The Story Tellers
After the Fair at Midsummer, Frodo’s reputation as a story teller of note was made throughout the Shire, and now, every time he went into the center of Hobbiton, into Bywater, or even to Overhill he was always quickly surrounded by children demanding stories. Frodo always made certain he’d done his shopping first, save for those things that ought not to sit out in the sun for long; and then he’d tell one story to the children, he’d give them a nod afterwards, then finish his own purchases and head home. As often as she could do so, Narcissa Boffin would be part of the audience.
Sam was openly envied, living so close nearby and working at Bag End alongside his dad where he might hear stories all the time, which made the gardener-in-training feel flattered, amused, and embarrassed all at the same time. When the word went out that Bilbo Baggins was now teaching Samwise Gamgee how to read, write, and figure, many sighed and put it down to the influence of Frodo--and they would have been accurate in part. Bilbo had already seen the promise in Hamfast Gamgee’s youngest son and had begun to entice him with stories read from books--now that Sam had begun actually trying to read over Frodo’s shoulder and Frodo himself had realized the lad was dying to learn to read for himself, Bilbo finally openly approached his gardener with the offer to teach him.
Somehow, Hamfast was realizing, Bilbo had managed to get some teaching in with all his children. Both Hal and young Ham now admitted they had learned the rudiments of reading from him, Daisy allowed she had learned to read and also to write with a decent hand the summer she was helping in Bag End after Bilbo had broken his arm, May let on she had learned figuring that same summer, and now Marigold was demanding her brother teach her whatever he learned during the day as soon as he got home. The small practice slate given Sam to use at home saw a lot of duty during the time Sam was studying with Bilbo and Frodo, and he and his sister went through a great deal of chalk, it seemed. Sam began to save the coins he received from his parents and those he got weekly from Mr. Bilbo for the work he did in the gardens on the Hill, and with them bought paper, pens, and ink for himself and his sisters. That all his children were able to read was a marvel to the Gaffer; that Sam was learning to figure and then use it in helping his old dad with the management of the gardens and orchard was wonderful. Maybe there was some use to all of this learning after all, he realized. When he found he could now send notes dictated through Sam to Hal and Ham off in the Northfarthing and in Tighfield and Daisy in her own apprenticeship, and they not only understood them but returned their own, he and Bell became glad, for now they were able to keep up with the doings of the older children as well.
Sam was learning more, however, for he was hearing the lessons given to the young Master as well as his own, and was picking up Elvish history, languages, and poetry, often learning off whole poems by heart. Maybe even a simple gardener could find reading, writing, and figuring useful--but what use knowing the histories of Gondolin and Eregion might ever prove was beyond the understanding of Hamfast Gamgee. The two of them--Frodo and Sam, however, would go on about it all at length.
The Gaffer admitted, rather proudly, to all at the Ivy Bush and the Green Dragon that his son was receiving teaching; his shock at learning all his children were literate and the extent of Sam’s studies, however, he discussed only with two people--with his wife Bell and, of all people, with young Miss Narcissa Boffin, both of whom listened solicitously and gave him warm reassurance that this was not a matter to be overly concerned about.
Why he spoke with Miss Narcissa he couldn’t really explain--he supposed it was in fair part because she was such a contrast to that old busybody Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, because she listened and did not repeat it all around, because she was so often around when he went into Hobbiton or Bywater, and always seemed to be in the tea shop in Bywater when he stopped in for elevenses the days he went there to do his purchases of plants and seeds, manure for the gardens, and other supplies at the big shop there. He found himself accepting her invitations to sit by her regularly, and was flattered that such a one as he could catch her attention. Of course, she was only being charitable to an old Hobbit; but the attention of a lovely young Hobbit lass of quality was a thing to put a spring into his old step and a smile in his heart.
The end of summer brought that old Wizard Gandalf back to Bag End, a matter that sparked concern in the heart of Hamfast Gamgee, a concern he passed on to Miss Narcissa, for fear the old conjurer would spark anew the wanderlust in the heart of Mr. Bilbo, or, worse yet, in the heart of his Sam. He could see that Sam was not like himself, was more intelligent, more perceptive, was made for bigger and better things than just working for others all his life as Hamfast had done. There was something fine in the lad that the Gaffer found himself fascinated by, an awareness and sensitivity that almost matched that of young Master Frodo, but of which he would prefer the lad not be aware--or at least, not yet. He was truly afraid that the day young Samwise became aware of the fact that he was far wiser than he knew, that on that day he would in some manner lose his son to whatever comprised his fate.
