Boboli Hedges awoke, a bit stiff from his night on the ground. Lister heard him stir and slipped out of his place between the two lasses to come to the tail of the wagon and whine to be let down for a time. By the time Lister indicated he was ready to be lifted back up, Bob had a small fire going and was filling the battered kettle he’d brought with him. Once the kettle was boiling properly the children were waking and rolling out of their blankets, intent on relieving themselves and washing hands and face at the spring.
They ate the cold scones their father had purchased in Bree, and each had a slice of cold cheese and chicken with their tea or juice, and soon they were ready to resume their journey westward toward the heart of the Shire.
They made it to the Floating Log in time to eat elevenses there, and were only a few miles short of Hobbiton by tea time, or so they were told by the Hobbit matron they stopped to question. She seemed delighted to share her own tea with them, accepting some of their tarts in exchange for the nut cake and boiled eggs she’d prepared for her own meal. It was good to get out of the cart, and all groaned when they prepared to get back into it after all else was done.
"And who is it you’re visitin’ there in Hobbiton?" she asked them.
"To be honest," Bob admitted as he lifted Anemone into the back of the wagon, "we’re not completely certain. It’s a Hobbit what left the Shire and went to Gondor, we’re told, but the name as they call’im by out there is awful outlandish and apparently ain’t his right name at all. Or, Mr. Faradir tells me, it’s a renderin’ o’his name to some other language."
"Why’d they do a thing like that?" the Hobbitess asked.
Teo was shaking his head. "We ain’t certain o’that, neither. But from what the Big Folk as knows what he done says, he did somethin’ mighty fine and brave, and so they call him Lord Iorhael now--out there, at least."
The Hobbitess shrugged. "Well, folks here in the Shire don’t usually go out of it, not even to Bree much any more like was done when I was a little’un. Only ones as I’m aware of as has left the Shire at all for ever so long are Captains Merry Brandybuck and Pippin Took, and with them Sam Gamgee and Frodo Baggins. I certainly can’t imagine anyone callin’ Sam Gamgee any such thing, for he’s naught but a gardener, after all; and that anyone would consider Mad Baggins’s nephew a lord is a laugh. After all, Frodo’s almost as strange as old Bilbo was."
Bob straightened. "You mean this Frodo Baggins is related to the Bilbo Baggins what disappeared from his own eleventy-first birthday party with a flash and a bang?"
"You heard of that?" She seemed surprised.
Boboli leaned over and scooped up Lister and the bone she’d given him, handing both into Lilia’s keeping in the wagon bed. "Well, it’s the kind o’ story as gets around. Heard as Gandalf the Wizard had somethin’ to do with the old Hobbit’s disappearance, I did."
She sniffed. "He certainly did--you mark my words he did! Why, I was there. I’m a distant relation, Amanda Grubb, you see. Old Bilbo, he liked his little jokes, especial if they was at the expense of other folks, so he invited a hundred and forty-four especial to the late supper neath the old oak tree in the Party Field, and I was one o’ them. Said he’d chose a hundred and forty-four ’cause it equaled the birthdays him and young Frodo’d had atween ’em, him being eleventy-one and Frodo comin’ o’ age that day at thirty-three. To think as I was invited to that supper only to fill out a number, like I was part of a gross o’ bottles o’ ink or such like--it was rank insultin’, it was."
Bob and Teo exchanged looks while Anemone and Lilia, Lister between them, knelt with their hands on the back gate of the wagon, all listening intently.
"Then Bilbo got up to make a speech, and was sayin’ things strange so as he could insult us the more without us bein’ fully sure what he meant till we’d worked it out, and then he says he’s goin’, this is the end, and BANG! There’s this big flash and he’s gone, he is, and none in the Shire ever saw him again. Lotho Sackville-Baggins was puttin’ it out that Frodo and Gandalf had murdered ’im atween ’em, but then letters would arrive for Frodo from outside the Shire. And all four o’ the Travelers say as Bilbo’s still alive, he is, livin’ with Elves, or so they tell us, but that he’s mighty old, he is."
