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Chapter One, A Grey Night, Section 8
by Stephen N. Barnes, Jr.

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He continued down the road turning southwest outside of Brookton. It was fairly well-worn, with wagon grooves and pony tracks packing the dirt. The road wound out of Brookton towards the town of South Bree, two or so leagues from Brookton. To the west of the South Bree Road grew the expansive and mysterious Finterwood.

Years past, merchants and others traveling from the Shire to southern lands had used this road as a thoroughfare. Men, dwarves, hobbits and elves had often passed through the Shire during the early years of the rule of the High King. The road had been a main artery of commerce from Bree proper through Hobbiton, all the way to South Bree and beyond. Now, however, the road was rarely traveled by outsiders, save by occasional journeying bands of dwarves or men.

In the height of the High King’s rule, the town of South Bree was a place of respite and commerce, inhabited by hobbits and Big Folk alike. After the destruction of the ring of power and the establishment of the kingdom of Aragorn I, men and hobbits from Bree proper founded South Bree as a testimony to the peace of the times, as well as to the grand ales of the southern Shire. Old Wheyt Butterbur (grandson of the famous Barliman Butterbur of The Prancing Pony) had sent two of his sons to South Bree years before, and they had established The Crumpet, an inn and pub rivaling their great-great-grandfather’s.

Now these lands were quieter. The High King’s reign was long forgotten by most men, and times were different under the sun of this Fourth Age. Travelers from outside the Shire did not journey this way except very rarely; and then only quickly passing through South Bree to lands further south and east. Many Shire hobbits and transplanted Big Folk, however, still considered South Bree one of the finest new towns in the region.

This early in the morning the South Bree Road was empty, but for the small birds and squirrels that chirped and chattered as Del plodded southward. The sun rose above the hillocks and began to shine through the clouds.

Del walked a couple of miles uneventfully down the road to a small fork. A pathway branched off the South Bree Road and bent westward through a field toward the Finterwood. He turned and walked down this path. It curved like a snake through the overgrown field, and tumbled over a rolling hill at the edge of the wood. Large rocks were strewn across its breadth, and weeds twisted and tangled on the ground. It had not been used in some time. Del struggled to leap and squeeze his way through portions of the narrow path.

The brisk walk and bright morning sun forced Del to pause, pull a handkerchief from his pocket, and wipe his brow. Stopping to rest, he shook his head and glanced down the way. The weeds were growing thicker here, and further down, a large boulder blocked his way. "What a bother," he thought. "We could meet in the comfort of my living room, with tea and cakes for all." Sighing, he forced his way down to the rock, and then took a hidden trail which broke around the rock and through the field.

The trail twisted over a small knoll and descended to the very edge of the dense Finterwood. A hedge of tall spiny holly bordered the forest, stretching north and south a ways, then withdrew into the wood, drawn by the thick fingers of overhanging branches. Del walked the trail along the hedge for a while. It turned sharply into the wood. The hardy hedge blocked his path.

He paused at the hedge. It was impassably overgrown. He stared at it for a moment, then, shaking his head in disgruntlement, he stepped exactly fourteen paces to the left of the path. Picking up a short stick from beside the trail, he tapped on the green barrier. "Confound those two troublemakers!" he mumbled. "I’d have plenty time to spare ‘f it weren’t for them. Hey!" He raised his voice and directed it toward the holly. "Let me in, I say. Lendy! Brogund! … Blast!"

Sudden movement in the hedge startled him. The bushes shook back and forth, and several branches together pulled back, exposing a good-sized hole in the hedge, round as a hobbit’s door. It was a prickly holly-covered gate, well camouflaged by the intertwining vines. The sun peeked through the opening, but the overhanging branches of the trees and the wild growth of the holly broke the light into scattered shafts.

For a short while no sound came from the wood. Then a haltering voice announced, "Ahem, enter, bold Delegard Bolger, son of Falegard Bolger. We have only just now begun our, uh, emergency conference, initiated by our good friend Brogund Brandybuck, wherein we shall discuss the several mysterious happenings in and around …"

"Pardon me, Lendy," interrupted Del. "I am in a hurry to make a party this afternoon, and I don’t have time for these silly formalities." He stepped rather smartly into the opening.

The hedge gate opened into a small clearing at the base of an old white oak tree. Clover carpeted the ground below the great tree, and its base was covered in lichen. The tree was ancient; its trunk spread two staff lengths broad. Several feet up the trunk from its base, a dark streak curved down its front, forming a cruel "S" in the bark. The tree had survived whatever had formed that strange mark. Though aged, the tree was healthy; its leaves were intensely green and its bark had grown to surround and enclose the scar.

This grove on the edge of the Finterwood provided quiet shelter from sun and rain. The mystique of the forest pervaded this clearing, and not a bird could be heard underneath the branches of the tree. It was as though a blanket had been drawn over the grove, muffling all sounds but the eerie creaking of the forest.

A small wooden crate sat at the base of the tree. Leaning against the crate was a plain hobbit-sized walking staff, with a brass knob at its top. Several twisting roots curved out of the ground beside the crate.

With one foot planted on a protruding root, a younger looking hobbit with red-brown hair on his head and feet stood smoking a short straight pipe. Wisps of smoke spilled from the bowl of the pipe, and from the hobbit’s mouth smoke drifted up into the branches of the tree. He wore a long cloak about his shoulders and shabby leather breeches. A rope belt was strapped around his waist, its ends dangling. Shifting his weight, he motioned towards Del with his pipe, "You needn’t be discourteous, Del! We’ve been waiting for you, you know." Then he smiled, "But come on in, we’ve just started."

The other hobbit, shorter, with darker brown hair, had left his announcer’s post and sat down on one of the larger roots to the left of the crate. As he sat, he struck his tinderbox in an unsuccessful attempt to light a long pipe reaching almost to his knees.

"Discourteous indeed!" cried Del emphatically. "It’s rude of you, Brogund, to start a meeting so early in the day, so soon after breakfast. And I’ve got a party to attend in South Bree at two o’clock sharp." Del, now red-faced, stood under the branches with his arms crossed on his chest. He was winded from his strenuous walk, and quite put out now that he had arrived at his destination. He looked around at the other two hobbits, then down at the crate. "Where are the cakes, and the ale?" he asked, disappointedly.

The three hobbits had been friends from childhood, and had grown up together in the village of Brookton. They all had some interest in ancient lore, and early on they had formed a secret club of sorts, to study the old histories. They met frequently at first, but now their meetings were sparser, as the toils of adult hobbithood had begun to weigh on each. Del’s principal interest of late stemmed from Brogund’s promise of a nice spread of sugar cakes and a spot of ale at each meeting. Neither could be seen in the clearing. Del sighed loudly, shook his head, and sat himself uncomfortably on the grassy ground in front of the crate.

"We will have no need of those today, Del." Brogund motioned to the hobbit trying to light his pipe. "Close the gate, Lendy, we’ve got things to discuss that should not be broadcast too openly." His voice lowered almost to a whisper. "And we must take care that no one overhears us!"

As he spoke these words, a gust blew under the tree. The gate creaked and swung shut with a clang. Del shuddered, as he thought of stories that Brogund had told in previous meetings — stories of creeping things that lived underground and loved darkness. Of the three hobbits, Brogund was the youngest and most seriously engrossed by the old stories and rumors of the ancient world. He had often explored to the edges of the Finterwood, and even beyond, and had many stories to tell from his own travels. Del shrugged off his fear and waited.


Copyright 2001, Stephen N. Barnes, Jr. All Rights Reserved

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