Thanks for the reviews! They are very motivating. What you are seeing here is the edited draft. (Thanks to my editor—you know who you are!)
Xena, here is the final chapter of the story. Perhaps you'd be interested in the sequel, which ties up lots of loose ends, such as how Twig becomes Estella again… should I post that story next? It is a very long one and will take several months to get through, at the rate of a chapter every other day.
Aemilia Rose, thwacking the ruffians with a computer mouse is a good start. How about an umbrella instead?
FantasyFan, you are right, while this is not an allegory of WWII, it is certainly influenced by man's inhumanity to man in that conflict as well as in others (I read a fascinating book about a man who escaped from the Kmher Rouge—not sure how to spell it—in Cambodia after the US left Vietnam, and saw a documentary on Afghanistan under the Taliban, among other things).
Hai, it is always lovely to be told that a story is "too short". Better than being told it is "too long"!
Miriel, I appreciate the feedback, even if it is difficult to reply with a large Alsatian dog licking my elbow as I type. *** I thought about what it must be like to live under occupation, and how the ruffians would treat hobbits in their power, and Saruman's attitude towards hobbits (he reminds me of the man who keeps a dog simply to have something to kick periodically), and the story pretty much wrote itself. *** It did seem to me as if Lobelia must have done more than simply stand up to the ruffians, to have such an ovation coming out of the Lockholes. Why not have the ruffians half-afraid of her, not only because she's got that umbrella, but because she might well be spying for her son the Boss (and Sharkey), and have her do some good with that power? *** Have read a lot about class, enough to find that modern-day Americans seem to be a lot more bothered about it than the people living in England a hundred or so years ago seemed to feel about it. As a matter of fact, it seemed to be something of a comfort to people to "know their place and stick tight in it" (that is an actual quote!). I don't quite understand the mindset, but I think I have enough of a grasp now to write it convincingly. At least I hope I do! *** Thanks again for the kind words!
Am not sure if "Runaway" will be updated tomorrow or later in the week, as Jo and I are still hammering out the last few chapters. We are very close! I do believe she is working on the last chapter, and I have sent her two in-between chapters to polish. (Thanks, Jo!) Have not yet decided what stories will begin to appear now that "The Rebel" is finished and "Runaway" is close to the end. Probably "Choices" will be one of the new stories as I have finally been able to access my beta-readers' notes (MSWord is working again—sort of) and am incorporating them. As to the other... it could be Farry and Goldie's wedding, or it could be the sequel to "Rebel". Do you have a preference?
Chapter 8. "Just Clean Water and Plain Daylight"
The hobbit who had once been a leader of rebels was now not even sure of his own name. He lay in a fever, shadows approaching and receding, sounds magnified, thoughts confused.
He thought he heard a scolding voice, much like that of Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, and the yelp of a ruffian in pain. It couldn't be, of course. She was Lotho's mother, after all, and what would she be doing in the Lockholes? She hadn't been the type to visit those confined by illness or injury even in the good days, when there was a Shire, and he couldn't imagine her charitably visiting those confined by ruffians.
'Take your hands off me, you thieving scoundrel!' he heard now, and smiled. This was the finest dream he'd enjoyed in his entire time in the Lockholes. Another yelp from the ruffian.
'You dare to try to touch me again, I'll serve you a double portion!' Lobelia shrieked. Her voice came closer and stopped. 'What's this?' she said, her voice shaking in outrage. 'Hobbits sleeping on the floor, like dogs?'
'You may have your own room, all to yourself, Mistress, and we'll even bring a bed in for you,' a ruffian said placatingly.
'A bed!' Lobelia shrieked, and the feverish hobbit could imagine the ruffian stuffing his fingers in his ears in self-protection. 'A bed! Why not a bed for that lad in there?'
'He's rebel scum, Mistress,' the ruffian said apologetically. 'He's being punished for being a law-breaker. Now come along, we'll see what we can do to make you comfortable—' Whack! and another yelp from the ruffian.
