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And Where Are the Children?  by Larner

And Where Are the Children?



            Frodo Baggins, deputy Mayor to the Shire since the return of the Travellers nearly two months earlier, looked up from the packing of his saddlebags at the knock at his door.  “Feel free to enter,” he called.

            But it was not Lily Cotton or Rosie who entered the room granted him by the Cottons.  No, it was Sam, and with as concerned an expression as Frodo had seen on the gardener’s face since the Battle of Bywater.

            “What is it, Sam?” Frodo asked.  “Has something gone amiss?”

            Sam shook his head.  “You gettin’ ready to head to Michel Delving?  Well, would you feel up to a ride to the Binbale Woods first?  There’s somethin’ as I’d like your thoughts on.”

            “The Binbale Woods?  Have they been cut down by the Big Men also?”  Frodo felt a thrill of dismay at the thought of it.  He and Bilbo had camped there several times after his return to Hobbiton as Bilbo’s ward, and since then he had gone there with various cousins at different times.  He’d loved the quiet of the place, and the majesty of its trees.  Now he knew it was but a pale shadow of older and wilder forests, but it seemed the dearer for its familiarity and by being a part of their beloved Shire.

            The shake of Sam’s head became more definite.  “No, it don’t seem as they was, but it’s not for lack of thought on it.  Or so it would seem.  But you’ll see that when we get there.  No, the Big Men appear to of considered it—strongly!  But it’s somethin’ different as I’d have you see as bothers me the more.  If’n, of course, you feel up to the further ride.”

            Frodo considered.  “Well, I’m not expected at the Whitfoots’ until tomorrow.  I’d thought to perhaps surprise them by arriving today so as to start early in the Mayor’s office in the morning.  So, yes, I’ll go.”

            Sam gave a single nod.  “That’s set, then.  I’ve talked with the Wheatens as has the farm nearby, and they’d be glad to let us sleep there, if’n it takes as long as I suspect.”

            “I see,” Frodo commented.  It was late in Foreyule, and, as much as he loved sleeping under the stars, memories of spending the end of this month a year ago tramping through the wild, heading south from Rivendell, made him unwilling to do similarly this year.  Sleeping in the Wheatens' extra bedroom on their farm was far preferable to being forced to sleep outside in the cold.  At least the weather was clear right now, so their warm cloaks would not become sodden during the ride.

            Strider and Bill were saddled and bridled by the time he emerged from the Cottons’ home, water bottles and saddlebags over his shoulder and a covered basket of provisions pressed on him by Lily carried in his arms.  Sam took the basket and fastened it behind Bill’s saddle while Frodo set his saddlebags in place and checked Strider’s girth and hackamore to see the pony was comfortable and the saddle secure  Together they mounted, bade their hosts and Freddy Bolger farewell for the moment, and set off for the farm gate and the road north through Hobbiton to Overhill and beyond.

“And how are the Wheatens?” Frodo asked.  He remembered the family well, considering how they’d met back when Pippin was fifteen.  Pippin had tried scrumping their farm only to be cornered by their billy goat.  It could have turned nasty had the good farmer not come out just at the right time to lead the goat back off to his pen.

            ”They’re doin’ pretty well, all told,” Sam answered.  “They had a good deal of their produce hid in a bolt hole near their woodlot, so them didn’t lose as much as many did.  The Gatherers and Sharers got what was in the root cellar by their hole, but they had plenty to see them through this winter even if we’d not got back when we did.  The Big Men took their pigs, goats, and chickens, but didn’t think to look in the tool shed where they’d hid what hams and such as they’d put by.  But Missus Wheaten is hard put to understand as to why they took her spinnin’ wheel and loom, but left all her wool.”

            Frodo remembered that the Wheatens raised goats renowned for the fine wool they produced.  Missus Wheaten’s yarns and fabrics had won prizes at the Free Fair for decades, and products of her wheel and loom were coveted throughout the Shire.  She must be devastated by the losses her family had suffered.

            “There have been no reports of looms or spinning wheels having been found in the storage rooms at Michel Delving or anywhere within the Brockenbores.  A new cache was found outside Overhill the other day.  Perhaps we shall find the loom and wheel there.  I suggest they file a report of what was taken with the Mayor’s office so they might have their property returned once it is found.”

            “If’n them Big Men didn’t just use it all for firewood,” Sam muttered.  “I doubt as the goats survived, though.  To lose so much of their livelihood—that’s the worst part of it.”

            Frodo could only nod his agreement.  “It is much the same all over the Westfarthing,” he commented.  “Those with dairies have lost churns, scalding pans, and butter molds as well as their best milk cows.  The smith at Little Delving had his best hammers and his great anvil taken, not to mention most of his store of iron bars.  Sawyers and woods-Hobbits have had their axes, saws, mauls, wedges, chains, and draught teams confiscated.  And your sister Daisy and her husband weren’t the only clothing merchants to have their stocks of fabric stolen outright.  That happened to tailors, seamstresses, and embroiderers across the Shire, north and south, east and west, considering the tales brought to Michel Delving.”

            As they approached Overhill, Frodo took a lane leading east rather than the road straight into the village.  “Goin’ to see the Boffin place?” Sam asked.

            Frodo’s expression was grim.  “Yes.  I cannot believe the low pettiness Lotho displayed as he had the homes of my closest cousins and companions destroyed.”

            “Couldn’t get back at you for not leavin’ him Family Head for the Bagginses, not once we was gone out of the Shire,” Sam agreed, “so him targeted the few closest kith and kin as him could get at, or so it seems.”

            “Cousin Wisteria was devastated to lose her home, or so Folco tells me.  Not that Folco is any happier to know that their hole was caved in.”

            Sam followed as Frodo led the way to the area where the Boffin hole had been dug, high onto a ridge that looked down at what had been fertile fields and orchards.  As they approached the ruins of the hilltop that had covered the smial they could see where trees had been felled and hedges raggedly hacked down.  At last Frodo pulled Strider to a halt and swung down from the saddle, walking forward to examine where the door had stood, his face paler than usual.  “It’s not right!” he said, his voice low.  He walked into the ruins of the hole, carefully stepping over fallen stones and piles of earth, pausing to look down at portions of the roots of the roof tree that lay in twisted heaps now upon what had once been a brightly tiled floor.  He walked through the kitchen, past the side passages that had led to the bathing room and bedrooms, and out to the second parlor where he’d spent many pleasant evenings visiting with his cousin and his mother.  There had been a great porch here looking down upon the fields.  “My father built the railing that surrounded this porch,” he explained.  “I remember him turning the spindles upon his lathe and shaping the rail that surrounded the porch.   And he carved the wisteria blossoms into the back of Cousin Wisteria’s rocking chair.  How she loved sitting in it here, looking down at the barley fields below her, and breathing in the scent of the apple blossoms in the spring.”

            Sam sighed.  “It’ll take some doin’, but we’ll make it come alive once more, Master.  I promise you that.  Missus Wisteria will be able to sit here again afore long.  Erdo Banks already has plans to raise walls and a roof in place of the hilltop.  And, who knows?  Mebbe we’ll find much of the railin’ hidden in some barn or other as the Big Men took for their own, much as we’ve found woodwork from the holes along Bagshot Row in them sheds as was built up over the gardens at Bag End.  There’s good bricks from the Shirriff House as was raised up on the north side of Overhill as can be used here to give substance to the walls.”

            “Do you think he would mind if I help him draw up the plans so that we make certain that the new house feels much the same as the hole that was?” Frodo asked.

            “I doubt as him would be bothered, Frodo.  It’s well worth the askin’, I’d say.”

            Bill and Strider were pulling at winter grass near where they’d been left, and looked up eagerly as their riders returned.  Within minutes the two friends were mounted, continuing to Binbale, the ponies happily matching their strides as they followed the path chosen by Frodo Baggins.


            After riding away from the ruins of the Boffin smial, they came in sight of an even worse disaster, the Teasel freeholding.  Lodo Teasel was originally from Bree village.  He’d come into the Shire some sixteen years past alongside his uncle, who dealt in Dwarf-wrought pots and pans, to trade at the Free Fair in Michel Delving.  He’d fallen in love with Coriander Green as they haggled over the price of a copper tea kettle, and he had never returned to his parents’ hole in Bree Hill.  Instead, he’d married Coriander and gone to live on her family’s holding to work the place for her mother, Coriander’s father having died two years earlier.  Lodo was a sober fellow and a devoted farmer.  He was generally respected within the area for his devotion to the holding and his family, including his wife’s mother.  Frodo had seen the Bree Hobbit working his fields and garden with the aid of his oldest son, old Missus Green weeding the flower beds with the help of the younger children, Coriander caring for the faunts and the chickens behind the house in which they lived. 

            But Coriander had died in childbirth not long before Frodo and the other Travellers left the Shire, and as he remembered it old Missus Green had been reported to be in bad health at the time.

