The journey back from Gondor to the Shire was slow and, bearing as it did the last mortal remains of Theoden King, sometimes sombre. But it was not possible, with so many folk of different races, to maintain an air of mourning at all times, nor would it be wise. For Theoden's folk, of any, would emphasise that his was a life well lived and bravely ended, and that was something to be celebrated.
Today, the huge camp had awakened to blue skies and bright sunshine and elves, mortals and hobbits alike felt their spirits lifted. So it was that the High King decreed that this should be a day of rest. Cooking fires were lit and hunters sent out. Others found bags and baskets and set out to scavenge what could be had from plant and stream, for tonight there would be a feast, before they moved into Rohan proper.
The four hobbits were just about to set out, under Sam's capable instruction, when Strider approached. He was clearly Strider and not the Elessar today, dressed in his old travel stained clothes and battered long boots. The only difference to the Strider they had met in Bree was in his countenance, which had lost its grim set and was lit with a smile. “Hold, gentlefolk!” he called. They waited for him to draw closer. “You have all been exempted from foraging today, for you and I are going to take a little ride.”
Frodo frowned. Whilst the reprieve from picking berries was welcome he had been looking forward to stretching his legs. Riding covered more ground to be sure, but he was beginning to feel bow-legged. “Just we five?” He eyed the four tall, heavily armed and alert men, who stood but a few steps behind the king.
Aragorn's grin broadened. “Not just we five. I have persuaded Legolas and Gimli to accompany us. Gandalf asked me to present his apologies, but he is close closeted with the Lady Galadriel and Lord Celeborn.” When he noted the direction of Frodo's gaze his smile grew a little rueful. “I am afraid we cannot slip my guards but they have promised to remain at a discrete distance.”
“Where are we going?” Pippin asked, happily dropping his sack.
“We are going on a picnic,” Aragorn replied. “The queen herself is supervising the packing of food and drink and Legolas is saddling horses and ponies. Come.”
The fellowship that set out half and hour later was smaller by just two, than that which set out from Rivendell but a few months before. That is if one ignored the guards, who spread out around them as unobtrusively as several tall, broad shouldered, dark haired men, jingling with chain mail and bristling with weapons, could.
In the front rode Frodo and Sam, accompanied by Aragorn. Next rode Legolas, with Gimli as passenger, flanked by Merry and Pippin.
It took several minutes for the little fellowship to ride clear of the host of men and elves and many a fair voice was raised in greeting as they rode past, but Aragorn chose not to pause for any longer than the time it took to acknowledge their calls. Although Frodo and his hobbit companions travelled within the host they kept a little apart for the Ringbearer's protection. Not that he needed protection from spear or sword, but many wished to give him thanks personally, and it quickly became rather overwhelming for one who only sought to sink back into a simple life. The outriders were there as much to protect Frodo's privacy as to protect against any stray band of orcs that still roamed the realm.
They forded the Entwash and entered a green land that showed no sign of the war that had touched the world to the south. It was predominantly flat, with the Misty Mountains to be seen rising in the distance, the razor edged maze of Emyn Muil to the right and, to their north, the dark twin smudges of the forests of Fangorn and Lorien. Other than that, there were only plains and some low hills.
“Does anybody live here?” Pippin asked Legolas.
The elven prince's grey gaze grew distant for a moment then he looked down to his companion and smiled. “Not for many lifetimes of men. They are a part of the lands of Rohan but most peoples only paused here for a few generations before moving west, over the mountains.”
Sam sniffed. “Aye. The soil's thin here. It wouldn't feed crops for more than a few years.”
Legolas chuckled. “Our gardener is correct. This land is best suited for grazing and even dwarves cannot exist only on meat.”
Behind him, Gimli snorted. “Some of us would like to try.”
Legolas acknowledged his comment with a good-natured smile. “It makes excellent grazing for horses however, and the people of Rohan breed some of the best.”
Ahead of them Aragorn called a halt atop a low and mounded scarp. “We shall take our repast here. There is clean water in the springs that issue where the land dips, yonder.” He pointed to a gap between two of the small hillocks.