'Unhand me, you... you... what was that you called him?' Lobelia said in tones that could have shattered glass.
'Scum, Mistress?' the ruffian said, sounding thoroughly cowed.
'You SCUM!' Lobelia shrieked. 'A satisfying word,' she muttered to herself, then raised her voice again, like fingernails against a smooth surface, setting teeth on edge. 'If you touch me again, so help me, I'll put your eyes out with the point of this umbrella. I had it made specially sharp to drive away stray dogs, I'll have you know...'
The feverish hobbit had no doubt that Lobelia would put out the ruffian's eyes. She was as fast as a striking snake with that umbrella. He'd seen her chase away a stray dog the size of Farmer Maggot's biggest and fiercest, the one that had torn out the seat of Fatty Bolger's trousers one day on a mushroom raid gone wrong. The feverish hobbit stopped to think: Fatty Bolger? Who was Fatty Bolger? The name sounded familiar, somehow.
In the midst of his pondering, he was distracted as he felt his head lifted and settled in a bony lap. Lobelia's voice came again, very close now, soft, and—he must be delirious, that was the only explanation—soothing. 'O lad,' she crooned. 'What have those despicable ruffians done to you, I'd like to know?'
The prisoner's body jumped as Lobelia raised her voice again. 'I want WATER, do you hear me, you imbecile, a CLEAN bucketful of CLEAN fresh water, mind, and I want it NOW. And CLEAN cloths, if you know what such a thing is, and a loaf of BREAD.' She'd felt the feverish hobbit jump, and immediately her tone changed to softness and gentleness while her hand stroked the burning forehead. 'It's all right, lad, you're safe now.'
'Will there be anything else, Mistress?' the ruffian... quavered?
'That'll do for starters,' she snapped. 'Some warm milk would not go amiss.'
'Warm... milk,' the ruffian stuttered.
'And a proper cup of tea. A few eggs, lightly scrambled, and…' Evidently the ruffian had crept away, for the voice rose again to a shriek. 'Young MAN! YOUNG MAN! I haven't FINISHED with you YET!' The hand never paused in its caresses while the voice subsided into a grumble.
He must have fallen into a swoon, for he was suddenly roused by a cool, wet cloth on his face, washing away dirt that remained from the muddy road in Bridgefields, dust from the floor of the cell, and dried blood from the last beating. The hobbit tried to lift a hand, but it was held down by something rough and scratchy. In a panic he began to struggle feebly to free himself, only to hear the cracked old voice soothing.
'There, there, it's all right. No, don't throw the blanket off.' Blanket?
His hair was stroked back from his forehead as the voice muttered, 'I ought to have a shears, you're shaggier than a sheep in the springtime. Now we've washed the dirt away, let us have a look at your face.'
That was dangerous, he remembered dimly, though he did not remember why, but the fingers soothed his forehead again and the voice murmured reassurance.
'There, lad,' she said. 'It's all right.' The cloth finished its task and was taken away, and the old voice gasped. 'A Took!' she whispered, 'but how do you come to be here? I thought they were hanging any Took they could get their hands on...' She trailed off into mutterings and complaints, then said, 'No, not all Took. There's some Bolger in that face. Ah, lad, I can guess who you are. 'Tis a wonder to find you alive at all.'
The hobbit half-wished to himself, despite the danger, that if she knew who he was, she'd share the information, but she did not speak a name.
'Here now,' she said, and he felt his head lifted. 'It's not proper bread at all, and it is only soaked in that travesty they call "soup", but it's food of a sort, and you look as if you haven't eaten in days. Come lad, take a little sustenance.'
Something warm and crumbly was placed gently in his mouth, and he swallowed. 'There's the lad,' the voice said, sounding pleased. The hobbit had heard similar tones when Lobelia had scored a point off Bilbo or Frodo in a dispute. 'Take some more, now.' Small amounts of soaked bread were placed in his mouth. He remembered his mother feeding him when he was very small, playing the baby bird game. He might well have been eating worms from the taste, but he offered no protest.
