Lost in the Wild

by Elenna


The day grew sunnier as our trek stretched on throughout the day.  The nip to the morning breeze had come and gone leaving the air feeling warm and almost spring-like. This only added to the perplexity I was feeling.  I had absolutely no memory of this or any other part of our journey to the Goblin pits.  The blow to my head sustained in trying to protect my cousins and the foul tasting medicament the goblins had given me had kept me well out of my senses so that, even in my waking moments, I had been confused. 

The lads had told me the goblins had traveled at a quick pace at night stopping with the dawn but would venture further if the weather was overcast.  Merry and Pippin too had been given the foul liquid to quench their thirst and were uncertain as to the length of our journey.  Perhaps my onetime jailer and now friend, Ur'gup, had been correct after all and we really were some place in the Ettenmoors. 

It was now my responsibility to guide my young charges home.  I felt this task acutely.  It was my fault that we had ended up here; all because I had the need to do some exploring.  I had much on my mind as we set forth on our homeward journey.  I needed to get us home as quickly and safely as possible.  I needed to make certain that we found food in addition to our provisions as well as water along the way.  Ur'gup had pointed out some places where we should be able to find water, but I had my doubts about traveling at the pace the goblins had used in bringing us to Etelë Vanwa. I tried to gauge the time that had passed. According to our original plans, we had hoped to return to Brandy Hall three days before the Midsummer festivities.  I knew we had been gone for at least three months to the best of my calculations. I also knew this meant the weather would soon be changing and not for the better.  One thing was certain: I had no idea where we were.

My cousins, on the other hand, seemed none the worse for the wear from their experience of having been imprisoned by the Goblins.  The episode had been harrowing, but hobbit fry are quite resilient.  Not once did they look back as I had and seen my friend, Ur'gup, watching after us until we must have been out of his line of sight.  It was as if a chapter in their young lives had been closed and they would give it no more thought, for the time being at least.  That was just as well.  The boys, though somber at the start, were soon chatting gaily and running back and forth along the path that I had decided we should take.  They had missed the whole of the summer and were full of pent-up energy.  They delighted in the lay of the land and the wild flowers we saw growing as well as the call of the birds and small animals that scurried across our path. 

As the day warmed with the growing heat of the sun we wiled away our time by playing games.  I Spy is a good sort of game as one walks along.  Word games and stories also occupied our time.  When we stopped for luncheon, we played a rousing game of Dizzy-Tig a variation of the regular game of Tig in which the losing one has to whirl until dizzy and remain in the position in which they fall to the ground while singing a song chosen by the others in the game.  I did a lot of singing that afternoon.   When we set out again, we had a contest to see who could do the best imitation of each bird that was heard.  The loser of the contest was allowed to pick the prize for the winner or winners, as the case may be.  I freely admit that I allowed both of them to win.  I had a score to settle with the boys and needed to come up with something worthy of the honor.  I would also choose the right time and place to enact my revenge.


We were on the third day out and still heading in a westerly direction.  Bilbo had taught me to follow the sun and the stars as we tramped about the Shire together.  Another thing to look for was moss on trees.  It was helpful to know the plant life and signs of animals.  All these things would be helpful if I ever needed to survive in the wild, he had told me.  I had learned my lessons well.  It was part of the reason I had been allowed to take Merry and Pippin on our excursion.  Bilbo had spoken up on my behalf.  He had said he would not hesitate to place his life in my hands.  This was a boon in convincing my aunts Esmeralda and Eglantine.  Saradoc and Paladin were a bit more willing to give their sons this experience in the wild.  We were not going to be that far from the borders of the Shire.   Bilbo had suggested that we have a trial expedition at the edge of the forest.  We spent two days camping and I had proved my worth in looking after the boys.  I know that Bilbo had been secretly watching out for us with Saradoc and Paladin.  

Dear Bilbo … the very thought of him made me smile.  We had been very close when I was small and then, after the accident that claimed the lives of both my parents, Bilbo had been one of two relatives that I felt I could truly be with; my cousin Merimac was dealing with his own problems at the time.  Bilbo neither hovered over me, nor did he insist that I eat, sleep, or cry according to some unwritten schedule.  He was just simply there for me if I needed him to be there as he had said he would … just as he always would be.  When the nightmares started, he was there.  When the feelings of loneliness started, he was there.  When the feelings of emptiness started, he was there.  When the anger grew inside me, he was there.  Through it all, Bilbo was there.  He had become as both a mother and a father to me.  He seemed to understand me and my moods. We delighted in each other's companionship.  I spent more and more time with him in Hobbiton.  There were the times that I had allowed my anger over the loss of my parents to get the better of me, the times when the pranks I would play got out of hand for a proper young hobbit lad.  I was after all the progeny of three prominent families in the Shire and had a status to maintain.  It was not as if anything I was doing was malicious; just rowdy.   Bilbo seemed to understand this aspect of my personality too.  He had hidden a great grin and a wink when he suggested that I stay with him in Hobbiton for a prolonged period of time following a disastrous foray into Farmer Maggot's mushrooms.  I think my Brandybuck relations were relieved at the prospect of some peace and quiet at Brandy Hall.  I could almost hear them heave a collective sigh as I boarded Uncle Bilbo's buggy and we turned toward Hobbiton. 

Over the years, Bilbo had seen to my education.  I had learned my letters and lore well.  He also taught me history, geography, cartography, elven lore, the elven tongue, astronomy, nature, survival, cooking, cleaning and responsibility.  I thought of Bilbo and missed him terribly.  I knew he was fretting over our disappearance.  … I hoped he was in sound health.

The family had held quite a discussion about this excursion.  I had wanted to bring Berilac Brandybuck the son of my cousin Merimac with us.  He was two years older than Merry and enjoyed the outings we would take closer to home.  When Berilac was younger Merimac would accompany us on our outings.  I had taken many an 'adventure' with Merimac when I was young both before and after Berilac was born.  Berilac had sustained an injury to his leg when he was young.  He had taken a fall from a large tree on the fringe of the Old Forest; the same tree Merimac and I had each taken a fall from at about the same age.  The injury to Berilac's leg had done lasting damage.  The lad had a halting gait but was otherwise healthy.  Showing quite the aptitude for the skills of a healer, he would be following in the footsteps of his grandfather Andwise Bolger as well as his mother. Berilac was appeased by an excursion with his grandfather to collect herbs for the making of medicaments a task he genuinely enjoyed.  It was a sobering thought to realize that Berilac would not have been able to keep up the pace of the Goblin's workforce and would have been killed for his hindrance.  I shuddered at the memory of the bones strewn in the passageways leading to the Goblin Master's chamber and was grateful for Berilac being forced to remain in Buckland.  

My thoughts led me away from the games that my cousins were playing while we walked along.  I really did not know if I had been brooding or smiling but I could sense whispers and eyes piercing the back of my head.   Merry had been watching me for a while.  Even before we made our departure from the Goblin pits he would often stare at me and then enter into a sullen mood.  I noticed that he continued to give me strange sideways glances even after I had rejoined their games.  Pippin paid no mind after I rejoined their games.  The other thing I had noticed was that any breeze seemed to bring a foul odor on the air. 

We had come upon an outcropping and, to our fortune, there was a creek where we could refill our water bottles.  Though it was barely noon, I decided we would make camp for the day.  The weather and the setting were perfect.  Everything was idyllic with the possible exception of the foul odor on the air. I sent the boys to gather some wood and kindling to make a fire.  I would refill our water bottles.  I had stripped off my jacket and left it by our packs as I waded into the water to refill the bottles.  The stream felt cool and refreshing bringing a smile to my face.  After a few moments, I knew what needed to be done.  I came out of the water to find Merry staring at me; more specifically, at the back of my shirt.  Then it dawned on me what was bothering him about me.  He was still feeling guilty about his accusations and treatment of me in the goblin pits and worried over our relationship.   

Placing the water bottles with our supplies, I took a quick inventory, though it was more for an act to appear engaged.  "What seems to be troubling you, Merry?"  I asked over my shoulder trying to sound aloof.

"Nothing, Frodo," Merry seemed a little defensive.

"You are acting as if you have something on your mind.  I would like to hear it."  I busied myself with the task of laying wood for a fire.  

"There is nothing bothering me…"

"Oh, come now; you have been shooting me strange glances and muttering under your breath for some time now.  If you have aught to say, go ahead and say it."  I stood up and slowly walked towards him so that he had to step backwards.

"I…I don't have anything to say…"

"No?  Well I do," I forced him to take another step backwards.  Pippin was watching this with an expression of fascinated horror on his face.  I winked at him and turned my attention back towards Merry.

"What?  You are frightening me, Frodo…"

"It's you, Merry; I am tired of your attitude." I shoved him backwards as I spoke.  "You are always watching me and you stink.  I, for one, am tired of it.  I will brook it no longer; but you shall."  With each statement, I gave him another little push backwards.

"What …?"

"I said you stink."  Having restated myself, I gave him a good push backwards into the stream and laughed; the expression on his face was precious.  I turned my attention towards Pippin.  "You are next, my boy. You smell every bit as much as our cousin.  You can either go willingly or I shall have to toss you."  I did not wait for his answer but picked him up and tossed him into the water.  When the lads overcame their shock at my antics, they began frolicking and splashing in the water just as they would at home on the Brandywine.

I completed my task of building the fire, pulled our blankets from our packs so they would be ready to hand and donned my jacket.  Soon all three of us were splashing about in the water.  When I figured we had given our clothing a good soaking, we all got out of the water.   We stripped off our wet outer clothing and laid it out in the hot sun to dry.  Then it was back into the water for some more cleansing.  When we came out of the water again, I handed the boys their blankets to cover up with.  We ate our lunch seated by the fire and spent some time lazing in the soft grass.  I turned our clothing over to aid its drying.  It was really a pity that we had no other clothes to change into.  The bathing followed by draughts of fresh air and warmth of the sun seemed the best medicine yet to recover from our ordeal of captivity.  Merry continued his vigilant staring at my back.  It was getting on my nerves. 

"Merry, if you have something to say, just come out and say it or ask it or what ever you need to do, but let's bring it out into the open."

"I don't…"

"Yes you do Merry.  He wants to know about your back, Frodo." Pippin, being diplomatic, felt the need to say something.

"What about my back?"  I knew what was bothering him, but he needed to say it not me.  We waited while he stared at me fighting to hold back tears.