"I’d think so--that was almost twenty years past when I first heard it--me Holdfast was still little more’n a faunt, he was, first time as I heard tell o’ it." Bob took the larger hamper from Teo and handed it to Lilia for stowing. "Well, if I need to find this Frodo Baggins, where do I look?"
She shook her head. "Take the turn into Hobbiton, and you’ll find the Hill atween Hobbiton proper and Bywater, what’s just past there along the Water itself. Bag End’s there, highest smial on the Hill, above Bagshot Row. There’s a big field as is at the bottom o’ the Hill, there is--the Party Field. There used to be an oak tree there, but it’s gone now--Sharkey had it cut down, he did, like most o’ the lovely trees as we’ve always loved. Sam Gamgee’s planted a seed there, and they tell me already a tiny tree’s startin’ to grow there where the old Party Tree was. He’s doin’ his best to redo the gardens for Cousin Frodo, he is--best gardener anywhere, Sam Gamgee--better’n his dad, even, all told."
She sighed. "Frodo--he’s an odd one, but not like old Bilbo was. Is quiet where Bilbo loved noise and parties and his tricks and jokes. Not what Frodo’s above jokes, mind you; but his jokes is mostly aimed only at his favorite cousins or those as is most obnoxious, like Lotho Sackville-Baggins was. He could pull a joke on Lotho or his old mum and neither would be the wiser o’ it, you see. O’ course, the two of’em deserved what they got, they did. Borrowed a can o’ purple paint as old Daddy Twofoot always used on his door one time, and when the Sackville-Bagginses came to call on old Bilbo in their trap he carefully painted the bench seat real thick. Took days to dry, it did, and none would own up as to who’d done it. Mistress Lobelia didn’t even notice her wagon bench’d been painted, and sat down right on it, and if she didn’t have the biggest purple stripe across the behind o’ her gown! They had to lead the pony back to the stable, pullin’ the trap empty, and it was a week afore the stableman at the Green Dragon’d let them bring the trap indoors, it stank so o’ new paint.
"But all in all, Frodo’s a good soul, just odd. Reads too much, I think. When he let out as he’d spent all old Bilbo’s money and needed to sell the hole and retire to Buckland, there’s many as was sad, but just as many as felt he had it comin’ to ’im somehow. Then him’n Sam Gamgee disappeared with the Thain’s heir and the Master’s as well, and that was that. But then the Time o’ Troubles was started, and none had time to wonder ’bout where they’d got off to."
"He sold his hole, this Frodo did?"
"Oh, yes, to Lotho Sackville-Baggins and his mum what I was tellin’ you of. But Lotho got his back--he invited the ruffians into the Shire to help him make hisself ruler of the land, and the last ruffian as come in had him killed. Old Lobelia couldn’t take it all in, so she gave Bag End back to Frodo, she did, and now she’s left her own properties and Lotho’s to Frodo to do reparations with--make up for all as Lotho and the ruffians stole and destroyed while they was in power." Again she shook her head in the wonderment of it all. "And now Frodo’s workin’ as deputy Mayor, he is, and all tell me as he’s doin’ a good job of it. But as the Mayor hardly does nothin’ but see to the documents and hostin’ banquets and receivin’ the reports o’ the Shiriffs and Bounders, I don’t see as that’s such a big deal."
All Boboli could do was shrug and agree. When all was in place and Anemone again held her doll, they took their final goodbye of Mistress Grubb and continued on their way.
They saw the turn-off to Hobbiton even in the dark and drove into town intent on finding a place to stay. The Ivy Bush had stabling for Poppet, but there was no place for the wagon; so they drove over into Bywater and arranged to stable there instead. Bob was glad it was so close to the Hill; they could walk there. So, after he took a room for his family in the Dragon, he and Lilia borrowed a lantern and walked around to Bag End, only to find it empty. As they made their discouraged way down the hill an elderly Hobbit sitting on a bench by his front stoop watching the stars as he smoked his pipe hailed them. "You lookin’ for Baggins?" he asked them.
