“Here, you!” Bender Cotman roused from his bored doze to find the gaoler with a meal. “Best get that down you right quick--seems as your presence is wanted by the King’s Lord Halladan within an hour. I’m not certain as why the likes of you’s wanted by the likes of him, but there it is. Now, them other ones--the Southerners as attacked the Hobbit lass--anyone from outside the village who wants to deal with them is welcome to them. But you....” His attitude made it clear to Cotman, however, that in spite of being one of Bree’s own, as he had brought shame on the village by attacking the King’s representative perhaps it was best Lord Halladan got him, too. The folk of Bree weren’t completely certain what news of the new King meant to the Breelands and its environs, but any insult to his folk was definitely an affront to themselves as well. The farmer quickly realized that the gaoler, in spite of being one of his gambling companions most evenings at the Silver Fox, was not now any sort of ally.
After the meal a basin of warm water, soap, flannels and towels and a comb were brought to him and he was ordered to prepare himself as fully as he could in the time allowed him. When at last he was released from his cell it was to find that two Rangers were there to take him and the two Southerner ruffians imprisoned some weeks earlier in the marketplace in hand. Outside the gaol stood several more, and with the gaoler in attendance they marched the three of them through the village to the Grange Hall.
Cotman noted that the oldest Blackroot boy was present, his scowling mother at his side and the youth in his best and least comfortable garb, and realized that Rangers must have been questioning several individuals about his movements in the last few weeks. He was beginning to feel more uncomfortable, but still hoped to brazen it out until he saw three of those who’d been in the Silver Fox last night enter, followed some minutes later by Delric Safflower and then Jape from the Prancing Pony. Then the youngest of the Rangers, the one with the hound at his side, entered carrying a wooden case and accompanied by that Master Alvric. The one bright note in this was that Alvric’s left arm was bound to him by means of a scarf, and Cotman was glad he’d managed to at least leave his mark on the Man.
Each of the prisoners was given a seat in a sturdy chair, and their left legs were bound to the corresponding leg of their chair. Cotman found this rather disconcerting, but reflected that at least it rendered the two ruffians less capable of doing anything threatening. Once that one-handed Lindor Greenwillow entered with that wooden staff of his it appeared that perhaps the situation would be dealt with.
Normally the gaol in Bree held either individuals who’d made nuisances of themselves while drunk or had quarreled loudly with spouses or neighbors or both. These spent the night sleeping off what they’d had, paid their fines to the gaoler (or promised to pay as soon as they might), signed the book, and were sent on their way. Those taken cutting purses in the marketplace or stealing from other Breefolk were usually brought before the Breelands Council when it met in the Grange Hall on Trewsday mornings, and could expect to spend up to a month further in the gaol and not only be required to make recompense but to pay a hefty fine depending on their history. Those taken in their fourth offense were shown the Bounds and told not to return to the Breelands under any circumstances. The few who’d been caught involved in highway robbery or other footpad work were usually ordered beaten with ten stripes and again shown the bounds; or, if the matter was serious enough they might even be hung.
Now and then the Rangers would request the use of a cell for someone they brought in, usually not for long. When those who brought such prisoners into Bree left again the prisoners usually went with them, often with their hands tied behind their backs and a rope about their necks, hurrying to keep up as they trailed behind the Rangers and their horses; and the gaoler always was entrusted with a fee to pay for the meals served them and the care given such prisoners during their stay. One gaoler had thought to pocket these fees without doing aught for his charges, and was himself given ten stripes and shown the bounds on the demand of the Rangers, the Breelands Council itself agreeing for once with the tall strangers from the north.
These two Southerners had remained in the gaol for about a month, and speculation as to what would become of them was rife. Why the Rangers had left them so long was discussed, and now a good deal of the village itself gathered to see them brought before the one identified as Lord Halladan, the Ranger they’d always called Slow Talk.
“All rise! Lord Halladan son of Halbaleg, Lord Steward of Arnor under the authority of our Lord King Aragorn Elessar Envinyatar Telcontar, King of Arnor and Gondor.”
That one entered, and all rose to their feet as he crossed to the table set for him, sitting only once he was seated. He wasn’t in worn green riding leathers this time--he wore new ones of a dark grey with an eight-pointed silver star inlaid into the leather on the upper left breast. He wore a silver circlet today, and his great sword’s sheath lay against the floor behind him as he accepted a sheaf of paper from the Ranger known in the Breelands as the Scribe. He set these in front of himself and examined them carefully before looking at the two Southerners. Without taking his eyes from the prisoners he said, “Will you please read the charges, Lord Berevrion?”
Berevrion was serving as clerk; he took the papers from before Halladan and read, “Here are brought before Halladan son of Halbaleg, Steward of Arnor in the name of the High King Aragorn, the Lord Elessar Envinyatar Telcontar, two from beyond our southern borders, Ternish, apparently from Isengard, and Bertelion son of Redik of Dunland, taken in the marketplace in Bree, where prisoner Ternish was threatening Petunia Bracegirdle, a minor Perian of the Shire visiting in Bree with her family, her father being Bartolo Bracegirdle of Hardbottle in the Shire where he serves as a lawyer, her mother being Delphinium Baggins Bracegirdle, a goodwife, both being kinsmen to the Ringbearer, Frodo Baggins, the Lord Iorhael to all the Free Peoples of Middle Earth, sojourning here in the Breelands on the business of Lord Frodo and for the good of the Shire. The prisoner Ternish did recognize the minor Perian Petunia Bracegirdle as a Hobbitess of the Shire and sought to lay hands on her, threatening her with vile physical harm and possible death, saying that in harming her he would be avenged on what he felt he lost in being banished from the Shire when the Periannath of the Shire rose up against the private army of ruffians, thieves, brigands, and half-orcs sent into the Shire by the traitor Istar Saruman, known also as Curunír, originally given to the service of Lotho Sackville-Baggins who sought to make himself supreme ruler of all who dwell in that land and later serving Saruman on his arrival, that service continuing on after the assassination of Lotho Sackville-Baggins by the Rohir Gríma Wormtongue on the orders of Saruman, whom these called by the name Sharkey.