At first he was convinced that Master Frodo’s friendship with young Sam was just the willingness of an older lad to be gracious to a young one; but over time he realized that this friendship was quite different, that there was a mutual respect here between the Master’s ward and the gardener’s lad that bridged the years between them. Whatever caught Frodo’s interest he shared with Sam, and Sam felt the same interest in it as Frodo himself, and quickly understood implications. The two of them shared interests in things Hamfast had never even thought of--how insects went from grubby things to beautiful flying creatures; the stories of Elves; the way words could be woven into complex meanings.
Gandalf’s visit, however, didn’t lead to the changes he’d feared. Gandalf seemed as surprised as Hamfast himself to see Sam studying under Mr. Bilbo’s tutelage alongside the young Master, but it appeared to be a pleasant surprise. He admitted this to the Gaffer, in fact, and on one day came outside still chuckling at something Sam had said. “Your son sees through to the heart of the matter so swiftly and clearly--if we had enough of those with his understanding around we’d have a great deal less tragedy in the world, for he’d simply refuse to see the romantic possibilities of tragic actions, and everyone would feel too foolish to allow themselves to languish.” Exactly what this meant, the Gaffer had no real idea; but obviously Gandalf appreciated Sam’s ability to think for himself.
“He’s a fine lad, your Sam is,” Gandalf told him another day, “a remarkably fine lad, with a good head on his shoulders, and a stronger sense of duty than I’ve seen in many a year even among Hobbits. He’ll do remarkably well in life. I only hope he doesn’t find his heart torn too much in two by what he faces.” But what it was the Wizard foresaw for Sam he didn’t say.
One day toward the end of the visit Gandalf was standing in the garden facing south and east, as if peering far off at something the Gaffer himself could not see. His face was careworn, his eyes troubled, his attitude concerned and protective. Then at last he turned West, his eyes seeking some reassurance. Slowly his watchfulness relaxed, his eyes closed, his face smoothed. He was sad but calmer when his eyes opened and he realized that he was not alone.
“You are troubled, Mr. Gandalf sir?”
“We live in troubled times, Gaffer,” Gandalf answered. “The dark seeks to rise again, although it is not ready yet. And this time I fear the Shire will be touched by it as well as the outer world when at last it begins to reach out.” He sighed. “I would hate to see that, hate to see those of this pleasant land drawn out of it to defy that darkness.” He stretched. “I must speak with the Dúnedan, get him to set a stronger watch.”
“Who is that?”
“One who cares,” Gandalf said, smiling sadly. “One who cares.”
A week later he was gone, and Sam was saddened by his going, saddened and thoughtful. The Gaffer was disturbed--lads of but ten ought not to be so thoughtful.
That first late fall that Frodo Baggins spent in Bag End a pestilence went throughout the Shire. The number of folks who came down with colds, fevers, ague, and the lung sickness was beyond belief. Everyone seemed to catch something, and there were two close to the Gaffer who went into lung sickness--his beloved Bell and young Frodo. It didn’t take them the same way, but both were very seriously ill, and Gammer Laurel was hard pressed to help either. Finally they rallied, but Bell never truly recovered, was weakened thereafter. It was Master Frodo’s Aunt Dora who made certain there would be reason for celebration among those on the Row and on the Hill that year, who helped folks rally, who gathered greens and saw holes decorated, who prodded folks to start the baking and cooking, who saw holes cleaned and readied for the joy of Yule and the new year coming in. There was no bonfire that year, for it was too cold, the snows too high, and too few throughout Hobbiton who were well enough to defy the weather to bring the wood and see the fires lit. Instead the troubles lists were burnt that year in parlor fires lit anew, and music and dancing filled private homes. The recovery of so many from heavy ills was the major basis for celebration that year, and too many like Bell Gamgee and Frodo Baggins were still barely able to stand, much less dance.
The news that Frodo Baggins was among the worst hit locally swiftly spread throughout Hobbiton, Bywater, and Overhill; after just seven months in Bag End he had become one of the most well liked individuals in the area. His cheerfulness, his concern for others, his stories, his willingness to help others however he could had all served to endear him to the people among whom he now lived. Gammer Laurel found herself being pestered for word of his recovery, and families throughout Hobbiton and Bywater began sending pots of soup, loaves of bread, and plates of cakes to Bag End for him, which largess Bilbo found himself sharing with the folk in the Row as there was far more coming in than two Hobbits could eat by themselves.
