“I haven’t heard this tale for years,” murmured Tom—the youngest of Sam Gamgee’s many children—taking up Berry’s small hand and bestowing a kiss upon her fingers, “and this is the first time I didn’t hear it in somebody’s lap!”
Eirien had slipped out of the room and returned now, trailing a fringed blanket woven of pale green wool. She paused, pensively surveying her family, twisting the fringe around her fingers. “Eirien,” Theo said, “Come and sit with Papa, so you will not feel afraid.”
She frowned, as if considering, her small mouth pursed with indecision, and after a moment, she said firmly, “No, I want to sit by Jamy!” and with no further warning she dropped down into his arms.
So unexpected was this sudden event that Jamy was startled out of all countenance, though by blind instinct he managed to catch and break her fall, easing her down—an exotic bundle of petticoats, pinafore and ribbons—into his lap. Once she was there, though, he had no idea what to do with her, and his embarrassment and bewilderment showed in every line of his face.
“Good catch,” murmured Bo wryly behind him, setting a hand to his shoulder to steady him; beside him Rory laughed aloud. “Oh, look out!” he teased. “She’s decided she likes you after all! Now you’re in for it!”
“Rory,” Mrs. Theo said, with a touch of asperity in her voice, “Eirien, dear…”
“I want to sit by Jamy!” Eirien protested any possible interference, twisting about and throwing her arms around his neck. Now his face was full of soft baby curls and fluttering hair ribbons: blue, he noted dazedly, and smelling inexplicably of lavender. Save me! he thought in dismay. What should I do? Mrs. Theo sighed and looked at him sympathetically, but it was obvious she was waiting for him to make a choice.
He had no experience of small children, having been his widowed father’s only child and always the youngest and smallest of the boys who crewed on the boats. Moreover, if, in his experience, anyone was going to be plopping unexpectedly into people’s laps, it was he, always impudent and playful and hungry for attention. The older boys had afforded him a certain amount of lofty derision in their work and play, but it was affectionate in nature, and Jamy knew (though they tried to hide it from him) that they had looked out for him conscientiously and without resentment when he was very little. But he himself had never had occasion to look out for anyone, and he wasn’t at all sure how to go about it. Still, like Rory’s handshake, it seemed an invitation to take on something new. Well, hadn’t he been left to do just that? And small Eirien—despite her alarming female accoutrements—did remind him of his own younger self: impulsive, enthusiastic and a little adrift on the current.
“You’d best get settled then, miss,” he heard himself say briskly, protectively conscious of how very small she was. If he had had a little sister, might she have looked up to him like this and believed he could defend her? The thought pleased him. “Quick now,” he admonished gently, “so we can hear the story.”
Eirien let go of his neck and settled. He glanced up to see the Master watching him and flushed to mark the expression in his eyes; it was disconcerting the way the old hobbit seemed able to read his very thoughts! He shrugged, acknowledging the Master’s smiling eyes with a self-conscious shake of his curls, and busied himself with his unexpected charge.
After a moment—during which she stuck out her tongue at Rory—Eirien looked up at him, her dark eyes dancing. “Wait!” she said imperiously, “I shall need to get comfortable…” and she began a series of lively adjustments: turning this way and that, settling her head now under his chin and then against his shoulder, her little feet shooting this direction and that, her small hands tugging impatiently at her dress and her blanket. He sat like a stone, not wanting to hamper her, until at last she tugged at his arms, and then he pulled away, not understanding. Indignantly she said, “You have to hold me, so!” and seizing his hands, she pulled his arms about her so that she was tucked up nicely across his lap with her head on his shoulder. “Pull up the blanket now,” she ordered, and carefully he did as he was told, shifting slightly to accommodate her negligible weight in the crook of one arm and carefully spreading the little blanket over her small form.
“All right, then?” he said when all was done, and she nodded, her lavender-scented ribbons tickling his nose. He felt a shift behind him and suddenly Bo’s sturdy legs were supporting his back; he relaxed against them with a sigh. When he looked up again, his eyes met Ella’s: hers were warm with liking before she looked away.
“You have heard of Old Farmer Maggot’s part in the business of the Black Riders’ invasion of the Shire,” the Master began, looking gravely into the eager, upturned faces of the children, “but I think you have not heard what brought Frodo and Sam and Pippin through the Green Hills Country and over the fields to Bamfurlong to begin with, for much of that story is lost now to the Shire and in any case, Old Maggot kept back some of what he knew from his own and other folk. It was his way, to keep secrets sometimes; he knew more than most of us gave him credit for. But I mean to go back to the beginning, to tell you how it was, for as old as I am, my life is rooted in this story, to these strange events of long ago….”
