Chapter Thirty-five: An Unlooked-for Nuisance – 8 Solmath, 1418 SR
Theo woke slowly to a pale and clammy dawn. He yawned loudly as he lifted his head to peer over the edge of his blanket with one eye at the wisps of misted fog that hovered overhead. The hobbit groaned slightly, thoroughly disliking the uncomfortable sleep outside upon a lawn so near to the bogs outside the little village.
Theo shivered in the chilled air, then kicked the blanket off him and jumped up as the realization that the dwarves were nowhere in sight. ‘Confound these bothersome dwarves,’ he muttered as he drew close his cloak and set out down the lane. He soon found master Rulf leaning on a wooden fence up in the dwarven quarter of the village. His pack and bow were lying on the ground beside him as Theo’s old friend puffed upon a long wooden pipe and gazed up at the growing dawn. Rulf was not alone, for another dwarf stood with him; yet much to Theo’s startlement, it was not master Khazgrim.
The second dwarf was richly dressed in a crimson cloak and tunic, and an impressive hammer was slung across his back. This dwarf was standing beside Rulf, also puffing away contently on a clay pipe and tugged at his short-cropped beard as the two conversed with quiet words.
Intrigued, the hobbit stepped forward and it was not until there came a gentle cough behind the dwarves from Theo that they turned round to see him. ‘Good morning, master Rulf,’ he said glancing at the newcomer with interest. ‘And who might this be? Will you not properly introduce me to your companion?’
The strange dwarf frowned at that but Rulf waved a hand at him and smiled. ‘Ah, very sorry, master Theo! Where are my manners, this is my older brother, Rurir!’ Then dwarf then nudged the other with a gentle elbow and swung his hand towards the hobbit. ‘Rurir, this is Theodoras Took, the hobbit I spoke of.’
‘Rurir, son of Runek, at your service, Master Took,’ said Rurir with a deep bow.
‘At yours and your family’s!’ answered Theo politely and with astonishment. ‘Your brother, master Rulf? Dear me, what a surprise! But what of the other dwarves that answered your summons for aid?’
The two dwarves exchanged sidelong glances at one another as Rulf spoke. ‘Master Steinnrand wished to come but he has been delayed,’ he said grimly.
‘All the rest of our folk are…busy,’ added Rurir in strange voice. ‘Unfortunately, I was the only one who could be spared.’
Theo began to speak but swiftly lost his words as a grumbling voice reached his ears. He turned his head to one side to spot a hobbit standing nearby, scratching his short-cropped brown hair with irritation. ‘Blast it all! I leave my hole for five minutes, and already something stolen,’ exclaimed the hobbit.
‘But just the two of you?’ he said in disbelief, still keeping an eye on the boisterous hobbit even as he turned back to the dwarves. ‘Surely we cannot hope to accomplish what needs to be done with so few?’
‘I can assure you,’ began Rulf with a laugh and clasped a firm hand upon his brother’s shoulder. ‘Despite his shameful beard, Rurir here is a stout warrior!’
‘Do not worry, master Took,’ said Rurir swiftly, throwing his brother a look of wounded pride. ‘My brother and I will be able to help you with your little problem.'
For a long moment, Theo stood dumbfounded, unable to speak. ‘My problem?’ he finally blurted aloud. ‘Surely this troll business would concern your folk as well?'
‘Perhaps others of our kin will join us soon, maybe at Bree,’ said Rulf.
‘One can hope,’ added Rurir with a nod of his head. ‘Many are often at Bree selling their wares.’
Once again, Theo became distracted as the strange hobbit’s shrill voice rose into the air only a few steps away. ‘What do you mean you have not been around hobbiton?’ said the hobbit, placing his hands firmly at his waist as he glared up into the face of Onar, the dwarf. 'I know for a fact that I have seen you, near my smial!' he added swiftly as he pointed an accusing finger at the much taken-back dwarf.
Rulf glanced over to the hysterical hobbit. ‘What is that about?’ he said with a frown. The dwarf then turned and, clearing his throat called out. ‘What is going on? You accuse this dwarf of a theft?’
At once the hobbit whirled round to spy the two dwarves and glared at them, his face red. ‘Oh great... more of them... do you people just spring out of the ground?’
Rulf slowly strode over to the hobbit, gazing down with flickering eyes. 'See here little master, you hobbits like to sling around accusations very lightly. Onar here is a respected vendor.’
The hobbit looked first at Rulf then back at Onar with an incredulous snort. 'Well, someone came by my hole and took something from it they did...'
‘What would hobbit have that a dwarf would want?' said Rulf with a chuckle.
‘What wouldn’t I have that anyone would want?’ retorted the hobbit with a rising voice.
‘I don’t care about others, you accuse this dwarf here of theft,’ said Rulf his eyes turning dark and hard.
'Well.... Well, you are fat and you smell like ale,’ spat the hobbit and crossed his arms across his chest. ‘There, I said it!’
Rulf stroked his beard to hide his growing smile and gazed down at the blustering hobbit. ‘And you are fat and smell like mushrooms. So what of it?’
Theo sighed out loud and stepped forward. ‘I had better go over there and intervene before something truly happens.' He took a stance between the dwarf and hobbit before speaking. 'Ahem! Pleased to meet you...I am so sorry I did not catch your name?'
‘Finally, someone reasonable,’ said the hobbit as a look of thanks spread across his face at the sight of another hobbit. ‘My name is Holfast Underburrow Some stranger came by and stole a prized possession of mine out of my smial!’
‘Stolen?’ said Theo with a frown. ‘Well that cannot be good, but I can assure you no one here is responsible for such a thing. I am Theodoras Took, and these are my companions, masters Rulf and Rurir, of the Blue Mountains.'
