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Written for Marigold's Challenge 25.
Title: They Also Serve
They Also Serve
If it wasn't for Rosie Cotton, and for the fact that my old gaffer needs me, I think I'd just lay me down and die, I really would. Dad's been awful sick, the past few weeks. It started with a cough, just a little one, for he held it in, not wanting me to worry, and o' course he never let on that it was paining him. Said 'twas the lack of pipe-weed, catching up with him at last. But we both know it's this draughty house, built so badly the wind blows in through the cracks and whistles in the stove pipe. Not that there's wood to burn, even with all the trees they've cut down.
Ever since Sam's been gone to Crickhollow and then up and disappeared altogether, or so they say, I keep hoping he'll get word somehow of how things are, and come back. I think on him, every night when I pull up the thin blanket over my head to shut out the wind that finds its way through the cracks in the walls, and I send good thoughts his way, for surely he must need a good thought or two, wherever he is. He must be facing danger ahead, and more danger behind, or he'd be back by now from wherever it is he went with Mr. Frodo.
That day he left, and that Black-cloak Man came round asking after "Baggins" I had a terrible bad feeling, and so I think good thoughts for Sam and send them after him, wishes for his safety, and hopes that he hasn't forgotten us as has been left behind.
I wish I could get word to Ham or Hal or Daisy or May, but there's no travelling allowed and no post, and it's just me and Dad here. If it wasn't for the kindness of the Cottons I don't know what we would do.
It's no use longing for Bagshot Row; it's all dug up and gone, Mum's garden, Dad's taters and all else, save Bag End, and they've made the garden beds into rubbish heaps and put up ugly sheds that block the windows. How I 'member me, bringing pots of fresh-made strawberry jam to Mr. Frodo, last Spring before he went away and took our Sam with him. The windows sparkled, and the breeze carried the mingled scents of the flowers, and Tom Cotton had asked me to walk out with him, and I was never so happy in all my life.
I went out to gather what herbs I could, for Dad's coughing fits grew so bad he'd go red in the face and gasping, and there's no going out without a "pass" any more these days, and even so a lass takes her life and virtue into her hands to stir outside her door. If it wasn't for Rosie Cotton...
I don't know how she manages, but she comes every week or two, a basket of rags on her arm, looking frightful. The last time she came, her eye was blacked and she was missing a tooth and her clothes all ragged-like and dirty and dirt on her face and she smelled as bad as a goat. I doubt any ruffian would come near enough to get a whiff of her and come any closer, close enough to bother her, much less tease her for a kiss, those nasty Men! I've heard worse, and Dad won't let me go out no more... any more. I'm forgetting what Mr. Bilbo taught Sam, and Sam taught me, how to talk proper and all such. It's just Dad and me, sitting by the cold stove, talking over things as we remember them.
But now I've started to write things down in the bound book Mr. Frodo gave me for a last present when he went away. Mostly happy things, like Mum's fresh apple tart, so good that Mr. Bilbo would knock upon the door to say how good it smelled, cooling on the windowsill, and she'd always ask him in and cut him a large slice and send him home with another. 'Twas his apples, after all. Dad always got a bushel to keep when we picked the apples in the orchard for the Bagginses.
Did I say a basket of rags? Well, yes, but the rags, they're only the top part, you see. Rosie has a pass to go to Bywater market every market day (Market, huh! Naught for sale but the ruffians like to make it look as though life goes on. I don't know just why.) to bring rags to the rug-maker. I don't know how she manages to come all the way here with a pass that says "market" but she does. I don't suppose she'd manage if we still lived on the Row. This shed is not above a mile from the end of Bywater, and that helps. Who'd've thought the ruffians would do us a service?
And under the rags she'll have a roasted chicken, and a jar of calves-foot jelly, and another of lamb broth, and a few vegetables that haven't yet been "gathered". At that it's more food than the ruffians allot us for a week of eating. I don't know what we'd do... in the old days we'd've et up that chicken in just one sitting, but now we stretch it out to two or three days, and then I cook the scraps into soup with the little bit of cooking wood the ruffians allot us. Good enough for two or three good fires a week, perhaps. Some folk might stretch the wood out with poorly little fires, but you can't really cook that way. I cook up griddle cakes and soup and bake bread with those two good fires, and we eat cold food the rest of the time.
The light is going and my old Dad's already snoring. O' course he is--I would hardly be writing this if he were awake. He never did hold with Sam learning his letters, and if he knew Sam had taught me he'd be right put out.
