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10
A Friend Among Hobbits

A Friend Among Hobbits


A few months later Gandalf traveled the course of the Mitheithel south of the Last Bridge to seek out the village of Hobbits his new acquaintance had described. He knew what to look for, having seen such before. However, he strode past it twice before noticing the drying racks hidden by artfully placed flowering shrubs, and the smoke emerging from holes in the tops of mounds and banks. The round doorways were almost impossible to discern, again screened by shrubs and foliage, as were the window openings made to admit light and fresh air. Once he’d actually seen them they were impossible to mistake for anything else; but the Hobbits of this village were obviously still wary of their larger neighbors throughout Eriador.

He stood looking down at the small settlement with pleasure and approval, having noted the small plots of vegetables and field of grain, and how each at first glance appeared to be a random occurrence of the plants involved.

Then he realized he was surrounded by Hobbits, some armed with short spears, and some with their arrows aimed directly at his heart. He remained unmoving and waited to see where this meeting would lead.

Suddenly a voice could be heard. "Stop, you fools. He’s a friend, I tell you!" He looked to his left and saw Bilbiolo approaching, speaking in the language spoken by the Stoors of the valley of the Anduin. "And if there is one of the Big Folk whom I would have by me this day, it is this one. He is Gandalf the Wizard," this last said as if he were stating a fact of which all were knowledgeable. Gandalf found himself suppressing a grin, forcing himself to remain appearing mildly curious instead of amused.

"This is Gandalf the Wizard?" asked a broader individual with straighter, darker hair and a suspicious expression in his eyes. "And what is a Wizard?"

"Lord Elrond has told us that the Wizards have been sent to Middle Earth to guide and advise. It is said they hold great power in the rods they carry, and can work great wonders."

"And who has said this?"

"I told this to you, Ortholo, that I was told this by Lord Elrond, and also by the Men of Dorlath. All speak well of Gandalf the Grey."

"Do they now?" asked Gandalf, his curiosity piqued. "In the southlands they often treat me with suspicion."

"Do they, now?" asked Ortholo. "And do they have reason?"

Gandalf shrugged. "Certainly they feel they have reason. Whether they indeed have such reason is, I suppose, open to debate."

A glare from Bilbiolo, and most of those who aimed their weapons at the Wizard lowered them. A younger Hobbit asked, "Do you truly hold great powers in your rod?"

Gandalf affected a mysterious air. "I cannot tell you all that my staff holds, for it is a great secret for those of my order. I can only tell you that a Wizard’s staff is unique to him, and is not to be separated from him."

The surrounding Hobbits looked at one another uncertainly. The younger Hobbit, however, exchanged looks of interest with Bilbiolo, at which Gandalf noted a look of anger in the eyes of the one called Ortholo. Was this one Ortholo’s son, Bilbiolo’s nephew, then? To distract from his own curiosity, Gandalf turned to Bilbiolo. "You said you would be glad to have me by you today? And why is this?"

Bilbiolo fairly shone with pride and anticipation. "I take to myself a wife this day, my friend. And so I welcome you, glad to have you share in our joy."

Gandalf felt particularly pleased. "And tell me--where have you found your bride?"

"She is from a village some five miles to our west. Her father is a Stoor, and her mother came from among the Fallohides."

"Just what we need here in our village," muttered Ortholo, "more mixed breeds." The younger Hobbit glared at him.

Bilbiolo, however, ignored the both of them and took the Wizard by the hand to draw him toward the center of the village. "Come," he said, "and rejoice with me and mine. I shall no longer be alone, and I shall leave children after me."

It was another hour before the bride’s party could be seen approaching the village of the Makers of Bags. There were about eight menfolk, six of their women, and five children. Three were mounted on small ponies and carried spears and bows, and they led two more ponies carrying panniers filled with goods of various sorts. The male Hobbits had packs on their backs or large carrying bags over their shoulders, while two of the women carried large baskets balanced on their heads and two of the children each led a pig.

The women of the village of Makers of Bags went forth to greet their guests carrying wreaths of flowers and greenery. The bride and those of her own folk who attended her were greeted by songs remarkably reminiscent of those sung by the horse folk of the Anduin valley as they were led into the village. There the two pigs were given into the keeping of Bilbiolo, who led the two of them up a slanted path between the entrances to two different home burrows to a sty he’d prepared for this day, food already filling a trough roughly cut from a log, fresh water in another one. The ones who brought the two swine examined the sty and its appointments with approval--evidently the fact he’d prepared so well for the pigs who formed part of the bride’s dowry indicated to them that he was likely to be at least as thoughtful to the bride herself.