"Yes, we was," Bob answered. "But it ’pears as no one’s home."
"Didn’t see Frodo comin’ back from the Ivy Bush where he stables his pony," the old Hobbit told them. "Must of stayed over in Michel Delvin’, I’d think. Why old Flour Dumplin’ picked Frodo Baggins as deputy Mayor while he recovers from his months in the Lockholes I don’t know, but all says as Frodo’s doin’ a right job of it."
"What Lockholes?" Bob asked.
"Them old storage tunnels in Michel Delving, there near the Council Hole--Lotho and his Big Men made a gaol or somethin’ like o’ em, we’re told. First one as they locked up was Will Whitfoot when he headed this way to demand to know why Lotho thought as he could just name hisself Chief Shiriff and take over ever’thin, like. They tell me as he was right sickly lookin’ when Mr. Frodo’n them got ’im out o’ there. Many there is as’ll need months to recover, evidently."
"What about Sam Gamgee? Is he about?"
"Sam? No, he’s not home. His sister’n their dad are home in Number Three, but ol’ Gaffer--he’s already abed, he is. His bones ache somethin’ fierce after months livin’ in that shack as old Lotho made ’em live in. He’s doin’ better since he’s been able to stay in a proper Hobbit home and hole again, but damage was done. Old Lotho, I wonder if’n he even began to understand all the ill he started afore they killed him."
"And you ain’t heard none from Merry Brandybuck or Pippin Took?"
"The captains? Nope, not for a couple weeks, when Frodo come back to live here in Bag End. They come for Sam’s birthday, they did. But they didn’t stay more’n overnight."
"Well, neighbor, thanks for the news."
"Glad to help." The old Hobbit looked up, smiling. "Good t’be back home in my own hole, even if it had to be redug. Frodo Baggins and Sam Gamgee--the two o’them seen to it as the smials here under the Hill was dug anew and us back into ’em. And now I hold the deed myself--don’t pay no rents quarter days no more, not that they’ve ever been bad, if’n you take my meanin’. The Gaffer’s always said as Mr. Frodo’s a right gentlehobbit, and he is, and no mistake."
They’d come to the split in the ways and turned toward Bywater before Lilia said, "It seems as though all these folks seem to think in two minds of Mr. Baggins, Dad--him’s strange, but him’s thoughtful at the same time."
"So it seems, sweets." Bob led the way down into the village toward the Green Dragon. "But same seems to be sort o’ true of all four o’ them, what folks say."
Early next morning after a quick first breakfast, and with a basket to eat from along the way, they got directions to Michel Delving. "Go west when you get to the Road. You’ll see the Green Hills on your left as you go on, and there’s a turnin’ there into the Tooklands and the Great Smial; but most go on past there, for the road from Michel Delving’s actually better, especially for wagons," the barman at the Green Dragon told them. "Straighter and all, it is. But Michel Delving’s not far beyond the Green Hills, there at the start of the White Downs."
As they rode west approaching Michel Delving they crossed a bridle trail, and Anemone and Lilia saw a lone rider on a bay gelding heading roughly northeast. "That’s a pretty pony," Anemone said, grabbing at Lister’s collar to keep him from falling out of the wagon as he yapped after the retreating rider.
Lilia watched after with interest. "And did you see the headstall, with the silverwork on it? That must have been very expensive, havin’ that made with them stars."
They made Michel Delving by elevenses, and Boboli dropped from the box of his wagon stiffly, telling the children to stay put in the square while he headed for what was plainly the Council Hole.
Once inside he spotted the door to a large room ahead of him where a number of Hobbits were working around a long line of tables. Inside on the left was a large desk with lamp and inkstand, a Dwarf-made clock hanging on the wall behind it, the desktop laden with stacks of documents, the chair behind it empty. Four Hobbits were working in the room at one or another of the tables, most going through documents or sorting papers into piles. One of them looked up. "May I help you?" he asked.
