The Heir of the Hill

by Lothithil

II  III  IV

Chapter 9: The Grove


Part One, The Miller

"He’s always wandering about, getting into places he ought not be. Maybe someday he will find some trouble and get himself killed. Or maybe he will follow Bilbo’s example and take off into the Blue."

"There’s little chance of that! He’s comfortable, so he is, up there in Bag End where he lives like a prince! Garn! He won’t budge from that smial, not with all that treasure tucked away."

"There’s little to that rumour, Sandyman. Surely, the way Baggins’s spends him money, he should be using it up. That Brandybuck brat will bury him soon, and waste the rest. That is when I will step in and take the property off of his hands. By then, he will be glad to part with the Hill. I plan to make Hobbiton an… uncomfortable place for young Mr Baggins." Otho leaned across the table he shared with the miller, tucked away in the back of the inn in Sackville. "With your help, of course."

The Grain and Sack was a fine inn, reflecting the wealth of the community. Otho Sackville-Baggins enjoyed a reserved table that was screened from the rest of the room. He did a lot of his business there. He had standing orders with the landlord to warn him whenever Lobelia came in.

Otho was pleased with himself. He was a wealthy hobbit, getting more wealthy all the time, but he was not satisfied. True affluence eluded him and it galled him to have to work for his money, when some folks seemed to simply ‘have’ the position that he felt he deserved by birth. His cousin Bilbo threw a shadow over him that he had never been able to escape. His eviction from Bag End had been embarrassing, as embarrassing as being associated as a relative of ‘Mad Baggins’, but the adoption of Frodo was the one straw too many that burst the sheaf. It offended him that Frodo dared call himself ‘Baggins’; even though his father was Drogo Baggins… he had married a Brandybuck, and spent most of his time in Buckland.

"Why did he not change his name and stay there?" Otho sulked darkly. "And why did Bilbo have to come back at all?"

Thinking about these things put Otho in a foul mood, but Sandyman did not care. He was well compensated by the excellent beer and was willing to listen to Otho as he complained bitterly about his fortunes. When the hobbit slowed down, Sandyman would spur him again with a barbed comment.

"Saw the runt yesterday morning, planting trees along the row that leads down to the Water. Working, he was, side by side with those Gamgees. Spends more time with the help than with folks in his own class. Not seemingly, that. Not natural, I am thinking. Someday there will be an incident, mayhap, and he’ll regret his familiar attitudes."

Hope gleamed darkly in Otho’s face, but his reply was lost when the landlord loudly welcomed Lobelia, who had just come into the inn looking for her husband. Otho waved Sandyman away to the back door, so that she would not see that he had been talking to him. Before the hobbit passed outside, Otho grabbed him by the sleeve and said in a low hiss, "See to it that such an incident occurs, Master Miller, and a wealth of gratitude will be yours."

