"Riders of Rohan! What news from the Mark?"

he Eastmarch Postmaster had his hands full, and no mistake. The merchants of Buckland and Bree were a cooperative lot; business had ever been tight between them, and twice a year, at spring and harvest, shopkeepers’ goods flew back and forth from the lands of the Little Folk and Big at a great rate. On this temperate day at winter’s end, a hazy day, hopeful of spring, his dock was piled high with crates and cartons, his messengers were all abroad, and here were more wagons approaching the Hay Gate—and from both sides, too!— with all manner of commodities that must be accounted and stamped before he could pass them through to the waiting tradesmen.

“Save me!” he muttered, digging into the common post-bag, set to the side for the last two days on account of the crush, and extracting a fistful of letters. “I won’t have it, I tell you! Whether or not Violet Banks has red silk ribbons from Bree for her shop window tomorrow, the regular post must see through today! Folk need news before they need ribbons! And faith—look what’s been a-lying about with Aunt Pansy’s recipes, I’ve no doubt! And won’t it be a cautious business if it lies any longer! Oh, dear!”

The letter was addressed to the Master of the Hall in Buckland, tucked up into a soft leather packet, tied about with bright green cords and fastened with two great burgundy seals on which were impressed the striking emblem of the Horse Lords of Rohan. Time was when such a device would have incited a fair amount of curiosity in Buckland, but it had not for many years now, for the Master of the Hall, though every inch a hobbit, was a full Knight of Rohan with livery and arms, and there hung in his Hall a banner that was a gift from the king of that far country of Men to the south. The folk of the Hall were wont to be a bit proud on the subject of Meriadoc the Magnificent, it was true, but the Master himself never made any boastful mention of his lofty connections and conducted himself as a right proper hobbit and Master ought, and so fair and fortunate had been his long management of Buckland and the Hall that no one thought the worse of him for being ‘a bit of a Took’ and a shocking gadabout.

It was a strange thing, this new and open fondness for travel (which you could take to mean adventure without stretching the point) amongst the Great Houses. Tongues had wagged more readily that first time, of course—Mad Baggins being fresh still in memory and perpetually under suspicion—but folk had been inclined to be forgiving of the young Travelers when they reappeared, stern and shining in their strange Outland gear, to rout the Ruffians at the Battle of Bywater. After all, the lads were young, and all but one descended of Tooks, and there had been a wizard and some devilry of a Ring involved. Old Scattergold had blessed his truant heir’s return with a roar of joy and a sweeping embrace that included a thump or two for good measure, and Thain Paladin had fallen weeping with relief on young Peregrin’s neck, and the wicked runaways had themselves wept freely and fondly while claiming some very serious justification, and all was set to rights again, though Gaffer Gamgee had a thing or two to say, and did so, it was reported, every night for the better part of six months of an evening at The Ivy Bush down in Hobbiton.

The future Master and Thain had spent a few seasons at Crickhollow following their homecoming, and such goings-on as there had been in those days the postmaster remembered now with an old man’s wistful smile, for he had been but a lad then and Peregrin and Meriadoc had been merry young gentlehobbits, and strong and lively, going freely about their business with the Shire’s indulgence and warm regard. Lost in youthful admiration with the other lads of the East Farthing, he had often seen them, resplendent in their fine surcoats, laughing in the Bucklebury pubs, galloping along the paths and splashing through the shallows on their fierce little ponies, the first of that small, hardy breed to come up from the grasslands of Rohan. But as he grew older he saw that they were not all about laughter and finery, for there was a gravity of attention in their bearing that spoke to lessons not taught in the Shire, to harsh, unnamed experience beyond any thought of Ruffians—experience such as Shirefolk might hope to avoid. There was an elusive strangeness about them that set them apart, then and ever after, like nestlings faintly scented with the essence of prowling intruders, but they were too much admired for their amiable ways and confident leadership to be denied for long, and no one could say they had not given their best and more for the Shire as the years grew upon them.

Soon enough the Travellers had all taken up such duties as family and Shire custom decreed they must, and filled with the joy of youth and self-reliance, they set aside their arms and shining coats to help in the reconstruction of the Shire. Afterwards, Merry and Pippin were known to have come and gone again to the Outside on several more occasions, journeying, it was said, to Rohan and Gondor and the Elvish lands, and turning up again with a wink and a smile just when everyone thought they were gone for good.

“I expect they belong there too, now,” Sam Gamgee offered mildly over a half a pint at The Green Dragon in answer to the effect this had. “They’ve many friends abroad who won’t soon forget them.” And in the end it was decided over the cups that this was might be deemed a good thing—that the Shire should be known and its people esteemed in all the King’s lands—as long as the rest of the Shirefolk were blessedly left out of having anything to do with it. And in any case the early adventuring had come to an end before the decade was out, for obligation proved inescapable.

