As they wound down the track from the road they could hear the yapping of a small dog; and soon they were met by children and a ratter, Teo, Lilia, and Anemone having come out to meet them, the children all closely wrapped in heavy cloaks, their hoods up over their heads, Lilia carrying the family’s one umbrella, one purchased long ago from folk who’d traded out of the Shire.
“Our dad’s out in the fields with our older brother,” Lilia explained as she led them to the smial. “A tree fell two nights since and took out part of the fence the two o’ them built fer Maddie, our milk cow. She’s got out, she has, and they’s tryin’ t’find her an’ bring her back safe. She’s a sweet one, she is, but not always that smart.”
They led their horses to the barn that had been raised over the summer, saw them unladen, swiftly dried and brushed and covered with warmed pony blankets Teoro brought for them, and given a good feed and clean water before following Teo back through the storm to the doorway. “I’ll go see if I can help Mr. Hedges,” Teregion suggested, and at a nod of approval from his father he pulled his hood once more over his head and headed off the way indicated by Teo.
“We bought the door from a carpenter Dad knows Archet-way,” Teo said proudly as he opened it and ushered them inside, closing it only when both Lister and Holby were well within. “Dad decided as he was goin’ t’do it all up right, with good brass fittin’s and all. It’s a bit bigger’n what we’d thought t’have, so ye shouldn’t have t’duck down so much t’get through it, I’d think. We got a good price fer much of the extra beets as Dad planted in the fields, so’s we could afford it. Dad took the portion o’ the crops intended fer rents t’the Brandywine Bridge three weeks back, an’ the Master’s own brother was there t’accept it for Master Frodo, so’s that’s taken care of proper.”
“You met Master Frodo, didn’t you?” asked Alvric as he helped Denra off with her cloak and hung it on one of the pegs in the entrance way as indicated by Lilia.
“Yes,” Teo said as he removed his own cloak, and they could see the surcoat he wore under it. “This was his, it was. Left it in Bree--said as he didn’t wish t’appear more differnt’n him already was, once he got home. I won’t be able to wear’t much longer, though--am startin’ t’grow again. Too bad--it’s right beautiful, it is.”
Faradir looked at it thoughtfully. “King Thranduil brought it to him as a gift from Eryn Lasgalen. As it’s Elf-made, it will most likely last far longer than you do, my lad.”
Teo looked at him with interest. “Is it really?” he asked. “I’ve seen Elves now--saw a few crossin’ our fields toward the river. Don’t know as how they’d get ’cross it, but they was headed west toward the Shire.”
The Ranger smiled. “They have their ways, the Elves do. We’re fortunate that those who dwell yet within Eriador are faithful to the Valar and are willing to share what blessings they can. They love the unspoiled places in this world, and appear particularly to appreciate what the folk of the Shire have made of their land.”
“When we went through the Shire we saw as lots o’ their trees had been cut down, and there was smials as had been dug out and some houses ’n’ inns as had been burnt, though most o’ the places had been rebuilt or fixed up. ’Twas bad ’nough for us, seein’ our house and barn burnt down an’ our mum hurt as she was. But they saw it time’n’ time again, or so ’twould seem. D’ye understand as why them’d do that, Mr. Faradir, sir?”
Faradir sighed and shook his head. “We know not--not for certain. Only we know that Saruman had been caught by the conceits of both Ring and the Dark Lord, and apparently thought to vanquish Sauron and set himself in his place. He could not find the Ring, and his Uruk-hai caught not Lords Iorhael and Perhael with It but Captain Peregrin and Sir Meriadoc instead, who roused the Ents of Fangorn Forest to march out against Saruman’s treachery. So it was that Captain Peregrin and Sir Meriadoc were there to see Saruman’s might brought low and himself captured within his own tower, unable to further betray others; and they bore witness to his humiliation by Mithrandir when his staff was broken and he was cast out of the order of which he’d been head. His anger was great; but with his power diminished what vengeance could he take against Mithrandir who had been set over him, or the Elves who disdained him, or the Man who aided the king of Rohan to vanquish his mighty army and who was now High King over Arnor and Gondor and the rest of the Men of the West? So he chose to punish what he thought of as the least of those who had seen his fall from power.
