It takes more than soil to mend the Shire

Morgan Feldman presents us with the last of the Anniversary issue’s three lovely Shire stories.

Sunsets were a sight to see in the Shire, especially in winter when the hills gleamed golden in the fading light. The streets grew quiet: not silent, for birds still chirped as they settled into their nests and field mice still scurried from hedge to hedge, but a hush stilled the world enough that a lone wanderer could indulge in some peaceful thinking quite uninterrupted. Or so Frodo Baggins thought to himself as he climbed the earthen stairs to the Cottons’ small burrow.

The steps were bathed in shadow, but he had walked them enough to know where to set his feet. It was not long before he arrived at the door and turned the pale knob.

The door didn’t budge. He tried once more before remembering the Cottons had taken to locking their door these days. With Saruman’s damage still being repaired and several Ruffians still unaccounted for, fear and tension was high in the Shire: too high, for Frodo’s comfort. It wasn’t natural for hobbits to be so on edge, so suspicious, and it pained him to see them so. If the former tranquility were ever to be restored to the Shire, they would have to put this fear and hostility behind them.

“Mr. Baggins!” came a shout from behind. Frodo turned to see Shiriff Robin Smallburrow running up the path, gasping for breath.

“Hullo, Robin!” He greeted the Shiriff with a tired frown. In the short time since Frodo had been appointed Deputy Mayor, he and Robin had spent a great many hours together, mostly when they ran into problems with a Sheriff overstepping his boundaries. When Robin came to him unexpected, the news was always bad. “What’s the matter?”

“Sorry to bother you so late and all, but there’s been some trouble at the Ivy Bush after you left. Hyacinth Bracegirdle is refusing to serve Ted Sandyman, you see, since he did her family nothing but ill when he was working for Lotho—or Sharkey, as it were.”

Frodo’s frown deepened. Every time things seemed to be mending, some feud tore them up again. He was beginning to think the work would never be finished. With a wistful glance towards a window that revealed the Cottons’ cosy sitting room, he let out a small sigh and turned his back to their door. Rest would have to wait: there was work to be done.

Frodo followed Robin down a winding road to the ivy-covered arch of the Ivy Bush Inn. Out front, a few wooden tables were scattered between old barrels sprouting flowers. Smoke bellowed from the chimney and footsteps clamoured within. It was difficult to believe that, mere weeks ago, the same building had been deserted save for scampering rats and fluttering insects. Now it was as loud and lively as Frodo remembered from his youth, though the usual laughter and cheer was replaced with vile shouts and belligerent hollers that pierced the night with wrath.

Robin grimaced. “What did I tell you? There’s trouble, alright.”

Frodo merely nodded and quickened his steps. Inside, the air warmed significantly. A long wooden bar stretched across the left wall. Behind it stood a young maiden he recognized as Hyacinth Bracegirdle (though it had been some years since they’d last met, and in that time she had nearly doubled in both height and width). She was leaning forward with her fist on the bar and a scowl on her face. Across from her Ted Sandyman stood, red-faced and vengeful, amidst a pile of overturned stools.
A crowd was gathered around them, scattered in several large misshapen clumps. The elders were muttering to themselves while the younger hobbits were shouting over one another, desperate to be heard.

“Come on, it’s just a drink!” someone shouted. “Let him have it!”

“Don’t you dare!” cried another. “He’s caused enough trouble, he ought to know better than to show his face ‘round here!”
A series of ‘aye’s and applause broke through the crowd. Miss Hyacinth Bracegirdle gave a smug smile and threw her rag down against the counter. But Ted Sandyman wasn’t about to give in that easily. He snatched it up and squeezed it between his fist. “Now listen here, you no good pig—”

“That’s enough, Sandyman.” Robin Smallburrow stepped forward and snatched the fuming hobbit’s arm.

“Take your hand off me, Cock-robin! If I don’t get served, you don’t either. How many people did you take to the Lockholes, eh? Don’t I remember you helping escort Lobelia? And what about that Grubb lad you kicked out in the street? Didn’t you steal his wines?”

“Under your orders, Sandyman!” Robin clenched his fist and raised it to strike, but Frodo stepped forward and gave a firm shake of his head. Robin let his hand fall to his side, scowling.

