"You’re not going to like your present one bit," said Mosco Burrows, admiring the exquisitely crafted horse and rider that he’d been given. He wound the stem on the rider’s back a turn or two and watched the horse trot across the tabletop.
"What would a baby like you know?" said his cousin Angelica Baggins haughtily. "I’m getting a grown-up present, not a child’s toy."
Mosco snickered, and his mother hushed him with a fierce glare. For at least the twelfth time that morning, Lily Baggins wondered why people ever thought they wanted to have clever children. All of her nephews were very bright, but this visit had gone a long way towards convincing her that this was not always a good thing. Mosco in particular had an uncanny knack for understanding exactly what one hoped he wouldn’t and then blurting it out at every point where a reasonable person would have held his tongue. He hadn’t missed an opportunity all day. It must be the Burrows side of the family, Lily thought. Apart from Bilbo, the Bagginses were as cautious with their words as they were with everything else.
Cautious or reckless, nothing changed the fact that Mosco was right. The only good thing was that Angelica would see her present for the first time in private, instead of at Bag End with half the Shire looking on. Since Peony’s baby was still a bit young to taken into the madhouse that was sure to have sprung up around Bag End, Ponto and Milo had taken a dogcart and gone to Hobbiton to bring home the presents for their families. When the two returned, Ponto had drawn her aside to explain the problem before they unloaded the cart. She’d spent every moment since then trying to come up with a way to make the truth more palatable to her daughter, but there was simply no good way to dress this particular dish. Ah well, best to get the worst over quickly. She nodded at Ponto and he took a deep breath.
"Here is your present, Angelica," he said, handing their daughter a round mirror bearing a tag in Bilbo’s distinctive handwriting.
Her face lit up when she first saw it, but quickly dimmed with dismay. "Why, this isn’t a proper mirror at all! It's curved. Doesn't Uncle Bilbo realize I'm too old for toys now?"
Mosco peered over her shoulder, shifted a few times to distort different features, and made an experimental face at himself. "He didn't mean it as a toy, stupid. He's making fun of you for being so vain."
Simultaneous shouts of "Mosco, that's quite enough!" and "I am not vain!" echoed through the hole.
"Are so!" said Mosco as his mother hauled him out of the room.
"I am not!" said Angelica hotly to her cousin's back. "Am I, Mother?"
have to ask! Lily sought about for a polite way to tell her daughter that yes, she did have an insupportably high opinion of her own looks. She must have taken a little too long to consider her answer because Angelica rounded on her, saying, "Mother, you can't agree with that little pest!"
The trouble was, she could. Angelica had been a pretty baby and a beautiful child, all the more adorable because she was the only one Lily and Ponto had ever had. Over the years, Angelica had come to regard admiration as her birthright. Lily had tried to rein her daughter in, but it was becoming clear that she'd left it too late. Only Mosco was rude enough to call Angelica vain to her face, but Lily had overheard comments from the neighbors more than once.
Well, if nothing she tried had worked, maybe Bilbo's gift would get the point across. It would be hard on the girl to know half the Shire was laughing at her, but that might be what it took. She steadied herself before the onslaught and said, "Angelica, Mosco is telling the truth."
The jokes about Angelica and her mirror stayed current for nearly as long as the gossip about Bilbo's mysterious disappearance. For several years, all of Angelica's energy went into pretending that she either didn't notice the talk or didn't care. With so much practice, she got quite good at it, but she never got over her dread of people sniggering at her. When she married her old playmate Aldo Boffin in the spring of 1415, the neighbors wondered if she hadn't chosen him mainly because he was the sort of steady, conventional hobbit who never gave anyone cause for gossip.
She had hoped to leave the despicable mirror behind at last, but her mother insisted that it was hers whether she liked it or not. The first thing she did when she unpacked her things in her new home was to hide the mirror in the far corner of the lumber room and pile the heaviest, most useless mathoms she could find over the top of it. Aldo wisely pretended not to notice and took care never to unearth the thing while searching for spare parts or birthday presents. Angelica didn't look at or speak of the mirror again until the summer of 1419.