And so the tale began: the finding of the Ring of Power and Frodo Baggins’ brave acceptance of stewardship; the deceptive sale of Bag End and Frodo’s supposed removal to Crickhollow in Buckland; the three hobbits slipping away from Hobbiton like a whisper of wind in the grass beneath the stars. The listeners sat comfortably, absorbing the satisfying details of those long-ago days that only the Master among them could remember. And then, slowly, as the first Black Rider made his baleful appearance and the first icy thread of fear struck at the traveler’s hearts, a pall—like the haze of drifting pipesmoke—began to settle over them: a vague stirring of uneasiness that soon enough settled into the cold, dull weight of dread.
Rory shifted from his prone position on the floor and sat up now next his father’s chair, his hands clasped round his knees and his eyes narrowed. He exchanged a somber glance with Jamy, who answered it in kind, unconsciously drawing Eirien closer when she seemed to shrink, trembling, against him. Ella’s face grew pale and her eyes dark, as if her inner eye conjured even more horror than Grandfather would gently relate, and behind them the adults looked at the Master and at each other and wondered silently what they would have done had fate brought to their lives what their fathers had without warning been challenged to endure.
“Mind,” said the Master, pausing for a moment to replenish his pipe and ease the tension. “I was not along for this part of the journey. This I heard from the others, and read about in The Red Book, which Bilbo and Frodo wrote and Sam finished, and which is now in the Westmarch with Tom’s first sister, Mistress Elanor—though there has been for years a beautiful copy at Tuckborough. I was then setting Crickhollow to rights with Uncle Freddy (though we called him ‘Fatty’ in those days, if you can believe it!) and waiting until it was time to meet, as we had arranged, at the ferry landing.”
The thought of Uncle Fredegar Bolger having once upon a time been known across the Shire as ‘Fatty’ was indeed strange to all the younger folk of Brandy Hall, for —though certainly enthusiastic at mealtimes and known for giving splendid banquets—he had been one of the slenderest hobbits they had ever known. Indeed, even bundled up for winter there was no mistaking Uncle Freddy’s reed-like frame. The story was that he had suffered a ‘reversal’ in the year of the War, but he rarely spoke of it, and seemed content to forget whatever it was altogether so long as he was not pressed about it. “Fatty?” he would say, “Oh, it doesn’t signify.” But as he got older sometimes a fierce light would come into his eyes, and on these occasions he would thump his cane on the floor, as if in his own defense, and stoutly declare: “Well, it had to be done, hadn’t it? And I’m sure I’m not sorry, neither!”
Smoke curled up; the Master took up the story again; and now the listeners’ dread was answered, for the tale turned dark and night fell on the travelers’ perilous road. The Rider came stealthily out of the shadows again, and the listeners held their breath as the unspeakable creature sniffed and skulked after his prey: ‘The stars were thick in the dim sky, but there was no moon…The black shadow stood close to the point where they had left the path, and it swayed from side to side….’
The Master surveyed them through the pale tendrils of pipe smoke, and though he smiled faintly and encouragingly, still there was a shadow of distress on his old and animated face; it was plain to all of them that he was troubled by his memories, and they in sympathy were troubled, too.
But then he rallied: the sound of voices rang in the night air, and a procession of Elves came glimmering through the trees. They listeners drew a sigh of relief: never to any of these able country folk had the thought of song and simple wayfarer’s provisions seemed so sweet and welcome, nor sleep, safe among friends, such a tender respite. Tom’s smile was fond: his own father had ever loved the Elves and all his life had spoken of them with a joy that had passed in kind to his children. There was not a Gamgee-Gardner in the Shire whose heart did not skip a beat for delight where Elves were concerned. The Master of the Hall did not tell all, of course, for the strands of many stories were woven through this one tale, and not all needed be related at once. He added only the alarming fact that there were nine Black Riders in all and that many more than one were abroad in the Shire on that night so long ago.
Now came Great-grandfather Maggot’s part, as the Black Rider made his way boldly up the lane at Bamfurlong, and the Marish dogs, for the first and only time in memory, declined to stand against an intruder. In the Master’s rendering, Old Maggot’s bristling stand—unafraid and uncompromising—more than made up for the dogs, though, and the protection Bamfurlong offered Frodo and the others on that day was obviously still a treasured memory, even for the one hobbit who was then not yet among the hunted. The Master spoke gravely and with great respect of Old Farmer Maggot.
“I think he was a much more important fellow than we imagined at the time,” he said considering, and here he repeated something about the old farmer that had come down to him through mysterious channels from out the Old Forest: “‘There’s earth under his old feet, and clay on his fingers; wisdom in his bones, and both his eyes are open,’ quoted the Master. “And that’s a compliment, my dears,” he added in parenthesis for Rory and Ella and Eirien, “and one his descendents should appreciate, for they are made of the same clay! Strive to come close, and you shall be very fine folk indeed!”