"He wants to …" I shook my head at Pippin to keep him quiet.

"Does it…Did it hurt very much?"  He finally asked as he reached over to touch the faint marks left by Ur'gup's lash and quickly drew his hand back lest he cause me harm.

I sighed and waited before I answered.  This wasn't something I relished talking about.  I hoped I would not have to explain that I had brought it on myself.   "It has healed very well, Merry. Do not fear.  Yes, it hurt an awful lot both when I was first dealt the stripes and then when the welts broke open.  The pain was as nothing, though, not knowing if the two of you were safe."

"We didn't believe you, Frodo.  We thought you only wanted to save yourself.  You drew that map and you were always with the goblins."

"I know. I planned it that way.  It was more convincing if even the two of you did not believe in me."

"The Goblin Master said you were going with him.  He was going to make you like a king in the Shire."

"You were going to kill my mum and da'.  I said I hated you, Frodo."  Pippin had tears running down his ruddy cheeks.
 
I put my arms around the young boy and gave him a warm hug.  "It's all right, Pip.  I would have said the same thing." 

"I'm glad we are safe now," Merry stated.

"… And away from that place," added Pippin.

I swung an arm around Merry's shoulders.  "Me too, lads, me too," I mumbled as we enjoyed a familial hug. 

I was greatly relieved to have our feelings out in the open.  Though I had been very hurt by the attitude my cousins had expressed towards me before we obtained our freedom from the goblins, I knew that I too had hurt them.  Their hurt ran deeper.  Not only had they trusted me when we had embarked on our expedition and I had failed in my task; but also, they saw me as arranging the deaths of their parents and the destruction of the Shire.  We spent a great deal of time getting reacquainted with each other so that by the time I led the boys into the water for some more swimming and bathing there was nothing remaining between us and it was like being at home once more frolicking on the banks of the Brandywine.

We spent the remainder of the afternoon swimming and chasing each other around playing games and reveling in our unrestrained freedom.  We donned our dry clothing as the sun lowered in the sky casting its beams over our bodies giving a rich golden hue to our flesh to match our moods.   I frowned at the sight of the still-evident stains on the back of my shirt, but took comfort in the fact that my cousins and I were as close knit as ever once more.  There was a fresh scent to the air and we felt cleansed both in body and soul.   We would be able to leave Etelë Vanwa far behind us.  We ate well as the sun set and filled our evening with my telling the tale of Eärendil as Bilbo had first told it to me.  We slept soundly that night fearing no danger as the bright stars shimmered and watched over us.  I prayed for guidance before letting sleep overtake me.

The morning brought new strength and a resolve to reach the Shire as soon as was possible.  The weather was holding which facilitated our travel.  I felt we were making good progress, even though I still had no idea of our location.  We continued to move in a westerly direction.  Bilbo had taught me well.  By virtue of our various treks, I knew eventually we would reach an area that would be familiar to me.


For three more days the weather held clear and bright.  The sunlight warmed the air and our hearts were light given the renewal of the brotherly bond I shared with my cousins.  The only occurrence that served to mar the peacefulness of those three days was the inevitable litany of "I'm hungry!" and "Me too!" which I would hear in varying degrees of urgency.  I finally needed to stop and explain to the lads that if we stopped for every twinge they thought their stomachs felt we would not arrive home for at least a year.  This was a sobering thought and served to suffice for the time being.  What I had not explained was that our dwindling food stores would not last a fortnight.

I could sense something on the wind; an ill feeling of being hunted. Darkness seemed to be troubling my dreams.  It was nothing I could name; just a sensation.  My cousins had not seemed to notice anything.  As they had said nothing, I kept my intuitions to myself.

I wanted to move as close to home as we could go still traveling west while the weather held.  We needed to extend our travel time each day if possible while at the same time it was becoming necessary to snare or catch food.  I found myself hunting for herbs and roots and late berries as we walked along.  Anytime we found something of value, we would take a few moments to glean a small area. 

I felt quite fortunate when I had been able to snare a couple of small birds.  I knew they would not provide much in the way of a meal, but was totally unprepared for the reaction I received from Pippin.  I had a difficult time trying to convince him that given the appeal of their appearance, sometimes it is necessary to take the lives of small creatures to sustain our own.  When all was said and done, once the meat was prepared, Pippin had no trouble taking in his portion and much of mine as well. 

The landscape did not hold much in the way of trees in this region.  It was basically a scrubland with stunted trees, shrubs and thickets.  As the evening wore on we were very grateful for the outcropping of rocks where we had made our camp.  The fire we made had obliterated the fact that the night sky had grown overcast.  We spent that night huddled under the overhanging rocks.  Dampness hung in the air which had turned into a fine mist and the mist into a drizzle.  During the night, the drizzle had turned into rain.  I had been able to bank the fire to keep it burning.  At least we were warm.  Once again I was filled with a nagging feeling of unease and slept little that night, thinking the situation required one of us to keep watch.

By morning the rain had stopped leaving us engulfed in a thick fog.  It was impossible to see the way we had come let alone the way we were heading.  There was nothing for it but to stay put until the fog burned off.  I doled out a bit of food for each of us.  We dared not go far from our camp; however, we did take the opportunity to stretch our legs with orders to keep each other and the outcropping in sight. 

For some reason the fog seemed to stimulate the imaginations of my cousins.  I suggested that we each tell a story and would go in the order of youngest to oldest.  Pippin was thrilled to be given the chance to be first for a change.  He began:  "The horse ran up the lane.  I rode on his back…"  That was all I heard clearly.

I woke to the immediate knowledge that something was wrong….very wrong.  The fog had lessened to a degree.  I was alone.  The fire had been allowed to burn out.  Worst of all was the complete sense of solitude.  There was no noise.  My cousins were gone.  I came out from under the overhang.  Looking around, I could see nothing. 

"Merry! … Pippin!"  There was no answer.  "Pippin! ... Merry!"  I called again and heard nothing but the sound of my own voice.

My heart was in my throat.  There was a rushing in my head.  I was beginning to panic.  I had enough foresight to gather our belongings; they were not much, but invaluable in the wild.  Keeping an eye to the camp, I moved out from the outcropping and called again.  No sound was heard.

I walked slowly, circling the rocks, calling their names every few yards.  I did not want to miss them.  Eventually, I thought I got a response.  I stood still to listen but heard no sound.  I called again and heard my name sounding very far away.  In the fog it was difficult to see for any distance.  I called out again trying to determine a direction.  I had definitely heard my name being hallooed.  I told the boys to stay were they were but to call out again and I would find them.  I was moving slowly and could hear their voices ever more clearly.  Gratitude washed over me to hear both of their voices.

Suddenly scaring a covey of partridges, I nearly jumped out of my skin and fell backwards.  My fright saved me from stepping in a cony hole.  Getting to my feet once more I told the lads to give another shout to ensure I was moving in the right direction.  It was a relief to hear their voices so much closer than the last time. 

Moments later, I found myself abruptly stumbling and falling head over heels down some type of embankment.  The fall temporarily knocked the wind out of me.  I lay for a few moments before struggling to my feet with the knowledge that I had sustained not a few bruises.  Using a branch, I pulled myself upright.

I called out to my cousins once again and was relieved to hear their voices closer than they had been prior to my fall.  I was trying to determine the wisdom of a climb up an incline of indeterminate height and condition when I heard Pippin's voice.

"Frodo!  Merry and I climbed down a hill.  Merry fell and hurt his arm.  I don't think he can climb up again." The young boy was panic-stricken.

"Pippin!  I'm all right!"  

I turned in the direction I knew my cousins had to be in.  "Stay there, Pip, I'm coming."

The boys were no great distance from where I had landed, but the dense fog cost some time.  My cousins heard me before they saw me as I stumbled along caution thrown to the wind in order to find them.  The sight of the two wide-eyed boys made me want to laugh.  Out of respect for their fears I stifled myself.  Merry was reclining on a wide rock at the base of the hill with Pippin hovering over him. Hurrying to him I tripped on a smaller rock and fell right on top of him.

"Ungh!"  Merry moaned, holding back the tears in his eyes.

"Steady on, Frodo."  Pippin helped me to my feet.

"I am relieved to have found you.  Why did you leave the camp?"  I crouched down to check on Merry.  One look revealed the pain he felt.  At least there was no blood to be seen.  "Here, Pip, help me slip Merry's jacket off."  Merry's forearm and wrist were purple and swollen.  He winced as I examined it.   

Merry had been holding his arm and was being quite brave in his attempt to conceal his fear.  I saw no signs of any major cuts; only a few minor ones and some bruising.  His arm was the only major injury with purpling and swelling creeping between his fingertips to his elbow.  To our relief, he was able to move his fingers.  There was no break.  We had naught for bandages in the slim packs we carried.  I took my knife and cut two strips from my blanket:  one narrower, with which I wrapped his arm splitting an end and tying it securely; the other was cut a bit wider in order to fashion a sling.  We each had a sip of water and sat back to do some talking. 

"Why did you leave the campsite?"  I repeated my question from earlier looking from one to the other while trying to hide my irritation. 

My cousins looked at each other, uncertain as to what should be said.   They said nothing.  I was truly happy to have found the pair of them safe and relatively whole, but I could not contain my annoyance.

"Do you not think before you act?  Can you not see beyond your curiosity?  Are you aware of the danger you have placed us in?"  I was beginning to sound like my Uncle Rorimac who was also Merry's grandfather.  Memories of my uncle which were not all pleasant flooded my mind.  I ceased for the time and sat looking at them and waiting.

"The fog was so thick," Merry began.  "We couldn't see a thing.  You had fallen asleep."

"Something was out there," Pippin added.

"We heard it moving."

"We couldn't see it."  Pippin was wide-eyed at the memory.  A chill ran down my back as I felt a sense of dread. 

"We left just to take a look.  A cony broke out of the bushes.  Pip decided to follow it and I followed him."

"I tripped and fell. Merry reached out for me, but instead tumbled over the top of me and we landed here."
    
The nagging feeling of being stalked in the middle of wherever we were assailed me more than before at the story my cousins told. The talk of the cony served for an explanation for the time being.  The fog grew thicker once more.  We found sheltering in a small hollow in the hill.  The denseness of the fog drew a mist in its wake forcing us to remain where we were drawing our blankets about us for warmth.  Merry and Pippin were buoyant taking this all in stride.  It was an adventure after all.  The responsibility of getting them home safe and sound weighed more heavily on me.