“This incident was witnessed by Teregion son of Faradir and by Lindor Greenwillow. Lindor used his staff upon the prisoner Ternish to fell him that he do no harm to the Hobbit lass, and with Teregion’s aid took both of them prisoner. They were searched, and jewelry, some found on their persons and others found left hidden at their camp, was recovered. Most of the jewelry was of silver but a few items were of gold and one had mithril fittings, several with lesser gems and stones, most of Hobbit and Dwarf make. Along with the jewelry found upon their persons were the weapons that lie in evidence.” Berevrion indicated a table to one side on which lay one long knife, a dagger, a boot knife, one knife in a sheath to hide within a sleeve, a kosh made of lead beads wrapped in leather, a fine wire cable with wooden handles on each end, and a wooden club.
Halladan’s eyes were drawn to the wire and grew hard. “Which carried the strangling wire?” he asked.
Berevrion consulted a separate sheet, then reported, “The prisoner Ternish, hidden within his belt.”
“Does it appear to have been used?”
“Yes, my lord. There were found hairs and what appears to be dried blood where one of the handles was bored for the wire to be secured, and another hair was caught more toward the center of the wire, caught into the cable. The nature of the hairs indicates the victim or victims were likely Periannath, or perhaps a Man with curly hair similar to that of the Hobbits. There is no way in which we can be certain how recently the strangling wire was used. Shall I continue with the remainder of the charges, my Lord?”
“Yes, go ahead.”
Barti listened with a growing horror, the thought of that wire on his mind. This Ternish was the one who had threatened Pet, and he’d carried such a thing hidden inside his belt? Had he used it within the Shire? He’d seen the report sent by Frodo Baggins to the Guild of lawyers, family heads, and village heads of how many Hobbits besides Lotho Sackville-Baggins were still missing. Had that wire been used on one or more of them?
Berevrion continued, “After one item was identified to have been the promise necklace received by the Perian Lobelia Sackville-Baggins from her deceased husband, apparently taken from among her possessions in the Hobbit residence Bag End in the Shire village of Hobbiton and the other items failed to be reported missing from any within the Breelands, correspondence was sent to Lord Frodo, who served as deputy Mayor of the Shire, advising him more jewelry stolen from his people had been located. The jewelry was sent to him by way of the Shire lawyer, Master Bartolo Bracegirdle. A response from Lord Frodo was received five days past. The bulk of the objects found had been in the keeping of Mistress Lobelia and her son Lotho Sackville-Baggins, and had apparently been stolen from Bag End after Mistress Lobelia was incarcerated in the Lockholes in Michel Delving with the complicity of the fallen Istar Saruman, and most likely after the assassination of Lotho Sackville-Baggins. Unfortunately, most of these items had been in their turn stolen from other Hobbits of the Shire by Mistress Lobelia and Master Lotho. Many of these items have been identified and returned to the original owners or their primary heirs. Word is being awaited from other possible victims from among those who live in the Southfarthing and elsewhere that were visited by the Sackville-Bagginses.
“It is his report further that Mistress Lobelia repented of her earlier evil as well as that wrought by her son, and has sought to make all right, offering the bulk of her property and that left by Lotho Sackville-Baggins for purposes of reparations to those who lost much as a result of Lotho’s complicity with Saruman’s Men and schemes. The items in question remain in the hands of Mayor Will Whitfoot, having returned to his customary office since the election held at the Midsummer Free Fair in Michel Delving pending final identification.
“The prisoner Bertelion held most of the jewelry carried with them in his possession, and bore the fewer weapons, carrying a dagger, boot knife, and kosh. He also spoke out against the prisoner Ternish’s stated desire to take possession of the Hobbit lass and cause harm to her.”
“I see.” For a time there was silence, and Halladan considered the two of them thoughtfully. He turned to the one who was more obviously a Man. “You are Bertelion son of Redik?”
“Yes, my lord.” Bert’s voice was tired, and it sounded as if he were resigned to his fate, whatever that might prove to be.
“You are from Dunland?”
“How did you come into the employ of Isengard?”
He shrugged. “We had little enough on the farm me folks had what I growed up on. Land was wore out, ’n’ wouldn’t support us. There was a Man what come among us from Isengard what said as there was work for them what would have it. I went.”
“How old were you?”
Barti felt cold at that. He knew that Men became adults earlier than Hobbits, but that was too young even for Men to be out on their own, he was certain. Nor was the rest of the story much better. Some of the older ones who left Dunland with Bertelion disappeared almost as soon as they arrived, being led into the caverns that riddled the stone beneath Isengard, particularly there at the back of it where the ring adjoined the mountains. Some were trained for the guard, while a few that were more skilled at speaking and persuasion were sent out from time to time to recruit more to Saruman’s service or to foment discontent in this place or that. A certain number were used as messengers and couriers, going between Isengard and a certain place not far north of Cair Andros on the River Anduin where they would meet with agents of the Enemy.
