1. The Chief's Day
Lotho woke to sunlight and the lass' quiet breathing. There had used to be birds singing in the morning, but the oak that had crowned Bag End had been cut down some weeks ago, when Sharkey first arrived. Now nothing stirred outside his window but a breeze, and no one stirred within Bag End as yet; in a distant guest-room, Sharkey snored, and beside Lotho the lass lay curled on her side, her back to him, her brown curls glowing richly in the sunshine. The sight brought to his mind the oldest Gamgee lass, how her hair had glowed in the sunshine like that as she hurried away from him; but she was long married and gone, they all were but the carrot-headed youngest and the spavined old gaffer. If Lotho had had Bag End then as he ought, he would have kept her, and her sister and that gardener boy, that Brandybuck's favorite; he should have had Bag End years ago, and the Gamgees' service with it. Thinking on all this, on how he had been cheated, Lotho growled and kicked the lass, who woke with a cry and jumped up out of the bed, already starting to blubber. He growled in disgust, looking at her pale, wet-eyed face, and snarled, "Oh, get out!"; grabbing her dress, she scurried away.
Lotho fell back against the pillows, and, after a moment, wished he could kick himself for sending the lass away. She'd been a good cook with a warm bosom, and now he'd have a devil of a time finding her wherever she'd go hide, if he could even get one of those unruly Big Folk to do his bidding anymore. More and more often they laughed at his orders, did as they pleased, listened to no one.
No one but Sharkey, with his silken tongue.
Lotho shuddered at that thought, and pressed the heels of his hands to his face, and got up.
Lotho stepped into the hallway, smelling dust and old garbage, and sneezed and snorted. Bag End was a mess; there was no proper service to be had, with most of the lazy inhabitants of Hobbiton unwilling to work for him despite his gold. His last lass had only worked for hope of feeding her parents and brother down in the Lockholes; that thought made Lotho smile a bit, wondering if perhaps she would return when she thought on her family, and he could make her beg on her knees to resume her position...
"Ow!" Lotho jumped at a pain in his foot; in his wandering a broken chair had stubbed his toe. He stood in the small parlor, heaped and piled like almost all the rooms with goods brought for redistribution; beyond the chair which had attacked him a canister of biscuits lay spilled, and as he watched mice crawled over the pile, nibbling at their ease, growing fat on hobbits' labors.
On his labors! "Hey!" Lotho cried indignantly, swinging his foot at the mice, which scampered away. He bent to shove the biscuits back into their canister when a deep rolling laugh stopped him. "Surely the delightful Buttercup can fix you a better breakfast than that?" Sharkey said, standing in the doorway.
Lotho felt cold all up and down his spine, but he stood slowly, dusting off his hands. "She's left, and the place all in disorder, the lazy bit of baggage. I'll get a better lass to work here within the day."
"Indeed," Sharkey replied, and was gone. Lotho shuddered, then stood up straighter and went to draw himself a bath.
At least he had thought to have the lass make up the fires and leave water heating the night before; a warm bath always made everything better, and made one smell like a gentlehobbit besides. That's what his mother had always said.
Lotho thought of his mother, and pushed the heels of his hands into his prickling eyes. He missed her. She smiled at him. She'd been the only hobbit who had smiled at him since the New Year; one could hardly count the toadying Shirrifs, whose grimaces didn't reach their eyes. His mother had looked at him proudly, and told him to take charge, that the Shire needed a good firm hand, not the pudgy laxness of Whitfoot or the dreaming weakness of that Brandybuck; still, eventually even she had quarreled with the work, and needed to calm a bit in the Lockholes. Lotho missed her, but Sharkey had said it just stirred her up to go see her; he was sure she would be back soon, properly respectful of Sharkey's orders, smiling at Lotho once more.
He was sure of it.
Lotho climbed out of the bath and dragged himself back to his room to get dressed.
The red silk weskit always made him feel better, and suited his station. He fixed a handful of feathers in his cap and tilted it just so, and the hobbit that looked back out of the mirror at him looked like a gentlehobbit and a born leader, even if he had a slightly blotchy face. Lotho scrubbed at his face with a sleeve, which burst a pimple on his cheek; he swore and dabbed at it with a handkerchief, but soon enough it was fixed and he was ready for breakfast.
