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AND SO IT BEGINS...
“FEAR! FIRE! FOES! AWAKE! AWAKE!”
Merimac found himself nearly tumbling from his bed, startled to wakefulness by the Horn-call! Something dire must be happening! He reached quickly for his breeches which hung at the foot of the bed. His wife Linda had sat bolt upright, clutching the covers, and her eyes wide with fear glittered in the moonlight through the window.
“What *is* it?” she asked in a trembling voice.
“I don’t know yet, dear. Stay here until I find out.” He bolted from the room, nearly colliding with his son, who was coming hurriedly from his own room.
He grabbed Berilac by the shoulder, and they rushed into the corridor, where any number of other hobbits were doing likewise. There was a hubbub of exclamations and speculations--was it a fire? was the Old Forest attacking the hedge again? what could it be?
They clustered about Merimac and his son, as they made their way down a level to the Master’s apartment. Saradoc was already being besieged by hobbits with questions. “What’s going on?” seemed to be the main question.
Saradoc raised his hand and with a word, silenced the panicked hobbits. “I do not yet know why the Horn-call has been blown, but all know what to do. All males between the ages of twenty-five and sixty, please be prepared to assist in the emergency. Dress yourselves and gather in the front hall within a quarter of an hour. The rest of you return to your own rooms. Mac, you and Beri come with me.”
The Horn-call could still be heard blowing every few moments. It would not be silenced until an order from the Master, and Merimac could hear it echoing in the distance as other outposts took up the call. He followed Sara down through the nearest exit and into the courtyard, where one of the stablehobbits was still blowing the call.
“That’s enough, Tip,” Sara said.
Tip looked at him gratefully. “It sounded first from the direction of Crickhollow, sir,” he said, “but we’ve not had word yet of why.”
Saradoc nodded, and gazed down the lane, pulling his dressing gown closer. Merimac shivered; he was clad only in his breeches and braces, and the night air was crisp. Only Berilac was mostly dressed.
“What *do* you suppose it is, Uncle Sara?” Beri asked.
“I don’t know, lad. But it troubles me that it’s come from the direction of Crickhollow.”
Merimac looked at his brother. Something had been bothering Saradoc all day, and for some reason, he thought it might have to do with Frodo moving back to Buckland, though he was not sure *why* he thought that. Just then, there was the sound of pony hooves, and a hobbit, riding hard, pounded towards them. When he saw them standing there, he pulled up short. Merimac realized it was young Finch Boffin, who lived closest to Crickhollow--a little over a mile from the small house that Frodo had purchased.
“Mr. Saradoc!” He was breathing hard. “One of Mr. Merry’s friends come to the house, a-running for his life! He says there’s Big Folk in Buckland all dressed in black on big black horses--and he said something about the Old Forest, too! He’s all done in--but he said it was danger, so me da blew the Horn.”
Saradoc turned to Tip. “Go, saddle the ponies! Mr. Merimac and I will ride back with this lad. Berilac--go back in and tell the others we need them to spread out and give warning. Send Seredic up to the bridge, with about six others to see to what’s happening. Send Cousins Marmadas and Merimas south towards Haysend, and then head over to the Ferry and make sure all is secure there. Send the Ferry across to the west bank--if there are enemies in Buckland we don’t want to give them an easy way into the Shire proper. And ask Cousin Dody to be ready, in case his healer’s skills are needed.”
He glanced down at himself, and then at his brother. “We’d better go get dressed while Tip saddles the ponies.”
When they returned to the front of the Hall a few moments later, Merimac could not help but notice how pale his brother was. He had to be horribly worried--the hobbit who had come to the Boffins’ place must have been Fredegar Bolger--Finch knew Frodo and Pippin well enough by sight. But it was clear that Saradoc knew or suspected *something*.
Soon they were trotting alongside the Boffin lad, and Mac took the chance to speak to his brother. “Sara, what is going on? You have been upset all day, and now this?”
Saradoc looked over at him. “I was going to tell you tomorrow, when I had found out more about it. I discovered a note today--from Merry--hidden in the ledger in my study.”
A note? Why would Merry have hidden a note to his father?
“It seems that Frodo was--or is--in some sort of danger, and felt he had to leave the Shire. Merry and Pippin were going with him. I had only just told Esme about it tonight when we heard the Horn-call. I can’t begin to believe this does not have something to do with Frodo’s danger, whatever it might be.”
Merimac found himself struck speechless. Frodo? In danger? He wondered how his wife would take this news--she was a Proudfoot, but related to Frodo through her Baggins grandmother, after whom she had been named. What could Frodo be in danger from? His mind immediately went to Lotho Sackville-Baggins. He’d often thought that there was nothing *that* hobbit would stick at--and all the Brandybucks had thought it very odd that Frodo had sold Bag End to the S.-B.s of all people.
And yet, how would that explain Frodo having to leave the Shire?
The Boffin cottage was ablaze with light, and Finch’s father was waiting at the door.
“Mr. Saradoc!” he exclaimed. “I’m that glad to see you.” He led the way to a small bedroom, where Fatty Bolger was huddled in the middle of the bed.
