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And Where Are the Children?  by Larner

V

            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.”

            “When?”

            “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.





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