1. The Battle of Bywater
There was a soft step behind Frodo. "Ah, they did come sooner," said Merry. "Good for Pippin, and better for us! Now we can deal with those louts quickly."
"And carefully." Frodo turned.
Merry held a steaming mug; Frodo smelled coffee. Like so many things it was a rare commodity now, according to Mrs. Cotton. Merry's eyes were fixed on the distance, but his brows lowered as his gaze shortened and fell on Frodo. "I will take every care to be sure that no ruffian Man remains within the Shire's borders," he said, "and as soon as can be managed."
Farmer Cotton emerged from the open doorway, drawn by the clamor of a hundred excited Tooks.
"Care must be taken, or more hobbits will be hurt," Frodo insisted again.
"Hobbits will be hurt whether we fight or not, Frodo. These Men are the dregs of the Enemy's forces, and you heard Mr. Cotton last night as well as I did." Merry gestured to Cotton, and the farmer nodded slowly, a motion at once deferential and defiant. "He has the right of it. Unless we do something, they will only continue the hurting they have already started."
Frodo felt as though he was trying to reach Merry by climbing the side of a gravel quarry; the ground of rough necessity slid beneath his reasoning, and Merry remained at the top, out of reach. "We face dangers other than whips and clubs, Merry. I would not have any hobbit fall as low as these Men, who hurt others willingly."
Just then Pippin rode his pony to the foot of Cotton's steps and hailed them. Nibs was at his side, looking up with shining eyes. "Good morning!" said Pippin. "I've brought you a hundred of the finest hunters from Tookland."
"And in impressive time, too." Merry raised his mug. "Let's get to it, then."
Bywater Road cut through a short hill just above the East Road and was trimmed with thick hedges on either side. Behind the hedges on the lower side, Merry arranged for scaffolding to be hastily assembled to give a better perch from which to hurl arrows or rocks at targets in the road. Frodo herded the younger hobbits away from the line of those climbing up and set them to steady the scaffolding instead, down where solid dirt and the thickest part of the hedges protected not only their exposure, but also their view of the road.
Merry strode up from the other end of the ragged line of poles and cross-boards. "Cotton and his boys are leading efforts to block the north end of the cut, where they'll stay with the stoutest lads of Bywater. I've put all the Took archers up high so they can shoot over the hedge, while Pippin and I will stand on the east side," he said. "I would have you and Sam take the west side with the others that have swords. That is where to make the best use of those of us properly armed, where the bank is lowest."
"I do not wish to draw a sword," said Frodo.
Merry's eyes widened. "You may not have much of a choice, my dear old hobbit. The Men are approaching as we speak, and they will have no compunctions against using swords, whips, or anything they can get their hands on to have at you."
Sam stepped up then, looking with a critical eye at the scaffolding. The rings of his mail shirt each caught a bit of the sun, little crescents of warm light. Though Sam had journeyed for months attired as he was today, he looked new to Frodo's eyes, and odd. Sam's face, set in the familiar surrounds of Bywater, graced by the mellow light of the Shire, was as it always had been. But his golden armor showed him changed.
"I reckon there's no time for proper bracing," said Sam, nodding at the youngsters crowded round each upright.
"There is certainly no time for hesitation," replied Merry, and he quickly walked away, his cloak snapping smartly in the breeze of his passage.
Sam watched Merry's very straight back retreat before turning to Frodo, the question plain on his face. Frodo did not let him ask it. "Sam, I want you to take this," he said as he fumbled to open his belt. "Take Sting."
"Mr. Frodo, what --?"
Frodo freed the belt from his waist. Sting dangled in its sheath from the fine leather. "Here, take it."
Sam frowned and held up his hands, palms out. "Now Mr. Frodo, we've had this debate before, and we agreed that the sword went with the crystal belt, just like them and the mithril coat all go together."
"No," said Frodo, "we haven't had this debate before; you have been too busy to take it back every time I brought up the subject. I agreed to borrow it for the ceremonies, but I gave Sting to you." He pushed the sword into Sam's reluctant grasp and smiled wryly. "You might also take notice that I am not wearing the crystal belt either."
Sam held Sting tucked between his elbow and side while he removed his belt and sword.
"I do not want --" Frodo began to speak but Sam interrupted him.
"Now, Mr. Frodo," Sam looked up at him keenly, "I'm a fair big enough fool with one sword; I can hardly go stomping out there with two."