“Yet he again undervalued those who appear small and weak and defenseless, never realizing that you hold within you strength the likes of which he cannot appreciate. He sent his baser servants here to the north, in hopes of gaining a foothold somewhere; and it would have sealed his conceits of himself as the most clever of souls to think he had defied Mithrandir by ruining the land of his friends. Long and long, according to what Master Bilbo told my son, has Mithrandir known folks of the Shire and watched over them and their land; it was at Mithrandir’s behest we strengthened our watch over their borders when Master Bilbo left the Shire and again before Lord Iorhael brought the Ring out of it.”
They’d moved from the entry into the family parlor as Faradir spoke, and now they took places about the room. There were a few benches that were suitable for Men, Boboli and Holdfast having made such things once they’d made their agreement to allow the King’s folks to rest there on occasion. “We’ve done half the plasterin’ as we plan t’do,” Teo commented. “Still got a good deal t’finish.”
A floor of wood planks had been laid, and over it lay a fine rag rug in warm browns and shades of gold. A separate hearthrug sat before the fireplace, and on it lay the two small dogs side by side, Lister leaning over to clean Holby’s eyes for him.
“Our Nuncle Eboli brought the sofa from Bree,” Anemone explained importantly. “’Twas his wife’s brother’s, but he died three year back, him did. It’s right comfy, it is. Dad ’n’ Teo made the new table, an’ the new chairs come from Archet. An’ Lilia made the new curtains from fabric our aunt sent over. An’t they pretty?”
“Mister Merimac Brandybuck give us the china ornament,” Teo added. “Said as Master Frodo sent it ’n’ asked him to give it to us. Said as Master Frodo got it at the Free Fair in Michel Delving and wanted us to have it, for the new hole ’n’ all.
On the mantel shelf over the carefully constructed fireplace stood a figure of a shepherdess and a sheep. Denra leaned over it to examine it. “It’s very pretty,” she said. Indeed the coloring of the item was quite delicate and most deftly done. “Was it made in the Shire?”
“I think so--has the Took mark on it, it does, so ’twas made probably somewhere near Tuckborough, I s’pose.”
She realized that this was a Hobbit shepherdess--no improbable blue slippers such as she was used to seeing painted on such figures--the toes were bare save for indication of Hobbit hair over the tops of the feet. She found herself smiling at it.
The second, more formal parlor didn’t have the laid flooring seen in the family parlor; here the floor was formed of carefully placed tiles of many colors showing a bird on a bough in the center surrounded by a great circle of leaves, vines, and flowers. “We’ve seen so few of such mosaic floors in the ruins of ancient halls,” Faradir was saying as they were joined by Teregion, Boboli, and Holdfast. “This is one of the most complete we’ve seen. From what we can gather, this was probably the site of the manor solar, and we’re increasingly certain this wasn’t just a working farm but probably also a royal retreat as well. It would explain better how it came to be part of the Queen’s dower lands.”
“A queen owned this bit o’ land, did she?” asked Holdfast.
“It was a royal holding, and given as part of the lands endowed on the royal princess when she left her father’s home to marry the Prince of Arthedain, intended to be part of her dowry to bring into the marriage.”
The young Hobbit’s face cleared--now that he understood just what dower lands were, he had a better appreciation of how the new King had come to hold title to the property. “So, him didn’t want the lands no more?”
“Our Lord Chieftain Aragorn--now our Lord King--holds title to most of the lands his ancestors administered; and the majority of those lands within Arnor have lain idle for close to a thousand years, sometimes more. They are scattered throughout Eriador, you see, and there’s been no means of seeing them properly settled and generating food or industry until now. It will take probably a good century to see most of Arnor resettled and ordered once more, in fact.
