Brandin picked this town as clean as an old bone. From hole to hole, he went, stripping the cupboards and walls. His Men hauled away sacks of silver spoons and gleaming heaps of copper pans.
“Orders from the Boss. These will be shared for the common good,” Brandin told the Halflings as he took their gold rings and pocket watches.
Most had stared in wide-eyed silence, and the few who protested were quickly put in their place. Brandin had never seen the like in all his years as a brigand. Such gutless folk deserved to be robbed.
In the parlour at Bag End, Sharkey counted the silver spoons, gloating over his hoard like Smaug the Worm. “When their houses and fields are bare, we will strip the fat from their very bones! Double rations of ale for these Men!”
Brandin went back to work, but now the easy pickings were gone. Each day, he had to drive farther and farther along the muddy lanes and often came away with no more than a patched tin bucket.
“Curse these Halfings to death and darkness,” he muttered as rain dripped from his hat and ran down the back of his neck. The last time he returned with a half-empty wagon, Sharkey had reminded him that he needed to earn his keep. “A gold watch or two would satisfy old Smaug,” Brandin told himself, but he had searched every hole in this town and robbed every last Halfling.
Then he suddenly realized that, no, he hadn’t.
After a few wrong turns, he found the place again. The little bay sidled and tossed her head as he tied the reins to the hitching post, so he gave her some hay and stroked her sturdy neck. He had grown rather fond of the beast. “A dry blanket and warm oats when we get back to the stable,” he promised her as he left.
The dark green hedge was neatly trimmed, and flowers lined the well-clipped paths--daisies and roses and others with names he had long ago forgotten. Markers carved from wood and stone stood in orderly rows, and above them, a green hillside was set with round doors but no windows.
A grey-haired Halfling in muddy work boots met him at the gate. “If you’re lookin’ for Hobbiton, it’s half a league down that lane, master. Whatever yer business is, I doubt it brings you here.”
“You’re the gravedigger?” Brandin asked.
“When there’s the need, master.” The Halfling spat on the ground. Brandin stood nearly twice his height and must have outweighed him by at least six stone, yet the gravedigger seemed unafraid.
“Show me where the rich folk are buried. And don’t try any tricks, or I’ll wring your scrawny neck.” In truth, this wasn’t a serious threat-—unlike some of Sharkey’s men, he wasn’t a killer by either trade or inclination.
The old Halfling led him to a row of ornate headstones. “Here’s your Bagginses and your Proudfeet and Chubbs, here and in the hillside. They do have a pretty spot.” Scowling, he plucked a withered flower from one of the graves.
“How deep do you bury ‘em?” Four or five feet at the most, Brandin guessed. The soil looked sandy and light. It wouldn’t take long to reach the coffins.
The gravedigger showed no sign of surprise at the question. He just shook his grey head. “Best to leave them be, master. They never done you no harm.”
“Shut up and start digging,” Brandin replied. Dead or alive, these Halfings were nothing to fear. He pointed to a bare patch of earth. “Start there.”
After a long moment, the gravedigger said,“Not that one, master. She was hungry when she died. You ruffians took her gold and then her chickens and cows. Look how the earth has settled, and she not in the grave for a month. There’s nothing hungrier than a dead hobbit.”
“Don’t try to scare me with your weird tales. I’ve seen things that would freeze your blood.” When the gravedigger did not move, he raised a threatening fist. “Get to work!”
Muttering under his breath, the Halfling began to dig. Brandin sat on a nearby marker and smoked his pipe and ate walnuts, tossing the shells on the ground. The sky had finally cleared, and the late afternoon sun glittered on the wet grass. From his seat, he could see the bay pony grazing by the gate.
Despite his grey hair, the gravedigger was quick and strong, flinging the sandy dirt higher and higher as he sank into the ground. First his legs disappeared and then his waist and then his shoulders so that only his head could be seen. Soon after, his shovel struck something hollow, and he scrambled out of the grave.
“I founded the coffin, master, but it’s stuck fast in the earth.”
“Then break it open with the shovel,” Brandir ordered.
“Best to leave her be, young fella,” the Halfling replied, his voice almost pleading. “Best not to meddle with the dead.” For the first time, he seemed afraid.
“Get down there and break it open, or I’ll send you to the Lockholes.” When the gravedigger didn’t move, Brandin struck him heavily with his fist. With a cry, the old Halfling fell to his knees and put a hand to his bloody face.
“Don’t you run away,” Brandin said, as he picked up the shovel. He doubted that this one grave would hold enough treasure to satisfy the Boss.
But the gravedigger didn’t try to run. He wiped the blood from his eyes and looked up at Brandin and said, “I don’t have no gold, master, but this here watch is silver.” He held out a battered pocket watch. “And I have three silver pennies. Just take it all, and be on your way.”
“You fool,” Brandin told him. Sharkey was right--these Halflings were a weak and craven folk.
The rays of the sun were almost even with the grass, but he still had enough light to work. He set down the shovel and crouched beside the grave. He was starting to swing a leg into the hole when the sandy ground shifted and fell away. It happened so quickly that he had no time to escape from the sliding earth. His shout of surprise was followed by a scream of pain as he landed on the small coffin. His ankle had been twisted hard, and it felt badly sprained if not broken.
He called for help, but the Halfling had disappeared. The light was beginning to fail, and beneath his feet, the lid of the coffin shone palely in the gloom. Hopping on one foot, he tried to pull himself out of the grave, but the sandy earth just crumbled in his hands. His clothes still damp from the rain, he began to shiver.
“Curse you and all Halflings to darkness!” he was shouting, when the gravedigger returned and tossed down one end of a rope.
With the Halfling’s help, he managed to crawl from the hole. The Halfling held a lantern as he examined his foot. The bones hadn’t pierced the skin, but it looked as if it were broken.
