7. 'I Wish I Could See Cool Sunlight and Green Grass Again!'
They’d stopped halfway between Waymeet and Michel Delving where a road ran southwards from the Great Road, towards Hardbottle in South Farthing. There was a small cluster of dilapidated buildings there, a few farmers’ houses and outbuildings clustered together with the fields spreading out on all sides. Again the ruffians tolerated the prisoners’ desperate crowding round the trough, though when one of the farmers would have refilled it with fresh, cool water, the ruffian chief held up a restraining hand.
‘No need to stir yourself,’ he said to the farmer. ‘Dregs is good enough for the likes of these. They’re rebels, you know.’
When the farmers’ sons (the daughters stayed in the houses, of course, out of sight) came out with basketfuls of fresh-baked bread, originally meant for the farm families’ dinners, the chief intercepted them before they reached the place where the prisoners sprawled on the ground.
‘Many thanks!’ the ruffian chief said effusively, taking a loaf and breaking off a piece, stuffing it into his mouth and speaking around the mouthful. ‘We do appreciate the cooperation of our little friends.’
‘It’s for them,’ the eldest lad said with a resentful nod towards the prisoners.
‘For them?’ the chief affected astonishment. He made a show of lifting the cloths from several of the nearest baskets, inhaling the aroma of the still-warm loaves. ‘I should say not!’ He eyed the lad narrowly, a rebel in the making if ever he saw one. ‘Have you already slopped your pigs this evening?’ he said.
‘No, sir,’ a younger lad piped up. Evidently this was his chore.
‘Well, that’s fine,’ the chief smiled. ‘If you’ve any to spare, you can just slop those porkers over there,’ he said, waving in the direction of his prisoners.’ Several of the ruffians laughed at this, and the chief made a great show of consideration. ‘Say,’ he said, ‘are you sure you’ve enough for your pigs?’ he said, pretending concern. ‘If you don’t, then you needn’t bother feeding those fellows over there,’ he said. ‘They’ll get a bellyful when we get to Michel Delving, you know.’ There was another guffaw from the ruffians.
The little lad spoke bravely. ‘There’s plenty of slops, and then some,’ he said. He bowed, then tugged at his big brother’s sleeve. ‘Come on,’ he said. ‘I’ve still got to slop the pigs, you know.’
‘As do I,’ said another little lad. The young hobbits returned to the cluster of houses, heads together, then broke apart to enter their various dwellings. Inside, out of sight of the ruffians, the families’ own dinners were scraped into buckets, concealed under peelings from potatoes and carrots, soggy pieces of stale bread soaked in sour milk, and other unsavoury-looking scraps.
The ruffian chief checked each bucket, chuckling. ‘Ah, yes,’ he said. ‘Pig slops. Better’n what they’ll get at Michel Delving, anyhow. A veritable feast!’ He fixed the hobbit lads with a stern eye. ‘Are you sure your pigs can spare this, now? I wouldn’t want them to squeal with hunger all night and keep me awake.’
‘We fed the pigs first; this is the leavings,’ one boy said furiously. It was a lie, of course, but the ruffian believed it. He reached out to ruffle the lad’s hair.
‘Smart lad,’ he said. ‘You’ll go far someday, mark my words.’
‘Yes, sir,’ the boy said. ‘May we take the buckets to them now?’
‘Go ahead,’ the chief said, ‘but don’t talk to them.’ He raised his voice, turning his head towards the prisoners. ‘Any talking at all, and the feast will be cut short. Do you understand me?’
Not wanting to risk a word, the prisoners nodded, at least those who were not too dazed to comprehend what was happening around them. The hobbit lads picked up their buckets and silently brought them to the prisoners, waiting until the ravenous rebels emptied them before taking the buckets back home.
Once inside, they closed and bolted the doors, and hobbit mums lighted the lamps, turning them up high despite the extravagance and the cost in lamp oil. Warm yellow light spilled from the windows, and inside the houses, hobbit voices were raised in song, much as the ruffians heard on any pleasant evening, passing by a hobbit abode.