The others, having noticed Frodo’s presence, turned to him at once, their words tumbling over one another in a jumble. Some, it seemed, were happy to provide him with a full account of the confrontation compete with their own personal commentary, while others demanded to know just what he proposed to do about such “an awful fuss.”

The result was an ambush of words even the most attentive hobbit would buckle beneath. Frodo raised his hands up in a sign of surrender though he pressed forward through the crowd. Hobbits parted on either side of him, their shouts quieting to whispers until he could distinguish one from another.

“He’ll teach Sandyman a lesson alright,” someone muttered on his right, just as someone on his left remarked it was a shame Merry Brandybuck hadn’t come. Ignoring the comment, Frodo stepped further into the circle that had now cleared around the bar.

Sandyman’s face twisted into a look of anger and disgust. “Come to gloat have you? Tell me I told you so? Well, save your words, Baggins. I was just leaving.”

Frodo stepped between him and the exit. “I can’t say that it wouldn’t please me, Sandyman, to never see you again. But as Deputy Mayor I have an obligation to all Shire folk, including you. If you truly wish to stay, you have every right to remain in the Shire, as long as you follow the law. Last I heard, you were guilty of no more than perhaps a few crude words at my friends’ expense—” Here the crowd interrupted with wild objections.

Frodo waited patiently for them to die down while Sandyman seized the moment. “Guilty?” he spat. “It’s you whose guilty, lad! You and your odd friends who disappear when the going gets tough and ride back just in time to save the day. Where were you really, I wonder? How can we be sure this all wasn’t really some cockeyed plan of yours to take over the Shire?”

“Now hold it right there, Sandyman!” Mr. Cotton forced his way to the front of the circle, red-faced and livid. “You’re got no right going around making such outrageous accusations! There ain’t a soul in here who doubts Master Baggins’ loyalty, and just as few that trusts yours. Mr. Frodo here has done nothing but help, and you—you’ve done nothing but stir up trouble!”

The crowd was quick to agree with Mr. Cotton. Sandyman heard their cheers and taunts, and saw well that the vast majority’s allegiance lay with the Deputy Mayor and his friends. “Fine, take his side!” he cried. “You’ll see soon enough, when you lose your jobs and homes, and are left to fend for yourselves in the streets! See how well you survive without Sharkey looking after you!” He leaned over the bar and spat at Hyacinth’s feet.

A collective gasp ran through the room. Robin stepped up and reached for Sandyman’s shoulder. “Alright, Sandyman. You’ve had your fun! Say goodbye to the Ivy Bush—this is the last time you’ll be seeing her.”

“Wait.” Frodo’s words caused the Sheriff to frown, but he didn’t let go of Sandyman though Frodo continued, “I’m sorry you lost your mill, but you know as well as I that it was doing more damage than good. But you’re a strong hobbit, so it seems. If it’s work and a roof you want, there’s still work to be done and hobbits willing to shelter those who need it. The Cottons could use some assistance fixing Bagshot Row, if you’d like. I’ll see you’re paid as well as the others.”

Mr. Cotton gaped at Frodo. He seemed about to protest, then turned to Sandyman to access the scoundrel’s reaction. Sandyman’s eyes narrowed, alight with a blaze as he tried to find the fault in Frodo’s words. The last thing he wanted was to give into someone like Frodo, but he would be a fool not to take him up on such an offer. If indeed, the offer was genuine.

Frodo turned to Hyacinth with a polite smile. “What happened this past year was Sharkey’s fault,” he said, keeping his eyes on hers though he raised his voice so the crowd could hear. “Sharkey and his dreadful men. But they are gone now, and let us see that the last of our ill-will went with them.”

“They’re not all gone!” An old hobbit scoffed, pointing at Sandyman. “Not yet.”

Frodo turned to face the crowd, but otherwise ignored the interjection. A collective “hush” trickled through the crowd and it soon became so silent, Frodo could hear his words echo in the arched ceiling. “A war has been fought here. Never before have we faced something like this. I’d be lying if I told you I knew how to recover. But, I think, if we ever wish to see the Shire returned to what it once was, we have to stop fighting. Leave your grudges behind. Make amends where you can, and tolerance where that fails. Only then will the war truly be over.”