They then inspected his home, emerging with smiles upon their faces. "It is good," the bride’s father pronounced. "The space for preparing meals is well done indeed, Bilbiolo. Your cooking hearth is beyond merely adequate, and the number of pots, kettles, and other cooking items impressive, as is the baking oven outside the hole. And the storage rooms for food and goods are very well stocked. To know you have prepared so well for the coming of our daughter is heartening, for we can see she will not want for food or comfort."

The bride’s mother was smiling rather tremulously. "And to see the new sheepskins and blankets and other weavings in the bedplace is also heartening, for we see you honor her well enough to make it your priority to see that she will be comfortable and warm, and that you will shelter her well both within your home and your love. As for the rest of your hole--you swore to us when you made your suit that you would see her well provided for and surrounded by comfort and beauty, and so it proves. We rejoice that our daughter will not want for food or ease for her body or her heart as she comes into your hole and accepts you as her husband."

One of the other menfolk, who appeared to be the bride’s uncle, then surprised Gandalf by bringing out a scroll which proved to be an inventory of the dower goods the bride was bringing into the marriage, and then began to read it. There was a detailed list of cooking pots, storage and carrying baskets, spindles of different sizes and weights, a loom that appeared to have been disassembled for the sake of transporting it here, hooks, needles, shuttles, and bobbins for the making of fabrics and laces, baskets of wool and pots for dying it, and seeds for flax. It appeared that Bilbiolo’s bride was one who specialized in the manufacture of fabrics. The wizard was well impressed.

"And we add," the uncle continued, "two scrolls, one regarding the preparation of dyes for woolens and linens, and a second written by the father of my sister and myself describing the coming of our own people out of the eastern lands and the founding of our village of the Weaving Folk."

Gandalf was pleasantly shocked at this. Scrolls were part of the dower gifts? This was certainly a new feature to Hobbit behavior he’d not seen before.

"And why would anyone wish for scrolls as a dower gift?" asked Ortholo contemptuously.

The young Hobbit it appeared was his son gave a snort of disgust. "Dada," he said, shaking his head, "she is a spinner and weaver. That her folk would give her directions for the preparations of dyes is a good thing, is it not? And to provide her with the history of her clan--why should not their children have an understanding of how it is her family as well as ours came here into the western lands?" Gandalf couldn’t ignore the look of envy and longing the lad gave the two scrolls.

Bilbiolo bowed his head toward his bride’s mother and uncle. "I will keep these scrolls with honor with those I have already begun to collect and prepare. And I will see to it that our children, as well as we are able to do so, know the full history of our people. After all, the Elves and the folk of the Dúnedain among whom we live have seen to it their histories are preserved. Are we to do less for our own peoples and children?"

The bride’s people appeared pleased by this pronouncement, the Harfoots among the groom’s village a bit confused but impressed, while those surrounding Ortholo were shaking their heads with disbelief. One of the older women of the village of Makers of Bags who’d remained close to Bilbiolo through much of the day smiled. "I am pleased, my son, that you would seek to see our journey westward remembered by my grandchildren and all who come after. Let none forget how we have striven to achieve the life we now know."

A meal was shared by the two parties as the bride was taken into the hole to allow her to prepare herself. Then at last she was brought out into the village square where Bilbiolo now stood with the younger Hobbit by him, Ortholo obviously annoyed at the inclusion of his son in the marriage ceremony itself. The bride’s uncle appeared to be the one who would oversee the wedding, as he now came to stand before bride and groom while what appeared to be a marriage song was sung by women from both villages.

At last the marriage song was finished, and the bride’s uncle looked from one to the other. "And why do you stand before this company, Bilbiolo son of Forodor of the village of Makers of Bags?" he asked.

"To take this woman among Hobbits as my wife, to bring her into my hole and family and village, that we might live as one, that she might bear whatever children are granted us, that we might rejoice in one another for as long as we are given together."

"And why do you come here, Platina daughter of Serado and Dorada of the village of Weavers?"

"To take this Hobbit as my husband, to enter into his hole and family and village, that we might live as one, that I might bear whatever children are given us, that we might rejoice in one another for as long as we are given together."

