Plain hobbit-sense, really, freed daily life in the Shire and its environs, especially in Bilbo’s day, from the threat of evils that had plagued Eriador for many centuries. Working a craft or service, farming the land, brewing ale and such simple tasks were the occupations of this little people, time out of mind. Keeping to themselves and their land, they had little idea where they fit in the broader history of Middle Earth and its long struggles against the dark powers that sought dominion there.
Take Barrow-wights, for an instance.
“No thank’ee, I won’t,” would be the reply of any normal hobbit of reasonable prudence. The Barrow Downs, where dread of these wights was highest, were away across the Brandywine River and a name of ill omen amongst hobbits, who had the sense to have no truck with them. Mewlips, a poor relation to a Barrow-wight and known to dwell in wetlands, lakes, and lonely pools, could drag an unwary traveler to a watery grave, but any sensible hobbit knew to give them a wide berth. What good could come of mucking about in a watery bog anyway? Good hobbit sense dictated that, as water, a swamp was too thick to navigate and, as land, too thin to cultivate.
Most hobbits, thought, had lost the awareness that wights and other unseen perils were a remnant of a far older evil, one that hated any of the free people for one simple reason: they were happily alive. Those beings had once been the petty servants of the dreaded Witch King of Angmar, himself a powerful servant of Sauron. Evil spirits of lesser power who had fallen with Morgoth, they were abandoned by the Witch King when the forces of Gondor marched to the aid of the fallen north kingdoms and drove him out. His servants fled and took such refuge as they could in barrows and bogs, undead, tormented by the perfidy of their own fall, craven yet vengeful, willing harm to all that lived. They existed in tormented solitude, these abandoned servants of the dreaded Witch King, and could do little on their own, except become more twisted, miserable, and desperate. One had to enter their space to fall afoul of them. Avoiding them, as sensible hobbits knew to do, would almost always be enough to stay safe. Almost.
Now, Frodo was but twelve years of age when his parents, Drogo Baggins and Primula Baggins, (nee Brandybuck) perished in a boating accident on the Brandywine River. There was much public discussion, as well as secretive conjecture, about the cause of that accident. Winks and nods and dark musings, like “Oh, and we know…” and “It could well be because…” Frodo heard from his many elders. Those words swirled around in Frodo’s young head, leaving him looking for something he had no idea how to find. A child’s mind only grasps things as they are, without the burden of adult suspicion, and Frodo had seen his parents get on well together. Certainly, tempers flared a time or two, now and then, but every day ended in peace with Drogo and Primula. And any day in Brandy Hall, Frodo could hear voices raised in anger or grief, but those had not been the voices of his parents. They delighted in the press of relatives around them and doted upon each other as much as they did their boy. He saw no reason to suspect, as did some of his relatives, that some old wrong had risen to break their peace.
Up until that time, Frodo had learned an acceptance of, if not absolute trust in, the Brandywine River, having played on its banks and cooled his toes in its waters. In those far away days of his childhood, he had been in boats with uncles and cousins, who knew how to handle both the river’s flow and a boat’s trickiness. Frodo would often make tiny boats of his own, skiffs of bark, with leaves as sails, and set them afloat on the river’s currents, watching them drift away, with odd dreams about something as big as a sea misting his thoughts. After the death of his parents, the lad would often sit and look at the river, thinking, wishing he knew how the river, or something in it, took his parents from him.
He studied the river, wondered at its depth and what might be below its gliding surface. Frodo dared asked Amaranth Brandybuck, immediate young brother to old Rory and the best boatman in Buckland about the river one day, though Amaranth rarely spoke to anyone, preferring to be out on the river, up or down water.
“How deep is it here, sir?” Frodo asked the thin, gray hobbit as he pulled up to the dock with his catch of the day. Amaranth looked at him for a long second of two, as though trying to work out what manner of creature Frodo was. “The Brandywine, I mean, sir. How deep is it as it flows past our lands?”
“Deep enough, I reckon,” the old hobbit replied, scowling. “Mean to sound it, d’you lad?” He stepped out of his boat and looked down at Frodo. Amaranth stood close to four feet, a spare, grizzled hobbit with bushy eyebrows to match the thatch of gray hair on his head
“No, oh no sir,” Frodo answered. “It flows so easy here, seems so peaceful. I just wondered how deep it gets.”
