West of the Moon
A Tolkien Fanfiction Archive
My slightly bent version of a story about rats, rivers and restitution.
In one long ago, when the world was young, there was a little green country in the west between the mountains and the sea; and its fields folded along the edges of small hopes and small rivers and villages grew where a certainty of plenty was all that folks cared to know between each laughing evening around the fireplace and every dew-bright morning when the birds sang.
It was a kindly land and its folk were kindly too and generous in their dealings with one another; and ever untrusting of the outside where things might not be quite so expected and where things might not be quite so delightfully predictable.
Young Samwise Gamgee was the last but one of six children born to the gardener Hamfast and his gentle wife Bell - dead now many years and still missed; and Sam was the one who watched his brothers leaving to seek their fortunes and watched his sisters growing into beauty and followed his father to tend the pretty gardens of the gentry with a smile on his lips and a song in his heart. And that was all he knew until the rats came and after them the Piper.
There was a time when Sam laughed to see the bright-eyed, furry faces looking back at him from behind the bins in Farmer Cotton's barn; chuckled at the busy pink hands grasping at the oak beams with tiny bent knuckles and thought it a shame to set traps for these small thieves. But when the spoiled grain spilled under his feet and the intruders grew bolder and more numerous he listened to the gaffers talking over their ale in the tavern and worried at their frowning.
The rats were everywhere. They skittered along walls in growing numbers; chewed where they would in burgeoning confidence; left proud prints of tiny feet through the flour that leaked from where they'd worked into the sacks he'd hefted into a dozen pantries and Sam began to think there'd be no end to them.
When the Squire up on the Hill frowned too and tucked his hands into his waistcoat pockets Sam crept home in doubt.
When Marigold cried and trembled as the Widow Rumble dressed her bitten hand Sam cried too.
It was worse and worse again as autumn wore down the paths and byways and it was like nothing any of them had seen except perhaps for the old Squire; but Mister Bilbo had lived a long time and he kept his own counsel. Folks were afraid to sleep and the stores they'd set by were wasted. And Will Whitfoot, the Mayor, offered ale and pipeweed and a patch of fertile land by the Water and eternal thanks if anyone could rid them of the plague. But no one could.
Sam was sitting by the Water and watching the light fade and thanking all the powers that the rats seemed not to like the taste of pipeweed when the Stranger stepped into Bywater like something out of an old tale. He was taller than some; slender and dressed in outlandish parti-coloured raiment: one sleeve of his tunic red, the other green and his dark curls falling past his shoulders and a ragged look about him. And Sam noticed that the busy crowd of rats around the mill sheds stopped in their foraging to watch where he passed.
In the tap-room the gaffers were unusually silent when Sam came in. They were watching the Stranger and wondering why he'd come; but they'd never ask. So the gardener-lad walked up thinking to mention the sudden chill and the difficult times but he found the words dried up in his throat when he looked into startling blue eyes twinkling back at him and a delicate eyebrow raised as if to share a joke.
"Hello." The Stranger's voice was light like music and his smile was quirked with something that seemed like shadow so that Sam had to smile back and blush - just a little.
"Hello. I don't think we've met before; I'm Sam."
A broader smile, warmer and, "Hello, Sam. I'm the Piper."
* * *
When the Piper tapped one finger against the rough woodcut print pinned at the bar of The Green Dragon Sam shook his head.
"This . . ." Dark curls and that unsettling smile and the gaffers still looking on and saying nothing. "I can help you with this. I'd like a place to settle down, Sam; I can help."
"You can help?" And if his voice sounded strange in his own ears that was nothing because he couldn't think very well when this Stranger - the Piper - was looking at him with such regret in his blue eyes even while the smile was curling on his lip. "You can . . . help us?"
"I'd be pleased, Sam. I'd be pleased to help you."
"We've heard that before, Stranger. Everyone promises help but we've learned better these months." It was Farmer Cotton all red-faced and ready to spit in the face of false hope. "You say that you can help us -that's a thing as needs proving."