Narcissa had been sick for several days, but had recovered fairly quickly; the word that Frodo was seriously ill, however, almost sent her into a relapse. Ivy Boffin was very concerned for her daughter’s condition, and particularly as it appeared to mirror that of Frodo Baggins. Narcissa was still but a lass, and would not be an adult for years yet. Why on earth would she begin to form such an attachment so young? Nor was young Frodo anywhere near adulthood, either--he was just barely twenty-two himself, after all, and hadn’t apparently even begun paying much attention to lasses as of yet. True, he was remarkably handsome as Bagginses often were; but as he was still but a young tween himself, he would probably not begin to truly pay attention to lasses for another three years or so. Ivy therefore was relieved the day she heard that Frodo had begun to recover finally; and, sure enough, Narcissa also appeared to recover her own color at the same time. Well, there could be no question at all that Narcissa’s heart had already been captured, although it was very likely the object of her affections had not the slightest idea this had happened as yet. Ivy Boffin set herself to wait and watch her daughter--and Frodo Baggins.
Fortumbald Boffin, as a great-grandson on his mother’s side of the Old Took, was more adventurous than Boffins usually were, and often rode out of the Shire on his own, a very atypical behavior for a Boffin. He had business ties with the owners of the Prancing Pony in Bree, selling a good portion of his potato crop to the Butterburs. Old Barford Butterbur swore that Shire-grown potatoes had better flavor than did those grown in the Breelands, and Fortumbald of course felt this to be true as well, so he was happy enough to ride out to Bree to negotiate the price each harvest and to arrange delivery. His first trip to Bree had been with a mixed party of his Took cousins and a couple of Brandybucks, and he’d taken samples of his farm’s produce with him. After that, feeling comfortable with the Road from the Brandywine Bridge, he began to ride out alone, although it didn’t take long before he didn’t feel quite as alone, as he found himself joined, his second trip out on his own, driving a wagon full of potatoes, by a mounted Man in a stained grey cloak held closed by a star at the left shoulder, a sword at his hip, and a bow and quiver at his shoulder.
“Hello, Master Hobbit,” the tall Man said by way of introduction. “They call me Bowman, and I am one of the Rangers who patrol this region. There has been some activity by brigands along the Road, so I fear I cannot allow you to travel on your own at this time. I hope you will not take it amiss if I accompany you to Bree.”
There wasn’t a lot he could say against such a speech, although he found himself wondering if this mysterious Bowman might himself be a brigand. The rider had dropped behind the wagon, and often as Fortumbald looked over his shoulder he could see the Man, bow and arrow loosely held at the ready, watching out as they rode. Once they reached the West gate to Bree, the Ranger bowed his head respectfully and turned away. When he left the village the next day, his wagon now empty, another, this time one cloaked in green, the silver Star at his left shoulder, quite a young Man this, joined him once he was out of sight from the gate. “They call me Silver Sword, small Master,” he said as he smiled, and certainly the silvered hilt of his sword seemed to be at hand as they rode together.
The next time he rode out, in the early Spring, it was a worn-looking Man in a stained green cloak and no Star who joined him, quite a ways down the road from the Brandywine Bridge, an especially tall Man with watchful grey eyes, riding on a brown horse, a worn bow and quiver on his shoulder, again sword hilt ready to hand as they rode. He simply bowed his head in greeting and fell in slightly behind Fortumbald’s pony. As they rode he watched carefully till they passed the Barrowdowns, and then, as they continued the ride, began to sing softly, although the song gained in volume and clarity as it progressed.
This was not sung in the Common Tongue, and what language it was sung in the Hobbit had no idea; he only knew it was a powerful song and a beautiful one for all he did not understand the words. As they approached the gates to Bree another Ranger came out of the forest and approached, and his companion halted to await his coming.
“My lord,” the newcomer said, “we’ve found their camp. Six Men, two of whom have already been taken. Hardorn is watching the four left.”
His companion nodded, then turned to the Hobbit. “We will let you go on alone, then, small Master,” he said, and he turned his horse to follow his fellow. Fortumbald watched as the two disappeared back to the northwest, then turned to complete his journey to Bree alone.
Later that evening a party of three Men came into the Prancing Pony together, and Barford’s son Butterbur went warily to take their order as they sat together at a table in the corner. One of them was the Man who’d accompanied him that day, and one he thought was the one who’d introduced himself as Bowman. After they ate a meal and had a cup of ale, the other two rose, gave the one who remained a brief bow, and left the inn, while the one remaining had drawn out his pipe and filled and lit it.
