With thanks to RiverOtter for the Beta.
The Lord King Elessar sat before his Council, letters from the Thain, Master, and Mayor of the Shire before him. He looked sideways at the envoy from Lord Halladan, his Steward of the northern realm, and gave a nod to indicate Erador should speak next. The Man coughed, smoothed the parchment that lay before him, and began. “As Thain Paladin has indicated, a fairly large number of Men were shown the boundaries of the Shire and sent off, including a number whose skins were unnaturally dark and whose eyes were often unusual colors such as nearly yellow rather than hazel, or a dull mud color. The same description is given of one of the Southerners who were present in Bree on the night the Hobbits stayed there on their way to Rivendell, one who was believed to have taken part in the scattering of horses and ponies stabled that night at the Prancing Pony and to have stolen at least one steed.”
The King nodded. “Yes, I know--I was there and saw him.”
Erador nodded in return as he met Aragorn’s eyes. “The Thain states that he had been advised of that by his son, who has also informed him that it was his considered opinion such were sent from Isengard by the traitor Wizard Saruman.”
At the questioning looks given by most of the Gondorians present, the King explained, “So has Curunír been called in the northern lands, and it was as Saruman that the Ents of Fangorn Forest who captured and held him within Orthanc knew him as well.”
There were nods by several in response to that information, and the expressions of two present were politely disbelieving. Aragorn made mental note of the pair before returning his attention to the northern Dúnedan--it would not do to allow those with such studied incredulity to their nature to maintain their current positions of responsibility--Denethor had taught that to young Captain Thorongil, newly come to Gondor and the favor of the Lord Steward Ecthelion, some forty-five years previously.
“One of those identified by name by the Travelers was one Bill Ferny, who as you know, my Lord kinsman, has ever known ill fame within the Breelands, although so far he was able to avoid punishment at the hands of his own folk.”
Again Aragorn nodded. “He and Harry Goatleaf both threw in their lot with Saruman’s folks, or so it appeared during our stay there.” In a quick glance around the table he could see that the fact he himself had been privy to the situation that led the Ringbearer to flee his own land was being reinforced. Good. “So, Ferny was within the Shire when they returned?”
“Yes, and was one of those who taunted them there near the gate at the Brandywine Bridge.”
Aragorn straightened. “Since when has there been a gate at the Brandywine Bridge?”
“It went up, apparently, some months after the Ringbearer and his companions fled the Shire, ordered built and set into place by his kinsman Lotho Sackville-Baggins, who, as I believe you know, bought Bag End from Lord Frodo as a result of the ruse that he was now out of money and was choosing to retire to Buckland.” At Aragorn’s nod, Erador continued, “Reports had begun to filter through to us that wagons filled with goods were being sent southward out of the Shire via the Sarn Ford and down the Greenway even before you advised us you would be keeping watch for a kinsman of Master Bilbo who was to bring him with tokens and news of danger to Lord Elrond in Rivendell.”
“Yes, I remember.”
“And you will remember that messengers between the Breelands and the Shire, who used to pass back and forth about once a month, were being attacked as of your return from the valley of the Anduin the spring before Lord Frodo came forth from his own land, and there were now none who would willingly come forward to offer for that position.”
Aragorn again nodded thoughtfully. “Yes--so many brigands were being found in the woods opposite the Barrowdowns.”
One of the two lords who’d caught his attention earlier asked, “And what were you doing in the valley of the Anduin, my Lord King?”
His Lord King examined the Man who’d interrupted before answering, “I had come through the Emyn Muil at Mithrandir’s request to track down the creature Gollum, from whom the Ring came to Lord Frodo’s kinsman Bilbo Baggins, and through him to the Ringbearer himself. We had sought Gollum off and on for several years; in the fall I found him looking down into the pools of the Dead Marshes, and there I captured him, taking him at the last into the Greenwood to place in the care of King Thranduil until Mithrandir could come to question him regarding how it was he had come into possession of the Ring.”
“And who ruled your own folk during that time?”
The King was beginning to become annoyed with this ones questions, but he answered with studied calm, “You have been told repeatedly that my northern Steward has often been required to take responsibility for our folk as I did what was needed for the whole of the Free Peoples of Middle Earth. Do you question his competence or my trust in him?”
Erador was looking at the Man with open disdain in his eyes. “You will remember, my lord, that our King was trained by Lord Elrond’s folk to track game, friends, and foes. There is none greater than he in such tasks who could respond with appropriate urgency to the need for finding such as Gollum. And if you believe that we as a people could only make decisions in the physical presence of our Lord Aragorn you’d best think again, sir. We would prefer he were amongst us; but accept that the need for now is that he give the bulk of his attention to the southern realm where the vast majority of his subjects live. Such has been the threat of Mordor toward all of Middle Earth we have had to share his attention and presence all of his life.”
