The Heir of the Hill

by Lothithil

  II  III 

Chapter 11: Clandestine Councils

Part One
, Undesireable

Frodo closed the door softly behind him. He removed his cloak and moved to hang it up, but stopped when he realized it was spotted with blood. He sighed, believing he knew what his uncle's reaction would be to the state of his face. There was no hiding this bruise; his mouth probably looked like a squashed plum. He laid the cloak over his arm and went into the parlour, steeling himself for what lay ahead.

Bilbo was out of his chair and at his side the moment he saw. Merry exclaimed and half-rose, bumping his foot and hissing. Pippin looked at him with wide, frightened eyes. Sam was tending the fire and turned at the sound of Merry's outburst. The chunk of wood he was about to lay on the flames slipped from his hand and thunked onto the floor.

"I am all right," Frodo said.

Bilbo pulled a clean handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to Frodo. "Can you tell me what happened, lad? When Merry and Pippin came in, they said that you were right behind them. Did you take a fall?"

"No, uncle. I stopped to speak with Mr Sandyman." Frodo winced as talking split his lip again. He pressed the cloth to his mouth.

Bilbo's face had gone white. "He didn't do this to you, did he?" he asked in a hoarse whisper.

"No, sir. This was a matter between his son and I." Frodo was suddenly reluctant to speak. How much should he tell and what should be left unsaid?

Bilbo looked at him with a penetrating gaze. "You know I can't condone fighting, Frodo. You are too old for such things and I know you are smarter than that." He glanced at the younger hobbits standing and listening. "This doesn't set a good example for your cousins."

Frodo lowered his head humbly, accepting Bilbo's criticism.

Each of the younger hobbits leapt up to defend their cousin. "It wasn't his fault, cousin Bilbo!"said Merry, loudly echoed by Peregrin. Sam stood next to Frodo, as if he could share Frodo's shame or intercept punishment in his stead by simply being nearby.

"It's not his fault," Merry had tears trickling down his face, flushed with his own pain and humiliation. "That Ted Sandyman was there this afternoon when Lotho ran his pony into us!"

Pippin gasped and stared at Merry. Well, at least *he* hadn't told the secret this time! But he shared in the guilt of lying to Bilbo, and his own tears began to fall.

Bilbo placed a gentle hand on Peregrin's shoulder. "All right, all right, we are getting too excited here! Frodo, go and take care of that cut of yours. Merry, sit down and stop banging around that foot. Sam, do set another log on the fire and then come and help me in the kitchen. Peregrin, dry your eyes now, lad," Bilbo said kindly. "I am not going to eat Frodo or any of you, so don't be afraid. I just wish you had all told me the truth first." Though Bilbo was speaking to Pippin when he said this, Frodo heard the words as if they had been for his ears alone.

Frodo nodded and obeyed his uncle. His cheeks were scarlet with shame and his head hurt where he had butted Ted. His whole skull ached as if it were cracked like a mellon. He went into the bath room and poured a basin of water and bathed his face and hands. The water quickly became pink.

He ran his fingers through his hair and felt he tiny scar over his ear, hidden by his thick curls. He had accomplished what he had wanted, and the answers were all now before him, plain in his mind, except for one. Who had the Miller been listening to, who had almost conviced Sandyman to commit murder?

Frodo's hands began to shake. It hadn't been like that, really. 'It was an accident... not like the Miller hand tried to kill me...' he thought, 'but he did not bring me home or help me. If it hadn't been for Gandalf, I might have died. Or would I have died if the Miller had been taken me on to Hobbiton, and Gandalf had not found me?'

Had Gandalf healed him, or did that happen earlier? These moments were still cloudy and confusing for Frodo. Visions of angry trees with sparks flying from their deep eyes and crows in the woodpile was all he could recall. He had woken up at one point, he was sure, before Gandalf had appeared. He remembered drinking water and feeling peace and ease. That was when the dreams had become vivid.

A soft knock on the door roused Frodo. He was standing with his hands soaking in cooling water. Sam opened the door and came inside with a nod.

"Mr Bilbo sent me in, sir, to see if you are all right. Let me fetch some fresh water, Mr Frodo."

"Thank you, Sam." Frodo pulled himself together with an effort. His head ached terribly, but he dunked it into the basin that Sam filled for him, soaking his sore head.