The mist let up and the fog burned off after another hour by my reckoning.  The sky remained overcast.  The boys grew restless.  Merry assured me he felt well enough to move on.  I examined Merry's arm and did not like the continued swelling.  I knew the discoloration would continue.  I rewrapped his arm and cut another strip from my blanket to reinforce the sling keeping his arm more elevated.  We decided to venture out of our cover making certain to carry all of out belongings with us.  I did some rapid mental calculating and led us in what I judged to be a westerly direction.  We found a few scrawny berry bushes as we walked.  As the berries were sweet I allowed we could eat our fill.  Coming upon a stream allowed us to refill our water skins. 

After walking for what seemed like hours, I decided to call a halt for the day.  The sky was darkening once more.  There was a sheltered area of rocks.  I was beginning to feel that my space on the floor in the goblin pit was quite appealing. 

Gloomy and overcast the weather remained for five more days.  The only means of knowing day from night was the degree of light to the sky. There was no sun by day; no moon and stars by night.  We saw no sign of wildlife.  Nothing seemed to be moving in this wasteland we floundered in.  All was desolate as my spirits flagged and mirrored the landscape.

I was concerned about Merry's injured arm.  He seemed to be favoring it to quite an extent when he did not think I was watching him.  There was nothing to give him in the wild for the pain.  All I felt I was able to do for him was to make certain we rested for his sake, ensured he ate well giving him extra food from my portions, and drank plenty of water.  Pippin was concerned about Merry, yet at the same time was jealous of Merry's extra portions.

Our food stores were dwindling.  My cousins and I had to make due with rations of cram and the wild onions and garlic that we found.  These were not the best meals or the most fragrant but, after a fashion, they did fill the hollow spots in the pits of our stomachs.   The boys ceased their complaints with a meaningful look I sent in their direction.

I wondered about the lack of trees and other vegetation as we seemed lost in an endless sea of scrubland.  I had never imagined such a bleak and desolate area bereft of any comfort save a few small streams of bitter tasting water we had come across.  At least we could fill our water skins.  It was encouraging that we seemed to be making good progress as we moved day by day.

Whatever lurked on the fringes of my awareness was still there; dark, swift, silent, filling me with dread.  It began to touch my dreams whispering words of fear and anguish to my soul.  It walked with us by day and kept watch over us by night.  I had no rest.

The sixth morning after the dreary weather began and the rain and the fog assailed us, we woke to a beautiful sunrise.  It warmed the hearts of each of us.  We broke our fast on cram and the last of the wild berries we had found the day before.  As I surveyed our surroundings and used the sunrise to mark our bearings, I discovered to my great dismay that we had not been heading west at all, but north.  We had been totally turned around in the fog.  In my eagerness to arrive home as quickly as possible, we continued our journey when we should have stayed in that location until we could be certain of moving in the right direction.  Not only had my actions cost us five days of travel, but five days of travel in the wrong direction.

I sank down on a rock with my head in my hands trying to think.  The lack of sleep had frazzled my nerves.  I did not want to tell my cousins of my mistake so as not to worry them, though I would admit it if pressed.

"Are you ready to go?" Merry had come up behind me.
 
I nodded and stood up.  Without saying a word, I checked to make certain everything was gathered.  I noticed the boys heading in the same direction we had been taking the past several days. 

"This way, Merry, Pip," I sighed.

They came bounding up beside me as cheerful as ever.  I had no smile to share with them.  I hung my head and continued walking in what I at least knew now to be the correct course.

"What's wrong, Frodo?" Merry was by my side.  I could not give him an answer.  "Oh, that…."  He had easily picked up on the situation.  "Well, it's all right."

"Five days, Merry."

Merry was nearly as tall as me and slipped his arm around my shoulders.  "Well, we're going right now, aren't we?"  I nodded. 

"And the sun is shining."  Pippin had been listening.  His exuberance flowed from him.  He was going home and nothing would dampen his spirits. 

"And my arm is starting to feel better."

"I heard a bird singing." Pippin tried to imitate a bird. I had to smile at the manner in which my cousins were trying to cheer me.

The ground was rocky making it difficult to maneuver.  The light of the sun brightened my spirits as its warmth renewed my strength.  I reasoned if we were to keep the morning sun just behind my right shoulder and in the afternoon just before my left shoulder we would be correcting my mistake.  This made sense to me.  I prayed that the sunlight would hold at least for a few days knowing the precarious nature of the weather at this time of year.

We camped that night by a brook.  Finding enough sticks and scrub brush for kindling enabled us to build a nice fire.  In looking for firewood, we discovered that others had used this same area as a camp recently, but not too recently.  That was a reassuring thought.  The brook yielded a small catch of fish for an evening meal that brought a smile to each of us.    Peering at the diamond studded deep blue of the night sky brought to mind happier times spent under the stars with Bilbo, Merimac, Merry, Pippin and my parents.  The stars always seemed have an inexplicable calming affect in my life.  With the cleared skies, I was able to sleep again and had two good nights of rest with the stars keeping vigil overhead.

Days passed in this seemingly endless scrubland.  The sky once again turned overcast.  It had been ten days since we had seen sunlight by day and stars at night to guide our course.  I had been made aware of my folly in taking us in the wrong direction and sought to set our course aright.  I had no way of determining our present path as we foundered in the wild.  The landscape was bleak.  We saw little sign of wildlife.  Whereas this boded well as far as danger from predators, it boded ill for our dwindling food stores.  Berries which had seemed somewhat plentiful at first were now seen less and less as the days passed; what we found were bird-pecked.

I had been relieved to discover that Ur'gup had placed extra stores in our packs.  These were decreasing as well.  Merry and Pippin were hungry all the time; I tried not to notice my own hunger.  When we would come across an occasional cony or a field hen which provided a little meat, I saw to it that my cousins got the larger portions.  We were fortunate in that there seemed to be plenty of springs or creeks in order to replenish our water every couple days, but in between our water had to be rationed.  It held a foul taste that lingered on the palate.    

The days were pleasant enough though the nights were becoming chilled.  The grayness of the skies was even depressing Pippin who seemed to find a simple joy in everything.  We had been sitting around our small fire one evening.  The talk of home gave us something to look forward to.

Merry had been carrying on most of the conversation and had become quite animated in fact regaling us with the story of the first pipe he ever smoked.   He and his cousin, Berilac, had been off on a jaunt in the Marish.  They had decided to take a trail which led through Bamfurlong the grand farm belonging to Farmer Maggot.  It was not long before the dogs were out chasing the lads who climbed a tree for safety.  Farmer Maggot was wandering through the fields with a pitch fork yelling at his dogs to catch the thieving scoundrels. 

Merry was a good storyteller.  A good portion of his style was in trying to get his listeners to react in one way or another.  He had a puzzled expression on his face when he looked at Pippin.  His grin grew when he saw my face.  I could feel myself blanching and broke out in a sweat.  That was all the fodder he needed to embellish his tale.  His tale had Farmer maggot alternately swinging and stabbing that pitchfork into anything he thought he saw move.  The dogs were not only barking but they were snarling and growling.  He continued with Farmer Maggot accusing the miserable mushroom thief, Frodo Baggins and yelling a reminder about the dogs.  I must admit Merry told a good tale.  I wondered if he knew how close he had come to the mark with his story. 

I glanced over at Pippin.  Normally, he would have been rolling on the ground laughing at a tale of this nature, but not tonight. Pippin was not talking which was unusual in itself.  Something had upset the boy. He had been quietly pulling up little tufts of grass and tossing them into the fire. This activity was alternated with worrying a tear in the right leg of his breeches. He began chewing on his lip as a tear trickled down his cheek.  I held up a hand to momentarily halt Merry's story.  I had vivid memories of Farmer Maggot and his dogs.  A respite from Merry's tale would not hurt.

"What's wrong, Pippin?"
 
"Nothing…." Pippin hugged his knees and shook his light brown curls.

"Yes, there is.  We have to keep each other going.  What has you upset?"

"Yeah, you haven't interrupted me all night."

"Would you care to talk about it, Pip?" Pippin hugged his knees tighter and sniffed. "It might help …" I tried to reassure him not knowing what was bothering him.

Pippin hesitated and took a deep breath.  "Mum made me a new suit of clothes for my birthday…"

"How do you know?  We were living with the goblins on your birthday."  We all shuddered at Merry's reminder.  All three of us had spent our birthdays in the company of the goblins.

"Go on, Pippin…"

"Mum made me a new suit of clothes … I begged her to let me wear them when we left on our trip, Frodo.  She didn't want me to."

"Aunt Eglantine is pretty strict," Merry felt he should inform us for whatever reason but we had all felt her well-deserved discipline at one time or another. 

"I told her I would be careful …" Another tear followed the track down his cheek.  "She said if my new clothes came back ruined, she would have my hide …" His voice was quavering. "… and I promised…"

"… And she let you wear them anyway." Frodo was trying his best to console his young cousin.

"Mums are always saying things like that, aren't they, Frodo?" 

I could tell from Merry's eyes he regretted his words as soon as he spoke them. I winced while he swallowed.  I nodded at Merry.

"Why, yes, they are I guess," I said quietly as I pictured my mother gone from me for so many years now.  How I missed my parents!

"… But look at this!"  Pippin showed us a good-sized rip on the right leg of his breeches.

"I wouldn't worry about it, Pippin."

"But Mum said…" Pippin was alarmed.

"Pip, your mum loves you.  She will be so happy to have you home safe and sound.  She won't care what your clothes look like."  I wrapped an arm around my younger cousin's shoulders and gave him a hug.  "And that goes for you too."  I ruffled Merry's dark blond curls. I only wished I could say the same for myself after all the time we had been gone and everything my cousins had been through. 


We wandered through the scrubland for eight more days without the sight of a single tree let alone a line of trees that would indicate a forest or wooded area.  Our trip home had begun as an adventure; it had become a matter of survival.  The weather had turned chilly in the daytime as well as at night.  Our food stores had been depleted days ago and that after days of rationing.  We were at the mercy of what could be found in the wild.

We spent the next five days moving closer to the trees seen in the distance.  With the sight of the trees came the hope of warm food.   Thoughts of food other than the wild onions and the roots and stems or tufts of parched or drying grass were an appealing consideration as we walked.   We sang and played games as we journeyed encouraged once again by thoughts of home.