Now at the Master’s suggestion, Rory related the story they had been told in the Marish, the tale of the malevolent visitor who, swathed in black and faceless in the shadows of his cowl, sought to ransom with gold a betrayal that, had the farmer but known it, would have sold the whole world into slavery and darkness forthwith. Rory’s account came from the memories of his own Grandfather Maggot (son of the Patriarch) and all of his numerous great-aunts and uncles, each of whom remembered the eerie night so long ago when their fugitive dinner guests had been spirited away into a thickening mist tucked up in the wagon with Great-grandfather watchful and resolute at the reins—more than a match for any dark strangers, or so they believed. But when the old hobbit had returned later to his family and fireside, he had described the strange climate of fear abroad in the night, and the cold stillness, and the hollow sound of hoofs—clip clop, clip clop—coming toward them through the gloom, and his folk marked that he was shaken by it, and so unusual was this that for a night or two (they owned now) they had wondered and worried about what might happen next.
“And that’s where you come in, Grandfather,” finished Rory, “and now you must tell us what happened there on the dock and after!”
The Master nodded. He paused for a moment and then quietly began to speak. Now it was through his eyes that the story unfolded, as he came out of the fog to find his friends, unprepared for the frightened looks on their tired faces, for the farmer’s haste and uneasiness, for the unspoken dread hanging heavy in the mist over the dock. The images in Ella’s painting rose before the children’s eyes now; they shivered a little, despite the fire burning brightly in the grate.
The Master’s voice wove the dark, desperate crossing on the Brandywine into the fabric of the story with weight and colour, and his audience held their breaths as the ferry slowly navigated the black water, silent toward the pale rings of light on the far shore. Jamy could smell and feel the heavy, dark moisture that slicked the deck, and the tug of the ebony current against the hurrying poles; he knew well the cold sweat that clung to skin and hair and clothing, that would have set them shivering even if they hadn’t been terrified already.
The listeners loosed quiet sighs of relief as the ferry came at last to the dock and the travelers leapt ashore, but too soon respite was denied them all, for just then the specter crawled out of the fog on the western dock, searching and swaying in the murk.
Even the familiar lights of Brandy Hall were no comfort as the fugitives fled up the road toward Bucklebury and Crickhollow—and over the river the Rider disappeared into the gloom. The Master’s eyes were remote in the smoky silver light. ‘What in the Shire is that?’ his voice whispered from out the past and was urgently answered: ‘Something that is following us…Let’s get away at once!’
Jamy’s heart froze in dismay. There was more than one Rider, and the others could then have been anywhere, on either side of the river! What might they meet on the road to Crickhollow? Close against him Eirien felt him tense up; she made a small sound of distress and burrowed against his chest.
“Sweet-heart,” murmured Bo, leaning forward, but Eirien shook her head firmly and Jamy roused himself to whisper, “It’s alright, sir.” He tucked the blanket close around her, shifting her slightly so that she could hide her face beneath it. He was glad of Bo’s solid presence so close behind him; he rather wished he could huddle under a blanket, too. Still, he thought Eirien expected him to do better; it occurred to him now that the Master must have felt the same way so long ago, squinting at shadows across the river while around him his friends made fearful haste to depart.
“There was no time to sort it out there on the road,” the Master mused now, “but I pieced it together as best I could. It was a little over three miles to Crickhollow, normally an hour’s walk, at least. Only I was mounted. I went ahead to make sure the road was clear and to finish the preparations Freddy and I had begun for the evening. The road was dark, and yet darker mists were gathering in the fields. I didn’t know what might be abroad but even from the far side of the river, I had sensed something of it, and I thought I should know if it came close. I felt nothing, though, all the long way along the lane to the house, though I must have peered into every shadow. At Crickhollow Freddy reported nothing amiss, and by the time the others came rushing in—quite ahead of the hour, for they had hurried—Freddy and I were quite sure we were safe and alone.”
The mellow warmth and simple pleasures of Crickhollow were as much a relief to the listeners as to they must have been to the cold and shaken travelers, and Uncle Peregrin’s bath song—which the Master rendered comically—made the children smile and laugh again. Eirien sighed and relaxed against Jamy’s arm and shoulder and Rory blew a long, pensive breath. Ella almost smiled—a far-away look—and Jamy thought she must be painting the warm sanctuary of the little house in her mind.
Now came the revelations of the conspiracy to help Frodo and to accompany him to safety outside the Shire. “Frodo always meant to go on without us,” the Master said, “but we had no intention of letting him go alone. Still, we hadn’t counted on these Black Riders, or on a journey of any long duration. We had anticipated some danger, of course, but we had no sense of what it might be; we thought we were ready for anything.”
