The Heir of the Hill

by Lothithil

II  III  IV

Chapter 15: Scary Hills

Frodo climbed to the top of the hill, pausing at the crest to catch his breath and let the others catch him. The slope was very steep, but the view afforded a fine vista of Northfarthing, stretching out seeming for leagues before the eyes, a rippling quilt of vineyards and square, furrowed gardens like roughly woven patches. Here and there broad bands of oak trees reached, looking like mere bushes in the distance. Frodo shaded his eyes and drank the view.

Merry and Sam were coming along, toiling up the hill, led by the eager young Peregrin. Frodo smiled to see him scrambling up the rise, his hair full of sunlight and his face with laughter. It had been a bit of an argument, persuading Esmeralda to let her precious child go with his older cousins on this camping trip. Listening to her, one would think Pippin was made out of delicate porcelain or spun sugar. True, he had been prone to childhood illnesses, but for the past years he had grown into a healthy young hobbit, as robust and energetic as one could hope. Frodo thought this excursion would be good for him, too. Fresh air and good company, and no adults fussing or worrying over him.

Pippin charged up the hill, headstrong as a bull. Should he slip and fall back (as he was bound to, considering his haste) Merry would be there to catch him with strong arms (again). The child was ungraceful, indefatigable, and indestructable.

"Wait, Cousin Frodo!" the lad panted, grabbing handfuls of grass to pull himself up. He collapsed on the ground at Frodo's feet, not too winded to emit a giggle. "You climb too fast!"

Frodo squatted and brought out a handkerhief, which he unfolded deliberately and flapped it in Pippin's face. "Maybe your legs are too short!" he retorted merrily.

Pippin caught the handkerchief and proudly exclaimed, "No they aren't! My legs are exactly the right length... just long enough to touch the ground!" Frodo laughed and sat down next to him, waiting for the rest of the party.

It was a beautiful day, perfect for walking. The sun was warm and the wind just enough to cool the face. Frodo stretched out his legs and lay back with a sigh. He braced himself and was ready when Pippin jumped on him. He rolled over with the younger hobbit and tickled him without mercy. Pippin squealed happily. "Merry! Merry... hurry! Frodo's trying to kill me!" He laughed harder as Frodo tickled his ears.

"He will just help me by holding you down, Peregrin! When he gets up here, I will let Merry take a turn!"

"Nooo!" Pippin rolled away and sat up, puffing. Frodo laughed again and sat back.

Merry and Sam arrived at last, lugging their packs. "Oh, it is easy to climb when you don't have to carry anything!" Merry said with a grin, tossing his gear down and throwing himself on the grass. "I wish I had half your energy, Pip." Sam set his pack down carefully and accepted a flask of water from Frodo with a nod of thanks.

"Cousin Frodo carried his pack and he beat me to the top," Peregrin said slyly, giggling and tucking his belly out to imitate Merry's proud paunch.

Merry took a playful, half-hearted swat at him, but caught the waterbottle that Sam held out to him, instead. "Cousin Frodo is used to such activity. I'll bet there isn't a square mile of the Four Farthings that he has not yet walked through. I prefer gentler pastimes; a couple of good suppers, a pipe by the front porch, a walk by the river. I am beginning to see Cousin Bilbo's point, quite: Adventures make one late for supper!"

"Late for lunchtime, at any rate. While you lot take a rest, I shall throw together something for us." Frodo reached for his pack and shared out some bread, cheese and fruit.

Merry stood up and appraised the view after he had eaten his share. "Well, it is very pretty, Frodo, but please don't tell me I climbed this mountain for only the scenery!"

"No, not completely," Frodo chuckled. "This is the beginning of the hills of Scary. The quarry is not far from here. We will pass it on our way to our campsite." Frodo's face split slowly in a sly grin, "That is, unless you don't want to see a dragon made of stone."

"A what?!?" exclaimed the three hobbits, staring at Frodo with disbelief.