By midsummer that year, even the most optimistic hobbits had to admit that something was desperately wrong in the Shire. With the Lithedays behind them, the storeroom shelves ought to be filling nicely with the early harvest. But though the weather had been no worse than usual, the share of the crop allotted to each family was stingy at best and people had already begun to talk in hushed tones of the famine that followed the Long Winter. It was plain to see that no one would be able to store enough to last until spring unless something changed. Everyone was careful not to mention exactly what change was needed - the Mayor had been a bit too outspoken in that regard and he'd been locked up in Michel Delving for six months now.
Angelica could spare food shortages only a part of her worries. She was certain now that Aldo was hiding something from her. For weeks, he'd been giving her one barely credible explanation after another of where he was going and what he planned to do once he got there. She had been too exhausted to care until lately, but little Rosa was finally outgrowing the colic and now Angelica had the leisure to worry.
There had always been that little bit of distance in their marriage. Now it seemed to have grown into a chasm. Delicate hints and subtlety failed to get her the answers she needed, so two nights ago she had finally asked him bluntly why he was lying to her. He had tried to brush the question off, but she persisted until finally he muttered something about needing more pleasant company and disappeared for the rest of the night. She thought that he had gone down to the Green Dragon, and then home with one of his drinking companions. But the next day, she overheard the neighbor's son tell his cousin in scandalized tones that Aldo left the inn with Coral Brockhouse after only one ale.
That took her aback. People gossiped about Coral as much as they ever had about Angelica. That branch of the Brockhouse family had never had a good reputation, but since it came out that Coral's grandmother was carrying tales to Lotho, their standing in the Shire had plummeted even further. Coral had always been a flirt, but now it seemed she would do anything for some masculine attention. Well, she would have to, thought Angelica sourly. The Shire had divided itself neatly into those who thought Lotho was the best thing that had ever happened and a much larger group who wanted nothing to do with him or his hangers-on. If Coral wanted attention from respectable folk, she would very nearly have to dance naked in the street.
There was simply no good reason for Aldo to go anywhere with Coral. They had as few acquaintances and relations in common as any two people could in the Shire. That left only bad reasons, and Aldo had shown no interest in riding Lotho's coat-tails into a higher position. Until Coral's name was mentioned, the possibility that he was unfaithful had never crossed her mind.
Rosa's colic had wrought havoc with her looks and her temper; it had been months since she'd done anything more with her hair than just tie it back off her face, and she'd taken only the barest minimum of care with her clothing. Maybe it wasn't so unbelievable that he would look elsewhere. Maybe he had only ever wanted her because she was beautiful and well-mannered and from a good family. If that was so, maybe they had never been truly married, and his heart was still free. She'd heard that the Big Folk sometimes fell prey to lust in that way, just as Dwarves did to greed. Until this year, she would have said that such things were impossible among Hobbits, but there sat Lotho, as grasping as the wickedest Dwarf in the old tales. Everything she thought she knew about her own people was all turned on its head these days; anything might be possible.
She had still been too confused to say anything this morning when he told her that he was going to Frogmorton to see if his cousin Largo had been able to find any flour or hams for sale on the sly. She'd been too delighted at the prospect of adding to their food stores to question what he was doing. At least she had no doubts about his love and concern for little Rosa. He would do everything he could to keep the baby safe and well, and right now, they needed to find enough to feed her through the winter.
After Aldo set out that morning, she took the baby and went to her mother's house to help sew for Uncle Porto. She was stitching along with her mother, her aunt and her cousin Myrtle and not even thinking about Aldo for a change when there was a tap at the window. Largo Boffin, the very cousin Aldo had claimed to be going to see, leaned in over the casement and said, "Good afternoon, ladies. Is Aldo about, Angelica? I stopped by your hole but he wasn't home, and the neighbors told me where to find you."
