My birthday mathom to all. And much love to RiverOtter for her faithful beta work!
Folco Boffin was giving his cousin Fredegar Bolger a most serious stare. “Where are they, Fatty?” he demanded. “You were going to stay there at Crickhollow with Frodo, Pippin, and Merry for a few weeks, but then word came that they had disappeared through the Old Forest and someone had tried to break into Frodo’s new house!”
Freddy gave his favorite cousin a sidelong look, then turned his head away. “I promised not to tell anyone else,” he said with a defeated sigh.
“Whom did you promise?” insisted Folco.
“Merry Brandybuck? What on earth is anyone doing promising Merry Brandybuck not to tell other folk important information as to what is going on?”
“I can’t tell you! It’s too dangerous!”
Folco felt he was beyond his depth. “Frodo moved, and decided to go off on an adventure like Cousin Bilbo, and that’s dangerous?”
Freddy turned to face him, his face uncharacteristically stern. “It’s not just an adventure, Folco. It’s serious—deadly serious. It’s a matter—a matter of life and death!” He took a deep breath. “Frodo and Sam Gamgee were charged by Gandalf not to tell anyone—and that means not anyone at all. Only Sam, Pippin, and I were already working with Merry on keeping an eye on Frodo. We all knew that someday he’d try to leave the Shire and follow Bilbo and have his own adventure. And you know how he’s been the past three years—always poring over Bilbo’s maps and the new ones from Rivendell. You know how restless he’s been and all. And you know how he’s had these odd—dreams, ones about being chased and about eyes looking for him.
“Did you know that many of Frodo’s dreams come true? That he’s dreamt of fires and awakened the Master and saved people?”
“I know Cousin Esmeralda was telling my mum and yours about that happening once, the last time we were all at Budge Hall.”
“Well, Sam Gamgee’s been certain that Frodo’s been having true dreams about being looked for for quite some time. The time that Frodo got those new maps—you remember, don’t you?” At Folco’s nod, Freddy continued, “Well, he wondered if there could be moon letters on them—you know, like on that Dwarf map Bilbo told about. So, he was taking one of them up on top of the Hill, and he was right! Only he dozed off while he was sitting there, and was having a bad dream when Sam became worried and came too close, and accidentally woke Frodo up. That was when Frodo told Sam about the dreams, and that that he was having them often.
“Then Gandalf came last April—and he had news—bad news. Very bad news. It was about something that Bilbo----“ He seemed to be searching for the right word to use. At last he continued, “Something that Bilbo brought home from his own adventure turned out to be very, very bad. I mean terrible bad, Folco. Extremely dangerous. And some terrible folk from Outside want it, and will do anything to get it, even if it means invading the Shire and killing folk!” His voice dropped as he stared off into the distance. “And they have—they’ve entered the Shire and killed folk. You heard about the Bounder they found ridden down by horses—not ponies, but true horses, there near the Brandywine Bridge?”
Folco nodded again.
Freddy continued, “Well, that was them, coming for—for it. They would have killed me, there at Crickhollow, if I hadn’t felt them coming and hared off the way I did. I’ve never been so terrified in my life! I never dreamed I could be so frightened! And the feeling when they came into the front garden, there at Crickhollow—you’d never believe how horrible it could be! I don’t think even Frodo would have been able to stand up to it!”
Folco was concerned. Fatty’s face was a pasty color, and he was sweating heavily. And he was trembling! He reached out and took Freddy’s hand, and squeezed it reassuringly. Freddy pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his face, and reached down to pick up the mug of beer that sat on the table beside his chair. He gulped from it, almost desperately. He then set the mug back on the table, and wiped his face a second time before wadding up the handkerchief and ramming it back into his trousers pocket.
Fatty was looking down now, down at his knees. “I don’t know what kind of folk they were, but they weren’t natural—that I’ll swear. Couldn’t be natural, these Black Riders. They appear to have reached Hobbiton just about the time Frodo, Sam, and Pippin started their walk toward Buckland, and were asking around. We know they talked to the Gaffer, trying to figure out where Frodo was. They then followed after them all the way to the Woody End. Only there were Elves there, and the Black Riders veered off—it seems they don’t do well with Elves.”
Folco was intrigued. “Elves? In the Shire?”
Freddy appeared disgusted. “Do you think that Bilbo lied about Elves liking to visit the Shire, then?”