When Scattergold began to fade and it was clear that his father was not long for the Hall, Merry Brandybuck— by this time a traveler, scholar and naturalist of some repute, and at fifty a seeming bachelor in the dubious tradition of Mad Baggins—had turned with sudden solemn attention to the business of the Hall and the affairs of Buckland, and taken up the duties of his inheritance. He had also attended, at long last, on the gentle, winsome Estella Bolger, sister of Fredegar, who (it was generally known) had waited quietly for him and no other for years. Estella was quite willing to pack his books and his bags—and hers—if the mood for a journey came upon him, and it did, now and again. The Bucklanders looked askance in private but acted as though it were all in a days’ work the rest of the time, and if the Master’s travels were frowned upon, his association with kings was not, for he proved a fair and clever chieftain for Buckland, and his folk came to greatly esteem him. In time they bestowed upon him the title Magnificent, and they used it frequently, with a fierce and loyal pride. And when Scattergold had passed into legend, the long tenure of Meriadoc the Magnificent was judged even more remarkable than his father’s, for in these long years Buckland had known unsurpassed bounty and beauty and good husbandry, and the Magnificent’s sturdy guidance had made it so.

The young Peregrin Took—not yet even of age upon his return!—had come back to the Shire with the riotous spirit that had marked his miscreant boyhood tempered to a sparkling sweetness and overlaid at times with a decidedly un-Tookish seriousness and depth of perception. Peregrin wore the livery and arms of Gondor on special occasions and this accorded him considerable dash, even by Took standards. This he amplified with an early and passionate marriage to the remarkable Diamond of Long Cleeve, an enchanting raven-haired maiden sprung of the far-flung wilds of the North Farthing. With Diamond (who was a North-Took and whom some maintained was the rapturous incarnation of the ancient fairy-wife of clan legend) he had established as solid and spirited a House as the Tooks could ever hope for, and when the mantle of the Thain descended upon him some years later, Peregrin had met his duty squarely on. He had been The Took these fifty years now, and the Green Hills folk would speak and hear nothing but good of their light-hearted Thain, whose easy nobility matched his just, open-handed management of their hereditary lands, and did so with laughter, ample ale, frequent celebration and profitable returns for all.

And as for plain Sam Gamgee out in Hobbiton, the hard-working Gardener of the Shire had been elected Mayor more times than anyone could remember in consequence of his diligence and measured judgment, and the Shire had prospered and bloomed in all ways beneath his steady hand and solidly comforting presence. Sam had taken Rose Cotton to wife as soon as was decently possible after his surprising return to the Shire with a sword and a velvet cloak and a mysterious box of Elvish blessings, and together they had tended gardens and children and the memories left on the Hill for over fifty years. Sam was gone from the family home at Bag End now (rest him wherever he may be away with his girl in the west), but his young folk were the Wardens of Westmarch and the Gardners of the Hill, and among his grandchildren was a Took who would without doubt one day be the Thain, and it was widely agreed that all the Gamgee-Gardners, no matter where they were or what they did, were among the finest hobbits to be found in the Shire.

Only the fair and solemn Frodo of the Nine Fingers had not lived on in the Shire to see these long years; early on it was whispered that he had gone quietly away with the Elves, and while no one could prove it, it seemed a reasonable conjecture that he had followed Mad Baggins somewhere beyond the Shire. Frodo had been born a Baggins, but of a Brandybuck mother, and had come up an orphan in the great warren of Brandy Hall. To this day, the Hall raised a solemn cup to the memory of Frodo Baggins at every festival they observed, and on each and every occasion, down through all the years, the Magnificent was observed to put a sleeve to his tear-bright eyes before he tipped up the cup. No doubt, there was much about the missing Frodo that the Shire had not thought to ask, for the Thain and the Mayor also held private observances, and it was reported that in their great Houses as well a cup drunk in honour of Frodo Baggins was set down again to quiet echoes of grief.

They had drunk the Master’s hundredth birthday two years past. Then there had been gifts and a slew of greetings from the Outside, including a letter from the High King in Gondor, he that was called Elessar. The Master had taken delivery of the silken package with a smile that lit his face like a boy’s, and he toasted the king’s health with gusto and a fine speech. He was an elderly hobbit, to be sure, but strong yet; the Hall would likely not see a new Master for some years to come.

steady, if tentative, knocking at the door interrupted the postmaster’s time-misted reverie. “What?” he shouted irritably, setting aside the rest of the post in favor of the packet for the Hall. “Who is it and what do you want?”