“T’river cuts its channel all t’time. Never the same depth, th’ knows. Reckon you c’d sink ten hobbits, end to end and as tall as me, just here, b’ Brandy ‘All and no’ reach t’ mud.” During times of flood, Frodo had seen balks of tree boles, almost whole trees, float downstream. Forty feet deep seemed ominous. He’d seen old boats sink with never a trace of them showing again. And, he’d seen fish near as big as he was drawn from the Brandywine’s waters. At that depth, it stood to reason that bigger, more dangerous things, could well lurk in its dark depths. The river was always changing, a mystery flowing past him. Though he was just a lad, he reasoned that, somehow, something in those depths must have taken his parents. Yet among the Brandybucks and Burrows of Brandy Hall, he was the only one to harbor this thought, so he did not speak of it, though it left him with a restlessness, an anger that confused him, like having a persistent itch he could not scratch.
“Don’ go muckin’ about in t’river, now, boy,” Amaranth said, drawing Frodo back from his thoughts. She’s a good river but a river none t’ less and’ll kill ye quick, lad.”
“Is it that deep as it flows past the Old Forest, sir?” Frodo asked.
“Nay, lad. She spreads hersel’ out, like, as she nears t’ marshes, which are just as uncanny as Brandy’ ersel. You mind what I say, boy, and keep t’ bank, unless you be made o’ sterner stuff. There’s t’good lad,” he said, patted Frodo’s mop of dark hair with a hand that smelled of fish. Amaranth marched away with his catch of the day, leaving Frodo to ponder.
As time dawdled on and Frodo turned thirteen, his pensiveness gave way to restlessness. He was well cared for, though. He was born in a time of few other infants in Brandy Hall, so many adults watched over him. Frodo never missed a meal in their care and kept his tiny room as well as his accepted place in that warren of folks. Fortunately for him, his cousin Peony, eighteen years his senior and just married to Milo Burrows, had moved into his parents’ comfortable hole and took over Frodo’s day to day care. Milo and Peony, quite sensible hobbits, had yet to start their family, so it was decided that they should learn some parenting by moving into Drogo and Primula’s old rooms and taking care of Frodo. Peony, also a Baggins, especially, took Frodo into her hearts and care, in sympathy and love as family should.
Soon, though, seeing to his care became a trial for her, for the boy’s restlessness soon led him into pranks and petty thefts. No pie left out to cool was safe, nor were the fruits of gardens and trees. No prank was too bold for him, even to the point of placing salt in Old Rory’s sugar bowl. Old Rory lived up to his name, cup of spoiled tea in hand, declaiming in grand fashion that, “This Baggins lad has fast become a nuisance, and something had better be done about him,” by which he meant, some punishment had better be done to him.
Young Peony, wiser than her years, only sought to understand what drove Frodo’s poor behavior, for he had been a docile, happy child. At first, she sought to blame some of his older, mischievous cousins, namely Marmadas Brandybuck, a shiftless young fellow in his ‘tweens,’ who stood ready to lead his younger cousins into misadventure.
In time, though, , Frodo’s lone foray into the Marish across the river to steal mushrooms from well-respected farmer Maggot, though possibly suggested by Marmadas who believed that stolen mushrooms tasted better, became a clear sign to Frodo’s sensible elders that he was well on his way to becoming a rascal of the worst stripe. So, a chorus of old, hoary voices began to proclaim, “Something must be done with, to, or for the young thief, or worse will come of it” they said, speaking in his presence as though he was not there.
He suffered the punishments given to him as though they were nothing. Maggot, within his rights, in Shire reckoning, had already thrashed the lad and set his dogs on him. Frodo learned to fear Maggot but went back to his fields again and again but was never caught. Frodo found that he could outwit any adult hobbit. He didn’t fear being punished, even when he brought home his prizes to share with Peony. She reckoned, clearly, that Frodo thought something was owed to him, something he could not get, which was the reason for his behavior. Peony, who enjoyed the extra provender, searched for ways to help Frodo rather than punishing him further. She turned, at length, to her now famous kinsman, Bilbo Baggins, away in Hobbiton, for help:
Dearest Uncle Bilbo,
I have taken young Frodo, Drogo and Primula’s orphan, into my care. He has become difficult, it seems, which is at odds with who he has been, a courteous, well- spoken child of great curiosity and natural wit. I think he needs something to which he can turn these qualities now, for his great abilities have led him to behave like a young outlaw. Even Old Rory has spoken to me about him. The boy is courteous to Milo and me, still, but he needs someone who is his equal. I know of no one who fits that description but you, ‘nuncle. Punishment, he has had, but correction, I think, can only come from one who possesses those same qualities to which Frodo is heir. I think that you are the only hobbit with courage and insight enough to help the wayward lad. Would you come and help him—and me–please?
