My Easter offering to you all, as we see the Shire renewed....
Carnelian Delver paused in her gathering of nuts to listen, her ears twitching slightly. Her brother Dodi, twelve to her fourteen years, paused in his own raid on the squirrel’s cache they’d found, to watch her. “What is it?” he asked, his whisper low and wary.
“A pony—I heard a pony, that way.” She pointed in the direction of the bridle path that led toward Michel Delving.
Dodi, alarmed, moved closer to her, whispering in her ear, “Do you think as we should go hide in the bolt hole in the orchard?”
She shook her head, but uncertainly. “It’s not Ruffians, ’cause they can’t ride ponies anyway. Gatherers and Sharers couldn’t come that way, either, not with wagons.”
Dodi nodded. “Hardly nobody comes that way no more,” he noted, “not with all the Chief’s Rules.” His brow furrowed. “But Da told Mummy that the Ruffians went away two weeks ago, what with that trouble over Hobbiton-way, and that they’ve not come back. And Missus Sourloam says as they’ve all been chased out—that the Thain’s son’s come home and chased all the bad’uns away.”
Carnelian didn’t feel convinced. “How could Pippin Took chase the Big Men away all on his own?” she asked. “No Hobbit could do that! They’re too big and too strong, the Big Men!”
Dodi was looking stubborn. “Maybe he got other Hobbits to help him. Get enough together, and I’d wager as it could be done.”
She shrugged, and looked back toward the bridal path. She could hear the pony again, nickering, and another sound, as if someone was being ill. That noise concerned her, and she started that way, if warily. She remembered how she’d felt three years ago when she ate some mushrooms as oughtn’t to have been eaten. Maybe that had happened to someone else. She knew as it wasn’t a good thing, getting so sick that your stomach itself rebelled. She slipped from one tree trunk to another, then still another, until she peered around the bole of an ash tree, and saw a gentlehobbit kneeling by the Sourloams’ rail fence, retching convulsively. A particularly lovely bay pony with a large set of bags across its withers stood behind him with its reins dragging, nosing at his shoulder with concern. She could see the steam rising from the pile of vomit before him, as well as the white puffs when he or the pony breathed out.
“Carnelian!” Dodi hissed with alarm from the brush behind her. “What is it?”
“It’s all right,” she said over her shoulder, straightening and stepping out from behind the tree. “It’s just a single Hobbit, and he’s not about to hurt anyone. I think as he needs help, maybe.” She went forward until she stood by the stranger’s shoulder, the other side from the pony.
He was thin beneath his odd, grey-green cloak—that was the first thing she noticed. And he was quite pale—but then, as sick as he was being, she wasn’t surprised by that. He was holding so hard onto the rail fence to balance himself that she wouldn’t be surprised if he had a splinter or two through his fine gloves and in his hand by this time. At last he was done, and he straightened on his knees, his eyes squeezed closed as if it had taken all he had in him to do what he’d done.
The pony again nosed at his shoulder, and he said, “I’m all right, Strider. Be calm.”
“His name is Strider?” Carnelian asked.
He opened his eyes to look up sideways at her. “Yes.”
Dodi had come out of hiding, although he was ready to dart back into the woods at any moment. He was staring at the pony’s tack, which was beautifully decorated with a silver star on each cheek-piece. “Oh, my,” he murmured, “but that bridle’s fine!” He turned curious eyes toward the stranger. “Did the Dwarves make it?”
The gentlehobbit was starting to stand up, leaning on the rail fence rather heavily. “No,” he said. “I believe it was made in Rohan, or perhaps in Minas Tirith.”
Carnelian asked, “Are you bad off? Would you like to sit down and have a drink or something? It sounded pretty bad.” She thought he looked far too young to need to hold onto the fence that much while rising.
“I have a water bottle on my pommel,” he said, turning toward the pony, patting it gently to reassure it before fumbling the strap free of the saddle. His hands were trembling slightly as he worked to remove the stopper, and he took a small sip to rinse his mouth and spat it delicately on the ground before actually swallowing any. He drank slowly and deliberately, allowing time between swallows to assure himself that the spasms were truly over. At last he replaced the stopper and settled the strap again over the pommel of his saddle before turning to examine the children more closely.
His face was still pale, Carnelian noted, but not deathly so as it had been when they found him. “And what are you two doing out on such a cold day?” he asked.
“We were looking for nuts. We found a squirrel’s hiding place and were raiding it, actually,” she explained. “We don’t have much at home in the larders.”
“The Gatherers and Sharers took most of your harvest?” he asked, his expression gone rather stern.
The children nodded. “They came on the day we were harvesting the potatoes and took them right from the field, and the same with the turnips,” Dodi told him. The lad had finally come out alongside his sister.
“And when we were harvesting our apples they did the same. They took all of our bushel baskets and even our canvas picking bags, as well as our cider press,” his sister added. “We think it was because one of the Gatherers and Sharers is our mum’s brother, and he knew when we’d be harvesting. A lot of other people could hide a good deal of their harvest before the Gatherers and Sharers could get there, but not us.”
