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‘Can we have time to talk it over?’ Hally wanted to know.
Ferdi spread his hands apart. ‘Take all the time you need,’ he said. ‘Take the next hour, or even two.’ As the two stared at him in shock, he smiled. ‘So long as I can steal away an hour or more before the dawning, that I may be well hid in a hollow log or fork of a tree before the ruffians are out and about.’
‘Why not stay…?’ Rosemary said. ‘I thought…’
Ferdi shook his head. ‘I won’t stay, not any more, Rosie, for your sake, and for the children’s,’ he said. ‘No need for you to risk associating with a known Took.’ He drew a deep breath. ‘And Lotho’s Men would know me for a Took. They’ve been making a study of the matter. They have no liking for the Tooks… not after the Cockerel…’
‘You had something to do with burning the inn?’ Hally said.
Ferdi pursed his lips and shook his head, then smiled again, ruefully. ‘Let us simply say, Men burned the inn, to punish the actions of a few Tooks.’
‘And you were there,’ Rosemary said. ‘They know you?’
Ferdi shrugged. ‘I’m afraid that they do.’ He sighed. ‘It’s why I can no longer visit you openly, but why I must come by stealth, now and in future.’
Ferdi meet his sister’s gaze. ‘If you decide to do this thing,’ he said, ‘then someone must come to gather all the information you collect from Lotho’s… associates,’ he said. ‘I told the Thain it ought to be someone who is familiar with this area, so as not to endanger you or your family. At least, that is my hope.’
‘And so you would risk yourself,’ Hally said, ‘for as you said yourself, Lotho’s Men would know you on sight.’
Ferdi shrugged. ‘It’s a risk I’m willing to take.’
‘And how would you do this thing? How would you gather information, without being seen?’
‘I’d come in the night, as I did this night,’ Ferdi said. ‘I’ve been thinking about this. The days run in rhythm, wash day, and ironing, and mending…’
‘Market day,’ Rosie said, and made a face. There hadn’t been much in the market to speak of, lately. Lotho’s Men were making a name for themselves, of visiting the various town markets and seizing whole tables of goods in the name of their Chief, on some grounds or other, usually making up spurious charges about inferior wares. ‘Cleaning day, and baking day, and then of course the High day to end the week, and then we start over again.’
‘Aye,’ Ferdi said, ‘and if you’d a name for fine baking, as you do, and shared gladly with any passing Men, well, soon they’d come on your baking day without fail…’
‘What joy,’ Rosemary said wryly.
‘And then I’d be sure to come around, not on your baking day – though I’d be sad to miss the pleasure of your pastries, a sore trial to bear – but on your washday, perhaps, or ironing or mending day…’
‘Not washing or cleaning,’ Rosemary said. ‘I couldn’t abide having you underfoot.’
‘She always sends me out to the woods on those days,’ Hally agreed, momentarily distracted by practicalities.
‘Very well then, ironing day,’ Ferdi said. ‘I’ll know which day it is, because you’ll hang out the wash the day before.’
‘That could work,’ Rosemary said thoughtfully.
‘I cannot believe you’re considering this,’ Hally said. ‘And you, Ferdi, you say you’d be unable to show your face by daylight, for fear one of Lotho’s Men might recognise you.’
‘They would,’ Ferdi acknowledged. ‘Those who have seen me, have described me to the others, well enough that they should have little trouble knowing me, should they be in any position to behold my face.’
‘And what would they do to you, should they “behold” you?’ Hally said. ‘How would they… what was it you said? …”mistreat” you?’ He eyed Rosemary’s brother with grudging respect. ‘I had not heard of hobbits’ lives being threatened, but…’
‘Throw me in the Lockholes, at the very least,’ Ferdi said.
‘Lockholes?’ Hally said. ‘What are Lockholes?’
‘You hadn’t heard, yet,’ Ferdi said. ‘Well, if you take on this task, you’ll soon hear more than you ever wished.’
‘I don’t like the sounds of them, whatever they are,’ Rosemary put in.
‘No, you’d be wise in that.’
‘Then what are they?’ Hally wanted to know.
‘The old storage holes at Michel Delving,’ Ferdi said, which didn’t really explain anything, until he continued. ‘Mayor Will went to Bag End, to complain to Lotho about things his Men were doing, not long before the closing of the inns, and they threw him in a storage hole.’
‘Threw him in,’ Rosemary said in horror. ‘Was he badly hurt?’
‘Not hurt, not so far as we’ve been able to hear, anyhow,’ Ferdi said, ‘but they won’t let him go home again. They’re keeping him there, and not letting his wife or anyone else visit him, and who knows what sort of treatment he’s enduring?’
‘Mayor Will’s not all that young,’ Hally said. ‘It’s not right! It’s not proper! It’s not respectful, or…’
‘These are ruffians,’ Ferdi said. ‘What do they care about “right” or “proper” or “respect”, I ask you? And if they can mistreat an old hobbit, the Mayor, no less, what will they do to lesser hobbits as Lotho’s grip on the Shire grows stronger?’
‘What, indeed,’ Rosemary said under her breath, and she laid a hand on her swollen body, as if listening to the babe within, as if weighing the risks to herself, and to those that she loved.
And Hally drew a deep breath, suddenly afraid for her, and for their children, though curiously, not for himself. If he could, he’d send her to safety in the Tookland, her, and the children; and he’d stay, and gather information for the Thain, in the interest of a free Shire at some time in the future.
Rosemary looked searchingly into his face, as if divining his thoughts. ‘It wouldn’t work,’ she said. ‘They’d never trust you enough.’
‘I don’t take your meaning,’ he said.
Her eyes were sad, but she set her mouth in a firm line. ‘A mum, a little mum, and little children,’ she said, ‘they’d be disarmed by a mother, a foolish hobbit wife, blathering about them being away from home and mother, feeling sorry for them and baking special little cakes and fussing over them, sewing on lost buttons and fixing tears and such…’
‘O Rosie,’ Hally breathed. ‘’Twould be so dangerous…’
‘For the Shire,’ she said. ‘Surely that would be worth any price?’
‘The children,’ he whispered.
She took a shaking breath, but nodded. ‘If it had been my parents, forced to make such a choice,’ she said. ‘Well, I don’t know if I can say it in a way that makes sense, but I’d have been proud of them, now, as a mum myself, though they put my life in danger… though I lost my life, even, to try and make a difference… I don’t know how to put it…’
Hally nodded slowly, his heart wrung within him. ‘I understand you, Rose,’ he said. ‘I understand very well.’ He took a deep breath, and another, and he grasped her hand very tight. ‘I don’t deserve you,’ he said. ‘You’re ever so much braver than I.’ And he grieved for their children, for he could not see how they might be protected if they chose to do this, and yet how could they not do this thing? If they shirked this duty, if every hobbit should seek after safety, then there would in the end be safety for none. Not even the children. Most especially not the children.
Rosemary arose with difficulty from her place, taking up the paper with her, and went to the hearth, where the fire was banked. She poked at it until she found a few live coals, and she thrust the paper, the pass that guaranteed her safety in the Tookland, that she should not be banished should she seek refuge there with her children, thrust it into the coals and held it there. In silence, they watched the paper begin to glow at one point where it touched a coal, glow, and brown about the edges of the glowing part, and then suddenly a flame flickered, grew stronger, and spread, until the entire paper was consumed, and fell to ash.
A/N: So... what do you think? End it here? Or continue?
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