Yours in familial love,
Bilbo’s arrival at Peony’s home took only slightly longer than his letter by return post. His presence drew the attention of the entirety of Brandy Hall and most of Buckland. Within a day, the word that “Mad Baggins” had come had spread all over Buckland from one end of the High Hay to the other. Some folk took offense, at first, thinking that Bilbo had come to interfere in the business of Brandy Hall. Tongues wagged about Bilbo needing to “leave well enough alone,” suggesting that “the boy will have to grow out of it,” and other half-hearted protests. Old Rory himself thought Bilbo quite cheeky for mixing in Brandybuck business.
“I am only here for a visit with my nephew and beloved kinsmen,” Bilbo replied loudly to all who asked about his purpose, silencing them. Bilbo knew that hobbits held kinship as sacred. Peony told Frodo about writing to their infamous uncle. Frodo began to anticipate his uncle’s arrival with something like hope, the first he’d had since his parents died and left him with the mystery of the river and what lie in its depth. He had heard the tales of Bilbo’s adventures, and reasoned that, if anyone could, his splendid uncle would help him, somehow. “Surely” thought the lad, “a hobbit who can face a dragon can manage a river.”
Frodo knew, though, that his uncle Bilbo was nearing ninety years of age, so he recognized that his hope might be in vain. However, his first sight of this hale hobbit, dressed in splendid clothes, sitting at the kitchen table with his cousin Peony, lifted Frodo’s spirits. Bilbo looked younger, stronger, than his own father, Drogo, had been at the time of his demise. His uncle’s eyes were bright, his steps sure, his grip hard. Frodo stood peeking in around the kitchen doorway as Bilbo sat with Peony, giving her greetings from her aunt Dora and other relations near Hobbiton. It didn’t take much time for Bilbo’s quick eyes to catch sight of him.
“Why, there’s the very rascal now!” Bilbo said with a broad smile. “Come in, my boy, and let me have a look at you,” Bilbo offered the teen hobbit his hand as he would another adult. “You certainly favor your mother’s people. Why, you’re nearly three feet high, already. I think you may grow to become the best hobbit in the Shire!”
“Thank you, uncle,” Frodo managed to say, blushing. He found it hard, at first, to look into his uncle’s eyes, knowing that Bilbo had been told of the boy’s misdeeds. When he did lift his gaze to meet Bilbo’s, Frodo saw no condemnation there, only caring and a look of mischief in his eyes.
“Now, lad, can you tell me why I have come to see you?” Bilbo asked, causing Frodo to trust the old hobbit immediately, as though with one look, he could see that Bilbo Baggins wasn’t concerned about proper hobbit sense. Frodo saw in Bilbo a way to get at the itch he could not scratch on his own.
“I, I think, uncle—hope, really—that you have come to help me find what I want most and can’t get on my own,” Frodo replied.
“Maybe I have, lad. What is it that you think you need, an endless supply of mushrooms?” Bilbo asked with a laugh. Bilbo had been informed, of course, of Frodo’s rascality.
“No, uncle. I just want to know what in the river killed my Mum and Dad,” Frodo answered. This caused Bilbo to turn a curious glance to Peony, who sat with wide eyes, listening to the exchange.
“Something in the river, er, took them?” Bilbo asked.
“I think it must have, sir. We only look at the top part of a river, sir, not what’s in it down deep. There’s water pushing water, always, in a river, right?”
“Yes, that’s true,” Bilbo said, leaning closer to the boy.
“Well, I don’t believe that they would want to hurt each other. My Dad wasn’t good in a boat, really, but Mum was, and no one can see what’s in a river, can they?”
“But I’m not a fish, lad. Can’t swim any more than to just find something to cling onto. How can I help you find what’s down in the depths?”