            “Lodo was one of those we freed from the Lockholes,” he said softly.  “And they burned his home?”

            Sam was nodding, his expression filled with anger.  “The Wheatens told me as no one’s seen the children since the farm was fired.  Seems as when the Gatherers and Sharers come a-callin’, Mister Lodo refused to let them into the house or the barn.  Two days later a group of Big Men come in the night with torches, broke in and hauled Mister Lodo off, and burned down both the house and the barn, not to mention what sheds as they had.”

            “But what happened to the children and old Missus Green?”

            Sam shrugged.  “Like I said—the Wheatens tell as the children and their gammer haven’t been seen since the place was fired.  Mister Lodo, when him come home and found it all in ashes, went to the root cellar and found it, too, had been caved in.  Said as that was where the children would of gone to hide.  Was certain as them Big Men caved it in to keep‘em from escapin’.  With nothin’ left to come home to, him decided to go back to Bree. But him was a broken Hobbit when he left the Shire.”

            “I can well imagine.”  Frodo felt cold, and rubbed at the ache in his left shoulder, the crease between his brows deepening in distress.  Another great loss to lay at Lotho’s feet—if, of course, his body was ever found.

            During the years since Frodo had returned to Hobbiton as Bilbo’s ward, he’d visited Binbale Woods many times, usually approaching it as he did today, from the home of Wisteria Boffin and her son Folco, passing what had been the Green Holding until Lodo Teasel had been accepted as its master by his wife’s mother.  Hobbits tended not to accept newcomers easily, but no one had ever had any complaints against Lodo Teasel.  It was a terrible thing to see such a one leaving the Shire for such terrible reasons.

Sam reached to touch his arm.  “I think as it will be better to see things as we did the other day, Frodo.  Mebbe we should head to the main way into the woods from Overhill.”

            Frodo followed Sam more directly toward the indicated cart road used by the woods-hobbits, but paused at the sight of what seemed to be a new path that he’d never noticed before, one that apparently led from the near edge of the Teasel Holding toward the eaves of the woods.  Noting his rider’s distraction, Strider halted for a second, his nostrils flaring, before shaking his mane and turning to follow Sam and Bill as they led the way across country to the other way into the woods.  The pony had not perceived anything to do with that path that threatened his rider or himself, and was happy to ignore it.  Frodo, on the other hand, glanced back at it.  The path was small and fairly recent, and had been used within the last week.  He’d learned enough woodcraft from Aragorn in their journeys to and beyond Rivendell to recognize that much.  He wasn’t sure why he found that important, but he was certain that in time that information would prove useful in some way.

            The grass bore no further marks of anyone’s passage save their own until they came upon the cart track.  The track itself was overgrown, and bore indications that only one group of Hobbits had approached the woods in quite some time, apparently four on ponies and five on foot.  He looked more closely at one particular track.  “Mort Proudfoot was with you?” he asked.  Mort had lost two toes in an accident while still a faunt, and his footprint was very distinctive as a result.

            Sam nodded.  “Yes, along with Robin Smallburrow, Farmer Wheaten, Erdo Banks, and one of the Longbottom lads from Needlehole, as well as Mister Beri, a farmer from the Marish, and a Took from the Green Hills as serves as a Bounder.”

            “Beri?  You mean Merry’s cousin Berilac?”  At Sam’s nod of assent, Frodo continued, “Well, that does sound a good company to see to the damage wrought by Lotho, Sharkey, and the Big Men.”  He looked up at the trees looming over them.  “I don’t notice any difference to the tree line.”

            Sam shrugged.  “’Tweren’t from lack of intent, or so I’d say as perhaps shouldn’t.  It’s just ahead, over there, what I’d like for you to see.”

            At a soft word Bill stepped forward, Strider following, his ears swiveling so as to better hear anything that might also be making for the indicated area.  As they headed toward the portion of the clearing Sam had indicated, Frodo was still scanning the ground, seeing that the tracks of the Hobbits had separated, each apparently searching in a different direction.  The path they followed crossed a soft spot, and again he saw a familiar footprint.

            “So, Mort was the one who went this way,” he commented.

            At first Sam seemed surprised until he, too, noted the prints left in that area where bare ground had softened from recently melted snow that was all but gone now.  “You always was a quick study, Master,” he responded.  “Old Strider’d be pleased to see as him taught you well.”  Sam was gratified to see the brief smile elicited by the comment—Frodo could still be flattered in rare instances. 

            But the smile faded almost as soon as it started.  Frodo led the way around a stand of brambles, and stopped short as he caught sight of the remains of two wagons that lay beyond them.   One was of familiar Hobbit make; the other had been plainly fashioned for the use of Men.  Both had been smashed against the trunks of the trees at the edge of the forest, indicating that the ponies or horses that had pulled them had run away from some horror that had terrified them, taking the most direct route. 

            “But what has happened to most of the lumber from the wagons?” Frodo asked.

            “That was the question none of us as come here yesterday could answer,” replied Sam.  “And how come there’s all those axes and saws made for Men lyin’ about, but only the larger ones intended for our folk?”

            The singletrees and axles remained where the wagons had been smashed, but much of the wagons’ structures had been carried away by—well, by someone.

            “Curious!” murmured Frodo.  He caught up one of the water skins hanging from his pommel, removed the cork, and drank deeply, his eyes still surveying the remains of the wagons, noting a fractured wheel here, and that both benches were decidedly missing.  He replaced the skin automatically before swinging down from Strider’s back, letting the reins hang to the ground.  Sam followed suit immediately, and the two moved forward to examine the wrecked vehicles more closely, leaving the pair of ponies to stand patiently until they returned.

            The Baggins ran his hand along what remained of the frame of the smaller wagon.  “Those lengths of lumber that appear to have broken in the crash seem to have been wrenched free by hand, while those that remained sound appear to have been cut out using hatchets and saws.”

            Sam indicated his agreement.  “Same seems true for the Men’s wagon as well.”

            “So,” Frodo continued, “all was removed deliberately.  But, by whom?”

            After completing their surveys of the two wagons, they went forward to examine what remained of the wagons’ tongues.  “Most of the traces appear to have snapped when the wagons smashed against the trees, but at least one here was deliberately cut,” noted Frodo.  “Someone sought to free a trapped pony.”

            “All of them’s snapped on this wagon.  The horses all broke free on their own,” Sam reported.

            Frodo nodded his appreciation for that observation.  “Did anyone have any idea as to where the Hobbit’s wagon could have come from?”

            “Considerin’ as the spokes of the wheels were barred with yellow and red, Farmer Wheaten says as it most likely was the one bought by Ebinold Green some eighteen years past, long afore his daughter married Lodo Teasel.”

            “So, at least this wagon was taken before the Big Men fired the farm.”

            “So it would seem, Frodo.”

            “Does anyone know what became of the horses and ponies?”

            Sam paused, thinking.  “The Wheatens found one horse in their field, back early last spring,” he said.  “They created a paddock for it, and when the Gatherers and Sharers come the next time, they was followed a day later by a Big Man who led the horse away.  Two ponies were found by another farmer nearby, while one was reported to of been found in Overhill round about my birthday, or so Cock Robin told me.  Haven’t heard tell of any other horses or ponies found strayin’ about the Shire.”

            “It appears, then, that there is at least one horse and one pony unaccounted for.”  Frodo sighed, and looked about.  “You say that none of the trees save these appear to have suffered any damage?”

            They examined all trees fronting the clearing at which the cart track ended, going back into the woods some twenty or so paces.  None showed axe marks more recent than three years past.  The few stumps they found were recognized by Frodo to have been from trees felled eight or more years ago. 

            When they returned at last to their ponies Sam began the conversation as he checked out Bill’s girth and the seat of the bit.  “Well, there’s no signs at all that those as come in those wagons ever had the chance to use them axes, saws, or the rest.  Only damage done to bark was to that wild fruit tree.”

            “And that was most likely caused by a deer within the last few weeks, when that last snowfall covered the ground.  Not one sign that any Hobbit or Man had the chance to hurt any tree.”

            “Somethin’ seems to have frightened them all away afore them could do aught to cause any harm ”

            Frodo mounted Strider with some difficulty.  Sam could see that the older Hobbit was tiring and hoped they would go on to the Wheaten farm now.  “You’re right there,” the deputy Mayor replied rather breathlessly, and nodded at Sam to lead the way.



            Some twenty minutes later the two arrived at the Wheaten farm.  Sam hurriedly dismounted to stand at Strider’s side to assist Frodo as he swung out of his saddle.  Farmer Wheaten’s oldest son Treacle came forward to take the two ponies to the barn, his eyes widening with appreciation as he took in the beautiful workmanship decorating the tack.

            “This wasn’t done by any saddler as I’ve seen in the Shire,” he commented. 

