1. Hearth and Home
The late Afteryule night sky was brilliant with stars while the waxing cat's eye of the Moon was just beginning to set beyond the hills. Illuminated in the silvery light were the prints of many small Hobbit feet and the tracks of just as many sleds; but the children who had made those imprints were long since tucked into their cosy beds, dreaming of the next day. They knew it already had the promise of being clear and cold. All across the Shire families slept snugly in their houses and smials, the coals of both stove and hearth banked against the deep cold and the starting of the morning meals.
"Mostly everyone's asleep except me, that is," the little Hobbit Goodwife muttered into the frozen air, her heaviest woollen cloak pulled tight around her head and shoulders. "I know you must be sleeping, Beau-love. I hope you're safe and warm and your belly is full."
Looking across the darkened village, she noticed that there were more homes than just her own that had candles flickering in the windows. The pinpricks of light shone out warmly in the night. A few months ago, every light in Tuckborough would have, by now, been dark; but after a couple of odd days in mid Halimath, things around the Shire had subtly begun to alter.
"I didn't notice it at first," she muttered to herself while adjusting the fit of her wrap, "when things began to change. I do not like change, there being Tookish blood in me or not. Maybe little brother Samish is right, we Hobbits are rather …how did he put it? We are 'unable to see past our own noses.' I think he's being a little hard on all of us, the poor lad."
She thought back to the day her husband, Beau, had left.
"Don't fret now, Molly lass," Beau grinned. " Come on, Love, give us a smile."
"For twenty-five years he's said that to me, year in year out," she spoke to no one but the still night air. "I shouldn't worry but I always seem to. I'll be happily content when he's got his feet under my kitchen table, his napkin under his chin and is tucked into his dinner."
The mantle clock in the hall struck the midnight hour. The Goodwife cracked open the front hall door and listened for even the smallest sound out of her five sleeping children. She could plainly hear the congested snores of her eldest boy who had come home with a stuffy nose and sore throat after abandoning his studies and spending the whole day sledding with his cousins and his wayward uncle. His mother promptly ignored his protests and then had dosed him well with her special tonic both before supper and once more again before he'd gone to bed. He'd be getting another dose come morning whether he liked it or not. She was not having her whole brood coming down with colds because her tween had decided to go sledding without his hat and scarf all day when the lad should have been studying with the same wayward uncle.
"Never mind that my dear brother was the reason for my lad to be missing his lessons in the first place," said Molly while trying to ease her own mind by being angry with her youngest sibling. It had been Samish who, rather than spend a glorious sledding day cooped up inside the Tuckborough Quick Post Office, had urged his nephew to go out onto the hillside with him when both should have been nose deep in their work.
It relieved her to think about every day things rather than the fears she had roiling about in her mind. It bothered her greatly to see so many lights still lit at this late hour.
"By now there shouldn't have been a speck of light lit excepting mine, oh and maybe old Aunty Pandonia. Just the two of us until this last autumn when young Mister Baggins suddenly ups and leaves without even a by your leave; and never mind that horrid happening with poor Mr. Proudfoot! To top it all off, there's the thinking about all those rumours I heard from Mistress Bolger up in Hobbiton as well! Just imagine! Now, what's this business about Hobbits not able to travel freely within the Shire? A curfew, indeed! Moreover, just what is this muck about dark men was it?… and them meddling in Shire business! Just what does Mister Lotho Sackville-Baggins think he's up to?"
Remembering when she heard the news of the poor night watchman who had been found dead and headless up on the main road, the Goodwife once again took stock of her own fears. No one knew who or what it was that had killed the watchman but only that the prints of many horses were seen around the body; the same hoof prints that had been found down by the Brandywine Bridge. That was on one of the roads that lead out of the Shire and into the wide world beyond. Beau's occupation meant that he was often out on the road and at all hours of the day and night, too. What if whatever they were had met Beau that night? It could just as easily have been he that was murdered.
Molly began to shake inside her heavy cape, as if it were made of fine linen and not good thick sturdy wool. Icy goosefeet walked up and down her spine. She thought about the tale Beau had brought back with him from Bree; of how Black Riders had broken down the western gate, killing yet another innocent watchman, and how they had gone on to savage one of the downstairs rooms in the Prancing Pony. She felt her knees growing weak and her stomach turning over.