Between the glare from Halladan’s envoy and the set gaze of their King, the Man sat back, now aware his drawing of attention away from Erador’s report had not been well accepted. Even Faramir was looking at him most consideringly, his expression unreadable. He realized he’d best remain quiet for the remainder of the meeting of the Council if he intended to retain his seat--the Lord Elessar had already removed more than one minor lord of the realm who’d failed to do well by his lands and peoples, and probably wouldn’t hold back at doing so with a more major lord as well, given sufficient provocation.
Erador turned back to the subject at hand. “The Shire was already being cut off from the outer world, a situation few realized as its folk have ever been rather insular in nature. But still those of our agents who patrolled along the southern borders were hearing rumors that shortages were beginning to be felt in the Southfarthing just before you met with Lord Frodo as he emerged from the Old Forest. So far the name of Lotho Sackville-Baggins was but one of several we were hearing, and we’d not yet sorted out whether he was amongst those causing the shortages or those making complaints.
“The news that this one had come to own Bag End was noted. The building of the gate began apparently about the time Halbarad was gathering us to come south to your side--again we’d heard but rumors of the project, one we could not bring ourselves to believe, considering how never have the Shirefolk sought to close the Road to any who’d traveled upon it. It appears, however, that a good part of the reason for the gate was to hold those within the Shire from leaving it with word as to what was occurring within its borders, although it failed to keep those who went north of the Bridge from coming to the eastern shore of the Brandywine and carrying some news into the Breelands. There are those within Buckland and the Marish, after all, who have kindred within Bree.”
He sipped from the goblet before him before speaking again. “Just before we rode southward we received word from the Elves who primarily watch the western marches and the Tower Hills that few were coming forth from the Shire, and that Dwarves were being turned back at the borders by troupes of Men encamped about Greenholm. We’d noted an increase in the number of Men approaching the Shire from the south and a certain number who were passing westward through or by Bree itself. That Men were entering into the Shire but not coming out again was a matter of concern, and there was debate amongst us as to whether we would all go southwards to your side or if some should be sent to investigate the Men reported gathering there. However, as the summons had been indicated to be urgent and we learned that the largest threats were to Dale, Erebor, Mirkwood, Lothlórien, and Imladris, we set our northern and eastern forces to aid Lord Elrond as they could and to protect our own lands while those of us who’d ranged about what had been Cardolan and through Rhudaur decided to go south together. Master Bilbo was safely within Imladris and Frodo Baggins was in your company--if he indeed held the Ring then the need would be to aid you as well as we might if we were to best help in the felling of Barad-dûr.”
“So, you left the Shire defenseless?” asked Faramir.
“Unfortunately, yes. That there were more Men streaming northward, sent by Saruman to subjugate the Shire and search for the Ring, we did not know. I will admit that as we rode south we did not send out much in the way of scouts until we passed Orthanc. If they camped well off the Greenway and under cover, we would have not seen them as we rode. Certainly none contested our way or gave any signs of approaching our camps when we rested from the riding.”
“What convinces you that they were sent to search for the Ring?” asked Lord Elphir, who attended for his father Prince Imrahil while his father saw to the needs of his own lands.
“One of the first commands that this Lotho gave on making himself Chief Shiriff was that his Men, assisted by a few of those Hobbits of the Shire who gathered about him and supported his oppression, were to go about the Shire and do what he called ‘Gathering and Sharing’ in his name. This gave his agents permission to enter homes and take what they deemed excess food and whatever valuables they could find. Ever they searched for jewelry, and they were known to take rings off the fingers of their victims as well as out of jewelry boxes. One of those we captured that was escorted to the borders of the Shire by Captain Peregrin and Sir Meriadoc has admitted that the idea was given to Lotho by Saruman himself in the correspondence he sent as he convinced Mr. Sackville-Baggins of his right to take over the running of the Shire. Saruman, who was known to those within the Shire as ‘Sharkey’ or ‘Mr. White,’ asked only one form of treasure for himself in return for the idea and the apparent obedience of his folk--he wished every ring found. Lotho and his folk might keep all the rest of the jewelry; he wished only rings.
