Written for the A_L_E_C "Freedom" prompt. For Dreamflower for her birthday--a belated offering, I know. Beta by RiverOtter.
She sat upon the pile of rags provided her as a bed, her back against the limestone wall, her umbrella clutched in her hands, listening intently. There were murmurs from a few of the other cells, those whose doors were close to one another or the very few where more than one Hobbit had been placed together. But no one dared call out loudly—that was an activity that had always brought violent retaliation from the Big Men who were in charge of the Lockholes.
Not that they had heard even the harsh voices of the worst of those for quite some time. It had been many, many hours since the prisoners had heard the Big Men shouting to one another, then the guttural murmuring of them in consultation, there in the bend of the downward tunnel where they seemed to like to gather, before one had begun issuing orders that had led to them all heading for the exit together. There had been the slamming of the big heavy doors that they had fitted to the mouth of the old storage tunnels, and then the telltale sounds of locks being fitted to staples.
No one had fed the prisoners at all since the first rumors of intruders into the Shire, quite some time ago now. “How long?” she whispered to herself. “A day? Two?”
She had no way of knowing, really. Their guards had filled in those shafts to outside that had allowed in light—that had been whispered to her by the one in the closest cell, an old storage chamber that had once held apples, apparently. “The smell of apples—I’m surrounded by the smell of apples, but there’s not a single one to eat!” the voice had grieved, shortly after the horrid Men had finished nailing planks and beams across the mouth of the area where Lobelia was housed. She had learned that her current neighbor was a Brownly from near Whitfurrow, who’d had the temerity to refuse to allow a crew of Gatherers and Sharers to enter his farmhouse. “They filled in the light shafts early on. They’ve not tried to fill the ventilation shafts, though. At least they proved wise enough not to do that,” he’d whispered. But she’d not heard his voice in some days. He’d been asking her if there was anyone in the next area beyond her when one of the most violent of the Big Men had chanced by, heard his whisper, and had pulled his cell open to beat him soundly.
She’d heard his whimpers of pain for a time after the beating, after which the Hobbit had gone silent. They’d still brought water and food to the cell, so she supposed he was still alive. Or perhaps he’d died of the beating, but their guards had been too incurious to check his condition and too steeped in habit to withhold the food and water.
Her own cell had a number of odors to it—oil and barley, mostly. She knew the scent of barley well enough, as her grandfather had raised it, and she’d smelled it enough when she’d spent time on the family farm as a little lass. She’d loved it once, but had come to hate it over time as it became associated with her father, who’d always bought shares in farms where it was raised and who never seemed to gain any profit from his investments.
“It’s a curse!” her mother had railed on being told that yet another farm in which her husband had held an interest in had failed. “Your father has only to look at a farm that raises barley for it to suffer some calamity or another!”
She could hear that plaint ringing in her ears even now. She was that much the more grateful that Otho had chosen other criteria on which to base his investments, investments that almost always brought a good return on his money. She’d never wanted for much as Otho’s wife.
“We were well to do, at least,” she whispered to herself. “Otho never denied me money for a dress, or even most of the fripperies I ever asked for.”
Not that she’d ever held a good deal of interest in ribbons or furbelows. She’d inherited in full the Bracegirdle disdain for unnecessary decoration, and as a result most of her clothing had been well made, but mostly void of lace or pointless embroidery. Her one weakness was hats—she had a collection of such things, each decorated with strawflowers or waxed fruit, frothy veiling and often more than enough ribbon to make up for the lack of such stuff in her often severe clothing. Although she had a few dresses in her wardrobe that were anything but severe, ones she loved almost guiltily and in secret. They were hidden away, and she’d never even worn most of them—or at least not in public.
Suddenly she straightened in alarm. “Have they found them, those Big Men with their ham-handed fists?” The very idea of Sharkey’s folk handling the few garments she treasured most made her feel faint. And if they were investigating her wardrobe, what would her Lotho be likely to be doing? He wouldn’t allow such goings on in his own hole, she knew. For Bag End was his now, after all. That Frodo had sold it to him, free and clear!