Some time later he was laid down with a pat on his shoulder. 'There now, lad, you sleep a bit. I'm going to see who else is in this forsaken hole.'
It was not long before he heard the shrieks resume. 'UNHAND me, you THIEVING vermin!' There was another series of ruffian yelps, and the hobbit smiled as sleep crept over him again.
He was awakened by more cool water on his face, then his shirt was pulled open and the cloth gently dabbed at the half-healed slashes on his back and chest, the cracked old voice crooning reassurance whenever he winced away from the touch.
She raised her voice suddenly, saying sharply, 'That had better be HOT.' There was a ruffian's rumbling response, and soon she was urging her charge to sip from a cup. He recognised the dishwater they called "tea", but surprisingly, it was hot rather than lukewarm. The comforting warmth spread through him, and he sighed.
'There's a lad,' the cracked old voice said. 'They tell me you gave the name "Sandy", so that is what I'll call you.'
'My name is Number seventy-four,' he whispered.
'Sandy,' she said firmly.
He reached weakly to grasp her arm. 'They'll beat you,' he said desperately. 'My name is Number seventy-four.'
She snorted. 'I'd like to see them try, the ninnies! Don't you worry your fevered head about me, Sandy. You'd do better worrying about those louts of ruffians. Why, when I get through with them...' her voice trailed off into mutterings, and he was reminded of a sunny day, hiding behind a hedge, while Lobelia passed by, waving her umbrella and complaining to Otho about this or that. He'd jumped into the hedge just in time to avoid her, but there didn't seem to be any hedge around this place. Nor sun, either, for that matter. It didn't seem important, somehow, and the muttering was comforting, he thought to his surprise, after the long silence broken only by ruffians' snarls or sneers.
She came and went freely, unafraid, evidently feared by the Men who were twice her size. The hobbit she called "Sandy" heard her mutters and imprecations moving down the corridor outside his cell, but no longer feared the beatings that had always resulted from a hobbit setting foot outside his cell for any reason. These seemed to have stopped, though yelps were regularly heard from the throats of ruffians.
Only once did he hear her quail. She was sitting on the floor of his cell with his head in her lap, coaxing him to eat of the bread she'd soaked in "soup", when she stiffened. A Voice was to be heard in the semi-darkness. 'I'm told you do not care for the facilities here.'
She answered bravely, though her voice quavered with fear. 'The food is abominable, not suitable for sustaining life, and your ruffians...'
'The food is not intended to sustain life,' the Voice said, amusement in its tone. 'It is merely intended to prolong life, for a time, in the greatest misery possible. Death by slow starvation is exquisite torture, would you not say? And most suited to hobbits, in my opinion.' Number seventy-four believed the Voice, finding himself in complete agreement. How could he not believe?
Her arms tightened about the hobbit she called "Sandy" as she sat tense and silent, evidently under the scrutiny of an intense gaze. The Voice must have gone away then, though no footfalls came to the ear, for she relaxed, bowed her head, and graced her patient's face with warm tears.
When she found her voice again, all she said was, 'Evil. Pure evil that one is. I pray he comes to a fitting end.'
She drew a shaky breath, and then said in her normal tones, 'Come now, lad, this bread is going wanting.' He felt her fingers against his lips. 'Come, take another bite.'
He'd got used to the sound of her, the feel of her bony lap, the cool cloth on his skin, the fingers coaxing soaked crumbs into his mouth, and he missed her when she didn't come. He didn't know how long it was, but there was no Lobelia, no bread, no water... and oddly enough, after awhile, no sound of heavy boots or ruffians' voices. Perhaps they'd been finally left alone to die. That was fine with him.
He didn't know how much later it was that he opened his eyes to brightness. Not sunshine, no, that would be too much to hope for, and besides, he wasn't sure the Sun still rose in the outside world, for he'd not seen her face in... how long? He didn't know.
A lantern, it was, he decided, opening his eyes. And hobbits bending over him. They couldn't be hobbits, they were too well-fed, he thought.
