Frodo saw Sam walking with his sister Marigold and his brothers Hal and Ham near the garden tent, where Sam and Hal both had entries, and approached him eagerly. “There you are,” Frodo said. “I’ve just become aware of a family business matter that I need to see to, so I’ll not be going directly home tomorrow. Must see to the situation of a cousin or two. I should be home in a matter of a few days.”
Sam nodded his understanding. “I’ll see to things at Bag End for you, then, Mr. Frodo,” he assured him. “You take as long as you need.”
That night Frodo, Merry, Pippin, and Fatty Bolger slept out together in a wooded area about a mile from Michel Delving, and early the next morning they were back to get a first breakfast at one of the food stalls they’d always liked best. They saw the last of the judging, and then Frodo wished them a good day and headed out on his own. The rest had no idea where he was going, and he certainly had no intention of telling them.
Among the papers Bilbo had left Frodo were descriptions of every Baggins known to remain in the Shire, their family ties to Bilbo and Frodo, where they lived and under what circumstances. Frodo had followed the fortunes of his uncle Dudo and Emerald, and had been delighted to learn of the birth of the twins; but Emerald had certainly not encouraged him to visit young Fosco and Forsythia. Emerald appeared not to have left any will at all, which had made it easier for Emro and Lilac Gravelly to claim the twins as fosterlings; Frodo now felt it was time to see them personally and to see whether or not they were indeed happy.
Westhall was a small village he’d visited rarely--once with Bilbo, many years previously, and then for first Dudo’s and then Emerald’s funerals. Now he intended to go there again, and found himself wishing he looked less like his Uncle Dudo--it would be easier to find out what he wanted to know if people didn’t connect him to his young cousins. Then he thought of Oridon Goodbody, and smiled. Yes, he thought, Oridon would be a good Hobbit to use in this. As he walked through the area where carts and wagons and ponies were cared for, Frodo kept an eye out for Oridon’s rig, and spotted it near the edge of the area. Frodo smiled, and settled on a fence rail where he could keep an eye out for his banker of discretion while he smoked his pipe.
Many of the Goodbodies had become bankers of discretion. There was a strong strain of arithmetical ability that ran through the family, along with a tendency to entertain romantic imaginations and keep ones own counsel which made them perfect for the job. Oridon loved his work, and particularly enjoyed working for Frodo, for Frodo gave him a fairly free hand and had proven to have as romantic a turn of mind as Oridon himself. At first Oridon had taken offense when he found himself having to deal with Brendilac Brandybuck as Frodo’s lawyer when Frodo had made the switch from Beslo Grubbs three years back, but Brendilac had proven to be better at the paperwork as well as more discrete than old Beslo, and there was no question he truly cared about his Baggins cousin and did his best to see to his interests. Beslo had himself died not long ago, and no one had as yet taken up the old Hobbit’s clients--yes, Frodo had made a good decision, changing over when he did.
Oridon and his son Ordo finally left the fairgrounds and headed for their wagon and team. When he spotted Frodo awaiting them, Oridon smiled. “Ah,” he said quietly to his son, “it appears we have something we can do. Shall we see what it is?”
Frodo stowed his pipe as they approached and rose to greet them. Finally after the greetings were said, Frodo explained, “The two cousins closest to me by blood are my Uncle Dudo’s twins by Emerald Boffin, who, like Bilbo, was a grandchild of the Old Took. I think that we are closer in blood even than his daughter Daisy by his first wife.
“Since Emerald died a few years ago, Emro and Lilac Gravelly have taken the children as their own, but on whose authority I have no idea. Nor will they accept the gifts I’ve sent the bairns each year since their birth. I’ve not yet set Brendilac to see if either Dudo or Emerald left a will, but I certainly can’t imagine Dudo wouldn’t have done so. He was, after all, a Baggins. Emerald, however, might indeed not have left a will--but, then, she might have left one anyway. The two children, however, as Bagginses by both blood and name, are, in the end, my responsibility as family head. I intend to seek them out over the next few days, there near the Gravelly farm where they live; I’d like you, Oridon, to go into Westhall and find out such information as you can about their status, if you will. When can you come up to Westhall to do this?”
Oridon and Ordo spoke softly for a time, then finally looked back to Frodo. “We could head up there tomorrow,” Oridon announced. “It will take you that long to get there if you make it a walking trip, as I suspect you’ve already determined.” Frodo nodded. “Shall we both give ourselves a couple of days; maybe meet near the inn there a couple hours after noon day after tomorrow if we find we want to look over the situation more closely, and definitely plan to meet at the Jumping Cricket at Bedlinger and compare notes four nights from now?”
All agreed, and with a nod of his head Frodo shouldered his worn pack and climbed through the paddock fence, heading north and west.
