8. 'I am Tired, Weary, I Haven’t a Hope Left'
‘What’s the matter, provender not to your liking?’ A heavy boot came down upon the crust, crushing it and grinding it into the dust of the floor. ‘We don’t like waste here, Number seventy-four; no we do not. That’s all you’ll get, and be glad of it, and you’ll have nothing else until that’s gone!’
After a day or three—how many, he had no way of knowing, for there was no day or night, only the steady flicker of the torches in the corridor—he picked up the crumbs, dust and all, and ate every one, licking his fingers to be sure he’d missed nothing.
Another day went by and the thirst was maddening him, for he had nursed the water in the Man-sized cup they gave him with the crust on that first day, not knowing when he would get more, until it was gone—how long ago? Still the booted feet that occasionally passed in front of his door went by him, and did not stop.
He had curled up on the floor in an uneasy doze when he was wakened by the sound of trickling water. Opening his eyes, he saw a ruffian with a bucket, dipping his cup in the bucket and setting it down on the floor.
‘Look lively, next time, and I might let you fill your own cup,’ the Man snarled. With dread, the prisoner saw the cup had been filled only halfway. Remembering the injunction against speech, he bowed his head.
‘Well,’ the Man said, mollified. ‘I see you cleaned up the mess on the floor. Guess you’ll eat today.’ Casually, he pulled a crust from his pocket and dropped it on the floor, then stood back, watching. ‘Go ahead,’ he said. ‘Eat. Or do you prefer it crushed and mixed with dust? Does it have more flavour that way?’
Number seventy-four reached out, took the crust, and began to gnaw.
‘There’s a nice little rat,’ the Man said approvingly. ‘We like to see our efforts appreciated.’ He turned and walked out, and his voice was heard in the next cell, and then the next.
It appeared that when one was quiet and cooperative, one could expect at least a crust and a cup of water each day, and might perhaps call it “breakfast”. Another bucket was brought around the cells later, which contained lukewarm dishwater to all appearances, and this was called “tea”. Yet later, another bucket came, more dishwater, slightly stronger in flavour, with a few potato peels floating atop, and this was called “dinner” or, when a ruffian was feeling grand, “the soup course”.
If a hobbit hoarded his water, the tea and soup passed him by. The hobbits quickly learned to gulp their breakfast water at the approach of booted feet, just in case the bucket of “tea” was making its rounds.
Every few days, when the stench became offensive, the prisoners were called out of their cells, one at a time, to carry their waste buckets to the end of the corridor, dumping them down the hole that led, by ladder, to the next level. The guards liked to joke that if they filled up this level, they’d just send the rats down to clean things up for the next batch of prisoners.
The world could have stopped spinning, for all they knew. There was no day nor night, and no seasons, for the delved-out storeholes maintained a constant temperature, the same on the hottest day or the coldest night. It was too cool for comfort for a hobbit without a blanket or cloak, but the prisoners became accustomed to feeling slightly chilled at all times, and were even able to sleep, curled tightly in a ball, when exhaustion claimed them.
The wise ones paced when ruffians were not about. They’d listen for the booted feet and sit themselves down, to all appearances made of stone when a passing ruffian glanced in. Once the boots passed, they would rise and recommence their exercise. These stayed healthy longer than the ones who simply sat or lay in their cells.
Number seventy-four, with his half-healed leg aggravated by the forced march, knew what he ought to do. He forced himself to limp in a circle about his cell: six steps along the length, turn, three across, turn, six back to the door, turn... He would walk until he heard a guard coming, or until the leg refused to hold him. Sometimes both would happen at once, an irony of economy he appreciated. There was little enough to appreciate in that dismal place.
One day, or night, he knew not which, he heard the cheerful voices of several guards approaching, and stiffened. Cheery ruffians were dangerous ruffians.
‘I tell you, you won’t be bored for long,’ growled a deep voice. ‘I don’t know why I never thought of this game before. I tell you, it will be quite amusing.’
‘O, do tell. I can hardly wait,’ came the voice of the scribe from that long-ago day, the last day they’d seen the face of the Sun. Did she still shine in the world outside?
They stopped in front of the cell across from Number seventy-four’s, and he froze, not wanting to attract their notice.
‘There you are, little one!’ the deep voiced ruffian growled. ‘I tell you, I have a treat for you!’ He bent to lay something on the floor of the cell across the way.
‘Feeding the prisoner cake? That’s supposed to amuse me?’ the bored one said, and a third ruffian was heard to guffaw.