He cocked his head and smiled. “The Shire does not breed the kind of fear we should have had,” he said thoughtfully, “and a good thing, too, or we should have been finished before we began. As it was, I think by the time we lay down to sleep that night, we each of us knew we were far and away beyond our reckoning. And so we were…so we were….”
The candles were burning low. The Master pulled pensively on his pipe and loosed a languid smoke ring into the firelight; it caught the glow of the embers and spun for a moment at eye level, shifting gold and red as the little flames flickered in the grate. They watched it in fascination until Rory breathed, “It’s like the Ring!” Dismayed—for he had not been paying particular attention—the Master leaned forward to sweep it into oblivion with his hand. Jamy marked a fleeting expression of grief in his eyes, suddenly so dark and fathomless that not a spark of blue was visible. The boy shivered a little; looking down, he saw that Eirien was fast asleep in his arms, tucked up in her blanket cocoon. But every waking eye reflected the Master’s secret disturbance. Ella laid her cheek against her mother’s skirts and Mrs. Theo reached down to lay a gentle hand across her shoulders.
Waking came to Crickhollow before the light of dawn, and now the fugitives slipped away across the misty fields of the Eastmarch and disappeared into the fog. They rode eastward, slowly and silently following a small grey lane, and from far away they could hear the sounds of the Shire stirring to the new day. No phantom hoof beats sounded behind them but nonetheless they went uneasily, marking every sound and swirl of mist that caught their attention along the road. The Hedge loomed up out of the gloom and with it a startling cut that led downward to a tunnel burrowed beneath the High Hay. There was an iron gate before the entrance to the tunnel, and beyond it was the Old Forest.
“A gate in the Hedge!” Rory sat up, turned astonished eyes to his father. “And a tunnel! Is it still there?”
Theo nodded. “It is. And one day you shall have a key of your own.” Rory sat back with shining eyes.
“It’s true, then?” said Jamy, suddenly remembering the brief education he had received aboard the tinker’s barge this morning. “Brandybucks go walking in the Old Forest?”
“Yes, now and then,” said the Master. He raised a cautionary hand: “But we are bound to reason and rules, as are any travelers abroad. The Forest is another country, and its customs are different than ours. Its reprimands are sometimes swift and unforgiving, Rory, something you have as yet not experienced. It is best to learn all you can of it before you think to wander there.”
“Did you go into the Forest, Grandfather? And did the Black Riders follow?”
“We went,” he said, “and they did not.”
“Why not? Where were they?” The boys did not know whether to be pleased or disappointed.
The Master replied, “They were sniffing out the trail to Crickhollow. It took them three days to find it; I never understood why, once I came to know more about them.” He frowned into the fire.
“The thing was,” he said, looking up suddenly, as if he had reclaimed a train of thought, “that the Black Riders made Uncle Freddy’s task far more dangerous than it was ever meant to be. He was not going away with us; Freddy had no taste for adventure, and he did not consider himself brave in the least. He wished us well, but he wanted no part of going beyond the Shire. His part was to stay on at Crickhollow for as long as it might take to convince people that Frodo was living there, and to tell Gandalf that we had gone, should he arrive at last. A safe and useful plan, saving that as it turned out, it was he who met the Black Riders when they arrived.”
“Save us!” said Bo, sitting up. “What happened?”
“What? Surely I’ve told you this before? Theo?”
Theo shook his head. “No, Father, I don’t think so.” He looked a little uncomfortable, as if he perhaps he did not want to hear what had befallen Uncle Freddy. The truth was he didn’t. ‘More Bolger than Brandybuck’ no doubt spoke to characteristics that Uncle Freddy had possessed in abundance and were mirrored now in him. He flinched a little in anticipation of what might be coming next.
“Well, I can’t think why I didn’t tell you, because it’s the Shire-side of the story. We fled into the Forest with Frodo and the Ring, yes, but Uncle Freddy was left to face the Riders, and three days later, in the dark of night, three of them lifted the latch on the gate at Crickhollow and came into the yard. Freddy was alone in the house and the closest neighbor a mile away.”
He looked around at them, his eyes yet dark in the deep golden glow of the fire. “Remember this,” he said, suddenly serious. “Legend—where it’s told—makes heroes of the four of us who went abroad and fought the larger War, and gives small word, if any, to fellows like Uncle Freddy, who stayed behind and fought it here. He was a simple, good hobbit of the Shire who kept to his own business and wished only to lead a seeming careful life. But make no mistake: Freddy was a hero of the Shire. In time, there were others like him, but he was the first, and the leader.