Forsythia was carefully pulling out the tiny purple horns from a clover blossom, biting off the tips, and sucking out the nectar while her brother whittled on a piece of branch when the stranger appeared out of the woods surrounding their field. He was a slightly taller than average Hobbit with very dark hair, dressed in well worn but still good clothes, wearing a pack with a bedroll wrapped in a green cloak on his back, and carrying a nice walking stick cut from a birch sapling tipped with silver. Forsythia was a good one for noting details--it was necessary, she’d found, so that she could tell her brother about what it was she saw. Fosco, after all, didn’t see well at all, except for those things right up next to him.
Fosco heard the stranger whistling softly as he approached, though he didn’t see him. He stopped his whittling and cocked his head. “Who is that?” he asked. “Doesn’t sound like Da or Beasty.”
“It’s not,” his sister agreed. Beasty, actually Bedro Bracegirdle, was the local bully, who had taken to stalking Fosco and seeking to make his life unbearable. His da had managed to cause such problems in Hardbottle that he’d had to leave town to stay out of serious trouble; Bedro hadn’t yet realized that there might be reason to rein in his native antagonism toward others. Forsythia kept up her watch on the stranger. “He’s not anyone I’ve ever seen--he’s tall and skinny.”
“Is he a tramp?” Fosco asked.
“No, I don’t think so,” his sister said. “Clothes are too good, and his walking stick is shod.”
Together they waited while the stranger came nearer. Finally he stopped, some feet off, and gave them a look. “Mind if I sit here and rest a bit?” he asked.
“No, we don’t mind,” Forsythia said. “Where are you from?”
“Walked up from Michel Delving and the Free Fair,” he said.
“We went to the Free Fair this year,” Fosco said. “Mum and Da took us.”
“I think I saw you there,” the stranger admitted. “You certainly look familiar.”
“Why were you at the Free Fair?” asked Forsythia.
“I’ve been going almost every year since I was born,” he said. “How often do you go?”
“That was just our second time. Mummy--our real mummy--took us once. This was the first time Mum and Da have taken us.”
“What happened to your real mummy, then?”
“She died when we were still tiny.”
“I see. I’m sorry.”
“Do your mum and da take you?”
He gave a sad smile. “I was almost twelve when my mum and dad died. It was an accident. I stayed with my cousins at first, then was adopted by my uncle.”
“Our cousins don’t pay us no mind,” said Fosco with a definite sound of anger in his voice. “Mum and Da worked with our real dad, and took us when Mummy died. They’ve never heard from our cousins.”
Forsythia noted that the stranger’s face became angry, and thought it was on their account. “It’s okay,” she said. “Our oldest cousin left the Shire years ago anyway. Maybe the rest don’t know about us.”
“Who was your oldest cousin?”
“He was called Bilbo. Mum and Da say he was crazy.”
“I don’t know what his last name was--just Bilbo.”
“What’s your last name?”
Forsythia thought for a moment. “I’m not sure if that’s our real last name. Mum and Da haven’t told us.”
“How old are you?”
“Both of you?”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen twins before,” the stranger commented. He was getting into his pack and bringing out a large packet of oiled paper. “It’s time for my elevenses. Would you like to share? Wouldn’t be polite to eat in front of you and not share, you know.”
“Have you heard about twins before?” asked Fosco.
“Yes. Lord Elrond was one of twins, and his sons are also twins.”
“Who is Lord Elrond?”
The stranger was quiet as he unwrapped three pasties and offered one to each of the children, then took the last for himself. Finally he said, “He is Lord of Rivendell, where the Last Homely House is. He is an Elf Lord.”
“Do Elves have twins?”
“I guess they do, as he was a twin and his sons are twins.”
“Is his twin brother a lord, too?”
The stranger shrugged. “The Lord Elrond and his brother were the Peredhil, the Half-Elven, for their grandmothers were Elves but their grandfathers were Men. They were given the choice which they would be themselves. Lord Elrond chose the life of the Eldar, to become an Elf and live as an Elf. His brother chose the lot of Mankind and became a mortal, although they say he lived far longer than Men usually do. He was a lord, though, and was the first king of Númenor.”
“How do you know so much about it?” asked the sister.
“I’ve read books, and spoken with Elves.”
“You’ve spoken with Elves?”
The stranger nodded. “Yes, but not much,” he admitted. “They like the Shire, you know. They like to travel through it. They say it is peaceful here, more peaceful than it is outside.”
“Where do you find books about Elves?” asked Fosco.
The stranger turned his clear, blue eyes on the two children who sat by him. Finally he answered, “My uncle had lots of books about and even by Elves. He used to take me walking through the Shire when I was young to find them, introduced me to them when I was still a young teen.”
“Your uncle talked to Elves?”
The stranger nodded.
“Do you see them still?” Forsythia wanted to know.