Sandyman shook off his grip. In a hoarse whisper he said, "It would be more than my life’s worth, Sackville. I bear no particular love for the Bagginses, but neither do I wish to do them harm. I warrant that time will take care of your problems. Thanks for the draught!" He closed the door softly behind him, just before Lobelia came round the screening plants to find Otho drinking alone. Sandyman’s mug and platter were beneath the table.

~~~~~


The conversation at the Inn in Sackville was forefront in Sandyman’s mind today, though it had been weeks ago that he had last seen Otho. This morning, the miller’s mind was as busy as his hands.

This was a job of work and no mistake. Sandyman raised his head, taking off his hat and wiping the sweat from his brow. He looked up at the tree and muttered harshly. It would be an easier task with Ted here, or a couple of hands form the mill. The Thain had said it would be a one-hobbit job, but it was proving to be more than he could handle alone.

Sandyman uttered a curse and slapped his hat against the flank of the pony, causing it to start in the harness again, straining against the stubborn roots. But even with the sturdy pony’s considerable strength, they could not budge the tree trunk, could not manage to uproot it.

Some nasty sickness had caused the tree to die, Sandyman guessed. Though the upper limbs were still green, the tree’s bark was peeling off and its heart was rotting. To prevent it from spreading to the other trees, Thain Paladin had asked Sandyman to come and get rid of it for him, paying handsomely for his immediate attention. Unfortunately, he had had no time to hire extra help, and the mill was in his foreman’s hands with all his hired-hobbits trying to get the grist from that harvest turned before moist weather ruined the grain.

He reined in the straining draft pony and began to work at the trunk again, digging with a shovel to loosen the soil. With an axe he hewed the gnarled tendrils that clung to the earth. The day was growing hot now, and he paused to drink from a canteen filled with lukewarm water. The pony looked at him mournfully. Grudgingly, he poured some water in his hat and gave the horse a drink.

It reminded him of that day at the Free Fair when Frodo Baggins had upbraided Ted for neglecting the pony and rig. Behaving just like a Baggins; bossing and burrowing his nose into business that was not his. But Sandyman had to concede this, the lad had been right; they needed to take better care of the animals. You could get more work out of them that way. The miller had made sure that Ted tended the harnesses better, too.

Frodo Baggins had caught his eye, that year at the fair. He had shown his son unwarranted familiarity, but also sternness and confidence that were not common traits among hobbits, however wealthy they might be. If it were not for the difference in their class, Sandyman might have been proud to have his son be friends with this sharp young hobbit.

But he was a Baggins… and a Baggins is a Baggins, as they say. He thought again about the conversation at the Grain and Sack Inn while the pony slurped noisily at the water. Otho was a greedy and miserable hobbit, but he could make the miller’s life very soft or rather hard. He had money and influence, and extensive interests in the Southfarthing. But as ever, his rheumy eyes were fixed with desire on the Hill and Bag End.

Otho had asked Sandyman to ‘arrange’ something to happen to the young master Baggins. That did not sit well with the miller, but somehow he couldn’t completely forget about it, either. What if something did happen… it was just a matter of time, after all… the lad was always wandering off on his own, trespassing and up to goodness knows what! How would the miller’s life be changed?

Sandyman snorted at his own distraction, and he spat on the ground. Dreaming never brought grain to flour, as his dad used to say. He tossed aside his hat and tied a length of rope to the harness and went back around the tree, levering under the root with a long pole. He slapped the lead against the pony’s hindquarters and shouted. The harness drew taunt as the pony tugged hard. The tree swayed and groaned but refused to yield.

It was awkward and dangerous, and Sandyman was tired and growing angry. He slapped the lead again. The pony dug in its hooves, surging against the yoke and away from the miller and his stinging rope. The hawsers sang and snapped as the tree swayed again, but still it did not fall.

Sandyman reined in the horse again. Its flanks were lathered now. It was no use; he would have to come back tomorrow with a team or with more men and that would place him behind in his orders.

He left off his cursing as he heard a voice. Someone was coming up the road. And around the bend of the path heading toward the Woodyend Waymeet was none other than Frodo Baggins himself. He was swinging a walking stick and singing a tune.

Seeing him then, in this place at this hour of frustration, a great anger awoke in Sandyman’s heart. He ruthlessly whipped the pony again, causing the leather straps to stretch and the ropes to whine as the strong little horse heaved away from the tree. Sandyman hacked savagely with an axe at the roots that appeared at the tree leaned away from him. The tree groaned loudly, an almost human sound.

Suddenly there was a loud twang! and a *snap-snap*! The rope was yanked out of Sandyman’s hand, burning his fingers. The axe had slipped and cut the rope that fastened to the harness. But worse than that, the tree that had leaned so far away was now falling back toward Sandyman, into the hole he had dug trying to free the roots. He gaped up as the large trunk began to topple over him.

He was knocked from his feet, thrown to one side as the tree fell over the wrong way. Sandyman rolled down the slope from the road, spitting dirt and leaves when he came up short against a tussock of grass. Looking up, he saw his draft pony racing toward Nobottle, the buckles on the harness ringing like bells as it ran. The tree was lying across the road, and he could see a foot sticking out from under.

The miller ran to the road and pushed the limbs aside. Young Baggins lay there, face down on the ground. The tree had reached out with a twisted limb and struck the lad on the head as if fell. But if they boy had not run in and pushed the miller, Sandyman would have been crushed beneath the bole. Frodo had saved Sandyman’s life.