Uneasiness returned to me during the late afternoon of the day we spotted the trees.  I sensed someone walking by my side.  When I turned to look, nothing was there.  The closer we got to the trees, the stronger the sensation grew.  Merry and Pippin bore their usual cheerful demeanor.  I tried to tell myself that it was merely childhood memories of being told to stay away from the trees especially after I had been severely injured by falling from a tree.  My cousin Merimac and I had shared a strange occurrence concerning a particularly large and magnificent tree on the fringes of the Old Forest.  Now, as I thought about it, I remembered that Merimac's son, Berilac, had also suffered an injury falling from the same tree.  It had kept him from coming with us.  I am as fond of Berilac as I am of Merry and Pippin, but was again grateful that he had not been able to accompany us due to the terrain we had to cross.  The goblin pits came to mind once more. It was strange that these memories should keep coming back to me.

Finally, we rested at night knowing that we would reach the trees by mid-day on the morrow.  I had given my invisible stalker little thought.  He had not begrudged us our meal.  As we made up stories sitting around the fire before retiring for the night, I again sensed his presence.  He was there circling our camp; watching our moves.  I fancied I could see his eyes glowing red as he watched us from his stand on the outskirts of our camp.  A breeze was blowing.  I heard his laughter on the wind. Merry and Pippin gave no indication of seeing or hearing anything out of the ordinary.   I tried to shake it from my mind; yet it seemed to remain laughing and mocking.  As we grew drowsy from our day's march and were ready to sleep for the night we lay down. My cousins were asleep within minutes.  The night was crisp and clear.  There right above me was Eärendil, the bright star; the star I had sought in the sky since I was a young child.

"Eärendil, "I whispered, "You have helped me in the past.  Help me now."  I saw the other stars glimmering in the sky.  The words came back to me that Bilbo had taught me; those same words that had helped comfort me in the Goblin's pits:  "A Elbereth Gilthoniel, silivren penna míriel, o menel aglar elenath!"  Our fire cracked and sputtered.  I would have sworn I heard a hiss in the breeze.  I felt a sense of calm as my stalker seemed to back away.

The following day my nameless companion traveled with us again.  He seemed to be sometimes at my side and sometimes behind us.  Each time I glanced about me, all I could see were my cousins, birds or small scurrying animals we had scared  from there holes.  I would not give in to fears and doubts but smiled and laughed with Merry and Pippin.  We sang songs as we walked.  Not knowing why, I remembered a day from childhood spent with my cousin, Merimac.  He had been gravely ill, yet he changed the words to "The Fox and the Frog" to ease my fears.  Merry and Pippin were delighted with this story and came up with a new game for changing the words to any song they could think of.  This kept us occupied until we reached the trees. 

It was odd the way the forest loomed up ahead of us like a great wall.  I knew some of the history involving this area; but not much.  I was aware of the northern kingdom and the fact that the office of the Thain arose to take the place of the king when there was no longer a king in the north.  I realized as we got closer to the trees that we were following a natural path or possibly a deer trail not readily visible but nevertheless, it was there. 

The three of us were elated at having at last reached the woods. The day had been quite warm; the shade of the boughs, welcome.  It was probably curiosity more than anything else that made me follow the path instead of staying in the edges of the trees.  Forgetting all about my stalker, we moved deeper into the forest.  I had been warned since I was a child about the dangers of the forest, especially following the accident that nearly took my life and as a result Merimac's as well.  Uncle Rorimac had had plenty to say on the subject.  Bilbo had had something to say as well … and the thought of giant spiders was terrifying.  This forest was not nearly as frightening as anything I had been warned about.   Sunlight could still be seen overhead through the branches.  Merimac had taken me camping in the woods when I was a child.   Bilbo and I had camped in the woods on many an occasion.  We had even met some elves more than once.

Having thrown caution to the wind, as they say, I led the boys on.  The path wound about more than I would have deemed necessary.  Hindsight tells me it was for the sake of secrecy.  The sight I really wanted to see was the Brandywine River, for then I would know without a doubt that we would soon find our home.  We even made a game out of what we thought the path might lead to.  Pippin's first thought was mores trees.  Merry cuffed him upside the head for that one.  We suggested various sights including anything from elves to dwarves to Bag End to the Brandywine to Brandy Hall to the goblin pits.  I cuffed Merry upside the head for that one.  Merry had to get in one last jab and declared what we would most likely see would be Farmer Maggot with his two biggest dogs.  I paled and shuddered while my cousins doubled over with laughter. How did that lad know of my fear of Farmer Maggot and his dogs? I let the question pass.

We were totally unprepared for the sight that did greet out eyes.  The path led us to a small glade.  There were rocks and boulders and a stream.  Yellow flowers still danced in the meadow.  Birds sang and chirruped in the trees.  Coneys and other small animals scurried at our approach.  There appeared to be a garden tended towards the coming winter.  Nearby was a hillock.  Even we three hobbit lads did not notice the smial at first.  Merry and Pippin wanted to rush to the door immediately.  It was supper-time and they were certain they would be invited for the meal.  I had to warn them that we needed to be cautious.  There was no welcoming smoke coming from the chimney.  It was then I noticed the two small mounds between the garden and the trees.  Merry and Pippin were all for going inside and making themselves comfortable as no one lived here.  I knew that would not be a wise move until we knew more about the surroundings.  

Something was not right here.  The whole scene just seemed to be unreal.  I turned about to get a better look at the area and turned straight into a notched arrow.  Stranger, yet, was the person holding the bow.  It was a hobbit lass perhaps a couple years younger than me.    She had long dark-golden hair worn plaited over one shoulder.  Her clothing was strange consisting of a dark green shift with a brown overdress laced at the sides for a snug fit.  Her face was heart-shaped with a golden complexion from time spent out of doors.  She was certainly not plain and yet definitely not what some might call beautiful.  Her eyes were striking.  They reminded me of a doe and yet they were not a true brown; one could see hints of green and gold and a tinge of blue making me wonder how they might appear in the moonlight.  I found her enchanting. There was something oddly familiar about her.   I knew the boys were rudely staring like fish out of water. 

She gave us the same appraising look I had been giving her.  Suddenly she took a quick intake of breath as if trying to catch herself.   "Oh!"  She lowered her bow.  "Well met and good day to you young gentlehobbits."  She scanned the horizon for the sun.  "We had best be going inside before the sun goes down."  She retrieved the string of fish she had dropped in the grass handing them to Pippin and provided Merry with a knife drawn from a sheathe at her waist before leading them to a spot near the garden where they could clean the fish.  They never questioned her but went to do her bidding.

After directing Merry and Pippin she turned her attention back towards me.   I found that I had watched this calm demeanor of hers in amazement.  "You may bring in wood for the fire." She literally had to turn me in the direction of a stacked woodpile.  With that she disappeared into the smial. 

I had to smile to myself as I gathered up wood for the fire.  We had been imprisoned by goblins sharing our condition with elves, dwarves and big folk. Up to this point in time we had seen little or none of any type of wildlife having traveled through endless scrubland to arrive at this forest glade. The very last thing that any of us had expected to find was a hobbit lass dwelling in an almost unbelievable location if nothing else for the pure beauty of the setting.  She was a strange lass, to say the least, if nothing else by her manner of dress and the way she wore her hair.  It was unlike anything I had ever seen in the Shire.  Her speech was different as if she had not spoken with many Shire folk in her lifetime.  Yet, there remained the gnawing feeling of familiarity about her.

I made certain Merry and Pippin were progressing with their fish cleaning task and then entered the smial by the same entrance I had watched the lass enter and found myself in a spacious kitchen.  The lass was nowhere to be seen though I could hear her moving about.  She was humming an old tune from the Shire.  I placed the wood in the wood box by the stove and lit the stove for some reason hoping she would be pleased she did not have to tell me she wanted the stove lit.  Having accomplished that task I went to retrieve more wood for the hearth all smials having large hearths in common. This one was no exception. I carried the second load of wood into an adjoining room. What surprised me was the fact that there was not one dining table, but rather two large dining tables.  I set about making up a fire and noticed I could see straight through the fireplace into another large room. It was a type of parlor or sitting room.   The woodcarving on the mantel and all the trimmings to the room was amazing.  I traced my fingers in the cuts forming birds, animals, leaves, flowers and stars.  This last item was a startling feature.  I traced my finger in a line of stars representing a constellation and there it was: my star.  Immediately I felt at peace about our situation.  I turned slightly to find the lass watching me, a smile on her face. Her eyes sparkled in the flickering firelight reminding me of the stars beneath my fingertips.  Feeling embarrassed, I dropped my hand to my side. 

"It's beautiful.  Who carved all this?"

"My da'."

"He's very talented."

"Yes … I think you had best see if your young companions need help.  It will be dark soon." Her voice seemed quiet, almost distant.

"All right."  I headed towards the door.  This was the second time she had mentioned about the oncoming night.  I felt a shiver run down my spine as I thought of my invisible stalker.  It was difficult to imagine anything dark or sinister invading this abode.   

Though I had not realized it, there was a sort of headiness to the air inside the smial.  I was glad to be out of doors again.  I looked at the sky settling rapidly into dusk and thought of the warning I had twice been given.  I walked over to inquire if my cousins needed help.  Merry had been struggling with the use of only one arm.  Pippin was not a very experienced fish cleaner; he was more of a fish eater.  I sent the boys into the smial with those fish they had already cleaned with instructions to ask our hostess if she was in need of assistance and remained outside to finish the task of cleaning the string of fish myself.  While I worked my thoughts ranged freely from how good it felt knowing we would be spending the night in an actual smial to the thought of seeing another hobbit to realizing we had not even introduced ourselves to the hobbit lass nor she to us to the familiarity of the lass herself to the ominous sensation that I was being watched.  I quickly cleaned the fish, took them into the smial and returned to sluice the area.  I looked up into the sky once more and smiled as I saw the large bright star that had meant so much to me in my life.

"It is called Eärendil.  To me it is the most beautiful star in the sky."  I turned sideways to see the lass standing by my side watching the same star that I had hoped to see as I looked to the sky.  I was correct; her eyes did sparkle and glimmer in the starlight. 

"This star has been with me as if it were watching over me most of my life," I confided, though I had no idea why. "I always feel comforted somehow when I see it shining whether it is morning or evening."  We stood looking at the star in silence for some minutes as a number of other stars appeared in the sky. 