“I’ve not seen much in the way of Elves now for some years. There are troubles in the outer world, dark troubles, and so they don’t travel as much as they once did, or they are fleeing to the Havens to leave Middle Earth for good. The few I’ve seen in the past years were doing that, going to the Havens. They were mostly wood Elves, though. But they were still leaving, heading for Elvenhome before the way becomes closed completely.”
Fosco asked, “How about your uncle?”
The stranger turned his eyes away. He shook his head, then said quietly, “He left over nine years ago.” They were quiet for a time while they ate their pasties. At last he asked, “Do you like living here?”
“We were born here, after all,” Forsythia answered.
“Yes, but do you like it?”
“Mostly, yes. I liked Michel Delving, though. It is a lovely village.”
“Yes, I agree.”
“Do you live there?”
“No, but I’ve always gone there for the Free Fair. Do either of you read?”
“Yes, we both do. Mum doesn’t like us to read, though.”
He looked surprised. “She doesn’t like you to read?”
Fosco laughed. “No, she doesn’t. She keeps telling me it will hurt my eyes more, but it doesn’t, not really. But she doesn’t like for Sythie to read, either. I think it’s mostly because she doesn’t read herself.”
“Hurt your eyes more?”
“I don’t see good, you see. Lyria says it’s most likely because we came so early, that my eyes can’t see a lot. I can see things up close, but not things that are very far away.”
“Oh, I see. I was early, too, but it didn’t hurt my eyes--I was sick some as a child, though.”
“Do you have brothers and sisters?” Forsythia asked.
“No. Mum had a sister for me, once, but she didn’t live.”
“Oh. That’s too bad.”
“So I’ve had to make do with my cousins.”
Fosco sighed. “I wish we had cousins.”
“I thought you said you do.”
“None that pay attention to us.”
“Maybe that will change in time.”
After a while Forsythia asked, “Where are you staying?”
“I’m camping in the woods.”
“Why don’t you stay in the inn?”
“I like sleeping out under the stars. They always make me feel better.”
“Do you sleep out under the stars at home?”
“Sometimes I do. But I mostly stay in my own room. Who taught you to read?”
“Our real mum did when we were tiny. Who taught you to read?”
“I don’t remember. Seems as if I always just knew. Might have been my mum or dad, or my uncle, or maybe all three.” He looked at the wood Fosco still held. “You like to whittle?”
“Yes. Do you?”
“I tried carving wood a couple times when I was smaller, but I’m better at drawing. My dad did woodcarving, though--he was very good.”
“Mum and Da say our real dad made furniture,” the lad volunteered.
“Oh, did he?”
“Yes. What did you carve?”
“I tried carving a bird, but it looked more like a lizard when it was done. Then I made a walking stick for one of my uncles, and carved a dragon on the handle. It did look like a dragon, much more than the bird looked like a bird.”
“There’s no such things as dragons. Da says so.” Forsythia sounded very sure of this.
“There might not be any dragons left now, but there used to be such. The Dwarves have told me about Smaug and what he was like.”
“You talk to Dwarves?” asked Fosco, surprised.
“I have talked to Dwarves. They travel through the Shire on their way between the Iron Hills and Erebor.”
Forsythia asked, “Where are the Iron Hills?”
“West of the Shire.”
“Where’s Erebor?” her brother wanted to know.
“Far to the East, east of the Misty Mountains.”
“I’ve seen Dwarves,” Forsythia said.
“Not as many Dwarves travel through the Shire now as used to do.”
“Same reason as the Elves--things are getting worse outside the Shire than they used to be.”
“That’s sad,” said Fosco.
The stranger pulled a handful of horehound drops out of his pocket and offered them some. The two young Hobbits accepted them courteously. Forsythia asked, “Are you married?”
He looked sad. “No.”
He gave her an odd look. “I don’t really know why.”
“Don’t you want to get married?”
“Then ask someone.”
“I wish it were that easy.”
Fosco looked up. “I think it’s almost time for us to go home. Otherwise Mum will come looking for us.”
The stranger looked up. “It’s close to noon. Yes, she’ll be expecting you for luncheon.”
“Will you be here tomorrow?”
“Yes, although I must head for home tomorrow afternoon.”
“Maybe we’ll see you then.” The two of them stood up, and Forsythia took her brother’s hand, and together they headed across the fields toward their home near the edge of the village.
At the far side of the field they stopped and Forsythia looked back. “He’s still there, Fosco,” she said. “He’s watching after us. Now he’s getting up, sort of bowing toward us, and picking up his pack. Now he’s turning away, and heading back through the fence and now he’s going into the woods again.” She gave a wave, then turned back toward the village again. They didn’t have to discuss between them that they ought not to say anything about the stranger to their mum.