The smile he felt lift his face caught Frodo by surprise, and for a moment he relaxed into it. He clasped Sam's shoulder with affection. "None of that, Sam-lad, not when your exploits with that very sword are sung all over Gondor. No one can wield Sting as well as you."
Sam regarded him a moment, smiling shyly, but then his brow creased with worry. "You can't be thinking of meeting them Men with naught to defend yourself."
"There are some things that are not mine to do, Sam," he said.
The frown on Sam's face stiffened into stubbornness. "And one of them is to continue this nonsense about being in a battle without a sword, begging your pardon." He retained Sting and pushed the bright sword from Gondor into Frodo's hands. He held Sting by its sheath in one hand and crossed his arms, fixing his gaze on Frodo with a look that brooked no argument. Frodo sighed, frustrated, but he also donned the sword.
Led by Farmer Cotton and his sons, a score of hobbits wheeled old carts and waggons into the road and tipped them over; soon a great barricade blocked any passage. Merry directed others to make ready in the fields on either side of the road below the cut, to wheel in a second barrier at his signal. The gang of Men would soon arrive, and Merry planned to trap them within a circle of armed defenders.
The hedge was thick with hobbits concealed in the evergreen leaves on the west side of the road, while others balanced on sections of logs or barrels to peer over the top. Lower than the east side, it sloped downward as the road ran north so that close by the first barrier, even without finding a prop or stool, many archers stood with their bows poised to shoot over the top of the hedge.
Frodo and Sam took position on the west side of the road, closer to the north barrier than the one at the south end of the cut. They stood amongst Tooks with old swords, and with Bywater and Hobbiton farmers holding wicked forks, hoes, and axes. The rising edge of tension buoyed them with excitement, though Sam looked grim, and Frodo worried at the jewel hanging at his breast with his maimed hand. Sam and Frodo whispered answers to questions about their long absence as best as they could when asked. Sometimes they would stop and greet an old friend or distant cousin with a joyous and hushed embrace, but quickly, and quietly, anxious as they waited.
Frodo heard the Men's harsh voices. No one else seemed to hear for long moments, and then those at the south end turned their heads, and their stances straightened. Soon the Men could be seen as well as heard. They moved quickly and talked loudly amongst themselves, some arguing, some singing a crude chant, some jeering and calling. They were many and filled the road, seemingly larger than ordinary Men in Frodo's eyes as they passed him, trampling the roads of the Shire. He could hear them clearly as they encountered the north barrier.
"Garn!" said the largest of the lot, a broad Man with stringy black hair. His skin was so sallow it looked green. "Hey, you louse-ridden squib, you were right. The little rats are getting uppity."
"They has swords, Ragback," said a smaller one with long arms and a whiney voice. He pawed at the big man's elbow. "I saw last night. Bright swords, and shields."
"Oh, he's just trying to make good in Sharkey's eyes, sending us all this way for nothing," complained another, a tall Man with a low brow.
"Bite your tongue out, you turd." Ragback rounded on the other and shoved him to the ground. "You don't know nothing about what Sharkey wants, and it's not your place to wonder, neither."
Ugly laughter erupted among some of the Men while others glared. Two of those helped the dissenter to his feet.
"Come on, you louts," snarled Ragback. "Get your shoulders to these little toys and clear them out!"
Some moved forward to comply with his order, but there were protests from behind as the Men nearer the south end of the road noticed the hobbits rolling more waggons and barrels into the road, trapping them.
"What is this?" shouted Ragback. He looked up, and all around him hobbits stood, silently rising high enough to be seen over the hedges. "Hie! You rat-folk! Get this trash out of the road and clear out!"
The Men moved restlessly, waiting for some response, but every hobbit held motionless as if each was a new leaf on a spring tree in a lull of wind. Frodo saw Merry rise tall from behind the green hedge across the road, Pippin at his side.
"We are neither going to move the blockade nor clear out," said Merry in a voice that carried loudly.
"You will if you know what's good for you!"
"You will all clear out," Merry continued as if the Man had said nothing, "and you will never return. You are not wanted here, and we will not tolerate your presence here any longer."
"Oh, la, la, la! You will not tol-ar-ate my presence, eh?" laughed Ragback, and he swaggered mockingly. "What uppity words for such soft little rabbits among the rats! What pretty shirts you and your friend wear! Think you're some kind of elf, puttin' on airs so fancy as that?"