But without the full authority of the title of Master of the Hill, she remembered. He’d withheld that title along with the titles to the holes of those who dwelt along Bagshot Row, as well as the role of Family Head for the Bagginses that she and Otho had hoped for all those years they’d thought of themselves as Bilbo’s proper heirs. Bilbo had snatched that prize from them when he’d taken on that orphan Frodo as his personal ward. Oh, they’d known, in their heart of hearts, that once Frodo was there within Bag End the chance that Otho and later their Lotho would follow Bilbo as the Baggins as Otho had been the Sackville was extraordinarily small, but still they’d held strongly to their chests the hope that he wouldn’t flout tradition that far, ignoring the fact that ever since his horrid adventure he’d done little but flout Hobbit traditions, left, right, and sideways!
Now, however, she had to admit to herself that he’d been right to do as he’d done. “At least,” she whispered to herself, “when Frodo was Master of the Hill the trees grew along the lane and beside the Water, and Sam Gamgee kept the gardens of Bag End blooming and beautiful! At least folk wished us good day even if they didn’t particularly like us, and treated us with respect. At least all were cheerful, and one could enjoy a glass of wine or ale at the end of the day, and watch one’s son going about with pride in him, instead of fear for his safety! At least Hobbiton was beautiful and prosperous when Frodo was Master of the Hill, and we could hear the children running through the fields and playing in the lanes! And we could see them bringing handfuls of bright flowers to their mums as they came back home for tea….”
Seldom, though, had Lotho done such a thing, although Frodo had sent her bouquets from Bag End’s gardens each year on both his and her own birthdays, even as he had all of his other female relatives near enough to receive them unwilted. Perhaps they were not as—cheerful—as those he’d sent to Ponto’s wife or his cousin Angelica, or his cousin Daisy who’d married Griffo Boffin; but they’d been lovely nonetheless and had not proclaimed by sparcity that they’d been merely sent for duty’s sake.
Sad, that I should find myself remembering the flowers sent me by Frodo Baggins more than those given me by my own son, she thought dolefully, rolling the umbrella in her hand. And even that had come originally from Bag End. True, Bilbo had given it to her without a good deal of pleasure, although there was no question it was both well made and had to have been very expensive originally. Neither Bilbo nor Frodo had been particularly niggardly in their selection of gifts for her or Otho or Lotho, in spite of the obvious distaste they’d showed when they must deal with them in person or the intended bite of the unspoken message many of said gifts embodied.
“Even those spoons were of excellent make,” she admitted aloud.
She thought of the last gift she’d been given by Lotho, admittedly a fine linen handkerchief, beautifully embroidered with small pink flowers--and the initials PH. He’d not even bought it for her, but had apparently pinched it from his cousin Phlox Hornblower! “I deserved better than that from my own son!” she told herself in a muffled exclamation. Why, she and Otho had always bought the items they’d given Lotho as gifts, as Otho had held that they ought to hold to the standards practiced by Bilbo when dealing with their son—no need to stint with their lad; no need for Lotho to deal with hand-me-downs or second-hand goods! Why couldn’t the child have responded in kind?
“But he’s not a child now,” she suddenly chided herself. “He’s been of age more than twenty years, after all.” He was fifty-seven now, her Lotho. So, why did he treat her with less respect than one should show to one’s beloved mother?
A drop of moisture landed on the back of her right hand, and she suddenly realized she was crying. Crying? Her? Lobelia Bracegirdle Sackville-Baggins, crying? She was shocked to realize she was doing this! “But I have good reason,” she admitted to herself after thinking on this for a moment. “I’m imprisoned here, in the dark, in an old storage room that used to hold barley or oil, nailed into the room the way one nails chickens being sent to the market into a crate! And why? Because I went after those Big Men who intended to further desecrate Bag End’s gardens!”
Yes, she’d gone after them—gone after them for their admitted loyalty not to her son as Master of Bag End, but to that awful Sharkey! Gone after them because they were intent on further destroying the lovely gardens she’d coveted so ever since she first saw them, years before she’d married Otho Sackville-Baggins. Raised by the oh, so practical Bracegirdles of Hardbottle, Lobelia had never admitted—until now—that she had a deep and abiding hunger for sheer beauty for beauty’s own sake. This was why she’d so wanted Bag End for her own—because of its placement, the beauty of its rooms, the generous gentility and comfort of its construction and the glorious view from its windows and its grounds, and the sheer delight of its gardens. But they’d destroyed all that, the Big Men. They’d been incapable of appreciating the place as she had, and had begun raising those horrid sheds from the first!