“Begging your pardon, sir.” One of the boys hired up from the river to help with the cartons in the yard peeked in around the door. He was a sharp-faced little imp with a mass of chestnut curls, the deep tan (part sun, part dirt) that spoke to a river-rat, and pale green eyes that were alight with some alarm. “If you please, sir, Mistress Banks says she will cane all of us if we don’t give up her boxes in the next five minutes. I think she means it, sir; she has a cane, and full hard and wicked it looks, too.”

“What? Stand the line! You lot guard those cartons with your lives! I won’t have people taking whatever they please from my dock without authorization—which I give or they don’t get!”

“Please, sir, it’s only my life what’s left—the others have run to the barn. Take my word, sir, no river pirate could be worse than Mistress Banks in a temper. I can’t hold her off for long without I have a weapon. You’ll have to come out, sir, or tell my father why I died on land (whereat you mind he put me for safekeeping!) and not as a decent river hobbit ought!”

The postmaster growled as Mistress Banks’ strident tones were heard to rise from the yard. The boy clung to the door with an expression of acute anxiety.

“Blast! The post can’t wait—leastways not this letter! Tell Mistress Banks to step in here directly.” The old hobbit had a thought suddenly as the boy reluctantly disengaged from the relative security of the doorpost and turned to face his doom. “Wait! Come in here. Let me see your hands. Ho! As I suspected: filthy! You tell the Mistress to step in and then go make yourself presentable, boy. I mean as clean as you’re able now; I’ll need you to carry a letter up to the Hall.”

“It’s only of working,” the boy scoffed, proud of his grubby condition. “Don’t they work at the Hall?”

“Indeed they do, you cheeky hobgoblin,” exclaimed the postmaster, waving the letter in his face, “but I’ll not have the King of Rohan’s fine leather packet, which as may hold Important Business of the Southern Crown, smudged with dirt and fish bait! Off with you, and hurry, or I’ll throw you back to the Mistress!” The boy flashed a wide smile and withdrew and the thump of the cane was heard to raise a racket upon the porch stair. “Please to step this way, Mistress,” came the boy’s voice, somewhat strangled in tone, and momentarily it was hard to tell whether fear or mirth was responsible for its breathless quaver. The cane banged on the boards, and there came a sudden merry gush of laughter and then the scuffle of scampering feet, beating a hasty retreat in a hail of outrage.

In the end the Buckleberry merchants, who seemed determined to mill underfoot anyway, were set to helping organize the yard (“in your own best interests!”), and the postmaster took a moment to impress with some severity upon his newly scrubbed and duly installed messenger the notion that his letter should not be surrendered to any save the Master of the Hall. “Don’t you be handing it in to just anybody at the gate now,” he admonished. “You make sure it flies true to The Magnificent and no one else! Can you mark him?”

“The Master? No, sir. I can’t say as I’ve ever seen him. But I ain’t long up from Sarn Ford, you know.” The boy had also changed his shirt and put on a fairly presentable jacket. Up from the country, and a fast learner, it seemed. The postmaster thought he might do after all.

“Well, no matter,” he said, handing over the precious packet. “You know where to find the Hall. I expect you’ve seen it often enough from the river. Just state your business when you get there, and someone will show you where to find the Master.”

“Won’t he be asleep by his fireside, then? He’s prodigious old, isn’t he?”

“I’ll ‘old’ you! They don’t call the Master ‘Magnificent’ for nothing! He’s no such old fellow as you’re used to seeing—no doddering old river sot taking his ease with pipe and pint all the daylong. As full of spit and tricks as I am, is the Master, and me twenty years younger, too! You watch your step, and don’t go being impertinent, neither! I shan’t answer for sauce.”

The boy nodded, fairly impressed. The downriver hobbits prided themselves that there was no tougher breed of hobbit than they, but it appeared there were a few landlubbers who knew their way about as well. “Am I to take the road, sir, or the river? It’s fair twenty miles.”

“I know how far it is! No, seeing as this is urgent, there’ll be a barge as will give you a ride. Can you manage that? Otherwise I can put you on the Buckland Road with one of the merchants within the hour. I’ll rest easier to know that packet’s made its destination as soon as ever it can.”

The boy weighed his options for as long as it took to flick an eye toward Mistress Burrows, now bullying the yard hands bent to the task of lifting boxes into her cart. “I’ll take the river,” he said with prompt decision, and tucking the letter into the pocket of his jacket, he favored the postmaster with a brilliant smile and departed for the docks.

“Puts me in mind of the Thain somehow,” the old hobbit mused, turning with a sigh to the teeming yard. “Such a smile as he had when the Shire was young—and we were too, alas!”