Oridon and Ordo sat in the village inn eating their luncheon when Emro Gravelly came in. How the farmer came to sit at their table he couldn’t say afterwards, but the strangers from near the center of the Shire were quite warm and welcoming and interested in what could be learned of the area--indicated they were looking for farms to buy shares in and businesses to invest in. He gladly discussed with them the farm he’d inherited from his dad, the brother and sister who shared it with him, the other two brothers who had gone on to take apprenticeships elsewhere, the uncle who had become a smith and whose shop had sold furniture for a time when their father’s partner had been still living. How he came to be speaking of Fosco and Forsythia afterwards he couldn’t say, either, although he realized this was a part of the conversation he would not be admitting to Lilac. But they did discuss the two children at length, and that there was a smial that would be theirs when they became older, that it was full of books and things, that no will had been looked for when Emerald Baggins died, that it was now locked up and all. Then they discussed other businesses in the area, and by the time he returned to his farm he’d quite forgotten that they had discussed the business of Dudo and Emerald Baggins.
As head of the Baggins family, Frodo had some rights and responsibilities, and in the late afternoon Frodo, Oridon, and Ordo approached the headman in the village, swore him to secrecy, and got the extra key with which to enter the smial which had been the home of Dudo and Emerald. It didn’t take them long to find Emerald’s will and to check out the contents of the smial against the inventory which had been made when Emerald died. Frodo quickly made a copy of the inventory and the will, his copy of the will was signed by the headman, Oridon and Ordo, and they left it in the place of the original and took that with them. A few items were missing, some of the more expensive jewelry pieces and the best of the furniture; and the headman admitted that Lilac had been seen wearing the jewelry, and that he’d seen the furniture in the Gravelly home, and that it was used by the children.
None of the books in the smial were missing, however, and there was a brief discussion on how these might be made available to the two children while they remained with their foster parents. So far there was no sign of abuse or neglect of the children by the Gravellies, so there could be no real justification of taking the children from them--refusing them reading material certainly wasn’t grounds. Gander Proudfoot, who was both headman to the village and a distant relative of Frodo’s in his own right through his father’s mother’s side of the family, was glad that at last young Frodo Baggins was taking an interest in his first cousins, and was glad also that he had no intention as yet of removing the children from their current placement.
He denied the two children faced any problems at all, conveniently forgetting Bedro Bracegirdle. Ordo, however, had recognized Bigelow Bracegirdle as they arrived in the village, and all three of them had heard the tales from Hardbottle that had preceded the removal of the family from there. Once the two Goodbodies realized there was a Bracegirdle family in residence in Westhall, the two of them began looking for signs of bullying, which appeared to accompany the Bracegirdles the way plants grew around Gamgees and disturbing events seemed to take place about anywhere a Took took up residence.
Finding out what the Bracegirdles were doing didn’t take too long--Oridon returned to the inn and had plenty of chances to watch Bigelow’s activities that evening as he came in sullen, became drunk over the length of the evening, and began to harass one of the younger farmers who sat nearby. Ordo and Frodo, who went out into the commons area, saw Bedro finally, and saw him teasing the lasses, who uniformly shuddered when he came near them, and harassing several of the lads. When the two children who were quite plainly kin to Frodo Baggins came into view dutifully following their foster mum, Bedro began to shadow them; and when Lilac Gravelly went into a friend’s house to visit, Fosco and Forsythia remained out in the yard. Once it was plain that the adults were paying the children outside no heed, he began to harass them, obviously targeting Fosco especially.
Frodo watched for a time, barely able to contain his anger. When Bedro began chasing the two smaller Hobbit children down toward the Commons, however, he readied himself. Ordo watched with interest as his father’s employer stood up in the shadow of a tree, and then, as the children fled past him stepped into Bedro’s path. “You appear to like harassing smaller lads and lasses,” Frodo said conversationally.
“What’s it to you?”asked Bedro, surprised to see this much slighter individual in his path.
“Nothing, I suppose, except that I have this dislike of seeing anyone chased and threatened,” the stranger said.
“And what do you propose to do about it?” growled Bedro, preparing to beat the stranger.
“Just this,” Frodo said quietly, and Bedro felt one punch and found himself lying on the ground, quite surprised. Frodo turned and left the village. Only Ordo saw the quick interaction, and there was no way he was going to make a complaint or support any the young Bracegirdle might make. Bedro finally got up and stood shaking his head for some moments. What had become of the strange Hobbit who had confronted him he had no idea; but he had no intentions of facing him again. Continuing to shake his head, he went off toward his home.
Fosco and Forsythia, once they realized they were no longer being pursued by Beasty, crept back toward the house where their Mum was visiting, keeping a sharp eye out for the bully, but finding him nowhere. When Lilac came out she was quite surprised to find the two of them sitting openly in the front garden of the house, for usually they seemed to end up around back or even, for some reason she’d never bothered to ascertain, up in one of the trees.