"And do those of you who are of the families of Bilbiolo and Platina agree to this, that this Hobbit and woman among Hobbits should take one another as husband and wife, to dwell together as one, first here in the village of Makers of Bags for as long as it pleases both to remain here and later where it will please both of them to dwell, to bring to life whatever children might be granted to them, and to rejoice in one another for as long is given them together?"

The youth who stood by Bilbiolo spoke. "As my uncle’s closest male relative, I, Merlin son of Ortholo, agree to this."

The bride’s mother, who stood by her daughter, smiled at bride and groom. "As Platina’s mother, I, Dorada daughter of Mureo and Rubea, agree to this."

Dorada’s brother looked up at those standing near. "Does anyone challenge the right of these two to choose one another?" When no one spoke, he continued, "Then let them be joined this day before all."

Merlin took his uncle’s right hand and placed it in the bride’s right hand, while Dorada took Platina’s left hand and set it in the left hand of Bilbiolo. Dorada’s brother set his own hands over those of bride and groom. "May you know years of joy together, and may all of the children of the Creator rejoice because this day you are joined as husband and wife." Then smiling, he drew back and gave a nod, and with a shared look the new couple reached out to take one another in their arms, sharing their first kiss together.

Gandalf watched with interest. It was certainly a much simpler ceremony than he’d seen among other peoples, but had a quiet grace to it; and feeling himself the Valar’s own representative at this wedding he offered the couple his own private blessing as well, suddenly realizing other eyes were looking through his own, his staff warming in his hand. He was surprised by this. What, he wondered, did this portend that the Valar themselves watched this wedding with such interest?

But answers were not granted him, merely a sense of reassurance that only good will was intended. Only partly mollified but more curious than before, Gandalf vowed to himself to make his own observations on the welfare of his new friends.

The wedding feast was wonderful, full of delicacies Gandalf had never eaten before, from eels taken from the river and delicately cooked to a bread made from ground cattail roots sweetened with honey, and hams cured also with honey and served with a sauce of apples seasoned with spices Gandalf had never tasted before.

Afterwards there was music and much dancing and singing; and so it went far into the evening, even after bride and groom had long since disappeared into their hole. Many of the dower gifts, the Wizard noted, were left on display outside the hole, supervised by the families of bride and groom, including the two scrolls brought with her by the bride. Managing to elude his father’s eye for a time, young Merlin approached the table. "Would you like to examine the scrolls, Merlin?" Bilbiolo’s mother asked him quietly.

"Oh, yes, if I might, Grandmother," the young Hobbit whispered.

She indicated one of the flowering shrubs that screened the windows of the hole, behind which he secreted himself. She picked up one of the scrolls and quietly passed it to him, and there he sat for a time, reading it raptly while his grandmother kept a careful eye on his father, seeing to it Ortholo was kept distracted with food, drink, and the company of a few Hobbits somewhat younger than himself who were encouraging him to describe his original home in the valley of the Anduin and the duck hunting there. Gandalf could see that one of this number appeared in league with Bilbiolo’s mother, and would carry on quiet conversations with her when he returned to the table laden with foods, only to ask yet another question requiring a long answer from Ortholo each time Merlin’s father looked ready to fall silent again.

Then the bride’s father was describing the journey their clan had made through the mountains into Eriador, asking Ortholo how it had been different for those who belonged to the village of Makers of Bags.

"Much of it was simple enough, until the day when much of the mountainside ahead of us fell away and swept across our path," Ortholo said. "That was a very bad day indeed."

"Several of our party were carried down the slope by the rockfall," another added. "If not for the swiftness of action of Forodor, more would have been lost. Unfortunately, he was one of those killed in the slide, although he managed to protect Starflower there through the fall." He indicated a pretty young Hobbitess whose dark hair had distinct red highlights, who was bringing a roasted fowl from the ovens. "We found her sheltered by his arms and body, and she recovered fully."

"She’s a lovely thing," commented one of the younger Hobbits who’d come in the bride’s party.

"That she is," the Hobbit from among the village of Makers of Bags agreed in quiet tones, "that she is indeed. But if you think to court her, I fear you will be disappointed, for she’s had eyes for none save Merlin for some years, although it will be still some years yet before she will be of an age to marry."

"Merlin?" asked the visitor.