‘Just watch,’ Deep Voice answered. ‘Come on, little one! You’re a cute little thing, you know. They must have robbed the cradle to find you... are you sure you’re old enough to be a rebel? Come, child, take the cake.’ The voice sounded friendly, inviting.
There was a sudden whack and a hobbit cried out—Robin! Number seventy-four started forward before remembering the injunction against setting foot outside his cell.
The bored one laughed. ‘That was good,’ he said. ‘The rat reached for it and you gave him a stripe across his arm.’
Deep Voice resumed his coaxing. ‘Come along, little one, take the cake,’ he said. Robin gave no reply, and his former leader congratulated him silently on his courage in the face of what sounded like a painful blow.
‘Take the cake, I said,’ Deep Voice repeated, his tone growing more menacing. ‘It’s a game, you see. We’ll find out who’s the fastest, you or me. If you’re the fastest, you’ll get the cake before I strike, and I’ll even let you keep it for providing such entertainment and winning my bet for me. You see, my friend here has wagered that I’m faster and you cannot get the cake. Such faith he has in me, I’m touched, I’ll tell you. But I’m not so sure of myself, and I’ve wagered that you’re faster, and will get the cake in the end. Come now, take the cake.’
Robin must have shook his head at them, for Deep Voice said, ‘Do not say “No” to me, little rat. Play the game, or you’ll get the beating anyhow, on your back. Take it, I say.’
Robin must have given in, for several more whacks and cries were heard before Rocky shouted from the cell next to Freddy’s, ‘Enough! Stop it!’ He could not bear to hear the tween’s torment.
Bored Voice said, ‘What’s that, little rat? You dare to set foot outside of your cell? Looks as if you haven’t learned your lesson, now, doesn’t it?’
Blows resounded up and down the corridor as Freddy and the hobbit on the other side of Rocky’s cell received Rocky’s punishment. At last the only sounds to be heard were Robin’s sobs and Rocky’s broken-voiced repetition of ‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry...’
‘Quiet, you, or they’ll get more of the same!’ Deep Voice snarled, and all was silent once more.
‘Quiet!’ Fatty hissed again in frustration. Honestly, sometimes he wondered why he even bothered. But Estella was his sister, and he loved her, when she wasn’t being so irksome.
He put his hand over her mouth for good measure, and she bit him. He managed not to cry out, but gave her a good shake, and somehow the seriousness of the situation reached her at last.
He crouched lower in the underbrush, forcing Estella down beneath him, until the heavy footsteps passed. When he was sure they were well gone, he eased himself off of his sister and carefully took his hand away.
Gasping, she rounded on him. ‘You nearly crushed me, you great oaf!’ she whispered.
‘You nearly gave us away to that ruffian!’ he whispered back. ‘Do you know what he’d do, finding us out after curfew?’ She didn’t, of course. He didn’t either, as a matter of fact, but he’d heard rumours...
Since he’d returned from Crickhollow, things had gone from bad to worse. As if it weren’t bad enough to have those... things come after him; he’d sweated out many a bad hour under the combined questioning of Saradoc, Master of Buckland and Thain Paladin, who wanted, quite reasonably, to know where their sons were. His repeated denials sounded hollow to himself, and when they finally released him to the care of his exasperated father, he was glad to shut himself in his room, and didn’t even mind being on water rations as punishment for this evident prank.
The onset of the Troubles was so gradual that the hobbits didn’t even realise what was happening to their Shire until it was too late, and the ruffians too many to cast out again, except in Tookland, with the ever-suspicious and vigilant Tooks discouraging trespassing on principle. Even hobbits who weren’t Tooks were questioned when they dared to set foot in Tookland. Men were flatly denied access, and as things got worse in the Shire, the determination of the Tooks grew rather than diminished.
Fatty’s father took the view that if they all just sat tight, the storm would blow over and things would be as they always had been. The closing of the inns and Mayor Will’s arrest just after the New Year changed all that. Ever-lengthening lists of new rules and regulations were being imposed on the bewildered hobbits, and pretty lasses were being bothered, even accosted as the ruffians grew bolder.
Fatty, who’d seen evil creeping into the garden at Crickhollow, recognised its grip growing ever stronger on the Shire. He was the one who told his parents that it wasn’t safe for Estella any more, not even if she kept tight indoors.
‘Ruffians are going about gathering,’ he said, ‘and they can knock on any door, and knock down any door where they’re refused admission.’ He looked from his mother to his father. ‘If one of them takes a fancy to Estella...’
His father nodded. When the first tales of “gathering” came to his ears, he’d had the servants do a little of their own gathering. Family heirlooms, the silver, the jewels, and other treasures that could be spirited away under cover of darkness were taken out and buried or hidden in caves up in the hills of Scary. It was on one of these expeditions that Fatty discovered the ruffians were using caves in the area themselves, to store gathered food and supplies. He filed away that knowledge for future reference.
