’twould mayhaps be best fer ’im to head back t’ the King’s city, like.”

Delric Safflower considered the hirsute farmer for another moment. “How come you’re so set on Denra Gorse, Cotman? She’s definitely not interested in the likes o’ you.”

“Mayhaps. But her’s got a fine house in town, and some land’s her ’n’ her brother’s owned what would be an addition to anyone’s holdin’s. And her’s a fine figger of a woman, after all. A Man could do worse’n wake up aside her, yer knows.”

“I’ll consider it,” Safflower finally said. So saying, he rose. “I’ll be seein’ you, Cotman.” He left the common room of the Prancing Pony feeling somewhat more lighthearted for some reason.

Bender Cotman watched after Delric Safflower and smiled. He’d even thought of a way to make it appear Safflower himself might have been involved in what might happen to the lawyer. To get rid of two potential rivals at the same time would give him a good deal of satisfaction. Having thought on this, he looked around. The barmaid wasn’t on duty as yet; it was quiet enough in the Prancing Pony that Jape himself was venturing out to take orders instead of waiting for patrons to come to the bar to request their drinks. He signaled to Jape and smiled to himself as the barman approached his table. “I’ll be a’wantin’ another ale,” he said to Jape on his arrival at the table. “And I suppose as ye can take away Safflower’s mug there—was complainin’ ’bout that Mannish lawyer as the King sent here. Seems as him sees this Alvric fellow as one as might just cut ’im out o’ his intentions to take Miz Gorse t’ wife.”

“Is that so?” asked Jape, not truly interested.

“So’s ’twould seem,” Cotman said with an elaborate shrug. “Was pretty angry.”

Jape gave a look toward the main door to the room as if he could still see Safflower there, then shook his head dismissively. “No,” he said, “not the type. You want the dark or the light this time?”

Disgruntled that the barman wasn’t accepting his word at face value but aware that if he pushed the matter it was likely to draw too much attention to himself, Cotman shrugged. “Same’s afore.”

As he watched Jape return to his place near the barrels of ale there behind the bar all he could do was hope that the seed had been planted in the barman’s mind. He looked about the rest of the room, considering who might be more receptive to the idea.

*******


Twenty-three days later Alvric, Eregiel, Berevrion, and Lord Halladan returned to Bree leading Alvric’s cob and Abia as well as as the Rangers’ own extra mounts, Eregiel’s hound following at the heels of his horse. “I hope that none of Mistress Gorse’s suitors has been pressing her unbearably,” Alvric sighed as they entered through the north gate just before sunset.

“Faradir was left to keep an eye on her,” Berevrion said, smiling. “I truly doubt she’s known much trouble from them while we were gone. I’m wondering if Master Bracegirdle has come to have Master Frodo’s leases signed and registered, myself.”

“The letter we received just before we left Annúminas indicated he would seek to be here tomorrow at the latest,” Alvric said as they approached the stable yard for the Prancing Pony. “Oh, how good it will be not to be ever ahorse once more. I cannot imagine how it is that your folk spend so much time riding.”

Lord Halladan laughed. “We are almost bred in the saddle, I think. I do not believe the Rohirrim have much to crow about as horselords compared to us, save that the Mearas were given into their keeping. Although we often spend as much time afoot as we do astride, a situation most Eorlingas would be alarmed at. Aragorn earned the name ‘Strider’ given him here, for in his life he has walked far further, perhaps, than the young King of Rohan has ridden. Yet he has also ridden far further than Éomer as well. He’s been furthest of all our people since the days of Elendil himself, I deem--he has traveled through Rhun, and Harad into Far Harad; and I suspect he has also visited at least the borderlands of Khand. The one skill I do not know that he has mastered is the driving of a team, although that is always possible.”

Together they swung down off their horses, and Bob and the Mannish ostler between them came forward to help them hold the extra animals as they saw to unsaddling their mounts. “Your Jongleur here has quite a sense of humor,” Halladan commented as the brown nudged his horse forward toward Nob.

“Yes, I know. There are some days when he will decide to enjoy himself at my expense, and on them he will wait until I have my foot in the stirrup, then move away and leave me in the dust. I’m afraid I had to speak to him two or three times as we traveled north. However, there were days when he simply laughed at me. Éomer King of Rohan named him well, I think. Although he does appear to become jealous of Abia when I ride her more than I ride him.”

“And I have seen him at it,” confirmed Berevrion. “A most intelligent and self-willed creature, this one.”