“Originally these lands served to provide the King of Arnor with food and so on. As King and guardian, the King has traditionally little time to do farming for his own family and retainers; nor has he had the chance to mine the mountains for metals to use in trade, weaponry, and tools, or to procure or manufacture other needed materials himself. So the lord’s rents have ever served to help provide the King with what he needs for his own family, with hopefully enough left over for him to store against need for himself or the people at large.
“When someone is made a lord of the realm it is customary to give that individual lands that could potentially generate goods or food for the good of all and to help support the new lord as well, who is, typically speaking, serving the realm at large and so also has little chance to provide all for himself and his retainers. Therefore when Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee were made the Lords Iorhael and Perhael Aragorn granted to them certain lands he’d held and some that had fallen vacant as the lords who’d administered them in the past had died with no heirs. Thus they are provided for in keeping with their stations, and the tenants of those lands know their protection and guidance and support in return.”
“They are supposed to protect us?” Boboli asked, curious.
“In theory, at least--or they are to provide for your protection. Of course, as neither of them is a warrior, neither is likely to come stand guard on your property himself. However, considering the great debt we owe to them, we of the Dúnedain are proud to do so for their sakes. There are three more plats of land in this area that belong to the two of them, and others further north; then there are lands within Gondor that also belong to them. I believe all of those lands are tenanted, and the rents or the Lord’s share of the goods produced on them are collected and held or distributed in accordance with their directives. If there comes a year when your harvests are blighted, it will be partly the lord’s duty to see to it you are succored during the lean months and to help you obtain seed for the year to come. It is for this reason a lord may hold lands that are widely separated, for a harvest may be lean in one region while it might be abundant in another.”
The farmer and his older son looked to one another. “I see,” Boboli said thoughtfully. “It’s like ownin’ farm shares within the Shire, then, or a silent partnership. The one with the share or holdin’ the partnership helps keep the business goin’, and gets part o’ his own food or money for his own needs in return.”
Alvric nodded. “Indeed, Master Hedges.”
“Seems more sensible-like now as we understand more,” Bob added.
The rest of the smial was inspected as far as it had gone to date. “’Tis a big ’nough place as will support quite a few,” Boboli said proudly. “If’n they doesn’t want to leave, all the childern can bring their husbands or wives here, and we can house ’em all. This hill will be able to support a big smial--mayhaps not as big as the Great Smial in the Tooklands or Brandy Hall, but big ’nough.”
Denra found the smial fascinating. The lowest ceiling appeared to be in the kitchen. “We dug this afore we understood as we might be called upon to house Men here,” Bob explained, looking about the room critically. “Mayhaps we’ll do some additional work here--am’t completely happy with the window, don’t ye see. Could be larger and mayhaps better placed if’n I was to move it, say, so much this way.” He demonstrated.
“’Cause the rooms is higher’n normal for a regular smial, we’ve had t’think of ways to make certain as they get warm enough when it’s cold,” Holdfast explained as he showed them one of the bedrooms. “Larger hearths help, but I thought o’ this idea, t’use tubes in the chimbly that’ll warm the air, and it seems t’work. This room is for the lasses. Teo ’n’ me have a room together, too; an’ then there’s a few more as we’re still a-workin’ on. Dad ’n’ Nuncle Eboli dug the well together, an’ we have the pump installed. It’s nice not t’have to bring all the water in by bucket now. And we’re plannin’ on havin’ a cistern near the top o’ the hill for water for the baths--rain water’s best for bathin’ ’n’ the washin’ o’ hair, our mum always said.”
Walls and ceilings were well buttressed, and often the Hobbits had made use of existing walls, which mostly stood at least breast high or better on Faradir, most carefully removing sufficient stones to allow for the Hobbit-preferred round windows. “We have a good cesspit dug well off that end of the ridge,” Bob explained, “so as there’s good drainage for it. We have the water from the kitchen ’n’ the privy ’n’ the bathin’ room all goin’ to it so’s it’ll always be well flushed. We’ll plant the kitchen garden over it--should do well there, I’m thinkin’. We’ve room for at least six more rooms down this aways, and more’n that down that one, and four more toward that way. We could support at least two more bathin’ rooms and another privy with the cesspit we have now; and we could do another down that end of the ridge, if’n ’twas needed. Like I said--if’n the childern wish t’bring their own wives ’n’ husbands here, we could support ’em. And Holdfast’s been workin’ on making a good-sized pond about the spring--we could mebbe raise some fish in’t, if’n we can make it big enough, and not need to go to the river t’fish less’n we’d wish to.”