Dad's cough is some better. Rosie brought herbs from the farm, now that it's too hard for me to get out. Really I feel like one of those poor Lockholes hobbits, but at least I can see the Sun through these unnatural square windows. They may be badly made, and let in the wind, but at least they let in the light. They're not glass windows, o' course, that would be too good a thing for "Shire rats", but greased paper. Still, the light comes in, and it's a mercy that ruffians passing by cannot see in, for they'd want to know where the chicken came from, and such. As it is, we pry up a loose board in the floor, to bury what leavings we absolutely cannot stomach in the dirt under.
Did you know if you boil chicken bones long enough they'll be soft enough to chew? And vegetable peelings make a broth o' sorts, and if you close your eyes when you drink the soup, you can pretend the peelings are Mum's homemade noodles.
Rosie had been looking glum as anyone else, since they closed all the inns and hauled Mayor Will off to the Lockholes, but today she seemed different. Her other eye was blacked, that wasn't it--I mentioned a blackened eye before, and forgot to say it was her dad that did it. He didn't blacken her eye, not with his fist, but with smudges from a piece of charred wood. She looks a sight, with her front teeth coloured black and her black eye and dirty face, but under it all she was cheerful today.
We sat down for our usual chat over tea--she and Tom gather weeds as they're walking and we brew them in our day's allotment of water over a small fire--and Tom and my old Dad got to talking and she leaned over and said, 'It's going to be all right, Mari!'
My mouth must've dropped open, for she reached her dirty hand to my chin and pushed up before Dad noticed, and I closed my mouth again and stared. I was sure she'd lost her wits. She laughed, ever so soft, and Dad broke off what he was sayin' 'bout taters to ask her about the joke. She spun a tale of how a couple of those ruffian louts came up to her and Tom to ask for their "pass" but when they smelled the goat smell they waved Tom and her on without even looking at the paper, muttering about dirty rats.
When Dad and Tom went back to talking, she leaned close again. 'Sam's all right,' she whispered. I sat up straight as could be, but managed not to shout out loud. We don't want any ruffians knocking at the door, demanding to know what all the noise is about. Door's so poorly made it would likely fall in.
'You've heard from him?' I hissed, and questions tumbled out faster'n I could ask them, even. 'Where is he? What's...?'
She put a hand on my mouth and as quickly she put it back down in her lap before Dad could see. 'Don't tell the gaffer,' she said. 'But he's all right, and he'll be coming home.'
'When?' I whispered. I thought perhaps Dad, deaf as he is,†and Tom could hear my heart pounding. Sam's been gone so long, and no word, and I know he'd've sent word if only he could, and if he knew what was going on and that they'd dug up Bagshot Row he'd never have stayed away if he were living and in his right mind. I was sure he was dead.
My hand is shaking so, I can hardly write the words. O Dad and I have talked, sometimes, about Sam and where he might have gone. 'That's what comes o' mixing with your betters,' he'd always say, but I've seen him wipe a tear away when he thought I wasn't looking.
I was sure he was dead. I don't think Rosie ever gave up hope, but like I said, she was looking grim, the last few weeks.
But today, even the blackened eye was sparkling, and I found enough hope down deep in the bottom of my heart to believe her. I've been thinking good thoughts for Sam's sake, all along, all the good things I remember, but it's been hard. What I really was doing, the past few weeks, was trying to keep him alive in my heart, for it seemed that so long as I could remember him, I'd not lose him.
It has been weeks since I wrote the last, and things is grim and grimmer in the Shire. They've cut down all the trees on the Avenue, Rosie says. It almost makes me content that I must stay indoors, in my ramshackle shed of a Lockhole, behind my greased-paper window, for the Shire remains in my mind as I remember it.
Sometimes I slip out when Dad is sleeping, for a fresh breath and a glimpse of the stars. Mr. Frodo loved the stars, he did, in a way that made me think of elvish things. (Stuff and nonsense, Dad would grumble when Sam would tell us one o' Mr. Bilbo's or Mr. Frodo's stories, but he'd listen all the same.) The stars make me think o' Mr. Frodo, and I wonder if he lives, still, or if only Sam has come through, whatever it is he's come through. Rosie won't say, and when I try to ask her she shushes me, with a look at my old gaffer, and squeezes my hand.
She and Tom can only come every so often, now. It's just as well, for we'd been cutting up Mum's old dresses, that Dad couldn't bring himself to give away when she died, we'd been cutting them up to add to the rags in Rosie's basket so it didn't look as if she left off anything when she visited our shack. It's the sort of thing a ruffian would notice, if the basket seemed piled high with rags when she went in, but the rags was half-gone when she went out again. Anyhow, there's not much left to cut up, not even any more of Samwise's clothes. We cannot very well go unclad, and so our clothes, worn and likely to become rags themselves sooner than later, must stay whole as can be managed.
