Boboli looked up from the pot of stew he was stirring. Teoro’s voice sounded fearful. “What is it, Teo?” he asked.
“It’s Men, Dad. There’s Men outside, Men on horses.” Boboli could see his son shaking with carefully controlled terror. “They’re askin’ who’s the head of the family, Dad. They’ve got knives, Dad, knives and—and swords!”
Bob straightened up, feeling the hair on his head and feet standing right up. “What do they want now?” he muttered, then turned to his daughter Lilia. “You, lass—keep stirrin’ this. I’ll go see what they want. Maybe they’ll just let us be.”
Anemone looked up from where she sat in the corner, cradling her doll, their ratter Lister pressed against her. The child’s eyes were wide, her usually rosy face pale. “They’ll not try to hurt you like they did Gaffer Holc, will they, Dad?”
“I’ve no intention of lettin’ anyone hurt me, sweetling,” he said as he pulled open the rough door he’d made for the recently dug first larder. Inside was the item he’d found a few days earlier as he’d cleaned away the rubble of a fallen wall that lay where he’d been constructing the first parlor—a sheathed long knife. The leather of its sheath had still been mostly good, and had perked right up when he rubbed it with the oil he’d always used on the ponies’ harness and reins. The blade of the knife inside had been a bit rusty, but it had responded to the oiled stone on which he sharpened kitchen knives and his axe blades; it now reflected the light from the as yet unglazed round windows, the engraved pattern of crescent moon, sunburst, and seven stars clearly visible as he drew it out. Certain he was a sight to make even the most rough of ruffians cautious, he went to the front door and carefully opened it.
Outside, a decidedly tall Man had dropped from an equally tall dun mare. He was more slender than had been the swart Southerners who’d invaded Bree and reportedly burned the family home and killed Boboli’s father, and his shoulder-length hair and short beard were well kept. He wore a silver-grey cloak clasped at the shoulder with a silver star, the cloak pulled back to show worn but well kept green riding leathers embossed with leaf and star shapes and girded by a pale brown swordbelt, a dagger thrust behind it, and hanging from it the black sheath for a long sword, decorated with inlaid copper and silver wire in the pattern of a leafy branch. Behind him was a second Man—well, actually more a lad among Men, really, who also dropped from his own horse to take the first Man’s reins as they were thrust at him.
Bob looked up at the Man warily, the drawn long knife clearly displayed in his hand. “What can I do you for?” he asked.
“You are the head of this family?” the Man asked.
“Yes, I am. What do you want?”
“You don’t need a drawn blade to treat with me, friend.”
“I don’t? Last strange Men as we met up with should of been greeted this way, you see.”
“Oh, so that’s the way of it. Are you from within the Shire originally?”
Bob snorted. “Inside the Shire? I’ll say not! No, my family’s always farmed just outside Staddle. My brother’s stayed there, tryin’ to reclaim the land and farm from the ashes; but me and mine—we’ve had enough and come away. This land’s always been empty, so we decided to try our luck here. You got some complaint about it?”
“No, small master, I’ve no difficulty with that, save that the title for this land has been granted to another by the King, and in order to settle here you will have to make arrangements with Lord Iorhael.”
“What you mean? You sayin’ as this land’s already claimed?”
“Oh, yes. This land has belonged to the King’s family for the past eighteen hundred years or so. He granted it to Lord Iorhael for his maintenance after the victory against Mordor. It is part of Lord Iorhael’s holdings here in Arnor.”
The arm holding the drawn knife dropped as Bob stared at the Man in confusion. “Who are you, and what’s this talk about kings and lords and victories and such?”
“I am Faradir son of Rahael, a Ranger of Arnor, and this is my son Teregion. We were sent out to take a survey of the lands Aragorn has granted to Lords Iorhael and Perhail so that Lord Halladan can send them a proper description of their holdings in the North Kingdom.”
“And this Lord Iorhael could make us leave?”
“Yes, he could, although I doubt he’d wish to from what I’ve seen of him.”
“You know him?”
“Well, yes. I was one of those who rode south to fight by Aragorn’s side as he led the armies of Gondor and Rohan against Mordor, and so rode north again alongside the party returning to Arnor. Thus I had much time to become acquainted with him, you see. A most gentle soul, Lord Iorhael. Now, if I might know your name, small master.” The Man stepped forward a half pace, but halted as the Hobbit again lifted his blade.