“Maybe…it isn’t always in the depths,” Frodo said. “Folks found my parents, I’ve heard tell, down the river and the boat way down in the Overbourne Marshes, didn’t they?”
“That’s what I hear,” Bilbo replied.
“Well, Marmadas, my cousin, says there’s all sorts of dangerous things that live in the Old Forest. I wonder if something came from there and drowned my Mum and Dad,”
“And you want to find out what, or who?”
Frodo nodded and looked directly into Bilbo’s eyes. “Is it revenge you want, boy?” Bilbo asked.
“Well, no sir. Not exactly, I just need to know, for myself, for them, too.”
“For your Mum and Dad, I expect you mean?” Bilbo replied, returning the boy’s challenging gaze. And Bilbo knew, then, that he had found a true kinsman, a kindred spirit, even. Frodo hoped he had, too,
The Brandywine ran with a fast current at that time of year, so Bilbo immediately gave over the idea of a voyage down river by boat. Bilbo was no boatman, and he doubted his ability to bring the boat back upstream against the current. They settled on a day trip downriver, if not through the forest’s depths, at least along its edge, as far down as the entrance of the Withywindle.
Bilbo had no idea what they were looking for, but he knew that Frodo needed to make the attempt to find something, some reason for the loss of his parents. He told the boy that it might take more than one journey to find answers and did not promise that their efforts would bring success.
As they started out the next morning at dawn, with light packs, food and supplies for just a day, Bilbo said,
“You know, of course, about the Old Forest, don’t you boy?”
“I know it’s dangerous, full of trees that don’t like hobbits and other things that folks only whisper about but cannot name,” Frodo answered. “I’m afraid of it, Uncle Bilbo, but I don’t see any other way. Do you?”
“No, no I don’t, lad, if for no other reason than that you think so. I promise you this, though: you will have my help in the search, and I’ll keep both of us as safe as I can, though that is an uncertainty, as well. But you have come to believe that something in the river is to blame?”
“Yes sir, for my parents were founddown near the end of the High Hay, where the forest is thickest, according to the map in Old Rory’s study,” Frodo replied.
“Why would this ‘something’ want to kill them?” Bilbo asked.
“I’m not sure. They…. Well, no one would show me my Mum or Dad when they brought them home. I figured that was because they looked so bad.”
“That’ll happen to a body in the water for a time,” Bilbo answered.
“Yes, sir, and I think that maybe they didn’t let me see them because, well, because…something…maybe, tried to… eat them,” Frodo said. “Wild and dangerous things in the water will try to eat people, won’t they?”
Bilbo knew this answer only too well: “Yes, they will, boy. But couldn’t you simply have tried to wheedle that information out of someone who know? Surely those that buried your Mum and Dad would know, wouldn’t they?”
“Yes, they would, but no one will tell me anything. Maybe they would if I were older, but I cannot wait that long. I know. You’ll tell me that maybe I should just wait. I’ve tried, but I…I need to know, and I don’t like how the people in Brandy Hall think about me. They want to think for me, but they don’t know me. Have you ever had that feeling?”
“Indeed, Frodo lad,” Bilbo said with a chuckle. He remembered a night in Bag End, long ago, finding himself in the company of Gandalf and the dwarves and not liking their dismissive attitudes about him or his abilities. Bilbo realized that this sort of thing could lead a hobbit far beyond sense, but it also said something about a hobbit who desired to do his own thinking and not simply fit in. “You are taking your first steps on a different path, boy. One that could well sweep you off your feet. With such a warning, do you wish to go on?”
“I must, Uncle Bilbo. I must.”
“Well, here we are at the gate. I trust that you still have that key you ‘borrowed’ from young Marmadas?” They went into the cut in the bank before the High Hay, the tall, thick hedge that separated Buckland from the Old Forest.
Bilbo recognized the dangers of the that wood well enough, knowing that it was an isolated pocket of what was once a forest that covered most of the land in the days of the first age, when the seas ran straight west to the undying lands. Mirkwood and the realm of King Thranduil might well be tame by comparison, he figured. What power remained in this small forest had been much on his mind, though the elves he knew said it was once the home of Iarwain Ben-Adar, a strange creature, not elf, man, dwarf, or hobbit, but a power with no allegiance except to himself. The elves with whom Bilbo had spoken knew this fellow as a potent force but one not concerned with any but his own domain, which was the Old Forest. What his powers were, exactly, few knew anything, and Bilbo was cautious about even looking for him, especially with young Frodo in his charge.