Song followed song, serenading the prisoners, huddled together for warmth in the chilly air of the autumnal evening. It was funny, how it could get so cold after such a day of heat. There were no blankets, of course, and the ruffians had taken their cloaks from them. They shivered in their thin shirts, but the still-warm, delicious food soothed their ragged stomachs as the music soothed their spirits, and somehow they found rest.
O! Water cold we may pour at need
down a thirsty throat and be glad indeed;
but better is Beer, if drink we lack,
and Water Hot poured down the back.
Merry slapped Fatty’s hand away from the platter of mushrooms. ‘You’d eat the lot before they even get out of the bath!’
‘You know it!’ Fatty laughed. ‘Maggot’s mushrooms, and we didn’t even have to steal any this time!’ He could have afforded to buy them by the basketful without a dent in his pocket money, but raiding Maggot’s fields was a tradition of sorts amongst mischievous tweens of the upper class. Fatty felt no compunction; he knew for a fact that his father sent fat purses Maggot’s way on a regular basis, not only to pay for the family’s fare, but for the depredations of his son and young cousins.
There was the sound of a great splash coming from the bath room, and Merry went to investigate. Fatty took advantage of his absence to nab a mushroom or three, but there were still plenty to go round as the cousins settled around the table, and many other things to follow, and when they had finished eating even Fatty heaved a sigh of content.
The conversation that followed as they slouched in chairs drawn round the fire was not half so satisfying nor comfortable. There was talk of Black Riders on black horses, evidently very frightening indeed to have scared the doughty Maggot, by Merry’s report.
In the end, they pried the secret out of Frodo, though it took Merry’s confession of the conspiracy and their knowledge of the Ring, and the unmasking of Sam as chief conspirator, before the eldest cousin’s resistance collapsed.
Fatty gave Merry a satisfied nod. ‘Putty in our hands,’ he whispered. Merry pulled one side of his mouth down in annoyance.
A moment later, Frodo said, ‘You are a set of deceitful soundrels!’ and then laughed, ‘But bless you!’
Fatty turned to Merry and said, ‘See?’ He got up and joined hands with Merry, Pippin, and Sam, and they danced round Frodo while Merry and Pippin sang a song they’d been working on in recent weeks, when it became evident that the plan was going forward at last.
They might have sung and danced the night through, but Frodo had an attack of caution and decreed an early rising and departure.
‘At least I’m not departing,’ Fatty said with secret relief. Fond as he was of Frodo, he did not relish traipsing off into the wilderness, where there were wild beasts and irregular meals.
‘But you will arise to see us off?’ Pippin said gaily.
‘Gladly!’ Fatty said. ‘It will be a relief to have at least one mischievous Took out of my hair, if only for a short time. You will hurry back, won’t you?’
To his sorrow, he saw Frodo hesitate before answering, and he knew he was hearing a lie when Frodo answered. ‘Of course!’ Frodo said cheerfully. He added, more truthfully, ‘How could I stay away from the Shire for any length of time? There’s no place more beautiful in Middle-earth, and no place I would rather be in the entire world, Elvenhome included.’
‘I don’t know,’ Sam said slowly. ‘Elvenhome must be awfully beautiful.’
‘Come on, Sam,’ Frodo said fondly. ‘Knowing you, you’ll be up hours before the rest of us, and if we don’t seek our pillows soon, you’ll not see yours at all.’ With a laugh, the cousins went to their beds.
The ruffians had roused their charges early, with the first cockcrow, before even the Sun cracked her eyes open to throw a gleam into the air ere she rose from her rest. Two of the farmers were filling the stone trough with fresh water, preparatory to fetching the cows. The ruffian chief, in a good mood with but one more day’s slow journey ahead, allowed the prisoners to drink of the fresh, cold, clean water.