With difficulty, Sandyman shifted the limbs and freed Frodo from the tangle of branches. Turning him over carefully, he saw a bruise spreading across the lad’s face and a knot on his head already beginning to swell.

Frodo’s eyes were half-open. He called out weakly, "…Mr Sandyman?"

"Oh, lad! What did you do that for?" the miller asked softly. "You’ve gone and brought the sky down on yourself. It’s just as I’ve always said: ‘a Baggins has got no sense to stay out of business that is not his own.’

"You ought not have done that, young master. You ought never to have left Buckland. With yer dead parents you should be, or better yet, never born at all." Frodo’s brow creased in a frown upon hearing these words, then his eyes closed as consciousness left him.

Even bruised and dirty, the young hobbit’s face was as fair as any Sandyman had ever seen. It reminded him sharply of a day many years ago, when his wife had delivered to him a bundle of light-brown curls and soft pink smiles; his firstborn son. The joy and pride he had felt on that day swelled again in his heart.

Then, dully in his ears, Sandyman heard Otho’s words again. He looked at Frodo and saw his family enjoying a new class of lifestyle, if only his one hobbit was removed from the scene. To bring an end to such lively intellect and youth seemed a crime greater than any he had contemplated, but to see his wife and son secure and comfortable, celebrated as gentry… and himself a respected and affluent member of the community… the temptation was too great to resist.

Never could he have caused such a thing; it just ‘happened’, as if by Fate, without his inveigling or connivance. Surely he would own no guilt if he did nothing?

But he could not leave him here in the road. What if someone happened by, found him and suspected the miller’s involvement? That wouldn’t do… better take him somewhere that he wouldn’t be found quickly, until it was too late or maybe… maybe they would never find him. He would be considered lost in the Blue as so many others had been, and no one would say anything… they all expected it to happen eventually, anyway.

The miller lifted the lad in his arms and bore him into the trees, through the thick growth of Woodyend’s woven halls. He refused to listen to the shallow breathing or feel the fluttering that flashed on the youth’s throat like the swift beats of a hummingbird’s wings. He tried not to look down at the dark curly-haired head that leaned against his shoulder as he bore him deep into the unspoiled woods.

There he lay Frodo on a bed of leaves and as he did, he looked into that pale face once more and for a moment, he wished more than anything that Frodo could have been his own son.

The moment passed. Sandyman stood and brushed futilely at the stains on his sleeve. He had not realized the lad had been bleeding. His hands were wet with it, and no rubbing with grass or soil could remove the rusty stains. He turned away, moving as if his feet were made of lead or stone, and without another look back he left the glade and Frodo to the mercy of the woods.


Part Two, Inglorion



A bed of last year’s leaves, colourful as party-paper lay on the ground beneath Frodo. His hands, like white lilies cut from their green stems, were half-buried in the rustling drifts. A wandering breeze stirred his dark curls. A single crimson tear trickled down his neck to fall to the earth.

Overhead, the trees stood in silent vigil. They seemed to be listening, harking to a call or a song that only they could hear.

In one of those trees, an Elf sat. He had seen the fall of the sickly tree and the accident that had occurred. He followed and watched the hobbit lay his burden down. He had thought that he had brought the youth here to succor him; in the living heart of the wood, where would be better? But he watched in bewilderment as the hobbit turned and abandoned the lad, muttering under his breath and ignoring the tears leaking from his eyes.

Gildor had seen hobbits before. He had passed through Eriador many times, taking joy in the unpolluted beauty and bounty of the halfling’s lands. He had even met one, once. During the New Year’s celebration, there was a hobbit that had come and drank wine with them and spoke in the old tongue. Gildor couldn’t remember his name at the moment, but he recalled that this hobbit had been interesting (as interesting as Hobbits could be) and the Elf had enjoyed his company. On one occasion, he had brought the hobbit a message from Rivendell, slipping it into the box outside the bright green door with the special mark on it visible only to Elves.

Gildor was busy these days with business between Rivendell and the Havens. He had taken a moment for himself this day, to absorb the flavour of a Shire morning and the taste of sunlit air. His sensitive ears had heard the death-cry of a tree, moaning through the wood with a shivering sound. He had been drawn there by that cry and so had witnessed everything.

Mortals were not his concern, but this strange thing worried Gildor. He mourned the death of the tree but he could see that it had been dying already, and that the felling of it would preserve the health of other trees. It was the viciousness and savagery of the uprooting that disturbed him. And now this heartless act, leaving an injured lad alone in the woods, far from the aid of his own kind… Gildor was struck by the cruelty of it all, even him who had seen such things frequently in the millenia he had dwelt in Middle earth. So dear and precious seemed this one, so unalike other mortals the Elf had known. It became important to Gildor that he survive. He discarded his caution and leapt down from the tree, landing softly at the young halfling’s side.

Gildor knew nothing of healing, but he could see that the hobbit was hurt. More than the abrasions and blood on his head, Gildor could see a yellowing of his spirit, a wounding of the heart that has naught to do with flesh or bone. The words the other hobbit has whispered aloud Gildor had clearly overheard, ‘With yer dead parents you should be, or better yet, never born at all.’

Those words were as poison to the soul of the young hobbit, more crippling than the blow to his hard little head. Gildor unfastened his cloak and wrapped it around the pale halfling, trying to move him as little as possible. He would have to return to Woodhall for help. With luck, there would be one there or nearby who could render healing to the hobbit. It was too late for the tree, regrettably. A morning of mourning, this fine day had turned out to be.