Merry and Pippin drew their swords with one, ringing sound.
"You have walked into a trap," said Merry, his voice hard. "Your fellows from Hobbiton did the same, and one is dead and the rest are prisoners. Lay down your weapons! Then go back twenty paces and sit down. Any who try to break out will be shot."
The small Man with long arms and several others stepped back and sat down in the road. The other Man who had been knocked down muttered to those who had helped him, drawing the leader's attention.
"Hey!" cried Ragback. "What d'you think you're doing? You filthy, cowardly dogs!" He and several more grabbed those that sat and hauled them up to their feet, striking them about the head and cursing them.
"Lay down your weapons!" Merry repeated. He raised his sword, and Frodo could hear the creak of a hundred bowstrings pulled tight.
Ragback left off abusing his men to face Merry defiantly. "The pretty rabbit squeaks again! But we don't need no stinking weapons to teach you more'n you can stomach."
"Harm one hobbit, and I will put steel to you."
"I'll break you in half, you worthless maggot!"
Ragback and a few of his supporters lunged forward to attack Merry and Pippin. The main bulk of his Men took the movement as a call to general battle and began scaling the west side of the road. Hobbits leapt down from all around to meet them. A score of the Men rushed to the south barrier. Half a dozen of them sprouted sudden Took arrows and fell, but the rest surged over the blockade, striking out with weapon and fist, pushing past the overturned carts and knocking over barrels and farmers.
With the first yells, Sam drew Sting and set himself in front of Frodo. Frodo, however, was watching to the south and saw two hobbits fall into the dusty road and remain motionless after others staggered to their feet. Suddenly he was moving, pushing through the hedge, dropping into the road and running toward them. Sam followed him, hardly a pace behind. "Mr. Frodo, wait!" he cried. "The ruffians --!"
Frodo ran hard, leaving the worst of the tumult behind him as he dashed up to the prone hobbits and skidded to a stop. Others stooped over the figures, but they parted for Frodo. He fell to his knees between the fallen. One lay face-down in the dirt. The other had sprawled on his back, his arms wide, and his brown eyes stared up into nothing, surprised. Frodo's hand rose and pressed his mouth hard. It was Sancho Proudfoot, and he was dead.
Sancho's brother, Blancho, shouldered through the ring of bystanders. He choked down a sob as he crouched next to Frodo. He reached toward his brother's face. Sancho's neck had been broken. There was no blood, and Blancho gently stroked the pale cheek before he drew his hand over his brother's eyes and closed them. "Those Men, those thieving, wicked Men," he said thickly. "They eat our harvest, ruin our homes, and take our lives. I hope they burn, every last one of them. I hope the Tooks shoot them all through their filthy hearts."
He climbed to his feet and staggered as if drunk. When Sam offered help, he shrugged it away. "Leave off, Gamgee." He stooped and picked up a hoe from the dirt of the road. Harsh shouts and excited yells rising made them all start. The battle was joined in earnest all around. Tears streaked the dust on Blancho's face. "I'll show them," he said, his voice bitter. "I'll show them good." And then he dashed off to the north end of the cut where the clamor was loudest.
"He'll be little use to anyone like that," said Sam, his face twisted with pity as he watched Blancho run.
"You're probably right," said Frodo. He gently turned the other hobbit but did not recognize the slack face. He had been stabbed in the chest. Frodo looked up at Sam. "Did you know him?"
Sam reluctantly stepped closer. "No, I don't know him," he said. His face was tensed with sorrow nonetheless.
Frodo stood up and brushed his palms on his breeches. Sam clasped his right hand, surprising him, and said, "I'm sorry about your cousin." Frodo answered the pressure with a warm squeeze, and Sam continued, "I'm sorry about this poor fellow, too, whoever he is, and for Blancho, and all those as will be hurt today."
"I'm sorry, too, Sam," said Frodo gently. "This isn't the homecoming I would have for you." He released the small comfort of Sam's hand to tap gently the shoulder of a young lad kneeling by the body and said, "You keep watch over these two until we can give them proper attention." The boy nodded silently, his face pinched and white.
Sam seemed to understand that Frodo had plans, for he asked, "Where to now?"
"I'm going after Blancho to make sure he comes to no harm in his grief."
"All right then, but please," he leaned in closer and spoke urgently, "Mr. Frodo, take out your sword." Sting was clutched in his fist, held steady below his worried expression.
