10. Nearly Calm
If the Hobbits had bothered to open their minds, if they had ventured forth heading east along the Great East Road down the Greenway to where it joined the North Road to Tharbad where it changed its name to become the South Road and then further yet, they would have come at last upon the cleft in the end of the Misty Mountains, the Wizard's Vale, where lies the enclosure known as Isengard. There in the tall, glistening black tower of Orthanc dwelt Saruman The White, head of the White Council, the greatest of the Order of the Istari. He was given to thinking himself the most powerful piece on the chessboard of Middle-earth, although, he would not have wanted to be likened to a queen. He fancied himself the eventual master of the board, the power that moved the pieces at will. But his ego felled him as orc-axes had begun to fell the trees within the circle of Isengard and the Wizard's Vale stripping it bare. The poison had been fed to his eager mind with slow patience over many long years, dripped and dribbled into his thoughts so subtly that he hadn't been aware of his thoughts being guided, nurtured until he had become a powerful puppet on strings of steel being made to dance in the drama of the age.
Past the now desecrated Wizard's Vale, the road once again changes its name. It is now called the Great West Road, and our Hobbits traveling upon it would come thence to Minas Tirith. From there, from the White City of Men, the Hobbits could see Mordor, realm of the Dark Lord, Sauron. There behind the Moutains of Shadow the power that moved the puppet and the pawn had grown, flexing its muscles, testing the times until each covert move could be properly executed. Each move built upon the last, a game played by a master until this time when these moments had arrived. And he was only missing One Piece.
Lotho began plotting his takeover of the Shire on the first day of the new year. He got out a map of the Shire, all his deeds, and a red pencil, then carefully began shading in all the property he owned, or was owned by those backing him. His attention went back and forth from the deeds to the map. After nearly two hours he was finished, sitting back with a sigh to survey the result. His sigh turned into a gasp. He had not expected what he saw before him. A good two-thirds of the map was red! There were small, isolated white spots scattered about, family holdings he had been unable to obtain or with owners who would not accept the new ideas that his spies had been promoting. Also, he didn't really own the towns he had shaded with red, but he did own a good many of the shops and services in each of them. He chuckled to himself at how easy it all had been. A phony inspector telling the owner that the timbers in his building had rot or an infestation of termites. Was the business or holding on a river? Then it was a simple matter to spread rumors of a dam to be built down stream that would be flooding the area. With ease those he hired snuck amongst the fields on moonless nights to damage the crops and, then his inspector would arrive to declare the soil blighted. "Better sell out whilst you can!" he would advise the
But Lotho's smile faded as he irritably tapped near the center of the map with the red pencil. Glaring white in his ocean of red sat Tookland. There the pattern of red and white reversed. There it was white with a few red speckles. His eyes moved to the right side of the map. His tapping grew more agitated. Buckland. Buckland sat even more untouched than that wretched Tookland! There was no red at all in the pristine white of Buckland. Lotho pulled a piece of paper out of the drawer of his desk and with the red pencil began jotting down ideas of how he could turn those brilliant white patches crimson. Eventually he sat back, held up the paper to skim down it's lines of writing and see if he had covered everything. He reached for a page of notes he had written earlier to compare the two. He would send word today to his business associates in Bree outlining his plans to them. It would take some time to move the Men he needed into the Shire, to position them in the larger size towns in each one of the Farthings without attracting undue attention. The gathering had slowed to a trickle for now. But Lotho determined that before month's end, he would have his gatherers hard at work throughout the Shire, including both Buckland and Tookland, with himself established as the new Mayor of the Shire.
As the first weeks of S.R. 1419 passed, Thain Paladin II's anxiety grew. There were Tooks in every Farthing of the Shire, with a good many in Buckland as well, most of whom recognized The Took as head of the family, so information, both written and oral, came to the Great Smials on a near daily basis. Although the gathering of goods and stores from the farms owned by the Four Farthings Holdings had nearly ceased, reports were reaching Paladin of increased sightings of small groups of Men in the Shire. They were camping in wooded areas and places where small valleys amongst the rolling hills would shield them from casual observation. Some were even staying at the few inns along the Great East Road that had a larger room or two from days long past when Men had more often crossed through the Shire on their way from Bree west to The Sea. The innkeepers were suddenly having to clean out those Big Folk sized rooms that had long been used for storage.
Paladin sat back in his chair. He crossed his left arm over his mid-section to rest comfortably on the small ledge his stomach provided. He rested his right elbow into his left palm and brought his right hand up to rest the back of his thumb against his lips. His forefinger curled around the tip of his thumb, and he absently started to rub the space between his nose and lip. He was not at ease in his thoughts. There was something going on. He could sense it. Paladin's eyebrows raised a bit at that thought. Sensing things was more his dear sister, Esmeralda's, area of expertise, born as she was with that Tookish oddness that she wore like a mantle, marking her as one of the more unhobbitlike Tooks. Paladin sighed and closed his eyes. Maybe some of that oddness had found its way into him after all. Maybe it had needed a threat to make it active in his brain. He smiled. The family always joked about his being found under a large mushroom somewhere, he was so unlike his eccentric relations. Paladin's smile faded as the sense of danger drawing near returned. The hairs on his arms and the back of his neck rose, making his skin tingle. Trouble was coming, he knew for a fact. Perhaps he was not such a different Took after all.