You told me you often stay at the Prancing Pony, my Dear, she thought, trying to focus her mind on her husband instead of on her own fears. From what you've said, it seems a very respectable Inn. It has fine beer, good plentiful food, and an amiable common room where you might conduct a proper trade plus a warm hearth where you can smoke your pipe in peace. I know you must be there now, asleep, warm and snug; but, oooh, are you sleeping in the room that those creatures were in? The room where they chopped up the all the featherbeds and all the bolsters? The room you told me about?
Without warning, tears spilled from the corner of her eyes, to freeze on her icy checks. At that moment, she wished that her Beau were a farmer instead of a trader; she wished that he was not gone so long; and above all, she wished to have him home where she could run to him just to be able to put her hands on him in the knowledge that he was safe and sound.
"Get a hold of yourself, my lass!" she chastised herself, while wiping frozen tears away with the back of a cold hand. "You can wish in one hand and crap in the other, but guess which one will get filled first? You knew Beau's trade when you married him. Now just you stop your crying!"
The Goodwife pulled open the door to the smial and quickly slipped inside the front hall. She stopped only to latch the door firmly behind her. Rubbing her cold hands together, Molly stepped into the kitchen and hung the frost-dampened wrap up next to the hearth to dry, and then put on the gossamer soft house shawl she wore in the evenings. There was visiting to do tomorrow and she wanted her favourite winter cloak snug and not damp. There was no use of catching a cold herself.
"I might as well make a pot of tea," she murmured, setting the kettle over the fire before settling into the deep rocker by the hearth. "I certainly can't sleep."
As the Goodwife waited for the kettle to come to a boil, she pulled the mending basket out from under her rocker in the anxious need to give still warming hands something useful to do. The first item her fingers fell on was a threadbare linen shirt its green colour so faded it looked almost grey. Molly laughed in spite of the tears that still threatened to spill down her cheeks in remembrance of the ranger who had been coerced into leaving it.
The man had originally been a friend of her husband's. The two had met and formed a friendship long ago in Bree when Beau himself was just past his tweens. The ranger had then been presented to her when the man passed through the Shire, having brought a letter to his friend from another merchant.
"How silly I was then!" Molly chuckled to herself. "I hid behind Beau and shook like a leaf in a storm with my Ferdy clutched in my arms like a doll. I'd never seen any of the Big Folk before and here was one saying How do you do, Mistress Littlefoot as nice as you please."
How long was that now? she wondered while inspecting the huge garment. Twenty some odd years? I was such a young wife then, and Ferdy was just a tiny baby. Wasn't he a week old? Maybe it was two. Time does seem to have flown, doesn't it? How funny it was, Vis, the first time I saw you try to sit at my table, and you trying to eat with a Hobbit sized cup and spoon. You did a good job of it though, I must admit, very mannerly.
Just the memory of the ranger folded up in her kitchen set her to smiling. There he was trying to balance his large frame on a Hobbit sized chair with his knees practically up under his chin and while trying his utmost to not offend his hosts. He had then tried to eat his soup with some sort of decorum without any slurping or the spilling of it down his front. To Vis's credit, and Molly's surprise, he succeeded. After a few steady visits, she remembered she had asked Beau to bring back a set of mannish dishes for the convenience of his friend. There was no use of a guest being uncomfortable. As the Goodwife looked up at the clock again, those oversized dishes sat washed and waiting on the mantle right next to the big platter that she used for family meals. They were waiting, just as she was, for their owner to return.
Her thoughts turned towards happier times.
How nicely he used to play with the children, even when they were tiny. No Hobbit could have done any better with them, Molly reminisced as she watched the pendulum on the mantle clock swing back and forth, its ticks regular and a comfort to her. You were always so careful of my darlings. Not a harm could come to them when they were with you, even though you could have easily squashed my lads when you roughhoused with them. You always told such marvellous tales, Vis, of dragons, and elves and far off cities. You always came up the lane with a merry song on your lips or whistling such a happy tune.