"I’m lookin’ for a Hobbit, and I thought as Frodo Baggins might be able to help me find ’im," Bob replied. "Been travelin’ with me younger childern for several days, and I’ll tell you as we’re gettin’ mighty tired o’ the wagon. Is Mr. Baggins here?"
"No, he’s not," the Hobbit answered. "Was supposed to have returned to Hobbiton yesterday evening, but he was very tired and stayed the night here. I doubt he left all that long ago--you might have passed him if he took the road, although I think he took the bridle trail. Rides a very fine bay gelding with silver stars on its tack. Very fine work, from lands far away, or so we’re told. Certainly it’s not Shire workmanship. Pippin tells us their ponies and all their tack came from someplace known as Rohan where they raise the finest horses and ponies in Middle Earth."
Bob gave a sigh of disgust. "Anyone know as where Merry Brandybuck or Pippin Took might be, or Sam Gamgee?"
"Frodo said Sam was out working in the Marish, the farmlands this side of the Brandywine River, but that he’s due to be back in Hobbiton again today sometime. Merry and Pippin were up in the North Farthing, not far from Long Cleeve, checking out rumors of ruffians hiding out up there. Have some of our archers with them--if there are any more Big Men here in the Shire they’ll rue it if they challenge Merry or Pippin or our lads. I think they’re supposed to be at the Great Smial late this afternoon, although if Paladin holds true to form they’ll probably head for Bag End."
"Paladin Took, our Thain. He’s Pippin’s dad, and has been driving poor Pippin about wild about what the four of them did out there while they were gone--refuses to believe what Pippin or any of the rest have told him. I’m not certain which is worse, actually, Cousin Pal or Cousin Lanti--they’re certainly being Took stubborn. Hard to believe that Lanti, who after all was born a Banks, is being more Tookish than Pal’s sister Esmeralda, who married Saradoc Brandybuck."
Bob shook himself. "So," he said with poorly suppressed frustration, "I’d of done better to stay in Hobbiton, then, if’n I wanted to see this Frodo person."
"Yes, actually, you would. Could one of us help you?"
"Not unless you know who Lord Iorhael is."
The Hobbit scratched his head. "Lord Iorhael? Never heard tell of him. Bard--Isumbard Took--could perhaps have helped you; but he’s at home in the Great Smial today, working alongside Pal. Pippin’s talked a bit to him. Is Lord Iorhael from Gondor?"
"Well, apparently they call him that there, but that’s not his right name." Bob took a deep breath. "I suppose it’s time to go turn the wagon around and head back to Hobbiton. If’n Mr. Baggins didn’t leave that long ago, mebbe we’ll arrive not that long after him."
"You’re likely to be right. Be aware, though, he’s likely to be tired when he gets there. He’s not as well as he lets on."
Bob’s eyebrows raised at that, and he took his leave. "Thanks, sir. I’m Boboli Hedges, by the way, at your service."
"Everard Took at yours and your family’s," was the reply. "Are you related to the Pincup Hedges?"
"If so, it was long, long ago," Bob answered. So saying he turned out of the room and headed back to the square, where he found Teo watering Poppet.
"He’s not here, Dad?"
Bob shook his head. "No, just left, not long ago, evidently. Headed back to Hobbiton, and probably by the bridle trails and not the road. On a bay gelding, they tell me."
Lilia leaned out of the wagon bed. "But we saw a bay pony, Anemone’n me, Dad. Just afore we got into the village."
"It was real pretty, Dad," Anemone added. "Real pretty with silver stars on its bridle."
Bob sighed. "That was him, apparently, then." He turned to Teo. "We’ll go into the inn, and I’ll order somethin’ for a meal to take with us, and you lot use the privy. Then it’s back to Hobbiton again...."
Within a half hour they were back on the road heading east, hoping against hope they would finally catch up with the elusive Frodo Baggins or one of his companions.