9. The Trap is Sprung
Ted himself watched over the coop after the fourth disappearance, but saw nothing, and it made him so sleepy the next day that he nearly ground one of his hands into meal. Grumbling to himself, he took himself off to bed early that night, leaving his middle son, Ned, to watch.
Hodge awakened the next morning to his father's irate shouts. 'Fell asleep! Some watch you set! Anyone could've waltzed past you and taken the whole flock!'
Hodge pulled on his clothes, splashed cold water on his face from the pitcher on the dresser, and emerged blinking into the dawn light. 'What is it, Dad?' he asked.
'Ned here fell asleep! Had there been ruffians about we'd've been murdered in our beds! What sort of...'
'Nothing happened, Dad,' Ned said reasonably. 'Look, we'll open up the door and you'll see, they'll all be there.'
'They had better be,' Ted said threateningly.
'They will be!' Ned said easily.
'For your sake, I hope so,' Hodge murmured, as their father passed into the chicken yard and pulled the little door aside.
The boys had a hard time containing their snickers as their father called in a sweet, coaxing falsetto. 'Come chicks! Come chicks! Come, my pretties, come!'
Hens began to emerge, and Ted turned to pick up the bucket of cracked feed, scattering handfuls as he continued to croon to his fowl. He was proud of his flock; his hens had won prizes at the Litheday Fair in Michel Delving for several years running, and he had great hopes for the rooster this year.
Finally no more beaks appeared in the doorway.
'See, they're all here,' Ned said.
'Are they?' his father answered ominously. 'I count one hen missing... and where's the rooster?'
Ned and Hodge started. Their father had the right of it, the rooster was not to be seen amongst the busy breakfast-scratching biddies. As the two let themselves into the pen, for all the good it would do, the miller undid the latch on the big hobbit-sized door that allowed entry to collect eggs from the nesting boxes.
No reluctant rooster came into view. The only fowl in the henhouse resided within shells, awaiting collection from the nesting boxes.
Ted swore as he stumbled over something.
'What's that?' young Ned asked. He bent to pick something off the floor.
'Let me see that,' Ted said, holding out his hand. He examined it with a frown. 'A knife?' he said. 'Did one of you lads lose a knife while gathering eggs?'
'Got mine right here in my pocket,' Hodge said, and Ned patted his own pocket with a nod.
'Huh,' Ted said, stepping out into the brightening light. He turned the knife over in his hand and traced the scratches on the handle, saying slowly, 'F.... G.... Now who could that be?'
Hodge scratched his head. 'F. G.?'
'That's right,' the miller nodded.
Hodge said, 'All I can think of is Fastred Greenhand, of Greenholm. But he's not been around these parts in months. Spends all his time at the Great Smials, when he's not off traipsing about the Westmarch.'
Ned narrowed his eyes. 'Can't be,' he said.
Hodge nodded. 'You're right,' he said. 'No way it could be the Mayor's son-in-love.'
'That's not what I meant,' Ned said. 'Don't you remember, last year in the Dragon, Frodo was talking about how he'd broke the blade on his pocketknife? Fas was visiting at the time, and he pressed his own knife on Frodo. I remember, 'cause he'd scratched his initials on it, and they were the same as Frodo-lad's.'
'You're not saying...' Hodge said.
Ned nodded, a sick look on his face, 'That's exactly what I'm saying,' he said.
'Well, now, that's a fine kettle of fish,' the miller said grimly. 'Come along, lads. I think we need to pay a visit to the Shirriff.'
The Shirriff was just sitting down to breakfast, and invited the miller and his two elder sons to join him. Ned and Hodge looked hopefully at the platter of fluffy scrambled eggs, the bacon done to a turn, the toast in its rack, and all the other mouthwatering foodstuffs on display, but the miller waved his hand, saying, 'Thanks, Nod, but there's serious trouble afoot.'
Nod put down his fork and said, 'Must be, for you to let this masterpiece grow cold. Now, sit, Ted, and tell me what's what. If I waste this my wife will put me on water rations for the rest of the day.'
The miller reluctantly sat, and his sons gleefully loaded the plates that Nod's wife provided with a smile. Their enthusiasm warmed her heart, poor motherless lads that they were, who knew what kind of meals their father scratched together at the mill?
Ted Sandyman waved aside a plate of his own, accepting only a cup of tea, Nod noted as his own fork moved regularly between plate and mouth. The miller was truly disturbed about something.
'So what's the trouble?' the Shirriff said. Things had been pretty quiet the past fortnight, for which he was extremely grateful. He still hadn't got over nearly banishing that tween for the accidental shooting of his brother.
Ted Sandyman explained. Halfway through his breakfast, the Shirriff's appetite suddenly deserted him. He pushed his plate away, pulled out the cloth that was tucked into his collar, wiped his mouth, and threw the cloth down. 'Are you certain?' he demanded.
'Ned here says he remembers the knife from last year,' the miller said.
' 'Twas a whole year ago,' the Shirriff said slowly. 'A whole year...' he took the knife that Ted held out, turned it over in his hand. Rising abruptly, he said, 'Let's go over to your place, I want to take a look around. Then we'll head up to Bag End, ask Master Frodo Gardner if he can put a hand on his pocket knife.'
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.