The Return of the King (Page 100)
‘Perfect satisfaction, Mr. Gamgee,’ said Frodo. ‘Indeed, if you will believe it, he’s now one of the most famous people in all the lands, and they are making songs about his deeds from here to the Sea and beyond the Great River.’ Sam blushed, but he looked gratefully at Frodo, for Rosie’s eyes were shining and she was smiling at him.
‘It takes a lot o’ believing,’ said the Gaffer, ‘though I can see he’s been mixing in strange company. What’s come of his weskit? I don’t hold with wearing ironmongery, whether it wears well or no.’
Farmer Cotton’s household and all his guests were up early next morning. Nothing had been heard in the night, but more trouble would certainly come before the day was old. ‘Seems as if none o’ the ruffians were left up at Bag End,’ said Cotton; ‘but the gang from Waymeet will be along any time now.’
After breakfast a messenger from the Tookland rode in. He was in high spirits. ‘The Thain has raised all our country,’ he said, ‘and the news is going like fire all ways. The ruffians that were watching our land have fled off south, those that escaped alive. The Thain has gone after them, to hold off the big gang down that way; but he’s sent Mr. Peregrin back with all the other folk he can spare.’
The next news was less good. Merry, who had been out all night, came riding in about ten o’clock. ‘There’s a big band about four miles away,’ he said. ‘They’re coming along the road from Waymeet, but a good many stray ruffians have joined up with them. There must be close on a hundred of them; and they’re fire-raising as they come. Curse them!’
‘Ah! This lot won’t stay to talk, they’ll kill, if they can,’ said Farmer Cotton. ‘If Tooks don’t come sooner, we’d best get behind cover and shoot without arguing. There’s got to be some fighting before this is settled, Mr. Frodo.’
The Tooks did come sooner. Before long they marched in, a hundred strong, from Tuckborough and the Green Hills with Pippin at their head. Merry now had enough sturdy hobbitry to deal with the ruffians. Scouts reported that they were keeping close together. They knew that the countryside had risen against them, and plainly meant to deal with the rebellion ruthlessly, at its centre in Bywater. But however grim they might be, they seemed to have no leader among them who understood warfare. They came on without any precautions. Merry laid his plans quickly.
The ruffians came tramping along the East Road, and without halting turned up the Bywater Road, which ran for some way sloping up between high banks with low hedges on top. Round a bend, about a furlong from the main road, they met a stout barrier of old farm-carts upturned. That halted them. At the same moment they became aware that the hedges on both sides, just above their heads, were all lined with hobbits. Behind them other hobbits now pushed out some more waggons that had been hidden in a field, and so blocked the way back. A voice spoke to them from above.
‘Well, you have walked into a trap,’ said Merry. ‘Your fellows from Hobbiton did the same, and one is dead and the rest are prisoners. Lay down your weapons! Then go back twenty paces and sit down. Any who try to break out will be shot.’
But the ruffians could not now be cowed so easily. A few of them obeyed, but were immediately set on by their fellows. A score or more broke back and charged the waggons. Six were shot, but the remainder burst out, killing two hobbits, and then scattering across country in the direction of the Woody End. Two more fell as they ran. Merry blew a loud horn-call, and there were answering calls from a distance.
‘They won’t get far,’ said Pippin. ‘All that country is alive with our hunters now.’
Behind, the trapped Men in the lane, still about four score, tried to climb the barrier and the banks, and the hobbits were obliged to shoot many of them or hew them with axes. But many of the strongest and most desperate got out on the west side, and attacked their enemies fiercely, being now more bent on killing than escaping. Several hobbits fell, and the rest were wavering, when Merry and Pippin, who were on the east side, came across and charged the ruffians. Merry himself slew the leader, a great squint-eyed brute like a huge orc. Then he drew his forces off, encircling the last remnant of the Men in a wide ring of archers.
At last all was over. Nearly seventy of the ruffians lay dead on the field, and a dozen were prisoners. Nineteen hobbits were killed, and some thirty were wounded. The dead ruffians were laden on waggons and hauled off to an old sand-pit nearby and there buried: in the Battle Pit, as it was afterwards called. The fallen hobbits were laid together in a grave on the hill-side, where later a great stone was set up with a garden about it. So ended the Battle of Bywater, 1419, the last battle fought in the Shire, and the only battle since the Greenfields, 1147, away up in the Northfarthing. In consequence, though it happily cost very few lives, it has a chapter to itself in the Red Book, and the names of all those who took part were made into a Roll, and learned by heart by Shire-historians. The very considerable rise in the fame and fortune of the Cottons dates from this time; but at the top of the Roll in all accounts stand the names of Captains Meriadoc and Peregrin.
Frodo had been in the battle, but he had not drawn sword, and his chief part had been to prevent the hobbits in their wrath at their losses, from slaying those of their enemies who threw down their weapons. When the fighting was over, and the later labours were ordered, Merry, Pippin, and Sam joined him, and they rode back with the Cottons. They ate a late midday meal, and then Frodo said with a sigh: ‘Well, I suppose it is time now that we dealt with the “Chief ”.’
‘Yes indeed; the sooner the better,’ said Merry. ‘And don’t be too gentle! He’s responsible for bringing in these ruffians, and for all the evil they have done.’
Farmer Cotton collected an escort of some two dozen sturdy hobbits. ‘For it’s only a guess that there is no ruffians left at Bag End,’ he said. ‘We don’t know.’ Then they set out on foot. Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin led the way.
It was one of the saddest hours in their lives. The great chimney rose up before them; and as they drew near the old village across the Water, through rows of new mean houses along each side of the road, they saw the new mill in all its frowning and dirty ugliness: a great brick building straddling the stream, which it fouled with a steaming and stinking outflow. All along the Bywater Road every tree had been felled.
As they crossed the bridge and looked up the Hill they gasped. Even Sam’s vision in the Mirror had not prepared him for what they saw. The Old Grange on the west side had been knocked down, and its place taken by rows of tarred sheds. All the chestnuts were gone. The banks and hedgerows were broken. Great waggons were standing in disorder in a field beaten bare of grass. Bagshot Row was a yawning sand and gravel quarry. Bag End up beyond could not be seen for a clutter of large huts.