~~~~~


Frodo felt his body as a distant thing, numbed like cold fingertips when he had forgotten his gloves on a wintery morning. His eyes saw nothing. He heard clearly, though, as if his ears compensated for the dampening of his other senses. Voices were whispering around him, about him, above him. He could neither move nor speak so he listened, trying to forget the hard words that echoed through his mind.

‘…Never born at all…’

“What is’m, Firtle?” one voice said in his ear.

“Ah’m not knowing, Stint, but ah’m knowing this… in the grove it doesn’t belong.” The other voice was soft and slurred, like the speech of a child too young to talk clearly.

“How’d it get here? Wearing elf-sheen, spilling blood in the grove… that will bring bad things, Firtle! Make it stop!”

“How is Firtle making it to stop? Causing it Firtle is not!” Frodo heard movement near him, getting closer. He winced inside, wishing he could see. The voices were not threatening, but what they were saying was rather disturbing.

“Ah dinna mean to say so… but what canna we do? This smell bring fëaorn soon, and they not nicely… Ah wanna save aewn. Want to keep aewn always.”

“Not aewn, this, Stint! ‘Tis pherian, ‘burrower-in-the-valley’. Keep it we cannot!”

“Would be like olden times, Firtle. It is same size as Jazzin were, when she were an imp. Could raise it, like our own!”

“Thistle ‘n’ thorn! Your mind, it is gone! Stint, no imp is this! Grove will not permit. Grove will bury it.”

“No, no! We canna let that be, Firtle. Look at it… is just a waif! Help me, Firtle… could hide it…”

Frodo felt something tugging on him, and he saw spots of light glaring his eyes. Sunlight dappling through a thick roof of leaves, green as spring’s memory. It was painfully bright, and Frodo raised a hand to shield his eyes. His head was throbbing and he felt sick. He forced himself to move, rolling over to look at his surroundings.

He was in a wide leafy hollow, screened all around with thick foliage. An open patch of blue sky showed the sun peeking down through the leaves. A small rivulet of water wandered amid the roots, washing over small stones like bleached white bones. A pile of dry wood lay nearby, next to a small shrub covered with blooming flowers. The sunlight was painfully bright, and Frodo raised his shaking hand to touch his aching head. His fingers came away wet with blood. It ran in a trickle down his cheek and dripped from his chin. Nausea rose inside and he lay his head down to stop the spinning.

What had happened? He couldn’t seem to piece together the shattered morning in his mind. He remembered a feeling of fear, a burst of movement with an urgent need, but nothing clearer. He felt very sad, depressed in his heart, and he could not say why. Voices buzzed in his ears, distracting him from his own discomfort.