Thus, they avoided going into the woods and followed the inner line of the High Hay while, on their left, a wall of dark, mist-shrouded trees watched them, or so Frodo thought. The sun rising over the hedge seemed not to touch the wall of mist behind those trees. Opaque, as though nearly solid, that mist made it look as though there was only a line of trees, sentinels, holding back a threatening mist. Frodo shivered at the thought.
“Are you frightened, lad?” Bilbo asked, seeing him shudder as he stared at the wood.
“I am, uncle. Behind the trees…well, I see nothing, really, but I feel as though something…strong and dangerous is back there, in there, somewhere, everywhere.”
“Yes, I feel it, too, lad,” Bilbo replied, “but if we keep the hedge on our right, we will reach the river soon and won’t have to do more than pass through the eaves of the wood along the rest of our way. The sky is clear enough this morning. Let’s step up our pace and hope the sun has her way with the mists.”
On they walked, the Old Forest silent on their left, while the birds twittered in the dense hedge on their right. Birds seemed to avoid the forest trees. In a little less than an hour, they reached the river at the spot near where Drogo and Primula’s bodies had been found. There, the Brandywine, curving swept around a rocky point of land at the forest’s edge. It was tough going for a time, on foot, for the trees were thick right down to the rocky shingle, thirsty roots seeking the water. The far bank was wider, flatter, a pleasant, sandy crescent which lay under a bright sun. Frodo and Bilbo, though, had to pick their way through brush and thicket down to the water’s edge.
“The current is strong and will have washed away any trace of them left behind,” Bilbo said, perched on a rock at the river’s edge. “Like as not, they would have gotten caught on these rocks or, perhaps, washed up on the sand across the way there, where the river deposits it sand,” he said, pointing.
Frodo stood behind him, staring at the water that eddied and foamed around the rocks. “They were dead when they found them here,” he said to himself, imagining their lifeless bodies caught on rocky snags. He wished he could have been the one to find them, though it would have broken his heart. Now, at this spot, he brushed away tears from his eyes, wishing that he had seen them, touched them. Before, at their burial, Frodo had been too numb to weep. Bilbo looked away, giving the lad his grief.
At last, turning his eyes to the river, getting wider here, as Amaranth had said, Frodo looked for a sign that something, someone, had waded ashore there but saw nothing. He saw nothing in the water, either, nor could he see far into it. Clear enough by the rocky shingle, the bottom dropped away into the flowing depths within a yard of the rocks on which he and Bilbo stood.
“We should press on, down river,” Bilbo said.
With a shake of his head, Frodo replied, ““I wonder if it will do any good. Maybe I can’t have what I want.”
“I would think that, too, if you had told me that you wanted revenge for your parents’ death,” Bilbo replied, “but just making the effort to find what killed them is important. It may well have to be enough.”
“So, are you just humoring me, hoping I’ll give up? I thought you believed me when I said that something dragged them from their boat—or capsized it.”
“I do believe you, and, given what I knew of both of them, given, too, what I know of dangers in the wild, I think your explanation is certainly more valid than the gossip you’ve heard about their deaths. There’s nothing like looking if you need to find something. But wanting something isn’t the same as having something and looking for something isn’t the same as finding it. Our efforts may turn up nothing, no matter how much you wish them to, lad.”
“So, is this all fruitless?” Frodo asked, feeling rather childish that he had come to this spot and, stared at the river, and learned nothing.
“I didn’t say that, Frodo. Searching for something in, say, your own room is difficult enough. More so if you must search Brandy Hall. Looking for whatever took Drogo and Primula’s life, however, takes you into the wide world, a dangerous world, too, at times. Looking may take more than a day and demand more of you than you feel like you can give. Sometimes, looking for something takes a lifetime. Not looking, does nothing. I think that you needing to look is reason enough for both of us to push on.”
Frodo, though an intelligent boy, had not been able to see beyond his need to get help. His faith in the plan to search the river with his uncle came from that simple need. Looking at the Brandywine here, as he often did at home, didn’t show him anything but the river. He also knew that giving up now would be even more childish, so he muttered,
“Thank you, Uncle Bilbo. I’m ready to go.”