Alvric had lifted Holby from his carrier and set him on the ground; the small dog immediately hurried over to a post and lifted his leg against it, then, sniffing interestedly, slowly made his way back toward the lawyer as the Man loosened the cinch to Jongleur’s saddle and lifted it off the horse to settle over the saddle tree assigned to him. The ostler was unloading the cob’s load into a handcart so that it could be pushed to Mistress Gorse’s home when all was done, and the Rangers were already retrieving their own extra items that they’d allowed the grey to carry. The Rangers and Alvric walked their mounts in and saw them into their stalls, at which time the lawyer noted that two familiar spotted ponies were housed within the stable already. “Then Master Bracegirdle is already here?” he asked Bob.

“Yessir--got here some time back, he did,” the Hobbit informed him. “Come in a trap this time, and by hisself. Must of left the Bridge Inn afore daylight and et as he drove to get here as early as he did. The young lad, he followed him in, he did.”

“Teregion?” Eregiel asked, signaling his own hound to heel. “He’s to start his proper training soon, I think. A fine Ranger he’ll make, don’t you agree, Berevrion?”

“I suppose I ought to go in and let Master Bartolo know that I’ve returned,” Alvric noted, although his expression made it plain he’d prefer to head immediately to his own place and perhaps get a bath and some sleep.

“Then we won’t lose your companionship immediately,” Halladan commented. “I will gladly pay for a couple pints for you.”

“More than one and I suspect I’d but fall asleep at the table,” Alvric replied. “Although I never was much of a one for drinking much in the way of ale or beer.”

“Then a glass of wine?” the Steward of Arnor suggested. “There is quite a fine wine that is brewed in Staddle, you know. Perhaps a bit tart, but quite satisfying nonetheless....”

“I’ll take over your handcart for you,” offered Bob.

“Oh, I can take it myself when I leave,” Alvric assured him. “I’m not completely helpless. If you’d but keep an eye on it until I come out--I don’t plan to stay long.”

“Oh, gladly, Master,” Bob smiled. “No problem in that, there isn’t.”

With that promise the four Men headed into the inn, the Rangers to arrange for a room for the three of them and Alvric to inquire as to which room Master Bracegirdle had been given. “Welcome back, Master,” Butterbur greeted him. “Master Bracegirdle? He was given the same room as he shared with his wife the last time, although he has it to himself this trip out. But he’s in the common room at the moment, he is. Will you be joinin’ the company this evenin’, then?”

Alvric walked over to one of the shorter tables where Bartolo sat with Ora and Basso Watercress and a couple of their friends and dropped onto the end of the bench beyond the Shire lawyer, Holby taking his own place under him. “It is a distinct pleasure to see you, Master Bartolo, Master Ora,” he said by way of greeting.

He noted a look of pleased surprise on the Bracegirdle’s face. “Master Alvric? Then you returned more swiftly than you’d looked to.”

“Yes--when the note came as to when you thought to arrive we ended up leaving a day earlier than we’d planned so as to not leave you too long idle before our return. And did you have a good drive out from the Shire, sir?”

Bartolo shrugged. “A tolerable one, although I’ll admit as it seemed very quiet, not having the younglings chattering.”

“You had no problems in getting the contracts signed?”

He noted the sour expression the Shire lawyer made no effort to hide. “None,” he answered rather tersely. “The client had all in hand to see it signed properly. Mr. Merimac Brandybuck should be here at any time--he had duties this morning he must see to before he left the Shire, and I didn’t wish to stay to ride with him. He’s been appointed proxy to see the last of the signatures collected.”

“And Mr. Brandybuck is the--the Master?” Alvric asked.

“No--Master’s brother, Saradoc’s steward, much as Dodinas was old Rory’s steward in his time.”

“I see--so he is Sir Meriadoc’s uncle, then?”

“Yes.”

“And how did you leave--Master Frodo and Master Samwise?”

Bartolo shrugged again, his mouth set in a line. It was plain he had no interest in relaying news of the health of the likes of Frodo Baggins.

“And was he elected Mayor in his own right?” asked Halladan, who’d come to stand behind Alvric. He handed the Mannish lawyer a glass of wine.