Holfast glanced at the dwarves then at Theo. ‘Do you owe them money or something?’ he said with much distrust.
‘Owe them?’ said Theo with a start. ‘Heavens no! They are here at my request, I am a Bounder you see, and I have uncovered some rather unsettling news hereabouts.'
Holfast raised an eyebrow and glanced at the dwarves with wary eyes. ‘Look friend,’ he said, drawing close to Theo. ‘Have you gone mad? They are dwarves... their prices are terrible... And I’m sure they have parasites in their beards!’
'They have come to lend their aid in a horrible discovery that threatens the Shire,’ declared Theo rather sternly. ‘And no, they ask no price and I can certainly assure you neither have fleas!'
‘I was thinking more of ticks...’ replied Holfast with a sidelong glance at the dwarves.
‘No ticks either!’ said Theo with a glare. ‘Now see here Holfast, these dwarves are in my company, and they are fine fellows. No need to be saying such things about folk you do not know. And it does not good to be so hasty with such accusatory words. What can I do for you to settle this nonsense?'
‘Well, someone stole something very important to my family,’ said Holfast slowly and sadly.
‘I am truly sorry to hear that,’ said Theo softly. ‘A family heirloom perhaps?’
‘Aye, a club coming all the way back from the goblin wars… what do you know other strangers coming through these parts of the Shire, Bounder?’
‘Indeed I do know of the many stranger that has begun to crowd the borders here,’ answered Theo thoughtfully. ‘And it that which has brought these dwarves here by my request.’
‘Well, then I insist you tell me more…’ said Holfast matter-of-factly.
Theo frowned as he glanced at the dwarves. ‘You might as well,’ said Rulf quietly. ‘I don't think he will be quiet until you do.’
Theo sighed and looked back at the hobbit before speaking. 'I can only say that there have been outsiders here and they do not hold the best interests of the Shire in their hearts. I have asked these dwarves here to solve a riddle of sorts. I do not know much about this mystery I speak of, though Rulf here seems to know a great deal - but he is reluctant to speak much about it.'
‘Then I insist that you take with,’ declared Holfast loudly. ‘Until I can get this overgrown pumpkin here to tell me more,’ he added pointing at Rulf.
‘Can you cook?’ asked Rulf. ‘We could use a cook during the journey.’
‘Can I cook?’ said Holfast appalled. ‘I did not simply get this fat by sitting around and eating grass.'
'Good, we can use a cook and if we come up short of fishing bait we can use your toes in a pinch,’ said Rulf with a smile.
‘That’s fine, and if I break any fishing line,’ he threw back. ‘I’ll use your beard hair. Not his though,’ he quickly added looking towards Rurir. ‘His is far too short!’
Rulf roared aloud with laughter and slapped his leg with a heavy hand. Rurir stirred and glared at the hobbit but said nothing. Theo threw up his hands in defeat and was about turn round to walk away. At the last moment, he took in a deep breath. ‘Very well, Mr. Holfast,’ he said slowly and with careful words. ‘I am need of fellows to accompany me on a long journey. It is not safe, mind you, and may prove to be quite perilous. What do you say Mr. Holfast? Will you agree to accompany us, for the sake of our beloved Shire?'
Holfast scratched his head then looked straight at Theo. ‘If it finds my club, and the possibility of these dwarves dropping more gems out of their pockets... why not?’
'I cannot speak of your missing club, Mr. Holfast, or of gems where we are going,’ answered Theo wearily, and then gazed up at the sky. ‘The morning is growing late already, and we have not even departed. We should prepare for the road soon, if we wish to make for Stock by nightfall.'
‘I have everything I need right here, Master Took,’ said Rurir patting his long hammer with a steady hand. ‘Let us be off then.’ With that Rurir turned and began to stride down from the dwarven quarter. Rulf chuckled softly and soon followed after his brother.
Theo trussed up his pack atop his shoulders and turned to follow the dwarves. He glanced back at Holfast. ‘Coming, Mr. Holfast?’
Holfast patted his pockets and drew out a large mushroom before biting into it heartily. ‘As I’ll ever be…but I insist walking upwind, these dwarves smell like overcooked roast.'
Theo shook his head slowly as he turned back to catch up with the dwarves towards the hedge-gate, not entirely sure what to make of this brash hobbit.' With Holfast behind him, the two hobbits quickly caught up with the dwarves who were just now passing through the hedge-gate. Once on the road, they struck along the road that rolled past the murky bogs on their right. They soon crossed the rickety bridge and turned south and east towards a rise of hills further on.
For a time, no one spoke as Rulf led the way; the hobbits marched along behind him side by side and Rurir tramped along in the rear on heavy feet. It was not until the bridge fell from view behind them that the silence was broken.
‘So what brings you two shaved boars down out of the mountains this far?’ said the hobbit between munches of fried mushrooms.
‘That is none of your business,’ answered Rulf, not turning round his head. ‘Suffice that we are here to aid Theo; he has proved himself to be a worthy companion and friend.’
Holfast listened as he drew another mushroom from his pocket and bit down into it. ‘Always with you dwarves and your secrets,’ he said with a mouthful of mushrooms. ‘You are as annoying and pushy as old Lobelia! There is one good thing though…you at least smell better…’ he added laughing hard and long at his own humour.
‘I have traded one foolish and young hobbit for this one?’ muttered Theo softly to himself more than the others. ‘A rather unsavoury beginning to a terrible business.’