Bert was usually sent as a bodyguard with those sent eastward or back north into Dunland. He’d not been found particularly good in the use of weapons of war, but he was excellent with his fists and with intimidation--when he set his mind to it, at least. Now and then he’d found he didn’t like the one he was sent to guard, and then there had been trouble for him.
“Finally got sent north-aways,” he said. “Spent most a year in Tharbad, workin’ at whatever jobs they’d give me and spyin’ fer Sharkey. Saw that prince fellow from Gondor go through, searchin’ fer Imladris. Sent word south next time’s one o’ our lads come through headin’ back to Isengard. Sharkey decided the time’d come to send us further north ’n’ make an impression there, or so he said. Sent a number of us, includin’ a fair number of his type.” He indicated Ternish. “These’d come out from the caverns from time to time--good ones to have by you in a fight, but hot tempered--too quick t’ take offense. Make good bully-boys, they do.”
“Did Saruman also call for girls and women to come to him?” Halladan asked.
“From time to time. A few worked in the tower; most was taken back further into the vale, but we never saw as where they went. Now ’n’ then a woman would--would be given to us, and we could do as we pleased with her. Most o’ those, however, was women from Rohan or, once, Gondor, and a couple times from Tharbad. Sharkey said as these was useless for--for whatever it was as he was doin’ wit’ most o’ them as we’d not see again.”
Halladan and Berevrion and a few of the other Rangers present exchanged looks. Berevrion asked, “His Uruk-hai breeding program, do you think?”
Halladan was slowly nodding his head, his expression tired. “So it sounds. When the Ents drowned the Circle of Isengard, how many innocent women and children might have died there? I will have to send word to our Lord Cousin, and perhaps he can obtain the help of the Dwarves to check what might now be seen.”
Suddenly the import of that exchange hit Bartolo, just after a quick glance sideways at Merimac Brandybuck’s face showed it grey with alarm. Barti shot to his feet. “You saying as this--this Sharkey was--was breeding Men like we do pigs???”
Halladan fixed his eyes on Ternish while giving a slight nod. “Oh, yes. Seeking to breed a variety of orc that could tolerate Sun and Moonlight, and that was larger and more muscular and more prone to blindly follow orders than most orcs.
Barti realized how sickened he must look when Mac set a hand on his shoulder with a quiet word. “This is part of what has bothered Frodo so, I think,” the Master’s brother murmured.
Apparently Halladan heard that as he cast his eye at Merimac. “Oh, yes, it is very likely that Master Frodo was made aware of such things. He stated more than once that as the Ring gained in power It showed him scenes of torture, murder, and depravity to his own torment, seeking to convince him that if he would only take and claim It he could stop it all.”
“You mean that he--a Hobbit of the Shire--could claim that thing, claim It and use It?” asked the lawyer, intrigued in spite of himself.
“Anyone who held It might make shift to claim It,” Halladan sighed, sitting back in his chair and massaging at his forehead with thumb and index finger. “And it is likely the Ring would allow him to think he controlled It for a time, until It could betray him. When the Ring was worn It could use that to advertise Its own whereabouts to the servants of the Enemy, particularly the Ringwraiths, if they were within a few leagues of It. And the more powerful the one who held It, the more easily the Ring could catch at that innate power and authority both to use that power to Its own ends and to seek to twist the bearer to destroy his integrity. But Its primary aim was ever to be reunited with Its maker, with Sauron, once more.”
“Nor,” Berevrion added, “did Its influence touch only those who physically held It. It could sense ambition, and It would ever reach out toward those with ambition, seeking to catch at their imaginations, inflaming them with the idea that they could not only reach those ambitions but could surpass them. So it was that It in the end caught Boromir son of Denethor, whose greatest desire was to be the hero who saw to it his land and city were freed forever from the threat of Mordor and Sauron’s desire for vengeance. He sought to assault Frodo on Amon Hen and take It from him by force, leading Frodo to break with the rest of the Fellowship to spare Boromir and the others Its further immediate influence. But Saruman himself was also caught by It, though he was so very far from It. One who came from the source from which he came, with the potential of taking Sauron’s own place--the Ring would have been a direct threat to him, Gandalf, and Radagast, I’d think.”
“And what Aragorn has admitted of the images It raised in his own thoughts and dreams,” began Halladan, his gaze fixed again on Ternish. “He stated that several times he feared one night he would awaken to find himself strangling or smothering Frodo to take It for himself. It would have been delighted to destroy his integrity.”
“Then, if It was so strong, why’d anyone trust a mere Hobbit with It?” Bartolo demanded.
Halladan and Berevrion turned to look at him. “He offered to take It where It could be destroyed,” Halladan said simply. “And he’d held It for seventeen years and managed to keep It from destroying his integrity over that period of time. What It did to him in those years, though, who’s to say? However, today with the likes of that--” he indicated Ternish, “--before us and the thoughts of how he came to be, I cannot but think on how knowledge of this and the Ring’s baleful influence have worked to damage the beloved Lord Frodo Baggins.”
Ternish was glowering. “You sayin’ as I’m not natural?” he spat out.
“Who was your father?”
“How’d I know that?”
“Even your companion knows who fathered him,” Halladan pointed out. “What of your mother?”
“I killed her.”
“She tried to say no to me when I was breakin’ things.”