They were looking forward the following day to perhaps seeing the strange Hobbit out in the field again. As Forsythia led her brother through the field, she looked about carefully, but had to admit she didn’t see him. Finally, though, as they approached the far fence, she saw him, outside the fence, sitting in the shade of the trees at the edge of the woods, a notebook and pencil in his hands. He seemed intent on his writing, and Forsythia whispered all this to her brother. They quietly approached the fence out of his line of sight, crept through, then came along the line of trees until they were standing near him. Forsythia realized now that he wasn’t writing, but that he was drawing, and he was drawing the field through which they’d come and the dead tree that stood in the middle of it.
“Ooh,” she said, “that is good!”
“What is good?” asked Fosco.
“He’s drawing a picture of the field and the dead tree, and it looks just like it.”
“Oh, can I see it?” her brother asked.
The stranger had been a bit startled when Forsythia spoke up, but only a bit, and now he was smiling at the two of them. “Certainly you can see it if you like,” he said, and he handed the notebook to the lad. He watched as the child took it and held it at an angle to his face, and moved his head carefully over it. Finally he smiled and handed it back, carefully looking at the artist out of the corner of his right eye.
“It’s very nice,” the lad commented.
“Well, it appears you and your sister both like it, so obviously it must be nice,” the grown Hobbit commented.
“Where did you get your walking stick?” asked Forsythia.
“One of my uncles gave it to me for Yule a few years before I came of age,” he said. “He knew I liked going on walking trips, so he thought I would like it.”
“The uncle who adopted you?”
“No, another one. My mum’s older brother.”
“Do you get to see him often?”
“No, he died a few years ago.”
“Oh.” She was quiet for a time. “Did your da have brothers?”
The stranger nodded. “Yes, he had an older sister and a younger brother. Both of them are dead now, though.”
“That’s sad, that all your uncles and aunts are gone now.”
“I call some of my older cousins Aunt and Uncle, but they are really cousins. They are still much older than I am, though.”
“Do you have cousins who are your own age?”
“A few who are near my age, but the ones I’m closest to are the ones who are younger than I am.”
“Why?” asked Fosco.
The older Hobbit shrugged. “Like I said yesterday, I was often ill when I was younger, so my cousins who fostered me wouldn’t let me play too hard. I didn’t understand why then--and I’m not certain I understand it now, either. So for my chore I got to take care of the younger ones in the smial, my younger cousins, that is. Their son is like my little brother, and another cousin who is younger is like he’s littler brother to both of us. And my best friend is as if he were my little brother, too.” He finished his picture, then closed up the notebook and put it and the drawing stick away, pulled out another packet wrapped in oiled paper. “I went into the village late yesterday and got some pork pies. Would you each like one?”
“Oh, the pork pies from the inn are very good,” Fosco said. “Yes, please.”
Again he shared them out among the three of them, then drew out three bottles of ginger beer, giving each of them one. Together they ate the pies and drank the ginger beer. He asked, “Do you have friends here in Westhall?”
Forsythia answered, “I play with Petunia Stock sometimes, but she’s not very smart. She can’t read and thinks reading is foolish, and doesn’t believe there are Elves.”
“Not believing in Elves is what is foolish,” the grown Hobbit commented. “I’ve certainly seen them. My friend Sam hasn’t seen one yet, but is dying to do so. He’s gone with me on a couple of walking trips where we hoped to see some, but like I said there aren’t many who travel openly right now. It may be hard to see a Hobbit who doesn’t want to be seen, but it’s harder to see an Elf who is hiding himself. That’s what my uncle used to tell me.”
“She doesn’t believe in Dwarves, either, but I’ve seen them.”
“Does she believe in Men?”
Forsythia thought for a few moments before answering, “No, I don’t think she does. Have you ever seen a Man?”
He nodded. “Yes, when I was just a lad and was in Buckland. Sometimes Men will ride along the West Road from the Brandywine Bridge, tall Men on real horses, which are so much bigger than our Shire ponies. All I’ve seen were dressed in grey or green cloaks with silver stars on their left shoulders. My uncle told me they are Rangers of Eriador.”
“Your uncle knows a lot about those who live outside the Shire,” Forsythia said.
He shrugged. “Yes, he’s been outside the Shire.”
“Oh, has he been to Bree?” she asked.
“I’d like to go to Bree some time,” Fosco commented. “Have you ever been there?”
“No, I’ve not been outside the Shire yet. My cousins wouldn’t let me when I was younger, and they made my uncle promise not to take me when he adopted me.”
“That’s not fair,” the lad said.
Their companion smiled. “They didn’t want him to infect me with the wanderlust he had,” he explained. “One day I suspect I will go off, but not yet.”
“What’s your name?” asked Forsythia.