"He tells tales almost as good as Uncle Samish!" Lavender, the third child and first daughter, had twittered happily to her mother as Vis bounced her gently on his knee. The little lass was just five and as pretty a child as ever one could wish. Molly remembered the joy on her daughter's face and the happy laughter that she, Beau and the ranger had shared.
Little Lavender was now almost a tween and she had recently been trying to tread that fine line between child and adult. The lass certainly would not even consider bouncing on anyone's knee; unless, of course, it might be the knee of that young Timulus Brandybuck who had come to stay nearby with his aunty for the winter. Beau had definitely raised an eyebrow at that news and had given his daughter a good talking to. Lavender had sulked around the smial for a week afterwards.
Oh, how fast the time has flown.
The hiss and spit of the kettle brought the Goodwife's attention back to her here and now. Hastily reaching out with the shirt as a hot pad, she poured the water into the teapot, slopping a little water over the sides.
"Oh bother!" she muttered angrily. "I forgot the tea!"
As anxious as an angry hen, she guiltily tipped a couple of spoons of loose tea into the pot, and stirred it around briskly.
"Good thing not one of the children or Samish was up. I have told them time and time again to take the time to make a proper cup of tea and here I am mucking up the job. Oh, bother it all! It'll barely be drinkable…and now look what I've done to Vis's shirt."
In a rush of emotion, Molly's tears caught up with her. She wept silently into the soft old linen as she groped for the arm of her rocker to steady herself. All the fearful wonders and the apprehensions of the dark night came rushing back in on the little Hobbit. Despite her best efforts in trying to stave it off, it soon got the best of her. She sat with her face hidden in linen until the clock struck quarter-to.
"I shouldn't have been listening at doors," she sobbed, as she remembered a conversation, until recently, she had forgotten.
* * *
It was a fine mid autumn day; and the rich spicy scent of cooking apples was in the air. It was the second day of preserving, and she and her two daughters peeled, sliced and boiled bushel after bushel of the sweet fruits for the winter's apple butter and sauce. The kitchen was a bustle of activity with both lasses vying for their mother's attention while she was trying to supervise not only their behaviour but also her preserves. To add to the confusion, Raith, the youngest lad of three, came running in. He had escaped from his father's care and had gone in search of his mother. The child stuffed his mouth full of as many apple slices as he could grab then promptly tried to stick his hand onto the side of the bubbling pot. Raith suddenly found himself snatched away from the hearth by his mother's capable hands. He bawled loudly with angry frustration when his mother put him into his highchair, her quick hands expertly moving him up off of the floor and out of harm's way.
"Had the older lads the mind to watch him," Molly sniffed into the old shirt, "I could have let him run outside; but, oh, it was a fine day then, wasn't it?"
In the midst of all the autumn bustle, Vis strode, unheard, up the cobbled walk and companionably stuck his head in through the kitchen window.
"That's some fine porridge you have there, Mother," he laughed, snatching several long apple peels off the pile in the dry sink and popping them into his cheek. "I can smell it a league down the lane. Run away with me, Molly, my lass, and leave all this hard work behind!"
"Get out of there, you scamp!" she replied with a grin, slapping at the ranger's hand while at the same time shaking her cooking spoon at him. "I'll bring you some new bread and butter on the lawn but see you keep out of my kitchen for now!"
"What a wife you would make me, gentle Lady! Might I inquire if Beauregarth the Brave is at home amidst the chaos?"
Vis's teasing was a favourite game, one he had played with her ever since Molly had first met him and had treated him kindly. He teased her to make her laugh and so she feigned anger or bantered his own words back with him, depending on her mood at the time. So many years had passed and in that span, the man had simply become as one of their own family, despite the misgivings of many of the older members of the Littlefoot clan. Every time the ranger came near Tuckborough, he stopped by to inquire of the family. Molly fussed over Vis and coddled him as easily as she did her own brother, husband and children. When his leaving them drew near, she always filled his pack up with not only bread and meat, but also with gingerbreads, fruit pastries or maple and honey cakes just to "tide him over." She had even learned to knit socks to cover his ridiculously tiny feet.