“Decided at the last moment as he wasn’t going to accept the job,” the Bracegirdle admitted grudgingly, disapproval obvious in every line. “Didn’t give a reason--not that old Odo was giving him much chance to explain,” he went on, although it was clear that he had to admit this against his will. “Proudfoot tends to be loud when he has something to say, I’m afraid. Neither Baggins nor Gamgee saw fit to attend the banquet for the family heads. Baggins said as all he wanted to do was get back to Hobbiton and his own bed, and the gardener wasn’t about to allow him to ride home alone. They came back for Midsummers Day itself and the elections. Baggins must not have told Gamgee ahead of time, for he was as surprised as all else when the announcement was made. Old Flour Dumpling’s Mayor again for another seven years, looks like, and he’s most disappointed.” Then, after a moment of quiet he asked, as if the question were being dragged from him, “You know as what’s wrong with his neck? Kept rubbing at it first time as I saw him, and had a bandage on it when he stood to say as he was giving being Mayor back to Will again.”

Halladan straightened. “It still bothers him? I’ll advise Lord Elrond and my Lord Cousin--they might have some advice to offer him.”

“So--this isn’t the first time, then?”

“Certainly not. It has apparently opened and drained more than once since they were returned to us. He was quite--unsettled the few days before it drained while we rode from Gondor through Rohan as we returned northward. He and Aragorn argued over it.”

“Argued over it?”

The Steward gave his own shrug. “For those who don’t fully recover from a wound or illness it is not uncommon to become resentful of never feeling fully well, and of those who seek to make certain they receive whatever treatment has been found will give them the most relief. Master Frodo forced Aragorn to agree that he wasn’t certain he’d do worse without the draughts that had been ordered for him, and refused to receive them after that--if, of course, they were offered openly. I believe that toward the end of our journey Lord Elrond was adding healing herbs appropriate for Master Frodo’s condition to the tea he brewed for him.”

Bartolo said in a low voice, as if to himself, “Then it’s true--he’s not completely well, then.”

“Considering what the Lord Frodo Baggins endured on his journey, Master Bracegirdle, the probability is that he will know a level of discomfort for the rest of his life.”

That bald statement appeared to give the Hobbit pause, and both Watercresses were looking between the Ranger and Bartolo. At last Basso asked, “Then his right name is Frodo Baggins, then?”

“Yes.”

“And yours?”

“Halladan son of Halbaleg, mother’s brother’s son to the Lord King Aragorn Elessar, and Steward of Arnor.”

The two Bree Hobbits and their friends all rose rather precipitously to their feet, although Bartolo Bracegirdle appeared less impressed by the Man’s title and position, rising more slowly and giving a bow. “Bartolo Bracegirdle, at your service, sir,” he said formally.

“Halladan son of Halbaleg at the service of you and your people ever, Master Bracegirdle. The reports we have received from Master Frodo and Master Alvric here on you and your family have ever been favorable ones.”

Ora introduced himself and his son and their companions next, and was obviously flattered to have his reputation recognized and praised by the Steward. The Hobbits resumed their seats, and Alvric asked, “Shall we look at riding out to the Hedges’ farm in the morning, then?”

“You are certain you wish to go so far so soon after your return to Bree, Master Alvric?” Halladan said, smiling. “And here I thought you were glad enough to be done with riding for a time.”

Alvric flushed somewhat. “Oh, I am, but as I had the feeling that Master Bartolo would wish to see all signed as swiftly as possible....”

Bartolo himself shifted his position some. “Apparently Baggins sent a message to Farmer Hedges just after the Free Fair, and he had the answer sent on to me a few days back. Hedges intends to bring his family here to Bree tomorrow--it’s part of why I rode out when I did, so as to be here when they arrive. He also let me know as each of you ought to be returning here about then, as well. So, you’ve been north to the new capital as is being built?”

*******


Delric Safflower turned at the arrival of the newcomers, and was pleased to see that one of them was that odd Mannish lawyer, who immediately was crossing toward the table where the Shire Hobbit was sitting with Ora and Basso Watercress. Here was the opportunity Bender Cotman desired, or so it seemed. Safflower finished his drink and rose to leave. Ordinarily he’d stay another hour at least, but if he was to advise Cotman.... He knew the farmer was at the Silver Fox for the evening--several met there regularly to indulge in gambling games that weren’t ordinarily tolerated here at the Prancing Pony, particularly as Butterbur felt that indulging in such pastimes appeared to bring out the worst in his guests. Safflower tended to agree with Butterbur on this one, which was one reason he spent most free evenings he knew here rather than there. He left a handful of brass coins lying on his table and left the Prancing Pony, absently bidding good evening to old Barliman as he passed him. He then turned toward the south gate, near which stood the Silver Fox.