He felt a warm soft cloth drawn over his shoulders, and the voices murmured in his ear again, “Nasty cut you have there, aewn.”


short guide to my pigin elvish:

aewn: little one
pherian: halfling
fëaorn: tree-spirit


Part Three,  Woodwight

Frodo opened one eye and saw that the woodpile was nearer to him now. He blinked and looked again. Two small bright eyes regarded him with curiosity. He drew back with a start and was steadied from a fall by coming hard against a shrubery on his other side.

"Spooking him don’t, Stint! Broken he is. Willow-water we should bring." Soft and childlike, this voice lisped somewhere above him. Frodo looked around wildly, still trying to keep an eye on the twiggy beast in front of him.

The woodpile began to shudder, and a fluted sound erupted from it like a bird’s laughter. "Willo’-water, willo’-water!" it said excitedly, and then it unexpectedly unfolded itself into a tall and thin being with nut-brown skin all knobbly and whorled like burnt-sugar candy. Its eyes were black like jet buttons and had long silky lashes. It leaned forward very close to Frodo’s face. Frodo froze and held his breath. The creature brushed Frodo’s cheek with the soft lashes of its shining eyes; if felt like the sweep of a butterfly’s wing. "You stay, aewn. Ah bring willo’-water."

Frodo pulled himself into a sitting position, though his head threatened to burst when he sat up. He watched the creature stalk away like a stork on its long legs. He clung to the bush and closed his eyes, breathing slowly and deliberately. He felt the branches of the bush encircle him gently. He cautiously opened his eyes and looked into the face of another creature and realized the limb he was grasping were not a bush at all. He let go quickly and scrambled away.

"Easy, pherian! More damage you will suffer, flopping around like this! Firtle ah’m named. We are of the Grove. Hurt you, we are not meaning to."

Frodo closed his eyes and opened them again, but the talking bush was still there. He must have bumped his head but good!

"Where am I, and how did I get here?" Frodo’s voice quavered and broke. The eyes blinked at him, small and black just like the woodpile had. This creature had garbed itself in tufts of greenery and chains of flowers, and was stocky and thick-limbed.

"Stint and Ah found you here. Knowing not how, knowing not why, but this we knowing, you canna stay long here. Fëaorn come soon, not good for you." It wobbled from side to side, shedding flowerpetals like tears. "What name you?"

"I am… my name is…" Frodo began to say, but his tongue locked on the words and his name fluttered away from the grasp of his mind like a phantom. …in Buckland… with your dead…, words echoed in his head. He gingerly touched his bruised temple. "I don’t remember! I don’t know…" a great distress filled his breast, and his breath came in sharp, painful bursts.

"Easy, easy! With water comes Stint now. Better it will make you feel, Ah’m thinkin’." The wood-sprite had returned, bearing a shallow clay vessel in his long twiggy fingers. Frodo accepted it, though the creature had to steady his trembling hands while he drank.

Immediately, a feeling of peace and ease spread through him. His aches receeded, and his head ceased to throb. The bowl slipped from his nerveless fingers as he relaxed. All over his body, his skin felt tingly, from his toes to the roots of his hair. His vision cleared and he saw the sprites clearly, their camoflauge penetrated now. They crouched nearby, eyeing him with satisfaction.

"Tha’s the draught! Right as rainwater, he will be now. We can get him out before…"

"What is this?" A stern voice said, seeming to come from all around them. The wood-sprites jumped straight into the air, then ran and hid behind Frodo, trembling. The hobbit blinked and looked at the new arrival.

She was tall, as tall as the trees around him, and her skin was green as moss. She appeared to be garbed in bark or rough weave, girdled with ropes of ivy. Her hair was long and filled with leaves of many trees, and her eyes blazed with an angry light. Frodo looked upon her and his eyes glazed. His head fell back against the grass.

"Ohh! Dagda Lasgalen! Spare him! He means no harm!" Stint begged, though he cowered behind the entranced hobbit.

"Means no harm? Tell this to the tree that lies now unrooted; slain! And what of the dryad who had tried to succor it? Long has she lived, and many trees has she seen grow from acorn to ash. This loss may be one death too many!" She seemed to fill the glade with her presence, and the trees bowed and bent to give her passage. When her feet touched the earth, springs of water and flowers erupted from her prints. She looked down at the two-legged creature who had invaded the Grove. Hundreds of years of bitterness twisted her face from loveliness to a mask of hate.