‘Oh come now…’ said Holfast between mouthfuls of mushrooms. ‘Why such a sour mood, Theodoras? I would expect it from the dwarves but not from a fellow hobbit. And as far as young, I new was was fine-looking but young?’
‘Not you, Mr. Holfast. I was referring to my cousin, Hallson. I send him away back home. He is far too young and impressionable to be accompanying us.'
‘You’ll hardly find me impressionable,’ said Holfast as he drew out the last of his mushrooms from his pocket.
‘Hrmph! I will be the judge of that, Mr. Holfast!' said Theo loudly.
The chilled morning waned as the companions made their way south from the forbidding bogs until the land and road began to rise up slopes. Much to Theo’s silent thanks, the bogs were soon behind them as they now made straight for Waymeet and the Great East Road. From there they struck a path eastwards for several more miles as the sun began to gleam in the sky. The afternoon was swiftly passing when rising wisps of smoke could be seen ahead along the road.
‘Ah, Stock at last!’ exclaimed Theo as the outlying buildings of the small village came into view. ‘And in good time too, I must say. Ahead is the Golden Perch. They have some of the best beer to be found in all the Shire.’
‘The Golden Perch?’ scoffed Holfast loudly. This place offers swill to the Green Dragon! However, Theo, if you are willing to unwind maybe tonight we can sneak off with some of Ole' Maggots mushrooms.'
‘No thank you!’ said Theo with alarm. ‘The food here to delightful and I have no wish to disturb farmer Maggot or his dogs.'
Before long the road passed within the village and came to a low thorny hedge; the road continued on to sweep round to the north but a narrow gate opening led inside where a turfed roof of the inn could be seen.
Inside the fine inn, the companions found the tavern sparsely filled and quiet, with only a few hobbits from Stock milling about. They took a table near the fireplace as Theo called out to the proprietor for drinks. Shortly, a hobbit came round from the bar, carrying a huge jug of ale and filled four large mugs atop a wooden tray in the other hand. He set down the mugs, looked first at the dwarves suspiciously, then at the hobbits. The hobbit accepted the copper coins offered by Theo and then with a weak smile disappeared.
‘If you don't want some mushrooms then I’ll take them myself... more for me!' said Holfast as he leaned back on his chair as if the conversation outside had never been halted.
‘Thieving mushrooms, eh?’ answered Rulf with a grin. ‘Looks like we have a burglar here,’ he added nudging his silent brother.
‘Yeah, the easy part is getting the mushrooms,’ said Holfast as he wiped the ale from his lips with the sleeve of his arm. The hard part is dealing with farmer maggots dogs. I might have a belly but I am fast.’
‘Why not simply pay for them like normal folk?’ asked Rulf as he looked over the top of his mug.
‘It’s more fun to take them,’ said Holfast simply. ‘I have the money…but half the fun is running from his dogs. Of course, I’ve never stolen into his house to get mushrooms...’
'No, just his fields he works hard to maintain,’ said Rulf with a hearty laugh.
Theo gazed at the hobbit and stifled a deep yawn, not entirely sure if the long march or Halson’s constant bantering had long ago tired him. The dwarves stood to take a seat at a round table next to the first and at once fell into quiet conversation. Theo slowly closed his eyes, enjoying the warmth of the crackling fire and the dull murmuring of the dwarves. Long minutes passed until he was brought back to attention by Halson.
‘Well I am not the least bit tired…’ declared the hobbit as he began to absently rap his fingers atop the table. ‘So, Theo, where did you grow up?’ he asked as Theo’s eyes fluttered open to look around. Holfast followed his gaze towards the dwarves. ‘Don't pay any attention to them; they are talking about doors and beards more than likely.’
‘In Tuckborough,’ answered Theo slowly and wearily. Sadly, my father and mother passed suddenly when I was still in my tweens. I went away to live with my aunt away in Budgeford.'
‘Ah, so you are a Took then?’
‘Yes, a Took,’ said Theo with a yawn. ‘But I am also a Bolger, on my mother’s side of course…’
Holfast nodded but now turned to the door and licked his lips. ‘You know...’ he said abruptly, cutting of Theo in mid-sentence. ‘I did see one of Holly's pie runners right outside as we approached...I will be right back.’
With a start, the hobbit hopped from his chair and began moving towards the door. He turned to wink back at Theo and then swung the door open and stepped outside. ‘Finally, a bit of peace and quiet, even for a little while,’ muttered Theo quietly as the door swiftly closed behind Holfast.
Theo must have dozed off for some time later he sat up confused and alarmed when there came the sound of the door slamming loudly shut. He looked up and rubbed his sleepy eyes to watch Holfast dart through the door, huffing and puffing. In his hands he held a fine looking pie that he quickly placed on the table and began speaking very fast. ‘If anyone asks, we got this pie here…’
‘Whatever do you mean?’ asked Theo as he sat up in his chair and glowered at the hobbit.
‘Well, the pie, I mean. We got it here…and paid for it. Isn’t that right?’ he said to the dwarves as well as they looked up at the commotion at the other table. ‘It’s Holly Hornblowers pie... It's the best in the shire.'
‘Then I am sure you stole it,’ said Rulf.
‘Oh hush! I did no such thing. There is a piece or two in it for you both as well.’
Theo shook his head and stood up to walk over to the proprietor at the bar. He took out a few copper coins and set them down as the innkeeper looked first at him then at the coins curiously. Theo simply shrugged, whispered something and then turned to walk back to the table.
‘We had better turn in soon, and make an early start,’ he said slowly. ‘If all goes well, we should reach Bree by nightfall tomorrow. I daresay it will be a rather different and interesting journey than the first time I travelled there.’