It was a much smaller establishment than the Prancing Pony. It, too, was three stories in height, although the top floor was far meaner than the one at the Pony, with four rooms tucked uncomfortably below the eaves and the meager dormers where the poorest of guests would be housed--hot and stifling in the summer, freezingly cold and often more than a bit damp in the wintertime. Most of the ground floor was taken up by the common room, much darker and less friendly than its equal in the larger inn. A second room behind the common room was given over to those who enjoyed games of chance, and it was there that Safflower found Cotman, much as he’d expected.

Bender Cotman’s face was flushed with drink and satisfaction--apparently he was ahead this evening. “Surprised to see ye here tonight, Safflower,” he commented as the second of Denra Gorse’s suitors approached him.

Delric shrugged, uncomfortable with the interest he was garnering from the room’s other guests, particularly as much of that interest appeared rather predatory in nature.

“You asked me to let you know as when a certain someone returned to Bree,” he responded, warily eyeing one younger lad who’d been suspected of cutting a few purses from visitors to the village in the marketplace. “Well, he just arrived and come into the--the other place, he did--speakin’ to that Hobbit what come afore from the Shire, he is.”

“Good enough,” Cotman breathed, obviously well pleased. “Wish to come along?”

“No--think as I’ll be off home. Me brother’ll be awaitin’ for me, he will.”

*******


Bender Cotman watched Delric Safflower leave with a smile on his face. So, Safflower would be going home rather than back to the Prancing Pony. Had he gone back to the Pony it would have been harder to make it appear that Delric was the one who’d attacked the Mannish lawyer; since he was going home that made it easier, particularly as over the past few evenings Bender had been successful in convincing Delric’s brother to visit a woman who’d caught his own fancy. This was a newcomer to Bree from south of Tharbad, one who represented herself as a widow but whose true place in society had been--well, somewhat questionable. It hadn’t taken a good deal of persuading to convince her that encouraging the other Safflower might be entertaining as well as rewarding; that this woman was indeed intent on becoming respectably placed in local society helped, as the Safflower brothers had always been--up to now, at least--seen as solid of somewhat dull citizens of the Breelands.

Well, when Delric arrived home he was likely to be surprised to find the small cottage he shared with his brother empty. But, he was likely to be even more surprised tomorrow when he found himself being questioned regarding what part he might have played in what happened to that Man from the King’s city. And it was with that thought in mind that Bender Cotman gave insincere apologies to the company for having to cut his evening with them short, giving them no chance to recoup their losses to him, and took his leave.

Part of his plan to take his revenge on the Mannish lawyer he’d put into effect when he’d managed to steal one of Delric’s stockings off the hedge about his place on a washday. He’d filled it with sand and had stowed it inside a rain barrel behind the tea shop by which anyone walking from the Pony toward Denra Gorse’s house had to pass. How long Master Alvric might tarry in the Pony couldn’t be known for certain, but Cotman doubted it would be too long--he’d been gone for just over three weeks and undoubtedly would wish to return to his own rooms soon. And as he’d pointed out to Delric when he’d put his plan into action, the chance that any of the Rangers would think to accompany the lawyer across the village was quite small. But now came the waiting part.

*******


At last assured that all was in hand and that by tomorrow afternoon the last individuals needed to see the lease agreement between the Hedges and Frodo Baggins signed and witnessed would be there, Alvric son of Maerdion finished the last of the glass of wine provided him by the Lord Steward Halladan, wished Bartolo Bracegirdle and the Watercresses and the Rangers a good night, gave his respects to Jape and Butterbur, said good night to Nob, and headed out to the stable yard where Bob had the hand cart ready for him.

“I’m told that Master Merimac Brandybuck from the Shire should be here yet sometime this evening,” he advised the stable Hobbit, “although if his duties held him up sufficiently today he might not arrive until morning. Master Bracegirdle tells me that Master Brandybuck was unable to accompany him today.”

“Yessir, thankee sir,” Bob smiled up at him. “It’s been some years since I seen Master Mac, it is--a fine-spoken gentlehobbit as ever was, I’m a-thinkin’. I’ll have all in hand for when he arrives, sir.”

Smiling, Alvric took his handcart filled with his goods and, followed by Holby, headed for his rooms at Denra Gorse’s house.

*******


The scowling Man now on guard at the west gate was unwilling to admit the mounted Hobbit who sat his pony outside the village. “And how’s I to know as ye’re the one what ye says ye is?” he asked.

Merimac Brandybuck sighed. “Did you not see a Hobbit in a trap enter Bree by way of this gate earlier?” he asked.

“Well, yes--but him arrived a few hours back, him did.”

“Probably because he ate as he drove and didn’t stop any more along the way than he needed to,” Mac pointed out. “And that was Master Bracegirdle, was it not?”