Her hands wanted to clench in the fabric, but then the others would be able to see that something was amiss. She knew that Aldo had been lying about his whereabouts for the last few weeks, but she was still not sure whether she wanted proof that he was seeing someone else. If she had no other talents, at least she did very well at pretending not to notice hurtful things. The wretched mirror had taught her that much.
"I thought he'd gone to Frogmorton to see you," said Aunt Peony to Largo, sparing a questioning glance at Angelica.
Largo looked stricken and began to stammer an explanation that was incoherent in most parts and ridiculous in all the rest. Angelica could see her cousin Myrtle's ears prick up from across the room and she decided it was time to step in before he blurted out anything ill considered. After so many years of trying to live down Uncle Bilbo's little joke, she was not
going to be the talk of the Shire once again.
"No, no! I mustn't have made myself very clear," said Angelica with the practiced unconcern that she had developed to deal with gossip. "He went to Frogmorton last
week, but they hadn't anything to spare. This week he decided to try at Waymeet. Someone said one of the farmers there might know where there was a bit tucked away to trade."
Largo, nearly wilting with relief, said, "I'm so sorry we couldn't help you. I don't know where the crops have all gone. The weather has been mild and I've heard nothing about blights or bugs, but no matter whom I ask, no one has enough."
"I'll wager I know where it's gone," said Myrtle, glowering in the direction of Bag End.
"Hush!" warned Aunt Peony. "Talk like that does no one any good, these days."
Myrtle subsided, but kept frowning at her sewing until Largo found his tongue and said, "That's a fine bit of stitchery you've done there, Myrtle. Who is the lucky hobbit?"
That should distract her,
thought Angelica. Myrtle was a bit young for any serious matchmaking, but Aunt Peony would not have forgotten that Largo had younger brothers.
Myrtle dropped her gaze back to the shirt in her lap, and Angelica remembered that even that topic was no longer safe. Her cousin spread the shirt out over her lap and stared at it for a moment before she answered. "It's for Uncle Porto."
"Oh!" said Largo, "Then has Ponto finally talked some sense into Lotho? I knew he'd manage to get poor old Porto out of that ridiculous 'workhouse' sooner or later."
Nobody could quite meet his eyes. When the Gatherers moved Uncle Porto into that new-fangled "workhouse" with some of the other simple-minded hobbits from the neighborhood, they'd been upset, but believed that at least Lotho would see that he was decently cared for. But when Father had gone to visit him there shortly afterwards, all of Porto's things had vanished. The food was scanty and the clothing that the workhouse provided was barely fit for the poorest hobbit in Bywater. Father had come home in a fury, and made the first of what had become a very long string of calls at Bag End to argue with Lotho about the conditions at the workhouse. He tried reasoning with Lotho, appealing to his family loyalty, lecturing him like a wayward tween, and finally threatening him with ostracism if he wouldn't do right by his own kin. Nothing worked. With each successive trip, Father became quieter and more nervous. He muttered about the ever-increasing number of louts and bullies to be found at Bag End and jumped at any loud noise, but he kept going back for just one more try. In a show of support for Ponto, Mother and Aunt Peony had begun sewing Porto some new shirts and trousers, though Angelica suspected that even Father no longer believed that Lotho would ever let them bring Porto home.
Finally, Aunt Peony took pity on Largo's confusion and explained, "No, he isn't coming home yet. Ponto is still trying, though, and we thought we ought to have some new clothes ready for Porto when he arrives. He'll need ... well, everything when he gets back."
Largo shook his head. "I thought surely by now Lotho would have seen reason. No decent hobbit has been willing to give him the time of day for months now. If that won't convince him to change his ways ..."
He didn't need to finish the sentence. If that didn't work, then there was nothing else left to try. They had already used every means they knew to get him to remember his duties to his family and neighbors. Those tactics had always worked before, but Lotho simply shrugged them off. How were they supposed to rein in someone who scarcely seemed to notice the harshest correction they could apply?
The silence lengthened uncomfortably until Aunt Peony broke in. "How is your family, Largo? Is Fosco's arm mending well?"