Beau, who had come from the study to inquire into the whereabouts of his youngest child, found Raith howling at the top of his lungs in the highchair, his wife scowling at both the girls and the fire and had then both wisely and quickly opted to step outside. He walked out onto the smooth cobbles at the front door and waved a merry greeting at his friend, just thankful to have escaped the upheaval in his own smial. He motioned the man onto the front lawn and they both sat down in the shade of the enormous maple tree. It was the family's favourite place for outside meals and the tree sheltered a broad tea table. The master of the house settled himself into one of the several comfortable chairs while his mannish friend sat back on the thick cool lawn, just content to be off his feet. A rather large black and silver tabby cat quickly settled on the ranger's lap and began to purr loudly.
A few minutes later, Molly was at Beau's elbow with a heaping platter of warm new bread, apple butter, meat and honey cakes. There was also a deep bowl of fresh butter on the side. She set it down between her husband and the ranger as the youngest daughter, Peony, came behind her with two mugs and a foaming pitcher of new cider. She smiled shyly at the ranger from under her lashes as she poured the drinks for both her Da and her "uncle."
"I'll wheedle that wife of yours away yet," Vis teased his friend aloud as Beau good-naturedly harrumphed into his mug.
"If I had any worry about that, Laddy," the Hobbit merchant grinned as he took a deep pull of the sweet liquid, "I would have never let you meet her in the first place. My Moll is my darling, that she is."
"Get off with you," Molly blushed, but she lovingly kissed her husband on the top of his curly head. "Come along now, Sweetness," she spoke gently to Peony who was still sighing in childish adoration over the man. "Your Uncle Vis will be here through supper at least."
Shooing the child before her, Molly hurried back into the kitchen to continue the work that had begun in the early morning.
The midmorning soon passed into afternoon and the three older lads -- Beauford, Branford and Samford-- came in for their food. They'd been lucky to have had their elevenses at their grandmother's home, but had returned to their mother's table for their luncheon. Like their father, they were more than content to have their meal out under the tree and away from the bustle inside the kitchen. The lads listened intently as their "uncle" told tales, but as the early afternoon wore on, their mother couldn't help but notice that her sons were still hanging about.
"Leave your Da and Uncle Vis alone now!" she warned, leaning out of the kitchen window.
"But Mum…" Beauford started to say; but the young Hobbit was promptly interrupted by his mother declaring, "Ferdy, would you like me to find you something to do?"
It took less than a wink for all three young Hobbits to quickly vacate the area, thus giving their elders the chance to smoke their pipes in peace.
"I shouldn't have gone back to get those crocks," the Goodwife sighed, wiping her face with the ranger's shirt, "and I certainly should not have listened."
She found she had run out of jam jars for the latest batch of preserves, yet instead of sending one of her daughters to get them, she had opted, for just a few moments, to step away from the heat of the kitchen. The closest storage room was cool with a fresh breeze. The window had been thrown open to air the last bit of mustiness out of the corners before the room was shut up again for the winter. What she needed she found just where she'd last stored them. The crocks were sitting clean and cosy on their shelves, neatly covered with cheesecloth to keep off the dust.
As the Goodwife mentally counted out how many she would need for the latest batch, the murmur of deep voices floated through the window along with the pleasant smell of pipeweed smoke.
"…I have to join with my brothers and the rest of my people, my good friend. I don't know if I'll make it back right away in the spring. It may be closer to summer or even fall before I see the Shire again."
The ranger's voice floated in the window. For the moment, Molly halted in the pursuit of preserve jars and stood wondering about the seriousness of the man's tone.
"There are things happening, and these things must be attended to before I may return."
"I've heard rumours," came Beau's reply and his tone was equally as grave. "Rumours of matters spoken about in hushed tones around the hearth in Bree that I certainly haven't told my Molly of. My Da and the uncles know, but we have not spoken of it with anyone else. We've definitely not told our wives. It would worry them that's for certain."
"For certain, indeed. What have you heard in Bree?"
"Of a war off to the South, a war of men and even of elves against an…an Enemy."
Vis's voice was firm but cautionary. "Don't speak of Him, not even here! That Thing is best left unsaid and unknown. The best thing for the Shire would be for it to escape notice."
Beau's laugh was a harsh bark that made his unseen wife jump.