“There’s no question this is becoming quite a comfortable smial,” Denra commented. “I’ve visited the Sandybanks’ hole a couple times, and I think as Carnation would be right envious were she to see what yours is like.”
The entire Hedges family beamed with pleasure.
But it was the last room to which they were shown that ended up interesting them the most. “The walls here was taller and mighty thick,” Bob commented as he opened the door. “I’m a-thinkin’ as most likely there was an upper level here at one time. Don’t know for certain as to what it was used for--mayhaps for watchin’ out over the land? But there’s stairs....”
The room was round, walled with thick stone, with a stair rising to the left of the door to follow the curve of the wall upward. “A watchtower of some sort, do you think, Ada?” suggested Teregion.
“It would appear so,” agreed Faradir. “Would you mind if Teregion goes up the stairs?” he asked of their hosts.
“We found the entrance to this fair choked wit’ stone ’n’ rubble,” Bob explained once the youth was carefully ascending the stairway. “Took some work to clear it, mind; but once we was well within there was no further problem. I don’t think as we’re all the way down to what was the proper floor for it--seems a bit sunk compared to the rest o’ the place, you see. And there’s a roof or somethin’ as has kept the room from fillin’ complete with dirt’n water,” he added, pointing toward the distant upper levels.
“There’s a walkway here, formed of the wider portion of the wall. It was very thick, Ada,” Teregion called down. “There appear to have been arrow slits facing outward, and an arched doorway opening on what must have been battlements. The upper walls were nowhere as thick as the lower ones, and it appears that most of the fall of stones was toward the front of the building, there,” he said, pointing forward. “I wonder what could have caused them to fall inward like that--the way the wall’s constructed, they ought to have collapsed outwards.”
But Faradir had been drawn to the heap of stone that the Hedges had dragged to one side as they’d worked to clear the doorway. Most of it was granite such as had been used throughout the place to form the stone walls; but one larger stone under the rest was not only of a different color, but an odd shape.
“This isn’t from the original construction,” he commented.
“We’ve not yet been able to dig it out,” Bob told him. “It’s better’n half buried, it is, and t’tell the truth, none of us likes it at all. No one wants t’touch it more’n we have to.”
The Man paused, looking at the Hobbit with concern, then pulled his own hands back without touching it himself. Alvric, his own curiosity raised, came forward to examine it, too. He reached out to feel its surface, but pulled back abruptly, a look of startlement and disgusted recognition on his face.
“It was flung in with a catapult,” he declared. “We had a number of such stones flung at and over the walls by the Enemy during the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. And the Elves who’ve come following Lord Legolas have said that many of them were cursed by the Enemy in hopes of causing even more damage than one might look to expect from such things.”
Teregion had carefully worked his way to the place where the wall buckled and peered out. “Something tore through the outer wall here,” he confirmed. “And it appears that outside stone and dirt were purposely brought up to the gap, similar to the remains of the Enemy’s ramp at Fornost. Apparently the Enemy entered the keep this way. A tree has taken root there, though, which served to hide the fact this opening was here at all.”
He worked his way carefully over the pile of rubble that partly blocked the walkway at that point. “There’s not only a lot of loose stone here, but great slots at regular intervals I’ve had to be careful of,” he called down. “They’re a bit odd, really--all cut in the same direction....”
“Beams for floor joists, perhaps?” his father suggested.
They could see the young Man’s face lighten. “Ah--yes--that makes perfect sense! But there ought to have been one more floor over this one, then, and there are no stairs leading up to it.” He peered up. “There appears to be some kind of gap there,” he said, pointing. “Perhaps they had a trap door to a tower room. But I’d say that most of what’s over me was the old floor, and that it’s not fallen as did the one for this level.”
