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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.
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