            “Nor was it,” Sam agreed.  “Gifts from the Kings of Gondor and Rohan, they was.  Wait until you see the tack give to Mister Pippin or Mister Merry.”  He quickly had the food basket removed from the back of Bill’s saddle, while Frodo untied his saddlebags and the farmer lifted off the water bottles from Strider.  Both the Hobbits from Hobbiton gave their steeds soft words and pats, assuring that they would be well treated by Treacle Wheaten, and the two ponies obediently followed the younger Hobbit out of the dooryard. 

            “His right name’s Trayco,” Farmer Wheaten explained as they entered the farmhouse.  “It’s only his younger brother, Joco, couldn’t say it right when him was a bairn, and so Treacle sort of stuck.  But him will do well by your ponies—loves ponies, Treacle does.  I suspect that we’ll most likely have more and more ponies as time goes on and as Treacle’s more and more in charge.  Now as we have no more of our goats…”  His expression became increasingly saddened as his voice trailed off.

            As they were led into the parlor by their host, Sam sought to lighten the mood by taking up the theme begun by the farmer.  “It was much the same with my Rosie’s brother Jolly.  Him was such a happy one as a bairn and a faunt that his dad was always askin’, ‘And how’s my Jolly-lad today?’  I doubt as Jolly hisself members him was properly named Holman after our uncle as was gardener at Bag End afore my old dad.”

            Frodo appreciated Sam’s intent to ease the farmer’s sorrow, and gave him a subtle nod and smile before adding, “It was much the same with my cousin Peregrin Took.  His sister Pervinca said he didn’t look a proper baby, as red as he was, like an apple, and so they started calling him Pippin.”

            There were quiet chuckles from the three Hobbits as the farmer showed Frodo to the place by the fire that by rights was his own.  At that Missus Wheaten came out of the kitchen with mugs of sweetened tea to hearten them after their ride from Hobbiton, followed by her daughter.  “There, Posy—set the scones on the chest there along with the butter and jam.  Help yourselves, dear sirs,” she invited.

            Frodo and Sam rose to their feet at the entrance of the two Hobbitesses, both thanking them for their hospitality and their welcome, and offering their own services should they ever be needed.  The mother colored prettily at such courtesy offered her, while Posy seemed overwhelmed, shyly retreating back to the kitchen again, returning with a stack of plates and some knives only after she’d taken a few deep breaths and smoothed her hair a bit.

            Soon all were settled with a plate of buttered scones either balanced on a knee or settled on a nearby surface or table, a mug of strong tea to hand.  Missus Wheaten settled in her rocking chair, a basket of wool beside her, while Posy sat on a settle in the corner with a basket of mending by her side.  They heard Treacle enter through the kitchen door, and he came through to the parlor carrying a steaming teapot he’d apparently filled on his way through.  “There will be fresh tea in a moment, once we let it steep,” he advised.  “Let me know and I’ll refill your mugs.”  He set it down on the chest by the platter of scones, butter, and jam, and took a couple onto a plate of his own, along with a good dollop of butter and a heaping spoon of jam, and settled down on the floor beside the hearth.

            Farmer Wheaten leaned forward solicitously toward his wife.  “Now, Marjoram, you know as how the cold gets into your bones nowadays.  Bring your chair forward, closer to the fire.”  He arose and aided her in this approach to the warmth, carefully settling her basket of wool at her side, while Sam saw to the small, spindly table that held her own refreshments before fetching a shawl from atop a chest for her shoulders.

            “Why, thank you kindly, Mister Gamgee,” she said, her eyes wide with admiration.  “Few are so thoughtful.”  With that she reached down into her basket to bring out a nicely wrought drop spindle.  In moments she had a hank of wool in hand and was starting her first length of yarn.

            “Then you are as skilled with a drop spindle as you are with a wheel?” Frodo asked.

            She nodded, not looking up from her work.  “It’s how all us lasses learn, after all.  Posy there is a right hand with it.  But since they took my wheel, it’s what I have left, and now as we’re certain as there’ll be a Free Fair this summer it’s past time to make certain there’s somethin’ to sell at it, don’t you see?”  She let the thread lengthen, and wound the extra length about the rod before adding more wool.  “I used only a drop spindle for years before we got the wheel.  A Dwarf as attended the Free Fair that year alongside old Mister Bilbo noticed my yarn, and asked if’n a wheel might do me better than simply a spindle, and I laughed.  Where was I, a Hobbit of the Shire, to come up with a spinning wheel?  I asked if he could make such a thing, and he said, no, he couldn’t, but he knew who could.  He asked if I could weave him a blanket so big by Yule, and I told him, of course.

            “A few days before Yule a message come to us to come to the Green Dragon, as a Dwarf wished to meet with us.  We could only imagine it was the one as we’d met with old Mister Bilbo, so I wrapped up the blanket I’d recently finished weaving and brought it with us.  Sure enough, there he was, along with Mister Bilbo, standin’ in the side parlor beside this beautiful spinning wheel,  Said as he’d gone all the way to the Elf-place of Rivendell to fetch it for me, as none understands the making of things with wood and fiber as much as the Elves.  He taught me the simplest way of startin’ the thread and how to use the pedals, and helped us fetch it home, as it wouldn’t fit in our wagon.  And here it stayed until the Big Men came with the Gatherers and Sharers, and I learned to make beautiful yarns with it.  I don’t see as why them took it, as none looked to be a weaver or anything of the sort.  Maybe it was simply because of the beauty of the thing.”

            Frodo shook his head.  “We still don’t understand all they did, or why they took many of the things they did.  I didn’t see any spinning wheels while we were in Rivendell, but that means little, I suppose.”

            Sam answered, “I think as Pippin did, there but a day or two after we arrived.  The Lady Arwen found him hiding in a bush, weepin’, and took him to her work room.  I think he said as there was at least one wheel there, and several different looms, and baskets of yarns and fabrics of different types.  She gave him some handkerchiefs as she and her maidens had made for Mister Bilbo and kept on hand to give him whenever he might think as he needed more.”

            “And what was he weeping about?” Frodo asked.

            “Well, you were in a right bad way at the time, as you ought to member.  He’d gone out of the room give to him and Merry so as not to waken Merry in the night.  We was all pretty exhausted and upset at the time, you know.”

            “I see.”  Frodo returned his attention to Missus Wheaten.  “So they made a wheel for a Hobbit and sent it by a Dwarf?  They are kindly folk, those who dwell in the Hidden Valley.  I bless them for their kindness toward you as well as that shown us and Bilbo.”

            Missus Wheaten’s nose and ears grew decidedly pink.  “Then, then you have seen the Elves of Rivendell?”

            Sam gave a big smile.  “Seen them?  Yes, ma’am—we’ve indeed seen the Elves of Rivendell, and of the Golden Wood, and of elsewhere while we was travelin’ through Middle Earth.  But Rivendell was where we headed first, or first after Bree, at least.  And it was almost the last place we stopped on our way back, for Mister Frodo here wished to share their birthday a last time with old Mister Bilbo, who’s been livin’ there in Rivendell most of the time since he left the Shire those eighteen years agone.”

            “Are the Elves of Rivendell as beautiful as is said?” asked Posy.

            Frodo’s eyes shone with pleasure as he turned to answer.  “Oh, that is true.  But, then, all Elves, even the wood Elves of Mirkwood, are fair beyond description.  We were allowed to meet so many peoples from throughout Middle Earth, and I am glad it was so.”  His eyes rose to the wall behind the farm’s daughter, a wall that seemed unnaturally bare.  “Was that where the missing loom sat?” he asked.

            Missus Marjoram sighed.  “We had two looms took.  The one there belonged to the farm, and has been used by the Wheatens for about six generations, more or less.  The other was the tapestry loom from the second parlor on the north end of the house.  That I brought with me when I married Hiro here,” indicating her farmer husband.  “The one as stood there was a tall loom, and you can see the place where the brackets helped stabilize it against the wall so’s it couldn’t fall over.  The other was a standin’ loom.  My grandfer made it for my grammar, and she taught me to use it and how to do weavin’ of several sorts.”

            “How did you meet?” Frodo asked.

            Hiro Wheaten shared a smile with his wife.  “We’re cousins of sorts, third cousins twice removed on our mums’ sides.  See, Marjoram was a North Took from Long Cleeves, as was my mother’s mum.  When Gamma Milkweed couldn’t use the big loom no more, she wrote to her kinfolk to ask if there was a lass who could help with the weavin’, Marjoram come in answer to that letter, and in time we fell in love and got married ourselves.  That was when her dad brought the tapestry loom to her.  My mum had little talent for the weavin’, so’s she was that glad to see Marjoram come to see to it as the old loom didn’t go without use.  And when we got married we got the goats as a weddin’ present, which added to our standin’ as weavers here at our farm, along with the wheat as we produce.”