“No further, you. You want my name? What for?”
“As I said, it is my duty to make a report on those lands the King has granted to Lord Iorhael, and I must note the names and particulars of any tenants on those lands.”
Bob considered for some moments. “How you know as this is the lands as has been granted this Lord Iorhael?”
The Man turned, pointing northeast toward the River. “This land was one of the royal farmsteadings for the King of Cardolan, from the red standing stone a mile that way to the grey monolith a mile to the northwest, to the rockslip to the south that marks the northern bounds of the Shire at this point. Arvedui Last-king indicated it should lie vacant that the Hobbits of the Shire should have a buffer to their north where no Men might settle to disturb them.”
“Then we’ll have to leave so the land stays empty?”
“As our Lord King has granted this land to Lord Iorhael that is now his decision, and has nothing to do with the King’s will from this time on. That Lord Iorhael might wish to see the land settled by Hobbits is very possible. After all, the Shire itself is populated by Hobbits.
“Now, may I again ask your name?”
The Hobbit finally dropped the hand holding his knife. So far there had been no threat by either of the Men. “I’m Boboli Hedges. My family’s been farmin’ our land just outside Staddle time out of mind, until the ruffians come and burned the place to the ground. Killed my dad, they did, and roughed up my wife. She died two months later. We was stayin’ in Bree while my brother found the means to rebuild. After Thistle died I—I lost interest in returnin’ to Staddle. It’s not been particular good for some years, since so many outsiders began movin’ into the area. Too many lookin’ at us Littles as if we was somethin’ strange and not to be listened to or respected.
“This land’s never been settled, and I thought as there was no reason as why we couldn’t settle here, build a farm. After all, the Brandybucks did that inside the Shire, didn’t they—took over the lands t’other side of the Brandywine from the Shire and settled Buckland? If they could do it, we could do the same, couldn’t we?”
The Ranger sighed, thinking. “Certainly the Hobbits of the Shire offer a precedent. It had been intended that area should also remain empty to provide a buffer between the world of Men and that of the Shire, although the Old Forest offers quite a buffer in its own right. We of the Dúnedain were not in any position to forbid the Oldbucks to settle that land when it was done. Nor would we have been likely to say no, although that region was originally the site of the capital of Cardolan and was where the line of kings for that people had settled before the kingdom was decimated by disease and war, and finally its rulers were killed by invaders from Angmar.
“Now that the kingship has at last been reestablished, it is our hope that again many of the empty lands will be resettled. I expect that neither the King nor the Hobbits of the Shire will object to Hobbits resettling this region, although it is possible a few of the descendants of Cardolan may wish to return to the area. If that were to be allowed, however, you will learn that we of the Dúnedain are very different from the ruffians that tried to invade the Breelands and entered the Shire, as well as many of those who have entered the Breelands in the last score of years. We of the Dúnedain have held nothing but respect for the Periannath since Argeleb the Second was approached by those who begged for a grant to establish a land of their own. Certainly the aid we received from Bucca of the Marish and more recently the aid of the four who went south to the destruction of Mordor has confirmed our respect for your people.”
Boboli was shaking his head. “You’re tellin’ me as there is a King again?” he demanded.
The Hobbit searched the Man’s face and saw no sign he was lying. “How is it as there’s a King again? And who’s this Lord Iorhael?”
The Man smiled. “The King is a kinsman of mine, Aragorn son of Arathorn, the Chieftain of our people, and directly descended from Elendil, Isildur, Isildur’s youngest son Valandil, and Arvedui on one hand, and from Ondoher King of Gondor through his daughter Fíriel, who married Arvedui, on the other.
“The main reason so many have come north seeking to settle here in Eriador has been due to the wars in the south and east. Sauron was again building his power in Mordor, and was encouraging attacks against Gondor and Rohan and within Dunland, as well as increasing his power amongst the orcs and trolls of the Misty Mountains and in sending forces of orcs, wargs, evil Men, and other creatures against the peoples of Mirkwood, Rovanion, Erebor, and other lands east of the mountains. Those who’ve come from the south have no experience with Hobbits, and consistently underestimate you, and for that I am heartily sorry.