“The Riders were servants of Sauron, the Dark Lord of Mordor, who meant to cast a Shadow of death and destruction over the whole world. They drove terror before them in a way I cannot begin to describe to you, a black, breath-sucking hammer of fear and misery. The first time I came near to it, I fainted into a black dream. The second time I fell flat on my face, too frightened to move. And the third time I nearly died.”
There was an audible gasp as the children drew back in dismay. “Grandfather!”
He shook his snowy head impatiently. “Well, well, I didn’t die, or you shouldn’t be here, eh? But here’s the point: Uncle Freddy, in the presence of terror that even now I cannot put properly into words, had the wits to bar the door and run out the back for help. He ran a mile to tell his story and for the first time in a hundred years, the horns blew and Buckland was roused to arms against invaders from without. Oh, the door was blown down at Crickhollow, and a trail of wreckage ran through the house, but there was nothing there to find—and by that time Buckland was thoroughly roused. The Black Riders quit the Eastmarch through the Hay Gate before the horns stopped blowing, and all owing to Uncle Freddy’s pluck. That good, quiet fellow defended us, and the Shire—then and later when the land was yet again invaded by thieves and ruffians who had no business here. He was a great heart and very brave, and he suffered for it in ways he never spoke of. I was always very proud to call him my brother.”
Theo’s face flushed with surprise; he glanced at his father in wordless astonishment and then instinctively he looked to Bo. Bo’s eyes were jubilant in the firelight; the smile he returned his brother was love itself. “Modest old gent, too,” he said. “He kept quiet about that adventure for all his life. I know he never told us. I wonder why?”
“I think,” said the Master, a little sadly, “that he thought you were already provided with enough family history to make you proud. I thought I had told you….or perhaps I thought your mother had…well, I’ve told you now and you’ll not forget, will you?”
Theo shook his head wordlessly.
“Father,” said Berry. “Didn’t they worry after you?”
“Worry?” he said, “The Riders?”
“No, your folk—yours, and Uncle Peregrin’s, and Master Sam’s. You disappeared for quite a long while. Did they know what had become of you?”
He shook his head, smiling at his only daughter, who took such pains to look after him. “No,” he said, sighing. “They didn’t. Remember, we hadn’t expected to be gone long enough to be missed, or to go in such a hunted fashion. Once the Black Riders were the talk of Buckland, Freddy went to my father, but the Masters of the Hall always had great faith in the integrity of the Old Forest, and my father did not think to be uneasy right away.”
“But surely he came to be afraid for you, as time went by?”
He turned his gaze to the fire and cocked his head, remembering. “Oh yes,” he murmured. “He most certainly did.” He sighed again and his eyes grew vague with the memory of what had befallen the folk they had so casually left behind.
When two weeks had passed and no word came, Saradoc Brandybuck went into the Old Forest. But the trees blocked his passage and turned him back in a circle to the gate three times, and finally he had to admit defeat. It was the first and worst of his life. He rode back through Bucklebury and the look on his face told all: “They’re lost or dead, then,” the Bucklanders said to one another, “and dead’s more likely.”
Saradoc went home and shut himself up in his study, cold with despair. Esmeralda, being a Took, held on. Merry was her only living child. If hope was all she had for his life, then hope she would hold until she had proof of anything worse.
Toward sunset of the second day of Saradoc’s retreat, Esmeralda carried a tea tray in to her husband, who sat crushed with horror before the fire. “I don’t want any tea,” he muttered. “I want my son.” “He’ll be back,” she said firmly. “But for now, Farmer Maggot’s come round to see you.” “I’m not receiving,” he said darkly. “Tell him to go away!”
Esmeralda went out, and a few minutes later there came a sharp rap on the windowpane. The round, cheerful face of Farmer Maggot appeared in the window next the table where Saradoc sat morosely taking his tea. “Be off with you, man!” growled Saradoc. “I’m not the Master today!”
“Open up, you fool!” laughed the farmer. “I’ve news of your lads! I have it on good authority that they passed through the Old Forest in safety and made their way to Bree. I wager you’ll hear something of them there.”
Saradoc left the remains of his tea and rode through the night to Bree, where he made brisk and urgent inquiries. “Oh yes,” said Butterbur the innkeeper, sure of his memories this time. “Safe and whole they were, but it was a queer business, and they went away to the east with a Ranger, name of Strider.”
“A Ranger! What’s that?”
“Oh, don’t you be worrying on that score, Mr. Brandybuck,” said Butterbur. “Rangers are a hard folk, to be sure, but they’re good fellows to have about in times of trouble. Your lads will be safe enough with Strider. He’ll look after ‘em.” And that was all the news.
Saradoc went home as mollified as he could be for the time being, given the mystery of the business to begin with. He and Esmeralda sent word to Tuckborough, where the Thain and his family had been quietly distraught over the weeks as well. From Tuckborough the news traveled on by private messenger to Bagshot Row. Gaffer Gamgee was much obliged, and as no one up at Bag End was worth talking to (as The Took’s messenger also well knew), he kept it to himself.
