5. 'Shall I Ever Look Down Into that Valley Again, I Wonder?'
‘Keep your head down,’ Old Oakleaf whispered into Freddy’s ear.
‘No hobbit would give me away should he know me,’ Freddy protested under his breath.
‘None would betray a hobbit to his death, not a-purpose, mind, but some might speak without thinking and rue the consequences afterwards,’ Oakleaf maintained. Freddy nodded.
‘Hey, there! No talk in the ranks!’ a ruffian shouted, prodding Freddy in the ribs with his club. Freddy fell, and the ruffians laughed.
‘He can walk along by himself,’ the ruffian chief said when Old Oakleaf and Stonecrop would have helped Freddy to his feet. The club nudged Freddy again, not gently.
Freddy managed to gain his feet, though he’d left his walking-stick in the cave. He had also taken a ruffian’s arrow in that ill-fated raid the previous month, through the calf of his leg, and walking was difficult. He staggered a few steps while the ruffians watched and shouted mocking encouragement.
They were approaching Budge Ford, and there wasn’t much chance of hiding his face; keeping his balance was hard enough as it was. However, the ruffian chief’s impatience saved him; the Man growled, ‘It’ll take a week to get to the Lockholes at this rate.’
‘Two, more likely,’ Bent said helpfully.
‘All right,’ the ruffian chief grumbled reluctantly. ‘Help him along.’ Old Oakleaf and Stonecrop sprang to Freddy’s sides, taking his arms upon their shoulders.
Freddy waited until the ruffians were distracted, then whispered to Oakleaf, ‘Someone’s got to warn my parents. When Lotho gets word that our band’s been taken...’ he’d seize Odovacar’s property, and his person, most likely, and throw Freddy’s father into the infamous Lockholes, but Freddy didn’t have time to finish the thought before the ruffians were once more attending them.
Old Oakleaf nodded, winked his near eye, and said under his breath, ‘Grace go with you, young master.’ Suddenly, he let go of Freddy, clutched his chest and fell to his knees. The ruffian following behind them stumbled over him in the road, and both of them went sprawling.
‘You’ll get a beating for that,’ the ruffian said, coming up raging, club lifted, but Oakleaf lay crumpled, unmoving, in the cold mud left from the previous day’s rain.
‘Uncle!’ Stonecrop gasped, releasing Freddy to drop to his knees beside the still figure. ‘Uncle!’ he sobbed convincingly, though he was no more related to Oakleaf than to Freddy. He raised a tear-streaked face to the ruffians. ‘It’s his heart,’ he gulped. ‘It were giving him a bit of trouble before, but now—‘
‘Seems as if it’s given him more than a bit of trouble,’ the rebel chief said, nudging the old hobbit’s body with his toe. ‘Leave him lie. Rats can bury him, or dogs can have him for their dinner.’ Stray dogs were all too common in the Shire these days, wandering hungry, their masters taken away to the Lockholes. ‘Come along, you rats, and look lively!’
Rocky stepped up to support Freddy’s other side as Stony rose from the gaffer’s body, whispering a tearful farewell. They shouldered Freddy again, and commenced their painful progress.
Just before coming into the little community by Budge Ford, the road passed through a low-lying spot, still muddy, though the day was warming rapidly. Odovacar Bolger, in another time, would have had several waggonloads of gravel from the Quarry spread there, but roads were sadly neglected of late, and the hobbits slogged through mud to their ankles while the ruffians walked on firmer ground next to the road and jeered.
Freddy stumbled, pitching headlong into the mud, taking Rocky and Stony down with him. As they came up covered in mud, their faces mud-smeared, the ruffians jeered at the “dirty little rats.”
Stony sneaked a look at Freddy as he took his arm again, and nodded in satisfaction. Rosamunda Bolger herself would find it difficult to distinguish her son from the common hobbits to his right and left.