            “And you have no idea as to why they took your spinning wheel or the looms?”

            Missus Wheaten shook her head, while her husband answered, “No, Mister Baggins, sir.”

            Something about Treacle’s expression caught the deputy Mayor’s attention, however, and after flushing some the young Hobbit explained, “Well, while they was tyin’ down the tall loom in their wagon, one was askin’ as why they’d want such things, and the one as was the leader said as the Boss wanted them for when he got there.  Said as us rat-folks would have to work hard once the Boss came.”

            Sam shot Frodo a questioning look, and saw his gentle Master’s face harden.  “Saruman!” the Baggins said between clenched teeth.  “Saruman was already planning on coming here, even then!  When was this?” he asked of their hosts.

            “It was back in March, I think,” Marjoram answered.  “It was after the days first started to darken, the day afore the south wind shook the dark clouds away.  But then the darkness came back, and from the south and east.  It got very dark, and felt like a shadow was pressing on our hearts.”

            Sam and Frodo searched each other’s faces.  Frodo’s face had paled further, and Sam could see the memory of pain in the depth of the crease that now lay between his brows.  “So, that was when Saruman was still imprisoned in his own tower.  But somehow he was communicating with his people who’d come here, and intended to escape somehow, already planning on hiding out here in the Shire and taking Lotho’s place as our tyrant.”

            Sam nodded his agreement, then realizing the Wheatens were all confused by this interchange, he explained, “That Sharkey—he was also known as Saruman.  Him was a Wizard, like old Gandalf, but had gone bad—right bad.  Seems as him had talked Lotho Sackville-Baggins into makin’ hisself the king of the Shire long afore we knew as we needed to leave the Shire to protect it.  The Big Men as Lotho used to take power over our folk—they was sent him by Sharkey.”

            “The wind changed to come from the true south on the day of the Battle of the Pelennor Fields,” Frodo said to Sam.  “That wind blew Aragorn’s fleet up the river to the White City and allowed those defending Gondor to defeat the army Sauron had sent there.”

            “But the darkness come back,” Sam agreed.  “It was terrible dark while we was crossin’ to the mountain.  And we know when it was as the wind changed to blow from the west and cleared it all away.”

            Frodo gave a single, sharp nod in response to that.  He fixed his attention on his mug of tea, and took a deep swallow from it, emptying it.

            “Would you like some more?” Missus Wheaten asked tentatively.

            “Oh, yes,” Frodo responded gratefully.  “If you please!”  He accepted his refilled mug and held it between his hands, close to his chest, sniffing deeply at its spicy scent as if reassured by both the odor and the warmth before taking a sip of it.  “Yes—thank you so, Mistress Wheaten.”

            Leaning forward in concern, Farmer Wheaten asked, “Are you cold, then, Mister Baggins?  Shall I build up the fire?  You are shivering so!”

            Frodo shot a brief warning glance at Sam, and tried to reassure his host.  “It is nothing, sir.  As Sam let slip, I was badly—wounded during our journey from Bree to Rivendell.  We arrived in time for the wound to be tended to by Master Elrond, the ruler of the place.  He is considered to be the finest healer in all of Middle Earth, and he was able to heal me.  But I bore the wound longer than perhaps is wise, and I have been advised that it will trouble me for as long as I remain in Middle Earth.  Its greatest effect is to make me feel chilled, even when others are more than comfortably warmed.  Do not trouble yourself for my sake, sir.”

            With that the deputy Mayor turned his attention back to the farmer’s wife.  “So, you will sell the yarn at the Free Fair?”

            “Yes, although we do have a few table looms for small projects—mats, belts, ribbons, and the like.  And our Posy there has a fine hand for tatting and for makin’ bobbin lace, while there are times when I take out my needles to knit.  We’ll have items to sell as well as yarn when the Lithe-days come.”

            “I look forward to that,” Frodo said.

            After thinking on it for a time, he asked, “Did they use the same wagon when they went to the Binbale Woods apparently with the intent to cut them down?”

            Hiro Wheaten scratched his head.  “I’d say as it was the same wagon, what I remember.”

            “How long after they came to take your looms did they go to the woods?”

            Father and son exchanged questioning looks.  Treacle answered, “Not too long afterward.  I member as it was the day as the wind changed to from the west and the darkness was chased away.”

            Both Sam and his Master straightened at that.  “So,” Sam said slowly, “that was just after we made it to the Mountain and—and It was gone.”

            Frodo had again paled markedly.  He turned to Treacle to ask, “Did they go to the woods before or after the wind changed?”

            “Oh, they passed here ’bout an hour afore the west wind started and it grew to a gale.  There was the two wagons—the big Men’s wagon and the one as was from the Teasel place as the Hobbits was drivin’ and followin’.  I was up in the loft of the barn, checkin’ on the barn cat and her kittens, and could see them plain.  She had six kittens, our Puss did, and cunnin’ little things they was.  I stayed there, and felt the world go still.  Never felt anything like that afore, I didn’t!  Made me shiver somethin’ terrible, it did.  I mean, it frightened me, but it made me feel thrilled, too, if’n you take my meanin’.  And then there was a ruckus from the woods, and most of the Big Men and the Hobbits after them come runnin’ down the road from the forest to the village, like!  Not one of ‘em looked our way at all!  Some of the Big Men was shoutin’ about haints, whatever them is, and others wasn’t wastin’ breath they needed for the runnin’.  Titus Sandyfoot was white as a sheet, and scared as scared.  Bet as him could tell a tale if’n you can get him to talk.  Never went out with the Gatherers and Sharers again after that, and only goes into Overhill to cadge a drink from Leo Banks, who makes a mighty strong hard cider of a fall.”

            Frodo responded to this news by going quiet, obviously thinking deeply.  Finally, he looked at the young Hobbit and asked, “Would you please go to the Sandyfoot home and ask him to come here, to your farm?  If nothing else works, you can tell him that he is summoned to speak with the deputy Mayor about the activities of the Big Men when they were lording it over the Shire.”

            It was Hiro Wheaten who responded.  “Mayhaps it would be better if’n I should go, Mister Baggins, sir.  After all, no one would question as I’m a Hobbit grown, in spite of Treacle bein’ thirty-five.”

            “You are wise, Master Wheaten,” the deputy Mayor replied.  “If, of course, you don’t mind going for me.”

            Hiro’s face grew stern.  “Considerin’ how he took part in the raidin’ of our larders, I’ll take some pleasure in makin’ Titus Sandyfoot answer now, even if’n it ain’t about hisself.”  He rose, touched his forehead in respect, and set off for the Sandyfoot holdings.  “I’ll be gone mayhaps a half an hour,” he called back before he closed the door behind himself.

            “Now,” Frodo commented to their hostess, “if I might make use of your privy?  Is it out the back?”

            “Oh,” Marjoram said proudly, “but we have a proper water closet here at the back of the place.  And Hiro and Treacle plan to add a bathing room this coming summer.  Ah, what a luxury to have a proper boiler and not have to fill the tub by hand!  Like I haven’t known since I left Long Cleeve!”  Now that her husband was gone, her voice had more of the lilt of the North Tooks, and Frodo smiled to hear it as she led him from the parlor.


Happy Thanksgiving.  Looking forward to the new year!


            Marjoram Wheaten and Sam went through the basket of food sent by Lily Cotton to add to the Wheatens’ own stores so as to put together a full meal for luncheon, while Frodo offered to set the table, assisted by Posy.

            “Why do you say that the forks must go here while the spoons go there?” Posy asked.

            Frodo shrugged.  “You must remember that I lived during my childhood with my mother’s Brandybuck family, and it was never done in Brandy Hall that a table should be hastily or clumsily set.  It was drummed into us that there was a proper way to set a table, and that was that.  When I came to Bag End, even Bilbo, whose mother, after all, was the Thain’s daughter, had been similarly raised.  We tended even to set the kitchen table properly, although we dispensed with all the extra forks, knives, and spoons.  And when my Aunt Dora visited us, the stars forbid any utensil should be even slightly out of place.  It made it easier for us when we were in the King’s city, for Merry, Pippin, and I were all accustomed to formal table settings and easily picked up the proper protocol for using utensils at feasts.  Sam had some practice from eating with Bilbo and me, and was a quick study in Minas Tirith, following what the rest of us did.”

            “You put an extra setting on the table,” she pointed out.

            “Don’t you think that Titus Sandyfoot will wish to join us for the meal?”

            “But he’s only coming because you called for him, and you are the deputy Mayor.”

            “Perhaps that is the reason he is coming, but I would not wish to be so impolite as to serve a meal when someone comes on business and not offer him food, also.”

            Posy appeared unconvinced, but refrained from further questions.  Still, she decided privately that Mister Frodo Baggins was a nice person at heart.