Gandalf straightened, realizing that with mention of his son’s name Ortholo was beginning to look around for the youth; it appeared Merlin’s stolen moments of discovery were at an end. His grandmother, however, had apparently been watching for just such an event, and now quietly slipped toward the screening bush and tapped his shoulder, retrieving the scroll from him and hastily rerolling it while the young Hobbit slipped out the other side and made his way around the back of the ridge holding the hole. The Wizard suppressed a smile; apparently this was not the first time Bilbiolo’s mother had conspired with her grandson to help hide the curiosity Ortholo felt inappropriate in his son.

Yes, Gandalf thought to himself, this would be a family well worth the watching. When the pretty Starflower came to offer him more poultry he accepted gladly, and watched as her eyes lit when Merlin appeared from the direction of where Gandalf had learned the privies had been dug. Well worth the watching indeed.

*******


Ten years later, after some years east of the Misty Mountains examining the folk of Rhovanion, Gandalf again considered reentering Eriador as he sat at his ease in the grass beneath the mellyrn in which Amroth and his folk had woven their halls. Opposite him sat his hosts, and as he examined the Lady of Light he had to admit that Artanis had done well by herself and, apparently, the rest of Middle Earth as well by leaving Aman as she did to come here to the Mortal Lands.

He accepted the goblet of wine offered him, admiring the fine glass of which it was wrought. "I hope that Saruman has tasted this vintage," he commented as he took an appreciative sip.

Galadriel sighed as she shook her head. "Not yet have we received him into our lands, although he has sought us. However, whenever he comes near his eyes slide over the barrier I’ve erected to deter the eyes of those who might prove enemies. I cannot say that I am disappointed, however. There remains in his heart a degree of envy of those he sees as superior to himself, I fear--including you, my friend." She examined him. "I’m surprised you would agree to this service."

He shrugged. "The request came from the highest of authorities--how could I do otherwise but to accept?"

She smiled as she searched his eyes. "Yet I note you came a very long time in the reckoning of mortals after Curumo. Once the request was made I’ve no doubt you came swiftly enough; but how long was it ere you made yourself available to receive it?"

He laughed, noting how closely Celeborn watched the play of the interrogation, holding himself back so far from taking active part in it. "You perhaps know me all too well, Lady. You ever were a discerning one, from your youngest days."

Her smile broadened as she said, "But how could I mistake one I came to love so well and so early, Olórin? You were always so kind to the restless soul I was as a child. I always sensed in you a kindred spirit--restless and curious and desirous to see more than was readily available."

"So, you’ve not hosted Saruman. How about Aiwendil, Pallando, and Alatar?"

"Radagast was happily accepted by us as he sought a place that pleased him to take as his own abode; and the few times he’s come this far we’ve greeted him as a guest. But his heart is in the beauty of the mortal woodlands, and he rarely comes here. His appreciation of the transient nature of the life of these lands is wonderful to see, and necessary for one to serve in aiding to seeing them restored as they need it.

"The Blue Wizards we saw but once as they traveled north from Anórien before heading eastward to the lands Oromë charged them to safeguard. We’ve heard naught from them since. I knew them not in Aman, for I never gave much heed to most of the other Valar, Noldo that I was, born and bred."

His smile took a thoughtful tone as once again he scanned her tall figure. "Noldo you might be, but it cannot be avoided that you wed a Silvan lord; and even then there was mutual love between yourself and Yavanna, Nessa, and Vána, child. That at this date you offer more service and honor to the Ladies of Growth, Beauty, and Harvest than to the Lord of the Earth and Forge I, at least, find hopeful, for this is much needed in these lands, as overwhelmed with evil and strife as they’ve ever been.”

At last Celeborn entered the conversation. "Perhaps only you of all within Middle Earth might be allowed to address my lady wife as ‘child,’ lord," he said with amusement. Then his expression grew more solemn. "Which brings us back to the point of your being here in these lands at all. There is rumor now of many evil creatures being seen within the southern borders of Thranduil’s realm where his folk rarely go. Morgoth had an outpost there once, one which was razed and cleansed by Oropher with our aid and that of Amroth; and once Oropher built his own stronghold there. But Thranduil drew further into the forest and had new halls created under a mountain of stone, and few have had the heart to go back to where they once lived, much less dwell once more where evil was done in Morgoth’s service. Now it is said another stronghold is being built. We must call again for a council, Gandalf, a council of all with power and heart to stand against Sauron as he seeks to rise again."