The stranger looked at them, obviously thinking. “You can call me Iorhael, I suppose,” he finally said. “The Elves say that’s my name in their language.”
“You mean they don’t speak our language?”
“The Elves I’ve spoken to speak the Common Tongue, but also speak Sindarin, and perhaps Quenya as well. Those are two of the Elven languages.”
“Oh, I didn’t know they had their own languages. Do Dwarves have their own languages, too?”
“Yes, they do. And Men have a number of languages they might speak, depending on where they are from.”
Both children were very impressed.
Iorhael asked Fosco, “Do you have a best friend?”
He shook his head. “I used to play with Cousin Fendi, but he says I slow him up because I can’t see as well as he can. His mum is afraid he’ll hurt me, so I think it’s mostly she doesn’t want him to play with me.”
“That’s too bad,” Iorhael said. “Is there anyone you don’t like in the village?”
Both of them nodded. “Beasty Bracegirdle,” they said at the same time.
“Beasty?” he asked.
“His real name is Bedro,” Forsythia said.
Fosco nodded. “Everyone calls him Beasty, though. He’s not nice. He picks on us.”
“Oh, I see.”
“Did you have someone pick on you when you were small?”
“I think everyone does at one point or another.”
“Beasty was chasing us last night, then suddenly stopped and left. We don’t know why he stopped or where he went,” Forsythia said.
“He’s a nasty git,” Fosco commented. “I’d like to be able to give him a real punch some day.”
Iorhael laughed. “One of my older cousins taught me to do that when I was a tween. I’ve been very glad he did.”
“Can you teach me?” asked Fosco.
Iorhael looked at him critically. “I’m not certain you are big enough to do a really good punch yet, certainly not toward someone as much taller than you are as Beasty is. Part of what works for me is that I am a bit taller than most Hobbits, so I can get what my older cousin called leverage. I can sort of show you, but until you grow taller it won’t work very well for you. What my little cousin does that works for him is to roll under the reach of the bigger lads and tackle their legs and make them fall down. Then he and the other smaller lads gang up on them.”
“Oh, I’d love to do that to Beasty, but I don’t think I could talk the other lads my size into helping me.”
“It does call for cooperation.”
“Would you show me anyway?”
Iorhael took his bedroll with his cloak around it off his pack and set it against a fence post, and did his best to teach Fosco. They worked on it for a half hour or so, then the grown Hobbit called a halt. “You’ll have to work on it for a time, but I’ll warn you it works best when it’s on someone near your own height. And it’s best that they don’t realize you’re going to punch them. I talk to them and get them convinced that I couldn’t hurt them, then suddenly let go, and they fall down real fast.”
“Oh, I can’t wait till I’m big enough to do that. Do you do it often?”
“No. Mac made me promise only to use my punch when it’s really needed, so I don’t really hurt anyone who doesn’t deserve it.”
“Why did he teach you?”
“One of the tweens my older cousin hired to work on the farm was a bad bully, and he was beating up on all the littler lads. One day I tried to stop him, and almost got beaten up as a result. Mac saw him getting ready to beat both me and the little one he had been hurting, and stopped it himself, then taught me when I asked him.”
“You are good at it now?”
Forsythia sighed. “I hate Beasty. He is a bully.”
“Most of the Bracegirdles are pretty nasty folks,” Iorhael agreed.
“His dad Bigelow is a drunk.”
“I’m sorry. It’s such a waste when folk drink like that.”
They continued talking for a time, then Iorhael looked up. “It’s almost noon. I need to leave, and your mum will want you home for luncheon again. I’ll try to walk this way again in a few months, and look forward to seeing you then.” He rummaged through his pack and brought out a book. “This used to belong to a younger cousin, but he gave it to me so I could give it to someone who is younger than he is now who might like it. Would you two like it?”
Forsythia reached for it eagerly. “Oh, yes,” she said. “We love books, you know.” She took it and read the title. “Joco and the Cornfield. Oh, I love this story!”
“You do? Then good, I know you’ll enjoy the book then.” He was rerolling his bedroll and cloak, then attached them onto his pack. “I hope to see you perhaps in early September, then.”
After that Iorhael came to Westhall two to three times a year, and Fosco and Forsythia looked forward to his coming. He always looked about the same, his hair dark brown, his eyes so very blue, his smile always inviting. Usually he brought them a gift or two, which the two of them would slip into the house and hide away. In time they found a cave which became their hideout, and they brought him there, and they kept his gifts there instead of in the house where Mum might find them. He knew how to cook over an open fire, and taught them how to hunt mushrooms in the woods and how to cook them on sticks. He showed them how to tell which berries were good to eat, and how to find wild onions. He took them fishing, and showed them how to cook what they caught. Each time he came he worked with Fosco on how to throw that telling punch, and each time the lad got better. And he began to teach them to dance.