            The front door opened at that moment, and two Hobbits could be heard speaking in the entranceway. 

            “I don’t understand why the deputy Mayor wishes to speak to me, though,” a voice said.

            “He wants to know why it was those as went to the Binbale Woods ran away that day,” responded Farmer Wheaten.  “I mean, it was obvious as it was intended that trees was goin’ to be cut down.  Here, let me take your cloak and hang it here.  And it smells as if a meal is ready.  Come and join us for luncheon.” 

            There was a mutter from the entranceway that Posy couldn’t quite make out, but she saw that the deputy Mayor had gone pale, although his cheeks flamed.  Frodo straightened and held his head high as he swept out into the parlor to meet the newcomer.  His voice, however, was both calm and polite as he approached Titus Sandyfoot and gave a slight bow. 

            “Mister Sandyfoot, how nice to see you again.  I remember meeting you some years ago when you were studying at the Great Smial under the tutelage of Cousin Ferdinald Took.  I remember that he expressed surety that you would do well in accountancy.  I hope that his prediction proved true.”

            Titus Sandyfoot blushed red, head to foot.  It was true that when he was apprenticed to Ferdinald Took at the Great Smial to learn the ins and outs of accountancy that at first he did very well and promised to do better in time.  However, within eighteen months of beginning his work, Titus had begun drinking heavily and lost interest in his craft, and within six more months he had been dismissed from his studies and sent home to Overhill in disgrace.  Most of Ferdinald’s apprentices went on to serve as respected bankers of discretion or to work for the Masters of major families and their businesses; Titus had become a common fixture of the common rooms of various inns around the West- and Northfarthings.

            “I am glad you remember me,” he said, his tone belying his words, his bow rather obsequious.  “At your service.”

            Their host led them to the family table, and Marjoram and Posy swiftly brought the food in and set it before them all.

            Samwise Gamgee and Frodo Baggins exchanged significant glances.  Frodo cleared his throat prior to rising to his feet.  “Sam and I wish to thank you for your hospitality, Mister and Mistress Wheaten.  We do not wish to embarrass or puzzle you, but there is an observance that we began to honor while we were in the King’s city, and that we continue to perform here in the Shire.  Please bear with us.”

            The two denizens of Hobbiton shared an unspoken communication as Sam rose also to his feet, and both turned to face the west for a short period before again facing the table.  Sam nodded to their hosts before reseating himself, murmuring, “Many thanks for havin’ us here and offerin’ us a place to sleep the night.  And we hope as we can solve the question of what happened when the Big Men went to cut down what they could of the Binbale Woods, and why they ran away.”

            Again Titus blushed as the eyes of the company focused on him just as Missus Wheaten passed him the basin of taters.  He kept his attention on his hand as he grasped the serving spoon.  “I’m not certain as I can tell you much.  I drove the wagon, and was back at the ponies’ heads while the rest set to fetching away axes, saws, and such.  The Big Men had their own wagon, and in minutes they each had what they wanted in hand and were heading for the nearest trees, that stand of big oaks at the entrance to the path through the forest.  Some of us Hobbits were right behind them, but others were slower to follow, not eager to cut down the trees, or so I’d guess.  It was so dark!  I doubt as I’ve ever seen so dark a day, what with the brown clouds so thick overhead.  And the air was so close!  It was suddenly hard to breathe, and everybody halted.  It felt like something terrible was about to happen, and everyone stopped where they were.  Then there was a light ahead of them, and all gasped in shock as something could be seen growing right at the opening of the path, something white appearing out of that light.  It was dreadful!  Many of the Men were holding their hands before their eyes—it was that bright!”

            He stopped, and realized that Treacle had taken the basin and spoon and had served him before serving himself.  A platter of pork pasties was being offered him, and he nodded his thanks before accepting it and making his selection before passing it on.  Only when all were served did he resume speaking, his eyes on the food before him rather than on the others around the table.  “I’m sorry to be talking so much and giving no one else a chance to speak.  Not that it’s seemly, the subject, here at the beginning of a meal.”

            Frodo spoke softly; and without meaning to, Titus raised his eyes to meet those of the Baggins.  “It was for this reason we asked that you join us, so that we can understand what happened that day.”  To Titus’s nod, Frodo asked, “You say that you did not see clearly what it was within the light?”

            Now Titus shook his head slowly, reluctantly.  “No, sir—not clearly.  It seemed to be a person, but as if he were wearing a white robe made of white fire, with something gold growing about his head.  White and dark flames fought around him, and the gold something was growing, too.  And it spoke, the thing within the ball of light, telling us to leave the trees be—or something like!  One of the Big Men groaned, muttering something about an Eye, but all wrong.  And then Baldry broke, and once he started running the others just followed him.  When Baldry tripped over something—a stump or a rock or something else, they just ran right over him.  And we Hobbits just followed after.  None of us knew what the thing in the light was, but none wanted to stay to find out!”

            Frodo had gone white, his mouth working.  Sam, who sat beside him, took his hand and held it, and Frodo gripped him back, shuddering.  “An Eye, but all wrong?” Sam asked in a raspy voice.

            Tirtus nodded.  “That was what he said, but that was all anyone said.  They groaned or whimpered with fear, and then they broke and ran with us behind.”

             Hiro Wheaten, his gaze fascinated, asked, “And you left the ponies and the carts—and the horses?”

            “They just took off, too, frightened by the ball of light and our fear, or so I’d say.  Both carts were pulled off to the west side, into the trees.  I suspect they all broke free as the wagons crashed into the forest.  I wasn’t in any position to see—I was too busy running.  Baldry’s fear made my skin crawl, and even the hair on my feet was standing straight up as we ran.”

            All at the farm’s table went still.  At last Sam let go Frodo’s hand and gave it a pat.  “His water bottles?” he asked the farmer.

            “In the entrance way, hanging from a coat peg.”

            “Thanks,” Sam said, rising and going out.  He returned with one of Frodo’s bottles and took a cup from the nearby dresser.  Filling it from the bottle, Sam pressed it on Frodo, saying, “Here, Master—drink this.  It will help you feel better.”

            As Frodo drank, Sam corked the bottle and set it beside his plate as he resumed his seat.  The others looked at the deputy Mayor sideways, taken aback by his reaction to the story told by the Sandyfoot.  Slowly his color, such as it was, came back as he drank.  Finally he set the cup down on the table, and clasped his hands in his lap, his eyes closed for a moment.  At last, apparently recovered from his distress, he returned his attention to Titus.  “Farmer Wheaten tells us that that was the last time you went with the Gatherers and Sharers or the Big Men.”

            “That’s right.  And I’m sorry that I went with them at all!  I know,” he added, turning to face Hiro Wheaten. “as I was with them when they came here and emptied your cupboards and pantries, but I didn’t know then how to refuse. I tried to make it up to you, and some of the others as we took from.”

            “The baskets as we found on our stoop?” asked Marjoram.

            He gave but a single nod in return.

            After a further pause, Frodo asked, “Do you know what became of the looms and the spinning wheel taken from this farm?”

            “Why did they take them to begin with?” interrupted the farmer’s wife.

            Titus looked between Marjoram Wheaten and Frodo Baggins, deciding to answer his hostess first.  “There was talk amongst the Big Men of someone they called the Boss coming, and how he intended to have all the Hobbits of the Shire working for him once he came.”

            “We was to be his slaves?” asked Sam.

            Titus shrugged.  “Guess so.  He was going to set up big halls where those who were weavers and tailors were going to make cloth for him, and forges for the smiths, who were to work for him, and so on.  They’d talk as if we Hobbits weren’t capable of understanding what they said.  So, when they knew as you had two proper looms here, the Big Men took them as well as the spinning wheel.”

            “What did they do with them?” repeated Frodo.

            Again there was a shrug.  “I’m not certain.  But they did speak of a place in the woods where there was a house or shed or some such thing where they’d keep them for now.”

            Frodo and Sam exchanged puzzled looks, but Treacle shouted out, “The sawyers’ shed on the west end of the woods!”  He glanced between them, then explained. “There’s a place on the west side where some of the woods-hobbits put up a shed about ten years ago to cover them while they sawed logs into lumber.  They had a hut, too, to stay in while they was workin’ on a project.”

            Marjoram’s face grew animated.  “I remember—there was a new barn needed for one of the farms belonging to the North-Tooks, and the Thain and Will Whitfoot as Mayor got the village head for Overhill to agree to them cutting some pines that-a-ways to use in the building.”

            Frodo said thoughtfully, “I haven’t been to the west end of the forest for, what?  Twelve years, at least.  I think that we should look there for the looms and wheel, don’t you, Sam?”  Then he went still, his eyes widening at a sudden thought.  “And I suspect that the looms won’t be the only missing items we might find there.  In fact, I think we should all go there as soon as we’ve finished the meal.  What say you, Master Wheaten?”