The grand house had a forlorn look now, with so much of its finery stripped away. The last batch of ruffians had been turned from the door with an explanation, but the next group might not be so easy to satisfy.
‘We have to get her to safety,’ Odovacar said, ‘if there is any place of safety left, these days.’
‘There are no ruffians in Tookland,’ Rosamunda said proudly.
‘Yes, but no one gets in or out of Tookland these days, what with the ruffians keeping watch on the one hand, and the Tooks on the other,’ her husband said glumly.
‘Am I a slice of cake, that you can sit there and discuss my disposition so calmly?’ Estella flared.
‘Hush, daughter, we are concerned for your well-being,’ her father said sternly.
In shock at her father being stern—to her! —a thing that had never happened before to that spoiled only daughter of a rich hobbit, Estella hushed. For the nonce.
So it was that Fatty found himself escorting his sister through the dark of the night, in the forest of Woody End, on his way to Hally the woodcarver’s house. Hally had married a Took, Fatty's cousin Rosemary as a matter of fact. To be truthful, she wasn't exactly a Took anymore, having been disowned by her father Ferdinand for having the temerity to marry a hobbit of her own choosing. Took or not, she was the one to help Fatty. Her brother Ferdibrand was rumoured to be “the Fox”, a Took who was able to get in and out of Tookland on a regular basis, gathering news for the Thain.
After several more close calls, they found the little house in the clearing. ‘Stay here,’ Fatty breathed, secreting Estella behind a fallen log. He crept to the door of the house, light on his feet despite his bulk (though thinner than he used to be, what with the difficulty getting food these days), and scratched lightly on the door.
‘Who is it?’ came the call from within.
‘A Bolger,’ he answered. On earlier visits he’d said he was a Took, which was true—his mother was a Took, after all—but the way things were nowadays if any skulking ruffians heard, they’d haul him off to the Lockholes without delay.
The door opened slightly and Hally Bolger peered out, then the door widened enough for him to draw Fatty—and Estella—within.
‘I thought I told you to stay put!’ Fatty hissed. ‘What if there were ruffians visiting?’ For all he knew, the ruffians bothered the inhabitants of Woody End just as often as they bothered the hobbits of Bridgefields, which was often, these days.
‘That’s a real worry,’ Hally said. ‘Ruffians often come to share a cup of tea and a bit of news.’ He looked Fatty up and down. ‘So the rich Bolger comes to call in the middle of the night, and brings his sister for a change,’ he said frankly.
He glanced from Estella back to Freddy and added sourly, ‘What brings you to visit your poor relations, and it not even teatime?’
Fatty looked to Estella, and the woodcarver nodded. ‘I see,’ he said, and Fatty had the feeling that he really did see.
‘What are you doing out after curfew, cousin?’ Rosemary said, coming out of the bedroom with a shawl thrown over her nightdress.
‘It’s too dangerous for my sister to walk about in daylight,’ Fatty said.
Rosemary looked at Estella and sighed. ‘Indeed,’ she said dryly. ‘You are much too pretty for your own good, my dear. A ruffian would eat you for dessert, and not bother with the main course at all.’
‘I have no idea what you’re talking about,’ Estella said haughtily, but her eyes were wide and Fatty could see that she was frightened.
‘In any event,’ Hally said, ‘if a ruffian passes by and sees the lamp burning, he’ll want to know why.’
Rosemary obediently turned the lamp down again, setting it in the window as was custom, a watch lamp to drive away the night and beckon to lost travellers looking for refuge. ‘I’m tired,’ she said, ‘as I’m sure these children are.’ Fatty stiffened at being called a “child”—he was nearly forty, after all! Rosemary noticed and said gently, ‘I meant no disrespect, it’s only that you’re about my baby brother’s age is all.’ Fatty nodded. It still amazed him that his cousin Ferdibrand could be “the Fox”. Not for the first time, Fatty wondered if he could be brave and bold and do daring deeds, strike a blow against the ruffians. He wondered yet again what kind of ruffians his missing cousins and that gardener-fellow faced, if indeed they still lived at all.