‘No journey ever is,’ answered Rulf grinning as he reached over with a greedy hand for a piece of the pie.
Chapter Thirty-six: Bree at Last – 9 Solmath, 1418 SR
Dusk was deepening when Theo and his companions came at last to the Greenway crossing and drew near the village of Bree. The journey from the Shire and across the Brandywine Bridge was merry enough and, with such stout dwarves with the party, there was little to fear along the road. As the company went along, the dwarves had fallen into talk between one another, speaking of old wars or hinted of terrible and whispered business in the mountains, or sang songs of deeds of their people long ago.
Much to Theo’s dismay, Holfast’s relentless prattle was not left behind in the Shire, but continued on through the long day’s march until each pause of the hobbit’s chattering was looked upon as a blessing by Theo, no matter how brief it was. As Bree came into view finally, Theo let out a sigh of relief, hoping that the visage of the village would draw some semblance of silence from master Holfast, if only for a little while.
The familiar deep ditch and hedge on the inner side could now been seen from the crossroads; over the ditch, the Road ran onwards through an arched gate, which was swung open (as it was not yet fully nighttime as was the custom of the Breelanders) and a single watchmen stood sleepily under the strong posts beside it.
Theo nodded politely at the gate watchman as they passed within, who showed not the slightest interest that a party of sour-looking dwarves and merry (or only slightly annoyed on Theo’s part) hobbits was now entering the village just as night approached.
‘Terrible fellow, that man,’ said Theo in a low voice as they left the gate behind them. ‘He questioned me to no end when I first arrived here, as if I was up to no good. Me, up to no good!’
‘Oh, it could have been that bad,’ retorted Holfast with a wave of his hand.
‘You were not there, Holfast,’ answered Theo swiftly. ‘Why, I felt all eyes upon me, and not all those eyes were of the friendliest of sorts.’
‘Seems that they have increased their number of watchmen,’ said Rulf as he gazed about the street just beyond the hedge gate. To one side stood a long open-air stable from where the whinny of horses could clearly be heard. A fair number of folk were milling about, going to and from the gate in rapid succession. And all the while several guards stood with watchful eyes at all who passed.
‘It shows they have some sense, at least, what with so many now taking to the roads,’ answered Rurir as he bowed his head to a suspicious watchman, who returned the dwarf’s nod with a frown.
‘Indeed, master Rurir,’ said Theo curiously. ‘Not entirely like the last time when I was here. Yet thankfully there are no terrible downs to traverse through, or spiders to face off in the dark of a barrow!’
‘Bleh!’ snorted Holfast as he sniffed the air with disgust. ‘This place smells like a wet dog!’
Theo looked sidelong at the hobbit and was about to say something, but relented, thinking it was more prudent to say nothing. No need to encourage him, Theo thought. The companions made their way from the stables just within the gate, passing tall wooden houses and buildings along the sloping road ahead, before they came to the wide courtyard of the Prancing Pony at last.
Theo stepped swiftly up to the large door reached by a few broad steps. Just as he opened the door and began to step inside, Theo was nearly bowled over by a grinning hobbit with a flowing red cloak round his shoulders and a fancy hat atop his head. Theo gasped as he held the door handle tightly to steady himself and turned to watch as the hobbit went scuttling down the steps, into the courtyard and down the road to the left.
Theo shook his head and then peeked round the door, expecting another runner to come tumbling out at any moment. When none appeared, he stepped inside and at once he was met with song from deeper within the large room. The gathering in the smoky and dim common room was unusually large than what he remembered. In fact the crowd within the inn was so large that Theo had to tie-toe round the many guests of bigger folk until he reached the far side of the room.
‘A noisy place as always, wouldn’t you agree?’ said Theo glancing at Rurir. ‘But it is comfortable after a fashion and has some rather excellent beer!’
‘Now don’t be going saying that, master Theo,’ answered Rurir with a smirk. ‘It would be an insult to noisy rooms everywhere.’
‘Very true, Rurir, my good dwarf! But first drinks and a bit of supper, shall we?’ said Theo with a wink.
At that Holfast crossed his arms and stood fast. ‘I won’t have it!’ he said crossly. ‘This place smells awful,’ said the hobbit as he pointed over to the corner beside the door. ‘And I am fairly sure there is vomit on the floor over there.’
‘Oh stop your complaining, Holfast!’ said Rurir gruffly and the dwarf turned to stomp through the throng of folk. Holfast glowered but fell silent as Theo grasped the hobbit by the arm and led him after the dwarf. Rulf stood for a moment, bowed his head politely to several dwarves standing at the bar, and then followed the others with steady steps.
Near the back of the common room, where the crowd was more sparse of visiting folk, they found an empty table. Rulf set down his heavy pack onto the floor and pulled up a chair. ‘Poor old Barliman,’ he said glancing about the room. ‘With all the strangers coming about this place has fallen apart a bit.’
Theo followed the dwarf’s gaze, and his eyes fell onto the several dark and squint-eyed Men seated at a table nearby. At once, the hobbit did not like the looks of the ill-favoured Men who were whispering together in a hushed conversation. Suddenly, his attention was brought around as Holfast raised his voice.
‘You want another go at it then?’ declared the hobbit, glaring across the table at Rulf. ‘Maybe this time, you won’t be stuffing your face full of pie while leaving your pack unattended! I’m surprised you could see anything…you ate half the pie yourself!’
‘I’d best keep an eye on my bag then,’ grumbled the dwarf to Holfast as he slid his pack closer to his booted feet.