Frodo smiled sadly. "I cannot help Blancho if I have a naked sword in my hand."
Sam's mouth thinned. "And a sheathed sword can't help you none if one of them Men attacks you."
Frodo shook his head and moved quickly along the lane, avoiding the argument all together. He heard Sam follow as he forced a hole into the hedge, leaves and twigs pulling at him, and ran along the east side, behind the scaffolding to where the noise was loudest and then pushed back through to the road. He emerged into the lane where clouds of dust disturbed by the scuffling figures nearly blinded him, and then slithered down the low bank. Harsh grunts and the cries of hobbits filled the air. For the Thain! For the Shire! rang out high and clear from Pippin's kin, while Frodo could hear other shouts: Back to the wilds, you foul things! and Bywater! Bywater!
The Men flowed and eddied in the road, surrounded by hobbits on most sides. A knot of them gathered to Frodo's right, and there were sudden shrill screams and hoarse shouts. Through the chaos, Frodo hear Merry's voice: "Forward! Forward!" and then the Horn of the Mark pealed with the Buckland horn-cry. A wall of armed hobbits emerged from the dust and confronted the Men.
Some of the Men broke away from their mates and dashed back the way they had come, looking to escape, and were immediately set upon by more hobbits. Frodo saw Blancho in the midst of those and made his way there quick as he could, dodging fallen bodies and leaping over wreckage and abandoned weapons. A Man staggered in his path, a hobbit wrapped round his knees, another dangling from his neck, and Frodo had to dig his heel in the dirt and pivot away as though dancing to avoid slamming into him and his wicked pike. An arrow suddenly bloomed in the Man's hair, and he fell, forcing Frodo to bound further back before he could dash forward.
He stopped when he reached the far side of the lane. Several Men had been subdued and lay flat under the weight of grim hobbits. Others struggled but were slowly buried into immobility as more sturdy farmers and merchants, blacksmiths and craftsmen jumped on. All the captured Men were eventually trussed up and dragged out of the fray. Some Men ran, to be felled by canny Took archers, but a few threw down arms, begging for mercy.
One Man fell to his knees and dropped his cudgel immediately, suing for surrender, and was knocked to the ground, stunned, when Blancho picked up the cudgel and struck him on the head. Blancho raised his weapon again, his face so screwed into red rage he appeared blind.
Frodo moved quickly and clasped him around his chest, pulling him back. "No!" he said into Blancho's ear. "He is unarmed; he has surrendered --"
"That filth killed my brother!" Blancho butted his bony skull painfully into Frodo's cheekbone and nearly knocked him off, but Frodo clung tight.
"Then let him face justice!"
"Let me kill him!" he bawled.
"No!" cried Frodo. He leaned back until Blancho's feet came off the road, paddling in the air and thrashing so vigorously he threw Frodo off balance. As they fell, Frodo turned and pushed Blancho to the ground where they struggled.
Frodo heard Sam's distant shout. He rolled quickly and with a felid twist he put his knee into the small of Blancho's back and yanked his arm up between his shoulder blades.
"No," Frodo said, breathing hard. "I will not let you commit murder."
Blancho went limp under him, gasping for air and coughing in the stirred dirt.
"Sorry I'm late, Mr. Frodo, but it looks like you have things well in hand, if I may say so," said Sam admiringly, if breathlessly, appearing suddenly at Frodo's elbow. Frodo threw him a quick glance and saw Sam's expression was as satisfied as his voice despite a wide smear of mud along his cheek up into his tousled hair.
"Here, Sam," he said, gasping a little from effort, "help me get him to his feet and away from all this."
Together, they hauled him to his limp legs and supported him back to where his brother lay. Loved ones of the other dead hobbit had gathered already: a maid and an old gaffer. Their tears and the terrible tenderness with which they arranged his limbs broke Blancho's silence; he crumpled and was caught by the girl. With a wrenching sob his rage broke utterly, and his grieving finally began.
Frodo and Sam stood back. In a low voice, Frodo said, "I think we can leave him here. He seems to be in good hands; let's go back and see what help we can give."
"Aye," replied Sam.
More hobbits than Blancho had suffered cruelty and loss at the hands of the Men, and some continued their attacks even when the Men would throw away their weapons and plead for clemency. Frodo convinced them to stop, with words when he could manage it, but more often by dragging angry hobbits from Men prone on the ground. Sam remained close as he could throughout: fending away danger at Frodo's back; helping him to subdue the angry and grief-stricken; binding the surrendered Men with lengths cut from a rope; carting wounded hobbits away from the melee.