Frodo let his smile fade, as if crestfallen. "Oh, well... never mind... we can go back to Hobbiton whenever you are ready..."

"You're making that up, right, Frodo? A real dragon?"

"Made out of stone or turned into stone by magic?"

"I didn't know there were dragons in the Shire! Is it safe?"

"Quite safe, my dear hobbits," Frodo assured them. "Now pick up your packs and your selves, for if we are to reach our goal by nightfall, we must put a good foot under us!"

And so the hobbits went, brushing their feet in the thick grass that covered the head of the round hill. Ahead, in the distance, many hills rose; blue-purple-gray. Frodo reassured his companions that they would not be required to climb anymore. Actually, those hills were not much larger or steeper than the one they had already scaled, but far off and isolated by farm plots and fences, Frodo imagined they looked as steep and unscalable as the Misty Mountains that grew up in his dreams.

Here and there through the grasses, the ground began to show patches of red-coloured earth. Soon the walking hobbits began to pass rocks scattered about, and were eventually threading through towering up-thrusts of stone and washed-out gullies. Their eyes played tricks upon the stones and they began to see images in the weirdly shaped monoliths, such as the wandering mind may pick out shapes in the clouds on a lazy May afternoon before a spring rainstorm.

Pippin was runing to and fro, across the path and ahead, investigating the patches of flowers and curious rocks. Sam kept a wary eye on him, but when Frodo told him Pippin was perfectly safe, he turned his fretting on other things.

"Do you think the weather will hold, Mr Frodo? Will there be wood enough for a good fire at this camping-spot, sir? I could gather some as we walk. Are you sure we have plenty of food, Mr Frodo? That young cousin of yours... I could do without a second supper, myself."

Frodo just smiled at him each time and said, "Everything will be fine, Sam. Don't worry!" They passed a field dusted with yellow-golden flowers. Frodo grabbed Sam's arm and pointed, "Look over there! Those are plants that the Elves use in some of their cooking. Bilbo told me about it. They use the pollen of those yellow flowers as a spice. A very delicate flavour it adds, we have found." Frodo knew that Sam would be keen on it, if it was about cooking and there were Elves involved.

Sam forgot his worries for a while, plucking up a yellow blossom and nibbling on the petals. He made a face.

"No, Sam... the pollen, not the petals!" Frodo laughed. Sam frowned at the flower, but he wrapped it in a handkerchief and stuck it in his pocket.

Pippin came running up, breathless. "Frodo," he gulped, "I found some dragon tracks!"

Frodo chuckled and looked around, as if scanning the skies for large, airborne reptiles. "Yes, we are getting close now. Over there are the quarries," he pointed toward a steep cutting in the hills, and a sliver of deep blue water that shone in the cleft of the valley. "Our campsite is beyond there, and we will reach it easily before dusk, providing we aren't eaten by the dragon first." Frodo kept his smile on and his friends were not frightened that he would lead them to danger, but were excited and curious at what his 'stone dragon' might be all about. Only Pippin seemed to think it was a real dragon.

"What do stone dragons eat, Frodo? Not hobbits?" he asked nervously.

"No, Pippin, I was only joking. Stone dragons don't eat hobbits, or anything. No more questions! You shall see when you see. Let's go!"

II.

Illusions

The hobbits walked along, not really hurrying, for Frodo promised them that they had plenty of time before sun-down to reach their goal. Frodo led them right to the edge of the Quarry, where the stone was cut away sharply and far below lay a pool of dark water, utterly still in the windless afternoon.

"How deep is it?" asked Pippin, barely stepping close enough to peer over the edge. Like most hobbits, he did not care for heights, and he didn't trust the ground near the edge of the cliff. Still, being a curious young hobbit and fearing the teasing of his mates, he bravely stood and looked down. He stood very close to his cousin Frodo, just in case a wind came up and tried to blow him over.

