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And Where Are the Children?  by Larner

II

            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.

 





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