'Who is it?' one of them asked.
'A Took, I think,' another answered, then to the prisoner, 'What's your name?'
'Number seventy-four,' he answered. He could hear other hobbit voices moving down the corridor, calling out to one another in consternation and horror.
'Number seventy—' one of them muttered, breaking off in a curse, milder than any he'd heard from a ruffian. It was nice to hear hobbits cursing, seemed homey somehow.
'No, what is your name?' came the question again.
The hobbit sighed. He'd already answered the question. He could tell from the quality of the echoes that his questioner turned away to speak to another, though it would take too much effort to move his eyes in that direction.
'Go get one of the Tooks,' he heard. 'They ought to know their own.' He kept his gaze fixed on the lantern one of them held, taking in as much light as he could before they took it away and left him in darkness again.
Another voice spoke from the doorway, rapidly approaching. 'Freddy! Mr Freddy, can you hear me?'
'Rocky, no,' he muttered. Rocky would be beaten for saying his name, and it was dangerous for some other reason that he couldn't quite remember. But then, he realised with a chill, he'd be beaten now for speaking Rocky's name, in addition to the crime of having his own name spoken--a double beating. He closed his eyes in anticipation of the first blow.
'You know him?' the hobbit holding the prisoner demanded. 'Who is he?'
'Fredegar Bolger, of course, of Budge Hall!' Rocky said, sounding insulted. He knelt by Freddy's side. 'Mr Freddy?' he whispered.
Another hobbit in the room raised his voice to shout. 'Frodo! In here! It's Fatty Bolger!'
The prisoner remembered now the reason for caution. The ruffians would hang him when they heard his name. He waited for the end to come, but instead heard a voice out of the dim mists of the past.
'Fatty?' A hand gripped his shoulder.
'Number seventy-four,' he said, trying to redeem the situation. He opened his eyes to see Frodo kneeling on his other side. 'They'll beat you,' he said. 'Please...'
'No more beatings, Mr Freddy,' Rocky said reassuringly. 'The ruffians are gone, chased away. There is a Shire again.'
Frodo looked up at the other hobbits who'd gathered round. 'Let's get him out of this place,' he said.
The prisoner was eased onto a litter, lifted, and carried into the corridor, down a short way, around a corner, and out a door into drizzly daylight. He closed his eyes, the better to feel the rain, but opened them again quickly. He wanted to take in all the daylight he could before they turned around and returned to the cell.
He heard Rocky explaining to someone, '...we owe everything to Mistress Lobelia, she kept us going, badgered the guards into doubling our rations, poor as they were, made them stop beating us. They were afraid of her, if you can only imagine...' He looked over to see Rocky walking alongside, leaning on Frodo. How did Frodo come to be here?
Frodo managed to sound grieved and amused at the same time. 'I can imagine,' he chuckled, but there were tears in his voice.
A tall hobbit who'd evidently stepped out of a book of tales came up to them, saying urgently, 'They tell me you've found Fatty, where is he?'
The litter was laid down; it seemed they would not immediately return to the dark and stinking cell, so the prisoner closed his eyes again, drinking in the soaking mist.
'Here,' Frodo said quietly, his hand tightening on the prisoner's. 'He's right here, Pippin.' It began to sink in to the prisoner's consciousness that he might be Fatty, or perhaps Freddy, by some miracle he could not yet comprehend.
'Fatty,' Pippin breathed, going to his knees beside the litter. 'You would have done better to come with us after all, poor old Fredegar.'
He opened an eye and tried gallantly to smile. 'Who's this young giant with the loud voice?' he whispered. 'Not little Pippin! What's your size in hats now?'
'Where is Lobelia?' Frodo said.
'Lobelia?' Pippin asked in astonishment.
Rocky shook his head. 'I haven't seen her in a few days,' he said. 'The one they called Sharkey came, and after that she disappeared.'
The Voice, Fatty realised. He shivered. He felt Frodo pat his shoulder. 'It's all right, Fatty,' Frodo said. 'Sharkey's gone.'