Sober-faced hobbits peeped from their windows, then came slowly out of their doorways to watch the sorrowful procession, old gaffers removing their hats, hobbit mums and lasses weeping into their aprons. ‘This here’s Fatty Bolger’s band!’ the ruffian chief announced cheerily. ‘The Bulge himself is dead, sad to say, but we’ll make do with this ragtag bunch. Got plenty of little rooms in the Lockholes yet, anybody want to join the parade?’
‘Bless you, lads,’ an old gammer whispered in defiance of the ruffians, and a hobbit mum balancing a dirty-faced child on each hip raised a song, soon joined by many of the watchers. The ruffians glared, but they couldn’t very well arrest the whole town of Budgeford, now, could they? Heartened by the small gesture, the rebels lifted their heads and marched on, even the muddy threesome in the centre of the group.
They went as far as Whitfurrows that day, staying the night in the Shirriff house, welcoming the poor fare as if it were a feast, which it was to them, poor fellows. Freddy’s rebels maneuvered him into a dark corner and then settled themselves all around him, keeping any inquisitive Shirriffs from too close a look.
They were up early the next morning, for the ruffian chief wanted to make Bywater by teatime that day, it being a market day when the most hobbits would be about despite the lack of offerings in the market square. After feeding the prisoners some watery gruel, while the ruffians themselves feasted on savoury-smelling bacon and eggs, they started off, reaching Frogmorton around the time elevenses would have been, had there been anything proper to eat for elevenses. Here the prisoners were treated to stale bread and mouldy cheese. They picked the mould off as best they could, paying no mind to the ruffians’ jeers. ‘You’ll eat it, mould and all, ‘fore we’re through with you!’ Jock shouted cheerily.
Bent went to the town well and pulled up a bucketful of water. After the ruffians quenched their thirst, he passed the bucket with its dregs down the line of prisoners. There was perhaps a mouthful for each, but the hobbits were grateful, for the weather was warming again, that dry, hot spell that often comes after a September rain, and their mouths were parched.
Silent hobbits watched as the ruffians prodded their prisoners to their feet. ‘No singing now,’ the ruffian chief snarled, brandishing his whip threateningly. ‘I’ll beat this little one, give you a nice show, I will,’ he said, aiming a blow at Robin Smallfoot, ‘if any one of you lets out a peep.’ The hobbits of Frogmorton took his threat seriously, and watched in silence as the group marched away.
Rosie Cotton was in Bywater for market day, escorted by her oldest brother Tom. She’d argued with her father over it; he preferred to keep his wife and daughter at home on the farm, out of the casual view of any ruffians. Unexpectedly, Mrs Cotton had sided with her daughter.
‘Old Hamfast Gamgee could use a basket of food, I’m thinking,’ she said. ‘He hasn’t been around in a week, and I’m sure they’ve used up the last of the food you brought them, Tolman.’
‘All right,’ Farmer Cotton agreed reluctantly. ‘But you’ve no call to look so pretty, Rose, it’s just asking for trouble.’
‘I’ll take care of that,’ Mrs. Cotton said, taking her daughter in hand. By the time they came out, Rose was in a shapeless dress, colourless from too many washings, soot streaked her face, one tooth was blacked somehow to make it look as if she’d lost it, and her hair was a tangled mess under a dirty kerchief. Farmer Cotton hardly knew his daughter. ‘You look a sight,’ he said approvingly.
She took up the heavy basket, filled with cold chicken, jars of jelly and pickles, a few potatoes and wrinkled apples hoarded from the previous year's harvest in the bottom, the whole covered with a clean cloth. There were scraps of dirty rags atop all, as if she were bringing a basketful of rags to the rug-maker for a copper ha'penny or two.
‘I’ll take that,’ Tom said, ‘at least until we get close to town.’ She gratefully surrendered the basket to him. It was easier for him to carry it along, making it look as if it held nothing any heavier than rags, but she was a good, strong girl and would manage it the rest of the way when need be. They walked down the lane, for driving a waggon these days drew attention, and the ruffians were as likely as not to seize the ponies for work in the mines.
‘I’m glad we left early,’ Rose said, wiping her forehead, but careful not to wipe away the soot. ‘It looks to be a scorcher this day.’