"They are well, at least until the next time Fungo takes it into his head to become a pony-trainer. Why Fosco didn't leave him to his folly, I'll never know, but at least his arm is knitting straight."
Myrtle had always had a soft spot for Fosco and leaped straightaway to his defense. By the time Largo bid them farewell, Myrtle had lost her urge to make dangerous comments about Lotho, and Peony was wrapped up in assessing her daughter's future marriage prospects.
Once he was gone and the conversation showed no sign of drifting back to Aldo, Angelica said, "Mother, would you mind keeping Rosa for a few hours? I haven't done the household accounts properly since she turned so colicky and if I don't put them right soon, they will be past mending."
It was clear from her mother's look that she hadn't forgotten about Aldo, even if the others had. Angelica had a tense moment before Lily apparently decided that whatever was going on between her daughter and her son-in-law would not be improved by the presence of a squalling baby. "I'll keep her overnight. You just get it straightened out."
Angelica hurried back home and headed for the study. If he was hiding anything from her, that was where it would be. One of the Burrows sisters came in to do the heavy housework for her, but Aldo had forbidden Daisy to clean in there after she disturbed some of his mounds of paperwork. Angelica didn't go into the study often herself; the disorder made her head ache. Today, though, she barely noticed the mess. She riffled through haphazard stacks of paper, peered under the blotter, and finally found what she was looking for in an inside pocket of Aldo's second-best jacket.
All the note said was "Need your help to get Pinkie settled". She stared at it while her ideas about what was happening sorted themselves into completely different patterns. It had been years since she had heard anyone call him that, but surely "Pinkie" must be their old friend, Fastolph Goodbody. She had heard rumors that he had joined up with Fatty Bolger's rebels, rumors that made Aldo go quiet and grim. At the time, she had thought it was just the fear that everyone felt as the arrests and imprisonments struck closer and closer to home, and a very proper distress over seeing a respectable hobbit turn brash and disorderly. Looking back, it could just as easily have been that Aldo realised how much danger he was in himself. All too often these days, some of a rebel's friends usually began to be arrested within a few days of his capture. Nobody was sure whether the prisoners were being forced to give names by some means that didn't bear thinking on, or whether the shirriffs were just arresting the others at random for having associated with them. Either way, it was a terrifying thought.
Aldo, what have you got yourself into?
part of her asked, while another part (a very frightened part, but real nonetheless) was proud of him for standing up against the Chief's bullies. The untruths and mysterious absences were all explained now, and she didn't know whether to be thrilled or horrified. The Shire needed somebody to stand up to Lotho, but this ... Aldo might as well have announced that he was running away to sea like some demented Took. How was she supposed to win her husband back if the Chief took him?
She looked again at the note. What had possessed him to leave it in his pocket? That nickname had never been spread much beyond their own little circle of childhood friends, and Fastolph had put a stop to it even amongst them twenty years ago. It should be safe to refer to Fastolph by that name, but how could anyone be certain these days? Someone might have overheard them and remembered the nickname even after all these years, and there were always darker possibilities. Everyone knew at least one story of someone who was in the Lockholes thanks to information that could only have come from supposedly dear friends or loyal servants. Hurriedly, she read through the remaining papers. Before she went to burn the note, she had to be sure there was nothing else left to cast suspicion on Aldo.
She was halfway through the pile when someone pounded at the door. "Shirriffs! Open up!"
She gasped and froze. Shirriffs at the door, and here she stood with an incriminating note in her hands! There was no time to burn it, no time to think of a good place to hide it. She stuffed it into her bodice and scurried to open the door.
There were four of them, all frowning at her. Two were hobbits. She didn't recognize one of them, but she thought the other was one of the Sandheaver lads from up by Overhill. With them were two of the Chief's Men, big surly brutes that looked like they could snap her in two with their bare hands and think it good sport. Why, why
had she put the note in her bodice? Villains like these would not stop at searching her. They would find the note, and then....
"Where's your husband? The Chief's got business with him," said one of the Men, stooping to fit through the door.