“Every home was entered and stripped of any food deemed excess as well as whatever valuables they might find, and almost all jewelry was immediately confiscated. Caches of this jewelry have been found everywhere, and many chains, bracelets, and brooches of gold and silver, and a very few of mithril, have been taken from the persons of those Men who were sent out of the Shire that we have identified--they do not appear to have been properly searched. Lord Samwise, going through the remnants of Bag End following the death of Sharkey----”
“Wait!” commanded Prince Faramir. “You said that Curunír was known within the Shire as either ‘Sharkey’ or ‘Mr. White’?”
“Even so, my lord Prince.” Erador held his eyes steady as he answered Aragorn’s southern Steward.
“He died--there in the Shire?”
“On the front steps of Bag End itself.”
“How did he come there?”
“You know that, having been convinced by him that he had lost all with the fall of Sauron, the Ents freed him and Gríma Wormtongue shortly before the King arrived to give him judgment?”
“Yes--those who returned from Orthanc told me this when our Lord Elessar returned to be reunited with our Lady Queen before they took their leave of us, preceding us to back here to Gondor.”
“Even so, my lord Prince. We came across them on our way north, six days from the parting from the King. They were dressed in the rags of what finery they wore from Orthanc. Saruman offered Lord Elrond and Lady Galadriel as much offense as he dared, and apparently sought to curse them; but their own power and that of Gandalf protected the party from the feeble nature of his remaining power. He totally ignored those of us Men who rode in the company and would not look at the majority of those Elves who rode alongside us; but he gave the Ringbearer a look of great malevolence and stole the wallet in which Sir Meriadoc carried his leaf.”
All were exchanging looks as Erador went on to tell of the finding of the state of the Shire by the returning Travelers and the recognition of Saruman as he appeared from one of the sheds erected by the “Big Men” on the wreck of the gardens of Bag End. When he recounted the interchange between Saruman and Frodo Baggins as the Ringbearer commanded he was to be given the chance to seek his redemption followed by the attempt at assassination, even the two lords who had earlier appeared incredulous now appeared angered on the Cormacolindo’s behalf. The King noted this without surprise. He knew how much effect his small friend could have upon others--he was glad that Frodo’s personal magic appeared to have been properly spun about these two as well as the rest. Perhaps they might also prove vulnerable to his own in time.
As the final moments of Sharkey were described all were leaning forward intently, desiring to hear how it was that a Wizard might find his end. Those who’d fought before the Black Gate were nodding with recognition at the description of the rising of the dark mist from Saruman’s body and its dispersal.
“And Curunír had this Lotho slain by Gríma Wormtongue?” asked Lord Elfhelm where he sat as Éomer King’s representative.
“Yes, my lord,” Erador agreed.
“You speak as one who heard this personally,” commented the Lord of Lossarnach.
“Two days before I departed Eriador for the southlands Halladan, Eregiel, Gilfileg and I managed to meet with Sir Meriadoc and Captain Peregrin at the clearing opposite the Barrowdowns, and there they gave us their report as well as giving into our hands the missives from their fathers.”
Aragorn sought to enlighten himself on the matter of the stolen jewelry. “You had spoken of Sam possibly finding missing property within Bag End itself.”
“Yes--much jewelry was found there that belonged to others, including items taken from the Mayor and families related to Lord Frodo himself as well as the personal jewelry of Lotho Sackville-Baggins and his mother, most of it in jewelry boxes that had belonged to the two of them. Those items positively identified as having originally belonged to these two were returned to Mistress Lobelia; the rest was taken to the office of the Mayor where it is being catalogued and returned to its owners as they are identified.
Lord Angbor of Lamedon asked, “Why was this not stopped by the rulers of the Shire?”
The siege of the Tooklands and Buckland as well as the imprisonment of Mayor Will Whitfoot was described, followed by a discussion of the nature of the Lockholes and their original intent and how they had been transformed into a makeshift prison.
“The Hobbits of Buckland were able in some cases, under cover of night, to make their way under the Brandywine Bridge northwards where, as I indicated, they could come ashore and seek news eastward toward Bree and westward into the Shire itself. It became very difficult, however, for any to enter or leave the Tooklands save from areas at the northern reaches of the Green Hills where it was difficult for Lotho’s Men to properly patrol. Here some were able to get in and out at times. Thain Paladin controlled ample stores for the needs of the folk of the Great Smial, although as they had no idea how long the siege might last they were rationing food and drink and such items as candles and oil. It was similar within Buckland where there was perhaps slightly less want than there was in the Tooklands. But many of the common folk of the Shire proper were in desperate need, so much had Lotho and Sharkey’s folk taken.”
As more of the destruction of Shire property and institutions such as mills and inns and homes was described the anger felt toward Lotho and Saruman was growing palpable. All were now feeling anger toward the two of them. When it was revealed that Mayor Whitfoot was deemed too weak to meet his responsibilities to the Shire and that Lord Frodo himself was taking over his duties all appeared relieved and triumphant.
