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March 25, 1419
Three hobbits crouch in the brambles, in the early-morning darkness. They’ve crept as close as they dare to the fire, even given the quiet with which a hobbit moves.
Reginard Took--who, being heir apparent to the Thain now that Pippin’s gone and got himself eaten by spooks in the Old Forest, really ought not to be here--pulls at Ferdi’s arm.
Ferdibrand Took shakes his head, and realising that the others won’t see in the darkness, takes hold of an arm of each of the others and gives a firm downwards tug. Stay.
And so they listen, scarcely breathing, their faces black with soot, their clothes dark as the shadows that hide them, to the talk that rises and falls, the jests, the coarse laughter, the boasts.
The ruffians who burned the Crowing Cockerel are seeking revenge. Aye, they’ll march into the Tookland, none of this polite business, following at Lotho’s heels like so many trained hounds, but striding, crushing the new-growing crops under their boots, crushing any of the Shire-rats that stumble into their path, until they reach the Great Sty where the so-called Thain cowers.
So hobbits thought to stop the Men who burned the Cockerel, did they? So they took out their little toy bows and shot toy arrows? (Needless to say, more than one Man died, and no hobbits were injured, but all the Shire-folk escaped, thanks to the Tooks.)
Perhaps there is an edge to the raucous laughter. Ferdi hopes so, for he’s the one who convinced Regi to listen, to give him a chance to set the traps. A hunter he’s been, nearly half his life now, and he knows his traps, the nooses and the trip lines, the bent trees and covered pits, and ruffians are simply vermin of a larger sort, fair game, are they not? Even if the aim is to keep them out of the Tookland, and not to harm or kill, well, traps are traps.
And under his shirt, torn from the tree where it was nailed, there is a paper with his name on it, and Regi’s, and yes, Hilly beside him, Hilly's name and his brother Tolly's into the bargain, though Ferdi and Hilly have never seen eye-to-eye. Wanted alive, it says. Wanted for what, Ferdi wonders. He has a good idea, having heard of the farmer who was put down his own well when he tried to stop thieving ruffians from “gathering” his chickens, and he's heard whispers of the life--if you could call it that--in the Lockholes.
And deep down inside, there’s a desperate sinking feeling. The ruffians are not many, scarcely a score, but they’re large, twice the size of a hobbit, and they’re angry, and they sound nasty, and they sound both determined and confident. Most of them have clubs, and a few have bows, and Ferdi’s seen the flash of long, wicked knives in the firelight.
And even if these are trapped, from their talk there are more, ever so many more in the Shire, and more arriving each day. Lotho must be mad, to invite these “guests” to come and stay, to overrun the Shire like... like vermin.
At last he’s heard enough, and he gives another tug, a backwards tug, to the arms on either side, and the hobbits ease away from the fire and the talk. It is time to check the traps a final time, and then, some time this day, the battle will be at hand.
‘So, our names are on a warrant, are they?’ Regi whispers when they are well away.
‘Wanted “alive” for what reason?’ Hilly says. ‘I wager they’re not all that interested in our good health.’
Ferdi is silent, thinking of the burning of the inn, and the rage of the ruffians, and how they’d blustered and threatened to set all the buildings ablaze with the hobbits inside (...but the hobbits had already fled, at the urging of the Tooks who’d been there). He lets Hilly’s comment go, for there’s no need to speak, and for some reason Hilly bears him, Ferdi, ill will. Perhaps he blames Ferdi for letting Pippin go off into the Wilds, for not telling the Thain that his son was going to follow Frodo Baggins to his death. No, that’s not it. He’s had it in for Ferdi since Ferdi can remember, for no reason Ferdi could fathom. He shrugs his shoulders, as one who eases tense muscles, and moves to check the fine fishing line, the first tripwire in the line of traps.
And after all the traps are checked, and the Sun is rising, well on her way to the nooning, and the birds ought to begin their singing for very belated they are this morning indeed, and the dread is growing in Ferdi’s heart; and on his companions’ blackened faces he reads the same doubt, the fighting of fear. The Woody End is silent, as if the birds and small creatures are hidden away, frightened by the Men in their midst. Or perhaps it is something greater that frightens them, for the fear, it is growing, growing in Ferdi’s heart, choking him until he can scarce draw breath.
And in the silence of the wood the laughter rings, harsh and triumphant, and the blood roars in Ferdi’s ears, as he’d imagined the roar of battle, hearing old Bilbo tell the tale of the Five Armies, and he quails, he sinks down, his companions follow suit, all of them pressed into the ground by their fear, and the knowing, and the not-knowing. And it seems as if the wind that rustled the leaves in the early morning is also fear-stifled, for it dies, and the Sun is bleared, and all sounds in the Woody End are hushed: neither wind, nor voice, nor bird-call, nor rustle of leaf, nor their own breath can be heard; the very beating of their hearts seems stilled. Time itself halts.
And the hobbits cower, pressed to the ground, and still they wait, for the Men’s assault, they think, for they can imagine no other reason for this unreasoning fear. So still are they, so taut with listening, that they feel the tremor that runs through the earth; faint it is, as if it has travelled a long journey, and then a sound like a sigh goes up from all the Woody End around them; and their hearts beat suddenly again.
And all of a sudden they hear the Men’s voices, closer, and the crashing their boots make, walking through the woods, but it doesn’t matter, and the traps are well-planned and strong, and Ferdi leaps to his feet, his heart inexplicably as light now as it was heavy before, and a grin splits his face, and he raises his voice in a mocking song.
Catch me, catch me, catch me if you ca-an!
And he’s scarcely aware of it, but Regi and Hilly have leapt to their feet as well, and are echoing the taunt, and the crashing grows louder, the Men are shouting, an arrow flies past Ferdi’s ear, and he turns and flees...
All three hobbits flee, feigning terror, falling (not really) and getting up, limping as if injured, luring the Men along. They pass over the first tripwire and run on, a deadly race but ruffians are not so good with the bow as Tooks, perhaps, and none of the arrows find their mark.
And behind them the crashing becomes something more, as it is not only Men’s boots but their bodies that smash into into the ground, and the arrows stop. Not all the Men rise to follow the limping hobbits, tantalized as they are, like a hunter following a broken-winged bird.
Not far now, and the first scream rings through the woods, as a bent tree snaps suddenly straight, carrying with it a Man, snared by the ankle, dangling in the air, wildly gesticulating to a world turned wrong-side up.
The others who step into the waiting snares have not enough warning to avoid their fate, and soon a fine bevy of “birds” hang flapping their wings.
And hobbits can jump, quite wide they can, and so the three spring over the covered pits, and the rest of the following ruffians are too heated with dark passions and murderous anger to take heed, and so in they fall, and it will be some time before they can climb out again, and cut their dangling fellows free...
And the hobbits stop their headlong, limping flight, and panting, laugh, and slap each other’s backs, yes, even Hilly slaps Ferdi on the shoulder, and congratulates him on the success of the scheme.
And Regi calls back, his voice high and clear and mocking, ‘And if you’d like another helping, there’s plenty more where that came from!’
And leaving their guests to the hospitality of the wood, the Tooks creep away, their chuckles louder than their footfalls, as is only proper when one steps over the border into Tookland.
And for the first time, Ferdi’s doubts are laid to rest. Aye. They’ll keep the ruffians out of the Tookland. The Thain has the right of it.
A/N: A small amount of text was borrowed directly from "The Steward and the King", from The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien.
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