"Escape notice? How have we escaped notice when Mr. Proudfoot lies dead and buried these last few weeks with his head separated clean off of his body? How can we have escaped notice with more than just the odd happenings in Bree? I made the mistake of telling Molly about what went on at the Pony. She went as white as a sheet she did, but hasn't spoken of it since. I'm hoping she's forgotten about it in all the bustle that's going on."
There was no word spoken for a few moments, just the heady smell of pipeweed until the ranger spoke again.
"You don't know how peaceful it is here. Good friend, I do not disparage you but you know only the world as far as Bree. I know a little more of it than you. It pleases me greatly that the Shire is untouched and unspoiled. I'd like to keep it so. Others, others that I can't mention, wish for the same thing I do. So, now I'm off to fulfil an oath made by my family long ago and to perhaps try to do my small part in keeping that eye off of the Shire."
"I don't like change," Beau growled deep in his throat. "It puts me off my feed and it upsets my Molly. You know how she gets when she's upset. She fusses like a goose with a nest of new goslings. Now then, Vis, what Others did you mean? Does it have something to do with Mister Frodo Baggins? Much too strange that it was him disappearing that very week the Watchman was murdered."
Vis's tone was grave and sad as he replied to his old friend. " I cannot tell you, Beau, of all the things I wish to say or of all the things that need explanation. You and Molly have taken me into your family and kept me well and well-fed all these long years even when your own folk warned you against becoming a friend with a man. I very much want to answer your questions but in this, you will simply have to take my word for it. I cannot tell you. You will just have to be content enough in knowing that the War you speak of is far to the South and to the East. I just hope with all my will that it can remain that way."
Just before the Goodwife could even begin to comprehend what she had heard, Lavender came running down the hall to tell her mother that the pot was trying to boil over and that little Peony was certainly not capable of stirring it down. The disturbing conversation on the lawn was quickly forgotten in the rush to keep the kettle of preserves from being ruined.
That next morning Vis was off down the lane with his stomach full of both first and second breakfast and his pack bursting with an assortment of bread, meat and cakes. The evening before, Molly had even managed to make him a fresh batch of his favourite ginger biscuits, though, in truth, she really had not the spare time to do so. Something in the serious tone of the exchange remained in her mind even though she'd since forgotten the conversation.
Before Vis had finally departed, he had said again that it might be awhile before they saw him but that neither Molly nor Beau should worry. The Goodwife remembered using the opportunity to wheedle one of his ragged shirts away from him, giving the promise to replace it with three new ones fashioned out of her own stout linen. Vis had sighed, but had given in and taken the most worn one out of his satchel. He then kissed her gently on the cheek and once again shouldered his overstuffed pack. With all seven of the Littlefoots waving him a safe journey, the ranger set off down the lane. Molly remembered that Vis had been singing then too, but it had seemed to her to be a melancholy tune. She wondered if she would see him again when the spring came.
"Before he left for the winter I did promise to make him some new shirts," the little Hobbit wife said as she smoothed the wet wrinkles out of the threadbare linen. "Now just look at what I've done to this one."
In the weeks after Vis's departure and smack in the middle of the flurry of autumn activity, Molly had quickly forgotten all about what she had been privy to. She, just like most other Hobbit wives throughout the Shire, delighted in putting together a well-stocked larder for the long winter days that lay ahead. Her pantries overflowed with good things set aside for the coming months. She assured herself that much of the meat had been salted away or had been hung in the smokehouses to get the rich flavour that would make her lads remember their mother's table long after they had wives of their own. The cool rooms were heaped with root vegetables, cabbages, apples and potatoes, all such things to make lovely meals until fall came again. Her butter tubs were full and stored down in the cold cellar, with the two cows put to slowly dry off. They'd have their well-deserved rest before calving in the spring. The cheeses, some home made and others purchased, lay wrapped in cloths on the shelves, waiting to be enjoyed with a bit of pie or toasted on a fork and laid hot and bubbly on a piece of thick bread.
Back in the third best guest room, the loom was now reassembled and restrung. There was plenty of both dyed and natural linen and the same in woollen thread that had been set aside to last all winter long. Molly meant to start Peony on the loom this year, now that the child had gotten a good grasp at spinning. The Goodwife was teaching both her daughters first to spin and then to weave. It was a good lesson for her lasses to know just what work went into the material they wore on their backs, never mind if their Da was a cloth merchant. If their mother had any say in their upbringing, all her children would know the value of a piece of loomed work.