The morning wore on drearily. Frodo and Sam supported a bleeding old gaffer slung between them, dragging him from the battle into the keeping of helping hands at a nearby farmhouse. The mothers and sisters and daughters of Bywater and Hobbiton had gathered there to tend the injured and lay out the dead. They said little to Frodo, but Rosie Cotton spared Sam a worried frown and encouraged him to take a drink of water. "And bring one for your master as well," she said. "You both look fair wilted."
The effort had begun to weigh on Frodo, and his steps back to the road felt as heavy as on the broken gravel of Mordor, not the soft, dry grass of a Shire winter. A great reluctance settled on Frodo, and he wanted nothing more than to turn away and leave the noise and clamor behind rather than march right into it; walk away until he found nothing but the tranquility of wind in the trees.
There was a difference in the activity, however, and he nudged Sam with his shoulder.
"Listen," said Frodo. "Can you hear? The battle: it's ending."
The din that had beat upon their ears was changing and failing. One last roar from the north end of the road started both hobbits, and Frodo clutched the cloth of Sam's sleeve just as Sam reached for him. It was a terrible sound, angry and despairing. Ragged cheers split the air then, and as they cautiously approached, Frodo and Sam saw the hobbit fighters waving their weapons in the air and crying out victoriously.
Sam smiled wearily. "That's it, then. It's done and over."
Frodo saw Merry walking away from the center of the worst fighting. He emerged from settling dust, his head bowed and shoulders slumped, as if weary. Frodo watched Pippin reach out and touch his arm, speaking, though Frodo could not hear the words. Merry nodded slowly and left Pippin looking after him, concerned, as he walked toward Frodo.
"He's dead," said Merry. "The leader, Ragback." He clutched his sword still, though it seemed he could hardly lift it, and both arm and blade were covered with thick, blackish blood dripping off the tip that nearly dragged on the ground.
"Merry! Are you hurt?" asked Frodo, and he stepped quickly to Merry's side. Sam moved to flank his other side.
"No, I'm not hurt," replied Merry. "There is nothing wrong with me that a good washing up and a few mugs of ale wouldn't cure."
"But your arm, Mr. Merry," said Sam. He looked at it worriedly.
"It's just a little tired," he said. His arm twitched. "A bit cold. That's all his blood, not mine."
The cheering ended quickly. Hobbits stood in the road, murmuring amongst themselves, unsure what to do, but their hesitation did not last. Soon, a low hum of industry replaced indecision as hoes and forks and waggons were put to their proper use. Busy hands cleared the road, and one young hobbit began smoothing the disturbed dirt with the very rake he had used to defend himself.
Wounded and dead hobbits were removed and carefully tended while the last of the captive Men were trussed and hauled to a barn under heavy guard. Merry and Pippin ordered the bodies of the Men dragged off the road and piled until they made a gruesome heap.
"So much to be mended," said Frodo.
"And cleaned up," added Sam. "But all that can wait at least until after we've had a bite."
Sam promised to prepare a place to wash, as well as find some food and ale, and left at a trot towards the Cotton farm. Frodo and Pippin and Merry followed at a slower pace. When they came to the Cotton farm, they found Sam in the back yard filling tubs with hot water, towels for drying and clean shirts laid close by.
"It's all I could find on such short notice," said Sam. He was cleaner about his head and hands, and he wore a different shirt.
"Oh, it's perfect," said Pippin.
Sam looked pleased and returned inside; he claimed he would help with the midday meal, but Frodo caught a gleam in his eye and thought he was probably planning to wheedle Cotton into breaking out the last keg of good ale, carefully hidden all these months.
Pippin squirmed out of his surcoat and hauberk, draping each carefully over the top rail of the back fence. The linen shirt under his mail was soaked with sweat despite the cold, spattered with black blood and torn. He removed it and ducked his head into the tub of warm water, splashing his neck and ribs with great enthusiasm.
Frodo beat the dirt from his clothes with the heels of his palms, and then stood next to a tub, rinsing his hands and running them over his face and the back of his sweaty neck. He took time for his feet, too; the steaming water washed away the dust, though a brisk toweling left the fur standing up untidily. He noticed Merry, moving with less energy, as he peeled off his armor and wiped each piece as clean as he could with a damp rag. Merry tended his sword, rubbing blood and gore from it before drying the steel thoroughly. At last he slid it into its sheath with a sharp singing sound and looked up at Frodo. "You are remarkably clean, cousin," he said.
