“C’mon Frodo, tell us a story!”
Frodo’s young cousin pounced into his lap, scattering papers and books onto the floor in his childish exuberance.
“Oh Merry…I’m busy.”
“You’ve been working on that all day,” Merry whined, pushing himself between Frodo and the desk. “You work too hard. Even Sam thinks so…”
“Nuh uh Master Merry,” Sam protested, from where he stood in the study doorway, “I didn’t say no such thing…”
“All right, all right…” Frodo laughed, clamping a hand over Merry’s mouth before he could add another ‘did too’ to the litany. “Enough. I thought the two of you were playing on the hill.”
“Da run us off,” Sam admitted with a sheepish grin. “Said he couldn’t hear his self think with all our racket.”
“Yep, ‘n’ Cousin Bilbo run us out of the kitchen too,” Merry continued, mischief glinting in his hazel eyes. “Sam was foolin’ ‘round and knocked over the cream pitcher…”
“I did not!” Sam defended frowning at Merry.
The young Brandybuck grinned wickedly and made an exaggerated wink at Frodo. “Did too.”
The older hobbit chuckled, ruffling his seven-year-old cousin’s auburn curls. Shaking his head he sighed, “I find it hard to believe that you didn’t have something to do with it Meriadoc.”
Mouth open in indignant surprise, Merry punched Frodo’s arm soundly with a tiny fist. “Frodo…we’re kin, you’re s’pose to be sticking up for me – not him.” The lad’s voice was tinged with just a hint of jealousy and Frodo suppressed a smile.
“We’re kin, yes, and I know you too well my dear little cousin,” Frodo explained squeezing away hurt feelings with a hug. “That’s why I know you had something to do with it.”
Sam smiled smugly at Merry and the younger hobbit stuck his tongue out at his playmate. Turning his attention back to Frodo, Merry poked at silver waistcoat buttons with a stubby fingertip.
“Please Frodo, just one story,” he pleaded. “I have to go home tomorrow. Who knows when I’ll see you again.”
“Please Mister Frodo,” Sam chimed in, shuffling his feet on the woolly area rug. “Just a short one?”
“I see I’m outnumbered,” Frodo groaned, leaning back in his chair. “I think I like it better when you two are arguing. Then you don’ t gang up to badger me…”
Both lads grinned at Frodo’s resignation and Merry bounced up and down in his lap, knobby knees digging into his cousin’s thighs. “Yea!”
“Ouff, enough of that Merry,” Frodo said, encouraging the lad out of his lap with the circle of hands around his waist.
Merry protested with a squeak as his cousin tried to force him to his feet on the floor. “Frodo!”
“Why don’t we go outside and sit on the hill,” he suggested. “I’ll tell you one tale before supper.”
Bounding from Frodo’s grip, Merry spun around and grabbed Sam’s hands then danced him wildly in a circle. “We’re gonna get a story, we’re gonna get a story,” he chanted in a high singsong voice.
Face flushed, Sam let himself be twirled by the younger hobbit until his head spiraled with dizziness. He gasped eyes wide, and stumbled into a pile of books sending them sliding to the floor. “Oh no…”
“Come on now, you two,” Frodo encouraged, disengaging Merry from Sam and taking each lad by the hand. “Let’s get out of the study before something gets broken.”
“Again…” Sam whispered, eyeing Merry who stared back innocently.
Pausing only to grab his pipe, Frodo led the two youngsters down the hall. He grinned at Bilbo who peered out of the kitchen as they passed, his bushy brows beetled in a fierce stare. The elder Baggins watched them pass with a frown.
Uh oh, Frodo thought, pushing the two lads ahead of him, that doesn’t look good.
“Where’re you off to with those two scalawags?” The term, generally spoken with affection, didn’t sound like an endearment today squeezed as it was from his cousin’s pursed lips.
“To the hill for a quick story before Sam heads on home,” Frodo explained with a nod, swiftly herding both lads out the smial’s front door. “We’ll be back before supper.”
The old bachelor hobbit grumbled, muttering something about children that Frodo couldn’t quite make out. However, considering the disgruntled look on his cousin’s face, he could almost guess the nature of the comment. He chuckled as he urged the door shut with the toes of one foot.
Merry pulled from Frodo’s grasp as soon as the door closed behind them, running on ahead, his exuberance barely contained. Sam lingered at Frodo’s side torn between youthful awe and childish energy. When the older hobbit made no particular move to release his hand, Sam’s adoration of the young master of Bag End won out and he chose to skip along contentedly at his side. Frodo smiled to himself, musing on how different the two lads were.