“As for Lord Iorhael—he and Lord Perhail between them saw to the destruction of Sauron’s Ring and thus his power forever. All of the Free Peoples of Middle Earth owe the two of them a debt of gratitude I doubt we will ever be able to repay. Sauron is no more, and Aragorn Elessar Envinyatar Telcontar now is recognized as High King over the western lands, wearing the Winged Crown of Gondor and wielding the Sceptre of Annúminas as King of Gondor to the south and of Arnor in the north.”
Faradir went quiet for a moment, allowing Boboli to digest this information. Finally he spoke again. “Would you mind, Master Hedges, if we were to sit down for a time? I know that I tire of just standing, and you look more than a bit shaken.”
Boboli looked up at the Man, then gave a somewhat distracted nod, gesturing vaguely at the rough bench he’d fashioned from a tree trunk. It was still a bit high for Hobbits, and probably quite low for the tall Man; but it was all he had available as yet in what he’d planned as his dooryard. Realizing he still was holding the long knife and that it was likely unnecessary at this point, he turned to the house. “Teoro!” he called as he lifted it, “Bring me the sheath for this!” Seeing his younger son peering out the door at him, he sighed. “It’s all right—these ain’t ruffians.”
He heard the youth snort, and caught the sight of a smile quickly suppressed on the face of the Man. The youth said something unintelligible, and his father fixed him with a stern look. “Do not speak words you know will be not understood by those you are with, ion nín,” he admonished his son.
“Save when you call me ‘my son’ in Sindarin?” Teregion asked, somewhat cheekily, or so Boboli thought.
Faradir fixed the youth with a look of reproof, and Teregion ducked his head much as Teo himself might do and murmured an apology. Yet as the Man folded himself on the log bench Bob thought he might just have caught a twitch to the Ranger’s lips. “Trust children to cast ones own words back at one,” Faradir murmured, and suddenly Boboli found himself laughing, the Man joining in the laugh after half a moment. The last of Bob’s fear left him.
It took some time for Teoro to gain enough courage to actually come out and give his father the ancient sheath, but at last he did so, and finding that the youth had unsaddled the two horses and tethered them to a sturdy young tree and then settled down at his father’s feet, Teo did much the same, soon followed by his older brother Holdfast as he finished his work in the recently constructed byre, and at last the two lasses.
With careful questioning, Faradir had managed at last to get Boboli to tell the full story. “Most of the Big Men appear to of attacked Bree itself,” he explained, “but there was a few, at least, as went round to the farms along the borders and attacked them instead, apparently partly to get what loot as they could find, but mostly, it appeared, to devil with us Hobbits. They had to of passed two farms held by the newer folks, all Bigs, as they approached our place, but none seems to of done nothin’ to them. Instead about six of ’em surrounded our place and attacked it sometime past the middle of the night, they did. Me dad’d heard somethin’ out there in the darkness—or maybe Lister here—” he indicated the dog, “—barked enough to warn him. I’m not certain. Me brother’n me’d gone into Archet to do a deal on a new wagon with a farmer as we’ve dealt with many a time afore, so we wasn’t home—just our dad and our children and our wives, you know.”
It was a simple enough tale. The next morning word had spread around the whole of the Breelands that in the past two days there had been assaults both on Bree village and on several farms near the borders. Boboli and his brother had hurried home to find the low house and barn and most of the outbuildings had been burned down, Boboli’s wife was seriously wounded, and his father was dead. “The bairns was able to get away safe, for which I was grateful—they hid in the bolt-hole with me brother’s wife Wren. Thistle just never seemed to get none better—can’t say why save for the shock of it all.”
Faradir sighed. “More hurt by those sent north by Saruman the Traitor,” he said bitterly. “We’ve had reports on the attack on Bree itself, but had heard nothing on the assaults on Hobbit-held farms. But it appears there was grave trouble in the Shire itself while the four were gone south with Aragorn.” He looked at the farmer as he sat, the point of the sheath for the long knife he held grounded between his hairy feet, his hands absently turning the weapon first one way and then back again. He finally asked, “Have you had training with that as a sword?”
Boboli looked up at him, surprised. “Trainin’? Me, with a sword? And when has a Hobbit ever been trained to use a sword proper?”