Frodo frowned at the queer tone in Merry's voice. Merry sat on a section of sawn tree holding his sheathed sword across his knees. He had not yet removed his shirt. Sweat and dust had made mud around the collar and tails. The right sleeve was heavy with blood and clung to his arm wetly.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean," said Merry as he undid the buttons of his ruined shirt with small jerks, "that you don't look as if you've been in a battle."
Pippin stopped his splashing.
"And you are covered in the blood of your foe," Frodo said calmly.
"Yes, exactly right." Merry stood up and buckled his sword belt in place. "I did what I had to do."
"Just as I did what I saw fitting," said Frodo. "I am no Knight of Rohan or Gondor."
"But you are a hobbit of the Shire." Merry stepped closer. "Did you even draw your sword out there?"
Frodo looked up at Merry and shook his head, a small movement.
"But why? Why didn't you help us defend our home?" he asked, pained.
"I did." Frodo spoke gently. "I merely took a different approach."
"Then explain it to me, because I don't understand."
"I would have the Shire as I remember it," said Frodo, and his throat felt tight. "Not filled with those so changed by the influence of the Chief and his Men that they accept those ridiculous rules and find that they like bullying others around."
Merry frowned. "And we were not doing that very thing all this day? Driving out the Men and taking back the Shire?"
"The Men are gone," said Frodo, "but hobbits are still here, and they were changed by the hardships they endured all this year, just as they were changed by the violence they witnessed today. Don't you see it?"
Merry's face darkened. "Of course they changed; we all changed. There is no stopping that now --"
Frodo raised a palm and shook his head. "Please, I don't want to argue. The day has been hard enough."
"There was a time," Merry said slowly, "when you would have stood with Pippin and me. There were times when you did stand with us, just as we stood with you."
"I am with you," Frodo said, but Merry turned away. Before he washed and donned a clean one, Merry stripped off his bloody shirt and let it fall into the dirt.
If Merry and Frodo seemed quiet at the table, none mentioned it. Sam cast suspicious looks at Frodo and his cousins, and Frodo caught him giving Pippin a particularly disproving frown. The morning had asked much of everyone, however, and so the loaded glares of four guests shot over their plates meant little to the Cottons. More excitement in the course of a single day they had never seen in the Shire, and there was some concern for Tom, for he had taken a deep gash to his leg. He sat in the corner with his leg swathed in wrappings and propped on an old pickle-barrel. Sam's sister fussed over him, tempting him to eat, and he endured with good humor, having been dosed with half a bottle of strong spirits to dull the pain. Nibs and his brothers offered little chance for anyone to slide into the conversation anyway, for they bubbled like kettles fit to boil with all they had seen and done that morning.
"I heard 'em first," said Nibs, "before they got close. They're so loud, with voices like a gears in the new mill." He talked around a mouthful of potatoes. "And nasty! Phew, I thought Big People looked more like hobbits, except bigger, but these fellows looked like a pack of trolls to me: all alike, and all ugly."
"Men look as different from one another as hobbits do," said Pippin, "and Big people aren't like that lot at all. These ones, I think, came from an evil place that's been destroyed. There shouldn't be any more coming up from the south anymore."
"What place is that?" asked Nibs, and then hushed his voice. "Mordor?"
Merry said, "He's talking about Isengard, I think." Pippin nodded. "Pippin and I watched that place get washed clean in a great flood. It's a lake, now, with a forest of Ents all around it."
"Ents?" said Nibs.
"Ents. They're like, well, great walking trees," said Pippin, "but old, and wise."
"Walking trees?" For once, Nibs looked skeptical.
"Just so long as we get no more of those bad Men," Mrs. Cotton said. "We could do without such ruffians roaming about, stealing our food and hurting folks."
"Ha! Let them come; I'll deal with them again. This morning I jabbed one good with my hayfork," said Nibs, demonstrating with his dinner fork. "He squealed like a stuck pig and bled almost as much, too."
The arrogant pride in the young hobbit's voice shocked Frodo, but before he could react, Cotton slammed his own utensils onto the table, and everyone fell silent.
"Nibs!" exclaimed Cotton. "I will not abide vulgar talk at the table, nor will I put up with such disregard for something as serious as battle and death."