The fellowship divided themselves, falling easily into their routine of but a few months ago. Gimli began to cut turf to make room for a fire then collected rocks to edge the hole. Sam went to collect water and Legolas looked to the horses and ponies. The remaining hobbits began unpacking rugs and food whilst the new King of Gondor spoke with the Captain of his guard, before appointing himself the task of collecting wood. With only a few scattered trees in the broad landscape theirs would, perforce, have to be a small fire.
It was only a short while before water was boiled for tea and the food was laid out. Those guards not on duty made their own camp at a little distance. When all were settled, their plates and cups filled, it was a merry company who sat at their ease in the sunshine. Sam eyed the low hills nearby. “Them hills don't look natural. They remind me of those mounds out beyond the Old Forrest.” He shuddered. “I hope there's nobody buried there.”
Aragorn followed his gaze. “No, Sam. It is just a line of low hills. This is chalk land and you often get hills like that when there is chalk beneath the surface.”
Legolas frowned. “Burials? Oh, do you refer to the Tyrn Garthod or Barrow Downs near Bree? It is said that there are many ancient kings of men buried there, although their names are almost forgotten now. Our tales speak of the land of Cardolan dissolving into the mists long ago, the last remnants of her people brought low by a great plague.”
Pippin shifted uncomfortably. “Some of our genealogies speak of a plague, but no-one alive today saw it. It reached the Shire only a few years after our people had settled there, and that was an awfully long time ago.”
Legolas chuckled. “Not so long ago I think. The Great Plague is recent history to most elves although, to be fair, it did occur before I was born. My father will remember it, I have no doubt.”
Aragorn shook his head. “This is not a fitting topic of conversation for a fine day. Those were dark times and darkness is now banished from this land.”
Frodo looked up, his visage clearing. “Thank you, Aragorn. We have had more than enough darkness and it is time to think on happier things.” He took a bite of roasted meat. “Bilbo once told me that hobbits came from beyond the Misty Mountains, but where they came from before that he could not say. He just referred to it as 'the wondering time'. Perhaps our people travelled through here in their wonderings.”
Aragorn wiped his hand upon a napkin before lifting his cup. “Even elves do not remember when or where hobbits arose in Middle earth. Elrond says they were first noticed living between the forest of the Greenwood and the Misty Mountains, but it is possible that they travelled north, up the Anduin from lands farther south, or even east.”
Legolas nodded. “It is very likely they did not stay east of the mountains for long, for had hobbits lived for more than a few mortal generations, just beyond the borders of our forest, there would be mention of them in our lays. Yet I knew nothing of periannath until I encountered Bilbo.”
Pippin swallowed a large mouthful of strawberry tart. “We seem to have avoided all the old tales. I should like to go for a walk later. If they are not indeed tombs, those hills would make rather splendid places to delve hobbit holes and I fancy exploring. After all, it is unlikely that we hobbits will ever pass this way again.”
“Do not be too sure of that Sir Knight. I have not released you from my service and may need to call upon your council at some future date. You should consider yourself upon extended leave only.” Although Aragorn's face was stern nobody was fooled when they saw the twinkle in his eyes.
Gimli's bushy brows climbed to meet his hairline. “Well, should you actually get around to taking that walk before it grows dark, I would be happy to go with you.”
Pippin's spluttered indignantly, “Before dark? We are not far beyond mid summer Master Dwarf. It will be hours yet before it's full dark.”
Gimli humphed. “I have seen enough of hobbits to know that you are quiet capable of having luncheon run into tea, and for tea to lead on to dinner and for that to drift into supper and before you know it, it is time for bed.”
Frodo chuckled. “Whilst I confess that such would be a perfect day for most hobbits, if we did that every day we would never get anything else done.” He set down his empty plate and patted his stomach (which was still too flat in Sam's opinion). “I, for one, have eaten quite sufficient and would welcome a stroll to help everything go down. I will be happy to join Pippin in his exploration.”
Pippin eyed the remains of his tart in some disappointment, then shrugged his shoulders and tucked a handful of nuts into his pocket before standing. “Come on, then.”
Sam, of course, decided to accompany Frodo, and rather than be left out, Merry reluctantly abandoned his plate to follow. The rest remained about the embers of the fire, falling into a contented discussion about the possible origins of hobbits.