“Then he will see all put right there,” noted the lord who’d earlier questioned the King’s absence from his own lands.
“Indeed he seeks to do so,” agreed Erador. He described how Samwise Gamgee had already served to set the Quick Post back into service, and was doing a survey of damage and already setting folk to rebuild homes or excavate new ones, and how Frodo was overseeing the reestablishment of proper records and the investigations of what had been done and how it had come to happen.
“The family and village heads are all in support of what is happening, and are making available their resources to the needs of all. Much in the way of confiscated food, clothing, and other goods has been found already stored in Michel Delving, the sheds of Bag End, and on properties that had belonged to Lotho Sackville-Baggins, and there are reports of more being cached in the quarries of the Brockenbores and the caves near Scary. The greatest damage was to the central Shire between Overhill and the borders of the Tooklands, along the Road from the Brandywine Bridge to beyond Michel Delving in the White Downs, along the western banks of the Brandywine, and then throughout the Southfarthing where Lotho held much property. When Men were able to cross the Brandywine or enter the Tooklands they fired homes and farms, as they did throughout much of the Southfarthing on properties belonging to others Lotho saw as his rivals for influence.”
“How many of the folk of the Shire itself have been found to have been complicit with this Lotho person?” asked Lord Angbor.
“That is still being investigated. His cousin Timono Bracegirdle, a lawyer from the Southfarthing, has definitely been named, and was being sought at the time I rode south. One named Markos Smallburrow was arrested, and others who helped send goods intended for elsewhere south toward Orthanc were already being placed under house arrest by their family heads. However, it appears that it was mostly through the Big Men that the Shire was oppressed and much of the destruction wrought.”
Aragorn sighed as he sat back in his chair and rubbed at his temple. “Never have the Hobbits of the Shire been particularly friendly to those other than Dwarves,” he noted. “This could totally destroy the trust they feel toward Men.”
“So Captain Peregrin has commented,” agreed Erador.
“How many Men and half-orcs were involved in this move to take the Shire?” asked Elphir of Dol Amroth.
“At least two hundred, and perhaps half again as many. The largest group was in Hobbiton itself, the village where the Baggins home of Bag End lies. An almost equal group was stationed in Michel Delving, the village where the Shire’s major records are kept.”
“From what Frodo and Pippin have told me, Michel Delving is the functional capital of the Shire,” Aragorn commented.
“Indeed, so it seems,” Erador agreed. “There were many at Waymoot as well, where the majority of those who laid siege to the Tooklands appear to have stayed. Most of those who patrolled the Brandywine River to keep the Brandybucks contained appear to have stayed in a barracks building of sorts raised near the remains of the Bridge Inn to the North, and not far from the Sarn Ford to the South near Hays End. There were also some stationed in Stock, not far from the landing stage for the Bucklebury Ferry.
“The Northfarthing appears to have held the fewest of the troupes; in the Southfarthing most appear to have centered around Hardbottle. Most villages housed at least five to ten, I’m told; and at least that many lived on each of Lotho Sackville-Baggins’s properties.
“As well as Men, Lotho also relied on the Shiriffs to enforce his will. These are usually menfolk amongst the Hobbits who walk abroad, helping to retrieve strayed animals, quiet arguments, see home those who have drunk too much in their inns, and check on the integrity of boundary markers. Lotho had begun to propagate grossly unfair laws that flouted Hobbit customs, and now those who were amongst the Shiriffs were made to enforce them. Those who had been Shiriffs before he named himself Chief Shiriff were not allowed to resign their posts; and many who showed tendencies to bully others were allowed and encouraged to join their ranks and act on their baser instincts. Captain Peregrin has stated that many of these also are now under house arrest on the orders of their family heads, and that Lord Frodo has been summoning them into the office of the Mayor and questioning each. How long the investigation of the situation will go on no one appears certain.
“There is no question, however, that Men and the more corrupt Shiriffs were directed to aim the greater part of their antagonism toward those who were closely related to Lord Frodo, the Thain, and the Master of Buckland, and those family heads who had failed to respect Lotho and his father as family heads of the Sackvilles. Lord Samwise’s family had known the confiscation of almost all they’d owned; similarly with Lord Frodo’s closest Boffin and Bolger relatives, many of whom were forced out of their homes. How many are now dead no one knows for certain, and there are some who have simply disappeared.”
One of the lords present asked, “And all enmity by Curunír was aimed at the Shire?”