Sam wrapped a towel over his shoulders, then brought Frodo a clean shirt to change into. Sam picked up the one he had discarded, stained and torn. "My sister May can mend this up, sir, after we get the stains out." Sam looked at the rusty spots on the linen. A light kindled in his eyes, of admiration and love for his master. "How much of this is his blood, sir, if you don't mind my asking?"

Frodo was drying his hair. He lowered the towel and a small smile bent his lips, not enough to reopen the tender cut again, but plenty to convey a spark of mischief in those cerulean eyes. "Not as much as he left on his own shirt, Sam." Frodo squinted at him and murmured, "It will be a while before he messes with Merry and Pippin again, but you and I... and Bilbo, too... we must be careful, Sam."

"Aye, I reckon you're right, Mr Frodo. But now we won't be the only ones being careful!"

Frodo's smile faded and he shivered, water tickling down his face like sweat. He knew in his heart that Sam was right, and it chilled him.


Fried fish and chips for supper that night, and by the end of the meal everyone was in a better humour. Bilbo was clearly not going to punish Frodo or send Merry or Pippin home early, and in the way of hobbits and particularly hobbit-children, they were soon distracted by good food, warmth and cheer. Sam was to be complimented on his usual excellence in the handling of the fish and taters, a cooking skill for which he was justifyably proud. Frodo ate his share, conscious of the fact that nobody looked at his bruises or mentioned them at all.

After dinner the young hobbits quickly became drowsy. Merry had to take his medicine and that usually put him to sleep. Pippin curled up next to him on the couch and the older hobbit-lad draped his quilt over him. Pippin nestled into his chest and fell asleep.

Sam went home after helping Bilbo and Frodo clean up the supper dishes. Bilbo was putting together a second supper for himself and Frodo when his nephew finally spoke.

"I do apologize, Uncle Bilbo, if I have caused you problems. I did not go seeking a fight." Frodo was drying a cup carefully; he had broken enough of them in his fits of humour. He set it on a shelf and picked up another. Bilbo nodded, listening. He had learned long ago to give Frodo the time he needed to think before he spoke. He knew that he would hear truth or nothing from Frodo. They had no secrets between them.

Frodo continued. "Mr Sandyman was on the Woody End road the day I took my 'accident'. He knew things I wished to learn, things I couldn't remember." Frodo went on in a steady voice, as if telling a tale he had heard once upon a time, all the things he could remember that happened that day. Bilbo said nothing, though his face became more solemn and lined with age and care as he the story broadened.

After Frodo finished the tale, he spoke to Bilbo his riddles; What if the deed Sandyman had done had actually saved Frodo's life, by bringing him to Gandalf, however round-about it happened?

"I had to talk to him, sir, and learn why he had done this thing. He told me that he had been listening to someone, and that he would listen to them no more. I do not fear anything from Mr Sandyman anymore, Bilbo. He is genuinely contrite. He may never be a friend, but I do not think he will hurt us again. But this talker he spoke of... I wonder, what mischief is brewing in the Shire?"

Bilbo sighed gently, puffing out his cheeks like a dwarf's bellows. He looked at Frodo with respect and sympathy. "What a good lad you are, Frodo! Everyday I am reminded what a fine choice I made, bringing you home to Bag End and making you my heir. You have wisdom beyond your years and a heart-full of forgiveness and love that could not be better shaped if it were wrought by Elven smiths. Sometimes I wonder how a hobbit like you could have been invented, almost by accident... certainly with more disadvantages and obsticals than most must face in their lives. And you are barely 30 years old!

"Of course, you did the right thing and I am proud of you for it! I never doubted that you were motivated by galantry and honour. My fear was that this incident could be used to garner folks's thinking to lead to you being labled an 'undesireable', and that might lead then to exile."

Frodo looked up in shock. "Exile? From Hobbiton?"

Bilbo gave his nephew a sad look. "From the Shire, Frodo. It doesn't happen very often, and when it does, folk don't talk about it. The hobbit that is exiled is forgotten, turned out of hole and shown the borders of the Shire and forbidden to return. Many long years it has been since such a thing has happened, but it has... yes, it has. I remember..." and he grew silent, as if the taboo of hobbit-civil law prevented him from speaking of it further.

Frodo placed his head in his hands, feeling the headache starting to return. Exile... a never imagined horror. His uncle in Buckland had warned him, when his childhood was turning to t'weenhood and his pranks seemed to become more deliberate than mischievious, that he would not be tolerated if the actions continued. Frodo had always assumed that they meant he would be spanked or grounded or somehow punished for his deeds, and he had always accepted his penance when he had been caught. It had not occurred to him... not sunk into his thick skull... that other punishments could be worse, and more permanent.

