late November, 1418
“It’s just not fair!” Otis Tunnely said as he set his beer mug back on one of the rough tables Claro Innsman had furnished his tavern with. The beer was barely palatable, he thought, but at least it was beer. There wasn’t a lot of beer or ale to be had right now in the Shire, after all, not since Lotho Sackville-Baggins had named himself Chief Shirriff and had begun closing down the Shire’s inns. The Rusty Nail was not precisely an inn, having no sleeping rooms. But it did for those who frequented it, avoiding the more genteel amenities and clientele of the Green Dragon in Bywater or the Ivy Bush in Hobbiton, or the Great Inn in Michel Delving, not to mention those inns that were popular in the Tooklands. Those who drank in the Rusty Nail were generally those who tended to quarrel frequently with their neighbors and kindred, or who saw a good fight as the height of personal entertainment.
Otis Tunnely was one of the former Hobbits, being certain that he’d been slighted by everyone he knew since he was a mere faunt. He was convinced that his parents had favored his sister Sweetpea; and when they left him Greenbriars Farm and Sweetpea Palisades, certain that Palisades, the second farm they’d owned near the Road with its acres of pasturage, was the better place, he’d growled and complained until at last Sweetpea agreed to swap, willing to do anything to forestall a quarrel with him. When she married Tod Delver, the sixth son of his own family, he’d had little to bring into the marriage save for a desire to work hard and make something of himself and his wife’s farm. Sweetpea and Tod had indeed done well on Greenbriars, clearing away one of the three woodlots and growing among the best apples and root vegetables in the area, excepting only those from the Hill where for so long Hamfast Gamgee had guided the orchard and gardens. Meanwhile, the fields of beets and hops that had always done so well on Palisades did worse each year, and his herd of dairy cattle failed to increase. Otis of course was certain the fault lay in the land itself, instead of accepting that he was failing to work hard enough to remove weeds and cultivate the soil effectively, much less to make certain his cows stayed out of the swampy area in the south pasture. He’d run off his old dad’s hands, certain they were lazing off and stealing from the storage barns, but had no real interest in truly running the farm himself.
But when he’d approached Sweetpea and Tod about swapping back, they’d refused. “This is our home!” Tod had said, holding his son Dodi to him while Sweetpea had her arm about their daughter Carnelian’s shoulders. “We’ve put all our love and sweat into making a go of things here, and we don’t want to have to start over elsewhere just on your whim.”
And so it had continued for three more years.
Otis looked down at his empty mug thoughtfully, and repeated, “It’s just not fair!”
“And just what is it that is not fair?” asked an unfamiliar voice.
The Hobbit who’d spoken to Otto was as unfamiliar as the voice. He had a properly rounded body, but his arms and legs were unnaturally thin, and his forehead was markedly pronounced, his light-colored eyes bright under sparse brows. “Who are you?” demanded Otis. “And what’s somebody from the South-farthing doin’ here at the Rusty Nail?” There was something about the way this stranger Hobbit had spoken that announced that he was from far south in the Shire.
The raising of the brow and hands and widening of the eyes were perhaps just a bit too studied to be true surprise. “You can tell I’m from the South-farthing just by looking at me? How wonderful!”
Not even Otis could miss the sarcasm. He bridled. “You come in here, to the Rusty Nail, dressed up fine like some gentlehobbit, your voice full of the plantations, and you think as we can’t place you? What’re you doing here? Spying on us for that Lotho or something?”
“And if I was doing just that?” The facial expression was jesting, but the tone of voice indicated that this was indeed a challenge.
“And just why would the likes of you spy for Lotho Sackville-Baggins?” Otis returned suspiciously, aware that his more customary fellows from the Rusty Nail were all listening for the stranger’s reply.
“Mayhaps him’s a Sackville hisself,” commented one of the other of the tavern’s patrons.
The stranger’s eyes narrowed and his voice became a hiss. “As if I’d ever wish to be from that pathetic family!”
“Then what family is you from?” asked Claro, setting a new mug down on the bar, but not pushing it in front of the Hobbit nor letting go of its handle.
After a moment of glaring at the barman, the stranger admitted, “I’m a Bracegirdle. Timono Bracegirdle.”
The first name made no impression on anyone else in the room, but the Bracegirdle family name was easily recognized. “One of Lotho’s kin through his old mum,” commented somebody.
“If’n you’re spyin’ on the place for Lotho Sackville-Baggins you have t’know as you’re not precisely welcome here, considerin’ as Lotho’s been closin’ up inns left, right, and halfways t’ Sundays,” Claro said, his knuckles whitening on the mug he still held.