When there's no food at all left, and Rosie and Tom haven't come, Dad'll go round to the Cottons', all against The Rules o' course, and they feed him a good meal and he hides food in his clothes to bring back to me, and so we eat for a little longer. Some folk go without altogether, he tells me, for the ruffians allot only enough food for a body to eat every other day, and call any hobbits that protest "gluttons" and such, and even haul them as says anything off to the Lockholes if they're in a foul humour.
And summer nearly over, and winter to follow, and how ever will we keep warm and fed?
It may be harvest time, but we've seen none of it, save what Rosie brings hidden under the rags. She says that waggonloads of stuff has been going South ever since last year at this time. Either the hobbits of the South Farthing are sitting on heaps of food, or it's going out of the Shire altogether. I wonder what's there, beyond the Bounds?
And still I think my good thoughts of Sam, and send my hopes his way, and hope he'll remember where it was he come from, and turn his face towards home once more. Even if there's not much "home" to come home to.
Mr. Frodo's and Mr. Bilbo's birthday come and went, but no Birthday Party, o'course. Dad poured out glasses of water for each of us and raised his hand in a shaky toast, and whispered his blessings, and he and I drank, and remembered.
And something else has happened. There's someone new come to Bag End, they call him Sharkey, and they say he's the Big Boss of all the ruffians. I only hope he sets them straight. They've run roughshod right over the Shire, and near to spoilt it to death. Perhaps now there'll be food, and the market will open again, and the inns, and...
...and Sam will come back. Bless him. I wonder if Rosie still thinks he's alive and coming home? It's hard to think the good thoughts, but I'll keep on, if only for Sam's sake.
I really do think that I shall lay down to sleep, and never waken in this world. I go to bed and I feel all hollow inside. It's worse than when I used to go to bed and the hunger would be a-gnawin' at my insides. But things is worse rather than better, and if we thought the ruffians bad, well, that Sharkey...
It seems he's the one behind the orders to cut down the trees, and fill the blue skies with horrid greasy smoke, and pour nasty offal into the water until the fish begin to wash up on the banks, stinking and dead.
And now they've taken Mistress Lobelia to the Lockholes, and nobody's seen Mr. Lotho in some time, and Rosie and Tom's not been by in days, and when Dad tried to go to the Cottons they stopped him and gave him such a fright, for they acted as if they were marching him off to the Lockholes, and only as they passed our shed did they shove him in at the door with loud and raucous laughter, and he was shaking and the tears was leaking from his eyes, even though his jaw was set and grim.
I've not seen Dad weep since the day Mum died. He's always been strong, tough and strong, like the roots that go down deep into the soil and hurt your arm, trying to yank them out, and even then they won't come out but break off and make you dig deeper to take hold once more, and even then you cannot yank them out!
He's afeared, I know, that if he's hauled away, the ruffians will come for me next.
I thought I'd seen a ghost, I really did. It was not much more than six o'clock, but the dark was coming down, and a knock came at the door. We knew it couldn't be a hobbit, being after the curfew hour and all that, unless it was a Shirriff, and so Dad told me to hide myself, and he opened the door, for what else could he do?
And I heard him cry out, and I grabbed up the skillet, heavy iron that it is, and the closest thing to a weapon we might have, and I stepped out and swung at the figure that stood there, metal shining out from under his cloak...
...and I near to knocked the brains out of my brother, dear Samwise, standing there real as life.
It was like he didn't even have to think about it, the way his hand come up and seized my wrist and stopped that skillet before I could even blink, and his dear voice said, 'Mari! Marigold!'
And I was laughing and weeping and clinging to him, and he was hard--it was like hugging a tree, only harder, for he was clad in a mail shirt under his cloak--and Dad was weeping and his arms was about the both of us, and Sam was weeping and...
Well, let's just say there was no dearth of tears in that shack for a good few minutes.
And now I am writing by the light of the fire, for before Sam went off again with our old gaffer he hauled a couple of armloads of wood from somewhere and told me to get myself warm, for I was all over gooseflesh.
I'll say I was all over gooseflesh. It's not every day you see the dead come back to life.
And Sam's gone off to throw the ruffians and their Boss out of the Shire, and I believe him, for he's not the same Sam that went off a year ago. He's hard, and it's not just that he's wearing a mail shirt and a sword, and there's a cold light in his eyes, and I wouldn't want to be that Sharkey-fellow when Sam gets through with him.
And Mr. Frodo is back, and well... well, perhaps not well, for Sam's voice faltered a little in the telling... but Mr. Pippin and Mr. Merry are back and tall as anything from drinking tree sap and they have swords and shields and know how to use them...
And they're going to throw the ruffians out of the Shire, and everything will be all right again.
So I guess Rosie really did know what she was talking about after all.
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