"Elenna," she said softly.

"What?"

"Elenna Boffin…It's my name.  I was born here under the stars…" she nearly whispered her voice being filled with awe for the night sky opening out above us.

Somehow her revelation of her name did not surprise me in the least. Searching my memory, I recalled the word 'elenna' meaning 'starwards'; Merimac had taught me to think of the word and to look to the stars to give me hope. There did seem to be something hopeful for the first time in weeks on our journey home.  Still there was something familiar about the last name she gave as well. 

"Frodo Baggins," I mumbled in response. 

"It is a pleasure to meet you, Frodo Baggins." She smiled even though she continued to look into the darkening sky.

I looked at her sideways and smiled as well. "It is my pleasure as well …"

"I sent the lads to wash up.  The young lad's arm is healing nicely.  He can try leaving the sling off tomorrow if he wants to."

"You seem to have some medicinal knowledge."

"I have to living here.  I never know when I will need to use it. My mum always said I was a lot like her father."

I was about to ask her about that when we heard the door open to see two hobbit lads staring out at us. "We'd best be going in now.  Your dinner is nearly ready. You'll have just enough time to wash up before hand."  She smiled at me as I allowed her to walk ahead of me into the smial.  The boys watched us as if they were trying not to laugh at a joke.

The lass bade us sit at a smaller table she had set using a fine embroidered tablecloth and napkin set and included a vase of the yellow flowers.  It was not until this moment that I realized there were two different sized tables and chairs.  The act of sitting while she waited upon us did not take place.  We were so thrilled to be amongst somewhat familiar surroundings that we all helped to bring and carry the various serving dishes in from the kitchen.

"What is this place?" I finally asked after we were all seated.

"It's a public house, silly" Merry was trying to impress us with his knowledge as he helped himself to the platter in front of him.

"Yes, I can see it is an inn of sorts, but there are different sized furnishings if you have not noticed."

Elenna looked at me and smiled.  "It is a type of inn, but more of a way station."

"I thought so."  I smiled back.

"A weigh station for what?"  Merry had not heard of this.

"Hungry hobbit lads," I nodded towards Pippin who had already devoured one plateful and was shoveling his plate with second helpings.  I gestured towards Merry's heaping plate and we all laughed. 

"It is a sort of in-between stopping place with larger inns or public houses along the traveled route," our hostess explained.

"But who travels here?  Are we back in the Shire?"  Pippin asked excitedly over the food in his mouth.

"Many travel here. You can see this from the furnishings as Mister Baggins has observed." For some reason it felt strange to have this lass refer to me as 'Mister Baggins'.  She apparently had her secrets which she did not feel ready to divulge if her guests could not glean the truth on their own. "…and, no, I am sorry to say you are not back in the Shire; not yet, but you are close."

"The fare is delicious. I can't say how long it has been since we've eaten …"

"… real food." Pippin interrupted my compliment.

"Thank you.  It is my pleasure." We all joined in her laughter.

"I did not think hobbits lived outside the Shire," Merry commented.

"Why would they want to?" Pippin stopped chewing long enough to ask.  

"How did your family come to live here?" I inquired ignoring my young cousin's rude remark.

"They chose to.  Hobbits are not prisoners in the Shire you know."  She was a little defensive about the matter.

"I didn't mean to offend you Mistress Boffin."  If she could be formal, I could as well.

"It is I who should apologize."  Elenna dabbed her mouth with her napkin and took a sip of water before continuing.  "My parents came here when they were wed.  They wanted the sense of adventure of living here just outside the Shire." 

"It is odd that they should choose to live so far from anyone," I mused.

"We would receive word of what was taking place in the Shire from travelers like you."

"But to live so far from family and friends … it is almost as if you were …"   

"… As if we were what, Mister Baggins … outcast?"

"I did not say that."

Merry and Pippin were enjoying this bit of heated exchange and heightened by their sense of entertainment ate all the more. I had stopped eating and sat watching her as she spoke.

"Yet it was implied was it not?  Just because we chose to live here does not mean we are daft or anything.  It is not as if we go wandering about all the time on adventures like Old Mad B…" She stopped talking. The color drained from her face as she looked at me.

I knew I was angry and tried to speak evenly, but my words came tinged with ice.  "I realize that it is a common practice at public houses, inns, way stations and whatever it is you choose to call this place to exchange news.  I also realize that that news is often twisted into gossip and innuendoes.  You would do well in the future, Mistress Boffin, to check out the facts of what you are saying before you spread whatever you hear."

"I did not mean…Are you he?" A tear slide down each of her cheeks; first one side and then the other.  "Please excuse me.  I am sorry…" She left the room.

Pippin stopped chewing long enough to yell after her, "Mmph mmph Baggins is the nicest person I know."

"Pippin … just eat your dinner."  Merry had a way of trying to keep his younger cousin in line.  He was watching me.  "What are you going to do, Frodo?"

"Spend the night as planned.  We leave first thing in the morning."  I spoke very crisply towards Merry as I watched the doorway Elenna had gone through.

"I mean about her?"

"What is it you want me to do, Merry?"

"She doesn't know…"

"That's right she doesn't know and yet she says whatever comes to mind that she has heard."

"But that's my point, Frodo.  All she knows is what others have told her."

"Do you really think that the elves are going to speak derogatorily about Bilbo?"  I was irritated.  

"Elves?"  Merry and Pippin asked as one.

"Look around you.  Do you not see the furnishings and the appointments of the rooms?  Who do you suppose this is for?"

"Maybe there are big folk who travel on the road she talked about.  There were big folk in the goblin pits with us.  Remember Wyatt?"  Pippin had been following the conversation better than I would have thought.

"That's right.  There aren't just elves that would travel through here.  There were dwarves in the pits as well as other hobbits."

"She's probably never even been to the Shire."

"That does not make her comment amenable."

"And yours was, Frodo?  You nearly came straight out and accused her whole family of being tainted and outcast in the Shire."

I was in a sullen mood but I had been listening to my cousins.  "Very well," I sighed, "I will try to speak with her."  Seeing Pippin start to get up I quickly added "I will speak with her.  You will stay here."

I left the dining room through the same door I had watched Elenna leave by.  The door led to a passageway with rooms on either side.  There must have been at least a dozen rooms spaced down the passageway.  Lamps were lit for the night.  This smial was fantastic both in its size and its furnishings.  Most of the rooms allowed for the height of an elf.  Some of the rooms had one bed; some had as many as four.   All the rooms had the same beautiful carving.  I found the room that must have been her room; all green of color and flowery.  I thought she was within at first, but the room proved to be empty. 
 
The passageway connected to another hallway.  I followed this one and found storerooms stocked with plenty.  Coming to the end of this passage, I found myself standing in the kitchen.  There was a fresh baked pie on the table.  Our hostess had served up three pieces and left them to cool. Having found no sign of her inside the smial, I had a notion as to where she might be and stepped outside.  I saw nothing but the moon and the stars in the sky.  A bird sang in one of the trees which sheltered the smial. A hawk screeched as it circled overhead in search of prey.  At the moment I felt very much like the hawk.  

Standing in the dark trying to get my bearings, I remembered the lay of the outside of the smial and its surroundings.   I looked for the garden by the line of trees but was unable to see it in the dark.  I heard the sound that would guide me to where she was.  I knew what I would find there.  Elenna was down on her knees between the two small mounds with her face buried in her hands.  Kneeling down in front of her, I took her hands in mine holding her close to offer her what comfort I could while she wept.  I knew exactly what she was feeling and struggled to hold back my own tears. The sight before me brought back the loss of my mum and da' all too vividly. I waited a few moments before speaking.

"My parents died when I was twelve. I lived with my uncle and aunt at Brandy Hall in Buckland for a few years before Bilbo took me in and adopted me."  She backed away slightly and looked into my eyes.

"I did not mean to be so cruel," she whispered.

I took her hands in mine. "Cruel?  No you were only repeating what you had heard.  So if you were cruel, it was unwitting and not on purpose and therefore easily forgiven."

"Then you do forgive me?" She smiled a bright starlit smile.

"I forgive you, on two conditions."

She pulled her hands from mine. "What are the conditions?" She was wary.

"The first is that you must also forgive me. I did not mean to be rude concerning your family."

"You are forgiven. The truth is I do not know why my mum and da' left the Shire.  They never really told me.  I do know we were happy living here," she sighed.  "What is your second condition, Mister Baggins?"

"Only that you call me Frodo.  Mister Baggins sounds a bit too stuffy," I laughed.

"All right, Frodo."  She smiled and I forgot the stars in the sky.

We spent a long while talking about our parents and Bilbo; life in the Shire and life in the woods; her knowledge of the stars and mine.  It was a beautiful starlit night. We had much in common.  By the time we returned to the smial, we entered talking and laughing together as friends.  Before she closed the door to the night, I noticed Elenna start as if coming from a dream and quickly glance around the clearing.  Hastily locking the door, she turned to smile once more as she looked about the kitchen.

Merry and Pippin had cleared the dishes from the table and eaten all but one piece of the pie.  They had also done the washing up and so could not be faulted for anything.  Elenna and I found them in the sitting room.  Merry had found a collection of pipes as well as some tobacco and had helped himself while Pippin was strumming a small harp he had found.  The lads merely smiled at us.  I had not seen them this contented in a long time.

We joined my cousins and talked about the Shire and families for a while before retiring for the night.  It was interesting to note that Elenna had Took blood on both her mother and her father's side.  Something was so very familiar about her.  She led us to a room that occasionally a group of dwarves would occupy.  There were four beds.  The thought of sleeping in a real bed was pure bliss.  We said good night with a squeeze of the hand and a kiss on her fingertips.

With full stomachs and the contentment of an enjoyable evening Merry and Pippin and I felt relaxed without a care knowing we would set off in the morning on the last leg of our journey home.  We had been provided with nightshirts.  The luxury of sleeping in a real bed with clean linens was indescribable.  We lay contentedly and as one all three of us stopped talking.  I woke during the middle of the night.  It was strange not to feel one had to be on watch after so long on the road watching for who knew what in the wilderness.  I got out of bed and paced the floor. 