The stranger Hobbit’s face grew even more set. “Turning brother against brother? If Lotho were still here he’d have a good deal to answer for!”
Dodi’s face had gone pale. He leaned forward to warn, “You can’t call the Chief by his real name! His Big Men will come and haul you off to the Lockholes, and you’ll never come home again!”
But the gentlehobbit was shaking his head. “No, they won’t—they’ve been driven out of the Shire, most of them. There may be a few hiding in the woods here and there, but that’s all.” He leaned forward to catch his pony’s trailing reins into his finely gloved hands. “And if you see any Men at all in the Shire, all you have to do is send word to the Mayor’s office or the Thain, and someone will be dispatched to see to them. Merry and Pippin have made it plain that they will not allow any outsiders to lord it over the people of the Shire, and especially not as long as the real King has returned.”
He attempted to mount his pony, but found he could not lift himself up properly in the stirrup. He closed his eyes again as he fought to keep his balance. “Too soon,” he murmured. At last he opened them again and looked apologetically at the two children, and addressed himself to the lass. “I’m sorry, but I find I may need to impose upon your family’s hospitality briefly. Do you think your parents would mind if I rested in your home for a brief while before I resume my journey back to Bywater?”
“I suspect it will be all right, although we can’t give you any sort of a proper meal.”
His laugh was rather bitter. “You don’t have to worry about that—I’m not truly up to eating any sort of proper meal right now, I find. And you said you’d found a squirrel’s cache?”
He helped them empty out the store of nuts, and spotted a second cache on their way home. “I rather hate robbing the squirrel, although I know they tend to be rather scatterbrained creatures who forget where they hid many of their stores before the winter is over anyway,” he commented as he saw the last few nuts into the pillow slip Carnelian had been using to gather the food into. He might look tired, but his fingers were as dexterous as were those of the children.
As they were walking together back to the farm followed by the pony, the lass asked, “Then it’s true—the Thain’s son has come back? Everyone was certain he was dead by now.”
“Not for want of trying,” he muttered. “Oh, yes, Peregrin Took has returned,” he said more loudly. “As has Meriadoc Brandybuck. And the two of them are intent on seeing the Shire restored to our own folk.”
“And we don’t have to worry about the Big Men any more?” Dodi asked a bit anxiously.
The stranger shook his head. “No—I doubt any of Lotho’s Ruffians will want to face down Merry and Pippin. They were furious when we found Lotho had erected a gate at the end of the Brandywine Bridge and was setting up huge lists of silly rules to lord it over the Shire. Will Whitfoot’s already let me know that the Shiriffs are to be reduced to the proper number of twelve again, also; although a few who’ve been dismissed already seemed to want to argue about it.”
Soon enough they were back at the Delver’s house. Their dad came out of the byre, a pitchfork in his hands, staring warily at the Hobbit who walked with his children. “It’s all right, Da!” Dodi said, skipping ahead of his sister with his nearly full bag lifted to show his father. “He helped us, and we have lots now! And he says the Big Men are almost all gone!”
Still, if it hadn’t been for the fact their helper was standing there shivering with the cold in spite of the warmth of his garb and the presence of that fine pony of his, Carnelian was certain neither of their parents would have allowed him on the place. But his lips were looking a mite blue, and as she stepped out of the farmstead’s hole their mother gave a cry of alarm and in a moment had their visitor by the shoulder, shepherding him into the relative warmth of the kitchen, where she settled him into the rocking chair in the corner, sending Carnelian off to fetch the rug from the foot of the big bed to wrap around him. Dodi had remained outside to help his father see to the pony’s comfort, leading the fine animal into the byre where their missing milk cow had been stabled, divesting it of its beautiful tack, and rubbing it down with twists of straw, seeing the manger filled with hay (that at least they had in plenty) and the bucket with clean water. Their father then shouldered the large bag and the tooled saddlebags and carried them into the hole, settling them into the corner by the door to the nearly empty first larder.
Mummy was plying their guest with a hot cup of tea. “I’m sorry as there’s no milk to go with it,” she said.
He nodded his understanding, although his pale lips were a thin line. “They took your cow?”
“Well, someone did,” she answered with an anxious glance toward her husband. “She was taken in the middle of the night during the summer.”
“We think Uncle Otis took her, really,” Dodi volunteered, although his mother had gone pale and was shaking her head in warning.
The stranger sighed, noting the wordless concern shown by their mum. “I understand—truly I do. It’s all really too bad, what happened while we were gone. But we’re working to set things right. Although it doesn’t appear that the Big Men cut down all of your trees as they did elsewhere.”
“No,” Dad said, “the Big Men didn’t come here themselves. But Otis saw to it as the Gatherers and Sharers came ’round more’n our fair share, I’m thinkin’.” He drew another chair from the table and set it opposite the stranger. “So, you was one of them as left the Shire through the Old Forest, was you? You that Sam Gamgee as we’ve heard tell of?”
