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39
The Kobold's Pay

Inspired by the LOTR Community's "A Picture's Worth a Thousand Words" challenge. For Thundera Tiger and AnnMarwalk for their birthdays, with my thanks to both for both pleasure and inspiration.


~~~

The Kobold’s Pay


Frodo Baggins sat on the bed in the room that had been his since his parents’ deaths, his hands folded in his lap, his expression enigmatic as he examined his beloved cousin Merry’s face. Sixteen-year-old Merry sat in the chair by the desk Frodo had inherited from his mother, his own expression rebellious. Here he’d been bragging to Frodo as to how clever he’d been, and it was plain that Frodo didn’t agree.

“You admit that you stripped her berry bushes?” the Baggins asked, his voice studiously neutral.

“Well, yes,” Merry said, his tone defensive. “But she had plenty of berries!”

“Little good how many berries she might have had did her when you admit that you took them all except for the little she has picked over the past week since they first began to come ripe,” Frodo said.

“But she’s always been so stingy with her raspberries!” It was obvious Merry was intent on convincing Frodo that he’d somehow been forced into acting as he’d done.

“And what else does Missus Goldenthatch have to sell or trade for any other goods she might need?” Frodo asked.

“But you never got on with her all that well when you lived here, back before you went to live with Bilbo!”

“No one has ever gotten on well with her in all of the time I’ve known of her,” Frodo agreed. “But that is no reason to believe that you have the right to strip her of her livelihood. I repeat, Merry—she has no other thing she can easily sell or trade in order to provide herself with anything else she might require, particularly as she’s now quite elderly and can barely weed what garden she’s planted. I saw her in Bucklebury as I waited for the ferry, you know. Her hands are all gnarled, and her back is stiff with pain. Her lads all live now in the North-farthing, which leaves her with no one near to hand to help her. If she’s run you lads out of her garden, it’s been with good reason. Bilbo and I’ve been buying a good deal of her raspberry jam for the past few years and paying a good price for it—it’s the least I can do to help make up for the deviling I gave her when I was the most brilliant scrumper in the region, after all. And, yes, she grows the best raspberries in the whole of the Marish, but even that does not give us license to take all she has. I’m not trying to tell you not to scrump at all, Merry, but remember that those with smallholdings such as Marshsweet Goldenthatch lives on often barely can grow what they need for their own use, never mind to satisfy the cravings of greedy teens and tweens.”

Marshsweet Goldenthatch lived alone in the Marish, a proud Hobbitess who’d never accepted charity from anyone, not even when her husband died young, leaving her alone with three wee lads to raise on her own. Her parents had foretold calamity should she marry Boddo Goldenthatch, and she refused to allow them the satisfaction of broadcasting far and wide as to how they’d been proved right. So, she’d planted an extensive kitchen garden each year, kept a few sheep with exceptionally fine wool, and cared for her raspberry canes, managing to scrape by year after year on the proceeds of her sales of yarns and threads and her beautiful pots of raspberry jam, which were much praised and prized across the breadth of the Shire.

Merry tried one last time to explain how he felt justified in raiding the Goldenthatch raspberries, but Frodo was obviously not going to accept any such rationalization, and at last the teen went still. Frodo Baggins had once been known as the worst scrumper that Brandy Hall had ever produced, but he’d stopped doing so after one too many raids on the Maggots’ mushroom patch had led to him being run off Bamfurlong Farm by Farmer Maggot’s dogs. He’d become a reformed character, Merry knew; but Merry also knew that many of those who’d been victimized by Frodo’s gang had well deserved the raids they’d suffered, and he was certain that old Missus Goldenthatch was among them. Still, if Frodo decreed that she deserved recompense, Merry knew he would give her that. He might defy his parents at times, and even his grandparents on occasion, but Meriadoc Brandybuck could not imagine purposely disappointing his Baggins cousin who was so much an older brother to him. Somehow, he would find a means of making things right for her, even if he could not truly understand just why this was necessary.

He began by approaching her property from the rear and examining her kitchen garden. When he was younger the Goldenthatch kitchen garden was legendary for its variety and quality. But now there seemed to be so little! There were only five rows of carrots and the same of taters. How on earth did Missus Goldenthatch think she could make it through the winter on so few taters? And so much kale! What on earth would anyone do with so much kale?