"Has Maglor sent you warnings, then?"

Galadriel’s face had gone sad. "No, he will not contact me nor send me message of any kind, and it grieves me. The last we had of him was when he received the sentence of the Valar, at which time he sent a message only telling me that he would not offer his taint to those of us who lingered in Middle Earth, hoping his acceptance of his banishment would serve to lighten the judgment made on me. I grieve mightily at this, but my one attempt to send word to him when Celebrían was born was rebuffed. The last I heard was that the few times he’s been sighted it’s ever been along the coast of the Sundering Sea, singing songs of grief for the choices made and what they’ve done to our family and all of Arda."

Gandalf took a deep breath to ease his own sorrow, for he’d loved Maglor when he was a young ellon in Aman. "I grieve to hear that. However, apparently he has approached either Círdan or some among the parties heading for the Havens with words of warning to your father. Who it is that approached them none will say, and when I made to question him Círdan refused to answer--not that it matters any to me. If I had my will in this matter I would have pardoned Maglor an age or better past. Yet so it is that the Valar took counsel to send us here as the Istari. That at least you would recognize me is, I suppose, to be expected. But indeed we were intended to teach all of those within Middle Earth to stand against Sauron, each as he--or she--is able."

Gandalf looked at Celeborn with a keen glance. "You are correct--unless all within Middle Earth are willing to stand together, Sauron will not be felled when he rises again. I cannot find him, though I have cast my awareness about the Mortal Lands seeking him. I believe he has lain hidden somewhere in the eastern wastes, but beyond his own land of Mordor. I have sensed some of his creatures there, and especially traces of at least three of his Nazgûl. But the Ringwraiths do not seek to make themselves obvious, and they also ward themselves from open discovery. I suspect it is Angmar himself that holds the northern lands again under his control. I’ve only sought to enter there once, but was rebuffed. There are spells set on its boundaries that repel those of good will, of such kind that it will take blood to cleanse them away as it took much blood to set them in place." His expression became stiff with anger. "Trust the progeny of the Nameless One to turn to spells based on death.

"As for who it is that builds a stronghold in what more and more call southern Mirkwood--I cannot tell whether it is Sauron or Khamûl, who was ever second after Angmar. What is definite is that evil grows there yet again.

"So now we come to the question--whom will you summon to this council, and where would you see it held?"

"We could see it held in Gondor, perhaps in the Dome of Stars," Celeborn suggested.

Gandalf shook his head. "Rómendacil is a great enough King among Men, and wise beyond the norm for his kind; but he is no Elendil or even Isildur. He is jealous of his northern kindred, even if their land is less than his own. Perhaps he fears the prophecy made in years past that in the fullness of time one of the heirs of Isildur rather than those of Anárion will once again sit as High King of the Men of the West. Also he stands apart from his Elven kindred, perhaps believing his mortality will be seen as less than acceptable in your eyes. I spent two years of Men in his court, taking his measure and seeking to open his eyes to the threat Sauron will be as he actively begins to rise once again. He listens, but will not honor my advice and word by openly admitting he harkens to them. Instead he quietly sets plans in motion and allows it to be believed that he himself has seen the dangers besetting Gondor and so he has done this or that to allay it."

Celeborn held his anger in check. "That is, I fear, the effect of Saruman’s influence. He has much envy of you--the word sent by Thranduil of his abortive visit there was highly instructive as to his nature, even if my beloved Galadriel hadn’t already spoken of his insecurities. That he would suggest to Rómendacil you would seek to take control of a concerted move against evil seems well within his capabilities."

Gandalf sat back somewhat. "Would my brother truly act so against the interests of all, do you think? I would sincerely hope not!"

"Have you seen him since your arrival in Middle Earth, Gandalf?" Celeborn asked him.

"Once only some years since, when I was leaving Gondor even as he entered it from the east. I suspect he, too, seeks word of our fallen brother."

Celeborn shuddered at Gandalf’s choice of wording. "Then you do not yet know how it has been since his arrival in Middle Earth, apparently. The word from Elrond regarding the manner in which those formerly of Rhudaur returned to the rule of Annúminas indicates he never offered them encouragement to do as they did, although he’d been living among them for some time."