All of my conversations with Elenna came flooding back into my mind.  I had not really thought of my parents in so long.  It seemed I would willfully shove their memories from me.  There was still pain after all these years.  I really did know what Elenna was feeling about losing her parents.  At least I had family to cling to and Bilbo was like a father to me.  She did not even know her family.  Of a sudden it dawned on me as to who Elenna would have to be.  I had known her family quite well as a child as Merry does now.  She would have to be the granddaughter of Andwise Bolger the healer in Buckland. The reason she seemed so very familiar to me was that she was the image of her Aunt Lily, my first love.

It had been whispered about that the eldest daughter of Andwise and Fern Bolger had run off with a Boffin lad from the Tookland.  Neither of them had come of age and it was forbidden for them to marry until at least one of them was of age.  Elenna's parents had found this glade as they wandered.  It had seemed idyllic and her father and mother together built the smial and set up a garden plot.  As was to be expected, in time her mother found she was with child, but it was a difficult time.  They had thought of returning to the Shire but knew the laws; though her father would not have cared.  As luck would have it when her time came, a small band of elves were traveling through the woods and provided aid to her mother while her father provided them sustenance.  Elenna was literally born under the stars with Eärendil smiling down on all of those present.  It was the elves who helped name her saying she should always look for the blessings in that which is above. 

It was at that time that the smial was enlarged into the way station which could house many at need.  The elves and some of the big folk who wandered helped in the construction and brought provisions and news of the outside world.  There was a group of dwarves who enjoyed the hospitality of the station as well.  The station was well hidden and only those who knew of its existence generally stayed.  A group of the big folk arrived during the goblin attack three years ago which had taken the lives of Elenna's parents. They tried to persuade the lass to return to the Shire, but this was the only home she had ever known and refused to leave.  Elenna had never before seen another hobbit other than her parents until that afternoon.

Exhausted, I knew I should force myself to try to sleep.  The thoughts running through my mind kept me awake.  Glancing out the small window and watching the stars as they danced in the sky did not help with the thoughts swirling in my head.  I sighed and smiled to myself as I thought of both Lily and Elenna.  I had not thought of Lily like that since I was a child.  I am not certain I ever quite forgave Merimac for taking her away from me even though I was perhaps only nine years of age at the time.  Merry, Pippin and I needed to leave in the morning.  Elenna is related to us by marriage I rationalized. Perhaps we could persuade the lass to return to Buckland with us. 

I lay back on my bed with that thought in mind when I heard what I thought was a scream or a cry.  Jumping up quickly I pulled on my breeches over my nightshirt leaving the door ajar as I ran down the hallway to Elenna's room.  Knocking softly for fear of frightening her, I opened her door, but she was not within. I headed for the kitchen making certain I had my knife in my pocket. Unbolting the door I hastened outside.  I had thought I had heard her crying; standing outside all was quiet.  Then it was that I heard a second scream and turned in the direction of the sound trying to follow the noise.

Another scream led me into the woods.  I was hastening towards it in great fear for Elenna's safety for a woman's cry it was.  I became aware as I ran that I was being followed by something unseen as if I were being hunted by some unknown creature toying with its quarry.  My thoughts which had been filled with joy and the anticipation of home so short a time before were quickly turning to terror.  Running towards the screams, I became acutely aware of three facts:  I was totally unfamiliar with these woods; I was hearing voices and so knew there was more than one; and my pursuers were trying to wear me down. 

I sought refuge by climbing a tree.  More shouting from a different direction caused my pursuers to give up the chase in my direction as they were led away from me. Without any warning, I lost my hold of the branch I was desperately trying to cling to and landed on my back with a thud feeling a pain in my left chest.  I looked at the sky and seeing my guiding star whispered "Eärendil." 

When I woke I noticed faint light was beginning to appear in the sky.  The stars had shifted in their courses; yet I still saw Eärendil and smiled.  My chest pained me as if it were on fire.  I reached up to determine the extent of my injury from the fall I had taken and felt an arrow shaft protruding from just below my left shoulder.  This explained the pain but not the reason for my not being able to rise.  I drifted back towards unconsciousness. 

Morning had dawned when I sensed or heard someone or something coming through the trees.  A twig snapped; there was a sharp intake of breath. My assailant was approaching.  It was impossible to keep my eyes open forcing me to rely on my sense of hearing. Drawing my knife from my pocket I thought I would at least be able to try to defend myself but my enemy wrenched the blade from my hand.  I heard it land with a dull sound in the grass nearby.  I felt the sensation of pulling and tugging but was powerless to defend myself from any further onslaught.  I was struggling to open my eyes for as frightening as this experience was proving I was curious as to what was happening to me.  I felt a horrible wrenching pain in my shoulder and heard myself cry out.  There was the sound of ripping cloth and again my attacker took a sharp intake of breath and said something unintelligible.  Again I fought to open my eyes.  The glint of a knife blade was followed by a stabbing pain.  My assailant was bending over me doing who knew what. I felt its teeth and tongue pressing against my shoulder.  I groaned and tried to fight him off of me.   My attacker spat and swatted my hands away as he put his mouth and tongue to my shoulder once more.  Struggling with the little strength I had I tried to shove him from me. He shifted his position so he was right on top of me kneeling on my hands.  Again I felt his mouth and that tugging pain as he gnawed on my flesh.

"Elbereth Gilthoniel…" I whispered and groaned again. He spat again.  I could feel his eyes on me as his mouth came down again on my shoulder.  The drawing pain was almost unbearable; over and over again, each time as he put his mouth to my shoulder the pain increased.

"Frodo!"  I heard Merry's voice yell from somewhere.

"Make one more move and it will be the last you ever make, goblin…"  It was Elenna's voice, but with coldness I had not thought possible.

"What's it doing?" Pippin sounded frightened.

My assailant stopped for a moment.  He must have turned to look at Elenna and my cousins before he spat and laid his mouth to my shoulder once more.  I heard the stretching of a taut bowstring being pulled back. 

"No…Stop!"  Merry and Pippin yelled at the same instant an arrow whizzed past my assailant's head only because he again bent over me.

"Stop, Elenna!"  Pippin yelled as Merry ran to me. 

"He's a friend!"

I willed myself to see his face. "Ur'gup?" I whispered and saw his face covered with my blood.

The poison from the goblin arrow had taken its toll.  Had it not been for the sudden arrival of Ur'gup I would be dead leaving Merry and Pippin to fend for themselves.  Persuaded by my cousins that this particular goblin was, in fact, a friend, Elenna allowed Ur'gup to carry me back to the way station. He had given her instructions in caring for my wound before disappearing only to return the following afternoon with a preparation of herbs that would act as an antidote to the poison.  Once again the healer saw me pass by death's portals as I lay in a fevered delirium for three more days.

Slowly opening my eyes during the night I was able to acknowledge Merry, Pippin, Elenna and Ur'gup all sitting anxiously at my bedside.

"He's awake!" Pippin cried.  My cousins rushed to take my hands.

Ur'gup's amber eyes flared and I saw the hideous grin that I had learned to know as his smile.  "You have slept long, Little One.  You gave us cause to worry."

"I'm sorry …" I swallowed.  It was all I could say as I looked at each of them.

"Why …?  Why did you leave the smial?" Elenna's voice was soft; the tears in her eyes revealing the pain of loss.

"I … I heard a scream. I thought I heard you scream … you were not in your room …"

"But the doors were locked against the darkness of the outside …" She looked to Ur'gup to explain.

"There is much you do not know, Little One.  Evil things walk this land you walk through … things from ages past.  Did you not feel it?"

"Yes …"

"Were you not warned?" He looked accusingly at Elenna.

"Yes, we were warned, but I felt safe here.  I felt we were truly safe for the first time since we were captured and taken to the pits." I shuddered at the thought of our captivity.

"You would have been safe inside the smial, Frodo." I saw the weary glance Elenna gave to Ur'gup imagining she now felt betrayed to the goblins.

"But I was trying to protect you …" I felt more than a little defensive, "… and Merry and Pippin.  If the scream was not yours, whose was it?"

"Whose indeed?"  She asked and glanced at the goblin.

"There is much to fear," the goblin looked deep into my eyes, "but, the first cry you heard was a great cat."

"… And the others?"

"Mockery."

"How do you know this?  Ur'gup how is it you are here?" I saw Elenna tremble at my question as she gave me broth to drink.
 
"You had not been gone much time.  The master's second returned for what they could find. There were five … I heard them speaking and hid myself.  They watched you.  The second knew you and remembered the map. He would follow and take what he wanted." His eyes flared as he contemplated his words. "They follow you; I follow them.  They waited in the trees to attack.  The cat drew you out.  They made mockery of the cat to draw you away. They would kill you and come for the others."

"How do you know?" Merry interrupted.

Ur'gup glanced at my cousin and then looked back at me. "I watched them and led them away."

I chewed my lip considering what he was telling me. "I heard voices and knew I was being chased.  Something … another voice drew them off. That was you?"

"They did not all follow … I am sorry, Little One."

"You saved my life.  I am very grateful you were here, Ur'gup."  I reached for his hand and held it trying to convey my gratitude.  "What of Elenna," I inclined my head towards the lass, "how will she be safe now?"

"You are safe now, Little One. You may go home." Turning to Elenna he spoke as softly as possible for one of his kind, "Do not fear for yourself or for them.  You will not be harmed."

"How do you know this?" I worried for her safety.

"I killed them … they are gone.  They were the last that knew of the master's plan. None others followed."

"Do you know this for certain?"

"I will watch the trees for a time."  The lass gasped at his words. "Then I return to my home. I will do no harm. She is safe."

Even though his promise was made to me, Elenna answered him. "I trust you, Ur'gup.  Thank you for helping me … for helping us." She smiled at him before turning to me. "Now, Frodo Baggins, it is time you rested once more and you lads must sleep too.  Your friend may watch with you this night."

Following breakfast the morning after I awoke, my goblin friend and I said our farewells once more. The wound I received kept me confined to bed for a week following my waking.  I needed a further week to regain enough strength to travel. Our time was spent in leisurely companionship with our hostess becoming fast friends as we shared our lives in the Shire and Buckland with her; she shared her upbringing in the woods with us.  Merry and Pippin delighted in the stories and songs that were imparted, but even more to their liking was the ample hobbit fare served six times a day. 

As time drew near for us to leave the way station, my cousins and I each begged Elenna to come with us to Buckland and live among her own people instead of alone in the wild.  Each time we spoke her answer was always the same. "This is where I was born it is the only home I know." She looked at us with regret in her eyes. "There are others who count on me; I cannot leave them bereft of their haven. Should you ever travel these paths again, you will find me."