"I am not sure, Pippin," answered Frodo. He pointed out to the other hobbits where the holes had been bored, to allow water into the cracks. He explained how when winter came, the water would freeze and cause the cracks to widen, and blocks of stone would come loose more easily. They were then cut down by stonemasons into bricks, or flags, for building stone houses or reinforcing a burrow to keep dry and warm. Frodo pointed to the side of the quarry, where a road wound away toward the east. "They take the larger stones down by barge. How they get those big rocks to float..."

"By road and river! Are you telling me we could have ridden this far by pony or trap?" Merry exclaimed, as if annoyed. "I could have gotten here in a few hours ease, and you had us climb this mountain by foot! Frodo, you have been living among Westfarthingers for too long! You do everything the hard way!"

Frodo laughed, and stooped to pick up a stone. He tossed it as far out over the cliff as he could, watching the tiny ring appear as it struck the still water. Merry and Pippin both copied his action, seeing who could throw the farthest. Sam stayed back from the edge. He hated looking down from a height, and felt no shame in saying so.

They went on their way, stepping carefully to avoid tripping in the holes. Pippin sniffed the air, wondering when they would smell smoke from the dragon's fiery breath. He found a couple more puddles that looked like they might have been dragon tracks, but when he pointed them out to Frodo, his cousin merely smiled and said that the dragon didn't ususally travel very far these days, and spent most of his time guarding his lair. Peregrin shivered with delighted terror.

They circled the quarry lake and reached a gentle slope that led down toward a friendly band of trees. Frodo led them, but looked over his shoulder occasionally and scanned the hilltops. Every so often he did this, until all of his friends were suddenly posssessed of a feeling that they were being followed or watched.

"What is it, Frodo?" asked Sam, trotting at his master's side. He was fingering the handle of his frying pan that hung from his pack.

Frodo smiled at him and clapped him on the back. "You'll need a bigger pan if you plan to cook the dragon, Sam. I am just making sure we are going the right way. We will be at our campsite soon, and we shall see our rocky friend shortly. Don't be afraid! If I thought there was danger, I would not have brought you all here."

"Doesn't mean you wouldn't have come yourself, Frodo," quipped Merry. He as unnerved also, but he shook off the feeling and laid his trust in his cousin. "You are pulling my bracers, Baggins. If there is a dragon in these hills, I will eat him! Admit you were having us on! Go ahead... confess!"

Frodo turned back and smiled into Merry's disbelief. "Well, see for yourself," he said, and pointed upward.

The three hobbits turned to where he pointed, unconsciously stepping closer together. Away where Frodo was pointing could be seen the weird stone columns that they had walked through, a rough line on the edge of the quarry cliff.

Pippin stood behind Merry and peeked around him. "Where, Frodo? I don't see a dragon."

Frodo knelt and called Pippin to him. He stood the little hobbit in front of him and pointed, lining up his eye with his finger. "There... you can see his boney spine, and there are his ears. Those two great dark caves are his nostrils, and below his mouth. See his teeth? Now, when the sun falls just a fraction more..." and suddenly the cliff face was lit by the last gleaming of the sun, now sinking behind the trees,"...there! See how the quartz glows like fiery eyes?"

Pippin breathed in wonder, and Merry and Sam saw also, for the landscape was lit up with light and cut with dark shadows of the trees and rocky coloums which fell on the cliff-face. The dragon appeared, just shapes on the stone that could only be seen at that moment, when the shadows were cast by a dying sun. They all watched speechless until the light faded, and the dragon disappeared like smoke on the breeze.

"That was wonderful, Frodo!" Pippin exclaimed, shivering in Frodo's arms. "Like magic! How did you find it?"

Frodo wrapped his cloak around Pippin, standing up and taking his hand. "Bilbo showed me. He found it long ago, and he walked me up here, just like I did you and Merry and Sam today, and I did not believe him for an instant while he spoke of a dragon made of stone, just as none of you believed me." Merry and Sam both laughed softly, their cheeks reddened that Frodo had recognized their doubt.