“Yes,” the gate guard agreed reluctantly.

“And did he not stop to tell you as he informed me he would that another Hobbit on pony-back would be arriving sometime after himself?” Mac asked.

“Well, yes.” It obviously cost the guard a good deal to make that admission.

“I rather thought he would,” Mac observed, glaring at the Man. “Master Bracegirdle isn’t given to empty promises. So, since you were notified that I would be arriving and that I’d most likely arrive sometime after dark and I’ve arrived precisely when you were advised I would arrive, why are you holding me here? I have business to conduct in Bree for the Master of Buckland and more for my cousin, and they are holding my room at the Prancing Pony. Or do I have to send for Master Butterbur to sort this all out?”

At that the Man finally growled something under his breath and reluctantly opened the gate fully, allowing the Hobbit into the village.

“Thank you,” Mac said to the gatekeeper, putting his irritation from him as he rode toward the Prancing Pony. He’d not gone far, however, before he saw a Man skulking behind a shop, peering around it toward the inn. Curious, he paused his pony, then slipped from its back, wrapping its reins around a porch post for a nearby shop and moved into the shadows to approach the Man from behind.

He’d not quite reached the hidden Man when he heard the sound of footsteps, the creaking of small wheels, and panting coming toward them. Then the sound of small feet paused and he heard the growl of a smaller dog. Mac froze. He heard the oncoming boots and wheels pause. “Holby? What is it, boy?”

The growling grew louder, and the Man in the shadows tensed. He had something in his hands, Man noted, something long.

“Come along, Holby--I’ve been riding for days and could do with a bathe and early to bed, particularly if Master Hedges is coming tomorrow.”

Mac straightened--could the one coming toward himself and the Man before him be the Mannish lawyer Frodo had sent him to meet?

Again the dog growled. The hidden Man was smiling with satisfaction, Mac noted. Yes, this one was waiting for Master Alvric, apparently.

“Oh, come on, Holby!” The voice of the Man coming down the street was annoyed, at which the growling became louder and more menacing--as menacing, Mac thought, as a small dog could sound. Mac heard the Man on the street start forward, and saw the one he was watching move as soundlessly as he could out from behind the building. Mac took two steps sideways and saw a rather small bearded Man coming forward with a handcart full of goods when suddenly a low shape shot past him with a bark and launched itself at the feet of the one who’d been in hiding. That one was apparently ready for the attack, however, and kicked out viciously, catching the dog in the chest and knocking it with a yelp back several yards as he raised what he had in his hands and sought to catch his surprised opponent in the side of his head. That one, however, had dropped the handle of the cart, ducked down and was turning after his dog, was reaching for the small creature as whatever it was the taller Man held came down not on the side of his head but on the neck and shoulder, knocking him to the ground just short of the dog..

Mac held back no longer. He surged forward calling, “Hoy--you!”

The attacker, surprised to hear himself addressed, turned reflexively and Mac caught him in the midriff; when the big Man bent over in surprise Mac’s second blow caught him on the temple, rendering him unconscious. Perhaps a bit wiser than young Pippin, he spun sideways and let the Man fall to the cobblestones.

There were others on the street now, one with a lantern; and they came clustering about. “What happened?” demanded one Man.

“The hairy one was lying in wait for the smaller Man and the dog there. The dog smelled him and ran forward to protect his master, and the larger one kicked it and struck the Master down as I was coming to try to see what was happening, so I called to him, and when he turned I gave him a couple blows and down he fell.”

“You’re not from Bree,” noted a Hobbit.

“No--I was sent out from Brandy Hall on business for my cousin,” Mac explained. “I’m to meet with the Mannish lawyer sent by the King and a few others----”

“Well, you found him, Master Alvric,” said the first Man who’d addressed him, having turned Alvric over, “him ’n’ his dog.”

The Hobbit was examining the other. “It’s that Bender Cotman,” he noted. “What’s this?” He picked up the stocking filled with sand. “Heavy enough, whatever it is.”

Another Man took it, then gave a low whistle. “It’s a sock made into a kosh,” he noted.

The Mannish lawyer was trying to sit up. “He--he came out of the shadows,” he managed. “Holby--my Holby--how is he?”

A second Hobbit was leaning over the dog. “He’s alive, but in a bad way. I’m afraid to move him.” The first Man helped Alvric to sit up. Alvric gave a gasping sigh, and turned to the first Man. “The Rangers I rode in with--at the Prancing Pony--please go summon them. The Lord Steward’s there--as I’m the King’s representative this is a matter beyond local law.” He rolled to his knees and crawled to the body of his dog. “Holby? It’s all right, boy--I’m here--I’m with you. Stay with me if you can.” He looked about. “Is there an animal leech here in Bree?”

