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Written for the A_L_E_C "Change of Season" challenge. For the birthdays of Aurenollaurelote, Lady Branwyn, and Tiggersk8. Beta by RiverOtter.
The Reluctant Spring
Carefully looking both ways to see that none of Lotho’s Big Men were about, Robin Smallburrow turned off the Road and slipped across the south pasture toward the low house lying at the center of his family’s farm, staying close to the hedge that bounded the lane. Not, he knew, that anyone would easily see him, as lowering as the brown clouds were. The days were dull and sullen and the nights miserably dark, and had been for the past month or so. It might be nearing midday, but it might as well be twilight.
Reaching the door, he gave the agreed upon signal to let his old mum know that it was him—two quick raps and three slow ones, followed by a scratch of a horny fingernail across the wood. He heard the chair his mum kept under the battered knob scrape as she pulled it away, and the door slowly opened. It was dark inside the place, and he could see his mother only as a slightly darker shadow against the already dark entryway. “That you, lad?” she whispered. “Thought as you’d be here afore dawn.”
He slipped past her and closed the door behind her, then pushed the chair back under the knob once more, making certain it was firmly wedged. “Couldn’t make it—got called to Bag End along with my mates.”
“Bag End? And what new mischief does Pimple plan for us now?” she demanded, drawing him down the passage to the kitchen. A single candle sat on a saucer on the table—for some reason the last time the Gatherers and Sharers had been through they’d taken all the lamps and lamp oil, as well as the three brass candlesticks his family had owned.
He shook his head as he dropped his pack onto a chair, then doffed the now hated feathered cap he had to wear to identify himself as a Shiriff and tossed it onto the table. “He’s got a bunch of new lads—says as we need more Shiriffs, so’s we can make sure as folks don’t break the new Rules. We’re to be put into troops----”
“Troops?” Her voice rose in outrage. “Since when does the Shire need troops of Shiriffs? Just how many do we need to find a strayed lamb or walk a drunk Hobbit home from the inn?”
“What inn?” he asked bitterly. “Ain’t no inns open nowhere about here in the Westfarthing no more. Mr. Lotho, him don’t hold with inns, or so he says.”
She gave a sniff. “I member well enough when his old dad was a regular at the Ivy Bush when I worked there, back afore your dad’n me was married. And Pimple himself certainly spent a good deal of time there, up till a year or so ago. Was drinkin’ there the day his daddy was buried, if’n I member rightly. Showed up to the funeral drunk, if’n Sam Gamgee’s to be believed.”
Sam had accompanied Frodo Baggins to Otho Sackville-Baggins’s funeral, and had helped fill in the grave while Mr. Baggins, as the Baggins family head and almost the only mourner besides that awful Mistress Lobelia, had ended up directing matters in the absence of Lotho. It had been rather a scandal, in spite of the fact that Lotho was known to spend hardly any time at all at home with his mother or taking care of family business. Robin remembered Sam sitting here at their table, telling of it that night.
“They got you goin’ around counting logs in woodpiles now?” she asked.
“Not yet, but I expect as it’s comin’. We’re to make certain as there’s but one bucket for each well, and no more than one boiler for laundry for each house. And we’re to inspect washin’ lines and make certain there’s not extra sheets bein’ washed, since no one’s to be visitin’ from other parts of the Shire no more.”
His mother was shocked. “What? And what about folks like the Delvers? You know how it is with old Blotho, all stuck in bed since that brainstorm a year ago. They have to change his beddin’ at least once a day. It’s not like he can help it, after all!” She shook her head in dismay. “And with Will Whitfoot gone, all locked up in those old storage tunnels Michel Delving way, there’s not a soul as can put a stop to it all! I’ll tell you what—that Frodo Baggins comes back and I’ll have a word to put in his ear! Sellin’ Bag End to those uppity Sackville-Bagginses and lettin’ Pimple’s head swell up like that! Much less draggin’ that Sam off into the wild the way he did!” She turned angrily toward their larder and began to pull out enough to fix him some elevenses, and he started unpacking what he’d brought in the pack. It wasn’t a great deal, but it was about enough to help offset what she’d not been able to get for herself due to the Gatherers and Sharers depleting the stores of the merchants she used to buy from in the village. ’Twasn’t the best of quality, perhaps, but it was filling, at least. As he worked, he pondered what he needed to tell her. At last he felt he’d waited long enough.
“Mum,” he began slowly, “I don’t know as I’ll be able to come by as often as I do now, come next month.”
She stopped in the process of slicing the half loaf of bread she’d brought from the larder, gripping the bread knife more tightly so as to whiten her knuckles. “Why not?”
He took a deep breath before explaining, “Like I said, Pimple’s organizing us into troops, and I’m to be part of the troop workin’ out of Frogmorton.”
She stared at him, disbelieving. “Frogmorton? But why? Why, that’s a day’s walk away from here!”
“I know. But he wants Shiriffs in force along the Road.”
She set down the knife rather deliberately on the worktable, and just looked at him, her arms akimbo, her balled fists against her ample hips. She was shaking her head. “This ain’t right—not right at all! You know what, son—it’s time you gave over bein’ a Shiriff, when you are sent a day’s journey from your home, and when you’re made to spy on decent folk who never did wrong to anyone.”
“I can’t quit.”
“But why not?”
“Member Chico Bottomly, there from Overhill?”
“The one who got away with my prize turnips back when you was teens?”
“Yes. You know as he went for a Shiriff same time as me.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Well, last week he went up to Bag End to tell Pimple as he was quitting being a Shiriff as it just wasn’t right what we was expected to do, and we’ve not seen him since.”
Her face went white. “They drug him off to the Lockholes, you think?” she whispered.