Their da also was meeting with Hobbits from the center of the Shire. One was a banker of discretion and the other was a lawyer, who bought interests in the farm. How Forsythia came to realize that these were connected to Iorhael she couldn’t say; but she figured it out.
The last time Iorhael came, they were sixteen. It was just after Midsummer, and they’d just seen him at the Free Fair in Michel Delving. He’d been sitting near the ale tent and the dancing ground, telling a tale to the younger lads and lasses when they recognized his voice, and they’d come to listen to the story, too. It was then that they heard someone calling him Frodo Baggins and realized this was his real name. When their mum had realized who it was they were listening to, she tried to hurry them away. Neither of them intended to leave, though, and they sat there stubbornly listening until the story was done and Frodo had gotten up and nodded his thanks to his audience and walked away with his grown friends. Then and only then did they allow Mum to lead them off, and when they got to a quiet place, Forsythia had glared at her foster mother and asked, “What is our real last name?”
Mum tried not to answer, but finally admitted, “Baggins.”
“Then he’s a cousin of ours?”
“Yes. His da was your real da’s older brother.”
“I see,” Forsythia said, and then grew quiet. For the rest of the day she only spoke to Mum when Mum asked a question. She was polite, but would say nothing on her own.
The day after they got home the two of them hurried off to the cave to wait for Iorhael to come. He arrived in the evening, and didn’t appear surprised to see them there.
“You are our cousin, then?” asked Fosco.
“Yes, I am.”
“Why didn’t you tell us?”
“Your mum and da didn’t want you to have anything to do with me, and have always sent back the gifts I sent you. This was the only way I could tell if you were all right.”
“Why didn’t they want us to have anything to do with you?”
“Because I’m family head, and could insist on taking you to foster the way Bilbo did me. Your mum and da love you and were afraid of losing you. But unless things aren’t good for you, I won’t insist on that. They do love you and mostly treat you very well.”
“You knew Bilbo?”
“Yes, I knew Bilbo. He is my cousin whom I’ve always called ‘Uncle’ who adopted me and left me his heir and the head of the family.”
“So, Mum lied when she said our cousins didn’t try to find out anything about us, then?” asked Forsythia. Iorhael nodded. “And your real name is Frodo.”
“Yes, my name in Westron is Frodo. But it really is Iorhael in Elvish.”
“What’s Westron?” asked Fosco.
“It’s the proper name for the Common Tongue.”
“So when you were angry when we told you about Bilbo, you weren’t angry he ignored us, but because you knew he hadn’t ignored us after all?”
“Yes, and because I hate hearing people say he is crazy. He isn’t crazy at all. He is one of the smartest Hobbits there has ever been.”
“He isn’t still alive, is he?” asked Forsythia.
“Yes, I believe he is.”
“Where is he?” asked Fosco.
“When I came of age he left the Shire, and went back to Erebor once more to see the Dwarves who live now once again beneath the Lonely Mountain. I’m not certain where he went from there, but I intend to find out.”
“Are you going to leave the Shire, too?” Forsythia asked, suddenly worried.
Frodo Baggins looked at his two young cousins for quite some time before he answered, “Yes, I have to leave very soon.”
“Why?” asked Fosco.
He was quiet while he thought what to answer. “Are you willing to swear not to tell anyone what I tell you?” he asked.
Both said they’d swear. He again examined them at length before he said, “Bilbo left me something I have to take out of the Shire because we’ve learned it is very, very dangerous. If I don’t take it away, bad people are likely to come to the Shire and try to hurt Hobbits looking for it. I’ll be taking it where it’s safe to leave it.”
“Will you come back afterwards?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. I hope to, but have no idea what will happen. Maybe, once I find where Bilbo is I’ll just stay with him.
“You really like Bilbo?” asked Forsythia.
“He’s my family, Forsythia. He’s the one who really loved me, enough to take me and adopt me. My cousins who fostered me before love me, too--they love me very much, in fact. But they didn’t let me do the things I needed to be able to do in order to feel grown up, needed. Bilbo did. He trusted me, and taught me how to take care of myself and others the way we all need.”
Fosco looked at Frodo as carefully as he could with his limited vision. “I don’t want you to leave, Iorhael--Frodo. I want you to stay here in the Shire. I’d like to live with you.”
“If it hadn’t been for the--for this thing I have to deal with, I’d take you now, and see you properly educated and all. But this is truly important. It’s something that affects everyone, Elves and Dwarves and Men and Hobbits and all the rest, too.
“One other thing,” Frodo added, “I can’t tell you exactly how I know this, but it’s important that you not let others know you are Bagginses. Let them think you are Gravellies until I get back--if I come back. Otherwise I fear they will hurt you and your mum and da very badly. Do you understand?”
