A birthday fic for Baylorsr, CEShaughnessey, SivanShamesh, and Julchen. Enjoy, my friends!
Lobelia sat down carefully upon the swiftly brushed-up velvet cushion that covered one of the two bench seats in the coach in which she was to ride to Hardbottle. She was assisted by Sancho Proudfoot, who was to drive the vehicle. She looked up uncertainly to meet Sancho’s eyes, expecting him to be looking at her with disgust. However, what she saw wasn’t disgust, or, she realized, even pity. His face was soft with an emotion she’d read of, heard of, but had rarely enough seen, and then only in the face of Frodo Baggins—compassion.
“You settle back easy, Missus Lobelia,” he said gently, “and we’ll have a blanket here to put abouts your shoulders to keep you warm as we travel. And there’ll be at least one other, mayhaps two, to ride in here with you to Hardbottle. There’s Delo Sackville—he’s a relative of yours, right? He’s spent a good week in the Lockholes himself, we’re told. Made the mistake, apparently, of askin’ that Sharkey what’d become of Mister Lotho, he did, and if them Big Men didn’t have him all dragged off here to Michel Delving afore he could begin to think as what was happening to him!”
Lobelia clasped her umbrella close to her chest, almost as if she expected it to protect her from unseen dangers. “He asked after my Lotho?” she asked. “Why?”
Sancho shrugged as he straightened as he could within the confines of the coach. “Well, in spite of bein’ a right lout, still Lotho was his family head, right? We Hobbits—we care for our own—or at least usually we do.” He leaned forward briefly and gently patted her shoulder. “I’ll admit as I never cared deeply for your son. But what happened to him—it oughtn’t have happened to anyone, not ever. We all heard what that Sharkey said as he’d had his Worm-fellow do to Lotho, and it—well, it just wasn’t right! How frightened he must have been, Missus Lobelia, not knowin’ as what might have been happenin’ to you as his mum; not knowin’ as what Sharkey and those Big Men of his might do to him afore it was all done. Delo was only trying to do what was right by anyone, much less his family head.”
It was obvious that Sancho was filled with righteous anger on behalf of both Lotho and Delo. Imagine that!
As he withdrew from the coach, Lobelia found herself contemplating the experiences of the last few hours. What an odd day it had been! First, after over a day of total neglect by the Big Men who’d been their warders, those imprisoned within the old storage tunnels in Michel Delving had heard pounding at the gates, chains, and huge locks with which their tormenters had secured their prison. At last they’d heard the locks and chains fall away, and there had been that strange but comforting light that had illuminated the Lockholes for the first time since the Big Men had disappeared. It was Frodo Baggins who’d found her first, who’d entered the fetid cell into which she’d been nailed by the Big Men who’d brought her there. Frodo had taken her hand and drew her forth—gently—oh, so very gently he’d brought her out to freedom. And then those Hobbits gathered about her, those she’d expected to hiss or throw filth at her, instead they’d clapped and cheered. They’d cheered as if she’d been brave! She’d not been brave—she’d been angry, furious even! Those Big Men had told her that they intended to put up even more of those terrible sheds in the gardens of Bag End, the gardens she’d coveted for over eighty years, ever since she was barely a slip of a lass with hopes and dreams as big as the Shire itself. So, she’d gone at them, and was relieved that the solid whack she’d given the ugliest of the lot hadn’t broken her umbrella.
And Lotho, her Lotho—he was dead. Killed on Sharkey’s orders. Mr. White’s orders. The mysterious Mr. White who’d purchased so much foodstuffs from them, who’d sent his questionable advice….
She found herself shuddering almost uncontrollably.
The door to the coach was opened wider. Delo Sackville was helped into the coach even as she’d been aided, and was settled facing her. The Hobbit who’d helped him patted his shoulder and jumped to the ground, after which Delo’s wife Lilac squeezed her bulk in. She was handed two blankets from outside, one of which she set on her husband’s lap before leaning forward to wrap the other about Lobelia. “You poor dear,” Lilac said. “He’s bad enough, but wasn’t there half so long as you were. Here—you must feel terribly cold.”
Only once she was convinced that Lobelia was warmly wrapped did she do the same for Delo.
Someone handed a hamper into the coach and a stone jar of small beer as well as three tin mugs, and the door was closed and fastened for the journey. Lilac settled herself next to Delo, who found himself securely squeezed into the corner, and put her arm about him, pulling his head against her shoulder. “I was that worried that we’d not see you again, dearling,” she whispered, tears of relief rolling unashamedly down her cheeks. “That worried!” She raised her eyes to meet those of Lobelia. “And you are still alive, too!” she added. “We were so worried for you!”