For the first time their guest appeared amused. “Sam? Oh, no!”
Mum was shaking her head in exasperation. “Really, Tod—don’t you recognize Frodo Baggins when you see him?” She turned apologetically to face the Hobbit. “Forgive him, Mr. Baggins. Tod’s not much for recognizing gentry, you see.”
But Mr. Baggins was shaking his head as he sipped appreciatively at the tea in his hands. “There’s nothing to apologize for, mistress. And I do thank you for allowing me to warm myself. But do know that Lotho’s rules are worth less than the paper they’ve been copied to. Indeed, you might look to burn that list there to add to the warmth if you’d like. No more restrictions on fuel for your fires, you’ll find.”
The family all exchanged glances until at last Dodi, greatly daring, reached out to yank the list Uncle Otis had so ceremoniously nailed to the larder door last time the Gatherers and Sharers had come through, and in moments it was shoved gleefully into the flames, along with a few solid logs. And when Mr. Baggins told them they could have the contents of the large bag their dad had carried in, they found they had even more food than they’d anticipated.
“Not all of the storage rooms in Michel Delving had Hobbits imprisoned in them,” he explained. “Many were full of food they’d taken from various people. I’d intended to bring this to the Cottons, seeing they’re playing host to so many right now. However, they were able to hide a fair amount of stores from the Gatherers and Sharers, and it appears you couldn’t. So, take it with my thanks. And we’ll be having wagons heading out across the Shire to see more food returned to those who’ve been robbed, definitely before Yule.”
A week later Otis Tunnely answered a call to Michel Delving, along with several others who’d taken part in the Gathering and Sharing in the region north of the Road between the environs of the Hill and the White Downs country. Some might have thought to have refused to go; but the fact the requests to come to the Council Hole were being delivered by Tooks and Boffins armed with hunting bows made the invitations harder to ignore. And when two of the Tooks cut a cow out of the surprisingly substantial herd Otis had in his front pasture, he looked on them with disapproval. “Leave my cows alone!” he demanded.
“How many are truly yours is still up for question,” announced Ned Boffin from Hobbiton. “But this one with the white off-hoof is definitely not yours, and we’ve been told particularly to look for her and see her returned to her own family.”
The righteous anger Otis had been ready to loose at these interlopers reduced some as he realized that none of them were looking at him any too kindly.
At last he was led into the banquet hall in the Council Hole, where he found himself forced to stand with his fellows across the table from that Frodo Baggins, several family heads including the ones for the Tunnelies and the Delvers, and a number of Tooks armed with statute books and pens and ink. A quick glance indicated that several of his fellows recognized their own family heads sitting along the other side of the table. And when Paladin Took entered from the kitchen with a steaming cup of tea and settled himself alongside the errant Baggins, the seriousness of the situation finally hit home with Otis, who tried to step back to hide himself more behind his fellows but was prodded forward again by Ned Boffin.
They were allowed to stand there in an increasingly heavy silence, aware of the unfriendly stares of all in the room. But it was the examination that Frodo Baggins was giving them all that bothered Otis most, for there was no question that the Master of the Hill found him wanting.
“What are you doing here in Michel Delving, Baggins?” he finally said, forcing bravado into his voice. “Thought as you was dead and gone—or at least gone from the Shire.”
“I was.” Frodo’s voice was cool and measured. “I am here today, however, as deputy Mayor, to see to how you and your companions here discharged your duties as Gatherers and Sharers.”
“Mayor don’t hold no authority, not any more,” Otis declared.
“No? And who does? Lotho Sackville-Baggins as so-called Chief Shiriff? Alas, I fear that he’s lost that role, along with his life. Oh, yes,” Baggins said in response to the startlement of several of them, “Lotho is gone. Murdered on the orders of Master Sharkey, you see. He’d been dead at least a couple of weeks before we returned. And Sharkey himself is gone, too—dead at the hand of his fellow, after he admitted he’d ordered that—execution. And their Big Men? Well, the ruffians and footpads that Lotho accepted as his private army are gone, also. And some of those are dead as well, at the hands of those who fought them in Bywater.”
He stood, and it was as if he wore a cloak of solemn authority about him. “I am here both as the deputy Mayor and as the representative of our new King to see the King’s justice as well as the Shire’s justice done here today. Let us see which of those who did the Gathering and Sharing are before us, shall we?” He took up a list that lay upon the table. “Terence Banks. Otis Tunnely. Bosco Banks. …” And the names dropped from his lips as if each were facing a doom he’d never anticipated.
As Otis noted that his sister’s husband and son were among those who’d been entering as witnesses and observers to today’s proceedings, he felt the hair on his feet and his scalp stirring. Maybe answering the call put out by Lotho and that Bracegirdle lawyer cousin of his hadn’t been such a good idea after all….