Theo glanced at the hobbit then at his old friend as he recalled the night before. Holfast, being Holfast, had grown rather bored at the Golden Perch in Stock. To relieve his boredom, Holfast had decided to play a prank on the dwarf by removing several of Rulf’s arrows from inside his pack. Thankfully, Theo had gone to bed before then and had only heard the story (and the proceeding argument over said lifted arrows) the following morning as they readied to depart for Bree.
‘That was a mighty fine pie you stole…I mean procured,’ retorted Rulf with a smile.
‘Stole?’ stammered Holfast. ‘I stole nothing. And even if I had, you seemed to help yourself to more than a handful of the pie, Rulf Stickybeard.’
Theo sighed and raised his hands, glaring at Holfast so much so that the hobbit fell silent. ‘Now, now, Holfast,’ he said sternly. ‘Let us stop this at once. We have a long road ahead and it does no good for all this.' He glanced about with irritation before speaking again.
'Come, enjoy the drink and soon the meals should be brought over to our table. You will feel much better with a content belly! I will speak will the proprietor about our supper.'
Theo pushed back his chair and scurried off; it was not long when he made his way back through the crowded room, balancing a tray in his arms beaming with plates and mugs. ‘Dinner and drinks at last,’ he said setting the tray down onto the table.
‘You are one to talk, furry feet,’ said Rulf to Holfast, as he reached for a foaming mug of beer from the tray. Theo rolled his eyes at that; obviously the discussion was still ongoing about the pilfered arrows.
‘They are furry, aren’t they?’ answered Holfast as he plunked a piece of cheese from a plate and bit into it with distrust. ‘But Resin-beard is more the better name for you!’
Rurir chuckled at that as his brother glared down at the hobbit, who was now reaching for the plate of tart with a mouthful of cheese. Theo shook his head wearily and sat down; he had only the slightest notion of the blackberries he quietly nibbled on, wishing for nothing more than a bit of silence or not the hint of Holfast in general.
As Holfast and Rulf fell back into their banter, Theo slid from his chair, adjusted his cloak about his shoulder and turned to his companions. 'I shall go for a stroll, I think, and perhaps a bit of pipe-weed in the fresh night air.’ had said. ‘Make sure nothing unforetold happens while I am gone, Rulf, especially to pies!’
Theo made his way towards the front door through the crowd, eyeing the trio of swarthy Men with distrust as he passed, and slipped quietly outside. Once on the steps, he signed with relief and then took in a deep breath of the fresh night air. He strode down the steps and into the courtyard, pausing long enough to light his pipe and then began a quiet stroll about the yard.
For some time, Theo gazed up at the twinkling stars overhead, relieved to be out of earshot of Holfast and his constant gabbling. He refilled his long clay pipe and began to blow out grey-white rings of smoke into the darkened air with much contentment.
Presently, his ears perked to hushed voices nearby; at first his thoughts turned to the unsavoury Men from inside the inn. Theo looked about hastily and soon spotted a pair of hobbits behind a fence that cordoned off what appeared to be some sort of stage. Intrigued, Theo crept silently towards the fence to listen in to the hushed conversation. He could hear little of what the hobbits were saying, but what he could glean sounded rather ominous and very terrible.
Finally, Theo shook himself, saying quietly to himself. ‘This will not do, Mr. Took! Eavesdropping and all that, like some sort of thief in the night.’ He stamped out his pipe onto his heel and made his way round the fence; Theo politely cleared his throat as did so, and the two hobbits looked up with worried eyes at the unexpected newcomer.
‘Ah, hullo there!’ said Theo, trying to sound polite. ‘Pardon my intrusion; I am Theodoras Took, of the Shire. I have just arrived in Bree this night, though not for the first time. That was…’ he paused and then shook his head. ‘Well that was another matter that brought me here that time, but I daresay you won’t be wanting to hear that.’
The two hobbits exchanged uncertain glances at one another, not sure what to make of this Shire cousin. Theo smiled meekly and shrugged as he stammered on with breathless words.
‘I must shamefully admit that I was eavesdropping on your conversation just a moment ago after I came outside the inn for a bit of fresh air – very unlike me, of course, and I do hope you can forgive me.’
Again the two hobbits gazed at each other, not entirely sure is this hobbit standing there was mad, a simpleton, or simply downright rude. Theo coughed nervously and gazed back them with a look of imploring truthfulness.
‘Anyway…’ he said slowly, wanting now to do nothing more than to turn and flee back into the inn. ‘You seem bothered and frightened by something. I am a Bounder from the Shire, perhaps I can be of assistance?’ he tipped his cap atop his shaggy head for added measure.
The younger of the two hobbits gazed at Theo with distrusting eyes and then slowly let his guard down. ‘Well, I could use your help,’ began the hobbit slowly. ‘I have big problems, and that's a fact! You see, I was on a trip to visit my dad away in Buckland after visiting my brother Gil at Hengstacer. I thought to myself, "You should take a shortcut...no use wandering all the way down to the Great East Road and all." That's when it all went wrong.’
'Now I was walking along quiet as you will until about the time for elevenses, and I felt a dreadful hunger. I came upon an old bit of stonework in the Brandywood and sat myself down for a light snack. All of a sudden, quick as you will, a hefty burly fellow shows up, and with none too kind words mind you. He was much larger than the big folk of Bree...I am afraid I was quite scared of the brute and ran off without my pack!’
Theo gazed down at the ground, looking very troubled, and then snapped his fingers. ‘'My, my, a tale indeed, master Sandheaver! A pack is a pack, as they say back home, and not one that should be left behind. You are in luck, however; I did not come alone to Bree but in the company on some rather fine dwarves. I believe that they would be willing to lend some aid in recovering this wayward pack of yours.'