The Man gave a short laugh. “Actually, there are now four Hobbits who’ve been so trained, I understand, although Lord Iorhael has said he does not believe it his part to use a weapon ever again.”
Boboli’s spine went rigid. “You sayin’ as this Lord Iorhael you’ve been on about is a Hobbit?”
“Yes, he and Lord Perhail are both Hobbits of the Shire, as are Lord Iorhael’s two kinsmen who accompanied them out of the Shire.”
The Hobbit’s eyes remained fixed on the Man’s face. “But what Hobbit family would ever give a bairn such an outlandish name’s those?” he demanded.
“Those are merely translations of their names into the Elven tongues, Master Hedges. It is by those names we praised them when they were made lords of all the free peoples for their great service by which Sauron, the great Enemy of us all, was cast down and all his power and might brought to naught.”
“But I thought as you said the King fought’im.”
“Aragorn was one of those who led armies to fight Sauron’s forces before the gates of Minas Tirith, the capital city of Gondor, and he commanded the forces that marched to challenge Sauron’s might before the very gates of Mordor; but it was two Hobbits who actually entered into the Black Land and crept through to the Mountain of Orodruin itself to actually cast him down. May their names be ever praised as we honored them in the Field of Cormallen! They were willing to offer themselves for all, but were brought forth from the ruins of Sauron’s might on the wings of Eagles that we might ease them and honor them ever!”
Teregion looked up at his father, his expression thoughtful, then looked back to the Hobbits. “I pray you forgive him, for he becomes this way whenever he speaks of the Cormacolindor. Lord Halladan tells us my uncle, his brother, was seriously wounded before the Black Gate and would have been slain by one of Sauron’s creatures had Lords Iorhael and Perhail not come to the Sammath Naur when they did. My uncle remained in Gondor at Lord Aragorn’s side until the King can come again to us in the north kingdom. To know he owes the life of his brother to the two Cormacolindor has led Ada to honor them greatly.”
“So,” Boboli said slowly, “in order to get permission to settle here on this land, I must go to the Shire and get permission from this Lord Iorhael, then?”
Faradir smiled and shrugged. “That is indeed what you must do. I will write a letter of introduction to him for you to carry with you that he knows you have been advised of this by an agent of the King and that you be granted free passage to him within the Shire.”
“I see,” Boboli said thoughtfully. “Well, I was fixin’ up a pot o’ stew for luncheon, and we’ve a barrel o’ ale from the Pony as I brought. Would the two o’ you join us for a meal, for the childern’ll be achin’ for food o’ the moment?”
The two Men exchanged looks. “We’d be honored, if we’re allowed to offer some of our own supplies to supplement yours,” Faradir said.
Boboli felt relieved, for certainly he’d not been prepared to entertain the appetites of Men--as much bigger than Hobbits as they were, how much would they need to eat? he wondered. But he nodded his agreement, and he set the lads to bringing out the table and setting it up before the bench, and sent the lasses to bring out cloth, plates and silver for all of them. They’d always used Gammer Opal’s dishes at home, and so those his sister-in-law and Thistle had brought into their respective marriages had remained packed away for years in one of the storage holes on the farm; there’d been goods and to spare for him to bring away with him to furnish a new hole for himself and their children with still sufficient to leave with his brother for the house he and his neighbors were raising once more on the farm.
Teregion brought dried meat and vegetables to add to the stew, and a store of mushrooms they’d found that morning--the eyes of all the Hobbits lit with that addition to the meal; and some dried fruits to add to the fare. Boboli hurried back into the kitchen with them--he’d finished that room and a couple rooms for them to all sleep in and a stable sufficient for the ponies and milk cow first, and was completing others as he could, digging them into the ridge that had drawn him to the land to begin with. He soon had the meat, vegetables, and mushrooms added to the meal, and mixed the fruit into the compote he’d been preparing for afters. There appeared to be enough bread for all of them, although they’d need to bake again tomorrow, a day earlier than he’d planned; and the milk produced by Maddie would provide for the lasses and Teo, he knew.
The lads had placed the chairs and bench from the kitchen for the rest of them by the time Boboli was ready to bring out the meal. He found Faradir examining the long knife with interest as he set the pot of stew on the table.
“Where did you get this?” asked the Man as he turned the blade to examine the engravings on it.