“Got one in Staddle,” noted the second Hobbit, gently running his hands down the dog’s sides. “Afraid as this ’un’s ribs is cracked--don’t dare move him yet.”

Holby gave a pained whimper, although he tried to lick at Alvric’s fingers.

“It’s all right,” Alvric repeated, tousling the dog’s ears gently. The first Man hurried off toward the Pony.

“How did you manage to knock this ’un out so handy?” asked one of the bystanders of Mac.

Mac shrugged, nursing his knuckles. “There was a Man I met some years back--a Ranger--taught me how to defend myself better when he came on me beset by three ruffians along the road to here. That was not long before the Master stopped sending Hobbits out of Buckland to do business with folks here in Bree.”

“You’re from Buckland, then?” asked Alvric. “Then you know Sir Meriadoc?”

“My nephew Merry? You know our Merry?” asked Mac. “And do you know the others as well?”

Alvric nodded, wincing at the pain the movement cost him. “Yes--I saw them all there in Minas Tirith.”

“They just said you were the King’s lawyer.”

“Yes--our Lord Aragorn Elessar sent me here for Lord Frodo’s purposes.”

“Lord Frodo? You mean Frodo Baggins?”

“Yes.” Alvric turned to look at the one who’d attacked him, one hand remaining on Holby’s shoulder. “Bender Cotman, you say? And why would he attack me?”

One of the Men gave a mirthless laugh. “Him blames ye fer cuttin’ him out wit’ Mistress Denra, him does. Him’s been mighty unhappy since ye come, him has.”

“She simply told me he was unutterably rude in his attempts to intimidate her into marrying him and that she wished him gone,” Alvric said, shaking his head.

“That’s Cotman fer ye,” the same Man replied, shaking his head as the farmer began stirring.

There was a greater commotion in the streets, and booted feet were hurrying toward the group of Men and Hobbits at the corner of the tea shop. In moments Lord Halladan and Berevrion were kneeling over the lawyer with Bartolo Bracegirdle standing anxiously behind them, and with a wordless exclamation Eregiel was kneeling over Holby, running practiced hands over the small dog’s form and leaning down to examine its mouth, pushing his own hound’s questing nose away absently at one point. “No, Artos--let me. Sit.” At one point there was a shrill yelp of pain from the smaller dog, but Eregiel smiled. “Bruising and possibly a cracked rib, but I don’t believe there’s bleeding within the lungs--I’m not seeing any signs of it. However, he’s in shock and needs to be kept still and warm for the next few hours, and then kept as still as possible for at least a week. What happened?”

Mac described what he’d seen happen, and the Rangers exchanged looks. Berevrion sighed. “I’ll take him to the gaol.” He turned to the farmer. “Stand up, you.”

“An’ who’re ye to be tellin’ me as what to do?” the farmer growled.

“A Ranger of Eriador and the King’s Man,” Berevrion said as he unsheathed his sword, “and the one who intends to use this upon you if you don’t do what I say.”

Bender Cotman rose unsteadily to his feet. More were gathering now, including Lindor Greenwillow. “What’s this?” the former Ranger asked.

“This one assaulted Master Alvric here,” Berevrion explained, “and seriously injured his dog.”

“I see,” Lindor said, his eyes cool. “Seeking to ease your way with Mistress Gorse are you, Cotman? If you can’t see how this has worked against your cause, not that you had any hope of her accepting your suit to begin with, then I suspect you are even more foolish than I’d ever deemed you. Let me take him, Berevrion--you need not sully your hands with the likes of this dolt.”

“Shall we escort him together? I’ll gain a degree of satisfaction just seeing him to his cell,” Berevrion commented. The older Man shrugged, and in moments they’d disappeared toward the gaol with their prisoner. Eregiel had slipped off his knitted garment and had carefully wrapped it about Holby and lifted him.

“Let me take him,” begged Alvric, although when he lifted his left arm he winced with pain.

“No, you’ll do well to see to yourself. I have Holby. Artos, on watch!” And with the great hound on guard for the two of them, he and Alvric headed again for the home of Denra Gorse, the second Hobbit following them pushing the retrieved handcart.

Halladan watched after them, then looked toward Mac. “Well, Mr. Brandybuck, I take it you were headed for the Prancing Pony for the evening.”