Dob Sandheaver looked at Theo with hopeful eyes and quickly nodded. 'The stonework is north of Buckland in the Brandywood. I doubt that this giant Man -- Svalfang I heard him call himself -- will stay in his dreary little hut all day. Maybe you could sneak by and pinch my pack when he is out stomping and doing whatever large folk of his kind do.'
‘Very well then,’ answered Theo with a smile. ‘Let me speak to my companions and I will see what we can do to solve this little problem of a misplaced pack!'
Theo said goodbye and turned to make his way back to the inn. He wound through the crowded room towards the back where his friends were seated, a curious and thoughtful look on his young face. The others were enjoying another round of refreshments as he strode over to the table and sat down atop a chair.
'They say Bree is a strange place, and I do not doubt that!’ said Theo slowly after a moment of silence ‘I just had a rather odd conversation outside.'
‘Oh yes?’ said Rulf as he set down his mug and turned to his old friend.
‘Yes,’ said Theo. ‘I met a hobbit out in the courtyard, a Breelander, Dob Sandheaver is his name. He had a rather odd tale to tell me. It seems he found himself down the Old Road to the west only yesterday and wandered a bit from the road. He came upon some old stonework up in the Brandywood.'
‘Oh, I’ve got to hear this!’ exclaimed Holfast who lost all interest of harassing the dwarves further, at least for the moment.
'Most hobbits aren't so keen to wander so far from home,’ said Rurir as he raised an eyebrow. ‘Present company excluded, of course,’ he added nodding at Theo.
‘Of course,’ said Theo. ‘Well, all of a sudden Nob said he came upon a camp in the woods, and it that was not abandoned. A hefty burly fellow, to use his words, was there and scared poor Dob something terrible. So terrible that Dob turned and fled leaving his pack behind!'
‘Let me guess, and you volunteered us to go and get it back?' said Rurir frowning.
‘I would not hazard to guess that answer,’ added Rulf to his brother with a wide grin.
Theo shrugged sheepishly. ‘I could little else but to offer to help,’ he explained. ‘I told him we could help him in regaining his lost pack, after all it is the least I can do for a cousin so far from the Shire.'
Theo fell silent for a moment, and thought back on the other words Dob has spoken. Something about the fellow’s name, Svalfang wasn’t it? A dreadful sounding name, he thought with a shiver. And what about that business calling him a giant of all things? Big Folk are, after all Big Folk to hobbits; a tall man certainly would be a giant to a hobbit, right?
Theo looked up at his companions and sighed. 'We cannot simply turn him down I am afraid. I have two of the stoutest dwarves with me and of course the valiant Holfast here to accompany us!'
'Well, if we have to trudge all the way back to the Brandywine, we'd best get started at dawn,' said Rurir frowning.
‘I would agree, master Rurir, at dawn then,’ answered Theo. ‘Well it is late; we marched long today and will have another march tomorrow. We best be off to bed for an early start!’
When dawn came the next day, the dwarves awoke grumbling and cursing poor young Theo and his decision to lend aid in finding this lost pack. But when they rose from their beds, they found no sign of their friend. Theo’s bed was neatly made, his pack and cloak were missing from the pegs. All they found was a letter written in a graceful script and read simply:
You may recall the conversation I had last night with a certain Bree hobbit, Dob Sandheaver, and more importantly of his concern for his lost pack. Of course, you all were very generous in offers of aid to the poor fellow – that is no dispute. And yet, I have asked much of you already – all of which could have easily been refused, and you are certainly owed a reward for your labours thus far. There is much more that must ask of you in the days ahead but this matter of Dob’s pack, I believe, is something easily dealt with. I have begun to trust my luck that when I first left the Shire in search of Clover, my aunt’s most beloved pony, and this luck has gotten me out of some rather difficult situations in the past . And so I have decided to make for the Brandywoods at first light to go have a look around for Mr. Dob’s missing pack. The Brandywine is not far and it would be a gentle walk there and back again. I daresay the fool of a hobbit no doubt became spooked by a rabbit and dropped the pack in the trees and has been far too afraid to return there and retrieve it! Enjoy a nice breakfast and I shall see you all by dusk.
Yours truly, Theodoras Took
Chapter Thirty-seven: The Brandywood – 10 Solmath, 1418 SR
Theo rose before the first light of dawn. On quiet feet, he stole from the room, taking careful steps not to awaken the dwarves or Holfast and softly closed the door behind him. Down in the big common room, he found the innkeeper, Butterbur, begin the daily chore of cleaning up the myriad of mugs and plates from the many tables, while a pair of sleepy hobbits swept the floor with wide constant yawns.
The hobbits stopped their sweeping to turn curious towards Theo as he approached the fat innkeeper. Old Butterbur set down his rag and listened as the hobbit asked if he could gather some provisions from the pantry. Butterbur turned and disappeared into the kitchen, turning once with a scowl at the gaping hobbit servants, before returning with a small basket in his hands.
Theo thanked the innkeeper with a smile, as the scent of bacon and bread rose from the basket. He waved a hand at the hobbits and then stepped out the front door. There Theo looked up into the darkened sky and and sniffed the air. Only the first hint of dawn lit the sky but the air was warm and the wind was southerly. Everything looked fresh and the new green was shimmering with a hint of the coming Spring on the tips of the trees’ fingers that decorated the courtyard.