A quick climb took the trio to the top of the hill that covered Bag End and they headed directly for the large tree that centered over the smial. After a quick exploration of the surrounding grass Merry barreled over and, catching Sam around the knees, he spilled the gardener’s son to the ground with a laugh.
“Hey!” Sam yelled as the smaller hobbit pounced on him with a ferocious squawk.
“Hay’s for ponies, not for me,” Merry chimed, giggling at his captive. Sitting triumphantly on Sam’s middle, Merry poked him in the ribs and tickled him until he laughed. He beamed, and added breathlessly: “I like you Sam!”
Sam flushed happily at his new friend’s sincere declaration. “I like you too.”
Clearing his throat, Frodo watched the two with wry amusement. “Ummm…I hate to interrupt, but you wouldn’t happen to know any hobbit lads around here who wanted to hear a story would you?”
“Me! Me!” Merry squealed, flopping off of Sam’s belly to lay on his back in the grass.
“Me too, Mister Frodo.”
“So what kind of tale should we have tonight, hmmmm?” Frodo wondered, glancing at the two eager faces.
“Merry should choose,” Sam suggested, “Since he’s visitin’ and all.”
“Ohhh…a scary one, please!” the small lad cried, kicking his feet against the soft grass. “A real scary one!”
“Scary, huh?” Frodo mused, turning to Sam. “That sound all right to you Sam?”
“Uh huh,” Sam conceded his answer a bit less than enthusiastic. He’d hoped for something about elves or adventures in far off places. He didn’t much like the sound of scary.
“Have either of you heard the tale of the Widow of Withywindle?” Frodo questioned, sitting down and settling with his back against the tree trunk. He pulled out his pipe and filled the bowl with sweet smelling pipe weed.
Sam shook his head and after a moment of careful thought, Merry did too.
“It’s a pretty frightening tale,” Frodo warned, knitting his brows in a particularly menacing manner. “Ahhh… maybe I shouldn’t tell it to you…what with the two of you being so young and all.”
“Aw…c’mon Frodo,” Merry pleaded. His bright hazel eyes spied Sam’s hesitant expression and he quickly added, “I’m not a baby.”
“Me either,” Sam agreed though his voice was less sure than that of the younger Brandybuck. Sam didn’t like scary stories, and was not entirely sure he’d like to hear one now, even from Mister Frodo. Still, he couldn’t let Merry think he was scared – since he was the older of the two.
Lighting his pipe with a deft striking of steel on flint, Frodo drew on the stem and let a mouthful of smoke trickle into the crisp fall air. Sam settled down, cross-legged, facing Frodo and Merry crawled to lie on his stomach at Sam’s side.
“Let’s see…where to begin,” Frodo mused, tapping the pipe stem against his bottom lip in thought.
Merry opened his mouth as if to answer but he was stilled by a stern glance from his older cousin.
“Long ago, on the borders of Buckland, just outside the Old Forest,” Frodo began at last, leaning back against the tree trunk, “there lived a family of hobbits. Master Ferde and Mistress Ivy, as they were called, were Fargoods by name and they dwelled quite happily on the fringes of the forest. They weren’t wealthy hobbits, but they had a cozy house and lived quite well off their garden and the animals they could raise. When the seasons were right, they’d even venture into the woods, though only just beyond the forest’s edge, to collect berries and nuts.”
“And mushrooms?” Merry wondered aloud.
“Yes, and mushrooms too, I would think,” Frodo answered. “There were two little lads in the family as well,” here he paused, thinking, “about the same age as the two of you are I should think.”
“What were there names?” Merry asked.
“Fargo and Rugar, if I recall correctly,” Frodo admitted.
“Oh.” The small Brandybuck nodded, satisfied.
“All was well for them, and they lived a very happy and simple hobbit life for many years. That is until the year of the Fell Winter, when the river froze over solid and everything was covered with ice and snow. For all hobbits, rich and poor, food was very scarce.” Frodo paused to eye each lad in turn. “As you well know from Cousin Bilbo’s tales, many hobbits perished from cold and hunger that year. It was a time that tested the very strength of everyone in all the four Farthings of the Shire.”