Bert, sitting in the next chair, sought to shrink away from Ternish. Berevrion was frowning and Halladan’s gaze was stern. Barti sank back into his seat.
The rest of the trial of these two went more swiftly. Bert admitted he had taken most of the jewelry from a chest in Lotho’s room, but that once he’d sneaked into Lobelia’s bedroom and had taken the promise necklace and two other pieces at that time. On learning of these pieces having disappeared Lotho, who’d still at the time been allowed to think of himself as being in charge, had sought to determine the identity of the thief and had threatened horrible vengeance should anyone enter his mother’s room again. Lobelia had locked her door after that; and the one individual who’d later been caught trying to break into it was beaten by the others within an inch of his life.
What appalled Barti next was the freely made admission by Ternish that he’d gladly taken part in the arrests and beatings of Hobbits who’d been accused of speaking out against Lotho and later Sharkey. He even admitted to killing two Hobbits, although he had no knowledge of their identities or curiosity toward the feelings of their families. Bert scraped his chair even further away from his former partner at that admission.
There was no question that Bertelion son of Redik was anything but a decent sort himself. What he admitted of his actions within the Shire was bad enough. He’d been promised he’d be made a governor of part of the Shire, although he admitted the time for this desired end kept being put off, again and again. He’d taken part in the “gathering and sharing” as well as assaults on farms, businesses, and homes of those who’d spoken out against Lotho or his closest supporters. Here Mac was allowed to ask questions, confirming that Bert had taken part in the firing of fields in the southern reaches of Buckland and the eastern Tooklands, and that he’d been one of those who’d terrorized and eventually beaten the sister of Marcos Smallburrow after she’d publicly upbraided their imperious mother and denounced his actions. Bert had been originally stationed near Waymeet, but had been shifted to Bag End itself when Lotho had become convinced the Hobbits of the Shire sought to assassinate him, at which time he’d demanded the biggest, most intimidating of the Big Men be brought to protect him--a move that in the end made it easier to isolate him and make him a victim once Sharkey arrived.
It took little consideration for Halladan to determine the fate of each. He examined Ternish’s eyes one last time. “Tomorrow you will be taken south beyond the boundaries of the Breelands, and you will be hung as cleanly as possible. Your admission that you began slaying with your own mother as well as your lack of concern for those you slew within the Shire makes it plain you are a danger to any and all who might come into contact with you.
“As for you,” he said, shifting his attention to Bert, “you will be taken to Gondor to the marble quarries that feed the needs of Minas Tirith, Osgiliath, and the other northern cities and towns. You will serve there for ten years in whatever capacity the masters of the quarries consider best. You will be granted a wage for this service to be paid to you at your release from enforced servitude; you will then be escorted to the borders of Dunland and released. Should you be found after that in the lands administered by Gondor or Arnor outside the borders of Dunland, you will be retaken and hung summarily. Word of this judgment will be shared with authorities in Rohan, and it is likely that should you be found in their territories they will seek to do likewise. Do you understand?”
Pale, Bert nodded. “Yes, my Lord.”
“So let it be noted, and let the report of this trial be forwarded to our Lord King Aragorn in Minas Tirith in Gondor, and records be placed in the archives of Annúminas and Fornost as well as the local records here in the Breelands,” Halladan noted. “Take these two away.”
A recess was called, and refreshments were offered to those who were witnessing the trials, sufficient to the needs of those Hobbits present. Bartolo found himself standing by Berevrion and Merimac. “What was said of Frodo Baggins,” he began, “of how the Ring was--was working to change him--how likely is that?”
“There is no question that the Ring sought to change him, and he admitted It often showed him images of great evil, at least a few of which he described afterward. There in Ithilien where he awoke he remembered a vision It showed him of Men taken by orcs who’d managed to escape and hide in a small cleft. The orcs could not retake them, but walled them in with great stones and left them to die. The Rangers of Ithilien recognized the cleft as Lord Frodo described it, and were able to find those two Men yet alive. They have now been restored to their families.
“The Ring and the quest have left his health impaired--there is no question of that. Certainly he cannot eat as do the others, and both my Lord Cousin and Lord Elrond of Rivendell watched over him carefully.”
Barti could see the grief and acceptance in the Steward’s eyes as Halladan joined them. The Northern Steward added softly, “It took a good deal to eke from him during our return northward that he believed the Ring Itself had most likely been to blame also for his failure to marry. Afterwards he slept badly, and for two days following we had to travel more slowly if we were to spare him further distress. My Lord Cousin feared that his beloved friend’s health might well deteriorate, and I grieve that it appears to have begun doing so indeed. It is a grievous loss to both the Shire and to the realm that he has felt unequal to serving as properly elected Mayor, for he is one of the most responsible of mortals I have ever had the great honor to meet, and his service would only have done well by your land and ours. I ask each of you to bear back to him my sorrow that he felt unequal to continuing as he had begun in the duties of the Mayor, and that his health is not what it should be. And bear him also my respects for his decision, and my love for him as one who has been granted the chance to know him during our time together.”
Reluctantly Barti agreed to do what was asked of him, while Mac solemnly promised the same.
Mac had other concerns. He began, carefully, “You say this Ring would seek to take people. What does that mean?”
Halladan sighed. “It sought to cause people to claim It, for once they took It with the intent to hold It and the power It contained for their own purposes It could take them completely, destroying what remained of their own personality and will in the process. There in Orodruin It was at Its strongest, for there It had been wrought, in that place that Sauron had made completely his own. There It took your kinsman....”