The hobbits shifted uncomfortably, fearing Frodo had picked up his uncle’s habit of making long speeches. They looked at one another, toying with the hope of hearing something magnificent and the fear of getting stuck listening to an hour of poetry. As such, they were both pleased and annoyed to see Frodo turn back to the bar where he met Hyacinth’s eyes with a smile and said, as merrily as if it were a night of celebration, “Three drinks, Hyacinth, if you would be so kind. One for me and my friends—” here he gestured to Sandyman and Mr. Cotton, “—so that we may drink to the end of this rift and cheer to the start of setting things right.”

Whether from guilt at her rash actions or the fact that every eye was on her, Hyacinth blushed. She stifled her embarrassment by sweeping her hair behind her shoulders and getting to work. Before long, she had three wooden mugs brimming with dark ale on the counter before her. Frodo handed the first to Sandyman. The hobbit scowled, clearly showing his disdain, but even he knew when to give in.

The second went to Mr. Cotton, who didn’t look the least bit pleased. He had never much cared for Sandyman, but after the cruel things the hobbit had done and said in previous months, he had begun to despise him. Nevertheless, if Sandyman was giving in, he certainly wasn’t going to be the one to protest. He raised the mug in a symbol of cheer and clashed it against Sandyman’s. They clashed so hard, Frodo feared the mugs would break, but they remained firm as the hobbits pulled them apart and drank from them.

Frodo gave them each a curt nod of approval. So there was hope for Sandyman yet. It pleased him to see so. He then ordered a round of ale for all present (to which he received such monumental shouts of gratitude, he wondered why he hadn’t thought of trying this in the first place). Within minutes, the rift seemed to mend. Sandyman was gathered amidst a group of loud and rather boisterous hobbits speaking of the “glory of the odd Bagginses’” which began with Bilbo’s remarkable party for his 111th birthday and continued here and there to all sorts of outlandish events, some of which were exaggerated or mistakenly accredited to Bilbo while others, Frodo concluded, were entirely fictional (such as Bilbo having attempted to hatch a dragon’s egg). Mr. Cotton returned to his friends in the corner having a quite chat and a peaceful smoke.

For nearly an hour, Frodo stood at the end of the bar, accepting various words of gratitude with the occasional nod or smile. Though he was the topic of much conversation, he hardly said a word himself, other than brief pleasantries and vague responses to prying questions. When he had stayed what seemed an appropriate amount of time, he set his drink on the counter, unfinished, and slipped outside.

The sun had gone. The moon lay hidden behind a cloud, but the sky was speckled with stars that lit his path in silver rays between patches of flickering lanterns. Frodo turned the corner and the clinks of mugs and reels of laughter faded beneath his footsteps.

There had been a time when Frodo enjoyed walking at night, when he had looked upon the shadowed trees with awe and the moonlit fields with delight. But all the trees in sight were felled with nothing but stumps or rotting wood and the fields were dry and limp. As he stared out at the darkened lands, he saw nothing more than a wavering scene that he could neither feel nor give meaning to, as distant as clouds in the sky.

A light rose behind Frodo, startling him from his thoughts. He turned and scuttered back, relaxing only when he saw Mr. Cotton.

“Sorry, Mr. Frodo, didn’t mean to startle you.” Mr. Cotton held up his lantern. “I didn’t see you there in the dark. What are you doing walking about without a light? It’s not safe, I tell you. Not safe at all. Then again, nothing seems to scare you warriors these days.”

“Except light.” Frodo smiled tiredly. “And if any of us is a warrior, it’s you. I saw the fighting you did here last month, and I must say you make a far greater opponent than I do.”

Mr. Cotton fidgeted at the compliment, trying hard to hide his smile. “Well, all I can say is, those Ruffians sure better not show their face around here or they’ll have the both of us to reckon with.”

Frodo pulled his eyes from the battlefield as Mr. Cotton clapped him on the back and led the way home. Perhaps, he thought, as the breeze picked up and pried the final clinging leaves from their branches, there was hope for the Shire after all.

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Spring comes to the Shire

Morgan Feldman kicks off the fiction content with the first of the three Shire stories that are in the 25th Anniversary issue:

As the first flush of spring graced the rolling hills of the Shire, four hobbits could be seen making their way down the slopes of Hobbiton. Meriadoc Brandybuck and Peregrin Took rode ahead in mail-shirts that gleamed silver and caught numerous eyes. They sang songs of merriment between bouts of laughter. Behind them rode their cousin, Frodo Baggins, whose thinning frame was hidden beneath a long grey cloak. He smiled at his neighbours as he passed, but his eyes looked distant, his gaze far away. Last came Samwise Gamgee, in simple hobbit clothes, humming a tune his gaffer had taught him long before he knew of elves or Rings or anything that lay beyond the borders of the Shire.