Sam nodded solemnly, remembering stories told at the elder Baggins’ knee that past winter. Somehow, with the warm crackle of a hearth fire, and a mug of hot cider, the tales hadn’t seemed so worrisome. Now, with the chill of fall in the air, and the shadows of dusk slipping up on them, Sam wasn’t so sure.
“With things so bad, and food so scarce,” Frodo continued, his voice a quiet murmur, “great mangy wolves took to roaming the Shire, even during the daytime. Smart hobbits locked the doors tight, keeping their children close to home for fear they’d be carried off as a wolf’s luncheon. With so many of the beasts about, taking more than their fair share of food, even domestic animals weren’t safe and those that weren’t eaten by hungry hobbits, fell victim to the ravenous beasts. Hobbits such as the Fargoods were no exception. With their stock gone, they had taken to hunting for conies and other small animals at the forest fringe, but even these were becoming hard to find – even for a hunter as skilled as Master Ferde.”
Sam shivered at the thought of wolves roaming free in the Shire. He leaned his chin on his hands and stared at Frodo with rapt attention. At his side, Merry absently brushed the hair on his playmate’s foot with his fingertips, while gazing at his older cousin interest starting to bud in him.
“Of course, Master Fargood had to find food for his family and so he set out one icy morning to hunt the edges of the forest. Going out early, with sling and snares in hand, he hoped for a rabbit or two to fill an empty pot. He tramped off with a reassuring smile, his family watching him from the doorway. Away he went disappearing into the shadowy trees, looking back only once to wave good bye.”
Frodo paused, drawing on his pipe. Leaning forward and piercing each of the boys with intense blue eyes, he whispered: “He never came home.”
“Where’d he go?” Merry prompted, his bright gaze searching his cousin’s face.
“Yes, Mister Frodo,” Sam echoed. “Where?”
“No one knows,” Frodo continued, shaking his head sadly and sighing for emphasis. “When he didn’t come home to supper that night, Mistress Fargood was worried, as you might guess. But she just figured maybe he’d needed to walk further in search of game, with things being so bad and all. Being caught out as darkness fell, she thought he might be sheltering at some neighbor’s house for the night.”
“Oh,” Sam whispered, almost relieved.
“But he didn’t come home the next day either, did he?” Merry questioned, eyeing Sam’s intense expression with interest.
“No, he didn’t come home the next day either.”
Frodo drew again on his pipe and gazed at the sky in thought before continuing. “When the next morning came, and he still hadn’t returned, Mistress Ivy called on some of her neighbors. To her dismay, no one had spoken to her husband since early the day before. One old gaffer did think that he had seen a hobbit entering the Old Forest near the River Withywindle. With this thought in mind Mistress Fargood and her neighbors searched the forest borders in earnest for him all that day.”
“Did they find him?” Sam’s asked his voice trembling.
“They found nothing, nothing at all. There was no sign of where he had been that day and where he may have gone.” Frodo paused, eyeing first Sam then Merry. “And though, over the next few days, they searched the length of the Forest’s edge from Newbury to Haysend, they found no sign of the missing fellow. It was as if the very trees had swallowed him up. He had disappeared without a trace.”
“Poor Mistress Fargood was beside herself with worry and grief,” Frodo continued, his soft voice low and measured. “Even when the others had given up hope, sure that the wolves had taken the good hobbit as he hunted, his wife kept waiting and wishing – hoping for the best.”
“What’d they do…without their da?” Sam muttered more to himself than to Frodo or Merry. His child’s mind whirled, wondering what would happen to him if his Gaffer suddenly disappeared.
“Of course, it was hard for the family, without a da to help take care of them,” Frodo sighed, shaking his head sadly. “And with Mistress Fargood so caught up in her sadness, she wasn’t taking care of the two little lads either. She would leave Fargo and Rugar alone every day while she went out and searched for her husband. Wandering into the Forest, drifting like a ghost under the dark branches, she’d desperately wail out his name Ferde… Ferde… her voice echoing against the lonely trees. Calling out for him to come home, she passed every waking hour prowling the verges, neglecting her home and her children. Eventually, for their own well being, the lads were packed off to stay with their cousins who lived away in Tuckborough.”
“Why didn’t their mam go and live there too?” Merry asked, squirming to his knees.
“She wouldn’t leave the Forest, though her relatives tried to convince her,” Frodo explained, shaking his head his voice a low murmur. “She kept thinking her husband was going to come home.”
Sighing, Merry leaned into Sam, and the older lad draped an arm reflexively across the small hobbit’s shoulders. A breeze whispered through the branches of the tree overhead and a flurry of leaves fluttered in a golden shower around the three hobbits.