“Good lad. Your mind is on the journey, not the destination.”
Pushing on, though, was not going to be a simple stroll along the Brandywine’s banks. For one thing, there were few actual banks or beaches on the forest side of the river. The trees crowded right to the water’s edge along most of way. Also, small streams, fed by springs, had cut ditches and small ravines across their paths as they added their water to the Brandywine. The pair forced to track these streams inland far enough to cross them before they could move down the river. It was a slow and tedious march, taking hours to go but a mile.
Frodo’s feet were muddy and bruised by roots and windfall, and the pleasant morning walk turned into a grueling afternoon. There was no talk of stopping for lunch under the tangled boughs of brooding trees. The farther they went, the more Frodo sensed the tension of the forest. Drawing breath felt harder each time they went back among the trees, so that staying close to the river became a necessity. Still, Bilbo led on, and Frodo followed, marveling at his uncle’s ability to choose the smoothest path through the tangle of brush and bole.
Finally, with the trees getting even more numerous to their left, they stumbled out into an open spot and found that they were looking down a sloping bank at a small river. It added its slow brown waters to the bright Brandywine, which stood wider here, beginning to spread out to the Overbourne Marshes. There, across the river, clouds of insects danced over the tall rushes and reeds of the marsh lands in the late afternoon sun. Tall, wading birds flew over that place of bog and fen, heading away from the Old Forest.
“This, I take it, is the Withywindle,” Bilbo said. “We have had a tough outing, but we reached today’s goal. I’m famished, and I suspect you are too. Since evening is almost upon us, I think we should make a small camp on this bank, have something to eat, and think about our return. Peony will be worried sick if I don’t get you back tonight. Tomorrow will be another day,” he said.
“I had not thought of her worrying,” Frodo replied.
“It does not do, you know, to leave other’s caring feelings out of our calculations,” Bilbo said, recalling that his own adventure with Gandalf and the dwarves had left him presumed dead, and very nearly homeless. It would not do to have his young nephew held up to the ridicule of hobbit sense in Brandy Hall.
“But see here: this bank is somewhat sandy and level. There’s some dry grass and pieces of driftwood. Let’s have a bit of a fire, some food, and rest, and then head back to rethink our plans.
“Do you feel as though you have accomplished something of what you needed, Frodo?” Bilbo asked. He wondered about turning his search for this Iarwain Ben-Adar. It might become necessary. If that fellow held sway in this forest, perhaps he could shed some light on the boy’s mystery, though Bilbo knew that he could not take the boy into the forest on that errand.
“I think it has been good to try,” Frodo replied, having the small satisfaction of his exertions and his uncle’s belief in his plight. To have begun gave Frodo a sense that answers to questions could be found. “I’ll search for more firewood, uncle,” Frodo said with greater confidence, taking off his small pack and dropping it near Bilbo’s feet.
“Don’t stray too far and avoid getting into the Withywindle’s water. People tell strange tales about this little river, and I do not think we should test their veracity,” Bilbo said as Frodo scrambled back up the bank.
Frodo stayed within easy sight of both banks in his search, though he lost sight of Bilbo, who was below the bank’s upper level. Frodo made plenty of noise to stay with his uncle’s hearing, snapping dried windfall to make an armload. They would not need much of a fire, just something to cheer them, for the dark under the trees had deepened; evening was pushing towards a swift nightfall, though the sun still sparkled on the Brandywine waters.
His eyes were drawn more and more to the deeper dark under the trees farther inland. The forest’s silence became more oppressive as though it watched Frodo’s every move. As he stared into its depths, a cold chill ran down his back. The day was still warm, out on the waters and close to the shore, but a deeper chill swept over him, and in the deadening silence, Frodo heard drops of water hitting dried leaves: something had just come out of the water, somewhere and stood among the trees before him. His keen eyes searched for the source of the sound.
There, in front of him, a half dozen yards inland, beside the bole of a dark oak, with low, tangle branches, a shadow moved. It was a rounded, humped shape, and it swayed a little, side to side, without the aid of wind. He took two steps towards it before he realized that something had impelled him to move; he had not stepped of his own volition.