"It is all right!" Frodo laughed, too. "I thought he was quite as mad as everyone had said, until I saw the dragon's eyes light in the sun. After that day, I never doubted his word."

"I believed you, Frodo," said Pippin, grinning up at his cousin. Frodo smiled at him and squeezed his hand.

"Well, if this has been a lesson is trust, then you have it now, or will," said Merry, gripping his cousin's shoulder warmly, "if this perfect campsite that you have spoken of is as comfortable and close as you say. I am quite worn out and hungry, and if that dragon had not been made of stone, I would have eaten him!"

Frodo bowed and led the way. Only a few paces off, behind a wide oak tree, they found a glade with thick, warm grass, a small clear stream, and a pile of wood, already cut and stacked.

"All right, Frodo; I will never doubt you again." Merry settled down against the tree with a sigh. "Of course, now I shall be ever the brunt of your inane practical jokes, but if you reward me with such kindnesses, I will endure them without complaint!"

Frodo laughed and began to build a fire. "I can't say I won't enjoy not having to listen to you complain, dear cousin," he said slyly, grinning at Merry. "but I would not turn so on you. Mirth we shall have, but not at one another's expense. Surely, I will not have to do your thinking for you from now on!"

"No, indeed," returned Merry. He had enjoyed the joke and the hike, even for all of his blustering and moaning. He felt that Frodo had shared a special thing with him, and that now they all shared a secret.

For a moment, Merry considered telling Frodo about his and Sam's investigations, but somehow he felt the time was not right. He wasn't really sure how he could justify spying on Bilbo the way he and Sam had done. Years ago, it could have been excused by simple childish curiousity, but now... now was just not the time.

When Frodo was turned away, searching his pack, Merry looked across the campfire and met Sam's eyes. He knew that Sam was thinking a similar thing. Both hobbits shook their head's, and both relaxed noticably.

"What's for supper, Frodo?" asked Peregrin, peeking into the pack. "I am awful hungry." Frodo gave him an apple to keep him busy while he and Sam cooked sausages, mushrooms, and potatoes for their meal.

"I know you are all right, whenever I hear you say that, Pippin," said Merry, tousling his little cousin's hair affectionately. Pippin ducked under his hand, but smiled around his apple. "I could get used to this walking about, Frodo. There are so many interesting things to see in the Shire. Still, I am glad to be a Bucklander."

"Why is that, Merry?" asked Pippin.

Frodo answered for Merry, for he knew that same feeling in his heart. "It is strange to live so far away from the Brandywine River, and the High Hay is like protective arms, keeping you safe. The Shire seems so wide open and exposed, when you first come here. It takes some getting used to. I was a little afraid of it when Bilbo first brought me to Hobbiton, until I learned more about its ways and lands. I hope you do come walking with me more often, Merry. We are too young to live in a small place."

Merry got out his pipe, which he never traveled without, and he let Sam light it with a burning twig. Puffing, he expelled a smoke-ring and said to Frodo as it drifted and broke apart slowly, "I shall eagerly share in all your adventures, Frodo Baggins! Just try to leave me behind!" And he winked at Sam.

III.

The Gift

Evening fell swiftly. The hobbits sang songs to the growing night, their campfire shining out like a star. As they devoured their meal with gusto, Merry commented that this food, cooked over an open fire, seemed to taste better even than his last birthday feast. Sam beamed happily.

Their laughter rang out in the darkness and was brought back to them by the echoing cliffs and their fathomless pool. The sky was deep and clear, and the stars seemed to crowd each other in the heavens. The Moon had sunk early, chasing the Sun to her rest, leaving the realm of the sky unguarded.