“Yes,” Mac found himself agreeing.

“Then you and I and Master Bracegirdle here perhaps ought to repair there and see you settled. Is that your pony there, by that porch?”

Butterbur and Nob soon had Mac settled in his room, promising to bring him a late supper plus some arnica to put on the bruised knuckles. Halladan joined him and Bartolo in the private parlor in the Hobbit wing, and was soon applying arnica to Mac’s hands. “You’re proving a dab hand at this,” Mac commented. “And you are?”

Halladan smiled. “I’m Aragorn’s cousin Halladan. I’m a first cousin, actually, as my father and his mother were brother and sister.”

“Then you’re the Lord Steward?” Mac exclaimed, seeking to pull his hand away. “Then why----”

“Softly, Master Brandybuck. Aragorn himself is a markedly skilled healer, mind you, and it was by his orders all his commanders were trained in what first aid we are able to offer. As many of us are strong in the lineage of the Kings, there are a fair number of us with at least some degree of healing abilities amongst us. Halbarad, Hardorn, and I all proved more strongly gifted than many others, and so all of us have served to ease Aragorn himself when he’s been wounded or otherwise injured. You did very well, I’ll have you know.”

“Of course I did!” Mac returned. “It was one of your own folk who trained me, after all. One named Berenion....”

Halladan laughed. “The Bear himself taught you your skill, did he? A canny teacher he’s always been, although this is the first time I’ve heard tell of him offering his teaching to any of your folk.”

“He found me surrounded by brigands who’d come out of the forest around me and helped me against them. Afterwards he gave me some lessons on defending myself with my fists that I’ve been glad of over the years since. And I taught my cousin Frodo and later a few other relatives.”

“So, you’re the one who taught Master Frodo his skill with his fists, are you? My Lord Cousin waxed poetic when describing to me how your cousin, armed only with that skill, once brought down a sot from Umbar--he was wishing he’d known of this ability far earlier in their journeys together.”

“Frodo’s very good at it--he learned quickly and well. Who was threatened by this fool from--Umbar?”

“Lord Frodo himself.”

“Not many would threaten Frodo himself. First, as a Hobbit he wasn’t precisely small, and most who’ll threaten others prefer not to threaten someone as tall as themselves or taller. Second, there was the fact he was so closely related to the Master, Thain, and old Bilbo--plus, as long as he’s been Mayor, Frodo’s even been related to old Will Whitfoot by at least marriage--his wife’s another of us who’s descended from the Old Took, after all, as well as being related to my mother. Although when he was younger there were a few who tried to make his life miserable even when he lived in Brandy Hall.” Suddenly Mac’s lip twitched.

“And what amuses you about that thought?”

Mac looked up to catch the Man’s grey eyes. “I was just remembering the ways Frodo would avenge himself against those who tormented him in those days. He could be quite--inventive.” His smile widened. “There was the time when we were at a house party--wait, you were there, too, weren’t you, Bracegirdle? Remember how Timono was at that one, stealing from everyone? I caught him in our rooms once with something of my brother’s in his hands, and I tanned his rear well, as I remember it. But then Frodo caught him trying to slip out of the house with a cloak brooch that had belonged to his dad--Dwarf made, looked as if it had been woven of silver----”

Barti stiffened somewhat. “Yes, I know the piece,” he said. “Apparently Lotho or Lobelia stole it from him later, after he went to live in Bag End with Bilbo. He said as old Bilbo’d been the one to give it to his dad. It was amongst the items the Rangers found on those ruffians as threatened my daughter when we were here over a month back.”

“Lindor sent a report on that to me,” Halladan commented, “that one was a half-orc and they’d had jewelry apparently taken from Bag End during this Lotho’s time there on them and more in their campsite.” He looked again at the Brandybuck. “Do continue with your story.”

Mac nodded. “Frodo had been using his father’s cloak brooch as it was intended, and had left it on his cloak, which hung with the cloaks and shawls for the rest of the guests in the entrance hall, as it’s usually done in the Shire. He caught Timono with it and made him give it back. A few days later he volunteered to fetch the laundry hamper from the lasses’ bathing room and realized it was large enough to hold a Hobbit. So he made a point of letting Isumbard Took know that was true within Timono’s hearing, and sure enough the next day Timono was found hiding in there when the lasses were due back from riding and likely to desire a bath before tea, caught by Aunt Lilac herself--and I have reason to believe it was Frodo who’d suggested Aunt Lilac check to see whether or not a shawl Phlox had been missing earlier might have ended up in there to be certain Timono would end up caught as he was.