“Fredegar?” Saradoc reached over and touched his shoulder.
But Fredegar turned abruptly, with a cry of fear. “No! No, I don’t have it! I never saw it! I won’t say! I won’t say!” he shouted. His eyes were wild. He turned once more back into the bed, shuddering and moaning.
Merimac and his brother exchanged a look of shock. But before they could say anything, they heard the Horn-call again, this time from the North. Saradoc turned to Beri. “Berilac, go back to Brandy Hall and fetch Cousin Dody. Tell him what sort of state Fatty’s in. And bring back a wagon or a trap, to take him back up to the Hall. Your father and I are going to see what this new threat is.”
Mounting their ponies once more, they raced up the road, hearing the Horn-call echoing through Buckland. At Newbury, they came across the hobbit who was relaying the call--it had come from further north, he said.
It was Seredic and one of the hobbits from the Hall who had ridden with him. Seredic looked at his cousin with an expression of horror.
“There were Big Folk, horrid creatures--they didn’t seem to be Men--mounted on huge black horses--two or three came tearing across the Bridge, and were met by two more who came up from the south road to meet them, and they raced eastward on the Road like a storm! Sara, I found old Denham Banks mourning his nephew--they…” Seredic paused and looked sick. “They rode him down, just trampled him over, when he called them to stop. They--it was dreadful--”
Merimac felt the blood drain from his face. Ned Banks--why he was still a tween, though he had nearly reached his majority--he’d only been on the Bridge a few months…he glanced at Saradoc, who was breathing hard.
“They rode *east*?” he asked.
Seredic nodded. “Yes.”
Saradoc took a deep breath. “Away from the Shire then. Very well. We will ride up to the Bridge and question poor Den. And then, I think, back to the Hall to see what sort of sense we can get out of Fredegar Bolger.”
In the cold light of late morning, the two exhausted brothers rode back to Brandy Hall. They were too weary and grief-stricken to talk. The Banks family had been bridge tenders at the Stonebow Bridge for several generations, living in a small cottage not far from the eastern bank of the River. They yet had no idea of what the strange invasion was, nor of what had happened to Merry, Frodo or Pippin. Both of them were trying to imagine breaking the news to their wives.
Saradoc looked over at Merimac. “I know you have to be just as tired as I, Mac. But after you’ve had a chance to speak to Beri and Linda, I’d like you to join me in talking to young Fredegar.”
Cousin Dodinas the Younger, the Hall’s healer, kept a small bedroom behind the study he used to see patients. There he would sometimes put a patient who was too injured or ill to be far from his supervision. When Saradoc and Merimac found him, he was in that study putting away some herbs. He looked up at the two as they entered. “He’s in the next room. Miss Thorn is with him.” Thorn was Dody’s apprentice.
“Is he coherent?” asked Saradoc. “I have to have some answers.”
Dody nodded. “He was hysterical last night. I gave him a calming draught and a sleeping potion. He awakened a few moments ago. He’s very subdued, but he has already told me that he needed to speak with you.”
The two went into the room, and Cousin Dody called Miss Thorn out.
Saradoc went over and sat on the chair beside the bed, while Merimac leaned against the wall near the door.
Fredegar was sitting up in the bed, rather pale, but he favored them with a weak smile. “Good morning. I am sorry to have made such a fool of myself last night. I am afraid my nerve rather deserted me.” He gave a shudder in spite of his light words.
He looked at Saradoc’s expectant gaze, and then averted his eyes. “I suppose you want to know what happened.” He sighed. “I was to have tried to keep the secret longer, but…” his voice trailed off.
“Fredegar.” Saradoc did not drop his gaze.
“I just hope that you are going to believe me,” he said. “It’s all to do with Bilbo’s old Adventure, and a small item he brought back with him…”
It took a good long while for Freddy to tell the whole story. It was time for luncheon when the brothers came out, thoughtful expressions on their faces.
Merimac looked at Saradoc. “How true do you think all that is?” Just from Freddy’s demeanor, he feared it was all too true.
“It explains a lot,” Saradoc said thoughtfully. “I always wondered *how* old Bilbo was able to do so much that he did. A magic Ring. I only hope that the Elves in Rivendell will know what to do about it. And that they felt so threatened that they had to go into the Old Forest.” He bit his lip. “Oh, Mac! Think of them!”
And Merimac couldn’t help but think about it--all four of them, though he only knew three--but Frodo, Merry and Pippin were dear to all of Buckland. Come home, lads, he thought, come home safely.
Saradoc broke into his thoughts. “We can speak of this to no one. And Mac, I’d like Berilac to ride for Tuckborough by way of Hobbiton. Someone needs to break the news to Samwise Gamgee’s family. And I’ll send a letter to Paladin.”
Merimac shook his head. “Paladin Took will not be happy.”
“Nor am I. But I have a feeling this is just the beginning, Mac. We are going to have to tighten the Bounds and redouble the watch. I think we may be in for more trouble.”
And somehow Merimac knew his brother was right. And all he could do was stand at his shoulder and provide whatever help he could.
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