14. The Last Journey
Lights remained lit in the holes of the hobbits that day. Though the sky lightened, it never grew light enough to see well, not enough to lighten a room through an unshuttered window. And then it started to snow. It had been around noon, by the watch that hung from a brooch on Esme's jacket, when she saw the first flakes coming down. The further east they traveled the worse it became until it obscured her view of the trees and fields while the carriage slowed to a crawl. Her driver and escorts refused to try to spend the night on the road, so it was actually in the thickest dark of the predawn hours on the seventeenth of Afteryule that the Brandybuck carriage arrived at the Tree and Leaf Inn.
The seventeenth went much as the sixteenth had--slowly. The snow stopped falling in the early afternoon with the skies finally becoming somewhat lighter. But the oddly cold southeast winds picked up and threw the snow into drifts, many of which where over the heads of the escorts on their ponies. Esmeralda and company were ten miles out of Woodhall when the driver called a halt, stating he felt they should go no further than the Fireside Tavern & Inn. Esme was in quite a state. She fussed and fumed, insisting that they had to get home. She yelled. She cried. But had to surrender to the inevitable when five miles farther along the carriage slid off the road, breaking an axle. She and the elderly driver rode the carriage ponies as the entourage battled through the snow drifts to go the last five miles into Woodhall.
The snow storm had nearly buried Bree. Everyone who could had stayed put in their homes with the windows shuttered and the fires banked high. The best thing to do was wait for the storm to blow itself out. Late morning on the seventeenth, the residents finally stuck their heads out to survey the damage, then got to work cleaning up the mess. All afternoon and into the evening the work of clearing the town's streets had gone on, Big Folk and Little Folk working together, as was the way it had been for generations in Bree.
Willie Banks paused to catch his breath. He was working on the last layer of snow out in front of his tailor's shop on Thistledown Lane, just off the corner of Center Street in the main business part of Bree. The shop next door was also a tailor's, Mat Heathertoes. Mat being a tailor for the Big Folk and Willie being a tailor for the hobbits of the town. They didn't get snow often, perhaps twice a year a falling that needed to be shoveled. When they did, Mat and Willie had always used a system of Mat taking off the top until the snow was at a height where Willie could handle it, then the hobbit would clear it from there. They were good neighbors and good friends. Willie adjusted his grip on his shovel, shoved it under the snow, then tossed the load to where he knew the wheelbarrow to be.
"Watch it, you! Have a mind to where you're a throwin' that stuff!"
Willie turned to find a stranger, one of the Men who seemed to be becoming more numerous in Bree, standing next to the barrow, his face covered in snow. "My sincere apologies, sir," Willie exclaimed as he pulled his handkerchief out of his pocket and going to the man offered it to him. "But you see, you were near to my wheelbarrow, sir. Though it does seem my aim was rather off." Willie didn't recall throwing the shovel load of snow that high into the air.
"Aim! Aim!" the Man roared. "Aimed for me was just what you did, ya mouse! Didn't it? Didn't it aim right at ma face, lads?" He asked his three companions.
"It sure did, Yengan. I seen it. Aimed square at ya."
"It did, I seen it too!"
"But, sir," Willie sounded nervous as the Men started to surround him. "I've been at this most the day, and I don't think I could have . . . I mean to say, sir . . . well, you're a tall Man, sir. I don't rightly figure I've the strength in my arms to toss the snow that high sir."
"You hear that, lads? It be callin' me a liar!" Yengan leaned over and shoved his huge face into Willie's. "It thinks it can call me a liar. What think ya that I should do about that, lads?" Yengan's voice had gone smooth and cold as the snow.
"Ya could shove it's face full of snow, seein' as it thinks that's fun to do," sneered Moctok.
Natuck and Slengan grabbed Willie by the shoulders, dragged him between his shop and Mat's, then forced him to his knees while Yengan grabbed a handful of snow.
"Would ya be wantin to play with some snow, vermin?" Yengan hissed before shoving the snow into Willie's face. His hand more than covered the hobbit's face and the snow packed itself into Willie's open mouth and into his nostrils. Willie writhed. His thrashings grew weaker. They stopped altogether, yet Yengan still pushed his hand firmly into the small face. Finally, at Yengan's nod, Natuck took the body of the suffocated hobbit and slammed it into the wall of Mat Heathertoes' shop. They didn't have long to wait.
"What's going on . . . Willie?!" Mat's astonished eyes tried to take in what he was seeing. "What has happened? What are you four about here?" He took a step into the space between the buildings, but was quickly shoved back into the street.
"Takin' care o' a personal matter. You got a problem with that?"
"I'll say I do, yes. He's my friend. Willie!"
Moctok stepped up to Mat. "It won't be answerin' ya. Seems it got too much snow in its face and couldn't breathe no more." Moctok leered and chuckled. "You wantin' to make sommat out o' it?"
A small crowd started to gather, mostly Bree-men but also a few hobbits. They would have stood by Mat, but he was covered on all sides by Yengan and his lads.
"Yes," Mat shakily proclaimed. "You all be a bunch of murderers. You killed him! And he too small to hurt you at all."
"But you ain't being too small," Moctok said as his fist landed in Mat's stomach.
That was all it took. The Bree-men along with the few hobbits that had gathered around moved in to help Mat, while Bill Ferny, Harry Goatleaf and a good many others moved in behind them. It didn't last long. It didn't need to. When it was over Mat Heathertoes, Rowlie Appledore, and little Tom Pickthorn, all Big Folk, Willie Banks and Tom Underhill, both Little Folk, were dead. The Ruffians were chased from the town with the gates firmly barred behind them. It wasn't until the next day, the eighteenth, that it was found that nearly every one of the rough southerners who had been in Bree were gone. Some of the hobbits hastily packed up and left town, heading for the Shire. They all returned within a short while. They were being shot at from the hills and rocks along the Great East Road. It was a long time before news of the Fatal Fight of 1419 reached the Shire. It was a long time before much news of any kind reached the Shire.
At the Fireside Tavern & Inn the morning of the eighteenth of Afteryule, Esmeralda Brandybuck's escorts made no effort to wake her. They didn't wish another battle with their stubborn mistress. They rode back to the carriage, replaced the axle, then took several more hours to get it to the inn because of having to dig through several drifts in order to make the road passable. They may as well have awaked Esme earlier and gotten the battle over. For on their return, they found an extremely irate hobbitess waiting for them. She had all the small bags they had brought with them the night before piled in the courtyard ready to go. But the hour was already late; and as they traveled, the winds once again began to howl. As they neared Stock, all the ponies were stumbling with the cold. They again had to stop for the night. Esmeralda had no rest that night for a deep dread lay upon her heart.
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.