“It took him? Frodo? It took him, and he claimed It?”
“Yes, It took him. Only the fact another who desired It more was at hand, who attacked him and took It from him by force saved him. And he has never forgiven himself that he could not withstand that final assault by It, and sees himself not as conquered but as weak and flawed, that he could not at the end throw himself and It into the fires of the volcano and both be destroyed to the end of Sauron. The Ring knew that this was what he purposed, of course, and would not allow that. So It took him at the end, seeking to keep him from finishing himself and It at the same time.”
“But the one who took It from him?”
“He did not seek to wield it, merely to possess It as he’d done before. Once he took It from Frodo, along with his finger, that one danced at the edge of the abyss--and slipped and fell, It in his hand. So It was destroyed, and Samwise Gamgee was able to lift up his fallen Master and take him to the one place from which the two of them might be rescued. However, it was a near thing. Both were at the very Gates of Death when Aragorn finally found their spirits to call them back.”
“Why are you telling this to us now?” demanded Barti. “No one would discuss it with me, saying Frodo didn’t wish anyone to know!”
“That is true, but had you not found out almost all of it anyway, Master Bracegirdle? Had you not already named Master Frodo a coward to his face?”
Barti looked at Merimac Brandybuck, who was examining him closely. “I saw Frodo as you left him that morning, Bracegirdle. I had no idea until today what it was he’d done while they were gone, but I knew that Merry and Pippin and Sam Gamgee knew well enough what it was that had happened to him, and that they all disagreed with Frodo that he had failed at whatever it was he’d tried to do. And I’ve never, ever, in the fifty-one and a half years I’ve known him, ever found Frodo to act a coward--anything but. I heard Sam when he took you aside after the signing of your son’s apprenticeship indentures, where he quietly upbraided you for calling Frodo a coward. And I admit I told Lord Halladan last night you had called him that.”
Berevrion added, “No one but Frodo Baggins could ever have done what was done, to manage to stand against Sauron’s Ring until he’d brought It to the very brink of the Cracks of Doom, the only place where It might be destroyed at last, allowing Sauron to be defeated completely.”
Bartolo looked around them and noted that there were no others close enough to have overheard this, the rest having given the two Men and two Shire Hobbits privacy for their quiet discussion. He took a deep breath, then looked up at the Steward’s face. “And I can’t speak of this to anyone else, not even my children or wife?”
“True. Neither you nor Master Brandybuck here.”
Mac’s face was serious. “It’s not fair that Sara and Esme aren’t allowed to know what befell the one they think of as their older son,” he pointed out.
“It’s not been fair that Master Bracegirdle here has had to work out each and every fact he’s learned about where Master Frodo went and why as he has had to do, either. The fact remains that your cousin has requested that the facts be kept private that your people not be oppressed by the evil he and the others faced, and out of the deep respect and love we hold for him we have done so. Only because we have learned this one, out of apparently misunderstanding what was actually done, called Lord Frodo a coward was I moved to say more. I cannot allow such a statement to stand uncorrected.
“Was he frightened? Oh, most certainly. Only a fool would not be frightened. But courage is not about remaining without fear--it is about going on in spite of the fear and doing what must be done. Lord Frodo and Lord Samwise went on when they had a thousand reasons to stop and give over the quest, when they could easily have laid themselves down and died rather than to have to continue on to face the next threat and fear, and the ones after that. They went on, Lord Frodo ever with the threat the Ring would claim him, perhaps the most terrifying threat of all. They knew capture and torture, want and thirst, heat such as you have never experienced, even were you to throw yourself upon one of your Yule bonfires. And he does not wish the horrors of that reality to be made known to your people, even as he forbade those who fought against those two and their fellows to slay those who laid down their weapons that you not learn to be vengeful. He would not have the folk of the Shire learn the evil of the world we’ve faced all our lives. He does not wish you to become fearful of the world and ever suspicious of the intentions of others. He wishes for your people to grow into the outer world and bring to it your own lightheartedness, not to take its insecurities into your lives.”
It was more food for thought, and as he finally returned to his seat for the trial of Bender Cotman, Bartolo Bracegirdle was beginning to fear he was suffering from a mental form of indigestion.
During the recess Denra Gorse arrived accompanied by Carnation, and the two of them took their places amongst the onlookers. As Lord Halladan returned to his seat all again rose respectfully, and again Berevrion rose to read the charges. The weapons taken from the Southerners had been removed, and now the sand-filled sock lay upon the table. The fact that Merimac Brandybuck, brother and steward to the Master of Buckland, had witnessed the attack on Master Alvric, the Mannish lawyer from the new King’s city, and his small dog impressed them, as did the fact that the Hobbit had managed to knock the Big Farmer senseless. Most didn’t appear as concerned about the attack on the Man as they were about the attack on the dog. In the past few months Holby, walking at the heels of his Master, had become a common enough sight throughout the village, and the animal had become rather a favorite of many within Bree.
A farmer from near Archet, come into the Grange Hall to find out what the to-do was about, stood up rather diffidently, holding his battered straw hat to himself between his gnarled hands. “And why’d such a one’s Cotman wish t’hurt this Man ’n’ his wee beasty?”
“Shall we explore that question, then?” Lord Halladan asked. “First, let us hear from Master Butterbur of the Prancing Pony.”