‘What fun!’ declared Theo with a wide smile. ‘What fun indeed; a leisurely stroll through the Bree-fields.’ The hobbit turned away from the inn, round through the courtyard to the road on the west side, and then trotted down the long sloping lane. The sleepy watchman at the hedge-gate stirred only slightly as Theo passed quietly through with a polite nod of his head. For a moment, Theo paused just within the shadow of the archway and gazed out over the road that wound westwards from the crossroads. Then, with a whistle, Theo shouldered his pack, gripped his walking stick and then started off.
The morning grew ever brighter in the sky as Theo made his way quietly down the Great East Road, passing odd and ancient-looking structures of crumbling stone or the fringes of small coppices along its path. Once or twice the sound of a distant Splintertusk came to the hobbit’s ears, or Theo caught the glimpse of a towering bear, standing upon its hind legs and eying him with great curiosity before returning to its hunt for grubs or honey.
But little disturbed his passing and, as the light of day grew, Theo felt only the slightest of sense of alarm concerning his rash decision to set out alone in search of Dob’s missing pack, in spite of all the perils that had plagued his first visit to the Bree-lands. Theo cheerfully marched along, occasionally humming a ditty, tramping in time with his verse as the sun swung high overhead and the morning grew late.
The Southern Bree-fields were far behind the hobbit and Buckland was fast approaching as the Road wound ever westwards when the sun reached its noon zenith in the sky overhead. The gentle open grasslands and meadows had given way and now the Road wound past the skirts of dark trees and the ground went rolling upwards to the north under the shadows of the thickening forests.
After he had walked for another hour or so, Theo began to yawn and his stomach growled with displeasure. He halted on the Road to wipe his brow with a pocket-handkerchief. ‘My, my, where did the morning go to?’ he said aloud and glanced up into the sky. The day had indeed grown bright and warm and only the faintest wisp of puffy white clouds marred the blue sky. ‘I had no breakfastat all before departing..and what about Second Breakfast, and Elevensies?’
The grumbling of his stomach grew more pronounced as Theo turned and sat down in the warm breeze under the shade of a tall and leafy ash tree. There he merrily enjoyed a brief luncheon of bread, some cold bacon and a delicious apple or two from the basket given to him by Butterbur. When his meal was finished, Theo at first made no effort to return to the Road; instead he leaned back into the grass contently and closed his eyes. There he lay, listening to the rhythmic murmur of the gentle wind through the bough of the ash tree for a long time. It was only as the nagging in his thoughts stirred him from Theo’s growing slumber that brought him back to the task at hand.
Theo sat up and pulled his wrinkled map from within his pack and bent to spread it out flat atop the short grass. He knew the Road from the Brandywine Bridge to Bree well enough by now, but there his knowledge ended and anyplace away from the road was quite foreign to him. He gazed down at the map, and traced the map with a finger from Bree until it came to rest upon a portion of rolling hills labeled THE BRANDY HILLS.
Of this area, Theo knew very little, other than what could be gleaned from the map. North of his finger on the map, the hills sprang from the road, flanked by the current of the Brandywine River as it flowed south past Buckland and the Shire on opposite banks. Past the mark of hills on the map was depicted a stand of trees entitled THE BRANDYWOOD.
It was there that Dob Sandheaver had spoken of the hefty burly fellow he had encountered during his shortcut return from Buckland. Dob had told Theo that he had come onto an old and odd bit of ruined stonework where this fellow was lodged and, more importantly, where the frightened hobbit had left his treasured pack behind. Theo glanced up from the map and across the road, where the land went rolling away through the trees climbing away northwards. That must be the Brandy Hills, thought Theo as he peered down at the map once again.
Finally, he rolled up the map and stuffed it back into his pack. He clambered to his feet, reached for his walking stick and set out at once, striking a path across the road and plunged into the trees. Through the edge of the trees, the ground began to run out along a wide tongue of green grass and many boughs that rustled in the light warm breeze. Soon the gentle ground gave way to a sheer slope between bare outcroppings of rock and there the trees began to thin out and grew sparse as the ground marched towards the north ever higher.
Suddenly, the woodland trees came to an end and Theo found that the steep ground began to fall away from the rising heights beyond the trees. Some distance from the last trees the ground fell abruptly down into a narrow gorge, deep and sheer-sided, where the sound of noisy hurrying water could be heard.
At once there came into view a wide and swiftly flowing river that wholly filled the bottom of the gorge. Theo turned to the east where the river flowed westwards as it wound through the deep ravine, diving and falling over a series of small waterfalls. His eyes followed the flowing water until his gaze paused at a rocky bank below. Theo’s eyes then crossed the swiftly running water towards the far bank where there stood a cleft in the tall cliffs that climbed high into more woodland further north.
Theo scampered down the slope with a rush of tumbling stones until he reached a wide space of tall reeds where the fast-flowing stream swept round several small outcrops of grey, mossy stones. There he paused to fill his water-bottle in the river and looked out over the water with concern. The flowing current flowed fast and strong and seemed very deep to the young, wide-eyed hobbit.
For a moment, Theo pondered if he should attempt to try to swim to the far bank but soon gave up such nonsense. He was no swimmer, that much was true, and the very thought of entering the swift river brought instant fear into his timid Shire heart. Finally, Theo sighed; he would have to find another way to cross he thought dismally. Theo peered to the far bank one last time and then turned to climb back out of the gorge once more.
Once out of the gorge, Theo struck along a path to the west, atop the high steep cliffs overlooking the river far below. For some time he went on as the ground rose steadily up until at last the high ground began to plunge down towards the banks of the river once again.
When he had reached the banks of the river, Theo discovered that the span was much narrower there than before and the water flowed quickly and bubbling past and over several large mossy rocks. Theo knelt along the bank and peered forward with sharp eyes. He stared over the rocks and water silently for a long while and then stood up, his mind made up.