The weeks passed and autumn with them, and when the snow began to fly, they started to wonder again. The Shire lay beneath a perpetual blanket of white, and the streams were starting to freeze over; they gathered everything into the barns and stoked the fires, and all the while they wondered where in the Wide World their sons might be, and why they were not safe at home, and if they had a fire and a blanket and enough to eat. There was no post and there were no messages, and since Mr. Butterbur had faithfully promised to inform Mr. Brandybuck of any news that might come to him in Bree, it was clear there was no news. And so the silent winter wore on.
Yule was two weeks past when there came an unprecedented freeze. Paladin Took rode into the hills to see how some of his livestock were bearing the cold. The beasts gathered round him, complaining bitterly of the frozen stream that wound through the pasture; he and they could see the water flowing beneath the ice, clear and cold and remote. He set to work clearing a thick patch, beating at it with a sharp stone, but it would not yield. The water continued to rush beneath and beyond his reach, just as the weeks and months had done since Pippin and the others had gone, inexorably moving on without a thought for the anguished hearts left behind in time that now stood still.
He beat at the ice with the stone, and then stabbed at it with his dagger. It stuck to the hilt, and he grappled with it. Losing the struggle, his loss unexpectedly engulfed him: Pippin! Oh, save us, lad, where are you? There was no sound, save that of the water passing coldly beneath the ice. He slumped beside it, weeping now with fury and despair. Where is my son?
Suddenly, a fierce light bloomed in the depths and heat seemed to well against his palms; the freezing water came bubbling freely up and over his hands and wrists and drowned his sleeves to the elbow. Gasping from the shocking cold, he scrambled up as a shadow fell across the snow. He jerked back in alarm; an Elf, tall and shimmering slightly in the pale grey light, stood on the other side of the stream.
“You are the Thain?”
Briefly Paladin touched the silver and carnelian clasp at his throat. He took a breath, brushed at the tears that wet his cheeks, and stood up. “I am,” he said.
“We are well met, then,” said the Elf. “For I was sent to seek you. I come with news from Elrond, Lord of Rivendell. Your son and his companions have sheltered there these past months. Lord Elrond bids me tell you they have been well.”
Paladin’s relief spilled out into the cold air in a gusty white cloud, followed by desperate questions. “Rivendell! Why? How did they come there? When are they coming back?”
The Elf shook his head gravely. “Lord Elrond wished the two youngest to return, but they would not. Nay, do not think they stray from you uncaring! They are swept up in great events that none until now could foresee, and have gone east across the mountains in company with their kinsman, Frodo Baggins, who is tasked with a quest that takes him into Darkness.”
“Across the mountains! The Misty Mountains? But that’s madness! What Darkness?”
“I am to say to you: the Dark Lord is returned.”
Paladin rocked back. He knew virtually nothing of affairs Outside, but it was his business to know something of any threats there had ever been to the Shire. There were books hidden far back in the Smials that only a very few Tooks and certainly no other hobbits had ever seen. He thought of his only son and panic nearly smothered his heart.
“He’s just a boy!”
“So too said Lord Elrond. But the Wizard deemed that each might have a part to play in the days to come. In any case, do not despair, for they are a goodly company, nine Walkers in all: the Wizard Gandalf, two princes of Men, an Elf, a Dwarf, and the four sons of the Shire. There are many to protect and teach your young ones along the way; they will be ready to meet whatever destiny awaits them.”
Paladin closed his eyes. “Destiny! How can he have a destiny in the Wide World when he is not even come of age in the Shire…?”
The Elf was silent. “May the stars shine upon your hopes,” he said at last, “and on ours beyond the Shire, that destiny may favour the path of Light.” Paladin shivered to think that even the Elves were helpless. But he bowed his head in respectful assent and squeezed his eyes tight shut against any more tears. When he looked up again, the Elf was gone, faded like the mist, he thought, into the shadow of the hills.
The stream bubbled up at his feet and the beasts nudged him aside. By the time he had ridden home, he had his terror well in check and the larger picture pretty well in mind. His heart was wrung, but he told himself Pippin would do the best he could, and Merry and Frodo, too, in the long, eccentric tradition of the Tooks from whom they were all three descended. And had he not heard more than once from Bilbo that young Samwise was as steady a fellow as anyone could wish for? Paladin kissed and reassured his wife (who was a Banks, but beautiful and possessed of astonishing courage), sat down and wrote a letter to his sister at the Hall, and then saddled up and rode to Hobbiton.