When he stopped himself, the shadow under the oak moved toward him. Its movement defined its shape, somewhat, as it left the shadow of the oak. That humped shape, barely taller than he was, revealed itself as a cloaked figure, and he saw two points of sickly glowing eyes under the cowled head. Frodo wanted to cry out, but he found that he could not move, other than turn his head back to the bank where Bilbo sat, though he couldn’t see his uncle.
Opening his mouth to yell, Frodo found he had no voice. He could only make shallow moaning sounds. The hooded shape moved closer. It had reached out something like a hand, one that still dripped water onto the leaves. The glowing eyes held him still. The hand that reached toward the boy looked, in spots, to be white bone, with dark, rotting flesh still clinging to it. The stench of the thing reached his nose. Frodo wanted to cover his nose, as the thing stepped closer, its feet below its long, dripping cloak were mostly bone, the toes a sickly bone gray against the black leaf mold of the forest floor.
His terror mounted. Dropping his armload of wood, Frodo fought with all his might to back away, but the thing before him clenched its extended hand, holding the boy, trapping him. Closer now, its cloak, Frodo saw, was more a sodden mess of rags that covered ancient clothing, hobbit clothing, that, now, was mostly mud and slimy water moss caked onto a shrunken form, and it was hungry. The light of its eyes glowed brighter as it drew near.
With its extended hand seeming to hold Frodo rooted to the forest floor, the creature inched closer. It raised its other hand and pushed back the sodden hood. Those greedy, gloating eyes burned in skeletal sockets. Rotten flesh hung on its cheeks, and shreds of lank hair framed its foul face. Its mouth, full of rotting, broken teeth, opened wide, as it drew nearer the boy. The need to cry out his horror, and the inability to make a sound, pushed Frodo past the point of thinking. His last thoughts were that he looked at the face that his parents had seen before it killed them, before it tipped over their boat and dragged them into the river’s depths. He had found their killer, and now, it would claim him, too. Struggle as he might, it was useless, for the water creature was nearly upon him, ready to grasp him in both its horrid hands and draw him to its gaping jaws. The stench of it filled his nose, those yawning jaws inches from his face. Frodo passed out and fell at the wretched thing’s feet.
Having missed luncheon and afternoon bites, Bilbo’s thoughts had turned to food, as any hobbit’s might. He laid out their meager supplies: some dried meat, bread, cheese, apples, and a flagon of small ale he could share with the boy. With tinder and flint, he caught a pile of dried grass afire, feeding it with broken bits of driftwood and steepling larger pieces over the hungry flames. And at that moment, a surge of fear clutched at his heart, making him stagger and fall back from the fire. Never before had he known such immediate terror. A dark danger was present, though how he knew was beyond him.
“Frodo!?” he called out and heard nothing back. Frodo was in trouble, though Bilbo had not heard a sound.
On an instinct so sudden that it seemed to come from outside him, Bilbo shot his hand into his pocket and found his magic ring. Using the ring on occasion to avoid someone’s unwelcome presence always excited him but left him feeling discontent in a vague way, as though he had cheated somehow. Now, he kept it always near him and rarely used it, knowing that the invisibility it granted him came with a worry.
Now, though, he sensed Frodo’s agonized panic as something stalked him in the woods nearby. Why had Frodo not called out? That thought drove him to jam the ring on his forefinger, grasp a piece of burning wood from his small fire and run up the bank. The trees’ intense, watching presence gave way as he rushed past them, Their tension was replaced by a sudden sense of fear that caused the trees to shudder. Branches rustled overhead, leaves whistling in a wind of the trees’ own making, but Bilbo paid them no heed. He was intent upon reaching Frodo, who was not far.
Under the influence of his ring, Bilbo soon saw the small, undead thing, standing over his fallen nephew, grasping Frodo’s shirt, ready to drag the boy back to the waters of the Withywindle, which formed a deep pool nearby. Under the ring’s invisibility, he saw the creature as a small thing that glowed with a sickly light. Some part of his mind recognized it as a Mewlip, a sort of wight that sought its victims by bog and pool. Frodo had fallen prey to its spell. It would drag him to that pool, drown him, and consume him slowly. It made Bilbo’s stomach turn.
