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.