After long moments of silence, broken by the whistling of the kettle, Frodo asked, "Who do you remember getting exiled, Bilbo, if I may ask?"

"That is not a tale for tonight, my lad. But I am glad that you are aware of this now, and perhaps that is part of the good that will come of all this madness. Much good has come, actually, though I hate to see you lads hurt... that lip of yours, Frodo! You'll need to stay in the smial for a few days, until that fades. If folk see, they will talk. We can't have that risked. We have Merry's foot for a good excuse to stay inside, and hopefully we will get some rain tomorrow.

"You see now, don't you lad? It isn't my reputation that I fear will be damaged, nor public opinion about my state of mind. I am old and wealthy, and so they tolerate me as an eccentric. But you have much living ahead of you, and this is your home. We can't risk you losing it, nor give anyone the leverage they need to remove you from it."

Frodo looked at his uncle. "You know who it is, don't you? The one saying things... the one who spread rumours and cost me Rosie Cotton's friendship, and who bent Mr Sandyman's ear. You always tell me not to worry. I am afraid that I am worried now, Bilbo. Can you tell me who it is?"

Bilbo sighed and stood up, coming round the table to Frodo's side. He scooted a chair close to his nephew and looked him steadily in the eye. "I did you no favours, lad, bringing you into this mess. Your cousin Otho seems to be more wretched and devious than I would have credited even a Sackville-Baggins. I suspect... suspect, mind you, for I have no evidence other than my own intuition... that he is the one who has initiated this campaigne against you. He never struck me before as being very clever or particularly greedy, before I left with the dwarves, that is. But somehow, since I have returned, his desire for Bag End and my position has increased, and his honour and conscious, such as it was, has appearently decreased in porportion. I wonder what has wrought this change upon him? That is my riddle."


Part Two, No Secrets

Ted returned from Sackville on foot, cutting through fields and yards in his haste. If his father noticed he was gone, he would earn a lick or two from his belt for it. It would be worth it and he wouldn't tell where he had been, but still, why risk the pain?

The gold coin was a weight in his pocket; it felt good. He wanted more and he smiled to know that he would be able to get more and serve himself as well. The Hill of Bag End was loaded with such loot, it was often said. Gold and jools, whatever those were, and fine things beyond imagination. All he had to do for now was watch, listen and report. He hoped that soon he would be asked to do more. His palms itched to get hold of that sassy Baggins upstart again!

But Mr Sackville-Baggins had been clear; he was not to tangle with Frodo again. Indeed, he had been encouraged to make peace and gain Frodo's trust. More would be said in his hearing, if he was considered a friend. Ted doubted that this would occur. For all his foolishness and sentimentality, Frodo was not stupid. A touch too forgiving and gullible, though, and that could work to Ted's advantage. After a piece of time, there was a chance that Ted could work his way into Frodo's circle of friends.

So he shelved his hatred and placed his desire for revenge deep in his heart, and he fed it with every bitter thought he had and every imagined slight he felt. A fair face he would show, until the day came for the come-uppance. On that day, Frodo Baggins would reap a grim harvest.


Samwise closed the backdoor of Bag End carefully, taking his time making his way home. It had been a long day, and he wanted to think over the things that had happened. He wasn't all together sure he understood what had happened to Mr Frodo, but he knew that Ted Sandyman would not consider the matter closed, even after a beating. Sam had had trouble with that hobbit before.

He walked through the garden, taking a detour to his home in Bagshot Row. The night had fallen softly, and the ground was still warm from the summer sun. Fireflies danced in the trellises, and there was a sound like bells or soft music, coming perhaps from across the Water where the Green Dragon Inn lay, full of merrymaking hobbits.

Samwise twisted his ear and listened again. Yes, there were voices... but it wasn't an echo from the Inn that he heard. There were distinct voices, and they were coming from the further corner of the garden.

Sam approached cautiously, hefting a shovel he had picked up from where he had left it earlier. He crept into the garden, looking through the darkenss for intruders. The voices had fallen silent, and only the winking of the fireflies lit the grounds. There was no one there.

Sam shrugged and turned, toting his shovel home. Too much to think about, and now he was hearing things. It was time for Samwise Gamgee to get some sleep.