Frodo plucked a leaf from his dark hair and allowed it to drift to the ground before continuing. “For years and years Mistress Ivy wandered the Old Forest, searching along the river and deep into the woods, far deeper than any sensible hobbit ever ventured. Mournfully she’d wail out her husband’s name in the night, begging for him to come back. Ferde… Ferde…. please come home, she’d cry, clutching at the dark tree trunks, and clawing at the bark until her fingers bled with the effort…such was her terrible grief. And a pitiful sight she was too, all gaunt and bent, with leaves in her hair and her once tidy clothes all in tatters – looking nothing like a proper hobbit should.”
Again, the young master of Bag End paused, biting the stem of his pipe in thought. “It got so that folk in the area started to call her the Widow of Withywindle. Around their hearths at night, good hobbit gammers and gaffers would warn the children to stay away from her. Don’t wander too near the Forest, my darling lamb, else she’ll have the trees stretch out their branches and catch you up to hang in the limbs until there’s naught left to you but bones. Or they’d threaten a naughty lad,” here Frodo gazed at the two mischievous hobbits with a stern look, “or errant lass or with: Be good my child, or the Widow will come and have her trees drag you into the forest never to be seen again.”
Sam’s eyes widened and he glanced up at the tree branches that hovered over their heads. Already they were silvering with the coming dusk, the leaves dark and rustling faintly in the wind. He shivered again, feeling a cool breeze tickle down his sweaty back. Sam was sure he didn’t much like the thought of a lad losing both his da and mam…especially in some dark ol’ forest.
“Some at Great Smials,” Frodo whispered, “where her lads went to stay, say that eventually she withered and faded away, becoming a part of the very woods that filled the Withywindle Valley. I’ve even heard tell that, on certain moonless nights…”
“Like tonight?” Merry asked breathlessly, leaning forward and resting his chin in his hands. “Isn’t tonight s’pose to be m…moonless?”
“Well, yes,” Frodo pondered, glancing at the sky and nodding his head. “I suppose like tonight.”
“Oooohh!” The small lad shivered and snuggled back into Sam’s side.
“On moonless nights, it is said that the very trees come alive and can walk and talk; and they wander the forest with her, searching…always searching.”
A shudder rippled through Sam’s body and he glanced again at the tree above them with wary eyes.
“The old folk in Buckland say that even today, her spirit comes out now and then from the Withywindle Valley to roam the borders of the Old Forest and beyond. There are those at Brandy Hall that tell of seeing an old hobbit gammer wandering along the Brandywine, or sometimes even as far as the East Road, crying for her lost husband.”
Frodo paused, piercing them each with a blue eyed stare, his eyes bright in the coming dark.
“And mind you lads, if a wayward child or unsuspecting traveler ventures too near where she’s wandering, the trees will reach out…” Frodo’s hands suddenly snaked forward and grabbed each lad by a shoulder, causing them both to squeal out in surprise, “…at her bidding and grab them dragging them into the forest…never to be seen again.”
“Oh Frodo!” Merry squawked, giggling breathlessly while flopping forward into Frodo’s lap. “You scared me!”
Trembling, Sam nodded in agreement his brown eyes wide. He swallowed the lump in his throat and pulling from Frodo’s light grasp he scooted to his feet.
“I…I gotta go, Mister Frodo, sir,” he mumbled, brushing grass from the back of his trousers to hide the fact that both his hands were shaking. “My…my Gaffer’s probably wondering where I’m off to.” He turned as if to leave then remembered his manners. “Thanks for the s…s…story.”
“You’re welcome Samwise,” Frodo answered with a reassuring smile. Noting that the lad’s eyes were still wide with fear he added: “Mind you it’s almost dark. I could walk you home if you’d like. Just let me tell Cousin Bilbo…”
“Oh, n..no sir,” Sam answered quickly, shaking his head with vigor while nervous fingers picked at the buttons on his shirt. His eyes kept sweeping up to watch the branches that swayed overhead. “I don’t wanna be no bother. Reckon I can find my own way a’right.”
“Are you sure Sam?” Frodo asked. He couldn’t help but feel a little guilty for frightening the sensitive lad.
“Uh huh Mister Frodo. I’m sure.”
