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And Where Are the Children?  by Larner

Happy Thanksgiving.  Looking forward to the new year!

IV

            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.”

 





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