            Once the meal was done, Sam disappeared outside with Treacle while Frodo aided Posy and Missus Wheaten to swiftly clear the table.  However, when the farmer’s wife began to put the food away, Frodo stopped her.  “I think,” he said, “that we ought to fill the basket Lily Cotton sent with us with what we can safely carry.  I suspect that we will find the food needed once we get to the sawyers’ shed.” 

            “If you say so, Mister deputy Mayor,” Marjoram answered before turning to her daughter.  “Posy, never you mind heating the water.  We’re going, too.  We can do the washing up when we return.”

            When they went out, they found that Treacle and Sam had both Bill and Strider saddled.  Frodo appeared appalled.  “If we are all going, it is unnecessary for me to be mounted, Sam Gamgee!”

            But Sam was shaking his head.  “You’re already tired, Frodo, and I can tell as your shoulder is achin’ somethin’ terrible.  You can ride, and Missus Marjoram can ride my Bill.  I’ll walk with the rest.”

            The others could see that both of the Hobbiton Hobbits were equally stubborn, but this time it was Sam’s will that directed events.  They walked the two ponies to the mounting block, and Sam assisted Missus Wheaten to mount, then adjusted the stirrups for her.  Frodo shook off any offered help and mounted by himself after checking girth and the seat of the hackamore and headstall.  Once all had arrayed themselves, he addressed the others.  “I wish to approach the woods by way of the Teasel Holding.  I have a theory, and wish to test it.  Is that acceptable to all of you?”

            No one could think of any reason to choose otherwise, so they turned out onto the lane and headed for the Teasel place.  On their arrival, Frodo paused and looked about the farm.  Much of one end of the house was still standing, the fire having burnt out before it reached that far.  A shed had not caught fully before the Big Men had left, and still stood, its door hanging open.  It appeared that someone had visited the place and checked out these remaining structures fairly recently.  At a nod from Frodo, Sam went forward to look through the window frames at the standing end of the house. 

            “A bedroom,” he reported.  “No bedding or pillows on the bed, and it looks as if the chamber pot, basin, and bowl was all taken.  The second room was a lumber room, with a few open cases and kists to be seen.” 

            Those tools that had been in the shed were mostly missing, leaving a single, battered hay fork and a large shovel.  Frodo did not seem surprised to hear all this.  “I see,” he commented, but Sam was certain that this information was confirming the unspoken theory his Master had devised.

            Frodo rode about the bounds of the holding, constantly examining the ground as they went.  When at length they came upon the path he’d noted on their earlier approach to the woods, he paused for a moment before turning to follow it rather than the cart path.  The others followed obediently, and found that the trail was comfortable enough to traverse.  It led into the woods at a different place from the usual approach, and passed by what Sam knew were some of Frodo’s preferred camping spots, continuing on a north-westward trajectory.  They crossed the north-south path that led through the forest, and continued on for some time before Frodo halted, holding up his hand to stop the others and to warn them to be quiet.  After a moment they could hear the high voice of what seemed to be a child say, “But I don’t hear anything, Gardi.”

            “Speak quiet!” warned a slightly lower voice.  “We can’t have the other Big Men find this place.”

            Frodo was smiling with relief.  He nodded to Sam, who went forward to help him silently dismount.  No one else spoke as Treacle helped his mother off Sam’s pony.  Only then did the group quietly go forward.  Frodo swept an evergreen branch aside, and three Hobbit children looked up with alarm from where they’d been gathering seeds from a squirrel’s cache.  All three were garbed in ragged clothing that still appeared to be clean with attempts to repair it, their hair longer and shaggier than most children tended to have.  Their eyes were wide, examining the unknown adults with dismay until the older lass’s face broke out in a grin. 

            “It’s all right, Gardi!  See?  They’re Hobbits, like us!”

            “They ain’t no Hobbits of ourn,” the lad answered.  “Look at them cloaks!”

            “But those are the Wheatens,” the older lass pointed out.  “They’re folks as we’ve known all our lives!”

            The younger lass pulled on the blanket that the lad had tied about his shoulders.  “And that’s Frodo Baggins as tells stories at the Free Fair.  I recognize him.”

            Frodo stepped forward and gave a courteous bow.  “I am Frodo Baggins of the Shire.  If in any way I might be of service to you and your brothers and sisters, I will help as I can.  And you are Gardilon Teasel?  It is an honor and a relief to find you.  Your father will be most relieved to learn you are alive and, apparently well.”

            “They took our dad, them Big Men did.”

            “I know.  We found him in the Lockholes that they made of the old storage tunnels in Michel Delving.  When he came to seek you and found that the root cellar had been collapsed, he thought that the Big Men had done it on purpose to kill you.  He was heartbroken, and went back to Bree to mourn and heal as might be possible.”

            The older lass stepped toward him.  “Then, him’s not dead?”

            “No, he’s not dead.  And he thought of nothing but you and your brothers and sisters and your grandmother the whole time he was imprisoned by the Big Men.”

            She burst out in tears of relief.  “Then him’s alive, alive and can come back again!”

            “Yes, and as deputy Mayor, I will write him tonight to let him know, and the King’s Men will see the letter given into his hands.”

            Gardi gave a decided shake of his head.  “But there ain’t no King.”

            Sam stepped up alongside Frodo.  “There is now, and him’s the total opposite of them as come in here to our Shire and lorded it over us.  Our Lord Strider’s the best of Men, just like those as come here was the worst of them.”

            Both the lasses now tugged at Gardi’s blanket.  “We have to go back and tell the others, the others and Gamma!  We can go back home now!”

            “But there ain’t no home to go back to,” Gardi replied, his tone uncertain.

            “It can and will be rebuilt,” Frodo assured him.  “Sam is organizing people to rebuild what Lotho’s bully boys destroyed.  Pippin Took and Merry Brandybuck are finding those of Sharkey’s Men who are still hiding out in the wild places and showing them the borders.  The King knows what was done here, and has told us we can and must do whatever is needed to reaffirm that the Shire is ours, just as Argeleb the Second gave it to us so long ago by means of Marcho and Blanco.  This is the Hobbits’ Shire, not a slaveholding for idiots like Lotho Sackville-Baggins or failed Wizards such as Sharkey.  We are free again.”

            The lasses exchanged concerned glances.  Gardilon was starting to shake, and Frodo went forward, fell to his knees, and held out his arms to take the lad into a hug of comfort..  “It’s all right, child—it’s over now, and we are free, and with the King’s aid we will see the Shire restored to the best of our ability.  Now, take us to your grandmother, please.”



            As they walked further down the path the children had made between their lost home and where they and their grandmother had been hiding for the months since their father was taken away by the Big Men, the two lasses kept exchanging anxious glances.  At one point the older lass went forward to walk by her brother and whispered in his ear.  He paused and gave her a searching look, then shook his head.  “We’ll just see what happens,” he answered her, shrugging her hand off his arm.  She dropped back to walk alongside her younger sister and answered that lass’s unspoken question with a helpless lift of her hands, giving the adults behind them a quick, uncertain glance.

            Frodo and Sam were leading the ponies, following the Wheatens and Titus Sandyfoot.  “Are you doin’ all right, Master?” Sam asked.

            Frodo sighed.  “You are the brother of my heart and no servant any more, Sam Gamgee.  Yes, I am doing very well at the moment, so don’t fuss.”

            The path took them left about the bole of an ancient evergreen, bringing them finally in sight of the sawyers’ shed and the hut beside it.  The hut must have been heated by an iron stove, considering the metal pipe that rose from the center of its roof and the smoke that issued from it.  Five Hobbit children ranging in age from about five to twelve years of age bustled about the place, the oldest, a stout lad, bringing an armload of wood into the shed where an elderly Hobbitess stooped over a steaming basin of water, apparently washing dishes.  All stopped at the sight of Gardi approaching followed by his sisters and a troupe of adults and two ponies.  A fire pit had been built not far behind where the Hobbitess stood, and on each side of it was a bench, one apparently formed by the bench taken from the Men’s wagon, and the other that had the ends of the bench taken from the wagon that had belonged to Ebinold Green and his son-in-love, Lodo Teasel, although it appeared that the seat had been replaced with a long board of seasoned wood.  But the most amazing sight in all of this was the Man who sat on the seat from the Men’s wagon—short for his kind and almost as broad as a Hobbit, cradling in his arms a Hobbit bairn.

            “Stars above!” exclaimed Hiro Wheaten, while Frodo Baggins murmured,

            “Sweet Elbereth!”

            “Why,” said Titus Sandyfoot, “if that isn’t Baldry!  Haven’t seen him since he started running away from the other side of the woods last spring!”

            After a moment Frodo shook his head as if to bring himself to the present.  “I think, Sam, that this is the time we should come forward bearing gifts.  Please fetch the food basket.”  With that, he went forward, following the Wheatens, to speak with old Mistress Green and her grandchildren.