This was a special night, and one of the reasons Frodo had brought his friends so far away from their homes. On this night of no moon, the stars did a dance in the sky and seemed to fall to the earth. Frodo had told Merry and Sam of it, and they wanted to see this strange event for themselves. So the hobbits laid out their blankets in a circle, laying with their heads together and counting the streaks of light that cut the velvet night in unpredictable slashes.

"Are the stars really falling, Frodo?" asked Pippin. The young hobbit was fighting to stay awake with his older cousins and Sam. He was anxious that something interesting or wondrous might happen if he should close his eyes.

Frodo lay with an arm behind his head, smoking his pipe. He answered truthfully, "I don't know, Pip. I see the burning sparks fall frequently, though never so often as they fall on this night of the year. There never seems to be any lack of stars... maybe they are like apples falling from the trees in the wind."

"The trees just grow more apples, right?" Pippin seemed pleased with this explanation.

"I think that they are petals that fall from the flowers in heaven's field," Sam said softly.

Frodo sat up and looked toward him in surprise. "That is very poetic, Sam! What a lovely idea." The darkness hid Sam's blush from his friend's eyes.

Merry raises his hand, peering through his splayed fingers at the points of light. "I think they are little holes in a vast cloak, that the sun draws over and shines through, like lamplight through a lace curtain, eh?"

"You may be right, too, Merry."

They watched in silence for a time. Frodo raised his head and saw that Pippin had finally fallen asleep. Stealthily, Sam covered the young one with an extra blanket.

Frodo cleaned his pipe and repacked it, rising to light it with a straw from the glowing coals of their campfire. He carefully added another block of wood, trying not to stir up the coals. In spite of his caution, sparks climbed into the air as the wood caught fire, sending small red stars shooting heavenward as if to meet those that were descending. Frodo sat and watched, both to make sure that no tree or grass was scorched and to marvel at the wondrous beauty of it all.

Frodo expected that Sam and Merry were asleep by now; he had sat up for a long hour, just smoking and watching. He knocked the char from his pipe and stood up, dusting his seat to prepare himself for the bedroll, but he stopped in mid-motion, listening.

A thin strain of music came to his sharp ears. The sound came from the direction of the quarry, but Frodo realized it was but an echo from the water. He turned and looked to the trees, his heart beating rapidly in excitement. "Elves!" He glanced back at his motionless companions. They would sleep on and never know he had slipped away for a moment...

... But even as he heard voices join the music, he sat back down beside the fire with a sigh. He could not answer their call, no matter how much he wished to see them. He was responsible for his friends' safety. He contented himself with listening, smiling toward the distant glowing lights moving like fireflies through the trees.

The Elf was standing before him for many moments before Frodo realized that he wasn't imagining him. Frodo started and climbed hastily to his feet, offering a bow to his unexpected guest.

"Mae govannen!" the Elf returned his bow. Tall and slender, with hair as dark as ink on paper, the Elf's fair face seemed to shine in the low light of the campfire. "N-yes i vedui lúmenn imbe roman."(It is but the last hour before sunrise) he said, "Long you have sat, making clouds of your breath, perian. How is this done? The season of cold is far off yet." The Elf knelt and held out his hand, curiosity in his features. Frodo laid his pipe across the long white fingers.

The Elf examined the pipe with great interest, sniffing the bowl and caressing the long thin stem. He seemed fascinated by the little teeth-marks that Frodo had left on the mouthpiece. He sat down, cross-legged on the grass beside the fire, and dug into his belt pouch. A small, sharp knife he withdrew, and with a glance at Frodo for permission he began to carve a delicate design on the plain wood.

When he handed the thing back, Frodo accepted it with awe. He turned it over and over in his hands. "This is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen," he exclaimed, "and I have had it for many years!"

The Elf rose and bowed. "It is a gift to me that you permitted it. Far I have traveled and much have I seen, but still my heart takes pleasure in the adorning of features on wood. This love I will carry with me ever, even when I am carried far from this land. What gift may I offer to repay you?"