“Well, I don’t hold with adventuring, sir,” the Gaffer told him with grave simplicity over a half-pint of excellent ale at The Ivy Bush. “Never think I won’t speak sharp to my Sam when he gets back. This is what comes of reading storybooks, I reckon. But I think they’ll all get on all right, as long as young Mr. Frodo’s there alongside them—and that nuisance of a Wizard is about somewhere.”
“Hah! Questing!” sniffed Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, wondering vaguely why Lotho was conducting business (and eavesdropping) in dark, secluded corners of the Ivy Bush, of all places. “Well, I’m sure Frodo can do as he likes; but Bag End is mine, and that’s flat.”
It was the last news of the missing granted any of them until the Battle of Bywater.
The Master blinked, looking round. He had wandered far; these had been his father’s memories, and his uncle’s, filtered down through the years until they had, by default, become his own, and Pippin’s. Where before they had seemed an interesting aside, tonight they gripped his heart.
“Bless you, my dears!” he said. “I was remembering my father, and Pippin’s and Sam’s, and how long they waited for us without word. We do not always understand our fathers when we are young, you know; nor do they understand us. A year had gone when I met my father again on the road to Buckland after the Battle of Bywater. I was never so glad to see him in all my life; I didn’t say so, but I forgave him in an instant for every wrong I had ever imagined of him—and being young, I assure you I had imagined many.”
“And what did he do?” asked Berry, a smile tugging at her lips.
“Thrashed me, of course, you impudent girl!” said the Master, laughing softly. “And hugged me until I thought my ribs would break. And laughed and wept. Poor fellow!”
“But wasn’t he angry, Grandfather?” Rory looked uncertainly at his own father, who settled a fond hand on his shoulder.
“He certainly had every right to be,” said the Master frankly. “But sometimes fear has a way of putting things to rights. There were times during that year when I thought I should die at any minute and never see the Shire or any of my folk again; and there were times when he was sick to death with fear that I should not live to come back. So when we met in the road, all that mattered was that we were together again, and all our quarrels were forgotten as if they had never been.”
Rory was silent and Theo smiled at his father with a seeming wry and gentle affection. Jamy ducked his head; it seemed no one but the Master—watching covertly from his place in the firelight—saw the tear that slipped down his cheek, or caught the furtive movement that brushed it away.
“Well,” said the Master, rising to gather their attention. “That’s as much as I can tell you of Black Riders in the Shire tonight.”
“When did you meet them again, Grandfather?” Ella asked. “You said you met them three times.”
“Ah, those are stories for another day,” he said soberly. “Far too long and frightening to tell tonight. It’s been a long day, and another tomorrow; it’s time we were all in bed.”
Mrs. Theo rose and bent over Jamy to take Eirien from his arms. “I thought she must be sleeping,” she said low, “else she would never have been so quiet. But you must be stiff and sore from holding her all this while.”
“No, mistress,” Jamy raised his head and flashed a sudden, sparkling smile. “She only weighs a feather.” He lifted her a little, so that Mrs. Theo could slide her arms around her. Eirien did not wake, but sighed and clasped at her blanket.
Mrs. Theo straightened up, holding Eirien in her arms. “She took quite a liking to you,” she said, smiling kindly. “Have you a small brother or sister at home, then?”
“No.” He shook his head, lowering his eyes again. “There’s only me.”
“Are you tired?” he asked, noting that the lad certainly looked to be, his face pale and drawn in the firelight.
“Yes, sir.” The boy sighed. “That was a splendid story, sir! Though I could see right enough why you said it was easier to tell it than to be in it.” He shivered. “Could I ask you, sir, what happened to Mr. Frodo and the Ring?”
The Master looked at him curiously. “Why do you ask?” he said.
“Because you and the Thain and Master Samwise are all accounted for, but I’ve heard no word of Mr. Frodo. Didn’t he come back with you, sir?”
“He did,” said the Master faintly, “but he went away again not long after. He has not been in the Shire for many years.”
The boy was silent, and if he had more questions he did not ask them as they paced the corridor together back to the Master’s study. Bo was to meet them after he sat for a few minutes with Tom and Theo to discuss the plan for the morrow, and Berry was gathering bedding. Jamy was meant to sleep in an extra bed in Bo’s room that night so that they might rise early for the journey to Haysend.
The study was warm and shadowed, the dying firelight revealing only the circle of the hearth and the heirlooms above it, both the working and dining lofts dark and silent. The sword blade gleamed in the pale light and the ironwork on the shield glinted; on the chimneypiece the strange, shining glass vial shimmered red-gold as embers.
“The little bird must be sleeping,” said the Master quietly, taking up a straw and lighting the lamp and several thick candles so that a warm glow leaped up around the room. “I hate to wake and frighten her, after her long day, but she will be on the mend as soon as her wing is set to rights. Fierce she was in defense of her young, wasn’t she, to fly up against that black demon of a crow?”