When the hobbit was well away, the short fat shrubery slapped a thick limb across a ropy arm of ivy that grew nearby. "Speaking you always too loud, Stint! Discovered you will be one day, and not there to save you shall Ah be, perhaps! Doing you then what Ah cannot guess!"

Stint unwound himself from the trellis. "I wouldn' speak so loud if you wouldn' argue with me, Firtle. Besides, I don't believe that you'd leave me so. Together we're bound, to look after our aewn. Now we've more aewn to look after! This is fun! We shoulda left the Grove long ago!"

"Shh! There again you go shouting! Quiet be! Walking around the garden go! Round the delving Ah shall go, keeping away all shadows. For this we followed him here, and so we shall do."

"He spoke to us!" cackled Stint, who clasped his mouth shut to stiffle the shrill giggle of joy, "He knows we are here, and he didn't send us away! O sweet little aewn Frodo! How glad I am, to have found him!"

Firtle nodded and went on his walk. He could still hear Stint talking to himself excitedly. Lucky they were, the sprite reflected as he waddled past the glazed windows, that these creatures slept deeply and did not hear with ears of a predator.

The hour of darkest night was approaching. Now was the busiest time for the sprites. For dangers there were, small and unseen, that they drove away with word and barb. Firtle prepared his bow and quiver of darts, each tipped with numbing sap. Any creature touched by this sap would suffer paralysis of the limbs. If enough barbs found a target, it would fall stunned.

The sprites employed their craft to fend off the airs and humours of lost spirits, who rode the winds of mortal lands and would seek places to rest and bring mischief at times. Firtle knew that mortals could not see these spirits. Elves could see them, but they did not pay them heed for they were mostly harmless. Firtle kept them away from his new charge, and drove away ones he found rooted there, that fed on the life-force of Bag End. The halflings contributed to this force, and the Hill itself was, of course, living earth. A special place with a magic of its own, it was, and Firtle and Stint had their woody hands full protecting it.


Merry woke when something passed beyond the glazed window under which he was lying. He looked out, seeing only darkness and a few wan stars. Pippin was a weight on his shoulder. He felt warm and drowsy, yet he could not return to sleep. He heard Bilbo and Frodo speaking softly from the kitchen. He longed to rise and listen, but he was anchored in place by his young cousin and, of course, this cursed bruised foot!

He shifted it uncomfortably. How irritating it was, to be laid up when there was mischief afoot! How he would have pummeled that Ted Sandyman, if only he had been there! A good whack with that shillelagh would have cleared up the matter!

Or perhaps it would have made matters worse. Merry couldn't see how what Frodo had done was as bad as Bilbo had tried to make it sound. In Buckland, a hobbit that stood up for himself and his friends was honoured and respected. True, Frodo and Merry himself were a trifle young yet to be handled as adults. The elders did not behave so. Argument were always worded, and fisticuffs between adults was a matter for the Master of Buckland to arbitrate. Usually such things never went beyond a friendly disagreement.

Merry looked down into the face of his young cousin. Pippin's cheeks were still streaked with the tears he had shed earlier, and there was a smear of berry juice from the pie he had ate for aftersupper. For a moment Merry regretted involving the child in these 'shinannigans'; so Bilbo would call them if he knew of he and Sam's clandestine surveillance. "We've got a job of work ahead of us, so we have, Pippin," he said sofly.

"What do you mean, Merry?" Pippin said.

Merry jerked with surprise; Peregrin was not asleep. He looked down again to see the young Took's green eyes wide and curious, lying still, close against his shoulder.

"I thought you were asleep, Pip!" he exclaimed.

Pippin yawned. "I woke up when I smelled Uncle Bilbo's coffee. I was tryin' to hear what Frodo was saying, but you were breathing too loud!"

Merry chuckled. "I ought to tell you that eavesdropping is a bad thing to do, Peregrin Took, but I am afraid that I was doing the exact same thing." He smiled at his cousin. "I fear I shall be a bad influence on you, Pippin!"

"Never!" Pippin snuggled into the hollow of Merry's shoulder again. "If loyalty and bravery is a bad influence, then all hobbits could use a dose of such! My dad would agree."

"You aren't going to tell him about our secret, are you Pip?" Merry asked hesitantly.

"Of course not! He would not approve of how we do things, even if he did respect why we did them. I may be young, but I'm not stupid!"