“No, for the Breelands were also attacked, and shortly before the Men began entering the Shire in force. Bree village was assaulted directly; but directed by one of our own agents who lives within the village the Men and Hobbits who live there put up a defense and drove off the attackers. Harry Goatleaf and Bill Ferny were part of the attack, by the way, my Lord Cousin.” At Aragorn’s nod, he continued, “There were also attacks on farms near Staddle. How many were attacked and how much loss of life and property was suffered had not as yet been discovered when I came away.”
Prince Faramir exchanged looks first with his cousin, and then with his King. “And Master Frodo wished to give Curunír the chance to know healing?” he asked Erador. “After all he had done, he would merely turn him loose?”
“Yes, my Lord.”
Faramir rose and turned away, looking up at the portrait of his grandfather that the King Elessar had asked be hung upon the wall. “How does one characterize such a choice--as wisdom or folly?” He turned back toward the rest sitting about the Council table. “He and I spoke of what he wished for his people--that there might remain in this world at least one land where innocence for the most part remained. Our Lord Iorhael might have lost all of his own innocence in the carrying of the Ring, but he knows now its value, and the need for unsullied joy somewhere within Middle Earth.”
“A land where Curunír has wrought his own evil out of envy, malice, and the need for vengeance can no longer be seen as innocent,” the King pointed out. “And full wisdom does not come without trial. It was as the result of Frodo’s full time with the Ring that he truly earned the name ‘Wisdom born of experience’.”
“I said as much to him, when he said he would not see his younger cousin Pando, who has played at Túrin and the Dragon with him, having to face a line of trolls.”
“What did he answer?”
Faramir shrugged, remembering that conversation. “He turned the talk to the beauty of the stars, and how seeing the crown of flowers about the head of the statue at the Crossroads and a star past the reek that covered Mordor were enough to have given him and Master Samwise hope as they looked to complete their journey. He then said that all had proved worthwhile if it served to allow his folk to retain their innocence.”
“If it is his wish that his own folk be allowed to know protection from further loss of innocence...” began Lord Angbor before trailing off. All looked to him as he tried to think how to make his thought clearer. Finally he said, “I am a father, and have looked on my child sleeping in peace, and have wished to preserve that peace for as long as possible. Obviously our beloved Lord Iorhael feels himself as if he were father indeed to his folk, and finds he harbors the same wish. Would it truly harm them if that wish were to be fulfilled for a time? We Men with our swords and great self-conceit so often make such a wreck of that we say we wish to see made better. Certainly with the encouragement of Curunír this Lotho appears to have done likewise within the Shire ere all came crashing down about him.
“Is it not desirable that the child first know the security of love that he might come to maturity trusting in both his own worth and that of the world about him that he might reach toward strength to oppose evil by choice rather than necessity? We could do so little to reward the Cormacolindor for what they did for all of Middle Earth. May we not now grant Lord Frodo the one wish of his heart, and bind the world of Men from returning to the Shire to its possible detriment until it is fully renewed, and strong enough to choose to lift the ban for itself?”
“And if they never choose to do so?” asked the Lord of Anórien.
“At least the rest of the world may have the knowledge that here within the Mortal Lands there remains at least one haven of innocence.”
The King straightened and closed his eyes as he thought on this, and Faramir again resumed his seat, taking up his goblet and drinking from it before setting it down again and folding his hands upon the table top, awaiting his Lord’s decision.
At last Aragorn sighed, opening his eyes and leaning forward. “For a generation more, perhaps, we might offer them protection. So be it, then. If all agree?”
He looked about the table. Not one face indicated its owner was in opposition to the plan.
Faramir, however, advised, “Let us first give them a time of trial, my Lord King--say five to six years. Then, let the folk of the Shire itself choose whether or not it would have that ban continued.”
Elfhelm gave a slight nod. “And there should be a means by which the Shire itself might admit a few it deems worthy of trial or trust.”
“With the permission of Master, Mayor, and Thain, perhaps, as well as royal warrant?” suggested Elphir.
Slowly Aragorn nodded, the crease between his brows loosening some. “That makes much sense. Then, in time it may be found enough have been found sufficiently trustworthy to allow at least limited access to the Shire that in time the Shirefolk themselves may realize the continuance of the ban is foolish and so dispense with it.” All about the table he saw now smiles and nodding heads. He looked to Erador. “And what does Halladan advise?” he asked.
The Dúnedan smiled. “Actually, this is almost precisely what he’d felt might aid those within the Shire to best recover from what has been done to them,” he admitted.
Feeling much relieved, Aragorn smiled more broadly. “Yes, so let it be done then. Now, gentlemen, to consider the plight of the widows of Pelargir....”