“Found it as I was diggin’ out the room as I plan for the first parlor,” Bob explained. “Seems most o’ the ridge is actually soil as has collected over the ruins of an old houseplace or somethin’ like. Stone walls is standin’ in most places chest high or higher, and the floors under all is stone flags. Some careful woodwork’s been needed to support the earth as is intended for the roof, but there’s timber and to spare there,” he pointed over the ridge at the further wooded hillside beyond the open grassy field that lay immediately adjacent to the growing smial. “The work’s proved far easier’n I’d thought to look for, havin floors ’n’ walls already there--it’s mostly been a matter of clearin’ away sufficient and shorin’ up walls and ceilin’s as I go. Some places I’ll have to raise earthen or wooden walls for now, although there’s enough dressed stone tumbled about to do much of it.” He watched as the Man returned the knife to its sheath and handed it to him. “Holdfast, go ’n’ get the bread and the butter crock for us. There’s the lad.”
“It fits you’d find such a knife here. It would have been kept in the place for protection, I suppose, when this was the King’s steading. Keep it by you that you have protection should any lawless Men seek to bother you here.”
“It’s a fair made blade,” Bob commented as he served out portions of the stew and indicated to the lasses to see them passed to their guests. He saw they’d washed at the stream that watered the place, and appeared to have run a comb through their hair.
“Indeed,” Teregion said. “It’s fine steel that was folded at least seven times. The engravings of the seven stars are wonderfully done, and indicates this was indeed made for the King’s own folk. The handle was carved from the antler of one of the great deer that live in the northlands, near the dwelling of the Snow-men; and it’s inlaid with shell traded from the south, perhaps from Dol Amroth on the southern shores of Gondor.”
Faradir smiled fondly at his son. “Teregion has already the makings of a smith, and has always been fascinated by the crafting of weapons. He spends much of his time in the swordsmith’s forge as it is.”
“It’s an ancient blade,” the youth continued, “at least a thousand years. I’m amazed the sheath is still intact, although there are indications it was wrought by Elves. Their work tends to be far more lasting than that done by Men.”
Again Boboli felt the hair on his head and feet stand up at the thought of the ancient nature of this weapon as he stowed it beneath his chair.
As they ate they discussed what was needed to be done to secure Lord Iorhael’s permission to remain on the land. “I’d certainly leave your older son here to care for the beasts and continue your work as he’s able; but you at least will need to approach Lord Iorhael himself to discuss the matter, or so I’d think. I believe he dwells in Hobbiton, although he spoke also of having dwelt in Buckland, which is as you know just inside the Shire on the eastern shores of the Baranduin.”
“I could take the lasses and Teo with me,” Bob said thoughtfully. He turned to Holdfast. “What do you think, lad--could you hold down the place on your own, do you think, for a week or two at best? I brought plenty of flour and other supplies, as long as you try not to eat as a teen, of course.”
“It would give me a fine chance to finish the paddock and expand the vegetable garden and the like, Da. And they grow the finest root vegetables to be had in the Shire. Could you bring me some starts, do you think? And perhaps some bushes and flower starts as well, while you’re at it.”
“It will take me about two days to get all ready,” Bob said, calculating in his head. “But I s’pose as the sooner’s I start the quicker ’twill be done.”
“I’ll let the Rangers that patrol here on the northern borders of the Shire and east of the Breelands know that you’re building a smial here and that your son will remain on the land while you go into the Shire to consult with Lord Iorhael. They’ll not allow anyone to offer your son any violence while you are gone.”
“Where were you when the farm was attacked?” Holdfast grumbled.
“In the south alongside our lord cousin,” answered Faradir. “Much ill was done while we must be at his side. But we who patrol this area were the few who could be gathered in haste when the call came for some of the Grey Company to come to his aid for the final defense against Mordor.”
The rest of the meal was punctuated with lighter talk and a great deal of planning on the part of Boboli Hedges. Teo and Teregion washed the dishes at the stream and gave them to the lasses to carry back into the house and put away. “I’ll need to put in a proper pump afore next winter,” Bob said. “But you come again then and will find all will be in proper trim. This Lord Iorhael o’ yours cooperates, and all will be well enough, I think.”
But after they’d seen their guests off and he stood watching after them as they rode north, Bob found his mind worrying over just what kind of individual this Lord Iorhael might turn out to be.