“And he did similarly within the Hall when he was being threatened by our cousin Gomez. Gomez got caught by a trap set over a door with whitewash and chicken feathers, and for the longest time we were certain he and the lads with him had been trying to set it up to catch one of the stable hobbits with whom he had a feud going and got caught themselves. No one realized Frodo’d been the one to set it up for weeks, and neither our dad nor my brother felt like punishing Frodo when it finally came out, considering what Gomez had been doing to him.”

Mac smiled again, the smile more solemn now. “Frodo’s always been mostly a decent fellow, but the lads in the Hall all came to respect his ability to take care of himself and his ability to exploit their own weaknesses to see to it they got what was due to them when they deserved it. But let one of them be threatened in any way, and he would be out there to help however he could. I’m not certain how many he saved from drowning--but Gomez was one of them, and after that there was no one as likely to stand second to Frodo himself as Gomez, the one who used to devil him the worst.”

Mac looked up to see that the Man was smiling, as was the one who stood now just inside the parlor door with the sock filled with sand taken from Bender Cotman in his hands.

“This is what Cotman used against Master Alvric,” Berevrion said, handing it to the Steward. “It doesn’t match the ones he wears, so it looks as if he might have intended to make it appear someone else was involved.”

“I’d not seen the Man all evening at the Prancing Pony,” Bartolo commented. “I did see one fellow leave when Master Alvric and the rest of you came in--another of those as I saw hanging about Mistress Gorse’s place on occasion during the time we were receiving lessons there. Sunflower or something like, if I remember correctly.”

“Lindor will find out where Cotman was earlier in the evening,” Berevrion said. “Will you wish to hear the cases against the ruffians and this Cotman tomorrow?”

“Can it be arranged for us to use the Grange Hall tomorrow afternoon, do you think? We can finish the work for Master Frodo in the later morning, I would believe. Master Brandybuck and Master Bracegirdle, will you each be willing to speak to what you observed this evening?”

*******


Bartolo retreated to his own room feeling rather confused. He remembered going past the lasses’ bathing room in Aunt Lilac’s house and seeing Frodo climbing into the great laundry hamper there, and how repelled he was by the thought that Frodo would be spying upon those like his sister, Linden Took, and Delphinium. But to learn that Frodo was only seeing to it that the loathsome Timono, Timono the thief, would end up caught by Auntie Lilac herself.... Timono had stolen a necklace that had belonged to Auntie Lilac, and thrown it into the fishpond. Frodo had found it and Bartolo’s own shirt studs there after Timono had been spotted throwing suspicious packages out into the Hobbit-dug lake, Frodo being the only lad attending who felt sufficiently comfortable in the water to search for whatever Timono had tried to dispose of there. He’d later gone back and found a bracelet that had gone missing belonging to Dremma, and a Dwarf-made hair clip that Delphie had received for Yule one year from old Bilbo, as well as a few other items that had apparently been stolen from the adults in the party. Frodo had devised the means for these items to be returned to the adults with none of them any the wiser for how they’d gone missing--although perhaps Merimac Brandybuck had been more aware of who might have taken them than the younger fry at the house party were aware, considering what Barti had learned of him tonight.

Barti was uncertain what to think of the detestable Frodo now. Could one say that he’d somehow trapped Timono into climbing into the great basket when in actuality he’d merely told someone else--someone he was certain would not be likely to take advantage of the situation--that a Hobbit could hide within the hamper while in the hearing of Timono, who’d also been known to spy on the lasses through their windows? For years Barti had been certain that Timono had only copied Frodo, and had been the recipient of the confidence by Frodo that one could use that covered basket as a spying place. But now.... He didn’t know quite what to think now.

And there was the matter of the admission Frodo had made to him that he’d not actually been the one to bring down the power of Mordor as the Rangers and Master Alvric had indicated. Yet, when Persivo had been gathering up his things to see them packed so as to be ready when the wagon from the Great Smial came to collect him the morning after the end of the Free Fair, he’d paused to speak to his father. “When Cousin Frodo arrived for Midsummer Day, Dad, I saw him and I asked him to tell me what he’d told you. I don’t think as he told all of it to you. He tried not to tell me all of it, either, only the Captains arrived and forced the whole story out. They’re convinced as he sees himself as to blame for something that wasn’t his fault at all.” That had been all Persi had said, and it was plain he continued to be deeply respectful of his mother’s cousin.

Bartolo Bracegirdle sat on the edge of the bed he’d last shared with his wife and rubbed his eyes. What was a Hobbit to think?



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