A group of locals were drinking and laughing together, and at one point were clearly discussing something, giving the lone Man sitting in the corner looks. Finally one turned to him, and asked loudly, “What news from the wild, Strider?”
The Man in the stained green cloak shrugged. “Little enough,” he said, then blew out a smoke ring. “All is relatively quiet, for the moment at least.”
“Do you have any tales you can share with us tonight?” the other asked him.
“What kind of tale?”
The locals looked to one another, and shrugged, then one leaned toward their spokesman and murmured something. “How about the tale of Túrin and the dragon?” the one who served as spokesman suggested.
Strider sat thoughtfully, finished his pipe, took a pull at his mug, and signaled Butterbur for another. The tavern fell expectantly silent. When a new mug finally sat before him, he straightened somewhat, then began.
Fortumbald had heard the story before, heard it told by his cousin Bilbo Baggins; but he’d never heard it told as it was now. Strider’s voice deepened as he spoke, became increasingly rich and sad. It was told as half tale, half chanted poem; and as it was told and the horrible details of the dragon’s vengeful words were spoken, the Hobbit seemed to see the scene before him--grief-stricken Man; dying, sly monster, the dark blood still steaming as it pooled beneath the dragon’s belly.
All sat bespelled by Strider’s voice. Finally the deaths were told, the grief of Túrin’s companions described, and Strider fell silent. At length he drained his mug, rose, left a coin on the table, bowed to the company, and exited the inn. All watched after, and at last the buzz of voices finally rose again, although more subdued than they’d been before.
The one who’d served as spokesman looked still toward the doorway, finally turned back to his own mug. “No one can tell a tale like that one,” he commented.
After Fortumbald had a chance to speak with Barford about how much in potatoes he would like to see this year, he finally asked about the Rangers and Strider. “Little enough to tell,” the innkeeper said. “Always been Rangers hereabouts, there have. Seem to come from the North, keep to themselves mostly. Rarely have more than two or three here at a time, usually just one, in fact. Strider’s the only one as I know as wears no Star, though; my dad said when he was younger he did wear one, but then for years no one saw him at all, and when he finally come back a few years ago he didn’t wear one no more. No idea as to how old he is, but for all he looks relatively young he must really be getting on. Don’t seem to age much, the Rangers don’t. Carry their swords and bows, and know how to use them, too. Seen them break up more than one fight in here with strangers who’d thought to make themselves important with their weapons. Was a mad dog last summer come through the village, and that Bowman got it with a single arrow to the throat. They could be dangerous, I suspect, the Rangers.”
When Fortumbald headed back toward the Brandywine Bridge again the next day, once again it was Strider who joined him.
“Hello, Strider,” the Hobbit greeted him.
“Master Hobbit,” the Man said in reply.
“Not even my cousin Bilbo tells the story of Túrin and the Dragon as you did last night.”
“Ah, you are kin to Bilbo Baggins, then?”
“You know him?”
“I certainly know of him,” Strider said, but said no more.
Finally, Fortumbald said, “Bilbo says he dealt with a dragon once.”
Strider shrugged. “Smaug was sly, too. Dwarves are glad to have him gone, as are the Men of Dale.”
“How did he die?”
“Didn’t Bilbo tell you? Bard the Bowman shot him with an arrow in the one place where he was vulnerable. Fell into Long Lake near the ruins of Lake Town.”
“Then Bilbo’s tales were true?”
“If he told you that, then, yes, they were true.”
The rest of the ride was passed in silence, till Strider stopped short of the Bridge, gave a respectful bow of his head, and turned and rode East once more.
Fortumbald continued riding out to Bree two or three times a year, and usually a Ranger would join him along the road each way. None said much or had much to say of themselves; but it was Strider Fortumbald looked forward to seeing, for often he’d sing at least once along the way. After Barford’s death the Hobbit dealt with Barliman, and so it went until three years after Bilbo Baggins disappeared again, when Fortumbald suddenly died. His daughter Narcissa and widow Ivy were grief-stricken; but at that time the family farm’s dealings with Bree stopped, for the tales they heard from outside the Shire told increasingly of danger, and none of those now working the land wished to ride out to Bree any more. But the stories Fortumbald had told his daughter about Strider and the Rangers she was to remember.