‘Yes,’ Tom said. ‘We’ll get this basket to the Gamgees before elevenses; you can have a nice little chat with Marigold before you leave, and then we’ll stop by the market on the way home, see if we can pick up any news.’
‘News is about all we’ll pick up,’ she said. ‘We’ve more on the farm than they have in all the market stalls, put together.’
‘Don’t go saying that too loud,’ her brother warned. Obligingly, she shut her mouth and said no more until they were safely inside the Gamgee’s ramshackle new house, one of those built by the ruffians to house those displaced when Bagshot Row was dug up.
Rose and Marigold had a nice chat over cups of what they called “tea”, though it was really only a few weeds picked from the roadside and steeped in boiling water. The Gaffer was gruffly thankful for the basket of foodstuffs. ‘I don’t know what we’d do without you,’ he said, wiping a tear from the corner of his eye. ‘I hope you find a good husband some day, Rosie, as good as my Sam would have been.’
Rose thanked him with a tear of her own. She’d been confident since Spring that Sam would be returning to her soon, but no one believed her, and she’d learned to keep her hopes to herself. She wondered, not for the first time, what was keeping her Sam this long? Here it was, September already, and no sign of him!
All too soon, it was time to go. Marigold added a generous double handful of dirty rags to the basket, to take up the space where the food had been, and Rose and Tom Cotton took their leave, reaching the market square just after teatime.
Rose was right, there was nothing on offer worth the copper she received for her rags, though she and Tom went from stall to stall exchanging greetings. Market day was about the only time hobbits could gather to talk, anymore, and some wondered just how long it would be before the ruffians closed down the market the way they had the inns.
Rose was just talking to the weaver’s wife when a shout arrested their attention. The weaver hurried up to them, not long after, out of breath. ‘They’re marching prisoners off to the Lockholes,’ he said grimly. ‘At least a score of them.’ He eyed Rose. ‘You’d better take yourself off home, missie,’ he said. ‘There’s sights not fit for seeing.’
‘I’ll go find Tom,’ she said obediently, but instead of seeking out her brother, she went towards the Avenue, once lined by graceful trees. Only one tree stood there now, left for some reason when the ruffians cut the others down, though she’d never heard why. It was one of the things that her father and Tom whispered about in the depths of middle night, when the rest of the Cottons were abed.
With the rest of the hobbits that gathered there, as if against their will, she watched the dusty prisoners marching slowly up the road, goaded by grinning ruffians. One ruffian jogged ahead, a rope over his shoulder. He quickly formed a noose and threw it over the lowest branch which was above hobbit-head height. Rose gasped as she realised its meaning. This was a band of rebels. She’d heard that the leader of each band brought in lately had been executed, but not how. Suddenly, overheard whispers came together in her head to make a perfect, and awful, whole.
The ruffians stopped the parade before they’d reached the hanging tree, waiting for the good citizens of Bywater to gather. The prisoners were panting, their heads hanging, leaning upon each other for support. One was a little taller than the others, Rose saw; he must be the leader, then, for he was obviously from one of the great families, taller and fairer (though under his coating of dried mud, this was hard to distinguish) than a common hobbit.
Moved by an impulse she did not understand, Rose whirled and ran to the trough by the side of the road, there for farmers to water their beasts on the way to market. Picking up a bucket, she filled it from the trough. Carrying her basket in one hand and the bucket in the other, she hurried back to the group of ruffians and prisoners as quickly as she could bear her heavy load.
Picking out their chief, she bobbed a courtesy and gasped, ‘If you please, sir, I’ve brought water, it’s that hot today.’
As he stared at her, bemused, she fished a tin cup from her basket and dipped it in the bucket, holding it up to him.
A sardonic smile crossed his lips, and he bowed to her. ‘My thanks, little missus,’ he said, taking in the gap-toothed mouth and tangled hair. Hardly a looker, this one, and not worth a second glance. His hand dwarfed the hobbit cup, and it took three cupfuls to satisfy him, but finally he handed the cup back to her with another bow.
‘Would your men care for some water?’ she asked boldly.