What he might find, anyway. He should have made the lass put down some night-porridge by the hearth, he reflected, as he munched an apple and found some cheese and a fork to toast it on. Milk might be good, too. Which of the local farmers hadn't done their bit recently?
Sharkey stepped into the kitchen, fastidiously skirting a pile of refuse and interrupting Lotho's thoughts. "Good morning, Lotho," he said, taking an apple. Lotho snorted, not seeing what was so good about it, and kept eating; suddenly, all he could taste was bitterness, as if his apple had been dipped in alum. He choked and spat out the mouthful, coughing, flinging the rest of the apple into the fire. "Damned rotten----"
Sharkey was laughing. "Perhaps you should have waited to dismiss Buttercup until after breakfast, Lotho." Lotho looked up at him, and felt such a cold chill of fear that he found himself taking an involuntary step back before he could raise his head again. "I think I'll go out and engage another housekeeper," he announced, and fled the room, followed by Sharkey's laughter.
Lotho had meant to leave Bag End, to take a ride through Hobbiton and see how the work came, and also to see if he could spot any likely candidates for his housekeeper position, although tweens and young adults seemed to be keeping indoors of late, especially the well-favored ones. However, when he strode into the front hallway, Grima the Worm lounged on a bench by the door, picking his teeth with a dagger. "Hullo, Pimple," he drawled.
Lotho balled his fists. "I am the Chief Shirrif, and I'll thank you kindly to address me so."
"All right, Chief." Grima smirked, and Lotho wanted to hit him so very badly, to throw him out of Bag End, and knew he didn't dare; the thought made his traitorous eyes prickle hard. But, just as Lotho was terrified he might weep, Sharkey's voice imperiously called, "Worm!" from inside Bag End; Grima's smirk collapsed into fear, and Lotho stood up straighter with a smirk of his own. Grima scuttled past Lotho, eyes glittering, and Lotho grinned at him in return.
Even so, Lotho found himself shaking as he stood in the hallway, as violently as if he had a fever, his stomach turning over as if it would empty its meager contents. Swaying on his feet, Lotho went back to his bed.
Outside, some Men were banging something together, likely another shed, alternating little bits of work with extended periods of coarse joking. At one point, the joking grew louder and coarser yet, accompanied by some feminine shrieks and then the sound of hobbits running while the Men laughed; Lotho put a pillow over his head, curled up on his side and thought of birdsong.
It grew close to noon. Sharkey opened the door, inviting the Men in to "refresh themselves," as he put it; they banged about in the kitchen and cellar, doubtless raiding the beer-barrel there. Lotho lay in bed, wondering why he wasn't rising to demand quiet, demand that they leave his home, demand that they leave the Shire. Except that, if they left, he would lose all his power.
What little power he had.
Lotho pushed that thought away. Wasn't he the richest hobbit in the Shire, and the Chief Shirrif? He was just having a melancholy spell, brought on by exhaustion, by all the work he did on behalf of his lazy ungrateful fellow hobbits. He would stay in his bed, and rise the next morning refreshed and ready to work all day, improving the Shire, and finding himself a new housekeeper. Thinking on that, dreaming of sunlight on curly hair and a smiling sturdy hobbit calling him "Master, Sir," Lotho closed his eyes.
He was stumbling in fog, over sharp damp rocks. He was cold and shivering. A face loomed from the gloom, blue-eyed, frowning. "What have you done to my smial?" Frodo asked him. "What have you done to my home?"
"It's my home!" Lotho shouted. "It's mine!"
Frodo shook his head; a tall sleek Elf appeared in his place, long hair blowing in the wind, bow stretched. The arrow sang as it flew. Lotho felt it hit, tipped with ice, its chill slicing him open.
A second arrow hit. A third, burning hot. Lotho choked, couldn't breathe, opened his eyes. Grima was bent over him, a bloody dagger in his hand, plunging it down again into Lotho's chest.
Grima's eyes glittered.