The gravedigger shook his grey head. “I tole you not to, young fella. No good ever came from meddlin’ with the dead. But you ruffians never listen to no one.”
Brandin would have hit him again, but the Halfling was safely out of reach. Using the shovel as a crutch, he tried to hop a few steps but quickly gave up.
“Bring over the wagon,” Brandin ordered, but when the Halfling tried to lead the pony through the graveyard gate, the beast threw up her head and wrenched the reins from his hands. With a wild cry, she turned and ran down the lane, with the wagon rattling behind her.
Brandin cursed long and loudly. The little bay wouldn’t go far, probably no farther than the nearest pasture with other horses, but there’d be no finding her in the dark. There was nothing for it but to send the gravedigger to fetch Sharkey’s Men.
“I’ll leave the lantern with you,” the Halfling said. “I’ve lived in Hobbiton since I was borned and can find my way in the dark.” Then he left.
Brandin settled in to wait. No matter how he sat, the foot was blindingly painful. It felt better when he lay down, but lying flat on his back left him feeling oddly vulnerable. The warmth of the day had faded, followed by a damp chill. Arms wrapped around his chest, he sat staring into the darkness beyond the clear light of the lantern. A light wind had sprung up, and he could see the faint shadows of daisies bobbing back and forth on the graves.
He suddenly realized that he hadn’t eaten supper, so he fished around in his pockets for more walnuts. He cracked a handful with his pocketknife then flung the shells away. They fell in the hole and landed with a hollow patter. “Must have hit the coffin,” he thought as he crammed the tender meats in his mouth. He was starving, and they tasted delicious, more delicious than anything he could remember, better than freshly-baked bread or boar roasted on a spit. Luckily, there were more in his pockets.
At a sudden thud from the hole, Brandin started and dropped his knife, then he chided himself for a fool. It was just the ground settling after the earlier collapse.
He jumped again at a scratching sound from the hole. Something was burrowing in the dirt. Too loud for a vole or rat. A badger perhaps? Or even, he thought uneasily, a wolf drawn by the scent of carrion. Wolves had been seen in the Shire in recent days. They rarely attacked Men or Halflings, but he would make easy prey, crippled and alone. They rarely attacked unless they were very hungry. And in spite of himself, he remembered the gravedigger’s words—There’s nothing hungrier than a dead hobbit. “Old fool,” he muttered. “Trying to scare me with fireside tales.” He slowly dragged himself toward the graveyard gate, taking care not to overturn the lantern as he moved it.
Behind him, the frantic digging had stopped. He looked over his shoulder, straining to see in the darkness. The graveyard was empty and silent save for the wind. There was nothing but the black rows of markers and the swaying shadows of flowers. Nothing followed him across the grass. In spite of himself, Brandin gave a sigh of relief. “You’re as bad as that gravedigger,” he told himself as he turned away. Then he stopped as a flicker of light caught his eye. A dim form was crouched in the grass, not ten yards away. It sat beyond the reach of the lantern, but its eyes glinted faintly in the darkness.
“Who goes there?” he shouted as boldly as he could, hoping to frighten it away. It didn’t move, so he searched the ground for a stone. When he couldn’t find one, he threw a boot instead, sending it sailing in a high arc across the grass. In a pale blur of movement, the creature reached up and caught it. He could see the gleam of its teeth as it tore into the leather.
“It’s just a wolf,” he told himself aloud. “A hungry, young wolf without a pack.” He crawled away as quickly as he could, knocking over the lantern in his haste. The flame flared and then sputtered out. But even without the light, he could see the dim form that followed him.
Brandin threw the second boot and then his belt. The creature devoured them then waited, its eyes glinting faintly. It was closer now, and he saw that the eyes were too round to be a wolf’s.
What else did he have to feed it? His leather goods were gone, but his pockets were full of walnuts. He tossed a nut, and the creature snatched it before it hit the ground. If he waited long enough between each throw, he might be able to hold it off until Sharkey’s Men arrived.
“Hungry,” a high, childlike voice whispered when it had finished. He waited in the darkness, with his pocket knife clenched in one hand. “Hungry,” the voice whispered again and again, until his face was cold with sweat. When the dim form edged closer, he threw another walnut.
How long he sat waiting Brandin could not say. The stars overhead moved with unbearable slowness. As the store of walnuts dwindled, he wondered if the Halfling had simply gone home instead of summoning aid. Between the strain of the long watch and the pain in his foot, he felt strangely light-headed. Again and again, he began to drift off, only to start awake at the whispering in the dark.
Then he woke as something touched his shoulder. Knife clenched in his hand, he struck out blindly, again and again, until something caught his arms and hauled him to his feet. For a moment, he blinked in confusion at the crowd of Men holding torches.
“What happened?” several voices asked.
“He tried to kill Garth," a ruffian replied. "The Boss ain’t going to like it.” He pointed to a Man who lay sprawled on the grass, clutching his arm and moaning.
“I didn’t know it was him!” Brandin shouted. “I thought he was the wolf! It was going to attack!” They would think him mad if he said I thought he was a dead Halfling.
By torchlight, the Men searched the graveyard, but they didn’t find any sign of a wolf, not even a paw print in the muddy earth. Plenty of Halfling footprints, but nothing that looked like a wolf track. None too gently, they tied Brandin’s hands, dragged him to the graveyard gate and slung him over a saddle.
“Will they hang him?” one of the younger Men asked as the horse was led away.
“Since he only wounded Garth, they’ll just take him to the Wild and leave him. Most likely he’ll starve before winter. If you ask me, that’s worse than hanging, but the Boss doesn’t hold with no fighting among his Men.” The ruffian spat on the ground then went to find his horse.