Frodo replied hastily, "Repay me? It is you who have given me a gift! The work of your hands and the sound of your voice will reward me all the days of my life!"

The Elf looked sadly upon Frodo. "A laurel too brief for one such as you. There must be something I can offer... this gulf of debt cannot stand between us, for even the great sea cannot fill it. Name your gift."

Frodo thought for a moment, then he smiled. "I would treasure the gift of your name, good Elf."

"Taurlindë," the Elf answered. "It means 'singer of wood', for my love of carving." Taurlindë handed Frodo his carving tool. "Accept this also as a gift," he said.

Frodo refused. "No indeed, my good Taurlindë! If you are setting forth from Middle-earth as you say, then you will have need of your carving knife! I could no more take it from you than I could admire a bird in flight, and then take its wings away!"

The Elf smiled. "Now you have given me another gift, of sweet words. The longer I stay, the more I shall owe you! Come, there must be something you wish to have or know..."

"Ah! There is something; something my friends and I were discussing this very night. Could you tell me, what are the stars, and why do they fall?"

Taurlindë smiled. He touched his forehead in a salute, then sat back on his heels and began:

"This I learned of my Lord the Edain, that the greater stars were made by Varda against the coming of the Firstborn Children. She went forth to the top of the Holy Mountain and there she beheld the darkness over Middle-earth beneath the innumerable stars, far and faint. She then wrought a great labour, taking dews that had been gathered from the Tree of Silver and with them she made new stars and brighter, to set amid the firmament for us to behold. That is why we call her Tintallë, the Kindler and Elen-tári, Queen of the Stars. The Grey Elves call her Elbereth, and raise many songs to her praise. She wrought Carnil and Luinil, Nénar and Lumbar, Alcarinquë and Elemmírë. She gathered together clusters of stars and set as signs in the heavens: Wilwarin, Telumendil, Sonorúmë, and Ararrím; and Menelmacar with his shining belt, that forebodes the Last Battle that shall be at the end of days." The Elf looked upon the hobbit with his eyes shining with the stars he described and Frodo held his breath in wonder, listening with his whole heart. "The stars that fall are but small specks of dust, scattered in the airs by the great working of the making of Eä. They signal that of everything there is an end to life. We elves regard it as a sign of great hope."

Taurlindë then stood, and he regarded Frodo for a long moment, as if to carve his features in the grain of his memory, before disappearing into the trees where the lights of distant lamps and music had long ago faded. Frodo sat for a while, Taurlindë’s gift echoing in his mind.

There by the dying fire, the Sun found him that morning, asleep and draped over with a blanket by his friend. Merry had heard everything, lying awake but silent, frightened and awed by the company his cousin kept.


The text about the creation of the greater stars and their names is borrowed from the Silmarillion (paraphrased by me), with all respect and thanks to Prof T. No mention was made by him (that I have found) involving meteorites or such phenomena, so that part is strickly the detritus of my mind!


Part 4: Beyond the Shire


The smell of food and sounds of movement nearby roused Frodo. The sun had long ago climbed the horizon to peer down through the trees at him. He remained still, wrapped in his blanket and blinked at the azure sky, savouring the memory of the long night.

"Wake up, Mr Frodo!" Sam repeated cheerfully, fussing over the campfire. "You'll miss your second breakfast as well, and that hungry little cousin of yours'll leave nothing of the meal for you."

"How can I miss second breakfast if I haven't had my first one yet?" asked Frodo, wondering. He sat up and stretched. Sam handed him a clean cloth and nodded toward the quarry lake.

"I'd've woke you sooner, sir, but Mr Merry said to let you sleep. He's down that way with Master Peregrin, skippin' stones. Go and have a wash and the food'll be ready when you come back."

Frodo obeyed gratefully. He rolled out of the blankets and plodded down to the water's edge, feeling as though he were still half-asleep. The water was cold and clear, and it chased away the last of his sleepiness as he splashed his face and head.

