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The Proposition, Part Two: Setting the Plan in Motion
The forest Bolgers spent the next hour discussing plans with their guest. Ferdi had evidently given the matter much thought. ‘…and if you never speak of it in the children’s hearing,’ he was saying, over a mug of steaming tea, for Rosemary had stirred up the fire and put the kettle on, that they might have a warming cup to go on. The children were all asleep again – Ferdi had made sure of it while Hally was pouring the steaming water into the teapot Rosemary had readied before slicing bread, and putting out butter and two kinds of Wood-berry jam (wild strawberries and blackberries grew in abundance in the Woody End, along with a few other sorts, but these were Hally’s favourites) and a crock of pungent, crumbly goats’ milk cheese.
‘It’ll all be a game to them,’ Rosemary said, nodding. ‘They’ll hear only what we intend them to hear,’ and she gulped, ‘and of course, what the Men say – well, perhaps they might be a bit more polite in the company of little children.’
‘And perhaps not,’ Hally said, ‘but that is a risk we must take. We may, at least, teach the children which of the ruffians’ words are not appropriate for well-brought-up children to repeat…’ and he smiled, albeit grimly, at Rosemary’s shudder.
‘You’ll need at least one room that cannot be overseen,’ Ferdi continued.
‘The pantry,’ Hally said. ‘It’s windowless.’
Ferdi shook his head. ‘If you’re spending too much time in the pantry, and the ruffians notice, they might start to question,’ he said. ‘I happen to know they make a practice of peering in at the windows, to see what the hobbits within are doing, and if there’s anything within a smial that might be worth their while to gather.’
‘You have been the busy one,’ Rosemary said. ‘You’ve been watching Lotho’s Men watching the Shirefolk, have you?’
‘Ferdibrand Took, sneak and spy, at your service,’ Ferdi said, putting down his bread-and-cheese to bow from his seat, and then picking it up again. ‘Ah, Rosie, I hope you don’t give all your fine baking to Lotho’s Men, but save a little for any wandering sneak that might darken your doorway on occasion…’
‘I don’t know,’ Rosemary said, her nose in the air. ‘Sneaks must take their chances, I suppose, along with everyone else.’
‘So if not the pantry, then what?’ Hally said. ‘The woodshed is windowless, of course…’
‘But also not practical,’ Ferdi said, ‘for again, it’s the same problem, if any lurking Men see you spending more time than would be usual in the woodshed…’
Hally shook his head. ‘And here I thought I was providing so well for my family,’ he said. ‘Setting aside a little each month, that we might have a window in the main room, and one in each bedroom, and glazing is so dear, and yet – nothing is too fine for my Rose.’ He shared a smile with his wife, his own rather wistful, for he had an idea of what was coming.
Ferdi nodded and spoke on, regret in his tone, and apology. ‘I’m that sorry, brother,’ he said, ‘but I must ask you to have some sort of accident or other, something plausible…’
‘Leaving the shutters open of a windy night probably won’t suit,’ Hally said.
‘No, for you always close the shutters when you go to bed,’ Ferdi said. ‘Everything must always be “as usual” from here on out.’
‘I’ll think of something,’ Hally said. ‘Perhaps my brother Gundy can help me. He can play a game of “throw and catch” with Robin, perhaps, and throw too high, and hit the window instead. It wouldn’t be unlike him.’ At Ferdi’s shake of the head, he said, ‘He’ll have to be let in on the secret. He’ll never believe that we’ve gone over to Lotho’s side. He knows us too well.’
‘I don’t know,’ Ferdi said slowly.
‘But he can talk against us with all the neighbours, and the good hobbits of the area, as far as Stock, when he goes into the town on a market day,’ Hally said. ‘He’d be a great help in turning folk against us. To think of it, brother set against brother, such a bitter thing… and if he says he tried to warn us against being friendly with Lotho’s louts, and we turned a deaf ear, well…’
‘Hally’s stubbornness is well known in these parts,’ Rosemary said with a smile for her husband. ‘I’m sure Gundy can make them believe him.’ Why, the brothers had gone an entire month without talking to one another, when they’d had a serious disagreement some time ago, and everyone had known about it and speculated on when peace would break out again, and if it would. Which, to Rosemary’s relief, it had, at last. But it had been a sad time in her life, and now they were setting out to deliberately turn all their friends and neighbours against them.
But it was for the Shire… She sighed, and Hally patted her hand. ‘I know,’ he said. ‘I know.’
‘So you break the glass in the window,’ Ferdi said. ‘And glass is dearer than ever, and may even be difficult to obtain, the way things are – I do believe that Lotho has bought up all the glassworks in the Shire, except the one in the Tookland, if I’m not mistaken.’
‘So…?’ Hally said, but he thought he knew what Ferdi was getting at.
‘So you put up oiled parchment, or paper if you must, but parchment would be thicker and better, to my way of thinking. It’ll let the light through, but a passerby won’t be able to see into the room.’
‘They’d still be able to hear,’ Hally said.
Ferdi nodded, ‘So anything that you don’t want heard, is spoken in a whisper,’ he said, ‘and preferably when the shutters are closed and bolted, and still you’d speak in the barest whisper, just to be sure.’
‘Which would be a protection for the children, as well, that they hear no more than a murmur, and none of the words,’ Rosemary said. It made her feel tense, just discussing these matters. She shrugged her shoulders to ease them. All must be done as matter of factly as possible, and she must always seem relaxed, even if her insides were congealing with fear, from here on out. It would be a help to the children, too, she realised, and safety for them, for if she were afraid, they’d know it, and they’d be afraid, and that would be a danger to all.
‘And you leave the door half-open,’ Ferdi said, leaning forward, ‘as you always do in the daytime…’
‘How do you know that?’
Ferdi sighed. ‘Lotho’s Men aren’t the only ones who’ve been peeping in at windows,’ he said. ‘I had to make sure we could make this work, before endangering you and your children.’ He shook his head. ‘If there was no hope that you could pull this off, then I wasn’t going to propose it.’
‘What would you have done?’ Hally wanted to know.
‘I would have insisted that you all remove yourselves to the Tookland,’ Ferdi said. ‘If I’m reading things right, if Thain Paladin is right, from putting together all the information we’ve been gathering, well… Things are going to get pretty nasty in the Shire proper, and sooner rather than later.’ He shrugged his shoulders to ease the tension in him. ‘Immediately Lotho had Mayor Will safely locked away, his Men began “gathering” from the wealthier families,’ he said, ‘with the excuse that they’re gathering in order to share with those who are less well off. The strange thing is, however, that none of the gathered stuffs seem to find their way to hobbits who are less well off.’
Hally made as if to speak, and then subsided, motioning for Ferdi to go on.
‘As a matter of fact, waggons driven by Men, and piled high under canvas coverings, have become a frequent sight in the roads leading out of the Shire,’ Ferdi said, and Hally nodded. He’d seen a few, himself, and that was what he had been about to say.
‘The gathering has been spreading rapidly,’ Ferdi said. ‘And from what we’ve seen, it’s not just the wealthiest families who are being “asked” to contribute as at first. No, Lotho’s Men are spreading their efforts, and it’ll only get worse, I fear.’
‘And you think they’ll come to the poorer folk of the Woody End, sooner or later?’
Ferdi smiled and patted Rosemary’s hand. ‘I’m counting on it.’
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