The little line of mounds, (Frodo refused to afford them the title of hills), was only a few minutes distant and soon all four hobbits were clambering atop the nearest. “Ere, Mr Frodo, look at the way those plants are lyin'. They almost look like a couple of windows and a doorway if you catch them with the light in the right direction.” Sam was pointing at the side of the mound farthest from them.
“Ouch!” Frodo turned in time to see Pippin land hard upon his bottom. The young hobbit's right foot seemed to have disappeared. “Careful everyone,” Pippin called as he drew his foot out of a hole. “Looks like there are some rabbit warrens in these hills.”
Frodo bent down and, having examined Pippin's foot and found no injury, bent lower to examine the rabbit hole more closely. “This is no rabbit warren, Pip. Not unless rabbits have taken to lining their warrens with mortared stone.” He brushed aside the long grass to reveal a small, oblong, stone-lined hole.
Sam dropped to his knees at Frodo's side and frowned down at the shadowed space. “I think I know what this is,” he murmured, reaching a tentative hand inside. He withdrew it moments later, revealing it to be covered in fine black powder. “It's a chimbley,” he announced to an astonished Merry, Pippin and Frodo.
“What would a hill be needing a chimney for?” asked Pippin.
Merry stood. “Are we absolutely sure these aren't burial mounds?” he asked with some concern.
“Don't be silly, Merry. What would a corpse want with a fire?” Frodo handed over his handkerchief and Sam began to wipe clean his hand. He turned again to study the mound Sam had pointed out earlier, with it's potential door and windows. “I don't think this is a house of the dead, although the people who lived in it once probably did die, long ago.” He scrambled down the slope, followed by his bemused companions.
Once closer it became even more obvious that the foliage grew differently on parts of the mound and now that he stood before the line Frodo could see that they all had similar patterns. He lifted a long strand of some sort of creeping vine (no doubt Sam would be able to give it a name) and Pippin joined him when he began to see traces of wood planking beneath. Within moments Merry and Sam were helping and soon a round gap, filled with the rotting remains of what looked to be a door, was revealed. All four hobbits stood in silence.
“How old do you think it is?” whispered an awed Pippin.
Frodo was slow to reply. “I'm not sure. How long does wood take to rot?”
“Tis difficult to say, sir.” Sam's gaze grew more analytical. “The bottom's completely rotted away but that's the part gets most water on it. And it depends on weather and the type of wood. I don't recognise this grain.” He reached out to stroke a finger down one pale plank and drew back as though stung when the wood simply melted away to dust. He gave a grimace of disgust, wiping his hands upon his breeches. “Insects don't help neither.”
Frodo stepped closer to examine the remains, although he took care not to touch. When exposed it was clear that the interior of the plank resembled a honeycomb. “I believe it was only the protection of the vines that preserved it this long.” He resisted the temptation to enter the blackness beyond, choosing instead to join Pippin who was ripping at what they all assumed now was a vine covered window.
They were correct. The hole revealed was also round and had once been cleverly framed with wood. What little could be discerned beneath the vines, which were resisting most of Sam's efforts to dislodge them, was in worse condition than the door and Sam could find no trace of glass or the groove required to seat it. “I don't think this ever had glass in it, Mr Frodo.”
“I think you are right, Sam. I remember an old deserted smial down Harbottle way that had no glass in the windows, only wooden shutters on the inside.” Frodo slid a careful hand inside. “Yes. I think I can feel the remains of hinges.” His hand came away covered in rust and Sam handed back his hankerchief.
Merry stepped closer, wrinkling his nose at the damp smell. “I remember the one you're talking of. Farmer Grub was using it for his pigs.” He turned back to the doorway. “I think I can crawl in without disturbing the door any further. Does anyone remember whether we have any torches in our packs back at the camp? I don't think it would be wise to go in without a light of some kind.”
“Yes, Merry. I always carry flint and torch when I'm travelling at midday, in the middle of summer.” Frodo cuffed his arm playfully as he slipped past, bending to enter the hole, and Merry grabbed his coat tails. “Wait a minute cousin. We don't know what it's like in there. The roof may be unsafe.”