"We are to advise and spark decision, not to rule and force."

"The little advice Saruman gave them doesn’t appear to have been intended to promote return to a single rule over the northern Dúnedain, Gandalf." Celeborn shook his head. "Perhaps I am wrong in my interpretation of what we can only know from a distance; but to this date I’ve not seen true leadership in the Wizard. But if we call for a council we will need to include him. But again, what others should be invited, and where should the council meet?"

"We should consider inviting both Rómendacil and Malvegil and their heirs, although I doubt the former would agree to come in any case, and Malvegil and his son Argeleb deal at the moment with growing threats from Angmar to the north. Those not of Dúnedain descent within what remains of eastern Cardolan assist him in his defense against the forces of the north; but fighting is often heavy. What concerns me is the fate of the other races there in the north; orcs are beginning to breed rapidly in the Misty Mountains and are assaulting the remaining Dwarf strongholds north of Khazad-dûm, and trolls have moved southward to again claim the Ettenmoors. With Periain moving into northern Dunland and many empty lands within Eriador, there are more at risk to attacks from the north than just the Dúnedain of Arnor. Perhaps we might look to invite one or more of the leaders among the Periain as well as some of the Dwarf lords, as well as Thranduil, Gildor, Elrond, Círdan, and the lords both of Rhovanion and the horse folk of the Anduin valley. Radagast should also be invited, of course; and if any among them will come, perhaps even the Onodrim of Fangorn. I would invite Iarwain, but I know he will not leave his own place.

"As for where--as you are not willing to open your lands to many, perhaps Elrond will be willing to allow the council to meet there in Imladris. In the late spring, then?"

"That will be good," agreed Celeborn, exchanging looks with his consort. "So be it then.”

"Tell me more of the Perianneth," suggested Galadriel. "A few of their folk have we seen as we have ridden north along the Anduin toward the passes above Imladris when we’ve gone to see our daughter and her family. I’d made suggestions to a few of the Fallohides that they seek out lands for their people west of the mountains after the great droughts and fires that have been known on the eastern slopes of the Mountains of Mist; that their folk have followed my advice is good to hear."

"I met first with one of their people, one who is half Stoor and half Fallohide, some twelve years back. Very personable, he is. His folk have been joined by a few from among the Harfoots and live along the Mitheithel. Their village is relatively small and well concealed, and it appears they do well enough, even trading with a few among the Dúnedain of Arthedain. Their care for the land they have claimed is excellent, and I am impressed by their ingenuity in hiding their dwellings as well as their hospitality shown me when they accepted me as offering them no harm. Do you know if many of their kind remain here east of the mountains?"

Husband and wife looked to one another. "I’m not certain," Celeborn finally answered. "It has always been difficult to find their homes, hidden as they are, dug into hills and river banks and ridges; and always they have tended to plant in small garden plots rather than in large fields, although doing that would be perhaps more convenient and efficient. Few of the Harfoots or Stoors have we ever seen, for it has always been the Fallohides who have shown the most openness to folk other than their own people. But I’ve heard no mention of them over the past hundred years or so according the count of years kept by mortals."

Gandalf considered. "Then I will go north now again along the Anduin and see if any others seem to linger here between the mountains and the river, and cross over the pass there above Imladris. In doing so I can perhaps convince Radagast, Thranduil, and perhaps others from the lands here in the eastern valley to come to the proposed council."

That evening he took his parting from the folk of Laurelindórenan, and set off first east to the banks of the River Anduin and then northwards. For all his searching he found but one abandoned Hobbit settlement along the river, and heard no rumor of them from the upper slopes. Three Dwarven settlements he’d known in the past were shown to have been abandoned to orcs, and he found himself helping another against an attack from the orcs who’d taken the settlement to the south, their reserves almost completely spent before his arrival.

"We cannot remain here longer," grieved the Dwarf who’d inherited the rule of this population as his father had died in the assault. "They’ve destroyed the fields of the Harfoots who once settled east of us and provided us with much of our sustenance, and what few of the Hobbits who’d once lived here remained after their migrations westward appear to have died in the attacks, or perhaps they have fled far away. We became aware of the massing of our enemies when I went to visit the Hobbits four weeks back to learn why shipments of vegetables and flour hadn’t reached us--we found no Hobbits, only orcs who’d hidden themselves in their burrows."