And there were so many weeds. He thought on what Frodo had said about Missus Goldenthatch’s hands being gnarled now, and of how much pain she might be experiencing. He remembered his Aunt Asphodel, the second of Grandda Rory’s sisters, and how gnarled her hands became as she aged. She’d been a talented artist and seamstress in her day, and had taught Frodo to draw and paint; but in the years immediately preceding her death she’d not been able to grasp either a paintbrush or a needle anymore. Was that how it was with Missus Goldenthatch, too? Suddenly Frodo’s objections began to hit home with Merry. If she could not easily grasp things with her fingers, then how could she hope to do a lot of things about her home and garden?

But what could he do? Well, he supposed he could begin by weeding, so he crept into the garden and began removing dandelions and vetch….

*******


“Dodi,” Merry began, “when you begin thinning your vegetables, may I have some of the plants you are thinking of taking out?”

Dodiroc Brandybuck, who had his own vegetable patch near the quarters he shared with his wife Violet, examined Merry’s face with interest. “Are you setting up your own vegetable garden, Meriadoc Brandybuck?” he asked.

“I’m helping someone else,” Merry temporized. “For Frodo,” he added, knowing that Dodi had a soft spot for the young Baggins.

“Fred Oldbuck? He was never much good at keeping his garden up.” Fred Oldbuck, whose parents had a shop in Kingsbridge, had been one of Frodo’s close companions in the few years Frodo had been free to ramble about Buckland and the Marish, and had taken part in many of Frodo’s raids on farms, gardens, glasshouses, dairies, and smokehouses throughout the farmlands in the floodplains of the Brandywine valley.

Merry realized that to Dodi it would make sense that Frodo would wish to see Fred make a success of his garden, so he simply smiled, expecting rightly that the older Brandybuck would assume his guess had been correct.

“Well, Fred certainly deserves our help,” Dodi said. “As it happens, I’ll be thinning out the potatoes tomorrow, and the cabbages are coming up far too thickly. Oh, and the parsley, too, and the radishes. If you’ll help me with the thinning you can take as many young seedlings as you’d wish. But you’ll need to be careful you don’t kill the stems or roots, of course, if you wish to transplant them, see?”

Merry saw, and early next morning, when Dodi came out to work on his vegetable patch, there was Merry already waiting to help, a few light plant crates at the ready. Then, late in the afternoon the young Hobbit slipped off with his crates to the place where one of the rowboats the lads tended to use was concealed beneath the canopy of a willow tree, rowing to the west shore of the river where he cached the crates in a tumble-down shed on the edge of the smallholding farmed by the ferry Hobbit. Three days later he borrowed a low wagon and drew his plants to the lane behind the Goldenthatch garden, and once he was assured that Missus Goldenthatch was settled down to take a nap he set to work. By sundown there were two more rows of radishes, eight more potato plants set out, a single row of rose cabbages that hadn’t been there at all at dawn, and sixteen parsley plants along the sunny side of a low wall. He’d also planted five tomato plants, replacing the rusted old frames where no plants had been placed this year with extras from Brandy Hall that hadn’t been used in the glasshouse over the winter.

He was weary as he pulled at the oars to take himself back off to the eastern shore of the Brandywine, but felt surprisingly satisfied, for there was no doubt he’d done a good day’s work. And behind him, when Missus Marshsweet Goldenthatch came out to tut over the meager garden she’d been able to plant this year, she found that the plants were green and thriving, and she could swear she’d not put in any t’maters, but there were five plants that appeared to have come up there under the south windows, just where she’d always grown them. How marvelous, that this year the t’maters had decided to come back! Now, this was a wonder, and no mistake! And how well the weeds seemed to be behaving—there were very few she needed to pull out. She was still smiling when she went inside alongside her old tortoiseshell cat to get them both some late supper before they both retired to the bedroom, where Puss curled up, warming the old Hobbitess’s aching back, purring and soothing them both to a well deserved sleep.

*******


The sixth and seventh tomato plants were not as far along as the first five, but quickly throve in the excellent soil beneath the southern windows of the Goldenthatch cottage. Now there were two rows of marrows and one of pumpkins, as well as four rows of maize on the northeast border of the garden. Runner beans made rich green tents on their leaning poles, and snap peas grew along the picket fence on the border of the yard, the fence somehow boasting a coat of fresh whitewash. Plus there was now a row of sunflowers beyond the turnips, and their stalks promised to grow tall and produce many seeds before the summer was gone. As Marshsweet Goldenthatch stood examining her garden in mid-July she couldn’t help but wonder how this transformation had come to be. “Niver planted no sunflowers, niver in all me days,” she said, shaking her head. “And who’d of believed as seven t’mater plants’d come up a second year in a row?”

A week later she was kneeling by one of those plants, a harvesting basket lying by her as she pulled the first of the ripe fruits from their stems.