‘Have at it,’ he answered, and she took the bucket and cup to each ruffian in turn, finally returning to the leader.
‘My thanks, little missus,’ he said once more, reaching into his pocket for a copper.
She shook her head, then dropped her eyes.
‘You won’t take payment?’ he said, undecided whether to be amused or offended.
‘If you please, sir,’ she said, her eyes still on the ground.
‘What payment would you like,’ he said, ‘a kiss, perhaps?’ The ruffians shouted with laughter at this. Tom Cotton had come up in the midst of this, but dared not interfere. He stood with the rest of the crowd, watching, his hands clenching into fists and his heart in his throat, cursing his helplessness.
‘If you please, sir,’ Rose said again, after shaking her head to deny the offer of a kiss.
‘What would you like for payment?’ the ruffian chief repeated jovially.
‘May I give the prisoners some water?’ she asked, raising her eyes to meet his.
He started to refuse, but something about the tears in her eyes stopped him. Dratted women, little or otherwise, he fretted. Always using tears to get their way! And you give it to them, every time, he chided himself. ‘All right,’ he said aloud. ‘I don’t suppose there’s any harm.’
‘Thankee, sir,’ she said breathlessly, with another bob, then took the bucket around to each dusty, dirty, exhausted hobbit in the group. She ended with their leader, blessing the fact that there was still water in the bucket for him. At least he will not hang with a dry mouth, she thought sadly.
‘My thanks,’ he murmured, and as his hands met hers on the cup, she suffered a shock of remembrance...
‘A whole waggonload of apples!’ Rose said breathlessly to her father. ‘How rich we shall be!’
‘Perhaps, Rosie-lass,’ he answered dryly. ‘But only if they all sell at market this day.’
‘O but they will sell, Father, they will!’ Rose affirmed. ‘And then perhaps I can have a new ribbon for my hair?’
‘I dunno, Rosie,’ her father said, looking fondly at his only daughter with a sigh. ‘There’s the new roof to put on, you know, before the fall rains come, and...’
‘I beg your pardon,’ a well-bred voice broke in. A gentlehobbit had come up to their waggon and was fingering the apples. ‘Nice, plump,’ he said, ‘and juicy, I’d warrant.’
He was nice and plump himself, Rose thought to herself, then blushed for the thought. She was growing old enough to notice well-favoured hobbits. Soon she’d be old enough to start walking out, and though a gentlehobbit was beyond her, she could still appreciate the looks of one, couldn’t she?
Now he turned to Farmer Cotton, with a polite nod. ‘How much for an apple?’ he asked.
‘Two for a penny,’ the farmer answered. ‘Or a ha’penny each.’
‘I’ll take two,’ the gentlehobbit answered, his eyes twinkling at Rose, ‘if your daughter will select them for me. I’m sure she knows which apples have the most flavour in them.’
Farmer Cotton’s mouth tightened, but he didn’t dare offend such a well-dressed hobbit, who might complain to the Shirriff and have him ejected from the marketplace, so he simply said, ‘Rosie, pick out two good apples for the gentlehobbit.’
‘Fredegar Bolger, at your service,’ the hobbit said with a sweeping bow, graceful for all his bulk. Rose picked out a fat red apple and shined it with her apron, holding it out to him, eyes cast down, and as he took it, she turned to reach for another. She heard the crunch of his first bite, and the sigh of satisfaction.
‘Ah,’ he said, ‘I do believe your apples excel even the ones we grow in Eastfarthing.’
‘My thanks,’ the farmer said dryly. He had not given his name in return, nor the proper response to the greeting, both of which omissions did not escape the gentlehobbit. He did not take offence, however, simply smiled as he watched Rose pick up one apple, discard it, and yet another.
‘That’s right, lass,’ he said jovially. ‘Take your time. I only eat the very best.’
It must cost an awful lot to feed you, then, she thought to herself, and as if he caught the thought from her glance, he laughed aloud.
‘I like a saucy apple,’ he said, while Farmer Cotton quietly steamed.