Timono Bracegirdle’s face took on a sneer. “But this isn’t precisely an inn, is it?” he asked. “Lotho doesn’t hold much with inns, what with them encouraging idleness and gossip, folks leaving their own homes, farms, and businesses unsupervised just to waste time attending weddings halfway across the Shire and staying at inns along the way where they can be robbed and eat bad food and all.”
“The food at the Green Dragon in Bywater’s good,” commented a patron back in the corner.
“And that at the Ivy Leaf Hobbiton-way is even better,” agreed his fellow, nodding.
“With both of them closed, that’s a moot argument, isn’t it?” said Timono, his eyes glittering. The two defenders of inn food from the region of the Hill went quiet, and all watched the Bracegirdle sideways, trying to make it seem each individual present was focused on his own drink.
Timono Bracegirdle stood up, and it could be seen that his clothing was of far better quality than that worn by the regular patrons, of excellent cloth, much of it from foreign parts, decorated with what appeared to be tasteful embroidery about collar, cuffs, and lapels. His lip had again curled as he looked about the room. “This isn’t much of a place compared to either the Ivy Leaf or the Green Dragon, is it? But you will note that it hasn’t been closed—as yet.”
The rest stiffened at what appeared to be an implied threat.
“No, Cousin Lotho doesn’t particularly like inns, especially when they lead folks to stray from their homes or to ignore their families. Our womenfolk ought to be home caring for their husbands and children and cooking up meals there rather than to be going off to the inns for dinners they could have bettered in their own kitchens. And have you heard some of the rumors that seem to start in inns? Why, just last week the rumor started in Hobbiton that Lotho was planning to close down the mill!”
“Is it really just a rumor when it’s true?” asked someone in a low voice. Timono glared about as if seeking the one who’d made the comment, but apparently could not identify the speaker.
Otis knew who’d spoken—Berry-O Green had been hired to help in the dismantling of the Sandymans’ mill, after all, and had started in on the demolition that morning. How was this Timono Bracegirdle going to respond to that one?
Apparently by pretending it hadn’t been said. Timono waved his right hand as if brushing the remark from the air and the memories of all within the room, and continued. “Lotho has been concerned for some time about the inequities he’s seen in the Shire, how some appear to have everything handed to them while others must labor intensely and yet end up with little to show for it. This Hobbit here,” he said, pointing to Otis, “caught my attention by stating the obvious—that it just wasn’t fair, although he has not as yet indicated just what specifically it is that hasn’t been fair.”
Realizing that all attention was now fixed on him, Otis Tunnely licked his lips, then began explaining just how it was that his sister and her husband were cheating him of his birthright, having wrongfully taken the property their parents had originally left to him….
When Otis was done, the Bracegirdle drew himself up to his full height (at least two inches shorter than Otis) and proclaimed, “Our Chief Shirriff indeed sent me here tonight to check out the Rusty Nail for him. He does not condemn it as he has other establishments where drinking has been traditionally encouraged, for it does not encourage Hobbitesses of good breeding to stray from their intended roles as wives and mothers as is true of inns where meals as well as spirits are served and where families may be encouraged to room whilst needlessly traveling abroad throughout the Shire. After all, there is no need for most Hobbits to range far from their homes. The most respectable of our people, after all, have always been those who are known to be regular in their habits and whose behavior is considered most predictable. We have had too much influence of late from other places and peoples, influence that tends to upset the regular routine of business throughout our beloved homeland.
“Our esteemed Lotho Sackville-Baggins seeks to set things right. The unexpected and unnatural disappearance of the sons and heirs to the Thain and the Master of Buckland in the company of Frodo Baggins has caused much consternation throughout the Shire, and has caused many to question whether or not their own children might be encouraged by the examples of these wayward young gentlehobbits to seek adventures of their own. It is for this reason that Lotho has sought to shut down the inns, so that it becomes more difficult for other impressionable tweens to flee the bosom of their families and follow those three and Samwise Gamgee to their destructions outside the Shire, and to encourage families to cleave to one another as is expected and desirable.
“He is also most concerned about the prevalence of such situations as Mr. Tunnely has related this evening, of one family member prevailing upon the good nature of brothers, parents, and in some cases even children to take from them their proper due for their own enrichment. Also, too many, whilst supplied with far more than they require to keep themselves and their families, hoard away their wealth and refuse to help their neighbors or even kindred in times of need.