“We don’t know for certain, but I expect as that’s what happened.”
“If’n they didn’t kill him,” she murmured, looking down at the bread and knife lying before her on the worktable.
“Lotho wouldn’t let them kill nobody—or at least I don’t think as he would.” But even Robin heard the uncertainty in his own voice.
“Who’s to say as what Pimple would do?” she muttered, picking up her knife and savagely finishing her slicing. “Always was a lout, and he’s just gettin’ worse the older he gets.”
Elevenses were rather sparse, but at least he wouldn’t faint with hunger as he returned to his rounds. He hitched his now lighter pack up on his shoulders, gave a careful look about to make certain no one was watching his mum’s house, and headed back toward the Road. The day was no lighter—in fact it seemed even more bitterly dark than it had been, and there was a distinct feeling of anger and malice in the air. “You’d never figger as today’s the twenty-fifth of March already,” he muttered as he reached the Road and looked carefully each way to make certain no one else was in sight. “Will spring never come?”
Usually by now the crocuses would be in full bloom and the daffodils would just be beginning to show their golden crowns. But there were no spiked leaves from bulbs to be seen, and no blossoms of any kind. The willow shrubs hadn’t yet produced their catkins, nor had the aspens begun to bud. Trees were still bare, and even the plants of the hedges were still sporting leaves spotted with last fall’s signs rather than showing any indications they were still wick. There’d not even been any snowdrops, and those were always the first plants to waken with the brightening of the year.
He felt clammy, in spite of the closeness of the atmosphere, and he drew his cloak tighter about himself. He felt reluctant to leave the concealment of the hedge, as if were he to step out upon the Road he’d make himself conspicuous to the eye of some fell enemy. He wiped his forehead with his jacket’s sleeve while peering left and right. Somewhere, he suddenly realized, something was decidedly wrong! What it was he could not say and would not guess; but there was a decided feeling of impending doom hovering over him, and he knew somehow it was best he remain still and draw no attention to himself!
The day suddenly went completely still. There’d been no smaller birds to be seen throughout the Shire for all the weeks of the darkness that had come from the south and east, although there were plenty of crows of scruffy appearance to be found. Even they, however, had seemed either unnaturally subdued for their kind, or would be particularly raucous in their calls, as if in defiance of the unnatural silence to be found throughout the Shire. Now, however, even they were quiet! The wind had died, and all seemed to wait for some great, killing stroke to fall upon the land! Robin Smallburrow felt as if he were stifling, and clawed at the top button to his shirt!
And then, when he felt he must go mad from the tension of the moment, at last he felt some great balance shift! A wind sprang up, bending the hedge eastward, and suddenly he could breathe again, even if it was labored in the face of the gale! He turned west and watched as the great pall of brown murk began to tear apart, as the blue of the sky at last could be seen and as light began tearing away at the remnants of the reek! The crows rose from where they’d huddled in the tallest of the trees, crying aloud to herald the end of the darkness, seeming just as glad as Robin himself to see the end of the shadow that had hung for so long over the whole world, or so it had seemed to the Hobbit!
Far to the west clouds were beginning to gather, but they were natural clouds, clouds from proper weather rather than darkness, and he knew that soon rain would begin to fall, washing away the brown ash that he could see darkened the leaves and stifled the very earth.
“Yes!” he said in a soft exclamation as he saw a great flock of small birds at last soaring over the Westfarthing, each chirping loudly.
Honk, honk! Honk, honk, honk! Honk! From the south came a great V of geese, followed by a second flank, all crying aloud the gladsome news—somehow, in some strange way, the land itself was awakening, and all hurried to see to it that spring caught up with the calendar. The true clouds of the west swept eastward, dropping their burden of moisture upon the land, and Robin stood there in awe, watching them roil overhead in rolls of white, purple, indigo, silver and darkest grey, lit here and there with rosy pink and even crimson. A silver curtain of rain arced toward him, and he let it come, rejoiced to feel the honest touch of it upon his face, saw it scouring away the darkness.
A flock of ducks struggled to keep together as they flew by toward Bywater and the Pool there. A hawk suddenly appeared, tilting first this way and then that as the wind buffeted its wings, glad apparently merely to be aloft no matter how heavy the winds might be!
Then the clouds were past, chasing the brown gloom further eastward and south, and sunlight followed the rain, showing sparkling jewels here and there across the land as it glinted from drops that clung to the bare stems and stubborn, brittle leaves of the hedge by which Robin stood and as they stood upon grass that at last seemed tinged with green.
Cheer up! Cheer up! He turned to find a tiny goldcrest had lit on the hedge near his hand, and was clinging onto a sturdy stalk determinedly as it turned its head to examine him. Cheer up! Cheer up! it advised him before suddenly letting go and allowing the wind to carry it away.
Robin Smallburrow stood there for some time, his cloak now steaming, and the feather in his cap shedding its burden of dampness and taking again its proper shape. He suddenly shivered, and then laughed aloud.
“Don’t know as what’s just happened,” he said aloud to himself, “but it does appear as spring’s finally come. And about time it is!”
He now stepped boldly upon the Road and turned east. He might be forced to stay in Frogmorton and he might remain for a time at the beck and call of the likes of Lotho Pimple, but he knew now he could bear with it, and would survive the storm. The sun had come again past all hope when it seemed the brown must overshadow the world forever; and he knew now there would come an end to the tyranny of Lotho and his Big Men. He’d be like the goldcrests, and would cling on until the winds of the heavens at last washed them away!
“Cheer up! Cheer up!” he sang aloud, mimicking the call of the birds as he turned toward the future—and through it to the good he knew was headed their way at last! And he whistled one of the songs old Mad Baggins had used to sing as he headed toward Frogmorton.
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