Firtle trembled so hard the flowers draped around him shed their petals like rain. "Wilting wobble-limbs! Sick was that tree! Other trees making sick! Let dryad tend the others instead! A fair bloom this one is! Would be evil to cut him down!" The shrub-disguised woodsprite jumped as crackling light flew from the eyes of the woodwight and left scorches on his pale, papery flesh.

She was the Grove mistress; Dagda Lasgalen she was named. She glowered at the sprites. "The woods and winds have told me what has transpired. He is a tree-slayer and a fire-bringer!" Wind that had been limp in the branches all day now raised the boughs in a gyrating dance as the anger of the woodwight mounted.

"The old magics and spirits that once thrived in this land are fleeing and fading, or burrowing deep into the soil, waiting for that time when new strength might return to them. Will spring ever come again for them? The seasons between renewal and deathtime have lengthened with each passing Age. Perhaps an end must come to this world of Mortals ‘ere our folk find strength again. Let his blood enrich the earth from which the fallen has been torn!"

"No, no! Dagda, please! Not this one… he is innocent." Stint and Firtle both moved to stand trembling before the wrathful woodwight. She swept up to them, ready to brush them aside like leaves.

"Hold your wrath, fëaorn!" A booming voice broke over the glade. The woodsprites hurled their twiggy bodies over the helpless hobbit. The woodwight turned and regarded the aged man who had appeared in the midst of the Grove.

"Dare you come into the Grove, old man?" The trees swayed and bowed, but their grasping branches and roots would not come near to the grey-clad man. He moved forward as if encircled with grace. Behind him walked an Elf with hair like spun gold.

"Noldo! Heru nin, grant clemency to thy servant!" The wind died and the trees returned to their lassitude. The woodwight bowed to the ground at the feet of the Elf, who looked at the wizard beside him with a small smile.

"Rise and release your ire, Dagda Lasgalen," spoke Gandalf softly, for it was he and none other that Gildor had brought from Woodhall, met as if by Fate at the moment the grey wizard had chosen to depart for the borders of the Shire. Gildor had begged him to come and when he had heard the circumstances, he moved with the acclaimed speed for which Wizards are renowned.

The woodwight looked upon the old man, and saw then his power that he kept cloaked. She faded swiftly away into the woods. Gandalf knelt beside Frodo and chuckled softly. "You can get up now, Firtle. She is gone."

The woodsprites crept aside, moving jerkily as if they wished to flee with terror but wanted to make sure this powerful creature would not hurt their little friend. Stint ran to Gildor and grabbed his hand. "Save our little aewn, master! Don’t let the fire-bringer devour him!"

"He is Mithrandir, woodsprite. He will not harm the pherian. Go and be blessed for your aid and caring. We shall return him to his home safely."

Firtle waddled up to Gandalf bravely and said, "Name him, master. Lost he is within himself. Willow-water will not cure that wound."

Gandalf nodded and stooped, gathering the halfling in his arms carefully. Frodo’s head fell back, his eyes still bedazzled by the Grove mistress’s magics. "Awake, Frodo Baggins!" Gandalf said, stroking his face with gentle fingers.

Gildor faded back into the trees, not wishing to be seen by the halfling. Frodo’s trauma was great enough for one day, and somehow the Elf knew that he would see the halfling again one day. Hopefully that day would be a better time for greetings.

The hobbit blinked and yawned. "Gandalf? Is that you? Where have I been?" Frodo looked around, waking from a strange dream to a strange place. He touched his head gingerly, his fingers remembering a wound but finding no evidence of injury now, except his own blood now dry on his hands. "What happened?"

"Do you remember nothing, my lad?" asked Gandalf. The hobbit looked around blearily, but saw nothing but trees and grass and the grey wizard that was holding him like a child. For once, Frodo did not mind being carried. He felt tired as if he had walked all day and night without rest.

"Nothing, Gandalf, except a horrible dream. Can you keep a secret?"