His face ashen, Nibs stared at his plate and whispered, "I'm sorry, Dad."
"Not as sorry as them that died out there today," said Cotton, his voice tight and loud, "and don't you ever forget that both Big People and hobbits paid for all the misery that's been plaguing us this past year and more. This is a war, son, and not just something that happened away down in Woody End, or even away in them foreign parts as Sam and Mr. Frodo and his cousins went. People died out there on our own Bywater Road: hobbits we know, and will miss; hobbits we must lay in the ground."
He picked up his fork and continued eating grimly. Nibs clenched his hands in his lap and ducked his head low over his plate. Frodo saw tears fall onto his food. An idea occurred to him, and he longed to break the strained silence, but he could think of no fitting words; he felt drained from the battle, and tender from the raw exchange with Merry before dinner. The determined movement of Cotton's hand, plate to mouth, plate to mouth, was joyless.
Frodo cleared his throat, a soft sound audible to all over the small sounds of cutlery on plates. He wondered briefly what had possessed him to do so, as sober faces turned his way, but the right words finally came. "We must tend to all the fallen," he said, "the ruffians as well as the hobbits, but the ruffians will be the harder task: unpleasant but very necessary. Perhaps, Mr. Cotton, your Nibs might do well to help."
Cotton looked up from his plate. "It should be done soon, however it is done."
"It hardly bears thinking about," said Mrs. Cotton, tears in her throat, and Nibs watched her with wide eyes as one hand rested at her breast while the other pushed away her plate. Mr. Cotton patted her shoulder and said, "War is ugly business, and the costs only begin with the battle. We'll be paying a long time."
Like the others, Pippin said nothing, but his face was troubled as he nodded. Frodo noticed that Nibs, his eyes hungrily darting between his parents, whom he loved and respected, and Pippin, whom he admired to the edge of worship, nodded as well, his face comically the same as Pippin's; the observation brought no mirth to Frodo but an unexpected needle of pent tears he swallowed.
"The Rohirrim burn their dead enemies," Merry said grimly.
"Burning, aye, that would be quickest," said Cotton, though he sounded unhappy.
"And yet there is so much smoke rising up all over," said Frodo. He looked through the open door to the horizon, and his shoulders slumped, saddened at the thought of dead Men's ashes settling on everything he loved most in the Shire.
"We could put them in the ground," Sam declared suddenly, his face stern. "Make 'em give back some of what they took."
Pippin's expression lightened a little at that suggestion, and Nibs' brightened similarly.
"That's a lot of shovel work," said Cotton. "Though nothing new to any of my boys, turning the good earth of the Shire, though never for such a sober purpose."
"Sober, yes," said Frodo, "but Sam's right: give them into the ground to replace some of what they took."
Nibs' brow creased heavily in thought. "Give back our food?"
"In a manner of speaking," said Sam. "They'll go back to dirt in the ground, and give the trees and such what they need to grow."
"The Shire's too good a resting place for the likes of them," said Merry with distaste, but then he continued thoughtfully, "and yet, I think that's the very purpose to which the Ents put the orcs of Isengard."
"It's a strange fate, but oddly neat," said Pippin.
The meal finished quickly after that. Mrs. Cotton began clearing the table with Rosie and Nibs' help. Merry stood and thanked her, and Pippin bowed over her hand, which made her blush like a lass. Frodo pushed his chair back and stood to give his thanks. With Sam they stepped outside, Farmer Cotton following them. Merry sucked on his pipe while touching a reed lit from the kitchen stove to the bowl even as he walked to the bench by the front flowerbed. Frodo said, "Well, I suppose it is time now that we dealt with the 'Chief'."
"Yes indeed; the sooner the better," said Merry. He stood by the bench and gestured with the pipe stem. "And don't be too gentle! He's responsible for bringing in these ruffians, and for all the evil they have done."
"He's responsible for being a fool, but he was never behind the worst of this," said Frodo. "He'll need our help."
"Dashing off to save Pimple." Pippin shook his head. "It still staggers my imagination."
"We should muster together those with swords able to accompany us," said Merry.
"No." Frodo shook his head. "This is a parley with the Chief, not a battle."
"Frodo!" exclaimed Merry. "How can you say that after facing those scoundrels today? And how do you know there are no more lurking about?"
Cotton agreed. "It's only a guess that there is no ruffians left at Bag End. We can't know for sure."