“Well, of course not….” But Folco had to admit to himself that, yes, he’d always thought that the old Baggins’s stories about meeting with Elves on his walking trips were indeed just stories.
“Well, Frodo, Sam, and Pippin all had words to say about meeting the Elves. It wasn’t just made up, that’s for certain. And they spent the night near Woods Hall, in a tree garth of some sort that Frodo says appears to be the source of the name of the place. The next day they tried taking a shortcut through the woods between there and the Marish, and got lost, of course. But it appears it was good they left the road when they did, for there were another Black Rider or two along the road. And they all said they seemed to be sniffing for their scent, like they were dogs or something. Right uncanny! Came out on Bamfurlong Farm—the Maggots’ place, don’t you know. Maggot had seen them, too, the Black Riders. Said the one that came across his fields scared his dogs witless, and scared him, too!
“Maggot brought the three of them to the ferry in his wagon, and was right spooked when Merry found them. They took the ferry back, and when they were about halfway across, they saw the Black Riders at the dock, then riding off toward the bridge.”
“And you all knew that Frodo was planning on going somewhere, out of the Shire, and you didn’t tell me?” Folco asked.
“No, we didn’t tell you. What could you have done anyway, Folco, with your mum as ill as she’s been? You couldn’t leave her for more than a day or two, and you know it!”
“I have to be off home tomorrow,” admitted Folco. “I don’t trust the neighbors to see to it she’s fed properly, since it’s hard for her to get up and down any more.”
Freddy indicated he understood. “That’s why we didn’t tell you.” He took another, more normal pull at his mug, and then picked up one of the sugared cakes that sat on a nearby plate. After a couple of bites, he set it down by his mug. At last he continued, “When we thought it was just Frodo wanting to follow Bilbo and have an adventure, we were all keen to go with him. Only, when we found that Gandalf had told Frodo he had to get—it—out of the Shire, I decided I didn’t really want to go. So I stayed to make it seem that Frodo was still there, so folk wouldn’t know he was really gone until it was too late to go after the rest and drag them back. They were supposed to go by way of the Bridge, but then Merry thought----“ He took a long breath. “Well, Merry decided, when he realized just how serious it was, maybe they’d need to go out by way of the Old Forest. Now, I’d never go through there!” He shivered.
“Nor I,” agreed Folco.
“So they did—the four of them riding ponies and with a fifth for the luggage. That was the last I saw of them. I hope they made it!”
The two of them were quiet for a time, watching the dying fire, and Fatty taking occasional reflexive bites at his cake. At last he set the remains of the cake down once more and clutched at the arms of his chair. “I’m a coward,” Fredegar Bolger admitted at last. “Too much of a coward to go with them. Just the thought of them going past the High Hay, and I decided like that I’d stay safe in the Shire. Only, just how safe are we when the likes of those Black Riders managed to get in and found out where Frodo was supposed to be? When I saw them creeping toward the house through the garden, I ran—and I’d do it again in a heartbeat! They’re pure evil! You’d not understand, I suppose, unless you were to face them yourself! I must have sat in that farmhouse where I ran to and gibbered, ‘I don’t have it! I don’t know where they’ve gone!’ for a good hour before the Brandybucks got me to calm down at last!”
He finished off his mug of beer at a single gulp and set it down, looking at it regretfully. At last he stood up, and leaned over with difficulty to pick up a log from the woodbox to throw onto the hearth. At last, satisfied the log had caught, he turned to face his cousin. “Thing is, Folco, if the likes of the Black Riders have managed to get past the Bounders and into the Shire, what’s to keep other evil folk out? The news from the Dwarves and others who cross the Shire along the Road—it’s bad. There’s wars going on out there, and Frodo and Merry and Pippin and Sam Gamgee—they’re riding out right into the middle of it all! What if the wars start spilling over the Brandywine into the Shire itself? We can’t let the Enemy get a toehold here!”
Folco was to remember Fatty’s words when he heard that the Bolgers were forced out of Budge Hall by Lotho’s Big Men, and then when he heard that Fatty himself, Fredegar Bolger, the self-confessed coward, was leading the Rebels who were seeking to steal back from the ruffians what the ruffians had stolen from the Hobbits of the Shire!
“If you’re a coward,” he said aloud to himself, “then maybe the Shire needs more of the same kind of coward as you are, Fatty Bolger!”