“For this reason, Mr. Sackville-Baggins seeks to set up a charitable trust to gather up the excess of goods and food from those who say that they are storing against mostly unlikely possible future catastrophes so that this hoarded store might more equitably be shared out by all who might benefit by having such stores made available to them. He is now seeking to recruit individuals who are willing to take up the task of seeking out such hidden wealth being hoarded by those who do not truly need it and gathering it to storage against the needs of times of trouble. Do not mistake me—it will not be a task for those who seek to be popular throughout the Shire, for those from whom such excess will be taken will resent those who uncover their greed. Those who take up this eminently necessary responsibility must be able to harden their hearts against often tragic tales intended to evoke sympathy and leniency. They must face the hard truth that loss of extra food and goods might cause some hardship to those from whom it is liberated, a hardship that will be of limited duration only. In the long run this policy will benefit all who recognize the need for such moves.”
“And what do we get out of it?” asked Berry-O.
Timono gave him a wide-eyed look. “Is not the laborer worthy of his hire?” he asked. “Surely each of you is in some sort of need yourselves. It shall not be begrudged you should you find your needs met by a measure of what you gather from those with excess goods or food—not as long as you do not exceed good sense, of course.
“Only one sort of item must you forward immediately to Bag End—it is required that each and every finger ring found within the Shire must come to the Chief’s attention. He will allow judicious liberty for all other jewelry, but lays claim to all rings.”
“Why does him want rings?” demanded Claro.
Timono shrugged and his face hardened. “It is not for me to need to explain the desires and possible wisdom of Lotho Sackville-Baggins,” he said, his voice cold. “But if he allows others to claim other, most likely far more valuable pieces of jewelry, why would anyone begrudge him rings? Think of it as a whim on his part, and a gesture of good faith on yours. Rings and books are the only two types of items he wishes forwarded immediately to him, and particularly books from collections belonging to the Tooks, Bolgers, Brandybucks, Boffinses, Bagginses, and the like.”
It was something to think about.
“It’s said as old Mad Baggins had the biggest bunch o’ books in these parts,” commented Berry-O. “Heard tell as Lotho bought Bag End mostly furnished. Wouldn’t him have all of Old Bilbo and Frodo Baggins’s books, then?”
“The Baggins library was not included in the sale,” Timono admitted, and somewhat reluctantly, or so it seemed to Otis Tunnely. “Frodo did insist on keeping some family pieces he swore Bilbo would make him pay for if he allowed them to fall into Lobelia’s hands.”
A distinct round of snorts of amusement could be heard about the room, although as the Bracegirdle glared around the company it was impossible to be certain who’d made such noises of derision—or who hadn’t, for that matter.
Claro cleared his throat. “What about the Rusty Nail?” he asked bluntly. “Is Lotho goin’ t’ allow it to stay open or not?”
Timono shrugged, his face now studiously reserved. “I suspect that such taverns as this will soon enough be closed, too, like the inns,” he said. “Except for possibly a few, should the keepers be willing to restrict them to a particular—clientele. There will be a need for private—clubs—where those who serve the new order within the Shire will be able to relax and make their reports after taking part in gathering excess hoarded foods and goods, and where decisions can be made as to how such excess should be best shared out to those deserving of the bounty so harvested.” He turned a sharp eye on Claro. “Would you be willing to see this become a club for a select group of gentlehobbits?” he asked.
“With his beer?” asked Berry-O.
Claro’s face darkened. “It’s only ’cause I can’t afford the best barley or hops,” he said, seeking to defend himself and his brew. “The Tooks and Boffinses won’t sell t’ the likes o’ me, not at prices I can afford.”
Timono’s resulting smile did not exactly indicate good will or any hint of humor. “You will find that if you agree to such an arrangement such situations will change—most drastically.” The smile disappeared. “Now, tell me—are you in or out? Would you rather host a private club for gentlehobbits, or shall we simply expect the Rusty Nail to close forever?”
Claro’s lips twitched before he answered, “I’d be a fool to do otherwise, wouldn’t I? Nah, count me in, then.”
Otis Tunnely found himself smiling, too. “If’n it allows me to get my own back on my selfish sister and her husband as well as some others as have given me the snub over the years, then I’m your Hobbit, too.”
There were other comments of agreement, and the deal was struck.
Otis went home an hour or so later filled with a distinct level of satisfaction. As of this evening he was a member of a new class of Hobbits of the Shire—one of the first Gatherers and Sharers. Oh, he’d teach Sweetpea and Tod Delver the errors of their ways, now that he had license to decide for himself just how much was being “hoarded” at Greenbriar Farm! And he needed to increase the amount of milk his herd of cows gave him, and Sweetpea’s milk cow had won the prize for yield of milk three years running at the Free Fair.
Oh, but he had plans….