As they returned to the main part of the smial for a late dinner, Faradir said, “Apparently the first construction raised here was the watch tower, perhaps not long after Elendil led those on his ships ashore and they settled the region. In time a small fortress or keep would have been built beside it; but as this area became less threatened the fortress would have been replaced with a lodge or farmhouse. After all, this land would have been as good for farming then as you have seen it to be now, and as our population grew we would need good farms. If the rain lets up tomorrow we’ll try climbing the higher parts of the hill and see what we can tell of the original construction.”
After the meal the lasses brought out those artifacts that had been found--the ancient long knife; the Elven bowl recalling the victory at Orodruin; a glass vase of a lovely shade of blue that had miraculously been preserved intact; several stone water jars, one of them badly chipped; parts of a golden neck chain; a number of coins found as they’d dug out what appeared to have been an ancient hearth; a stone dog; blue, green, and purple beads of stone and glass; an ancient cooking pot; a wooden spoon that had been found buried in the dirt. There were many pottery shards, and horn handles for what must have been a matching set of kitchen knives, and several spindles of various materials, sizes, and weights. “They must have raised sheep here,” commented Teregion.
Holdfast had found a great iron kettle, much rusted away, however. “Found it outside,” he said, pointing out toward the front of the smial, down toward the taller part of the hill they now knew hid the remains of the watch tower. “Were some flat pieces o’ metal as well--looks like they might o’ come from knives or somethin’ like. Most o’ them’s nasty, an’ I’ve found as I don’t like touchin’ them nor nothin’ like. Won’t let the lasses down that a-ways. Don’t think as it’s wholesome, if’n yer take my meanin’.”
“You might well have found the camping place of those who besieged the farmhouse,” agreed Faradir. “Another site that would interest our scholars, I’d think.”
Denra examined the Elven bowl carefully as Alvric told her the story of the Last Alliance, and the loss of the Enemy’s Ring that had led to the victory against Sauron at that time. Then Teregion continued the story, telling of the assault on Isildur’s party as they headed north alongside the Anduin, heading for the northern passes over Imladris where his wife and youngest son awaited the return of father and older sons. “From what Gandalf has learned,” he added, “the Ring remained at the bottom of the river until It was found there by the creature Gollum and his kinsman. Gollum slew his kinsman to take It for himself, and took It under the Misty Mountains, where It appears to have abandoned him, hoping perhaps to be found by an orc; only instead It was found by Bilbo Baggins, who had been escaping from the orcs who’d waylaid his party and stumbled upon It in the dark, then brought It away from there in his pocket.
“He gave It over to his young kinsman Frodo Baggins, and the rest, I think, you have now heard.”
She nodded, finally returning the bowl to Lilia, who carefully put it away again in the storage room where they were keeping those items they’d found.
The room where she spent the night didn’t have a proper bedstead; but the mattress filled with a woolen fleece over fragrant grasses was more than comfortable enough; and she realized the room was sufficiently airy that she didn’t miss having a window.
Early the next morning all rose to the song of Lilia as she stirred up battercakes in the kitchen for first breakfast. The rain had cleared away, and the sky was a washed blue. After they’d eaten and the menfolk saw to the beasts while Denra helped Lilia and Anemone clear away after the meal, they walked to the higher part of the hill where the suspected watch tower was hidden.
Examining the area where Holdfast had found the great kettle, Faradir and Teregion agreed this was indeed most likely the site of the camp for those who’d assaulted the farm. The ramp the enemy had constructed was still mostly intact, and they had little difficulty climbing it to where the tower had been breached by the stone that had been found inside. Tall trees had grown in the dirt that had lodged about the top of the ramp, hiding both the wall and the opening in it. They were able to walk around the hill, which wound higher as they picked their way about it, until they looked down on the back of the ridge.
“It was a fortress once--you can see that,” Faradir commented. “The passages you’ve cleared going backwards--they’re going down what had been the hallways of the place. See the courtyard there? I think you could open into it from near your kitchen, and it would be a sheltered place to do your laundry. And there was a second, greater courtyard there.”