The study at Brandy Hall was snug and warm despite the growing cold outside. This winter was showing itself to be colder than most with the usual light snowfalls coming more frequently than in years past. Saradoc Brandybuck sat, not in the imposing chair behind his desk, but instead in one of the smaller wing-backed chairs which faced the desk. He sat there often so as not to forget what it was that visiting Hobbits saw as they sat in his office. Saradoc didn't much care for it. The large desk with it's large leather chair was too overbearing for his tastes, though he understood their purpose well enough.
The Oldbucks had made a radical move by crossing the Brandywine and settling the stip of clear, arable land between the river and the Old Forest. They built the Hall in a way so as to let every Hobbit know that the family that was henceforth known as the Brandybucks would be both powerful and stable. The Master's study held that same aura of power and substance.
Saradoc sighed. After a few more moments he rose to go sit in the chair behind the desk to begin his day's work. A sizable stack of letters sat upon the blotter awaiting his perusal. Some of these were letters from his relatives who lived in the Shire as opposed to Buckland where the bulk of the Brandybucks live. Most of these were the usual telling of the details of the year past and good wishes for the new year now upon them. But here and there amongst the homey news, tucked in between the talk of children and crops, were more disturbing items. Men were moving into the Shire. Small groups here and there, crossing the Brandywine without using the bridge. The cold weather was helping the Men in this as the river had frozen over in places where the current was less strong.
From Hobbiton came the news that a new mill was being built to replace the one that had been torn down. This mill was different from any other the hobbits of Hobbiton had seen. It seemed to need more parts than was normal, huge wheels and cogs and axles and pulleys. The water wheel seemed too big for The Water and, as with the tearing down of the old mill, the work of raising the new mill was being done by Men. Mills in other towns were being demolished with similar new ones being built, along with poorly built, ugly shacks the purpose of which no one seemed to know.
A knock at his study door interrupted yet another disturbing letter, which he set aside as the young hobbit maid brought in the tray with his elevenses on it. He set down the letter he had been reading but made no move for the food on the tray. He stared off blankly while his mind tried to process all he had been reading. Maybe his brother-in-law had been right after all. Maybe there was something deeper, darker at work in the Shire; and although it seemed to be leaving Buckland untouched, perhaps he would be wise not to ignore it.
Esmeralda Brandybuck sat in her sitting room looking through an odd assortment of items. Letters, diaries, drawings, miniature portraits and the images housed in delicate lockets lay scattered on her desk. One could say the items were stolen, as they did not belong to this household nor did they truly belong to Esmeralda. Although she was a Took by birth, she had married a Brandybuck; and these items ought to have remained at the Great Smials. But Esme needed them. She had brought many of them with her when she first came to Brandy Hall as a new bride, then she asked Eglantine to bring the rest when her brother and sister-in-law had come to visit at Yule. Now she had found her answers.
Her fingers went to rest on the diaries and letters that had told her what she hoped they would, while fearing the same thing. Secrets written long ago. Mothers, sisters, aunts, all of whom loved a Took father, brother or uncle who had looked uncannily like themselves; bearers of those strange characteristics that most Hobbits referred to as "Tookish", but she knew were something else altogether. They had all been hobbitesses bound by love and the Fairy blood to a Took who had left the Shire to go adventuring. And now, now she knew for a certainty what she had missed before.
"Missed or avoided?" she softly asked aloud to herself.
She had seen things in her sleeping. She had felt and seen things in her waking. And her female Took ancestors had done the same. By matching writings to portraits it was plain to see this happened only to the delicate, sharp featured, green-eyed Tooks born with the Fairy blood that ran in the family, never the ones who married in. Esmeralda closed her eyes as she sighed. She was bound by Fairy blood to her nephew, and the bonds were growing stronger. She was feeling little odd feelings. Her skin would tingle as though she was afraid of something; her heart would suddenly start thudding and racing; or a sudden feeling of being anxious would wash over her. She would see things she had never seen before in her dreams. Different from the times that she knew she was sharing an experience with Pippin, but yet . . . she would awaken with a surety, that to some degree, what the dream showed was what was happening to Pippin, Merry, Frodo and Sam, wherever they had gone.
There had been a lull in Esmeralda's odd feelings and dreams from near the end of Winterfilth until nearly the end of Foreyule, then things began to happen. First it had been physical things. Her legs and feet ached when she awoke as though she had spent the night sleepwalking from one end of Great Smials to the other. She would wake during the night feeling hungry or as though she had eaten a meal too quickly. And then, as the physical annoyances began to ease, her emotions had begun to trouble her. Esme would catch herself looking over her shoulder, feeling as though she was being followed. Slight sounds made her jumpy; and only a few days ago a noisy flock of birds had left her cowering on her knees with her arms up over her head. Esmeralda released another long sigh. At least when that had happened she had been alone in her sitting room, yet the feelings of watchful dread were still haunting her now.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.