Gandalf laughed gently, and began to walk, bearing the young hobbit toward his home. "I have been known to keep a secret now and then, or rather," he chuckled, "not known too, if you take my meaning!"

"I once conspired to frighten someone by dressing up as a tree. But today I have been paid back for that mischief. I think I was attacked by a tree!"

"Attacked by a tree? My dear Frodo! What an imagination you have! I think perhaps you must have fallen and hit your head. Hasn’t your uncle warned you against wandering into virgin groves?"

Frodo looked at Gandalf face, sensing that there was much more going on behind that impassive smile than was coming forth in his words. "Yes, sir, he has indeed warned me so. I must have forgotten."

"Indeed. Well, I should think that you would be safer in your walk-abouts if you have a friend accompany you from now on. I am sure that Samwise would be happy to do so, if you can pry him out of the garden for an afternoon, or Master Meriadoc when he can be persuaded to abandon his more trivial pursuits."

"I was merely taking the road from Bag End to the Waymeet. I have trod it a dozen times. How could I have known that I would be waylaid by a shrub and a woodpile… but surely that was part of the dream! What a strange world it has become; what is the Shire coming to?"

"What indeed, Master Baggins," murmured Gandalf, as the young hobbit’s eyes closed wearily. Frodo did not see the distress that touched the aged Wizard's features, making them longer and older that ever they had been. "What indeed?"


Part Four, Healing

Are any of us the same after we experience a trauma, or even after our first perfect sunrise? Every day brings change... and that itself is a reason to hope.


Gandalf walked briskly toward Hobbiton, carrying his precious burden with as much care as he could. Frodo sat in the crook of his left arm, his head against the Wizard’s shoulder and his hands beneath the warmth of the long grey beard. Gildor’s cloak was still draped over him. He felt safe and warm and strangely detached from the adventure he had just had. It seemed more like a dream that anything real and dangerous.

Gandalf encouraged him to sleep with soothing words, but his mind was restless even if his limbs felt heavy and lazy. Something still raced around in his head, words that wouldn’t stay still so he could remember them, like the name of a distant cousin you can only recall when you aren’t trying to think of it.

Frodo abandoned the chase. He wanted to stop thinking, so he said aloud, "What are you doing in the Shire today, Gandalf?"

The Wizard glanced down at him, the movement of his head caused his long beard to tickle Frodo’s face. The young hobbit giggled. This sound made Gandalf smile, softening the deep creases on his brow.

"Merely going from one place to another, Frodo."

"I hope I am not making you late for an appointment." Frodo grinned at him.

Gandalf chuckled. Something about this hobbit always brought a laugh out of him. "A Wizard, my dear Frodo, is never late."

"Oh, really?" Frodo said, and though his expression was as bland as strained milk, his eyes were twinkling with merriment. "Then you were not late to Bilbo and my last birthday party, but merely a couple of months early for Yule?" Gandalf’s laughter rolled from him, and Frodo thrilled to hear the sound through the cloth and flesh of the broad shoulder against which he lay his head. It sounded like an echo through a sea-beast’s shell, though woody and richer in its resonance.

"Neither is a Wizard early! They are always exactly where they are, and arrive precisely when they mean to!" Together they laughed, a deep booming sound blending with the high treble of the young halfling, the unexpected sound causing a flight of birds to erupt into flight, squawking in annoyance.

Frodo watched their flight. Large black crows, picking over the remains of the early harvest. Their eyes were beady and black, just like...

Frodo shivered as the memories brushed him again. Gandalf tucked the cloak around the young hobbit more closely. Frodo fingered the material. "Where did this come from, Gandalf? I have never seen this cloth before."

"It was loaned to you by a friend, Frodo. I will return it to him after I bring you home."

"I have never felt anything so soft!" Frodo drew it around him, brushing his cheek against the silky folds. "And it smells like... well, like spice and wind and moonlight!"

"Smells like moonlight, eh?" Gandalf smiled again, but his eyes were serious and sad. Would this lad remember what had happened to him? Should he tell him or let him forget the trial he had endured?

Gandalf knew by the virtue of his sight what had transpired along the Waymeet Road that morning, and he pondered the actions of the miller. Had he intended to return with help or had he truly left the lad to die? Gildor had been unable to answer these questions and the Wizard had only one other witness, since the tree was now dead.