‘Let us all seek our beds,’ Hally agreed. They made up a bed for Estella in their daughters’ room, and tried to give Fatty, as a “rich Bolger” their own bed, protesting that they could sleep easily enough on blankets before the hearth. Fatty would not hear of displacing them, however, and soon persuaded them to allow him to roll up in a blanket before the kitchen fire. Feeling the hard floor against his back, he wondered why he’d done such a stupid thing, but his fatigue from the nerve-wracking journey soon caught up with him and he slept deeply, and awakened refreshed, to tuck into the finest breakfast he’d enjoyed since the day his cousins had disappeared into the Old Forest. He gave Rosemary his mother's greeting, and her request that Estella be safely conveyed into Tookland.
After breakfast, Rosemary surveyed Estella once more, and sighed. ‘Entirely too pretty, my dear,’ she said.
‘What am I supposed to say to that?’ Estella snapped. She hated the helpless feeling of being considered “baggage”, to be lugged around by other people without regard to her abilities or feelings.
Rosemary fingered the girl's hair and Estella jerked away. ‘Still,’ Rosemary said slowly, ‘I think we can manage something.’ She looked to Hally. ‘Why don’t you take our cousin out in the woods and show him how to fell a tree.’
‘I’m sure you’d find it very interesting,’ Hally said promptly. ‘Come along, Fredegar.’ Fatty started to protest but Rosemary put a hand on his arm.
‘We’re going to be quite busy, Estella and I,’ she said, ‘and cannot abide having you hobbits underfoot.’ He nodded and after hugging his sister followed Hally into the woods.
When they returned later, Estella was nowhere to be seen and a strange boy was sitting at the table sipping tea. His clothes were a little too big for him; the sleeves were rolled up, the trousers were a little baggy and hastily hemmed. He wore a hat over his short-cropped curls and he evidently didn’t know much about washing his face.
‘I’d like you to meet my eldest son, Twig,’ Rosemary said. She gave the lad a nudge. ‘Mind your manners, lad, this here’s a gentlehobbit. Don’t act like you’ve never seen one before.’
The lad rose from the bench, giving an awkward bow. ‘At your service,’ he said in a husky voice.
‘And at your family’s service,’ Fatty returned correctly. The lad dissolved into laughter—Estella’s laughter—and Rosemary smiled.
‘You’ll do,’ she said.
‘You cut your hair?’ Fatty said to Estella in outrage.
She smiled complacently. ‘I always wanted to,’ she said. ‘I’m tired of tripping over gowns and having my hair come tumbling down at the awkwardest times.’ Maddeningly, her smile brightened. ‘I think this is going to be fun!’
‘You may leave her with us,’ Rosemary said. ‘Go back to Budge Hall; tell your parents all will be well.’
‘Leave her?’ Fatty protested.
‘My brother will not come around as long as you are here,’ Rosemary said practically. ‘He won’t fear Estella, she’s no more than a lad half-grown, but you, he’ll distrust.’
‘But—‘ Fatty said.
‘One day soon, he’ll slip out of Tookland and stop by for a bite and a bit of news,’ Rosemary said. ‘When he leaves, he’ll take... Twig... back with him. I have every confidence.’
‘Can you let me know when she’s safe?’ Fatty asked slowly.
Regretfully, Rosemary shook her head. ‘I’m sorry, lad,’ she said. ‘That would be too dangerous. If something goes wrong, I’ll try to get word to your parents. Otherwise, just consider that no news is good news.’
That night, Fatty left just after middle night. He managed to evade ruffians, though he had to hide once in the hollow of a tree, and another time in a ditch half-filled with water. When he arrived home, he reported success to his parents.
Not long after that he gathered some hobbits he trusted and they began to raid the ruffians’ caves in the hills of Scary, bringing back foodstuffs to the hungry hobbits of Bridgefields. He was betrayed by a hobbit in the employ of the ruffians, one who’d been discharged by his father for negligent work, and escaped by the skin of his teeth, staging a bitter shouting match with his father before storming out of the house for the benefit of his parents in the eyes of the watching neighbours, some of whom might be informants working for the favour of the ruffians.
Word went about that Fatty Bolger had been disowned by his father for his scurrilous, law-breaking activities, and Lotho Baggins chose to believe the lie for the nonce. He could afford to wait before taking over Budge Hall, and in the meantime the Bolgers would take good care of it. Once his Big Men were able to seize Fatty and his band of rebels, there would be time to see if Odovacar would save himself by denouncing his son, or if he would try to save his son and forfeit his fortune. Either way Odovacar would lose his heir, and Lotho would gain the Bolger fortune...
Number seventy-four awakened at last from the beating, so stiff he could not move and feverish in the bargain. A crust of bread lay before him, and the cup half-filled with water. With an effort he reached out, but he was clumsy and the cup spilled. Desperately he tried to slurp the water from the floor before it could escape him, and then he laid his forehead upon the damp floor and wept silent tears.
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.