It wasn't until Yule had passed and the snow lay thick on the roads that she thought back on what she'd heard that day long past. That day also happened to be the day Beau had left for his first quarterly trip to Bree with a beautiful cargo of linen from the West Marches plus all manner of other material loaded into the ponies' packs. As she waved him off the memory of the lost conversation had come tumbling back into her mind like the ominous rumble of a summer storm. He would be gone possibly three to four weeks, or more depending on trade and the passability of the roads.
The day her husband left also happened to be the same day his wife realized that she was once again in the family way. The new baby was due just before mid Wedmath.
"Oh bother," she had said to herself. "That means I have to go through most of the whole summer hot and sticky. And why couldn't I have known soon enough to tell Beau?"
She knew Beau would be pleased when he found out; but she wished she had known before he had left to give him the news. What if something happened and he never knew of the coming child?
After that, she stood part of almost every night in contemplation on the front step long after the children and Samish had gone off to bed. She looked out over the silent Shire and wondered about both her husband and the absent ranger before she too finally gave in to sleep. With the disturbing rumours she had heard from up in Hobbiton adding to her fears, the Goodwife had begun to fret, spending more and more of the time she should have been sleeping watching and worrying instead.
The piping treble of the youngest child woke his mother from her reverie. She looked up to see that the clock was getting ready to strike three. The tiny lad stood in front of her rubbing his sleep filled eyes, with his well-loved stuffed bunny, as ever, tagging along.
"My goodness, my little one," she smiled, gently taking the toddler onto her lap and folding the soft depths of her house shawl about him. " What could Raith and his rabbit be doing out of their nest?"
"Hadda pee," came the sleepy but proud answer. Raith was being potty trained and had not had an 'accident' for three nights.
The child continued. "An' I saw light inna kitchen. Is'a candle inna window for Da?"
"Oh yes," soothed his mother as she lifted the child in loving arms and walked over to where a lantern shone brightly out of the east facing window. "Da will know we think about him. He's tucked into a nice deep bed, warm and comfortable, and asleep just like little Raith should be."
"An' Mama too," Raith yawned as he nestled his curly head against his mother's shoulder. His eyes were already beginning to droop. His thumb found its way into his mouth as he tucked his bunny protectively into the crook of his arm. Molly blew out the kitchen candles and walked back over to her chair as she softly hummed a lullaby. She sat down and rocked gently back and forth with the sleepy tot until his eyes closed and he was fast asleep.
She looked through the darkness of her home at the single light shining out into the night.
"Now don't you worry none, Sweetness," Beau had said, and even Vis had mentioned doing his own small part to keep the Shire safe. The two she trusted most had spoken words of comfort but she didn't understand why there was still a knot of concern in her stomach.
There was no real reason for anything to change, she told herself, except that the Spring was coming again. She and the girls would soon be busy with the washing, cleaning and scrubbing of both the smial and the out buildings, and then would come the laundering and airing of all the quilts, blankets and rugs. The insides of both the barn and the chicken coop would need whitewashing, as would all the pantries. The cows would be calving, the geese and chickens would be hatching out nests of downy babies and on top of it all of that the sows would be farrowing. There was fleece to be purchased, skirted and washed, and the gardens and the fields all needed to be cared for and planted.
Then, of course, there was the need to speak to Uncle Paladin about a lad to help Beau, Ferdy and Bran around the farm, especially now that there was a new baby on the way. Her lads were fine workers but an extra pair of hands made the work easier when Beau was gone on his trips. It also gave a cousin a chance to farm out a lad for the summer. Molly knew that rather than worrying about what could be, she had enough to look after in just the changing of the seasons. A tiny fluttering from the unborn babe and a contented sigh from Raith seemed to echo that sentiment. The knot in her stomach seemed to ease.
Suddenly comforted in the knowledge that her children slept safely in their beds, the Goodwife watched the single candle flicker softly in the lantern. A not so discrete snore came from her brother's room and she chuckled softly.
"Past my own nose indeed, Samish."
Then her own eyes drooped and she too fell asleep, her child lovingly cuddled against her breast.
Everything would turn out well enough in the end.
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.