Gandalf paused beneath an apple tree before the last rise that would bring them down to the lane through Bywater. He set Frodo down gently and gave the lad a drink from his flask. He sat down next to him, settling his long robes around him and drawing Frodo onto his lap. "Look at me, lad," he said softly, and Frodo did so, turning his bright eyes upward. Like a summer sky though clean windows, they looked.

Gandalf peered into Frodo’s memory. It took merely an instant, between one sweeping blink of the young hobbit’s long lashes and the next, but the Wizard learned all that he wished in that moment. "You have had an adventurous morning, lad," Gandalf said.

"I... I guess so, sir. I don’t... really remember."

So blatantly raw was this untruth, that Gandalf blinked in surprise. But he said nothing. He could see that Frodo did not choose to remember what he had heard or seen. The Wizard realized that sometimes, this was the only way mortals could cope with something hurtful or sad. Gandalf wished that this was something that the Wise could do, but it was his fate to remember and not forget. He bore knowledge to the Free Folk and helped them find strength and hope within themselves to counter the darkness that threatened their world. But for this instance, he did not think that it was necessary for the young hobbit to remember. At least, not yet.

"I think that a meal at home and a nice long sleep will see you right, my dear boy. Just you relax now; we will be there soon."

"I can walk, Gandalf. You don’t have to carry me." Frodo said. He held the soft fabric of the cloak wrapped around him, careful not to let it drag on the ground behind. He offered a hand to the Wizard, and so they walked together through Bywater.

As they came to the bridge of the Water where the mill-wheel churned the clear stream to foam, Frodo shuddered and walked closer to the tall Wizard. Gandalf laid a hand on his shoulder. "What is it, lad?"

Frodo did not hear the Wizard’s question. His eyes were drawn to the far end of the bridge, and the figure standing there, staring at him in utter disbelief.

As they walked slowly past, the miller ducked his head and tugged his forelock to the young hobbit. "Master Baggins was asking after you, Mr Frodo," he said hollowly. Sandyman’s face was haunted and yet at the same time awash with relief. "I am glad to see you are all right."

Frodo looked at the miller, and even Gandalf felt the chill that came from him. "Thank you, Mr Sandyman. I am quite well. Good day." Frodo walked on, so that he missed the warning glare that Gandalf shot toward the miller, and Sandyman’s utter terror and his swift retreat to safety behind stout oaken doors.

The Wizard and the hobbit walked in silence through Hobbiton, but when they came to the foot of the Hill, Frodo stumbled. Gandalf steadied him with a quick hand, preventing him from falling. The young hobbit caught his hand and held it tightly. He did not speak and Gandalf could see tears on his face.

Gandalf swallowed the lump in his throat and said nothing. Some wounds take longer than others to heal, and no words or magic or willow-water will hasten their cure.

~~~~~


Sandyman closed the door and dropped the bolt. He leaned against the wood and breathed deeply until his racing heartbeat slowed. Behind him, he heard Ted approach cautiously.

"Dad? Sir?"

The miller hurumphed, and turned to look at his son. "What, boy?"

"A letter has come for you, sir, from Master Sackville-Baggins. I left it in your office." The boy came up to him and touched his sleeve. "Are you alright, dad? There is blood on your shirt."

Sandyman jerked his arm away from the boy, and Ted winced and ducked, though the blow he expected did not fall. The miller lowered his hand slowly and cupped the boy’s face gently. "It’s nothing, lad. Forget about it. Let’s call it a day."

"But... father, sir! We have orders to meet! You told us to finish before sundown..."

"Let the foreman handle it, Ted. Come with me now. Let’s spend some time together; how long has it been since we went fishing?"

Ted stared at his father, who was behaving very unlike himself. Softly, Ted answered, "It’s been a while, sir."

"Then let’s go! Leave the work... it will be here tomorrow when we come back." Ted smiled and eagerly ran to fetch the fishing poles and gear, which had been gathering much dust in the corner. Sandyman picked up the letter that lay on top of his desk. Without opening it, he carried it to the furnace and tossed it into the flames.