Frodo remained where he was, on hands and knees, half in and half out of the hole. “It appears to be just one room. I can see the hearth and what looks like a pile of rags against the far wall.”
Merry frowned, dropping to his knees to stick his head through the opening by Frodo. “I can't see a thing. You must have the eyes of a cat.”
His cousin only smiled ruefully. “My night vision has been very good ever since Weathertop,” he confessed.
Merry squeezed his shoulder. “I suppose it's nice to know that something good came out of that. Although, given a choice, I'd really rather have you remain as blind as a bat.”
Frodo chuckled. “Me too. But the fact remains … I can see inside and it looks reasonably safe.” He did not wait for Merry to detain him further but crawled beneath the crumbling remains of the door and stood up on the other side.
For a moment he remained where he was, turning slowly. “Although it smells damp it looks as though the water only came in at one corner. Otherwise its surprisingly dry. Whoever made this did a very good job.” He bent to poke his head out of the hole in the door. “And there is something else. The ceiling is only two feet above my head. This was definitely not made for man or elf.”
His comment was met with astonished silence. Pippin was the first to recover. “Maybe someone left the Shire and decided to settle here.”
Frodo turned back to surveying the room. “I don't think so. No hobbit of the Shire would live in a hole without a kitchen. There's just a hook over the fire where they probably hung a cauldron. I think this is very old.”
“I agree.” Merry, Pippin and Sam turned to find Aragorn standing behind them. “I and my people have trod this land from end to end, and there is no mention of hobbits this far south. I think this was built many generations before the founding of your Shire.” For some moments the trio stared but when it became clear that Aragorn had no further information to impart, they turned back to the hole. “What else can you see, Frodo?” Merry called.
“Just about everything. Although everything is not a lot. The pile of rags at the back here appears to be the remains of a straw stuffed mattress. Beyond that there's nothing. The damp is quite bad in this corner. I wonder if there is some underground spring that changed course after the smial was dug. That may be why it was abandoned, and I can see some cracks in the wall and ceiling near that patch. I'm coming . . .”
There was an ominous rumble and the three hobbits gave surprised yelps as they were thrown backwards, landing amid a cloud of dust. Aragorn remained upright, but even he was not fast enough to rescue Frodo as the hill before them sank.
“Mr Frodo!” Sam was the first of the hobbits to regain his feet and ran to the now blocked doorway. He would have begun scrabbling at the earth with his bare hands had Aragorn not yanked him away by his collar.
“Wait, Sam,” he censured. “Let things settle for a moment or you could cause a secondary fall.” All three hobbits, were now giving him mutinous looks. “As hobbits I would have thought you aware of that.” The common sense of his admonition cut through their panic.
“You're right, Strider, sir. I'm sorry. But we need to act soon or he'll suffocate.” Sam stepped up to the window, only to find that it too, was blocked with soil.
Merry eyed the now deformed mound. “That area around the chimney is still sound, from the look of it.”
Aragorn followed his gaze. “I shall climb up and call down the chimney. Perhaps Frodo will hear me.”
Merry grabbed Pippin's shoulder when the young knight would have followed. “Wait a bit. Aragorn knows what he's doing.” In truth, he was more worried about his young cousin discovering that Frodo was beyond rescue. Pippin had done a great deal of growing up over the past few months but in Merry's eyes he was still his little cousin.
Aragorn picked his way carefully up the mound, avoiding the collapsed area and testing each step before committing his weight. Upon reaching the chimney he teased away some of the covering plants and leaned down. “Frodo. Frodo. Are you hurt?”
Everyone held their breath until they heard a muffled, “I'm alright. I'm not hurt.”
“How much of the interior has collapsed?”
“Quite a lot. It will take hours to dig through, I think and it's still rather unstable.”
“Well, the chimney will at least ensure that you have air,” Aragorn assured him.
“Yes. Although I'm afraid there is another problem. That damp patch was definitely caused by an underground stream and now there's water coming in.”
“Can you judge the speed? How long will it be before it becomes a problem for you?”
“If it doesn't get any faster I expect I'll have a couple of hours before it reaches the ceiling. The chimney is quite wide at the bottom and I can see plenty of hand holds. If I have to, I could climb up it for a short distance.”