He tightened his pack on his shoulders and took a deep, long breath. With a nimble leap, Theo jumped atop the nearest large rock and surveyed the next with worried eyes for a spot to land upon. Again he took in a breath to bolster his courage and leapt forward. But the distance to the next rock was deceiving and Theo’s leap fell far shorter then he expected. He plunged into the swift and cold water with a loud splash. Immediately, terror gripped Theo and he flailed his arms out to grasp at the rock even as the rough waters threatened to batter and hustle him to tiny bits against it.
To Theo’s horror he found that he could not pull himself up onto the rock in the swift current; instead he began to struggle against the current round the rock, holding to it as best he could with trembling hands. The water was icy cold and he sputtered and splashed through the water, fighting to keep his head up. By the time he reached the far bank, the young hobbit was shivering and coughing out water. Up he crawled like a drowned rat and threw himself to the ground with great gasps of deep air.
Theo lay there for a long time, daring not to move, one hand clutching his cloak tightly and cursing his ill-luck and clumsiness. When his breath grew less belabloured, Theo sat up with a terrible shiver, his clothing soaked through to no end. Without a fire, there was little Theo could do but unlatch his cloak and wring it out over the sandy bank. When he was done he poured out the river water from his pack, bemoaning the water-sodden food that butterbur had so graciously provided him. He threw the ruined food into the river and then climbed to his feet.
There was little more to be done but to hoist his sodden pack to his back and begin to trudge up the rising ground. Theo did so very slowly and wearily, the chillness in his bones bothering him something terribly. His frigid limbs did not fare better as he began to climb away from the banks of the river, for the shadows of the trees beyond were long and thin upon the thick and tussocky ground.
The sun was beginning to set lower and the light of afternoon was on the land as Theo made his way up the climbing ground. Thankfully, the sun was warm and the chill was slowly leaving his frozen limbs. He had been going along for some time when Theo stopped a moment as a strange sound reached his ears.
It was the sound of grunting that could now be heard ahead; Theo hesitated for a moment, as if some curiosity was struggling with his desire to run quickly down into a little hollow among the trees and lay flat upon the ground. The sound of grunting drew nearer until Theo threw himself onto the ground and held his breath. Suddenly, the thickets a few steps away shuddered and bent as a large boar came into view.
The boar raised its snout and sniffed the cool air, its reddish hair stiff and bristling along its back. The beast turned its head to one side then the other, its tucks from under its mouth visible even in the dim light of the trees. It was all Theo could do not to cry out as the boar snorted and rutted the soft earth with its feet and tusks until turning round and disappearing back into the thickets.
Only when the boar passed out of sight and sound did Theo begin to stir; he crawled from the grass and stood up with a nervous chuckle. ‘Well bless me! Back home in Budgeford, that fellow would have been someone’s meal! But not here!’
Theo laughed once more as his eyes fell to the dagger thrust into his belt and then patted the hilt with one hand. ‘Not much for hunting boars old friend…spiders in the Barrow Downs, but not boars!’ He glanced back towards the thickets and, when he was certain that beast had wandered off, Theo began to pick his way forward once more.
A little further on, the ground suddenly plunged down into a wide valley that led away westwards towards the Brandywine; on the far side Theo could glimpse a wide shelf under the shadows of steep cliffs rising ever higher northwards. Upon the shelf stood darkened ruins of stone and crumbling pillars bearing a most ominous look and appearance.
Theo grew very wary as he made his way round the opening of the valley on its right end, hoping to avoid trying to climb down then up the steep sides. Slowly, the ruins drew closer until he stood at the very edge of the ruins. There atop the shelf of the hills ridge stood what seemed to be an open camp of sorts; a sheltered ruin of stone with a high roof stood to one side and the opening was covered by large sheets of cured hide that waved and flapped in the gentle breeze. Bear furs were laid out as blankets within and nearby was a large blazing fire on the open ground.
For along moment, Theo stood blinking at the sight; curiously enough, the camp did seem to be a dwelling of sorts and yet as he peered quizzically at its sheer size, he wondered if an entire army was camped there, for not even the largest of the Big-folk would have been able to enjoy the sheer size of the camp alone.
Theo turned his head as something caught his eye. There, beside the hide-covered ruins he spotted a simple pack upon the ground. With a wary eye on the rest of the camp, he crept over to it and knelt down. To his surprise, the pack was laden with food – several sweet apples, some cheese, even some fried mushrooms and bacon.
‘Old Dob is a worrisome sort, of course,’ said Theo as he took up the pack with both hands. ‘And prone to telling of some rather tall tales it seems – giants indeed!’
Suddenly there came a booming voice, a deep rumbling sound from down in the valley below the shelf. The cliffs rang with the resounding echo and Theo clasped his hands over his ears with fright; the voice sounded truly terrifying to the poor hobbit and he at once envisioned all manner of terrible and nameless horrors that could made those sounds.
Theo looked swiftly back at the camp before fleeing quickly back into the trees. His poor heart beat tremendously with fear and a fevered shaking crept into his legs as he rushed through the trees with Dob’s pack clutched tightly in his hands.
And yet, despite his terrible fear and fright, Theo was quite pleased with himself and he beamed brightly as he ran. ‘There!’ he thought with a wide smile. ‘This will show poor Holfast what a hero truly is!’ The frightful roar soon melted away behind Theo as thoughts and excitement filled his mind.
The dwarves would surely pat him upon the pat for a job well done with such a victory, he thought. Long would they praise his name that his return would bring; soon all fear has drained from young Theo and he even began to hum quite cheerfully to himself…