Barliman Butterbur, flushing heavily, explained about the question made to him about who within the village might be willing to let rooms to the stranger from the King’s city, and how he’d come to suggest Mistress Gorse, citing the fact she’d come to him as head of the Council for the Breelands complaining that she was beset with suitors who wished to add to their own the holdings she’d inherited full rights to on the death of her brother, and how she’d told him that Bender Cotman had been the worst of the lot. “I thought as perhaps the presence of a Man within the house might aid her in sendin’ the unwanted ones on their way--not that Master Alvric’s the least frightenin’--after all, he’s not a particularly large Man, nor has he much in the way of muscles, mind you. No, a rather quiet and peaceful soul. But, you understand, sometimes just the presence of a Man within the house can be enough to let those as would....”
Smiling, Lord Halladan cut him off. “I see, and think we all understand. Thank you, Mr. Butterbur. Mistress Gorse--if you would please stand?”
Had she had her peace of mind disturbed by these unwanted suitors? “Disturbed? Oh, I’m afraid yes, sir. There’s some as can’t appear to understand as no matter how successful they might be within the Breelands that I myself don’t find them the sort as I’m attracted to. And they seem to think as if there’s a woman alone as has some property to her name, she ought to be grateful to think as they’re willin’ to help guard it, somehow. My family worked hard to build the wee house as I live in within Bree itself, and we’ve owned the small farm plot toward Archet for six generations now. Me Da, he worked it, he did, as did Fell until he died. I’ve had little interest in workin’ it myself since then, but it’s been but slightly over a year since I lost my brother. This next year, I’ve plans for it, and ones already in hand who’ll help see to it as what we plant on’t is proper cared for.
“Now, Master Alvric, he’s been quite a nice change to the household, he has. First time’s we’ve met a Mannish lawyer, and from so far away! He’s right polite and respectful, and don’t assume as a woman alone’s afraid to be alone, don’t you know. When the suitors’ve come, he’s ever come to me t’ask if I’d wish to see them or if I’d rather them sent on their way, and he’s ever done only what I said. Now, Bender Cotman, he come to the door ’n’ started insistin’ as of course I’d welcome his offer to take me under his protection, and wasn’t goin’ to listen to different. So Master Alvric come out and told him the law--as a woman has a right to hold property’n her own name if’n she wishes and doesn’t have to marry to keep it. In fact, a woman doesn’t have to marry less the idea--and the Man as she’d marry--both please her. But Mr. Cotman here--he didn’t cotton to the idea as he’s no right to try to convince me by borin’ me to death with the idea as he’s the only one as knows what’s right for me. Master Alvric had to threaten to call for the King’s Men to come escort him away afore he finally give up and left. Although, had he any idea as the Rangers is the King’s Men, I suspect as he’d of stayed till grass grew on him.”
There was some laughter at this. Missus Blackroot from the next house allowed as that was what had indeed happened--she’d been a’sittin’ on the stoop shellin’ peas and listenin’, after all. Carnation concurred as well, and all could see that in the eyes of the new Steward of Arnor that was another stroke against Bender Cotman.
Next came testimony from several who regularly saw Cotman at the Silver Fox or the Prancing Pony, and the fact he’d been furious at having been sent on his way from the Gorse door by the Mannish lawyer was affirmed. One of the last to speak was Jape, who told of Cotman approaching Delric Safflower, who was known to be another of those who’d been turned away from the Gorse door by Master Alvric, and speaking in low tones about encouraging Master Alvric to leave the Breelands. A Hobbit who’d been sitting at the next table had heard more, admitting his attention had been caught by Cotman’s stated intention to see to the end of the interference of the Mannish Lawyer. He’d not heard quite everything said at the next table, but had certainly heard enough to approach Jape about it. Jape had advised him to keep his own counsel for now, and said he’d keep an eye out for when Master Alvric should return. The Hobbit had not been in the Pony the previous night, him and his missus having been out to his brother’s farm along the Staddle Road. Jape remembered that conversation now it was brought back to him, but hadn’t thought much on it the previous evening as Cotman wasn’t present in the Pony’s common room, after all. He’d noted the arrival of Master Alvric in company with the Rangers, had noted Mr. Safflower leaving shortly afterwards, and had kept an eye out in case Cotman might come in and perhaps cause problems, but only in the most casual of manners.
“Didn’t think as the likes of Cotman would actually think to do naught with Rangers present, I didn’t.”
“Was Mr. Safflower part of this plan, do you think?”
“Don’t know to say, sirs. Only know as Cotman spoke to him the oncet and then tried to make out as Safflower was angered at Master Alvric, and that Safflower left almost as soon’s Master Alvric and your folks arrived last night. Odd, that, for he don’t usually leave so quick.”
When Delric was asked to stand, that he was somewhat uncomfortable was obvious enough. “Do you remember when Mr. Cotman approached you in the Prancing Pony before Master Alvric left to go north with the Rangers?”
After a slight hesitation, the Man nodded. “Yes, I member it well enough.”
“Why did he approach you?”
“Was still chuffin’ about him bein’ sent packin’ from Miss Denra’s door, he was. Said as Master Alvric was too big for his waistcoat, and needed remindin’ not to interfere. Spoke o’ meetin’ wit’ him once he got back to Bree--convincin’ him not to return to the Gorse house.”
“Did you seek to discourage him?”
“It was but words, sir.”
“You didn’t think he’d actually do something to Master Alvric?”