‘Here you are,’ Rose said, extending the apple, meeting his eye this time. Their hands touched, and she felt a shock...
...of recognition, for though she’d never touched the hand of a gentlehobbit before, she’d noticed them. Mr Bilbo, for example, had had long, slender fingers, with inkstains on the right index finger from much writing. Mr Frodo’s fingers were of the same sort, and she’d noticed the same of master Meriadoc and master Peregrin when they’d been at Bag End, one day that she’d been sent with a basketful of jellies for Mr Frodo.
‘Hurry up there!’ the harsh voice of the ruffian chief broke into her thoughts. ‘We’ve a hanging to finish here.’
They were the same slim fingers, she realised, and looking up she saw that the face that had been round then was thin, the merry eyes sober, though they retained their keenness. He took the cup from her now and gulped the contents thirstily. Quickly, before the ruffian chief could order her away, she scooped up another cupful and thrust it into his hands. He must not go thirsty to his death, she thought desperately as he drained the cup.
‘That’s enough,’ the ruffian chief said, seizing her arm and pulling her away. Her backwards glance showed her Fredegar Bolger’s grateful nod, and then Tom had her by the arm.
‘What’re you about?’ he hissed into her ear. ‘I’m taking you home; you mustn’t see this.’
‘No!’ she said, pulling free. ‘If you take my arm again I’ll scream and make a scene,’ she warned.
That was the last thing he wanted, more attention from the ruffians, so he desisted. ‘Just you wait until we get home,’ he said under his breath. ‘I’ll tell Dad...’
‘You go right ahead,’ she hissed back, then was shushed by another hobbit in the crowd.
‘Good citizens of Bywater,’ the ruffian chief was shouting. ‘You see before you the band of rebels led by one Fredegar Bolger, late of Budgeford in Bridgefields. As you can see, there is no point in resisting the benevolent rule of the Boss. Those who do resist shall be put down, swiftly, and unpleasantly.’ The other ruffians laughed.
‘As you know,’ the ruffian chief continued, ‘we hold you little folk no ill will, but we must punish those who have the temerity to lead others astray. Therefore, regrettably, we must hang the leader of any band brought to justice.’
The watching hobbits stiffened, but could not turn away, waiting in fascinated horror for what was about to unfold.
Freddy’s band crowded closer together, putting him in their midst, for all the good it would do. Somehow the ruffians had discovered their lie.
The ruffian chief nodded to two of his fellows. ‘Go fetch him,’ he said, but to the astonishment of the hobbits, he waved to a scarecrow in the field beyond. They waited in silence to see what kind of trick this was.
The ruffians came puffing up, bearing the scarecrow between them. ‘Lay him down,’ the ruffian chief said. He fished an arrow from his quiver and jammed it into the scarecrow’s breast. ‘All right, now,’ he said. ‘Hang him!’
The hobbits gasped, not sure what they’d see next, still anticipating a trick, expecting the ruffians to lay hands on the tallest of the rebels, an aristocrat to any hobbit eye, but no, instead they put the noose around the scarecrow’s neck and hoisted the thing into the air.
‘You see before you one Fredegar Bolger!’ the ruffian chief announced. ‘It seems he was killed by an arrow last month, so we do not have him handy for hanging. This effigy,’ and he sent the scarecrow swinging with a nudge, ‘will have to hang in his place, a reminder of what happens to rebels!’ He glared at the surrounding crowd of hobbits. Hobbit mums and lasses broke down in reaction, weeping on the shoulders of their husbands, or fathers, or brothers, or sons.
‘Leave him hanging there for a day,’ the ruffian chief instructed the watching Shirriffs, ‘as a warning. Then cut him down and throw him in a ditch, or whatever you like.’
Tom nodded grimly to himself, his arm about the sobbing Rose. There’d be more than a scarecrow cut down this night, if he and his father had their way. By tomorrow morning, the last tree on the Avenue would be lying in the dust, and no more hobbit hangings would take place on the Bywater Road. This he swore to himself, a solemn oath. Ruffians weren’t the only ones who could fell a tree.
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.