"High time you were up and about, Frodo!" said Merry, coming up behind him. Pippin was trotting at his side. Both had their arms loaded with dry wood.

"You slept right through breakfast, Frodo," said Pippin. "Merry said if you slept through second breakfast as well, we were going to use this wood to build a fire in your bedroll!" The young Took chuckled.

"Did he now?" said Frodo, and he grinned and flicked his dripping hair at them, showering them with dropplets of water. Pippin complained loudly and dropped his firewood. "HE said it! I was just telling you..."

Merry laughed and gently tapped Peregrin's seat with his foot. "Tattle-tale!"

"Well, you've gathered more than enough wood to roast one weary hobbit!" exclaimed Frodo, helping Pippin re-collect the wood. They began to walk back to their camp.

"Sam said we should leave the camp as much like we found it. It seems likely that we'll be back again." Merry's eyes met Frodo's briefly, and his cousin's smile and his twinkling eye made Frodo guess that something other than camping or hiking was on Merry's mind. Thinking to himself that he would have to ask discretely about what, Frodo merely returned his smile and nodded.

Breakfast was ready, as Sam had promised, and Frodo ate as if he had more than just one meal to make up for. Since they were planning on being back in Bucklebury by nightfall, Sam had reserved only enough food for lunch, with a snack for the road. Everything else had gone into the pot, and the four hobbits duitifully built up their strength for the long walk to the river.

"Did mum and dad really give permission for you to take me on a boat-ride, cousin Frodo?" Pippin asked again, for perhaps the fifth time since the outing had begun.

Frodo reassured him again. "Yes, Pippin. We will be in the hands of a very experienced river captain, Mr Girdley, and he will take us from Stonebow to Bucklebury by boat. We just have to get there, and that will be a short walk east. We'll begin as soon as we put out the fire and gather our things. Tonight we will sit with Master Rorimac at table!"

"I wish we could stay longer!" Pippin said, even as he hastened to help repack. Outings with his cousins were rare treats for him, but dinner in Brandy Hall was something to look forward to, also.

"Well, we have a long ride still ahead of us, when Bilbo gets to Buckland tomorrow to fetch us home. We still shall have plenty of time for songs and tales before we deliver you home in Tuckborough."

"I know, Frodo. I just don't want it to end. I wish we could go on a real adventure!"

Merry shouldered his pack and reaching out, he toustled Pippin's hair. "Camping with you is a real adventure!"

Pippin ducked under his hand, dancing away with a laugh. He walked close to Frodo, trotting even though his cousin walked slowly so he could keep up easily. "What is beyond the borders of the Shire, Frodo?"

"White nothingness, if you go by what Shire maps show," said Frodo. He had seen only one map that showed lands outside of the Shire, and it had been mostly of mountains and the forest to the East. Frodo told his young cousin about it, aware that Sam and Merry were listening closely. "There isn't much detail on that old map. It is mostly of the paths of Mirkwood and the approaches of Lonely Mountain. There's a fiery red dragon drawn over the top of the map. It always give me a shiver, looking at it, even though I know Smaug is dead."

"Was Smaug really real, Frodo?" asked Pippin. His face was creased with anxiety, as only the very young can worry about such things. "I know Uncle Bilbo said it was so, but Father told me there were no more dragons, and I think he doesn't believe in them."

Frodo laid an arm gently across Pippin's shoulders. "Whether he was real or not, Smaug is dead, and he was the last dragon, except for our secret dragon, over there," Frodo nodded toward the quarry and Pippin giggled, "So both your dad and Bilbo are right. And remember, just because someone doesn't believe in something, that doesn't make it less real to someone else. You have to ask yourself, 'What do I believe?' Personally, I think that only someone who believes in dragons can see Stoney. Otherwise, when you look, you would see only rock and shadows."