Nodding, Frodo collected Merry who still lay draped across his lap, and eased to his feet. The small Brandybuck wrapped his arms and legs tightly around his cousin, determined that he should be carried back down the hill. “Well, good night then Sam, we’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Bye Mister Frodo…Merry,” Sam replied, glancing up anxiously as an owl hooted in the limbs above them. This said, he turned suddenly and ran off down the hill toward the Row and his home at Number 3.
“G’nite Sam…” Merry called after him with a giggle, a naughty twinkle in his hazel eyes. “Don’t let the Widow and her trees get ya on the way home!”
“Meriadoc Brandybuck!” Frodo admonished, tweaking the lad’s saucy nose in rebuke, silencing his childish laughter.
Shaking his head, Frodo watched as Sam disappeared from view, then carried Merry back down the hill to the smial for supper.
Don’t let the Widow and her trees get ya…
Sam raced down the hill, Merry’s words echoing in his head. Although the trees along Bag Shot Row were as familiar to him as his own hands, tonight – in the gathering dusk – they took on a strangely sinister appearance. Their branches, heavy laden in the early fall air, seemed to dip lower, almost menacingly toward him. He panted, his short legs pumping, as he sped toward home. Never in all his young life had the pathway seemed so long before, and his front door so far away.
Just as he rounded a bend in the road, nearly in sight of the glowing windows of the Gamgee’s smial, he spied a shadowy figure. All stooped and bent, the figure stood leaning heavily on a walking stick, next to one of the trees. He stopped at the path’s center, his breath catching in a throat gone suddenly dry. The shape straightened and hesitating only a moment, it stepped toward him from the darkness.
“Samwise?” croaked an old gammer’s voice. “Samwise Gamgee, is that you?”
Fear welled up in the young hobbit and he froze in place his heart pounding so hard he thought it would burst through his chest.
The Widow, he thought in a panic.
“Come now lad, what’s got into you?” the old hobbit questioned, hobbling forward resting on her cane. “It’s me, the widow…”
With a yowl of terror, Sam bolted, flying past the aged hobbit as if his feet had grown wings.
“…Goodbody,” she finished, staring as the fleeing lad ran past her in a flurry of arms and legs. “Lan’ sakes, what’s come over the lad. Acts like he’s seen a ghost.”
Shaking her head, she watched until Sam disappeared into the door at Number 3, slamming it closed behind him. “I’ll ha’e to have a word with Hamfast about that boy’s manners…”
At Bag End, Frodo couldn’t help but hear the muffled sound of a terrified wail echoing down Bag Shot Row. He grimaced, settling Merry on his chair by the kitchen table. “Poor Samwise…”
“Did you say something Frodo, my lad?” Bilbo asked, placing a heaping plate of mushrooms down on the boards next to brimming bowls of mashed potatoes and dark, rich gravy.
“Oh, it’s nothing Bilbo,” he sighed, taking his own seat. “Just thinking out loud, pay me no mind.”
Chuckling, Bilbo ruffled his young heir’s head and turned to fetch the carved beef roast from the stove.
Digging into the mushrooms, Frodo spooned a generous portion onto Merry’s plate then his own. The dark-haired hobbit couldn’t help but notice a self-satisfied smirk on the young Brandybuck’s face.
“Thank you,” the little imp cooed, gazing up with a look once more all innocent smiles. Glancing back down, the lad chased a buttery button around his plate, trying to stab it with the fork. “Can I have some taters? Please.”
“Oh!” Merry exclaimed, as if suddenly remembering something he’d forgotten, “Thanks for the story, Cousin Frodo. You tell it better then ‘bout anyone, ‘cepting maybe Uncle Paladin.”
“Uncle Paladin…” Frodo started, pausing with a bowl in hand. “You told me you’d never heard the tale before.”
“Oh, I forgot,” Merry admitted, his eyes wide, “until just now. Uncle Paladin tells it…sometimes.”
“What was that lads?” Bilbo asked, bustling from the cellar with a couple of bottles in hand.
“Nothing,” they both chimed as he seated himself at the table and started loading his own plate.
I think that I’ve just been had, Frodo mused with a frown, passing the heaping potato bowl to the lad and helping him to dig out a pile and cover it with gravy.
Giggling, Merry smashed his spoon into the potato mountain and set about burying his mushrooms underneath. As the small Brandybuck loudly defended himself against Bilbo’s terse admonishments about playing with his food, the whole matter of the story was quickly forgotten.
Frodo feared, as he glanced out the window at the deepening darkness, that the same would not hold true for Sam.