“Stay close to the chimney for the moment.” Aragorn beckoned Merry to him. “I am going to ask Merry to stay with you while I consult with our friends about your rescue.” Merry took his place at the chimney and began to call down encouragement to his cousin.
Aragorn drew the others away a few paces and dropped to one knee to speak quietly with them. “I confess to knowing little about the construction of smials but, as the chimney has been constructed of stone, may I assume that to be the strongest part?”
Pippin deferred to Sam, who considered for a moment. “Usually, yes sir. So long as it's bonded into the ground proper. Though if its as old as you think the mortar may have rotted.”
“It looked solid enough to me. Although I cannot speak for the condition of the mortar. How much weight has your master acquired since March do you think?”
“Not enough, if you ask me,” Sam replied with a frown. “And he can't afford to go losin' no more. If needs be we can drop food and drink to him down that chimbly.”
Aragorn smiled. “I hope he will not be down there long enough to necessitate that. From what I can see, the chimney only narrows in the top few feet. If we can widen that area we should be able to drop Frodo a rope and pull him up.”
Sam's hand automatically moved to his waist, where the Lady Galadriel's rope had hung for so long. When he encountered nothing he turned to survey the farther side of the mound. “Aye. That could work, if we widen from the solid side, away from the fall. The stones we take out can be used to shore up, though were goin' to need more.” He frowned. “But I've no rope.”
Aragorn looked up. “I believe rope can be arranged.” Then he pointed to where Legolas and Gimli, trailed by some of the guards, were running toward them. Sam let out an audible sigh. With the fellowship they could surely manage anything.
“What has happened?” Legolas asked before Gimli had even caught his breath.
“I fear our Ringbearer has managed to get himself into trouble again.” Aragorn went on to explain the problem and his suggested solution.
When he finished Gimli nodded. “I have a coil of rope on my saddle and I can help with the shoring up,” he offered. “We dwarves are used to building in stone.”
Legolas leaned in to murmur to Aragorn. “The ground may still be unstable. It will not take much weight to send down the rest of the roof. Perhaps I should take your place in assisting Gimli.” For a moment it looked as though Aragorn would protest but Legolas forestalled him. “Elven footsteps fall lighter than mortal upon the land.”
Aragorn, let out a sigh. “You are right, Legolas.”
Gimli stepped up to Legolas' side. “We may need more stone to help shore up the hole. Perhaps the rest of you could gather some.”
Legolas' keen eyes combed the landscape. “There is not much free stone to be had here.”
Aragorn beckoned two of his escort. “If there is any to be found we will discover it.”
So it was that Gimli and Legolas climbed the mound, after Aragorn insisted that Gimli remove all heavy gear but one axe. A reluctant Sam returned to their camp site to rebuild the fire, for Aragorn pointed out that Frodo would doubtless be cold and wet by the time he was rescued.
After fetching the rope Aragorn joined his men in gleaning stone from the surrounding landscape and soon a respectable pile began to grow. The rescuers settled into a new pattern.
Aragorn and the guards collected stone, laying it at the foot of the mound. From there Pippin carried it to the roof, where Legolas and Gimli carefully began their work. Merry remained at his post by the chimney, calling out encouragement to his cousin, whilst trying to stay out of the way of the delvers.
“I know you and Sam have done some amazing things, cousin, but you really don't have to continue, you know,” Merry called down.
There was a great deal of splashing, as though someone were wading through water, then Frodo's voice called clearly and perhaps a little too brightly, up the chimney. “Well, I was getting bored so I thought I'd provide you and Pip with a little taste of adventure too. After all, I understand that you spent most of the time Sam and I were slogging through Mordor, twiddling your thumbs.”
Merry snorted. “Very good Frodo. Yes, Pip and I have twiddled our thumbs in all the best places. There was Rohan, Fangorn, Isengard, Gondor, Ithilien, and let's not forget the Gates of Mordor. It was quite a holiday. Although the accommodations left something to be desired in a few places.”
“I've stayed in a few choice properties myself. Travelling is all very interesting, but I must say that I'm looking forward to returning to my nice warm house in Crickhollow.”