Pippin walked for a while in silence, digesting what Frodo had said. The others began to sing a walking song, its lilting melody giving lightness to the feet and heart. Pippin laid aside the matter. It was too beautiful a day to brood on reality. He joined the singing:

"The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began"

They stopped only for a light lunch and consumed their snack on the trail, and so the came to the bridge at Stonebow just after the second hour of noon. They walked across the bridge and looked down at the brown water.

Pippin dropped a stone over the rail and watched it disappear with a small splash. He looked up and saw the green island, thick with trees and noisy with birds. "Frodo, can we go there today?" he asked.

Frodo was looking at the island, a distant smile on his lips that looked more sad than happy. "Not today, Pip. Maybe sometime soon... another adventure for another day."

"Good! Let's find this boat and get to Merry's house. I am hungry!" The hobbits laughed.

Mr Girdley was ready for them. A large raft was moored just north of the bridge, and on it was Mr Girdley, taking a spot of early tea while he waited for his charter.

"G'day to you, young sirs! Master Baggins, A pleasure to see you again! Is this the freight you'd have me float down the Brandywine today? Bring them aboard! There's room to spare. How about a spot of tea before we get started?"

Pippin eagerly jumped onto the raft, followed by Merry, who laughed at his young cousin's exitement. He was accustomed to such travel, living right next to the River as he did, but he never took it for granted. He sternly began to inform Pippin of how he should behave while on the raft, and warned him of the dangers so that he would be safe. Pippin listened and obeyed, but he was still bouncing a little when sat down on the bales tied to the center of the raft. Mr Girdley gave them each a cream tart and a mug of tea.

Frodo tossed his pack to Merry, who caught it deftly. Sam was still ashore, and by the whiteness around his eyes, he looked as if he would prefer to stay there. Frodo nodded toward the raft. "Come on, Sam. It is a large raft and the water is slow. You'll be just fine."

"Mr Frodo, I never have learned to swim. Maybe I should just walk to Bucklebury..."

"If you don't want to take the raft, Sam, I shall pay one of the hobbits here to drive you by carriage. But I would rather you came with us. Rivers can be dangerous, but they are also useful and beautiful. Won't you try just once? I promise that you will come to no harm, and that I will protect you."

Sam looked Frodo in the eye, and Frodo was struck by how serious a youth Samwise was. He was the same age as Merry, and yet seemed so much more mature is some ways. Right now, he looked very young and unsure. But, he nodded and boarded the raft, taking a seat near the center of the large craft and a good hold of a thick rope that secured the freight in place. Frodo smiled at him and offered a short bow to their captain.

"All aboard? We're off, then!" Mr Girdley cast off the ropes that tethered them to the shore, and the large square raft began to drift down the river. The hobbit used a long pole to push off from the shallow bars of sand that caught them occasionally, and he kept the raft headed downstream with a simple rudder built onto one corner of the craft.

They didn't seem to be moving very quickly at all, but very soon it seemed, the river swept them to Bucklebury, and Merry was throwing a line to the hobbits ashore to secure them, calling out greeting to friends he knew. The sun was only just gilding the tops of the trees on their left.

They stepped off of the raft, bowing their thanks to Mr Girdley. The hobbit waved at them, then signaled that the ropes should be cast off again. He had deliveries to make further south that day, but he was pleased to have seen his young friend Frodo that day. He poled away, singing a river song that carried over the water.

"Well, Sam!" said Frodo, "Here we are, safe and sound. Have you changed your opinion of boats at all?"

"Well, sir, you'll accept my thanks and forgive me for saying so, but I much prefer to keep my feet on the ground. But I will give you this; the river is much faster than walking."

"Good enough, Sam! Let's get inside and find some food! I am as hungry as three trolls, I am! We best hurry, for Peregrin and Meriadoc have proceeded us, and they may clear the pantry before we get so much as a crust of bread!" He clapped his friend on the back and steered him toward Brandy Hall. The sun sank golden into the green hills, casting shadows of dreams across the paths of Frodo and Sam.