She’d wanted his bedroom—the one that had been inhabited by Frodo Baggins; she’d not even wanted the large master bedroom that had been Bilbo’s for the years since his mother’s death. She’d wanted that view, the delicate scent of the Elven lilies that grew beneath his windowsill, the gentle sway of his curtains, the comfort of his beautifully carved bed. Instead, she’d been relegated to the security of what had been intended to be the nursery—suitably redecorated for her, as mistress of the place, on the orders of her solicitous son. She’d not even gotten his bedstead, as Frodo had refused to sell it with the hole, insisting on taking its familiar comfort with him to his new home in Buckland.
“Not that he’d actually slept in it there,” she muttered, remembering the tale as it was now told of the flight of Frodo and his companions through the High Hay into the Old Forest, apparently almost immediately upon his arrival at Crickhollow. At least that was what that Fatty Bolger was supposed to have told folks on his return to the Shire proper.
Where was he—Fatty, that is? He’d not moved into the old storage hole to which the Bolgers had been driven after Otho’s folk had taken possession of Budge Hall. He’d instead been joined by a number of younger Hobbits intent on defying the new order. She’d been affronted at the news that Odovacar Bolger’s son had declared himself the enemy of her son’s policies, and that he was raiding the stores Lotho was so carefully putting by for the folk of the Shire should troubles befall it.
She remembered sitting across the breakfast table from Lotho, spreading jam on her buttered toast. “They have no reason to be upset,” she’d assured him. “After all, you are doing this all for them—for the best interests of all the folk of the Shire!”
And so she’d truly believed. The idea that Lotho was capable of such far vision as to realize there might come a bad year during which the populace of the Shire would need the excess produced now, thrilled her. And the idea that the very Hobbits who’d oh, so politely expressed their dismay that they would not be able to accept her invitation to tea Mersday next would then have to bring their petitions to her for their share of enough flour to see them through the next week had pleased her greatly.
That her son’s foresight would be generally referred to as theft and illegal appropriation by her neighbors had surprised her. Why, she’d insisted, it was merely a matter of shrewd business….
“Face it, Lobelia,” she admitted to herself, “it wasn’t a matter of business at all, but was instead satisfaction that they’d be forced to face you on a regular basis; be forced to grovel at your feet just to get by.”
It was a thought to give one pause.
Was he here, Fatty Bolger? Was he, too, locked somewhere in the tunnels and former storage rooms of the warren of the Deep Delvings? Did he, too, dread the silence from the Big Men and the darkness of their prison? Did he, too, wonder if they would get food or fresh water soon? Did he, too, have to deal with the indignity of a rusted old pail rather than being able to use a proper privy? Did he, too, wish for a lid for the thing to smother its foul odor? Was he, too, sleeping on a pile of rags and having to wrap up in his own jacket or cloak, having it grow filthier by the day? Lotho had never told her of the orders he’d given for the disposition of the Hobbit once he’d been smoked out of the old bores near Scary.
What was that? There was no further whispering within the tunnels, and she could almost hear the ears of her fellow prisoners twitching as all focused on the distant banging and scraping noises from the directions of the doors. Lobelia rose to her feet, her fists tight about her umbrella, tensely listening with every fiber of her being.
Clank! Clank! Clank! Scrape! Clank! Clunk!
Why don’t they just open the doors? she wondered. But, if the Big Men had indeed locked them as they’d left….
That was followed by a muffled thud and another noise that sounded like distorted voices.
“They’re coming back!” she heard herself whimper. From about her she heard other stifled cries of alarm.
There was a distant glimmer of light, almost like a shadow of a light, if you would, from somewhere up the tunnel as the scraping resumed.
At last they heard the voices clearly. They were coming back—the Big Men—she was certain of it!
No—wait! Not the Men’s voices after all! No, these were the higher, clearer voices of other Hobbits!