Boboli had forgotten his discomfort at being so high up as he looked down at the outlines of what had been quite a complex building in its day. “An’ there was walls--walls all about the place. I’ll wager as those was byres, that-away--perfect place for cattle ’n’ sheep, I’m thinkin’.”
Teregion nodded. “And there was probably a stable about there--I swear that must have been a paddock area.”
Teoro, however, was set on scaling the rear portion of the wall that rose out of the hill, clearly a wall from here, where there was a lower place not far above them. He pulled himself up onto the breech, then gave a cry of triumph as he swung inwards and disappeared, then reappeared and called for Teregion to join him.
At last the youths returned to the gap from their exploration. “Ada!” Teregion called down. “I was right--there was a third floor and a tower room. The roof appears to have been slate, and it’s largely intact, except for this area. The floor, however, isn’t wood, but large slabs of stone as well, laid over what appear to be still hale beams of oak--they are prodigious! And there’s the remains of what appears to be a great loom here, and loom weights! And there are stone and the remains of wooden chests about the room--it appears to have been used as a storeroom and a weaving room. The gap appears to have been part of a window looking westward toward the river and the sunset, and I think that there may have been a skylight over it to add to the light.”
Teregion led the descent, guiding Teoro as he found finger and toeholds as they returned to those who’d watched from the hill. “Him was real brave, Dad!” Teo reported admiringly as they picked their way down the slope. “Him stuck his head down through the hole to look--I’d never do such a thing!”
Having eaten a large first breakfast and explored through the time for second breakfast, they returned to the smial for elevenses. Lilia was excited. “I want to go up there, Dad,” she insisted. “I want to see the loom and look around!”
“Not until we makes certain as it’s safe, lass,” her father insisted. “Those beams--they’ll need lookin’ at to make certain as they’re sound afore I’m allowin’ me daughters up there--don’t even like the thought o’ yer brother pokin’ about up there.”
“There was some tipping to some of the stones,” admitted Teregion. “I fear your father’s right. Although I’m thinking we’d do well to have some of our engineers to come examine it all to see just how sound it is. And if we could perhaps get some of the Elves to check the stone within the room--they might know how to lift the curse off of it. I’d suggest you not handle it at all.”
Faradir nodded agreement with his son. “He’s right about that--Elves and Wizards to deal with the curses of the Enemy whenever possible, we’ve found, when our Chieftain’s not about. Aragorn has a certain amount of authority against evil within himself, we’ve found--not perhaps as strong as that one sees in the great Elves, but enough to make safe many places we’ve faced over the years. And hopefully our engineers, perhaps assisted by a Dwarf or two from the Iron Hills or Blue Mountains, will be able to tell us what to do with the tower to stabilize it that it might be explored safely.”
Teoro and Lilia gave their word--reluctantly--that they’d not climb into the tower again. Reassured, they finished their elevenses, and the Mannish guests prepared to finish their journey back to Bree.
As they swung into their saddles Teregion paused a time by Teo. “I want to go in there again, too. I promise that we will go in together!”
This seemed to hearten the Hobbit lad. “Then I’ll hold you to that, Tergi,” he said, smiling. “O’ course, Lilia’s not goin’ ta be any too happy if’n she can’t go into it with us.”
The young Man smiled at the Hobbit lass. “Well, I believe we could arrange that, don’t you think?” So saying he gave a courteous bow to the Hedges and mounted his horse, then nodded his thanks as Holdfast came forward to open the gate for them to leave.
“Well, and how was your journey?” Carnation asked as Denra settled into her chair with a cup of tea and some fresh-baked scones and a large pot of brambleberry jam by her.
“Most interesting indeed, Carnation. Most interesting indeed. And I’ll be needing your help--and I think as Alvric and I will both wish your advice.”
“Advice? You’d wish the advice of a Hobbit?”
“Yes--as to what we should serve at our wedding feast.”
It was with a good deal of satisfaction that Denra Gorse watched her friend grow very, very excited.