The hobbit lass made certain we were each in good health before she would allow us to pack. My wound was healing but it would make us travel at a slower pace.  There was fair warning about the inclement weather which could begin at any time during this season of the year. Knowing we were closer to home than we could have hoped, I refused to hear of remaining through the winter months. With due speed, we would soon be home. Our hostess saw our packs stocked with provisions for a fortnight, enough to see us home.  She placed extras in our packs against unseen delays.

Calling me to her side, Elenna took pen and ink and a piece of parchment. A chill ran down my spine as I observed the map she drew for me; it was nearly identical to the map I had been forced to produce for the Goblin Master.  I paled as I watched over her shoulder. She smiled shyly and blew on the ink to aid its drying before rolling it up and placing it in my hands.

"Have no fear, Frodo, they are far away now.  Trust to the stars"

Elenna saw us on our way watching us until we were out of sight. Our first days gave us much to think about as we silently reflected on what was most important in our lives.
 
The weather was growing rapidly colder. The last days of warmth had been spent in the forest clearing with Elenna.  The delay of recovering from my injury had cost us dearly in hopes of making it home before winter set in.  We would at least have food for a fortnight worth of travel from the stores we had renewed and providing Merry and Pippin did not eat them all at once.  I could not blame the boys for their appetites.  Our hostess had proved to be an accomplished baker, as well as cook who could provide a feast for three hungry hobbit starvelings at a moments notice.  The provisions Elenna sent with us far surpassed those we had left the goblin pits with.  It was a continual source of amazement that she would prefer to live alone in the forest with only an occasional visitor rather than return with us to the Shire.  She was a Took after all; life in the forest perhaps provided the adventure she craved.  As for me, I was more than ready to return home to the Shire to loud and boisterous Brandy Hall, jolly Tookland and pleasant hum drum little Hobbiton. If luck held, we would make it to Brandy Hall in the span of a fortnight. I hoped against hope that there would be no further incidents. 

The first week went smoothly.  We had picked up where we left off with our stories, songs, games and pranks.  Though I had not been here before, I had a good idea as to where we now were.  I moved slowly at first but by the end of the week was making good progress.  It was infuriating to me that I was once again the source of our slow progress.  At least it was not out of ignorance this time. 

By the morning of the tenth day following our departure from Elenna's clearing, dampness joined the coldness of the air stinging us with each bite of the wind.  We were forced to bundle our blankets around us by day as well as by night.  The nights were crisp and clear.  I delighted in the sight of the sky filled with the stars that had provided me with comfort through so many times in my life.  I pointed out all of the constellations as Bilbo and my cousin Merimac had taught me:  Soronúmë, Telumendil, Wilwarin, Anarríma, the mighty Menelmacar and Valacirca the sickle.  I could tell the individual stars:  Helluin, Nénar, Lumbar, the blue star Luinil, the red star Carnil, and Alcarinquë the glorious.  I would ever after smile at the sight of Elemmírë the jeweled star and the remembrance of the hobbit lass who lived as a jewel in the woods and provided a haven to weary travelers.  The most comfort would always come from the sight of Eärendil. 

Though we had moved slowly for the first week, the second week we were able to cover a little more ground by picking up our pace a bit.  The cold made us willing to move at a brisker pace.  I was still not seeing familiar territory.  The instructions we had received from Elenna seemed reasonable.  I knew if we kept within the edge of the trees keeping any moss to the north and what sunlight there was to the proper location in the sky for morning or afternoon we would eventually come to the Brandywine River. 

If we stayed with the river, we would arrive home.  This was a cheering thought, but sobering nonetheless.  We had learned some lessons concerning trust and acceptance.  We had learned about fear and resentment and greed.  We also honed our survival skills.  We speculated about changes to our homes knowing we would be welcomed with open and loving arms as winter was born in the Buckland and the Shire.

It was nearly sundown.  We had traveled for twelve days since leaving Elenna's clearing.  I saw a flash of something ahead and could not tell what it was; whether friend or danger.  I left my pack and ordered Merry and Pippin to stay where they were in a thicket for protection.  I made certain my knife was ready to hand and found a large stick to use as a club.  Stealthily I made my way through the trees all the more cautiously because I heard no noise.  I caught the flash again and stood stock still for a few moments before proceeding. Creeping slowly towards the location of the flash, I parted some low branches and saw the river.  I wanted to shout for joy but refrained for the sake of our safety.    

I surveyed the surrounding area before making my way back to Merry and Pippin.  All appeared safe which was well for us; it was too late in the day to travel any further.

"Frodo…Frodo?"  Pippin loudly whispered.  I was grateful for his call.  I nearly missed the hiding place as night came on. 

"What is it, Frodo? What's over there?"  Merry was excited.

"Not much."  I tried to suppress a grin.  "It's big and winding and brown and dangerous."  Pip's eyes grew larger.

"What is it, Frodo?"

"We've made it to the Brandywine."  I threw my arms around my cousins as the three of us cheered.  "Shhh!" I quickly whispered.  "We'll have to camp here for the night.  I'm not sure about risking a fire. We'll just have to wrap in our blankets close to each other."

Excitement over finally reaching the river as well as the cold left me without sleep most of the night.  I kept watch against the wild and allowed the lads to sleep.  No movement was seen nor sound heard.  My blanket had been cut down for bandages and had lost much of its size for wrapping into. As dawn neared I could take no more.  I felt stiff from the cold and slowly got to my feet.  I laid my blanket over Merry and Pippin who were both sleeping soundly.  Pulling my jacket closer against the breeze, I sought to occupy my time finding something for breakfast. 

The boys woke to the smell of fresh roasting fish which I had cleaned and stuffed with bits of wild onions and garlic.  The meal and the warmth of the fire made some small amends for the conditions endured during the night.  It would have felt good to spend a day by the warmth of the fire; however, from the appearance of the sky, I knew we dared not linger.  The sky had the opaque cast seen in the late autumn when the sun is still shining as clouds develop and one knows they bear not rain but snow.  Merry and Pippin saw my gaze and without being told made haste to gather their gear. 

Knowing we were only a few days away from home lifted our spirits to the point of soaring.  Following the river and anticipating seeing home and family again we were able to quicken our pace a bit for the next five days. I had to remind my cousins and Pippin in particular, more than once that as we were still in the wild it was necessary to be cautious.  A loud noise or wrong movement could bring unspeakable danger upon us.  We were fortunate, though, that the cold weather seemed to be keeping most creatures in their burrows or nests.


It was a chill that went right through one's very being.  The cold would have been bad enough but there was dampness in the air.  By nightfall the wind had picked up cutting and biting as it lashed us with the dried and fallen leaves.  We spoke less and less.  Our teeth chattered together as we talked.  It was a boon that we had some cover from the trees. Our evening fire was a blessing.  We slept as close to the fire as one could actually be without being in the fire itself. 

By morning the fire had burned out waking us as much from the cold as the lightening of the sky.  We ate a hasty breakfast hoping to make the most of the day.  It was evident the weather was changing; we had seen the last of any of nature's warmth for a time.  I thought I was seeing areas of woods I had been to with Bilbo a couple of times and once with Merimac.  I prayed it was true and not just my wishful thinking. 

Marry and Pippin had lost their sense of exuberance and stumped along staring at the ground with their hands stuffed in their pockets.  Every once in a while I would hear a giggle as one or the other of them sprawled on the ground ahead of us.  I came to the realization I was as well hearing something else:  sniffling.  I suggested we break for lunch as our breakfast had been hurried.  In truth I needed to assess the state my cousins were in.  The best plan I had was to try to get them to laugh.  I told them the tale of when I had put a bucket of frogs in Aunt Amaranth's laundry tub.  Merry was laughing so hard he could barely sit.  He had endured his own experiences with Aunt Amaranth.  Pippin smiled and giggled a little but it was definitely not his usual show of mirth. 

"Are you all right, Pippin?"

"I'm all r…r…right, F…F…Frodo."  He looked at me and tried to smile but the glossy sheen to his eyes belied his words.

Merry looked at Pippin and then at me.  "Are you sure?"

Pippin nodded.  "I'm j...j…just s…s…so c…c…cold."

"I know, Pip, we all are. I wish there was just some place to just hole up for a day or two but I don't think it would help.  The weather is turning and we are so close to home.  The trees are helping somewhat.  It would be worse out there."  I gestured to the east outside the trees.  "We need to be moving on if you fellows are ready.  I want to cover as much ground as we can today yet.  I don't like the looks of the sky.  Pippin, walk in between Merry and me.  That should help some."  I pulled his blanket more snuggly around him and covered his head.  Merry and I did likewise with ours.  I glanced at the sky again and we headed south still following the river. 

By nightfall a chill rain had moved in.  We were able to locate a slightly banked area which afforded us the opportunity to have the wind behind and mostly over the top of us.  If the wind changed directions we would be in trouble.  I insisted that Merry stay with Pippin and they see if they could locate at least a small amount of dry kindling to get our fire started.  I gave my self the task of trying to find any amount of dry wood to make a decent fire to begin with.  My task proved easier than I thought as the rain had not had sufficient chance to soak the wood. Supper proved to be more of a challenge; both boys looked askance when I handed them each a handful of nuts, two wild onions and their water skins.  The weather hindered any chance of catching fish. We bundled up for the night as close together as could be keeping Pippin between Merry and me.  Soon we were lost in dreamless sleep.

I rose early and tucked my blanket around my cousins and went down the bank to the river.  Living the years I had in Buckland as well as lessons from my cousin Merimac and all the excursions with Bilbo had taught me the best ways to catch fish with no pole available.  I used my knife and sharpened a good sized stick. It was a stroke of good fortune the rain had stopped during the night; though the wind still blew with the viciousness of a wild beast.    Finding a likely spot I had several nice fish in a short period of time.  Merry and I were both ravenous but Pippin could find no appetite.  We had to coax the boy to eat with the promise that he would see his mum and da' the following day.  I prayed I was correct with my calculations.