Merry smiled and hugged Pippin to him. "No, you are not stupid." They lay still for a while, still hearing soft voices beyond the closed door, muffled and indistinct. Bilbo was speaking now, and even the soft night breeze was louder than his whispers.

Merry closed his eyes and subcumbed to his willowbark draught, but Peregrin lay awake for some time. He wondered if he had done a bad thing, lying to Merry about not being able to hear what Frodo and Bilbo had said.

aewn means "little one"

Part Three

It had been a long uncomfortable ride. Otho made a note to himself to never - never travel beyond the borders of the Shire again. From the moment he had crossed Sarn Ford until he reached the gates of Bree, it had rained nonstop. Not uncommon for the time of year or the climate, but Otho was in no mood to be reasonable. There was devilry and danger Outside... but that was why he had come.

Some things are just not done in the Shire. Even the basest, most unpleasant hobbit, living in the humblest hole or shack would not stoop to villainy. Hobbits were not violent, murderous, or warlike. For these commodities one had to seek beyond the sheltered fields and woods.

One of the river hobbits had told him about a town of Men not far from Buckland, a couple day's easy ride by pony from the west or about three from the south Greenway. The hobbit had advised Otho to never stray there, for there were to be found 'odd folk of an unsavoury sort'.

He had planned to send the miller on this distasteful errand, but Sandyman had refused to read or answer Otho's messages, and would no longer discuss the Bagginses with Otho at all. There were no others that Otho felt he could trust; Sandyman's son, while eager and nicely scrupleless, was nevertheless too young and Otho did not know if he would hold his tongue. He was brash and loud, and sneaky and mean. Otho would put him to other uses.

So here he was, Otho Sackville-Baggins, soaking wet on the back of a pony, waiting outside the gate of Bree. Night was falling with the rain as he rode up and kicked the planks of the door, not wishing to dismount and soil his feet.

He could barely hear his own knocking over the sound of the rain, though he pounded as hard as he could. Somehow, the gatekeeper heard and came to investigate. The barrier was a sturdy line of planks, closed firmly. The Man who watched the gate trudged through the mud to stare over the fence at the hobbit.

"What do 'you' want?" he asked, annoyed to be drawn into the rain.

Otho was not intimidated. He had delt with some Men before, and had found that their height and brawniness were surpassed only by their greed and stupidity. "I 'want' to get out of this dreary rain and into an inn with a bed and board!"

The man lifted a lantern and took a good look at him. "Ye ain't from round 'ere... who are ya?"

Otho offered him a name he had prepared, so that his own name would go unmarked. "I am Mr Mardoc Brandybuck. I have business in Bree, so open the gate, if you please."

The man frowned at him, fumbling with the latch. "Buckland's to the west 'long the Greenway. Wha' ya doin' comin' in from the south?"

"Getting wet," Otho said tersly, pushing through the slowly opening gate with his pony. He hurried through the town, following the road. This inn he was looking for... the Dancing Pony or some such... was supposed to be just at the foot of this monstrous hill. It was just as well that it was dark; Otho did not like the look of all these buildings with their many levels and gleaming windows like eyes. He felt scrutinized. He urged his pony onward, ignoring the fact the the creature was weary from a long ride. He had seen more lights ahead, and heard the familiar clink of mug and platter amid raucus laughter.

The inn was a huge sprawling series of buildings, three storeys high that climbed up the hill behind. There was a courtyard and a corral and stable where a horse and a couple of oxen stood, munching on grain and fodder. The front door was open despite the rain, and smells of food and sounds of cheer came out like waves of warmth from a promised fire. Otho dismounted and left his pony in the yard.

Inside he was washed with smoke and the smells of working men. There was mud caked on the floor, which Otho stepped carefully through. Before he could remove his sodden cloak, a short man with a stout middle came bustling up to him, wiping his hands on his apron and bowing. His face was red and his head was balding, and he smiled in a friendly way to his guest.

"Barliman Butterbur at your service, little master! What may I be doing for you?"

"Supper and a bed, if you please. And there's a pony in the courtyard that need stabling." Otho attempted to generate some charm. "It is a cold night and the end of a long ride. Is there a private place where I could rest and eat?"