Safflower shrugged. “I suggested as if’n he thought as he should waylay Master Alvric, mayhaps it ought t’ be done outside Bree somewheres, but he said as that was no good, for he’d be with Rangers, what wouldn’t allow it. Asked me if’n I’d keep an eye out here in the Pony, ’n’ let him know when he got back. Said as he’d--he’d speak to’m--mayhaps convince him to leave Bree and to leave well enough alone. I said as I’d think on’t.”
“Where did you go last night when you left the Prancing Pony?”
Safflower flushed. At last he said, “T’ the Silver Fox--let Cotman know as the Mannish lawyer was back. And that’s all I did--went home then, expectin’ to play a game o’ draughts with my brother, only he weren’t t’home.”
“You didn’t conspire with him to seek to waylay Master Alvric as he did?”
“How was I t’realize as he’d try such a thing?”
“Yet you just stated that you’d suggested that if he were to do just that, he ought to try it outside the Breelands.” Halladan’s tone was reasonable, but his eyes examined Safflower closely. “How can you now claim you had no idea that was what he intended to do?”
Delric Safflower ran a finger about the inside of his collar, and his brow was plainly damp with sweat. “Look, sir--I didn’t have no hand in this. Now, I’m not sayin’ as I’ve been any too pleased to have Master Alvric here and livin’ in the house o’ the one woman what’s caught my eye. But I wouldn’t wish t’see him ner any other hurt, sir. Cotman asked me to let him know when them come back, and I did, and that’s the end of it.”
“You wished that Master Alvric were gone from the Breelands?”
“Yessir, that I did. Now, he wasn’t rude t’me when I come to call; and he didn’t threaten me; but if Denra Gorse fancies the likes o’ him rather than a proper Man o’ Bree--well!” He glared at the fancily dressed Ranger, as he thought of him, and folded his arms across his chest.
There were a few more questions, but what had happened was reasonably clear in the eyes of those who’d come to observe this trial, and Delric Safflower, if not convicted in the hearts of his fellow Breelanders as was true of Bender Cotman, wasn’t coming off any too well. It was as he finally was ready to sit down that his eyes fell on the object that sat on the table off to the side where the Southerners’ weapons had sat before. It was in looking on that object that his face went from flushed to pale. He stopped and looked up into the eyes of Lord Halladan with accusation. “My sock--how’d you come by my sock? Is this meant to make it look as I’d done sommat as I never did? ’Cause I’m here t’ tell ye as I never did nothin’ ner intended t’ do nothin’ to Master Alvric! Where’re ye to tell me as you found that? In his goods er sommat?”
“You recognize it as yours?”
“Yes--me cousin Annika from Combe knit’em for me for Yule, she did. They was hung on the hedge t’dry, and one disappeared. Thought as the wind took it, but couldn’t find it nowhere.”
“How long ago did this sock go missing?”
“Dunno--mayhaps five-six weeks agone.”
“Is there anyone who will bear witness to this?”
“Me brother could--he washed ’em, he did.”
His brother was sent for, and there was a break while all waited for him to come. Eregiel helped Master Alvric to take Holby outside for a short time, then brought him back in and returned him to the low crate. Halladan came forward to feel the wounded area, noted the swelling and the tenderness, murmured an odd song under his breath as he laid hands over the collarbone. At last he straightened. “I have slight healing abilities compared to the Peredhil of Imladris or my Lord Cousin,” he said quietly, “but I think you should know some easing from this--not a great deal, perhaps, but some. There does appear to be a crack, or perhaps a bruise to the bone itself. Either way, having your shoulder immobilized for the next two to three weeks should aid the healing greatly. I would suggest, however, that you carry with you a pair of rolled socks with a lace to bind the roll and squeeze upon that with your left hand several times regularly over the space of a day to keep the muscles strengthened.”
Alvric nodded and resumed his seat as the lad sent out returned with Master Safflower’s brother in tow.
“Do I recognize that? O’ course I do--it’s Delric’s sock. Why’s it here, and what’s in it?”
“Do you know of it having gone missing?”
“Yes, few weeks back, I think. I washed it with the other laundry and hung in on the hedge to dry. When I went back to fetch the clothes, one sock was gone. Delric was that put out--our Cousin Annika knit’em for him, and would be right furious were he careless enough to lose one. She’s still got hopes as mayhaps he’ll look at her one day and see as she’s cared for him for years.”
Delric was flushing furiously at this, and a good deal of the suspicion the villagers were feeling toward him lessened at that.
The Blackroot boy was called next. Getting him to talk at all was difficult, but finally he allowed as Mr. Cotman had paid him a silver penny to watch Mistress Gorse’s house and to let him know when it appeared that Master Alvric might be gone for a time. He also allowed as his next younger sister had been given several coppers by Mr. Safflower to speak nice about him in Mistress Gorse’s hearing. There were a few laughs at that. Delric Safflower looked as if he wished the floor would swallow him up.
Eregiel was asked to speak to the physical condition of both Master Alvric and his dog, and Merimac Brandybuck described precisely what he’d seen and done.
Finally Alvric was asked to describe his meetings with both Mr. Cotman and Mr. Safflower, which he did without disparaging either Man.
“And when you were attacked last night, how many Men lay in wait for you?”