"He ... he's gone to Frogmorton," she said, naming one place she was sure he wasn't. "He said he would be back in time for supper." That much was true, at least.
“That’s not true,“ said the first Man. “You can think it over while we see what he’s hiding here, but when we’re done, you’d better have remembered the truth. Search the place," he added to the hobbits and the other Man. "Start with wherever he'd keep his papers and go on from there."
The hobbits went down the hall while the two Men made quick work of searching the study. They scanned all the papers, dumped out the contents of the desk, and even pulled apart the cushion on Aldo’s chair, but she felt no relief when they reached the end without comment. Somehow, she didn't think the lack of any evidence would satisfy them of her husband's innocence. When they had finished, the first Man said, “We know he's not in Frogmorton. Where is he really?"
"But that's what he told me!" said Angelica, trying to remember how she felt when she thought he was only committing adultery and not in danger of disappearing into the Lockholes like poor Mayor Whitfoot.
"That's a lie, little mistress. It's very wicked to tell lies, so why don't you tell us the truth?" said the other Man, who was even taller than the other. He was more slightly built, and sounded less coarse and brutal, but something warned her that he was no less dangerous than the other. "There’s no need to make this unpleasant. Only tell us what you know, and we'll be on our way. Otherwise we might have to cut you up a bit to loosen your tongue. Where is your husband?"
"If he's not in Frogmorton, then I don't know!" she said in a panicky tone, shrinking away from the taller man only to find the burly one grinning at her as he blocked her way.
The rising voices brought the two hobbit shirriffs back into the room. The Sandheaver lad was carrying Bilbo's convex mirror, of all things. "Please, mistress, if you know anything at all, just tell us," he said, sounding a bit anxious himself.
"We know he's doing something he shouldn't, mistress. If you know what it is, tell us," said the other hobbit in a pronounced Marish accent.
Doing something he shouldn't? Adultery was something he shouldn't do, wasn't it? In spite of her terror, the only thought in her head was, here I go again, laughingstock of the Shire for another eighteen years
. It took no effort at all to let the tears spill over as she said, "If you must know, he's cheating on me! He's seeing that Coral Brockhouse and making a fool of me in front of the whole Shire. That's why he won't tell me where he goes, why he lies to me."
The burly Man snickered, but the taller one looked doubtful. "How can we be sure you aren't the one who's lying? We need proof to take back to the Chief."
"I haven't any," she whimpered. "If I had, I would have used it to make him stop, but I haven't any."
Behind the men, the two hobbits shifted uneasily. At least there was still enough left of the old Shire that they weren't comfortable with what they were doing. She didn't think it would be enough to help her, though.
"Cut her cheek. If that doesn't persuade her, then we'll have to cut off her nose. It'd be a shame for a pretty little thing like this to lose her looks over some rebel who's not long for the world anyway," said the burly one.
"It would at that," said the other, "but if she won't give us proof, we haven't any choice, have we?"
The first one began to draw his knife as the taller one seized her and locked his arm around her forehead to hold her still. It was too much to ask of her, too much, and they were certain to find the note sooner or later, but she couldn't tell. Angelica sagged in his grasp, sobbing hopelessly.
The Sandheaver lad grabbed the man's hand and said, "Stop! There's no need of that. She's told you all she knows."
The man looked down at him sceptically. "We have to make certain."
"I'm certain already," he said, and looked over at the fellow from the Marish. He held up the mirror and said, "She's Angelica Baggins, or was before she married, at any rate."
The Marish shirriff's eyebrows went up. "Really? So that's Mad Baggins' famous mirror, is it? Then you're right. Angelica Baggins is too vain to risk her looks, and I daresay after all the talk she's heard about herself, she's none too anxious to start more of it. Another person might be lying, but not her."
Angelica hardly dared to breathe, but the Men seemed to be hesitating. They showed no sign of letting her go, but the anticipatory grin was fading from the burly one's face.
Sandheaver pressed into the gap in their resolve. "If she knew anything, she'd have told us the minute you threatened her face. She's so vain that old Bilbo gave her this in hopes of putting her off admiring herself in the mirror all the time. Like Carloman said, everyone in the Shire knows that story. There's no need to take it any further and risk getting folk worked up."