“We’re saved!” someone else said, and Lobelia realized she was crying again in sheer relief.
He’s coming to save us, Lotho is! she thought to herself. He’s realized the error of his ways! He’s sent all the Big Men away, and has thrown that Sharkey off the Hill, and he’s coming to let us all out and to rescue me, his mother!
But even as she imagined that, she saw, in her minds eye, another, far more serious face coming down the tunnels. No, it wouldn’t be Lotho—that she knew in the deepest recesses of her heart. Even if he insisted on seeing her freed from her imprisonment, Lotho wouldn’t be the one to come get her. No, he’d send some of the Big Men, perhaps accompanied by one of the Hobbits who were most closely involved with the Gathering and Sharing, perhaps that Marcos Smallburrow or Timono Bracegirdle, to fetch her out. Lotho Sackville-Baggins, actually go out and do his errand work for himself? Not since long before he’d declared himself Chief Shiriff!
“It’s Frodo Baggins who will see us freed!” she whispered, and at that she collapsed back onto her pile of rags. Now it was a mere matter of waiting….
Nails screeched as boards were pried away; locks creaked and hinges groaned; wood thudded and splintered as hammers and mallets, hatchets and axes were put to use. Voices called and answered, exclaimed and reassured. The rustle of the rescuers surged and receded, but ever drew nearer.
And the Light came ever closer as the rescuers worked their way deeper and deeper into the tunnels.
That was how she thought of it—Light!—capitalized, bright and to be blessed. The first Light wasn’t the golden of candle flames or the red of torches. It was simply white, cool rather than fiery, pure rather than burning.
”Mayhaps ye should allow us t’go first with some lanterns like, sir,” suggested the first voice whose words she could rightly make out.
“No, the torches will be too bright and frightening. Best let me go ahead of you,” answered a second voice she actually recognized.
“Lotho!” she tried to tell herself, even as she knew it wasn’t. No, it was the voice of Frodo Baggins she heard. She’d been right. She wiped her eyes with the back of her wrist, not that the tears stopped even now.
At last she heard them prying away boards from the next cell, and that clear light that shone in through the chinks in the beams and boards that closed off her own grew dimmer as the rescuers entered it.
“Is him dead?”
“No, he’s yet alive, but barely. You—Robin—go tell Sam to send down another litter, and have a healer ready. This one is unconscious.”
Closer to the door of her own cell she heard at least two others, murmuring softly between themselves. “How’s him makin’ the light?”
“Got something as he says come from the Elves. Easier on the eyes than torches or lanterns, at least.”
“Mr. Frodo’s doin’ his best t’find all as can be rescued himself.”
“Yes, and bless him for it.”
Bless him for it. Bless him for it, in spite of the fact he had no reason to be particularly considerate of her or her family.
There was a rustle and stir, soft words and grunts, then shuffling and a slight scraping as the bearers apparently carried Mr. Brownly out of his cell and up the passage.
“This another one?” asked a voice—Robin Smallburrow, if she’d recognized it aright.
“Looks like it,” Frodo was saying. “How’s Fredegar doing?”
“Well enough, Mr. Frodo, sir. Mr. Merry’s stayin’ by him, and the healers have allowed him some broth to drink.”
“And he thought he’d be safe by staying!” she heard Frodo say, worry in his voice. Then he called out, “Here, bring those bars to me. We’ve found another cell here.”
The boards creaked and groaned as the rescuers attacked the wood used to seal off her chamber.
“This one’s cleaner,” noted the thin faced Hobbit who thrust his head into the first gap they opened. “Not been used long, I’d say.”
“There’s a lady in this one!” he added over his shoulder, having caught a glimpse of Lobelia where she sat against the wall on her pile of rags.
“A lady?” Frodo’s voice was hopeful. “Alive?”
“I’d say yes. I can see her eyes blinkin’ in the light! Been weepin’, too, looks like.”
Embarrassed, Lobelia dashed at her eyes. It wouldn’t do to be caught weeping by the likes of Frodo Baggins!
The wood groaned and nails shrieked as the rescuers attacked the beams anew.
She blinked, putting her hand forward to shade her eyes from the pure light that, gentle as it was, still managed to overwhelm her vision. “Too bright!” she objected.
