The grey trees slept and the little streams tinkled and the thickets were silent with memory. Winter still held sway and weeks would pass before the earth quickened and birds sang in the greenwood. Thus it was that two hobbits crept on the quietest of quiet feet, so not a twig or dry leaf stirred in their passing. Here on the verge of the Old Forest it was unwise to draw attention, especially given the rumors of late. Strangers had been seen abroad; Big Folk with unsavory aspect, and strange things were whispered on the road towards Bree. Thus silence and secrecy ruled the hobbits' movements as they followed the thin tang of wood smoke.
"We should not have come so far!" hissed the first hobbit. Sigismond Brockhouse was the little fellow's name, but everyone called him Bert.
His bolder comrade was Falco Boffin, who simply frowned over his shoulder. "We can't very well stop now, can we? What if someone is setting the woods afire?"
"Who ever heard of a fire in winter?"
"Who ever heard of a fire in the Old Forest at all? As bounders we must attend to any and all strangeness on our borders." With a reassuring smile, Falco added, "Come on, we're within earshot of the road, we can't get lost."
Bert sighed and nodded his assent, but firmed his grip on his small hobbit bow. Forward once more they went, and no more words were spoken.
Grey trees watched and a cold breeze sighed. The tang of smoke grew subtly stronger. Silently they crept through the sleeping wood, and then they saw it. A wee little fire, scarcely enough to warm a pot of tea, and certainly not enough to truly warm the Man crouched before it. Both hobbits froze in place then sank silently behind a blackberry thicket.
Dark-haired and grim of face the man was, his mouth drawn and his brows lowered. He was, they realized, wounded and attempting to bandage himself. A sword lay sheathed beside him and against a log tilted a bow that was nearly as long as two hobbits placed end to end. The hobbits' hearts beat quicker. What sort of outlaw or brigand might this fellow be? Would he enter the Shire? Should they warn him away?
Gripping their own bows warily, the hobbits scarcely breathed as they watched. Long fingers worked quickly to tie a folded length of cloth over an ugly gash in the man's forearm. The fire had been risked, they realized, to heat a tin cup of water to clean the wound. It needed stitching, flashed the thought through Falco's mind.
Soon the knot was tied and the man gingerly plucked at the bandage to assure that it would stay in place. With a soft sigh he pulled down his sleeve and drew his cloak about him. Only then did the hobbits note the glint of a silver star pinning the cloak at the man's left shoulder.
"He's a -."
The voiceless whisper stilled. Bert's eyes were round as tea cups when Falco glanced at him. The expression softened to one of worry, to which Falco shook his head. Then at a nod both hobbits drew well back into the sheltering wood.
"He's hurt!" whispered Bert, as they huddled against the knee of a drowsy oak.
"Yes, I saw that."
"But what if he has other hurts?"
Dear, kind-hearted Bert. Falco smiled. "You might ask yourself if he has a wound and lives, what became of the enemy who hurt him?"
Bert's mouth formed a silent O, and then he frowned. That entire line of thought was more than a little discomfiting. Perhaps it was time to retreat within their own borders.
"Come on," said Falco. "Let's have us another look. If he's really hurt, we'll try to help him."
The man still sat before his tiny fire when they returned to their hiding place, his arms draped over his knees and his face turned upwards. The grey of the winter sky seemed mirrored in his eyes and Falco thought he looked tired and possibly hungry. Frowning, he bethought himself of his own little knapsack, wherein a nice fat sandwich, a meat pie, a sweet bun, a flask of buttermilk and two apples nestled comfortably. Should he step forward and offer it to this stranger?
Yet before he could puzzle an answer, the man rose to his knees. He scooped up his tin cup and poured what remained of its contents hissing and sputtering over the fire. Then he made a quick business of spreading the wet embers with a stick, stirring them into the damp earth, and last sifting several handfuls of leaves meticulously over the site.
The man was leaving. Falco exhaled a silent sigh.
The stranger arose and with deft motions belted on his sword and slung his bow over his shoulder. In seconds there would be little sign he had ever been there, and the first rain would erase all traces.
Tall he was, as he stood and took a deep breath. Perhaps his rest had renewed him, for he no longer seemed so weary or grim. In fact, a faint smile touched the corners of his mouth.
To the bony trees and slumbering earth, the man suddenly spoke in kindly tones. "If you are there, as I think you are, your borders are still safe. But remain watchful, friends."
Then with long, easy strides he left, steps barely stirring the fallen leaves as the forest swallowed him up. Behind him, the two hobbits watched in wonder.
"Well, fancy that," said Bert.
"Yes," replied Falco. "But at least that's one strange thing that went in our favor and not against it. Come on, let's go find a proper place to eat."
It was, he thought, an odd comfort to suppose that their borders were being watched from without, as well as within. But next time he would offer to share his lunch.
["At the time this story begins the Bounders, as they were called, had been greatly increased. There were many reports and complaints of strange persons and creatures prowling about the borders, or over them; the first sign that all was not quite as it should be, and always had been except in tales and legends of long ago."~ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring: Prologue: Of the Ordering of the Shire.]
Thank you to Henneth Annun group members Nessime, MK, Dagmar Jung and fliewatuet for info on Bounders, and to the Henneth Annun hobbit-lovers for encouragement!