            Baldry looked on the advancing party of Hobbits with alarm.  He’d been amazed when he’d awakened in this shed to find an elderly Hobbitess leaning over him, washing away the blood from the wound to his forehead and then binding strips of clean cloth about it to keep the dirt out as well as to pressure the bleeding to stop.  More strips of cloth had been bound about his chest to stabilize ribs cracked and broken when his fellow Men had run right over him once he’d tripped over that bramble vine and fallen to the ground.  It had hurt when the left arm had been set, but now he had nearly full use of it again.  But perhaps worst was the damage done to his knee, for in his stumble he’d fallen with the kneecap hitting a stone not fully covered with earth, and it had been broken.

            He’d stayed here in hiding with these children and their grandmother, partly because at first he’d not been well enough to leave, and later for the comfort of knowing that here, at least, he was safe from the vengeance all their band had earned from what they’d done to the people of this land.  Not, of course, that the anger of the Hobbits of the Shire was likely to be worse than the casual cruelty he could have expected from Pankin and the other Big Men who had come at Sharkey’s direction to loot and terrorize this land. 

            Gardi and his two oldest sisters had found him in the clearing before the entrance to the Binbale Woods, and had managed somehow between them to get him over the back of a pony to bring him here to their grandmother’s care.  At first he was good for little, so they’d given him the care of their youngest sister, not yet a year old at the time.  What else could he, a Man crippled by a gimpy knee, a broken arm, an aching chest, and recovering from the addling of his brains, do to help those who’d helped and saved him?

            He took a deep breath as he recognized the older Hobbits who followed close upon the heels of Gardi, Clove, and Cinnamon.  They were the folk who’d run that farm that raised wheat and goats, and from which the Big Men had taken the looms and spinning wheel.  He wasn’t certain what to expect from them.  With them—well, wasn’t that Hobbit one of those who’d served amongst the Gatherers and Sharers?  What was his name?  Tito?  No, not Tito.  Tittis or something like that.  He’d not think that the farmers would be all that happy to walk with someone who’d gone into their home to empty their larders and such.  But, there they were—the farmer, his wife, and their son and daughter, walking like good neighbors with one of the Hobbits who’d robbed them!  Who’d have thought it a likely sight?

            He shifted Nutmeg, and waited for the two who followed to come forward enough for him to recognize them.  These two wore cloaks unlike any he’d seen anywhere in Middle Earth, and he would swear that the pony led by the taller of the two had to have come from Rohan!  The other was of a more common breed, obviously bred and born here in the northern lands, skewbald white with brown blotches.  But the tack—no one in all of the Shire would have wrought such tack!  It had to have been made by Men of the southern lands—perhaps also from Rohan, or possibly even the fabled Gondor.  How had Hobbits of the Shire come by such things as those cloaks, the one pony, and the tack both ponies wore?

            The broader Hobbit, the one followed by the skewbald pony and with a food basket in his arms, had eyes that were shrewd, but that had seen things that others had not but that were now glad to look on the more mundane sights of the Hobbits’ Shire. 

            But the other…. 

            Baldry gasped with shock, and the baby slipped from his grasp, sliding down his leg to land heavily on the seat of the bench on which he sat, giving a cry of distress to be out of the Man’s soft, warm embrace.  He gave her an unconscious pat on the head, recognizing with the shred of awareness he had to give her that Nutmeg was safe enough on the wagon seat and in no danger of falling further.  But the bulk of his attention was on the face of the taller Hobbit who led the Rohirric pony, for he recognized it!

            “It’s the haint!” he cried.  “It’s the haint!  The one from the twisted Eye!”

            And that Hobbit, unnaturally thin for a Hobbit of the Shire, already pale by nature, went almost grey as the others turned to see what it was that had caught the Man’s attention.

            Sam felt Frodo grow stiff, and immediately put his arm out to support the Ringbearer.  Yes, this had to do with the Ring somehow, although the gardener wasn’t exactly certain how.  “Treacle!” he called, struggling to keep from dropping the basket.  “Come take this, please!”

            Once the younger Hobbit had taken the basket, Sam put both arms about his friend and walked him forward to the shed and got him sat upon the lower, longer bench.

            Posy came alongside of him, asking, “Do you think he needs his water bottle?”

            Sam nodded in relief.  “That’s right—he brought one with him.  It should be hanging on his pommel.  If you would?”

            She nodded and was off immediately, returning swiftly with the bottle.  “Here,”

            Sam murmured his thanks as he uncorked the bottle and held it to Frodo’s lips.  “Now, get some of this down you, Frodo Baggins.  There, just like that.”

            It took some minutes for Frodo to recover, and Sam remained hovering over him until he saw some color again flush Frodo’s lips.

            Old Missus Green was leaning forward with concern.  “Is that a draught of some sort?” she asked.

            “Somethin’ like,” Sam answered.

            “What was that about?” asked Hiro Wheaten.

            Sam straightened.  “I intend to find out.”  He turned to look the Man on the opposite bench in the face.  “What in Middle Earth is a haint?” he demanded.

            The Man turned his attention briefly to the squirming bairn beside him and lifted her again into his arms.  “A haint’s a ghost—a spook or wight, mebbe a wraith,”

            Titus Sandyfoot gave Frodo a searching look.  “Looks like a living Hobbit to me.  And most folks don’t give mind to ghost stories.”

            Frodo whispered, “I know I never did—until we found out differently.”  His eyes were still haunted, but were beginning to clear as he took the bottle into his own hand and took a few more swallows.  “There!  I think, Sam, that I’m myself again.  You can let me sit on my own now.”

            “I’ve seen one o’the Ring Wraiths once—from a distance,” Baldry said.  “It was why I agreed to come north from Dunland.  Never wanted to see one again.  No one ever said there was haints in the north.”

            “Well, we saw’em right here in the Shire, the Ring Wraiths,” Sam answered him.  “Chased us across the Eastfarthing to the ferry to Buckland.  And all Nine were at the Ford of Bruinen.  And then there was the wights amongst the Barrow-downs.  No matter what I thought afore, I believe in wights and wraiths now.”

            “But what makes you think you’d seen Mister Baggins as a—haint?” asked Titus.  “And when?”

            Baldry shook his head.  “You oughta know,” he said to the Sandyfoot.  “You was there, too.”


            “That day—back when that Chief o’yourn sent us to cut down as much of the woods here as we could, and the Boss’s gore crows told us the same.”

            Titus shook his head.  “But we didn’t do it!  You got scared and spooked the rest, and we all ran away.”

            Baldry pointed at Frodo, his finger shaking.  “It was a’cause of him!  Or, at least,” his voice growing less certain, “that haint sure looked like him.  It was in the ball of light, and the goldy crown was trying to put Itself on his head, and the dark flames and the light ones were fightin’ over it all.  It was like the Eye—the Red Eye of the Dark Lord, only bright and dark at the same time—twisted, I tell you.  It had gone still—still as still can be—a scary still.  And then I got scared and ran away, and the others ran, too—right over me after I tripped over that blasted vine!  I think it must’ve been Tegro’s boots as knocked me out as he stumbled over me—wore them iron-bound boots as Sharkey give him’s critters.  And that wind was blowin’ from the west—unnatural, you ask me.”

            Sam’s face was twisted, both full of disgust and triumph at the same time.  “The wind from the West, Frodo.  It was when the West Wind begun to blow.  And we was there, in the Mountain, when it started, there as that Gollum took It and your finger, and fell!  And that scared these idjits here at the entrance to the Binbale Woods.”  He shook his head in wonder.

            Baldry’s eyes swiveled to look more closely at Sam.  “And—and you were a haint, too—the night we was s’posed to burn down that farmer’s place there at Bywater.  You with the blue sword in your hand and the shield of light you held, and the gold power at your breast!”

            Sam was totally confused and growing alarmed and angry.  “What’s this all about?  What farmer’s place?”

            “There, just outside the village.  The farmer what had a passel of boys and one gal—a right purty gal, too!”

            Sam was now alarmed.  “You was supposed to burn down the Cottons’ farm?  When?  Why’d nobody tell me about it?”

            Frodo shook his head.  “Think, Sam—the day you rescued me from the tower—was that the day the wind changed to blowing from the south?”

            Sam quieted as he thought.  “I think it might of been.  I ’member standin’ afore the Watchers with the Star-glass in my right hand and Sting in the other.  The wind had changed—yes, it had.”  Frodo nodded his encouragement.  “But what would be the gold power?”

            “Where was It, Sam?”

            “In my shirt pocket.”

            “He saw It as trying to crown me, and you as if It were a power at your breast.”

            “But I had no shield of light!”

            “You did have the Phial in your hand—he might have seen that as a shield.”