Fosco and Forsythia finally agreed to this. Frodo nodded with relief. “I’ve come to like you two very much, and am glad we are cousins. Hang on till this is over, and I will do my best to make certain you get a good education and the final raising you need.”
A letter came in September for Forsythia, delivered quietly to her by Oridon Goodbody, the banker of discretion who worked with their da. It was quite short.
Dear Forsythia and Fosco,
I am glad I got to meet you. I’m off to do what I have to do. Take care and hold on as well as you can.
That was the last they heard for quite some time.
Then the Time of Troubles started, and there was little time to think of anyone else at all. There were no Big Men quartered in their little village, but their wagons came through and the Men and Hobbits who came with them took as much as they could of the goods the Hobbits of Westhall owned. Somehow, however, it appeared no one thought of going through the smial on the east end of the village. Told that the Hobbits who’d owned it had died years ago, the Big Men assumed it was empty and never gave it a second look. Certainly the ivy growing over the windows gave it a deserted and somewhat decrepit appearance.
The Hobbits of Westhall lowered their heads and hid in their holes and houses as much as they could, and mostly they were ignored by the Big Men, for which they were grateful. That Frodo Baggins’s first cousins lived there was not generally known (or at least thought about) even within the village, and certainly Lilac and Emro Gravelly weren’t going to tell anyone, nor would Gander Proudfoot, who also was not making his own relationship to the Bagginses known. It was best, all agreed, to keep quiet and low, and hope the whole thing would blow over soon.
Things often felt horrible to the two young twins, and as that horrid winter came on they appeared to get worse and worse. A Shiriff House was built on the edge of the Commons, but only three Shiriffs were stationed there, as glad to be ignored by the Big Men as the rest of the folk of Westhall. No one was surprised when Bedro Bracegirdle joined the Shiriffs, but he was sent to the eastern borders, where his troop was stationed along the Brandywine. The Hobbits of Buckland closed and locked their doors and didn’t allow the Shiriffs and Big Men entry to their smials. It appeared the Shiriffs could not keep the Buckleberry Ferry floating, and all rowboats disappeared suddenly, or developed serious problems with holes in the bottoms. The only way into Buckland was via the Brandywine Bridge, and the road was suddenly very dangerous for those who were not born to the region. The Big Men and Shiriffs weren’t overtly attacked as they were in Tookland; but there was no question that once their nature was known they didn’t appear to fare well at all in Buckland. With the little news that filtered into Westhall regarding the situation along the Brandywine, all were glad that Bedro had been sent there, even his father.
Spring as it approached seemed to grow darker by the day. South of them the sky was brown and dreary, and seemed to grow more so day by day. Forsythia and Fosco found themselves dreaming constantly of their friend Iorhael, and they were not good dreams. They dreamed about darkness, dust, fire, terror, horrible faces looming up lit by red flames, cries of pain.
Then came the darkest day of all, when the entire sky to the south of the Shire was a solid ceiling of dark brown dust. All felt the tension mount in the air, then a moment of unexplainable horror--followed by a feeling of relief unprecedented in the memories of Hobbits anywhere, as winds high in the heavens ripped at the brown cloud and tore it to shreds, allowing light and joy back into hearts long afflicted with fear and terror. Even the Big Men and those Hobbits that followed and supported them were taken aback, looking at the sky in consternation, uncertain what the changes meant.
But, when after several days of uncertainty no forces of good appeared out of the wilderness surrounding the Shire to relieve the Shire of the tyranny of Lotho’s Big Men, those took heart and became even nastier than ever. However, they found themselves facing growing pockets of Hope here and there throughout the Shire, and were frightened by it, for what if these pockets of Hope should take root? But they could not fully understand what they perceived, much less identify the source of that Hope they faced.
There were those who were certain that the changes they felt somehow had to do with those four who had left the Shire; but the spring did not bring them home; nor the heat and sun of summer; nor the winds of autumn--not until the closing of October....
The rumors that the four Travelers had reentered the Shire there at the Brandywine Bridge, that they’d invaded the Shiriff’s House there, flouted rules, and refused to take the threats of the Shiriffs and the Big Men seriously flew through the Shire on the breeze. Then there was talk of the Big Men in the heart of the Shire being routed by the blowing of a horn bound with silver, and the Thain’s son calling for the archers of Tookland and leading them to rout out the bullies and brigands--and then, as suddenly as it had started, the Time of Troubles was at an end; Frodo Baggins was Deputy Mayor; Meriadoc Brandybuck and Peregrin Took were hunting down the last of the Big Men; and Samwise Gamgee (Who were the Gamgees? many asked) was coordinating the rebuilding of the Shire and the replanting of trees and gardens. Throughout the Shire Hobbits were beginning to realize it was safe once more to live and breathe. Fosco and Forsythia Gravelly of Westhall felt hope fill them, and looked to Iorhael coming to see them in the spring.