Before midday our fortunes changed for the good and the ill.  We had come at last to the Bridge of Stonebows giving us only twenty miles to Brandy Hall.  We stopped to rest before crossing the Great East Road at the bridge.  Pippin was feeling worse than before and had begun to cough.  Adding to our misery, the drizzling rain which had started in again before we reached the bridge was now turning into a freezing downpour.  We stayed under the cover of the trees as much as possible for all our sakes.  I was worried about both of my cousins especially Pippin who had ceased talking altogether and shivered under his coat and blanket.  We were in luck to be able to traverse the road once we had crossed the bridge at first but the frozen ruts and ice were making the road treacherous and we were forced once again into the grass at the sides of the road.  The weather compelled us to slacken our pace.  I had hoped to encounter someone - anyone - traveling along Buckland Road but there was not a soul in sight other than the three of us.  The weather was forcing even the more adventurous travelers indoors. 

We spent the night in a grove of trees to the side of the road.  I got the hardtack out of my pack which I had saved for an emergency.  It was the last of the provisions Elenna had given to us insisting it might prove useful if our situation went awry.  Even though we were surrounded by trees there was nothing but drenched wood to make a fire with.  We consoled ourselves with the knowledge we would be seeing family and sleeping in real beds again the next night.  The illness that had come upon Pippin was doing its work. The child was wracked with fever and bouts of coughing.  I spent much of the night trying to wrap my blanket around the two of us to keep him warm. 

The last leg of our return journey was going from bad to worse.  The snows began blowing through the Buckland in the wee hours of the morning.  The dawn showed another ill member of our group as Merry was coughing now as well as Pippin.  I had hoped to be at Brandy Hall by midday.  The setback with the snow would prove costly as far as our time spent traveling.  Pippin could barely walk he was so ill.  Merry and Pippin were both desperately shivering; I shrugged my coat onto Merry and bade him wrap his blanket over the top; I wrapped my blanket around Pippin and carried him which unfortunately meant yet more frequent breaks for rest.  Without either my blanket or my coat, the only thing keeping me warm was carrying the feverish child.  I could feel the rattling in his chest and feared for his life. 

Reaching Brandy Hall had been difficult through the blowing and drifting snow.  By the time we arrived at the hall itself the snow was letting up yet the wind swirled and howled all about us.  The hall had the appearance of an empty waste.  Fear rose in me that something untoward had taken place in our absence.  I thought of the Goblin Master and his second in command and wondered if any other copies of my map had been made.  I halted Merry and tried to stand Pippin on his own feet thinking he would feel better if allowed to enter the hall on his own.  The child all but collapsed in my arms; Merry began to sway thinking this was a dream.  He drew added strength from the knowledge that he was home.  Knowing someday he would be Master of Buckland provided him incentive to enter without aid. 

Given the hour of day and the weather it was safe to assume someone would be in the Great Hall.  I knew the customs well enough to know if the Master chose to receive us it would be in the Great Hall.  I recalled many lectures on deportment and decorum.  We stood outside the main doors to the Great Hall which opened on a courtyard.

"Merry … stomp your feet outside," I instructed and did the same forgetting all about brushing snow from the rest of our bodies.  "Now, hold your head proudly despite the consequences of what anyone might say or do for we have done nothing wrong, but we must be received by the Master of the Hall before we say a word to anyone else.  Do you understand?"  Merry nodded.  "I only hope your grandfather is in a good mood."

"He will be happy to see us Frodo…" I gave him a wary look, "…all of us."

"I hope so, Merry.  Are you ready?  Are you certain you can walk?"

"I'm fine, but I'm worried about Pip."

"I am too.  If we are in luck, Lily should be within somewhere; if not she or Mister Bolger will be sent for.  They will take care of him."  Merry nodded his acknowledgement. 

With Merry's help I pushed open the doors to the hall bringing swirling snow and chill winds in with us.  My cousins, Seredic and Marmadas, seated near the doors, jumped up and shut the doors against the weather.  I nodded to Merry and we strode forward towards the head table. The Master had been speaking.  There was an audible gasp heard throughout the hall. 

Merry was true to his word and was able to make it as far as the Master's table before he began to sway again and was caught in the arms of his parents Saradoc and Esmeralda.  I felt someone lifting Pippin from my arms and relinquished my young cousin to Lily who immediately started giving orders about medical needs as she took the sick child from the hall.  I was left standing alone to face the Master of the Hall.  I began to shake or maybe I was shivering. I was straining to see my uncle's face as I stood there.  I felt arms around me trying to hold me on my feet.

"What do you mean by this, Frodo Baggins, disrupting this feast unbidden, late and in this manner?"

It was then I noticed the hall decorated for the Yule feast. "Sir, f…f…forgive me.  I … I have t…t…tried to p…p…perform to …" I heard my voice speaking.  I could say no more as I felt myself quaking.  

"All is well, Frodo, I have you," my cousin, Merimac, whispered in my ear.  "Father you are ever too harsh with the lad.  Can you not at least say to him what has been in your heart…in all our hearts all these months?"

"I did not say unhoped for:  you are most welcome at my hall, Frodo Baggins." There was a softening to his harsh voice.

I started to crumple.  Merimac caught me in his arms.  "I have you, Frodo. All is well." Merimac whispered to me.  "Father, someone should ride to the Thain…"

"Let me go Da'… I can still ride."  Berilac was imploring his father. Merrimac simply nodded towards his father.  "Grandfather, please, let me go…I should have been with them."

"What of Bilbo?"

"He is at Great Smials, Grandfather."

"Very well, but take Merimas with you.  Stay on the road and mind the weather." 

"Someone bring some blankets and something to warm to give the lad."

I was shivering violently with the cold as I stood facing my uncle Rorimac. I worried for Merry and Pippin but knew they were in good hands. I heard voices and hastened movements around me. The last I knew was the stern features of the Master of Brandy Hall as Merimac half carried me to the hearth.

Slowly opening my eyes, I wondered at the uncomfortable nature of my bed and the flickering light of a campfire. I turned my head to see the group of people clustered nearby whispering in hushed tones. I tried to focus being forced to quickly close my eyes to the pain in my head and the nausea that was beginning to wash over me. After a while the nausea subsided, yet the pain remained. As I became a bit more aware, I realized my entire body was wracked with pain; my back, my shoulder, and particularly my head felt as if I had been through some torturous experience. Keeping my eyes closed to the pain, I attempted to listen to the words being spoken around me. It was to no avail; their voices were too soft and indistinct.

I struggled to open my eyes once more. To my horror the shapes I saw before me flickering in the light of the fire were the all too familiar shapes of my tormentors from the Goblin pits. I saw them all there before me:  the Goblin Master and his second in command, Knife and Cudgel; each of them leering at me with their flaring red eyes. The amber-eyed Lash who was both my tormentor and my healer.  He had become my friend, or so I thought, and allowed me to know him as Ur'gup. Now he too stared at me from time to time. Would this nightmare never end? I wanted to scream, but knew I was safe for the moment only in my silence.  I sensed them glancing in my direction. I still could not make out their words, but by their tones understood them to be arguing about something.  As I watched them from slits in my eyes I knew them to be arguing about me.  

Suddenly cold fear washed over me. I had been removed from the Goblin pits without being aware of it.  I did not know the whereabouts of my cousins. Numbness filled my very being as I watched the group of goblins in the glow of the fire.  I was quaking with dread, filled with fear for Merry and Pippin.  I had promised to care for them and failed miserably.  Suddenly I realized I could see them nowhere. I struggled to rise from where I lay near the fire. Two of them saw my movements and came towards me.

The sight before me was terrifying as I looked into their hideous grins magnified by the flickering light of the fire. The smaller one of the two reached out to touch me bringing a wave of nausea mingled with pain. I flinched and shied from the goblin's touch. The larger one brought his face closer to mine.

"All is well, Frodo.  We are here with you.  Everything will be fine but you must remain still."

I heard the voice of my cousin, Merimac.  I struggled and was able to see his face, the familiar light brown curls and warm brown eyes served to offer some comfort.  The smaller one came into focus.  How could I ever mistake her for a goblin? I knit my brows forcing the pain in my head to throb more than ever.

"Lily …?  Elenna …?" I saw the sparkling eyes and was uncertain who I was seeing and felt color rise in my face. She smiled and glanced at Merimac.

"I think this lad has been dreaming.  I have not seen him color at the mention of your name in years."

"Merimac …" Lily chided.

"I'm sorry Frodo.  This is not the time to tease you.  How do you feel?" My cousin was duly chastened.

"Merry and Pippin … where are they?"  Filled with fear for my younger cousins, I ignored his question.

"They are fine, Frodo.  Please lay still." I have something to help stave the pain." She aided my drinking.

I shoved the cup away. "Merry … Pippin …" I called trying to rise.  "Pippin … Merry …!"

"Please, Frodo, stay calm." I heard the concern in Merimac's voice. He and Lily exchanged a glance over the top of me.

"I have to help them.  I am responsible …"

"Frodo, you're awake …" Pippin arrived first at a run.

"Frodo what is it?" Merry followed close on Pippin's heels.

"Hullo, Frodo …" Berilac came behind the other two a little slower for his limp.  "We've piled the branches as you asked Da'."

"Thank you, son." Merimac clapped his son on the shoulder. "Thank you, lads.  I will show you what will have to be done."

"Where am I?" I asked relieved to see Merry and Pippin safe.

"… At the Table Rock, silly." Pippin thought it was obvious.

"We came to camp and climb the rock," Berilac continued.

"What happened?"

"You had climbed up halfway to the table and found a section of the rock interesting."

"That's right … There was a carving of some sort …"

"You were balancing in a small cleft trying to draw the carving when a hawk dived for you. It gouged your shoulder." Merry continued.

"You lost your balance and fell …" Berilac handed Lily the root he pulled from his pocket.

"It was a bad fall, Frodo." Merimac was watching me. 

"You've hurt your head, scraped up your back…" Merry began.

"… and wrenched your shoulder besides." Pippin concluded.

"We need to get you home as soon as we are able now that you are awake." Neither Lily nor Merimac showed the cheerful disposition of my three younger cousins.

"We are going to make a litter with branches and make a soft bed with blankets.  You will be riding home in style." Merimac tried to smile.

"I am sorry … I've ruined our outing."

"I think we have all had quite an adventure with you the past couple days." Lily reassured me.

"Was it all a dream then?"

"You were dreaming," Merry affirmed with a laugh.

"The goblins … they were not real? They did not … attack us?" I was afraid to feel relieved.

"Don't be daft, Frodo. You know there haven't been goblins in the Shire since the Battle of the Green Fields two hundred and fifty years ago."

I managed a smile but the haunting memories of my dreams made me hope he was right.

The End