Someone was now beside her, helping to lift her to her feet. “Here—we have you. Lean on me, now, and I’ll help you out of here. Do you think you need that?” There was a gentle tug at her umbrella, which she pulled the more tightly to her.
“No, leave it be—it’s mine. Was given to me years ago.”
“I know. No, I’ll leave it be. Now, come—let me lead you forth.”
And on the arm of Frodo Baggins she was led, slowly but more assuredly with every step, up the tunnel. He held what appeared to be a shining crystalline star over their heads to light their way, and she shuffled forward, often pausing to lean on her umbrella to rest as they walked.
That one, that Sharkey, had stood here a few days back, gloating down at her as she lay within her cell. Before that she’d seen him last in the dining room at Bag End, browbeating her Lotho. “You are the Chief here, but allow your people to ignore your dictates? How will they respect you if they do not depend upon you for the very breaths they take?”
“But the soil will be poisoned by the filth released by the Mill. Then what will we all eat?”
And Sharkey’s pale follower had come along the passage and found her peering in through the door and licked his pallid lips. “Now, Mistress Lobelia,” he’d said in his oily voice, “don’t you belong in your own room?”
And she’d retreated to it as quickly as she could to avoid his touch.
“He was yelling at my lad,” she said, and her voice sounded particularly creaky and disused in her own ears.
“So Sharkey let us know,” Frodo responded, his voice solemn.
“I don’t want to see him again,” she said, suddenly planting her feet. “I’m afraid of that Sharkey.”
He sighed. “There is no reason now. He is gone.”
“Dead?” she demanded.
He reluctantly nodded.
“Did Lotho kill him finally?”
He shook his head.
“No. Although I might as well have done so. No, his follower killed him—Gríma, known as Wormtongue.”
She was shocked. “That pale creature—he killed his master?”
He nodded again, but said no more. Instead he again offered his arm. She’d taken his arm for support only one other time—after Otho’s burial. Lotho had come late, apparently drunk, and had left as soon as he’d thrown in his own handful of dirt. Frodo had watched after him, shocked at his lack of propriety, and had come forward himself to offer his arm, seeing her home and into the keeping of her niece who’d come from Hardbottle that she not be alone in her home after Otho’s death. He’d sent the healer to see her, and, she’d learned afterwards, paid for that visit himself. He’d sent food from Bag End, even—not that he’d have done less for anyone else suffering from bereavement, of course. She’d told herself at the time that there was nothing more to it than that, a most proper Baggins doing what was expected of him as the Baggins to care for another who had become part of his family of name by marrying Bilbo’s first cousin. Nothing more than that….
Except he’d been gentle, not stiff as she’d anticipated. And he’d sent the healer and paid for him out of his own pocket. And he’d sent a letter that was truly commiserative afterwards, offering whatever help he could give her now that death had robbed her of her beloved husband.
She’d been a good deal less harsh in her talk of him in the years since, and hadn’t stolen anything from him or Bag End in her few visits there. Not that she’d stolen much from anyone in the past few years. She’d realized, after Otho died, that she really didn’t want for much, if anything at all. She’d even managed to see a few trifles she’d had in her keeping returned back to their original owners, mostly things that Lotho had given her that she knew had been mourned. It hadn’t always been easy. She’d dropped a necklace that had been the possession of Dora Baggins through a bedroom window where it would fall behind a dresser. Three days later Daisy Baggins Boffin, who’d inherited the hole from her aunt, discovered it as she’d cleaned the room, and had exulted that it had been found at last! But Lobelia had almost been caught at it by Griffo, who most certainly would have assumed she was pilfering had he recognized her as the one whom he’d seen lurking in the flowerbed outside the hole. She’d barely gotten away!
She and Frodo finally neared the door, and at last she shrugged off his arm. “No—let me walk out on my own,” she muttered, and he gave a brief nod and let her go on alone, following behind her as she hobbled out, using her umbrella for support. How glad she was now that the gift Bilbo had given her was so well made!
“It’s Missus Lobelia!” she heard. “Lobelia Sackville-Baggins!”
“Did you hear how she went for those Big Men of Lotho’s with naught more than her umbrella?”