The taller Man cocked an eyebrow. "That was how many years ago now? Plenty of time for a person to change."
"For pity's sake, look at her! Who else have you seen lately who's still willing to waste potatoes to make starch for her collars? She hasn't changed."
"You know what the Chief said," added the fellow from the Marish. "'Don't give them an excuse to fight.' That's what this would be. We know she's telling the truth, and so will everyone else who hears the story. Cut her up and all we'll get is more rebels."
It seemed as if an hour passed before the tall Man let go of her. She thought he still looked uncertain, but the hobbits' argument had been enough to tip the balance.
"Very well, but I want this place searched down to the last knothole," he said.
Fastolph was safely on his way when Aldo returned home around sunset. He kept to the hedgerows till he was within sight of their hole, when he froze. An overturned dresser drawer hung from the gatepost, and one of the baby's gowns was blowing down the lane.
Angelica and the baby!
As if he'd never known caution, he sprang out of the hedgerow and raced to the gate. He slid to a halt, staring in horror at Angelica where she sat in the front garden. His proud and proper wife sat in the mud amidst the trampled stalks of larkspur, gazing into the old curved mirror. It was the one that she kept buried deep in the lumber-room, the one Mosco had warned him never to mention unless he was prepared for a tantrum. They must have done something dreadful to bring her to this
, he thought. Hesitantly, he went closer. The gate squawked as he opened it, and she lifted her head and smiled at him.
"You really ought to grease that thing, you know."
It really looked like a genuine Angelica smile, but he couldn't shake off the terror entirely. The Chief's Men had obviously torn their hole apart, and done who knows what to Angelica and the baby, and here she sat in the mud, staring at herself in the mirror that she'd always loathed. It wasn't natural. "Where is Rosa?" he finally managed to ask.
Her smile widened as she watched him. "She's at Mother's, and I'm fine, truly I am. They turned out every cupboard and drawer in the hole, and I doubt there's even a baby spoon left of our silver, but they didn't hurt me. And we have Uncle Bilbo and his wretched mirror to thank for it."
She rose and drew him inside, sat him down in the jumble of their spare bedroom (which had no window to permit eavesdropping) and told him what had happened there that afternoon. "So be prepared to have everyone pointing fingers at us," she concluded. "I wish I could have thought of something less humiliating, but that was the best I could do. Just promise me that I didn't accidentally tell the truth."
Perhaps next week or next month, the gossip and snickering would wear a little thin but right now, he was too relieved and amazed to complain. He had always loved Angelica, but he'd never suspected she had anything like this in her. He grinned at her fondly and said, "It's better than I had any right to expect out of a call from the Chief's men. And your story was a lie from start to finish. Coral is ... well, Coral is a lot of things, but that's not one of them."
"I don't know exactly what you were up to and I won't ask, but you're out of it now, aren't you?" she asked.
Aldo nodded regretfully. "If they already suspect me enough to search the house, I'm more of a danger than a help to the others. I'm out, for everyone's safety." He lifted her feet onto his lap and began to brush the drying mud out of the curls when another thought struck him.
He nudged the mirror, now lying half-forgotten on the floor, and asked, "What were you looking at in the mirror? You were so intent on it that I thought you must be seeing into the future."
She smiled a little and said sadly, "Not the future, the past. Bilbo's party, the fun we had when we were children, that sort of thing. I was thinking about how it was when we didn't have to be afraid all the time and watch every word. I miss those times so much! I hate to think about what kind of Shire Rosa will live in." She leaned against his side and sighed. He pulled her close, but after a few moments, she drew back a little ways to look at him.
"You know," she said, "you might be right about seeing the future after all. I'm sure those two hobbits didn't entirely believe me, but they convinced the Men to leave me alone anyway. They still have some limits. Maybe the Shire isn't broken past mending yet, if we can only get a chance."
"I hope the chance comes soon," said Aldo.
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.