“I must say, Missus Marshsweet, as it’s a right fine garden as ye have this year.”

She looked over her shoulder to see her neighbor standing the other side of the picket fence along which the snap peas grew, her dog and young son by her. Slowly she rose to her feet, rubbing at her back. “Isn’t it, though, Anise?” she replied. “Although I must say as I’ve had fairly little t’do with it this season. What with the rheumatics in me back and my hands as painful as them is, I swear as I just couldn’t do it up right what I usually do. But look at it! Have ye iver seen such a sight as these? Was thinkin’ as a few of them t’mater plants as I put in last year made it through the winter, but I swear as I niver, niver planted none as give off t’maters as are the size of small plums! Now, there’s no question as these is ripe as c’n be, and so sweet! But where’d such as this come from, you think?”

“Ye’re sayin’ as ye didn’t plant all of this?” Anise responded. “Well, I wonder, is there another kobold loose in the Marish after all this time?”

“What’s a kobold, Mam?” asked her son.

“A kobold, Elfsum? Oh, it’s a creature as is full of mischief, till it finds as it’s gone too far and feels as it must make amends. Once as it come t’that conclusion, it’ll work right hard, doin’ all as it can t’set things as right as possible, replacin’ what it took or fixin’ what it broke down. The kobold’ll do all it can to help until it must go elsewhere or it figgers as it’s made it up t’ye right and proper.”

Elfsum shook his head. “Never saw no creatures in Missus Marshsweet’s garden. Just a lad in Hall----”

But his mother was clapping her cupped hand over his mouth. “Be still now, Elfsum Riverbanks! Mustn’t try t’give a name to a kobold or ye’ll mayhaps drive it away betimes. And there’s no question as Missus Marshsweet deserves what help as she c’n get this here year, right? Now, you take Blueberry there back t’the house and tell yer da as Missus Marshsweet could do with some help with her gate. Looks as if the hinge could do with some fixin’. Off with ye, now, lad!”

“And what do ye know about the likes of kobolds settin’ gardens t’rights, Anise Riverbanks?” demanded the older Hobbitess as the young lad, his lips set in a pout, drew the dog away, saying, “Come on then, Blueberry,” as he headed for home.

Anise shrugged, although her eyes were twinkling. “Ye’ll member some years back, after some three years when we was all bein’ driven t’distraction by them scrumpers as took everthin’ as grew sweet or rich, when it was the opposite an’ instead one was comin’ in quiet-like, weedin’ the vegetables and whitewashin’ the stones along the garden borders? Well, Evan an’ me, we decided as it was a kobold, and we was both surprised and delighted t’learn as one’d decided as it owed us recompense. Ours come back some years in a row, harvestin’ our tomatoes for us and all. Oh, we was glad as c’n be for our kobold, for with some time to spend on one another we finally was able to come by Elfsum there. Best gift as the kobold give us, time to love one another as we both deserved.”

“It’s a fool name as ye give the lad,” Marshsweet commented, “namin’ ’im fer Elves. Ain’t nonesuch in the Shire, I’m a-thinkin’.”

Anise glanced back toward her place, and gave a knowing smile. “Don’t say no such thing near my Evan,” she warned. “Him’s lived here on this land all his life, and him says as the footpath ’cross the back pasture where Butter ’n’ Cream graze most days was made by the Elves. Men may of built the Road, and Hobbits and Dwarves and Rangers use it; but it’s Elves as made most of the footpaths an’ some of the bridle trails through the Shire. And we saw Elves watchin’ over our kobold several times, though I doubt as him saw them back, and them was pleased with what him was a-doin’. I think as a good part o’ why our blueberries and your raspberries thrive as they do is ’cause the Elves wanted t’make things better for us from what them saw our kobold doin’ for us. So, it’s as much for his sake as for that of the Elves what we named our son Elfsum, you see. And if’n yer kobold is close t’ourn, I suspect as ourn made certain as you was recompensed fer the berries as the scrumpers robbed ye of a month back.”

Missus Goldenthatch wasn’t convinced, but she didn’t argue. And she set out to find a way to spy upon her own kobold, deciding she wanted to find a name for him, even though she had no desire to drive him away by naming him aloud. It took a time to catch the lad at it, for she had to forego her daily naps to be in a position to see him at work. She was surprised and humbled once she did, but she felt a warmth she’d not known for years once she’d realized just who it was who was trying to set things right for her.

*******


“You sent for me, Grandda Rory?” Merry asked on entering his grandfather’s study.

“Yes. Just what has managed to bring you to the attention of old Marshsweet Goldenthatch in the Marish?”