“Aye, like Farmer Maggot and Master Bolger against the Black Riders,” Jamy agreed, peering at Ella’s painting, and the Master looked at him over his shoulder and smiled.
The mother bird chirped anxiously as the Master drew her out of the basket. He held her in one hand for a moment, frowning in concentration, and then before she knew it, he spread the wing and found the dislocation, and set it quickly then and there to rights. She peeped, more in surprise than anything, and then fluffed and ruffled her feathers. He set her back down on her nest and laid the lid over the basket, turning to the shelves to rummage among the various bottles. Jamy came curiously to see. At length the Master took the stopper from a small pottery jar, took up one of the leaves that were scattered over the table and poured a handful of seed into it. He motioned to Jamy to open the basket again, and settled the leaf down inside. Then he filled a tiny wooden bowl with water from the kettle next the fire, doused the candle in the loft, and tucked the small patient up for the night.
“That should do it,” he said, well satisfied. “And when you and Rory get back from Haysend, why then you can all find a safe place to settle her and her nest again.”
Jamy sighed contentedly, and just then Berry and Bo arrived, their arms full of blankets and pillows. “There’s my bargeman,” said Bo. “Come along then, I want you well-rested for tomorrow.”
Jamy took two steps toward the door and stopped. He turned and looked longingly around the room and then to the Master. “Sir?” he said hesitantly. “Could I—do you think I might—well, sleep here tonight?”
“Here?” the Master replied, surprised. “But there is no bed, lad. I expect those hearthstones are quite unyielding.”
“It’s no matter,” he said hopefully. “All I need is a blanket. I’m used to sleeping on the deck, and lately in a barn!”
Berry and Bo looked at one another. “We could make up a bed before the fire,” she said. “Don’t you remember, Father, when we used to sleep in here?”
He laughed. “Why, yes I do!” he said. “What made you stop?”
“We weren’t used to sleeping on the deck,” said Bo, chucking a pillow at Jamy. “Those hearthstones are brutal! Will I have to come down and haul you out, lad, or do you wake like the fishes before the crack of dawn?”
“I’ll be up,” Jamy promised. “I can stay then, sir?”
“There is nothing like camping on stones to make you appreciate a feather bed,” the Master said dryly, but he nodded just the same, smiling quietly. “The bird may skip about a bit,” he cautioned, “and there are some crickets in the jars, and a frog.”
“Just like the river,” Jamy said happily, as Berry deftly wrapped some of the floor pillows in the bedding and covered them over with blankets. “Thank you, sir!”
The Master knocked his pipe against the fireplace stones and emptied the contents into the fire. Then he reached to set his pipe into the rack on the chimney shelf. “I generally take my morning tea here,” he said. “So I shall see you in the morning, eh?” He turned to pick up the letter from the King of Rohan and tucked it into his pocket. Bo joined him at the door. “Sleep well, lad,” he said kindly, as they departed. “The fire should stay warm the night.”
Berry pulled back the blankets. “Into bed now; and don’t you be laying awake all night looking at that sword and wondering what manner of tale my father has to tell of it!”
He laughed, hanging his jacket over a chair and slipping in shirt and breeks under the soft blankets. They smelled faintly of cedar, and the pillow was soft with down. Berry snuffed the candles and bent to douse the lamp. The room went dark save for the spill of golden firelight.
“Goodnight, Jamy Bucket,” she said from the door.
“I like Tom. You’ll marry him soon, won’t you?”
She caught her breath. “Impertinent!” she shot back, and he laughed softly as she closed the door behind her.
He lay quietly, amazed to find himself in this place, among such folk as these, and welcome, too. One by one the extraordinary experiences of the day came back to him and he smiled, peaceful and tired. The bed was very soft and warm. He looked at Ella’s picture, propped on the chimney shelf, and shivered to think of the Black Riders, and of the Master’s disappearance into the Wide World with his friends, all of them in danger. He thought too of the tears that had come upon him so unexpectedly when the Master spoke of meeting his father again. A few more wet his lashes now as he remembered his trouble, but he sniffed indignantly and brushed his eyes against the pillow and turned those thoughts away.
He looked up at the sword and the shield again, glimmering in the firelight, thinking of the King who was dying now in Rohan, and listened pensively to the soft song of the frogs and crickets in the jars in the loft. The wood in the grate shifted softly and the light dimmed. He yawned and snuggled into the blankets. Through heavy lids he looked up one last time too see the dark outline of the books and the pipe rack and the silver horn on the mantle; vaguely it occurred to him that the glass vial was no longer there. The bird peeped softly and ruffled her wings; seeds cracked in her sharp beak. He sighed away to sleep, dreaming of the river.