“I saw only one. Holby growled and I stopped; when I insisted we go on in spite of what was bothering him he ran past me, and suddenly there was a Man emerging from behind the shop I was passing, and he kicked out at Holby, sending him flying back behind me. He lifted his arm, but I fear I didn’t see much beyond that, for I was worried for Holby and turning toward him when I was struck here.” He indicated where his neck met his left shoulder. “I’ve a bad bruise there and on my forehead here where I struck the ground, and the heel particularly of my right hand and this knee. I lay, half stunned, on the ground, my face turned slightly, and heard a voice--that of Master Brandybuck, I believe, challenging the one who attacked me, and then I was surrounded by feet of both Men and Hobbits and I was trying again to make certain that Holby was all right.”
At last Lord Halladan indicated he’d heard enough, and sat back thoughtfully in his chair, looking from where Cotman sat, bound by one leg to his own seat, to where Delric Safflower still sat amongst the onlookers. It appeared that in spite of the fact the watchers’ benches were filled, yet those who sat by Denra Gorse’s erstwhile suitor had still done their best to not sit touching him, crowding away from him. This had the effect of leaving him looking somewhat isolated even there in the midst of the spectators as he was.
He finally gave Berevrion a significant look. “Then I suppose I must pass judgment.” He looked at Safflower first. “You had reason to suspect this one intended to attack Master Alvric, to the point you suggested if he sought to waylay him he ought to do so north of the Breelands. But at the same time you didn’t truly wish to be involved, and had no idea that Bender Cotman intended to make it appear you were involved in the physical attack. Yet you yourself advised him his quarry had returned to the city.” He went quiet while giving Safflower a prolonged examination before straightening with decision. “I hereby turn you over to the Bree Council for their consideration and final judgment, with the suggestion you be fined heavily for your foolish complicity in an unknown scheme. I do not see your actions as deliberately evil, but most definitely selfish. Nor do I find any reason to believe that you will ever seek to repeat them.”
He turned to look at Barliman Butterbur. Jape had been quietly granted leave to return to the inn that it not go unmanned as the day grew later; it was obvious Butterbur was anxious to follow him and remained only due to his position as head of the Breelands Council. “Master Butterbur, shall I note here that he is to appear before you when the Council meets on Trewsday?”
The innkeeper, looking relieved to find he wouldn’t be required to convene the Council immediately, nodded. “Yessir, my Lord, sir. We’ll see to it.”
The face of Delric Safflower was vastly relieved when all turned to look at him. Halladan met his eyes one last time. “You will not appear before me in such a situation again, will you, Master Safflower?” he asked.
“No, sir--course not, sir!”
“That is good.” So saying, the Steward of Arnor turned his attention to Bender Cotman. “As for you, sir--how much do you believe your farm is worth?”
“What for ye want to know that?” demanded the farmer.
“Simply answer me, sir.”
Halladan sighed and looked to Butterbur and other members of the Breelands Council who were in attendance. One of the Hobbits, after speaking quietly with another farmer on the Council, stood up uncertainly. “If it please your honor,” he said, “if’n one was to offer a fair price for it with the land, house, ’n’ outbuildin’s, barns ’n’ such, we’d expect t’pay mayhaps two gold pieces for it. ’Twere it further from Bree isself, ’twould be worth less, mind. Add in a hundred silver pennies for the current crop as he’s got growin’ and another fifty for the beasts as he has, ’n’ one has a good idea as to what might be fair.
Halladan looked at the rest of the spectators. “Do the rest of you agree?”
One of the Men spoke out. “Sounds more than fair to me.” Others indicated their agreement.
“So be it, then. Then this day I offer you, Master Cotman, two gold pieces and two hundred silver pennies for your farm and the animals and such goods as you can’t take with you. You will be taken out now and given ten stripes with a whip for your actions against Master Alvric, who is here as the King’s lawyer. You will then return to your farm, pack up all that you wish to take with you into a wagon, and be ready to leave in five days.
“You will not do physical harm to the well or any building or the crop on your land or the animals you leave or what possessions you leave behind. You may take one large farm wagon and up to four horses or oxen to pull it, your dogs and house cat, and up to three head of cattle and five chickens with you as well as ten days’ worth of food and whatever seed you can purchase. In five days you will be escorted south out of the Breelands. You may go as far as you wish, but must drive at least five days away from Bree. You may then take possession of whatever empty land you might find that appears to be apt to farming.
“Your escort will remain with you for the five days you drive southwards, and before they leave you the head of the escort will give into your hands the two gold pieces and two hundred silver pennies aforementioned. You may not return northwards back into the Breelands, but will be required to do your trading further southwards, toward Tharbad.
“If you ever return to the Breelands or within a day’s ride of the borders of the Shire you will be retaken and brought before me in Annúminas, at which time I will order you given enforced servitude for five years and banished even further southwards. Do you understand?”
His face white with shock, Cotman sputtered, “But ye can’t be a’takin’ me land like that!”
“Had your scheme succeeded, would not Master Alvric be a broken Man at best, and probably dead, him and his dog, and would not Master Safflower now face a worse sentence, perhaps the rope, for murder? Nay, you get off perhaps far too lightly, Master Cotman. But certainly the people of Bree will do well to have your self-centered soul removed far from here. That is the sentence I give you, and should you ever be found again attempting to harm another for your own gain you will yourself be hanged.”
Having said that, he turned again to Butterbur and those members of the Bree Council present. “Is this seen as fair to you?” he asked.
Butterbur quickly scanned the faces of his fellows before all turned their attention back to the King’s Northern Steward. “Sounds too good for him, you ask me,” the innkeeper said. “We’ll abide by this judgment, sir.”
“So be it, then,” Halladan said, rising to his feet. “So let it be noted....”