'What if he comes back?' Fatty asked. He cursed himself for sounding like a weak, shaky fool.
'He's dead,' Frodo said firmly.
More hobbits were being helped out into the drizzle, and Fatty's raiders gathered round him, laughing and crying at once. Little Robin was laid down beside him, and he pulled free of Frodo's grip to reach out a trembling hand. 'Robin?' he said.
'Mr Freddy,' the tween whispered back. 'We came through.'
'That we did, lad,' Freddy said.
Frodo gave his shoulder a final squeeze, saying, 'I'll be right back.' He rose, shouting orders. 'Find Lobelia, she's got to be here somewhere!'
Another tall hobbit in mail came up to them, saying 'Hullo, Fatty, I'd hardly have known you.'
'I could say the same, Merry,' Fatty murmured.
'I want healers!' Frodo was shouting. 'Fetch all there are in Michel Delving!'
'Frodo,' Merry broke in, 'there's a cell in there that's had boards nailed over it. Of course there's no hammer anywhere to be found, and a sword is a poor tool for prying nails...'
'A boarded-up cell?' Frodo said, then in the same breath he and Pippin said together, 'Lobelia!' Frodo disappeared into the Lockholes.
Odovacar and Rosamunda Bolger made their way through the crowd, Odo saying anxiously, 'They say my son's been found?'
'He's here, Odo,' Merry said, and the Bolgers stopped still, shock and sorrow on their faces, before Rosamunda threw herself on Freddy, weeping, and Odovacar knelt down to embrace his wife and son. He rose again, tears on his face, and began to greet each of Freddy's rebels in turn, and to hear bits and snatches of their story, and how they'd been saved in the end by Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, of all hobbits.
Poor Lobelia, she looked very old and thin when they rescued her from the dark and narrow cell. She insisted on hobbling out on her own feet, leaning on Frodo's arm, but still clutching her umbrella. When the prisoners saw her emerge from the entrance, they raised a great cheer, and the rescuers and townsfolk and anxious relatives who'd journeyed to Michel Delving after hearing of the ruffians' defeat gave her an ovation that was heard all over the town.
She nodded uncertainly to right and left, trying to smile, but tears began to trickle down her wrinkled cheeks. Frodo handed her his pocket-handkerchief, and she dabbed away the tears, then held her head high. 'Stop,' she said to Frodo, with all her old imperiousness, when they reached Freddy's litter.
'Hullo, there, Sandy,' she said pleasantly, 'or is it safe to call you by your proper name, now?'
'It's safe,' Freddy said, as the realisation struck him anew. He really was safe. This was not a dream. At least, he was fairly sure it was not. In a dream, the sun would have been shining as he was carried out of the Lockholes.
'Lobelia, there are not enough words in all of Middle-earth to express my gratitude to you for saving our son, and these others,' Odovacar Bolger said gravely. 'If you would do us the honour of coming back to Budgeford with us, until Bag End is habitable again... We're living on the sufferance of our gardener, at the moment, in his cot, but he and his family have been gracious in their hospitality and generous towards the dispossessed, and I am sure they would welcome you as well.'
'Why, thank you,' Lobelia said, blinking in surprise. She could not remember the last invitation she'd received to visit someone, since Bilbo's infamous birthday debacle. She always imposed herself upon her relatives, not the other way around.
'Come, let's carry Freddy to the coach,' Odovacar said. 'It's a long drive home.'
'I'd like a healer to see to him first,' Frodo said. 'I know how eager you are to take him away from this place, but...'
'Then let us at least get these hobbits in out of the rain before they catch their deaths,' Rosamunda said.
'No,' Freddy protested. The rain felt so good on his face.
Frodo understood. 'You'll be taking walks in the rain before you know it,' he said gently. 'And walks in the sun, and sitting down to a groaning table and eating to your heart's content.'
'One thing at a time,' Freddy said, overwhelmed.
Frodo laughed. 'One thing at a time,' he agreed.