"Of course, of course!" Barliman helped him shed his dripping cloak, hanging it beside a row of other similar garments in various stages of drying. He led him to a small cozy parlour with a roaring fire. A young hobbit was setting a hot meal on the table when they came inside. "Young Nob saw you coming, sir, with his long sharp eyes, so he did. We rather guessed you be wanting a spot of something hot. Now, how about a nice ale to go with supper, or perhaps you'd prefer tea?"

"Both," said Otho with genuine graditude. He hastily washed up before digging into the supper. The food was excellent, though after days on the road, Otho doubted he would have turned down anything. The landlord and the servant disappeared discreetly as he tore into his meal.

He left an empty table to seek the commonroom of the inn. He was a bit nervous of all the tall Men in the room, loud and clumsy. He wondered how often his feet would be trod on this night by these blundering idiots. Carefully he picked his way around the crowd, sitting down at a table away from the fire, where the lamplight was low and shadows lay comfortably.

Barliman brough him a halfpint of ale and offered to introduce him to the company. Otho refused with a tight smile. "I'd rather not make a show of it, my good... man. I would sit here and enjoy the singing."

Barliman chuckled and nodded. The 'singing' was three of the townsfolk who had been in the tavern since before sunset, and their ale had gone well to their heads. They were bawling some awful tune while holding one another upright. It was bets to see if they would finish the song before one of them passed out.

Otho looked about the crowd. There were many men, most dressed as farmers would, mud and animal stains on their garments and smelling as though they should be housed in the stables. A few were garbed in travel clothes. These men sat alone about the place, eating or smoking and saying nothing. They were dark haired and scarred, weatherbeaten men. They had a roguish air about them. Otho slid his eyes over them quickly. They seemed to watch without looking, and Otho felt a strange suspicion that they knew his business in Bree. He shook his head and drank his ale. Just nerves, he told himself.

Otho looked about for the individual that the Bucklander had described to him. There was a man, the river rat had said, who would do anything for a price. But rather than avoiding this evil man, Otho had come seeking him. But none of the men here fit the description he had been given.

Otho stopped the servant next time he ran past. "Do you know a man named Ferny?" Otho asked in a low voice.

Nob nodded his head, spilling some of the beer from the mugs he was holding. He set the tankards down and mopped it up with the towel he had tucked in his belt. "Aye, master. It's a bit early for Mr Ferny. He usually come in well after the supper crowd. I imagine he'll be along shortly, sir."

Otho slid a thin copper coin toward the hobbit. "See that he finds this table, lad, when he comes in."

"Aye, sir!"

Waste of a good penny, but at least he wouldn't have to go and look for this beastly man, thought Otho. He sipped at his ale, nursing the drink so that he would not have to pay for another as an excuse to linger.

The three drunken farmers were staggering out of the inn, escorted by some of the kinder-hearted patrons. Two more men arrived and ordered meals. One of the travelers stood and paced closer to the fire. Otho watched him. He was cowled, shadows where his face would be; he seemed quite tall. Otho willed that he go away. He made him feel very nervous.

Then the front door opened again with a blast of cold wind, and a large swarthy man appeared, accompanied by a shorter, hooded companion.

Nob greeted them and nodded his head toward Otho's table. The man sneered in his direction and seemed to ignore the invitiation. He wandered about the room, talking to folks he knew, picking up a half-full tankard that someone had turned away from. His companion had fallen back into the dim light at the edge of the room.

Eventually he worked his way across the room to Otho's table. He sat down, the chair beneath him creaked dangerously. "Sitting at these little tables make me feel like a kid again," he said with a grunting laugh. In a softer voice, he murmured, "The little one told me you were looking for me."

"Aye, if you are Master Ferny." Otho was pleased. The man was strong, foul, and hungry-looking. "We should go somewhere private."

"That would attract more attention. What sort of trouble are you in?"

"I? No, you misunderstand. I am seeking... someone who might be willing do some... chores for me. Chores I cannot do myself. Someone who would like to weigh his pockets with some tradeable currency." Otho murmured over his beer. He was used to speaking so that the ears of the crowd did not hear.

Ferny stared at him with an eyebrow. "Chores? In the Shire?"

"Yes. The matter of a... removal. Let's say I have an obstacle or two that I need... eliminated."

"How permanantly?" Ferny asked bluntly.

Otho blinked. He had longed to learn that Bilbo might have died of old age. He had been waiting for that news for so long that it seemed all his life. But to actually say it... his stomach trembled. "Permanently," he whispered.

"Who?" Ferny drained his mug and signaled for another. Otho hoped he wouldn't be expected to buy the drinks as well.