‘You ought to wash,’ he said, ‘bunch of dirty pigs that you are.’
‘Naw,’ another ruffian answered. ‘They’ll foul the water, and then what would the poor cows drink?’ The ruffians shouted with laughter and prodded their charges away from the trough. As they marched their footsore prisoners on down the road to Michel Delving, the farm families emerged from their houses to stare after them. Several of the lasses broke down weeping.
‘We did all we could,’ one of the farmers muttered. ‘We fed them, at least, and gave them fresh water.’
‘It wasn’t enough,’ another answered. ‘When are we going to rise up against these louts and their bullying ways? We gave them a good meal, ‘tis true, and sent them off to starve slowly to death, from all accounts.’
‘Do you want to go off to the Lockholes?’ the third said sharply. ‘Do you want your families turned out of your homes, your wives and daughters at the mercy of those...’ he could not come up with a word foul enough to describe the ruffians. Shaking his head sadly, he said, ‘Come along. There’s work to be done.’
Freddy’s band of rebels marched through the growing heat of another fine autumn day, without food or rest. The ruffians were tired of the wearisome journey, and found a way to keep the prisoners moving without inconvenience to themselves. At intervals, several ruffians would sit down, dig food out of their bags, take a meal and a breather, while the rest marched the hobbits on down the road towards Michel Delving. Finishing their repast, the ruffians left behind would jog to catch up with the group, and several more would drop out. Thus, the ruffians arrived in Michel Delving fresh, fed, and rested, while the hobbits had no food, no water, no rest on that daylong march.
Robin stumbled several times, was jerked to his feet by his fellows, until finally he went down and could not rise. The ruffians got in several good blows with their clubs and whips before Rocky forced his way in, ducking the slashing whips, and lifted the tween onto his own back. ‘Leave off,’ he snarled. ‘He’s not holding you up now.’
‘Don’t you tire yourself and hold us up, or you’ll get a taste of the same,’ Jock said.
‘Don’t you worry,’ Rocky muttered. He eased Robin’s weight on his back and trudged along without another word.
The stronger hobbits helped the weaker, and somehow they kept stumbling along, though thirst was a growing torture. One of the hobbits was beaten for falling face-first into a stream that crossed the Road, and none of the others tried that trick on any stream they crossed after seeing his punishment. Blind and stumbling, they reeled along under the warm autumn sun. About halfway to Michel Delving, Freddy’s bad leg failed him completely, and he fell beneath the clubs and whips before Stoney and Budgie were able to throw themselves in the way, covering him with their own bodies.
‘We’ll carry him!’ Budgie said desperately. ‘We won’t slow you down!’
‘See that you don’t,’ the ruffian chief growled.
They came into Michel Delving late in the afternoon. A herd of pigs was drinking at the town trough, and the ruffian chief held the hobbits back with his club. ‘Let the other pigs drink first,’ he said firmly.
After the pigs were finished, he allowed his prisoners to drink the leavings. ‘Don’t fill the trough again,’ he said to the Shirriff who stood by with brimming buckets of cold water, fresh from the well. ‘Wouldn’t want these critters to have too much cold water and founder, would we?’
When he’d judged that the prisoners had scooped up enough handfuls to sustain life, but not yet enough to satisfy thirst, he had his Men prod them away from the trough. ‘Come along, little piggies,’ he said. ‘It’s time to “wee” your way home.’
They marched the rest of the way through Michel Delving, past hobbit dads and tweens watching in silent rage and frustration, past weeping hobbit mums and lasses, past sober-faced children who went in to supper that night and pushed their plates away, untouched. They marched to the outskirts of town where the great storage holes had been dug, and there they stopped.
The chief used his club to separate Budgie from the rest. ‘Step forward,’ he said.
A Man with quill and ink sat at a little table just inside the entrance. ‘Name?’ he said in a bored tone.
‘Budgerigar Smallfoot,’ Budgie said. The ruffian wrote the name beside a number on a half-filled page.