They could hear Sancho scrambling up onto the bench.
“Take it as gently as you can,” instructed someone. “They are in no condition to be shaken up on the ride home.”
“I will do just that, Cousin Frodo,” Sancho promised. “You just take care of yourself. You look rather fragile yourself, you know.” With that he snapped the reins, and the coach started with only the slightest bit of a lurch.
Lobelia heard a hail, and the coach slowed to a halt. The door opened once more, and a large metal flask of hot, milky tea was handed in by Mina Whitfoot, her expression anxious as she gave the occupants of the coach a swift examination. “This will hopefully help you feel warmer,” she said. Others were there with warmed bricks wrapped in toweling to warm the feet of Lobelia, Delo, and Lilac.
As the coach resumed its motion Lobelia looked down bemused as Lilac carefully tucked one of the bricks under Lobelia’s blanket before tending gently to her husband’s needs. Then Lilac was pouring out some tea for each of them and pulling cakes and bread rolls filled with cheese and sausage slices for them to eat. “There’s some sauce of apples in here, too, and I see that it’s been warmed. That should be easy for you to digest,” Lilac noted.
Delo was able to eat more than Lobelia could, although within half an hour or so she gladly accepted some more. It seemed as if she’d not eaten enough in months! Lilac was taking little for herself, watching to make certain the two ex-prisoners each had a good chance to make up for missed meals.
“You want anything we have here, just let me know, Missus Lobelia,” Lilac assured her. “They sent plenty, it seems. And as one who stood up to those ruffians, you deserve all you can handle! So many were afraid, you see. It was heartening to know that you were going to do your best to stop them doing as they pleased!”
Lobelia looked at Lilac Sackville with surprise. Through all of the years Otho and Lobelia had served as Family Heads to the Sackville clan, most of the family, including Lilac, had made it plain that they resented Lobelia and the authority she wielded. Yet now she was admitting to admiring Lobelia for simply raising her umbrella against those thugs? Who could have dreamed of such a thing? But then, who could have imagined that those gathered in Michel Delving today would have applauded her as Frodo Baggins led Lobelia out of the Lockholes?
She found herself shivering in reaction, and Lilac responded by making certain that her blanket was firmly wrapped about her, tutting over her as if she were a faunt newly snatched out of harm’s way.
They eventually stopped at a cluster of small houses not even quite big enough to be considered a village where they might alight and relieve themselves. The cottagers who lived here brought them coarse biscuits made from ground nuts and herbal tea sweetened with berry syrup.
“Sorry as there ain’t nothin’ more as we could offer you,” explained the oldest of the residents, “but them Gatherers and Sharers took ’bout ever’thin’ else as was worth having, or almost so. But as you’ve been in them Lockholes of Mr. Lotho’s we felt as you deserved the best as we have.”
Lobelia looked about herself warily. She suspected they didn’t recognize her, or they’d not be treating her as well as they were. She found she could barely swallow the tea, and once back in the coach she huddled into a corner, pulling the blanket close as if it had the power to disguise her.
Once Lilac had helped Delo back to his place and settled once more, she turned to Lobelia. “Here,” she said, producing a small decorative pillow embroidered with pansies and Lobelia’s name-flower. “Old Missus Sweetbriar wanted me to give this to you—said she knows it’s nowhere as nice as anything you had at either Sackville Place or Bag End, but that she hoped you would appreciate it.”
Lobelia was shocked. “Geranium Sweetbriar?” she asked. She and Geranium Greenholm had grown up together in Hardbottle, and had been anything but friends since their earliest childhood. Geranium had married a farmer who lived about halfway to Michel Delving shortly after she’d come of age. Lobelia had been married to Otho for several years by that time. The idea that Geranium Greenholm Sweetbriar felt sorry for her made Lobelia squirm in her seat. Yet—yet, at the same time she felt touched. Someone knew that she was in grief, mourning for her son, ashamed of his actions. She’d been imprisoned by Lotho’s own Big Men, and had to admit that they didn’t give allegiance to her son after all. She ached with hunger—hunger for the food she’d been denied during the time she’d spent in the Lockholes and for something else she could not name, and somehow this simple gift of a decorative pillow seemed to help fill that second emptiness within her.