"A Mr Baggins and his nephew." Otho answered, trying to keep the smile from his face. A show of eagerness on his part would only drive up the price.

Ferny said nothing. Nob came and filled their mugs. He smiled cheerfully, but his eyes were a little wide to see them sitting together with such dark faces. He quickly moved away to serve the party of dwarves that had just came in and were stamping their boots to shake off the rain.

"And how do you suggest a Man like me gets into the Shire and out without being noticed? You don't expect me to just waltz in and kill them, do you?"

Otho winced at the man's frankness. Ferny laughed at him and waved a hand. "I am not the one for you, Mr 'Brandybuck'. But I know someone who can do it. What he wants to know is how much are you willing to pay for this service?"

"I have thirty silver coins for the deed."

Ferny choked on his beer. "Thirty? That's a poor wage for such a tall favour! I would say a hundred would barely cover the costs."

"Ridiculous! Thirty silver is a fortune! I will offer forty, but only because my need is timely. It must be done soon."

Ferny shook his head. "No haggling. One hundred, or no deal." He raised his mug as if signaling for a refill, but instead of Nob, the hooded figure that had come in with Ferny approached the table.

Otho covered his nose. A horrible smell assailed him, that he had never sensed before. He looked into the hood of the short stranger, and his eyes grew round with surprise. He paled and leaned back as if to rise and flee.

Ferny caught his arm under the table. "My friend here could do it. He could do it within the week. In and out of the Shire like a shadow, so that the bounders won't even know he was there. But it'll cost you a hundred now, and another hundred after."

"O-ow-out of t-t-the question!" Otho studdered. He tugged to get his arm back, but Ferny held him in an iron grip.

"Well, that is your perogative, Mr Brandybuck. You needn't hire our services if you chose not to. But if you want us to be silent about our little chat, I suggest you hand over that forty silver, and we will pretend this converstion never took place."

Otho was trebling down to his toes. Without hesitation he drew out his pouch and counted out the coins. under the table. He left them on the chair he had been sitting on. "Good night, gentlemen." he said woodenly.

He went to the bar and gave Barliman a pair of coins, picked up his still wet cloak and left the inn. Barliman stared at the silver in his hand. "I thought he was staying the night!"

Otho slogged through the mud to the stable. Bob had just finished toweling down his pony and feeding it. Otho demanded he saddle it again at once, and cast furtive glances toward the inn while he waited. As soon as Bob finished, he shoved another silver piece in the hobbit's hand and mounted hastily, riding swiftly toward the gate. At least it had stopped raining.

Otho kept the pony at a steady walk until he got through the gate. As soon as he was outside the fenced township, he urged the pony to a gallup and headed west. The Brandywine Bridge was closer than Sarn Ford, and he wished to get back into the Shire as quickly as possible. The eyes of the strange man had frightened him severely, and all he could see in the darkness was those yellow slitted eyes staring from every frightening shape in the night.

Bill Ferny and his companion planned to follow the hobbit and relieve him of the rest of his silver. They left by the South gate, leading their horses to persue their prey. But when they had covered maybe a mile, their horses suddenly shied and refused to go further.

Bill whipped the horse with the reins. He could see the hoofmarks of Otho's pony slowly disappearing in the soft mud of the road. "Ride on, you stupid beast!"

The horse reared and Bill fell off into the mud. His companion began to laugh, a grating horrible sound. "The rangers are here," he whispered in his ugly voice. "I can smell them."

"Curse those busybody, no-good tramps!" Bill picked himself up and shook his hands. He was coated with mud and soaking wet.

"They were listening in the inn, too. Let's get out of here." Bill began to slog down the road, followed by his companion.

They found Bill's pony standing idly down the road, standing on its own reins. "Stupid beast!" Bill mounted again, and they began to ride back to town. "A hundred silver pieces! What a loss!" moaned the man.

"It would have been a fool's errand, even for two hundred," his companion grunted.

"I never intended to go through with it! Who would he complain to, if I took his money? Now, if he could get these Bagginses out of the Shire... well! I'd do them for thirty, no problem!" He laughed his nasty laugh. "For thirty silver pieces I would kill you, half-orc!"

Bill's 'friend' smiled, revealing a mouthful of pointed teeth. "I have done as much... for a lot less." They rode back to Bree, and the darkness of the night about them was nothing compared to the blackness of their hearts.