‘Number seventy-three,’ he said.
‘That’s your name from now on,’ the chief said pleasantly. ‘You’ll answer to it, or suffer the consequences.’
‘My name is Budgie,’ the hobbit protested.
‘Not anymore, Number Seventy-three,’ the chief said, not so pleasantly. ‘If it wouldn’t be too much trouble, would you please show our guest to his new quarters?’ he said to a ruffian standing by.
‘My pleasure,’ that one said, and shoved the small hobbit before him.
The chief singled out Freddy.
‘Name?’ came the bored question.
Dazed and exhausted, he nearly made the fatal error of giving his real name, but caught himself just in time. ‘Sandy,’ he wheezed.
‘Sandy what?’ came the question.
‘Does it matter?’ he asked numbly, too tired to be cautious. A club caught him in the stomach, and he doubled over.
‘Answer the question!’ the chief barked.
‘Sandy Riverbottom,’ he gasped. Out of the corner of his streaming eye, he saw the name written upon the list.
‘Number seventy-four,’ the scribe said.
‘Right, number seventy-four, Gimp here will show you to your new home,’ the chief drawled. ‘We hope you’ll be very comfortable during your stay with us. If there’s anything at all that you might want or need, please be sure to ask.’
Freddy nodded, hardly comprehending the flow of words. He tried to take a step, only to have his leg fold up under him.
‘Don’t!’ the chief rapped out sharply, holding back Stonecrop and Beechnut with his club. ‘He’ll make his way to his new home, right enough, or he’ll have a nice beating to urge him along.’
‘Come along then,’ the ruffian called Gimp said. ‘Don’t keep me waiting.’ He slapped a stout stick against the palm of his other hand suggestively.
Number Seventy-four began to crawl after him, hearing a burst of laughter from the watching ruffians. ‘Nice little piggy!’ the chief called. ‘That’s the way. We ought to make them all crawl!’
‘They’ll crawl, soon enough,’ the scribe said. ‘Next?’
Gimp showed him to a dark, narrow cell not far from the tunnel entrance. ‘We’re filling up fast,’ he said cheerfully. ‘Not too many rooms left before we have to open a new facility.’ He gave Freddy a shove with his foot. ‘Now get in there.’ Freddy crawled within and collapsed. From the light of the torches in the corridor, he was able to distinguish details around him. There was not much to see: a bare, dusty floor and a bucket in the corner.
He heard the other prisoners escorted to their new abodes, and when the last one was settled, the boots of the chief were heard clicking on the hard stone floor of the corridor. The footfalls stopped near the middle of the twenty newly-occupied cells, and he raised his voice.
‘Hear me, Numbers Seventy-three through Ninety-two!’ he shouted, his voice echoing through the bare rooms. ‘You’ll notice that our gaol lacks certain amenities, such as doors on the cells.’
Freddy had noticed that, and wondered. Why did they call them the Lockholes? It seemed as if a hobbit could walk out anytime he had the mind to, were there no ruffians on guard.
‘Should you set foot outside your cell, for any reason, unless called forth by number by a guard,’ the chief continued, ‘the hobbits housed on either side of you will suffer a severe beating. Do you catch my drift?’
They didn’t catch his drift, not being wise in the way of boats and water, but they understood him.
‘We want you to feel welcome in your new home,’ he continued. ‘As you can see, we have provided buckets for your convenience. You’ll have regular, filling meals, plenty of rest, and peace and quiet. That means no noise, understand? Not a word, not a whisper, not a song.’
The hobbits listened in silence. Not a word, they understood well enough that none offered an answer.
‘If you cooperate, you’ll be fed. If you do not cooperate, we might just forget your food and water for a day or a week.’ There was a pause while he let the hobbits consider his words, then he lifted his voice again to shout, ‘Welcome to the Lockholes!’
The last word echoed eerily and died away as the hobbits sat in shadowy silence.
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.