            “But—but we wasn’t here!  We was how many leagues away, all the way to—to there!”

            Frodo began to laugh, a laugh that grew in power and delight as he straightened.  “Don’t you see, Sam?  Somehow we managed to guard what we loved most in the Shire, even when we were closest to despair!  And now we’re home, and the Cottons’ farm is all right, and nobody cut down the trees of Binbale Woods!  How the Enemy would have cringed had he realized what his creation was allowing to be done through Its power!  We might not have been able to master It, but we still found ways to use Its power, even—.“  He faltered and his laughter died, grief now overwhelming him.  “It even let me curse Gollum, Sam.  And he died of my curse,”

            “Gandalf told us, Frodo—that curse was from him first.  You only echoed the Enemy’s own curse at Gollum.  He knew what would happen if’n him took It from you, and it did.  You told me there, at the foot of the Mountain, be glad that Gollum did what you and I couldn’t.  He finished If for everyone.”

            He and Frodo shared a long look for a time until Sam drew his friend to his breast.  “Member, Frodo—it’s all over now.  It’s gone and can’t hurt you no more, gone with Its Master into the Fire.  The war is won, and mostly ’cause you made it all the way.”

            “But,” whispered Frodo, “It is still with me, and will be with me for what time is left me in Middle Earth.  Like the Morgul wound in my shoulder—I will never be free of either—not really.”

            Missus Wheaten and Posy shared out the food from the basket, making sure that even Baldry got a share.  Only the deputy Mayor ate hardly anything, the others glad to have a full, proper Hobbit meal together.

            Missus Green, baby Nutmeg in her arms, rode Bill back to the Wheatens’ farm while again Frodo rode Strider.  Gardi and his next younger brother drove the Wheatens’ goats, while Baldry, a stout walking stick in hand, rode the pony the children had freed from its traces after its wagon crashed among the trees.  The children had found the goats in a stout shed behind the sawyers’ shed, bleating for food, and had unearthed the Wheatens' looms and spinning wheel in the far end of the shed, alongside other specialized tools and items taken from the Overhill region. 

            “I shall send my Cousin Sancho Proudfoot to fetch the wheel and looms back to you, Mistress Wheaten,” Frodo promised.  “But it may be as long as a week before he can get to them.”  Clove, Cinnamon, and one of the lads each carried one of the chickens they’d found still alive under a large basket inside the hut..

            Once back to the Wheatens’ farm, the full story was told of the escape by the Teasel children and their grandmother.  As was common in the region, the farm had a secret bolthole at the back of the property, one that had been empty until the coming of the Gatherers and Sharers.  Realizing what might happen, old Missus Green had secretly directed the children to fill it with necessities against such time as someone might attack the farm or seek to strip it clean.  She’d cleaned out the extra blankets from the lumber room and her own stores and sent them out to the bolt hole, along with what food the family didn’t need for its current comfort.  Gardi, who was an adventurous soul, had already visited the sawyers’ shed several times and recognized it as a good retreat should it prove necessary.  He’d seen to it the chickens were fed once he found them in the hut, and cleaned off the wooden shelves on which the woods-Hobbits had slept in their bedrolls so the family could have a clean place in which to rest.  Gardi and Cinnamon had managed to get the children out of the house before it was set alight, and had hurried to their grandmother’s window to help her and baby Nutmeg out.  That end of the house hadn’t burned down, so Gardi had been able to get even more useful items out of their grandmother’s room and the lumber room for their use, not to mention pots and some dishes from the ruins of the kitchen.

            They’d done their best to remain hidden until after the day the wind changed to being from the west rather than from the southeast.  Only then did they dig the fire pit in the shed and put up a shelf where things like a dish pan might be set for any needful purpose.

            After the west wind had died down the oldest three had gone to the major entrance to the woods to see what the ruckus they’d heard earlier had been about, and so they’d found Baldry unconscious near a stiff brambleberry vine, obviously wounded and in need of care.  As he recovered and proved to be willing to help them in return for the nursing and food they’d shared with him, he’d become a member of the family.  He proved handy with a pocketknife, and had whittled many a useful item from the wood they found in and around the shed, and he’d become devoted to the baby.  He taught Clove how to milk the nanny goat for Nutmeg’s sake, and had helped devise a means for bottle feeding her.  They’d taken the wood and benches from the wagons to use in increasing the shelter they enjoyed and to provide needed seating and storage.  Their grandmother and Baldry had described how to identify and make use of food caches made by creatures such as squirrels, and they’d even done some scrumping of farms north and south of the woods, never taking enough to bring the farmers out to search out the scrumpers.  Only now, with Yule not long in the offing, had they begun wondering how they’d survive the coldest days of winter.

            But now they were rescued, learning that the Time of Troubles was over, their father alive but out in Bree, and that their neighbors were willing to shelter them until either he returned or they would be able to leave the Shire to join him Outside.

            Late in the evening Treacle Wheaten set out to make the Wheaten home fast for the night.  The lasses were sleeping in the large room where his two sisters had spent their childhood, two of Puss’s kittens from last spring, nearly fully grown by now, sleeping with them.  The lads were asleep in the room where he and Joco had slept as children, all crowded into the bed there.  He paused to check out the best guest room where Frodo Baggins shared a bed with Samwise Gamgee as if they, too, were brothers, and smiled to see them sleeping back to back, apparently comforted by one another,  Missus Green was sleeping on the sofa in the back parlor, the fire there warming the room for her.  And now he was for his own bed, in the small room outside that of his parents’ and across from what he’d always thought of as Posy’s bower.  As for Baldry, he slept on a pallet set up in the kitchen, and he was smiling as he dreamed in the warmth of the stove.

            Time for me to be abed, too, he thought as he went into his room and closed the door.


            Lodo Teasel sat smoking his pipe on a bench outside his family’s hole in Bree Hill, and looked up as a tall Man paused outside the door yard.  “Is this the Teasel home?” the Man asked.

            Lodo looked up at him suspiciously until he realized this Man was one identified by his father as one of those, Big and Little, who’d defended Bree when the strangers from the south and the likes of Bill Ferny had attacked the village a year past.  “Yes,” he admitted, “Yes.  And why do you need to know?”

            “I have a letter for Lodo Teasel, sent from the deputy Mayor of the Shire.  Is that you, small Master?”

            “Deputy Mayor?  And why is there a deputy Mayor in the Shire?” asked Lodo.

            “Mayor Whitfoot was found in the Lockholes, ill and injured, and is in need of recovery before he can take up his full duties again.  He appointed Frodo Baggins as his deputy until that time, so it is Master Baggins who has sent this.  Are you Lodo Teasel?  I believe that you will be glad of what tiding he sends.”

            Lodo took the missive and examined the wax used to seal it, into which a star shape had been pressed.  “I was that surprised to learn that Frodo Baggins and the others had returned, chasing the Big Men away and freeing us who were imprisoned in Michel Delving,” he said.  “So, Baggins is the deputy Mayor, eh?  And what has he to do with me?”

            “If you are Lodo Teasel,” the Man said, “read the letter and find out.”  And with a courteous bow and a broad smile, he turned and strode back the way he’d come as Lodo broke the star seal and shook out the letter from Frodo Baggins.


            Buffo Teasel came back from his work in the community garden he shared with his neighbors, ready to lean his hoe and hay fork against his fence before fetching out a well-deserved mug of ale to enjoy as the evening closed in.  He’d been busy seeing the plants covered with straw and mulch to protect them from the freezing weather expected in the next week, and he wanted to offer what comfort to his son as Lodo would accept as he faced his first Yule without his children. 

            But the aspect Lodo presented as Buffo entered the hole was beaming, filled with joy, as the younger Teasel came out of his room with his saddle bags and his pack over his shoulders.  “Are you back, Dad?  Good then.  I have the chance to say goodbye before I head to the Prancing Pony to fetch Pudding.”

            “What for you need your pony, lad?”

            “Cause I’m headed home, Dad—back to Overhill!  Do you understand?  The children—they’re alive and well, and they’re awaiting me!  I love you so, and thanks for helping me in my bad time.  But the children—they need me now, them and Mother Green.  Wish me well, Dad!”


            As he rode the Road west, back to the Brandywine Bridge into the Shire, Lodo passed a Man riding a small horse who was headed east toward Bree.  He paid the Man no more mind than the Man paid him.  Baldry was headed for Bree with his pocketknife, one of the horses from the wagon Sharkey’s Men had kept in Hobbiton, a store of food and gear, and a letter of introduction to Barliman Butterburr of the Prancing Pony asking the innkeeper to help the Man find gainful employment somewhere within the Breelands.

            And on the Wheaten Farm outside Overhill the nine children of Lodo and Coriander Teasel, aided by their hosts and their grandmother, sought to prepare for a Yule of greater happiness than they’d hoped to see the previous week.


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