The Dwarf, whose name was Balin, led Gandalf to the former Hobbit settlement. It was a bit more obvious than the one the Wizard had seen along the river or the one in which Bilbiolo lived along the Mitheithel; but it would be hard for any to recognize it as a settlement if it were not for the small fields of grain dotted here and there about the ridge into which the holes had been dug.

The Hobbits’ homes proved empty of any sign of their former inhabitants; but at last a pit was found in which the bones of what appeared to have been about twenty Hobbits had been thrown. Gandalf followed the trail of the orcs backward, and was able to recognize that they’d indeed come from the south. "Apparently," he said as he found where the orc troop had hidden themselves from the Sun the day before they attacked the Hobbit village, "they only stumbled upon the Periannath, and found them easy prey, being unwary of the possibility of attack." His voice was steady enough, but the Dwarves could tell that he was very angry at the apparent savagery shown those who’d once farmed these lands.

He left the Dwarves at last after they’d respectfully interred the remains they’d found beneath the ashes of the Hobbits’ fields. "We’ll return to Khazad-dûm, then," Balin said quietly. "And we’ll send out warnings northwards and eastwards to what other settlements we’re yet aware of that they keep on watch for attacks on their caverns."

"Good enough," Gandalf sighed. "Well, I must be on my way. I only hope that I find no more of your people’s holdings destroyed." And once more he headed northwards.

*******


Radagast he found on the western banks of the Anduin, helping a group of Elves to replant a forest burned to blackened stumps surrounded by grasslands turned to ash. "Not lightning this time," the brown Wizard informed him, "but the work of orcs venturing east to the river bank. Some of the horse folk had sought to return to the area, for grass again was becoming thick enough to sustain their herds; and it appears these orcs were intent on driving them again out of these lands."

Gandalf was heavily troubled at these further reports of enemy activity in these places where so few folk dwelt, and after delivering his invitation to Radagast and those of the folk of Thranduil who worked alongside of him to meet in Imladris in the late spring of the following year he continued on his journey.

He came to Elrond’s valley in the beginning of autumn and remained with him for a month, then left him planning for the springtime Council to do a further survey of Eriador. Arthedain had begun to respond positively to the renewal offered them by the return of the Dúnedain of Cardolan and Rhudaur, and he found two openly displayed villages of Hobbits near to larger villages of Men somewhat south of Annúminas. But rumors were increasing of troll incursions and increased orc and even warg activity near the western slopes of the mountains, so he turned that way to learn the truth of the reports.

For some time he saw no sign of the Enemy’s creatures, and at last he turned south for the Road that led west toward the Breelands and what had been Cardolan and, eventually, the Havens of Mithlond. He traveled slowly and without light, knowing he was likely to hear troll activity before either he saw them or they him, and aware that if he did his travel in the daytime he could pass their hiding places without being aware of them. Indeed he did at last hear the noise of the creatures--but the noise wasn’t reassuring, for the sounds were of an attack by the beasts on unwary travelers along the Road.

Suddenly fearful of what he might find he rushed downward from the ridge he’d just surmounted, the tip of his staff alight with magefire and summoning power from both staff and his hidden ring as he came in sight of the assault. Ahead he saw two trolls looming over about five much smaller figures, and he quickly rushed to the defense of the recipients of the trolls’ attentions. Catching up a fallen tree limb as he ran, he set it afire with a Word, then cast it at the leftmost troll. The limb burned with an unnaturally bright light, and as it hit the troll’s back instead of bouncing back it stuck, the fire quickly licking at the troll’s hide. With a squeal of pain the troll turned away from the fight, struggling to reach the burning brand attached to its back and brush its flame away, but he couldn’t touch it. It took the other troll some minutes to realize he was now alone in his attack, but at last it realized its fellow was completely distracted and turned in an attempt to discover what had happened. Gandalf had reached the intended victims of the trolls, grabbed a knife from the hand of one of the startled folk, and with another Word threw the knife to catch the second troll in its right eye with a blade that was now brilliant red with unaccounted heat.

Gandalf and those he’d hurried to protect watched as the first troll disappeared southward toward the Bruinen and the second slowly continued its turn and fell with unexpected grace into a dead heap upon the ground. "Sun and Moon light our path," one whispered in the language of the horse folk of the Anduin valley. "What were those things?"