"But how can I not say that after all the bloodshed today?" Frodo retorted. "Hobbits I've known for years cut down in the road, waggons broken up like firewood, the hedges along the road cut and torn almost to bits. This is my home, but I hardly recognize it, and I cannot see how more battling can cure it."
"We can't wish the evil things away, Frodo; we have to force them out." Merry's cheeks were reddening in anger. "We had to do it in Rohan and Gondor, and now we have to do it here." His pipe, ignored, had gone out. "Things have changed," he continued, and suddenly he sounded stricken, "but not as much as you have."
The cool soil of the Shire seemed to lurch under Frodo's washed feet. Beyond all hope he had returned, yet it was not quite his home, not from his first steps at the border: The Brandywine Bridge had been gated, the Bridge Inn torn down, and Frodo and his companions had been afflicted with Bill Ferny's unsavory presence before being subjected to orcish rules and a distinctly un-hobbit-like parsimony by the Shirriffs at the Shirriff house. This was not the same Shire he had expected to find at the end of his long journey, and sorrow cleaved him deeper than a Morgul knife.
"I only wanted the chance to sit once again on those awful benches at the Log," Frodo whispered harshly.
"What?" said Merry.
Frodo shook his head, unable to explain. Sometimes, while carrying the Ring, he would recall that memories had lived there once, even if they were gone. Green grass was a concept he knew, though he couldn't imagine how it felt under his toes. Beer at The Floating Log was nutty and brown, but the words conjured no taste. The benches there were made of logs sawn in half with the bark still on, worn smooth after years of polishing by countless hobbit-breeches, yet still prone to shedding the odd splinter.
There were many funny stories and lewd jokes told about the dangers of the benches at the Floating Log; Frodo had one of his own to tell about a night of revelry with Folco Boffin. They had danced on the tables and made drunken attempts to win the affections of the innkeeper's pretty daughter, a contest both hobbits lost. Though he'd been totally smitten with her, while he carried the ring Frodo couldn't remember what she had looked like. He could not recall how his pride had pained him when he'd picked up a sizable sliver while falling off the table and onto his inebriated arse. He forgot how Folco's fulsome laugh rang when the moon stood tall and misty in the small hours as they staggered outside to duck their heads under an icy splash from the water pump.
While he had carried his burden, the simple fact of his knowing that the grass was green in the Shire, that the benches at The Floating Log gave splinters, and that Folco Boffin had a laugh like no other had given him strength enough to resist madness even though the image of each thing seemed made of smoke effortlessly burned away by a wheel of fire until only the empty words remained.
Though his memories of good things had returned after its destruction, flimsy as ghosts, they had been lost to Frodo while bearing the Ring. Sam had helped him tolerate that mad loneliness, and in the desert plain of Mordor, Frodo could endure without his memories because Sam's stout presence at his side reminded him that the home of his memories remained safe. But the Floating Log was closed now. Its old tables and benches had been burned for warmth. And blood ran even in the dirt of Bywater Road. Nothing would be the same again.
Sam was at his side, gently shaking his shoulder. "Frodo," he beseeched. "Come sit."
Cotton looked at him with stern pity. Merry stood aside, his face pale as Pippin helped Sam guide Frodo to the bench, and Frodo wondered with a sick feeling how long he had stood in a fit, and if he had spoken, and what he might have said. He realized he clutched his white gemstone on its chain only when he loosened his fist.
He sat seemingly removed from the world, alone on the bench. He had witnessed so much destruction, and none so painful as the scars all through the Shire, and he looked at the distant fires that smudged the skies all round. The gray dusting of their ashes settled: a bitter rime over all Frodo loved best in Middle-earth.
Frodo sighed, and turned his regard to the others once more. He apologized for his momentary lapse -- it was just a twinge; I'm fine, really -- and he tried to put from his mind the upcoming confrontation with Lotho and the new Chief. Like most hobbits, he knew no tomorrow was certain, and all must sleep under the soil of the Shire one day. Yet he had a sense of his own future, and it was hazy, as if obscured by a silver veil, and he saw not woods and fields and little rivers, but long gray shore. His thoughts sifted slowly through the day: the furious battle, Sancho Proudfoot's dead stare, the ruffian Men, Merry and Pippin in their blood-stained liveries, Nibs' open face, and the stirred dust of the Shire that had fallen on everyone but him.
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.