Merry felt his mouth go dry and the skin on his scalp and feet tighten. He’d been identified as the one who’d stolen her raspberries last year, and now she was going to see him brought to justice—was that it? “I don’t know, Grandda,” he managed to say. Then it all came out in a rush. “Oh, Grandda, I’m so sorry, but I scrumped her berries last summer. But I swear that I did my best to square things—Frodo insisted I needed to do so!”

Old Rory had an odd smile on his lips. “You scrumped her raspberries, did you, and Frodo insisted you make things right? So, that explains it!”

“Explains what?” Merry asked, confused. It appeared that the Master of Buckland wasn’t upset with him after all, but he couldn’t think why else Missus Goldenthatch would bring his name up to his grandfather.

Rorimac Brandybuck shook his head, his expression growing gentle and fond. “She was a tough old bird, and far too independent for her own good at times,” he said. “I’ll admit this now, Merry, but don’t let it convince you that it means I condone the scrumping our lads are prone to. You see, when we were younger, my brothers, sisters, and me, we used to go scrumping in the Marish, too, the same as the teens do now. And my sister Primula just loved raspberries, so she’d sneak off to the Goldenthatch place to eat her fill once the berries came ripe. Oh, but Missus Marshsweet would complain to our dad about it, and more than once!

“Now, as you undoubtedly have been told several times, Primula and Asphodel were both gifted needleworkers, and as she grew better at woolwork and knitting, Primula would do anything to get hold of the best threads and yarns she could find. And the best wool in the East-farthing is that produced by Marshsweet Goldenthatch. For years Primula wouldn’t buy any wool if she knew that it came from the Goldenthatch sheep, considering how much trouble her scrumping of those raspberries had cost her, but then she decided that she wanted to make a knitted blanket for our first child, your Grandmother Gilda’s and mine, your father Saradoc. So at last she humbled herself to approach Missus Goldenthatch to purchase enough yarn to make it. She apologized for what she’d done, and she offered far more than the yarn was worth to purchase enough to make her blanket. And she brought her some tomato plants for her kitchen garden. Missus Goldenthatch gave her just the yarn she’d asked for, and Primula made the blanket she’d wanted to make, the same one you used to be wrapped in when you were a bairn.

“Well, the next year a bundle arrived at the Hall for Primula, and it was full of the same amount of yarn as she’d bought the year before. There was a note with it saying that considering that Primula had paid twice as much as it was worth for the yarn she’d purchased a year earlier and the wonderful yield of the tomato plants she’d given to Missus Goldenthatch, Missus Goldenthatch felt that she owed this yarn to Primula. So Primula made a shawl of the yarn, and dyed it a gorgeous soft blue, and on her birthday saw it in a parcel set on the Goldenthatch stoop. So the next year, if there wasn’t another measure of yarn sent to Primula, and even more this time! In the end Primula did a woolwork blanket that was more than big enough to cover any bed you can imagine, even the one that it’s said the Bullroarer used to sleep upon, and slipped it onto the Goldenthatch stoop at Yule. That was the last Yule before Primula and Drogo died.

“When Frodo was making his amends in the Marish for the damage he’d caused to many smallholders with the scrumping he and his gang did, we received several skeins of yarn each year from the Marish, but with no notes attached. We didn’t understand why we’d gotten them until after Frodo left with Bilbo. At that time the yarn stopped coming.”

He paused, and looked over to the dresser in which the records for the Hall were kept. On it lay what appeared to be a folded blanket of a rich, golden color. His eyes were now somehow sad and proud at the same time. “Marshsweet Goldenthatch died a week ago, and her neighbors, the Riverbankses, have been seeing to her affairs. She directed that this should be given to you, whom she described as Meriadoc Brandybuck the Kobold. We didn’t understand why, not until you told me what you’d done.”

He turned to smile at Merry, now plainly proud of his grandson. “You have done well to listen to your cousin, for in my estimation you can find no better Hobbit in the Shire to learn from than Frodo Baggins. You’ve done very well, my Merry.”

*******


Years later, the bridal bed Meriadoc Brandybuck shared with his new wife Estella Bolger was covered with that golden blanket, finally removed from the cedar chest he’d inherited from his grandfather, one that had been crafted by Drogo Baggins.

“What a beautiful blanket!” Estella said, running her hand over the careful patterns worked into it so long ago by Primula Baggins. “However did you come by it?”

Merry smiled. “It was a wedding present, one given me in anticipation of this day, jointly by a Hobbitess who used to live in the Marish and by Frodo.”

And he never said any differently to anyone who ever asked.

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