"Please . . ." Sam thought he might smooth things but the Piper touched his hand and turned towards the farmer.
"I can help you . . . but there's a price; and I'm sure you're a good fellow, after all, and perhaps you could direct me to this Will Whitfoot."
* * *
Sam shuffled in the crowd where they'd all gathered in the great chamber at Michel Delving and wished himself elsewhere because everyone was staring at the Piper with a hope that wasn't far from hatred. And it was only when old Mister Bilbo waved an imperious hand that they quieted and glanced away, embarrassed.
"You might want to give the lad a chance at this." The Squire smiled and that warmth he had about him seemed to calm expectation. "We've nothing to lose. Let him take his chance and help us if he can." And Sam thought that the Piper's bright, uncanny gaze sharpened then before he echoed:
"You've nothing to lose." And looked right at the gardener-lad as though he was saying something else that was separate and private and utterly bewildering.
"I say that we've had enough of promises." Lobelia Sackville-Baggins shook her umbrella for emphasis. "There's nothing to be gained by listening to this . . . this outsider." She paused and glared at the gathering. "We don't need help from his kind." And she looked straight at Will Whitfoot who was looking away and uncomfortable with the whole nonsense.
"And what's to hurt if the lad tries, Cousin?" The Squire smiled broadly and there were snickers around the chamber. "If he fails, we lose nothing but hope . . . if he succeeds we gain everything."
"Piper," the Mayor drew himself up and folded his hands across his ample girth; "Piper, try your best and we're beholden to you should you rid us of this scourge;" he coughed importantly, "and we'll bid you on you're way with no blame should you fail."
Sam wanted to wish the Piper luck but that was more than he could manage when the crowd surged forward suddenly and he was caught in all the denied hope about him until they wandered away and he wandered away and Mister Bilbo pushed past him with a snort and a shrug that seemed impatient.
* * *
At the first glide of liquid notes Sam woke and went to sit outside on the rough-hewn bench.
At the trill of promises dropping liquid in the thin line of light to the east he leant forward with his elbows on his knees and watched the dawn breaking in a confusion of gold and cloud-shadows and the music tugged him away and threw him back against his feet set into the damp ground and his hand reaching into the morning.
He watched the tumbling grey, black, brown and tawny bodies running away to the music . . . and he thought about a lithe figure dancing ahead of the tumult with one sleeve green and the other red.
And when it was over - and there was a quiet that seemed almost fearful - Sam wondered where the rats had gone and why they'd gone before he laughed and remembered to be glad.
* * *
Will Whitfoot had made his offer in good faith and he'd never expected that some uncouth parti-clad changeling would put his promise to the test.
"I'm only asking that you give me what I was promised." And the darkness in the Piper seemed to stretch and grow and he turned away from them all.
Sam caught him where the road turned westward and he didn't know what to say because he was ashamed now the rats were gone and the earnest promise was broken and the Piper shook his hand away.
"Is this the sum of you all?" The Piper set his lips to the wood-carved flute and his blunt-fingered hands danced with the breath of him and Sam felt the cold in his chest and wanted to follow the thin notes wherever they might lead.
A little lass ran out into the road and clapped her hands.
This was a music that stole into every hope and diamond spills of water under golden skies and green fields across the dancing fingers.
"Don't do this."
"Is this the sum of you all?" There was a hurt, deep as forever in those blue-bright eyes and glittering drops of dancing rivulets behind them.
"This," Sam smiled at the bairns gathering to the lilting melody with summer shining in their bright up-turned wondering. "This is . . ."
And when the music stopped he was listening and his lips were moving against the Piper's sad mouth as though he might mend the hurt and loss there.
"This is better than whatever else you might . . ."
"If you think that . . ." The flute dropped onto the autumn grass without a sound; "Sam; come with me . . ."
"Anywhere . . ."
And when the children wandered home they could never say why they'd run outside nor why they'd run back into anxious arms and embraces. And they played unheeding through the years between the mountains and the sea.
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