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The Proposition, Part One: A Proposition from the Thain
The gentle rapping that came at the door was startling as well as unexpected, late as it was. Hobbits in the Woody End had taken a page out of their Marish neighbours’ book, so to speak, and barred or barricaded their doors at night these days, what with Men appearing more and more often. These were not the kind of Men who were welcome in the Shire, such as tinkers and wandering merchants, nor were they the kind who were tolerated, like the grim-faced cloaked fellows who were seen less often, but seemed to do no harm, and even did some good on occasion, such as rescuing a hobbit who’d fallen down an abandoned well, or presenting a lost child to some member of a party of searchers, before disappearing without much more time than a word of thanks might take.
No, these were another sort of Man altogether, and though the word “ruffian” had not yet come into common usage, it was soon to become a byword within the Bounds of the Shire as well as Outside.
Dark had fallen, and the hobbits of the Woody End had learned that it was better not to open their doors after dark. Hally the Woodcarver had even contrived a sort of bar that he used to fasten his door shut, when all the day’s tasks were done and all his family were safe inside. They still kept to the custom of placing a turned-down lamp in the window (though lamp oil had grown dear, and it was more likely fuelled with rendered fat than purchased oil), but as to the likelihood that a door would open to a benighted stranger, well, that had grown rather less, lately.
‘Who is it?’ Hally called through the door, hand tightening on the handle of his axe. He motioned his wife to keep well away, to remain in the doorway to their little daughters’ bedroom, in point of fact. Further, he whispered to the little lads, hovering in the door to their own bedroom, to join their sisters. He didn’t know how they’d keep the children safe, if it were a rogue Man on the other side of the door, but it would be easier for Rosemary to escape with the lot of them, breaking the bedroom window if she had to, though she was great with child and might not be able to get far enough away if ruffianly Men were determined to give chase.
‘Open the door, Hally,’ came the soft reply. The voice was familiar somehow, if not immediately identifiable.
Perhaps not identifiable to Hally, but Rosemary gave a gasp and stumbled forward. ‘Ferdi!’
Her brother, once dear to her; still dear to her, as a matter of fact, only nowadays secretly so. Hally’s Rose had been disowned by her family, the Tooks, when she’d chosen not to marry the most powerful Took of all, the Thain – Ferumbras, it had been, old enough to be her father, or even her grandfather, but desperate for a wife and heir, his key to freedom from the chains of love and obligation his mother had forged over his lifetime. Instead of accepting the match, Rosemary had run away, had allowed herself to be handfasted to Hally as a measure of safety, had eventually married the woodcarver.
For Ferdi to openly visit the forest Bolgers was to risk being disowned himself, cast out of the clan of the Tooks, and so while he still visited, he visited in secret. Since the disappearance of the current Thain’s son, Ferdi’s visits had all but ceased – he’d come during Yuletide, to bring presents for the little ones, but that had been the only time between the end of September and now, early in the new year. For him to come again, so soon, was unexpected.
Hally leaned his axe against the wall, though he wished he could manage both crossbar and axe. He lifted the heavy bar from its supports and swung the door open, still not completely convinced that this was not a trick. A tall figure (tall for a hobbit, that is) slipped inside, pushing the door quickly shut behind himself. Hally needed no urging to put the crossbar back in place, but once this was accomplished, he was rather at a loss.
Rosemary had no such problem. She threw her arms about Ferdi with a repetition of her brother’s name, and then grabbed his arms to put him away from her, staring into his shadowy face. ‘What are you doing here, this time of night?’ she said, stern older sister and no longer welcoming. ‘What are you doing, wandering the Wood at this hour? Don’t you know that times are dangerous?’
Ferdi had the temerity to shush her. ‘Keep your voice down!’ he said, and when Hally moved to take the lamp from the window, to turn it up and shed some light on matters, he gestured in negation. ‘Leave it!’
‘But it’s dark!’ Hally said.
‘Darkness suits dark matters,’ Ferdi said, and turning back to Rosemary, he added, ‘It’s good to see you, too, Rosie.’
Rosemary spluttered, but Ferdi simply took her by the arm and guided her to the table, scrubbed clean after dinner and washing up were finished, and now covered with a cloth, a jug of dried flowers in the center and the chairs and benches, also of Hally’s making, drawn up neatly all around. ‘Sit yourself down, sister,’ he said. ‘You worry me, standing there, and so close to your time.’
Rosemary would have protested, but Hally added his support. ‘Yes, Rose-love, sit, do.’
Rosemary took a chair, reluctantly, and looked over to the children, still huddled in the door to the girls’ room. ‘To bed, children!’ she called softly. ‘You may greet your Uncle Ferdi on the morrow…’
‘I’ll greet them now,’ Ferdi said unexpectedly, going over to give each a hug and lay a kiss upon each curly crown, before shooing them all off to bed. He returned to the table and motioned to Hally to take a seat.
They sat huddled close together, for Ferdi spoke in a near whisper and the others felt a need to follow suit.
‘I have a proposition for you,’ he said.
‘A proposition,’ Rosemary echoed, while Hally tilted his head, the better to listen, for he felt as if his tongue were tied in his mouth. Dark matters?
Ferdi leaned forward and dropped his voice even lower. ‘Did you hear about the Crowing Cockerel?’
Hally found his voice. ‘The Men – Lotho’s Men – have been closing the inns, we’ve heard that. The Golden Perch in Stock was closed down, just last week, on some sort of trumped-up charge, that the landlord was sugaring his beer or somewhat…’
‘Aye,’ Ferdi said, ‘And the Cockerel was burnt to the ground, about the same time.’
At the Bolgers’ concerted gasp, he nodded solemnly. ‘I was there at the time,’ he said. ‘’Twas a mercy that no hobbits were within, at the time. As it stands, Lotho’s closed all the inns outside of the Tookland.’
‘And in the Tookland?’ Rosemary said.
Ferdi smiled grimly. ‘His… Big Men have suffered… mishaps, the last day or two, when they’ve tried,’ he said. ‘Travelling in the Tookland appears to be… unlucky, at least if you’re a Man.’
‘Ah,’ Hally said, light beginning to dawn. ‘And how long d’you think it’ll be, before Lotho notices?’
‘I imagine he’ll be noticing any day now,’ Ferdi said, and then he put his hand on Rosemary’s. ‘That’s why I’m here.’
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