They’d not spoken much until now, Lilac watching her husband and Lobelia and anticipating their needs while Delo and Lobelia simply sat, trying to fully appreciate that they were at last free. Now Delo leaned forward as they heard Sancho scrambling to mount the box. “I am so sorry to learn that Lotho is dead, Cousin Lobelia. What a horrid thing to find out on the day you are released from that terrible place. I’d been worried about him ever since word came that you’d been dragged off to Michel Delving by those—those ruffians. Young Sancho out there managed to get a message sent to us—one of the Shirriffs brought it, one of those who was a true Shirriff before Lotho changed everything and declared himself Chief. He let us know that you’d been taken away and that after that nobody saw Lotho at all, but that the Big Men were lording it over everyone and were telling everyone that the real Chief now was Sharkey. I couldn’t let that stand—I hope you understand. After all, I’m Lotho’s proper heir as Family Head for the Sackvilles, seeing that you gave over the headship to Lotho after Otho’s death. I had to find out what happened to him. The moment that I found I was following you into the Lockholes I suspected that Sharkey had had him killed and that he didn’t want for anyone to ask—uncomfortable—questions. And now,” he said in lower, more bitter tones, “I know I was right.”
“Do you know—how?” Lilac asked, her voice so quiet Lobelia almost couldn’t hear her.
Delo shrugged. “Merry Brandybuck told me that this Sharkey fellow bragged he’d ordered that shambling wretch they called the Worm to kill him, and the Worm did what he was told to do. But the Worm didn’t like being told on, or so it seems, so he killed Sharkey, too, and three of the Took archers that were there managed to kill him. It all seems rather muddled, you ask me.” He shuddered. “I don’t begin to understand Big Men at all, and I don’t understand how in Middle Earth Lotho got caught up in their plots and plans.”
“What I don’t understand is how Pippin Took and Merry Brandybuck ended up far taller than any Hobbit has the right to expect!” Lilac said. “And Frodo Baggins—what happened to him out—out there? He’s thin again, the way he was when he came to live with Bilbo when he was still a lad. And his eyes—they are so sad!”
Lobelia noted that Lilac was now shying away from the knowledge that Lotho had been deliberately murdered on the orders of the treacherous Sharkey, focusing instead on those who’d secretly fled the Shire over a year ago and had only just returned. Lilac was again busying herself with tea, filling the tin cups from the metal flask provided by Missus Whitfoot. Lobelia murmured a word of thanks as she received the cup offered her, then asked, “But where did the four of them go—Frodo and those cousins of his and Sam Gamgee, his gardener? And why were they gone so long?”
Lilac gave a simple shrug. It was obvious she had no idea where the four runaways had gone, much less why. Delo, on the other hand, rubbed his nose thoughtfully. “There was a good deal of talking going on there by the Mayor as others worked to bring out the last of those hidden away in the Lockholes, and both Merry Brandybuck and Pippin Took were speaking of being part of a vicious war to save Middle Earth from a new time of darkness, and that the brown days we saw were apparently nothing compared to the darkness they saw down in the southern lands they traveled in before the war was won. And they spoke of a new King—that the King has returned at last, and how they all know him. Said they met him in Bree and ended up traveling east and south with him to help him win the war.”
Lilac looked properly shocked at this. “What in the name of the stars could Hobbits do to help fight a war?” she asked. She handed him one of the tin mugs, also filled with the now lukewarm tea.
“How would I know? But you saw them, didn’t you, got up with swords and shields and all? I’ll say this—those two certainly look as if they could use those swords of theirs and wouldn’t think twice about it.”
It was something to consider, Lobelia thought as she sipped her cooled tea. The four lost ones had merely gone off to fight in a war? How absurd! But something had apparently wounded Frodo Baggins—she had seen it in his eyes. She ought to feel glad this was so, but instead she felt a level of grief that was quite unexpected. She surprised herself even more by wondering if there was anything—anything at all—she could do to make things better for him? After all, he’d been the one who’d led her out of her prison, who’d held her hand as others cheered for her. As he’d been there at her side when they’d buried Otho, when Lotho had gone off and gotten drunk instead. He’d been kind then, too.
And that after all she had done over the years to make Frodo, his parents, and Bilbo suffer for her not being allowed to become Mistress of Bag End years ago!
Lilac was delving into the basket again, and brought out a platter covered by white cheesecloth. “Ooh!” she declared with delight. “An entire duck, and all for us! What shall I cut off for you, Lobelia dear?”
Overwhelmed by these unaccustomed ponderings, Lobelia allowed herself to be distracted by Lilac and her duck. But the realization that it was Frodo who’d led those who’d come down into the old storage tunnels to free the prisoners continued to niggle at her, and she found a degree of comfort in allowing that realization to remain, actively rearranging her former priorities and values.