“Is it true, that it’s Lobelia Sackville-Baggins?”
“You showed them, lass! You showed them Big Men!”
And those standing there outside the Lockholes were applauding her, clapping and even some cheering and whistling shrilly in appreciation. And there she stood, peering about with shock and surprise, for the first time in her life the recipient of true respect and appreciation from her fellow Hobbits!
Now Frodo came forward again and put a shielding arm about her, helping her to the door of the Council Hole, taking her to the banquet hall where she was allowed to sit down and tea—real tea with real honey in it—was brought to her in a pretty mug. Mistress Whitfoot herself set a small plate with a thin slice of ham between two slices of bread in front of her, and a healer was leaning over her asking if she had any injuries that needed tending. Someone wrapped her in a soft blanket, and a second cup of tea was left by the first. In time she was escorted across the square to the inn, whose doors had been pried open, and led to the bathing room. Here the old boiler was filled and lit, and soon she was able to bathe with the aid of the Whitfoot’s niece and another Hobbitess of Michel Delving. Someone provided her with fresh clothing, promising her that once her dress was cleaned and pressed they’d send it to her.
In time she returned to the banquet hall, and Frodo and a few others asked her what she wished to do.
“You will not wish to return to Bag End,” Frodo said, an edge of grief to his voice, “for they’ve all but caved it in about their ears.”
“My Lotho—where is he?” And when Frodo hesitated, she knew. “They killed him?”
“Yes, he was murdered.” The baldness of the statement convinced her that it was no lie. “Saruman—Sharkey—he had his follower kill Lotho, apparently not long after they dragged you away from Hobbiton. Sharkey bragged of it yesterday, until he’d goaded Gríma to kill him as well.”
“Is Lotho buried there in Bywater?”
But Frodo was shaking his head. “We have no idea where his body is. Gríma was apparently instructed to get rid of it somehow. No one knew he was dead until yesterday.”
He held her while she wept—not long, thanks to the stars. Then she straightened and clutched at her umbrella. “I don’t want to go back to Bag End,” she said with as much dignity as she could muster. “Nor to the old hole in Hobbiton, either. It would be t-too—too painful.”
A coach was fetched—the Bolger coach, she realized. She was carefully helped into it, and soon she was being driven back to Hardbottle, there to her niece’s home, where she’d be well treated, she knew.
Slightly over a week later a trunk arrived from Hobbiton, and her niece brought it into the room that had been given to Lobelia’s use. With it came a letter from Frodo.
I know you had nothing of your own with you. Sancho Proudfoot went into Bag End for me to fetch out all of your things that they could find. Most are being prepared to be shipped to you, but those things that he felt you would wish to have most he put into the trunk he found in your room and brought to me in Bywater at the Cottons’ farm. I now forward them on to you. I am so sorry that my decision to sell Bag End to you and Lotho has brought you so much loss and grief in the end. Please accept my condolences for Lotho’s death and for all that was stolen from you by Sharkey and his folk. And if there is anything at all I can do for your comfort….
A final knot of resentment loosened from beneath her breastbone, for she recognized that what Frodo had said was not merely duty, but was meant from the heart. He, too, had lost almost all, she realized. Oh, he still owned the house he’d bought in Buckland, and he still had most of his possessions that had been removed there on his sale of Bag End to her and Lotho; but she’d noted how—scoured—he appeared as a result of whatever had happened to him during his time away from the Shire.
“I’m free!” she suddenly said.
“Oh, yes, Aunt Lobelia—you’ve been free for well over a week,” her niece assured her.
But Lobelia Sackville-Baggins knew that the freedom she knew from envy was far more important a freedom than she’d ever known before, certainly more so than what she’d known when the door had been forced open to her cell in the Lockholes. She turned to open the trunk, and found it filled with a few of her most commonly worn dresses—and under them----
“Oh, my, Auntie!” breathed her niece, lifting out a confection of lilac linen with white lace and ribbons. “What a beautiful dress! I never dreamt you owned such a lovely thing!”
And Lobelia realized she was now free to wear lovely things at long last. “Shall we see if he’s sent the bonnet that goes with this?” she suggested, delving again into the trunk.