“Well, this seems just like old times!” Pippin said, finishing a song and reaching into his pocket for an apple. “The four of us off on an adventure!”

“Indeed.” Frodo said. “But I’ve had quite enough of adventures, I think.”

“Of the bad kind, I agree.” Merry gave his elder cousin an encouraging smile. “Have hope that there are only good ones from here! Pippin and I shall return for Sam’s wedding in May, and you shall have to find some excuse to come visit us in the summer! It’ll be your turn to get married next, dear Frodo, as you’re the oldest. Do you think you could find someone by next spring?”

Pippin hurried to swallow a mouthful of apple to add, “Really, Merry, I know our cousin is capable of exceptional deeds, but I think that task is quite beyond him!”

Frodo laughed, but didn’t reply. While Pippin’s jests were familiar, they had taken on a new tone. Once stemming from naiveté, they now seemed to veil worry, as if they were part of an act to please Frodo. Pippin had learned to control his tongue, and while Frodo admired his wit, he did not need it at his expense.

He turned his gaze to where the road led them around a slope to where the Battle of Bywater had taken place several months ago. His gaze grew distant and his face taut as he thought of all the hobbits and men who had fallen there. The others followed his gaze and fell silent as well.

After a while, Pippin shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “We ought to build a memorial here. A garden or something. To remember folk by, but also to make it less gloomy. It used to be beautiful here, remember Merry? Wasn’t this where we stopped to pick blackberries on the way to one of Bilbo’s birthday’s all those years ago?”

Merry nodded, lost in thought. To Frodo, he looked older, calmer, like a river after a great storm.

“There aren’t any blackberries now.” Sam frowned and scratched his head. “Nor any berries that I can see. But we’ll plant some as a start. I sprinkled a bit of that elven dust up on that hill there so hopefully something good will come of it.”

“It certainly will,” Merry said. “To think, we’ll have elven trees here in the Shire! Just wait until next spring—after this mess is fixed up, the land will be more splendid than ever.”

“I sure do hope so, Master Merry,” Sam muttered.

Frodo nodded his agreement and rode forward in silence. It was strange to think that this time, a year ago, he had been farther from home than ever before, that he had given up hope of ever returning. And yet here he was, with his friends at his side, riding as if nothing had changed.

But it had. The land had been mauled, broken and drained. Homes had been destroyed, rivers ruined. Worst of all, blood had been spilt in the Shire. That, Frodo believed, would take far longer to mend than Saruman’s scourging of the land.
“Well, Sam,” Pippin’s voice broke Frodo from his thoughts. “This is where we part ways.”

Frodo looked up and saw his pony leading him to where the four farthing stone shot up from a patch of wildflowers between perpendicular paths.

“Right,” said Sam. His face took on a look of determination as he pulled a small box from his pocket. “There’s something I want to do first.”

The others sat in their saddles, waiting patiently as they watched their friend trudge through the dirt path to the base of the stone. Merry and Pippin rubbed their arms, whistling fragments of old walking tunes. Frodo pulled his cloak tighter around him
A cool wind was rising, rocking the branches in great waves. Frodo kept his eyes on Sam, noticing one more how little his dear friend seemed to have changed. Standing there at the foot of the stone in a loose vest and faded trousers, Sam seemed such an ordinary hobbit, it was hard to imagine he had ever left the Shire. Yet he had. He had faced more pain and torment than any soul should ever have to face, done more for middle-earth than any hero of ancient songs or tale, and yet here he was standing in the centre of the Shire as if he had never left. Frodo could not help but marvel at the thought.

It seemed a long while Sam stood there, staring at the box, before he dumped the contents into his hand and cast them into the air, causing a shower of grey dust to scatter in the breeze.

Merry and Pippin cheered and Frodo clapped alongside them. Sam gave a sharp nod as if affirming something to himself before turning back to the others.

Frodo could not help but smile. Merry was right, the Shire would heal and flourish. Flowers would sprout from the barren fields and vines would cover felled trees and scarred trenches. It would be different, but just as beautiful. And his friends would be there to appreciate it.