It proved he’d defended a party of about sixteen Hobbits, mostly Harfoots but including two Stoors and at least three Fallohides. Once they’d prepared a secure camp in a hollow a few of their number had found south of the Road and set a watch, Gandalf set himself to check the condition of those who’d taken part in the defense of their troop. There were two dead, and one who was seriously injured.

"He was our guide," the one who’d taken charge of the group explained. "He’s lived in Eriador for about thirty years, and came a few months back over the mountains when he heard rumors that his older sister might have taken refuge among us, offering to bring us over the mountains to lands where we might live in some peace. Too long have the droughts and fires plagued the lands east of the Mountains of Mist; and over the last year there have been attacks on all folks from the folk from under the mountains. That we would make it safely over the mountains only to be assaulted here was nothing any of us expected."

The unlucky guide had been bleeding heavily from a blow from a troll’s club to his head, and it took some time to clean the wound and see it properly bandaged. Only when all was done and the face of the Hobbit was cleaned did Gandalf find himself recognizing Bilbiolo of the village of the Makers of Bags.

The next morning a patrol from Imladris led by Elladan son of Elrond found them. He knelt over the stricken Hobbit and examined him. "That he’s survived the night is unexpected," he said quietly in Quenya to Gandalf. "I hold no hope of his survival even if I were to carry him to my father, and even if he did, I doubt he will ever be able to rise or walk, or perhaps even to think clearly once more. No, I suspect it would be most merciful to return him to his own folk."

A horse litter was prepared, and accompanied by the two Elves who carried the litter between their animals, they followed Gandalf to the hidden village along the Mitheithel south of the Last Bridge. They arrived there a week later, and were greeted first with great suspicion, then with cries of grief as the one on the litter was recognized.

Platina came out her hole carrying an infant in her arms that couldn’t be more than a few months old, followed by two more Hobbit children, one about ten years and one half that number. She looked down on her husband’s spare form with shock. "He was attacked?" she asked. "How did it happen?"

One of the newcomers described the attack by the trolls and the defense Bilbiolo sought to make for their sake, and how in the end Gandalf had arrived to kill the one and drive off the other. "It was a miracle that no more than two of our number were killed and only he was seriously hurt," he explained. "The Elves who are with us found us the next day and fashioned the litter so we could carry him home again to you, for I doubt they believe he will survive. We’ve been able to get him to take water and some broth, but he’s shown no sign of recognition or even full awakening since he was hurt."

Their duty fulfilled, the two Elves took their leave as evening fell, and Gandalf remained to assist in the care of Bilbiolo. For three days he remained much as he’d been since he was wounded; and then on the fourth he appeared to awaken, clearly recognizing his wife and mother and neighbors, and smiling to see the child that hadn’t been born before he left them. "I’ve named her Flora, beloved," Platina told him. "Drogo and Dudo love her deeply, and each seeks to keep her happy when I must be busy about other duties. Are you pleased?"

"Yes," he whispered softly, the word barely to be heard. "Oh, yes, I am pleased."

All within the village of Bags appeared heartened by the news Bilbiolo had awakened and spoken with his wife; but by nightfall it was plain the recovery was but the rallying often seen in those who prepared to leave their bodies, for he became quiet, smiled up at his wife as she held his hand after he’d refused broth; and as the first crisp stars of the autumn sky could be discerned through the window he turned his face that way and breathed his last, still smiling.

Merlin sighed as he rose from the seat he’d taken by his father on a finely finished bench in the front room of the hole. "I will care for your family as I can," he promised Platina. "Never will you or your children want for anything while I remain alive."

Ortholo's expression at his son's vow regarding his uncle's family was sour, but as he couldn't speak against it without losing the respect of his people he said nothing. Gandalf was certain that Platina and her children and her husband's mother would fare well in the keeping of Merlin, and noted with relief that Starflower took her place proudly by the young Hobbit's side as he stood later before the entire village and their newest comers and repeated the vow.

The one who'd become the leader of the new immigrants then spoke. "He came far to lead us to a safer land, and gave himself for our defense. What we can do to help repay that debt we will do also."

Four days later Gandalf took his leave, having seen his first friend among the Hobbits of Eriador buried on the edges of the small village he’d helped to found. He paused just outside the village and offered his own private request to Námo, then finally continued on his journey to the Havens and Círdan, grieved at the loss of one he'd come to respect greatly in spite of his small stature.

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