When he heard Frodo's teeth chattering Merry glanced at Legolas, who leaned in. “Try to climb out of the water if you can, Frodo.”
They could hear more splashing, some scrabbling and a few grunts then, “Oh dear. I fear that my new suit will never be the same again.”
“We'll get you another, cousin. I'm sure Master Bentwhistle will be happy to oblige when we get home,” Merry replied as Legolas returned to his careful digging.
The growing sound of running water, along with signs of a small trickle that broke through the fall and began to flow out of the remains of the door, leant speed to their efforts as, with Gimli's advice, they first dug away the soil to one side of the chimney. When it was judged wide enough it was lined with stone before that side of the chimney was carefully dismantled. When the last few stones were removed Merry leaned in, worried and yet relieved to see his cousin's dirty and blood stained face, staring up at him from several feet below.
Legolas lowered a rope. Up to his waist in freezing water despite having climbed a little way up the chimney, Frodo made short work of tying the rope about himself, but when they would have pulled him up he protested. “I can climb. Just use the rope to steady me. I'm not helpless and I'll not be hoisted up like a sack of potatoes.”
Gimli chuckled at his friend's determination as he and Legolas complied. If they did a little more than take up the slack, nobody commented, for Frodo's feet were numb from standing so long in the icy water. Still, he made a creditable attempt and managed to stand when he emerged at the top. So pitiful did he look, however, scratched, covered in mud and soot, shivering and soaked to the skin, that Aragorn would listen to no protests as he scooped him up and carried him back to their camp.
Some time later they all sat about the rebuilt fire, sipping hot tea. Sam was examining his master's clothing. “Well, I reckon you're right and this lovely new suit is beyond savin', Mister Frodo. You'll have to stay wrapped in Strider's . . . er, Aragorn's . . . er, His Majesty's old cloak until that guard fetches your spare clothes from the main camp.” He sniffed at the tattered garment that was wrapped at least twice about Frodo's small form. “Not that the cloak is much better than your suit if you ask me.”
Frodo winced as Aragorn dabbed at a cut on his now clean forehead but the once-ranger only grinned. Frodo's protests had been ignored as he was stripped and bathed like a faunt by Aragorn and Sam, and now Aragorn was tending to Frodo's mercifully minor scrapes and bruises.
“That is all, Frodo. Unless you have other injuries that you have not mentioned.” Aragorn tossed the last scrap of bloodstained cloth into the fire. “I do not think this cut will require a bandage. Just ensure that you keep it clean.”
Merry laughed. “Did you hear that, cousin? No more scrambling into muddy holes. You know, keeping you out of trouble is turning into a full time occupation.”
Sam leapt to his master's defence at once. “He weren't the only one who wanted to go in there.”
Frodo chuckled. “It's alright Sam. It was a little silly of me not to check more thoroughly. But it's a bit of our history and I just couldn't resist knowing.”
“Well, now you know, cousin.” Pippin frowned into his empty cup and Legolas leaned in to refill it. “Although whatever you think you know, I'm sure I don't.”
Frodo drew Aragorn's cloak closer, inhaling the comforting smell of freedom and friend. “I now know that the old tales are correct. Hobbits lived in these lands many generations before they crossed the mountains into Eriador. Our people are more ancient than we knew.”
Gimli drew on his pipe, deep set eyes twinkling as he added, “Well, I've learned that elves make creditable builders when they learn to take advice from a dwarf.”
Legolas laughed brightly. “I was honoured to receive your tuition, Gimli. Should I ever need to repair another chimney I shall be sure to apply my new-learned knowledge.” Legolas filled his own cup. “You are very quiet, Sam. What have you learned?”
Sam thought for a moment. “Nothin' new really, but it was good to relearn somethin'. When I looked up and saw you all runnin' over that hill I knew everythin' was goin' to be alright. I've learned that with good friends you can tackle anythin'.” He took a swallow of tea. “I've also learned that our longfathers didn't know nothin' about delvin'. Fancy buildin' a row of smials right on a spring line!”
Of a sudden, the air was filled with the merry laughter of hobbit, dwarf, elf and man.
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