“Begone, foul thing!” Bilbo cried, his voice amplified to tremendous of power, its tones running from booming deep to shrill shriek all at once, as though it was its own deadly chorus. Its force and mind altering eeriness shocked Bilbo so that he wrenched the ring from his finger and jammed it back in his pocket. The wight’s rotting stench assailed his nostrils and he beheld it as Frodo had. The wight shifted its gaze to him, the glow of those eyes burning brighter with horror. Then, Bilbo jumped at the creature, over the fallen boy, swinging his firebrand like a club, a gale force wind whipping the wight’s rags away. He smote it on its head as it cowered before him, a wheezy, whispery scream coming from its gaping jaws, increasing in intensity as the wind tore at it
Its shrill scream of terror near deafened Bilbo as he struck it again, and again, but it was the wind that did the damage. And Bilbo redoubled his blows as the tearing air roared around him, rising to a focused, ear-shattering pitch that blew apart the wight’s evil spell holding its near fleshless bones together. Those bones exploded with a deafening roar, like a giant firework, which knocked Bilbo backwards and flattened the brush all around where they stood.
The wind fell, returning the forest to silence. Bilbo sat near Frodo on the forest mold, clutching his smoking brand. He realized that the ring, somehow, had been the force behind the blast that destroyed the wight, scattering bone and shreds of old, mossy clothes. Bilbo, panting from his exertions, tossed his smoking brand toward the water and hauled Frodo over his shoulder. He went back to the makeshift camp and sat for a long while looking at the now glowing embers of the fire, saying nothing, but casting anxious looks at the boy’s face, wondering if the wight had done any damage to the young hobbit’s mind.
Soon, Frodo’s eyes popped open wide. He sat up, gasping, his hands moving to fend off what was then his last memory of the thing. “Is, is, is it gone?”
“Yes, boy,” Bilbo replied with a heavy sigh of relief. “If you feel you can, let us leave this place and get you back home.”
He gave the boy a drink of the small ale from the flagon as he gathered up their supplies and stuffed them into their packs. Without a word more, they started back with as much speed as they could make. Along the way, the Old Forest seemed resigned to their presence, or fearful of it, for their passing was much easier on the trip back to Brandy Hall. The forest’s brooding, breathless watchfulness faded to nothing, and though they were hours getting back, neither spoke of the event until the Brandybuck’s iron gate under the High Hay closed behind them, shutting them off from the Old Forest.
They strode along easier, then, under clear skies and a starry night. Frodo finally gathered the courage to ask,
“What was that, that, thing, Uncle Bilbo, aside from it being my parents’ killer?”
“You believe that, do you?” Bilbo replied.
“Yes, uncle. In my heart, I know it.”
“I think you are right, boy,” Bilbo said, casting an arm around the lad’s shoulders. “I’ve been thinking about that, and I believe it was once a hobbit, one who died long ago, perhaps by drowning. Perhaps it was an outlaw or outcaste, who died alone with no one to miss him, un-mourned. In any event, it must have become a wight when a fell spirit entered its rotting form. It was a sad, wretchedly horrible and deadly a thing as could be found in a barrow, though it haunted the Withywindle, that little river that waters the Old Forest.
“What desperate loneliness drove it to attack Drogo and your Mum, I can only guess. Perhaps, having been a hobbit, it hated them—us–and after a long, lonely existence, gnawing on its own bitterness, it grew bold enough to try and do greater harm, show its hatred of the living. That is the way of wights, Frodo, and often the way of evil in the world, its cast aside servants preying upon poor, unfortunate people.”
“How did you…what did you do to it?”
Bilbo thought for a moment before he replied, “Maybe I was just lucky to catch it unawares, as it tried to drag you to the water. I attacked it with a fire brand, smashed its bones, and scattered them. It can no longer prey upon anything, I hope.” Bilbo thought it as much of the truth as he could reasonably tell the boy, for he did not understand how the ring had given him the power that it had. In truth, he did not want to think about it. That power was a lure that dangled in front of him, an impulse that he wanted to avoid, push down deep inside himself, for it had frightened him so. He knew he could tell no one else about it. He knew, too, that the ring, somehow, had allowed him to save the boy, and for that, Bilbo was grateful. That was enough for now, that he had saved Frodo, who had become more important to him than Bilbo would have thought possible. He stopped, turned to face Frodo and added,
“And I urge you to keep this knowledge to yourself. I do not want people thinking that I am some kind of hero. It will only cause alarm and make others suspicious of both of us. I’d say, this becomes our secret.”
“Very well,” Frodo said, knowing that any tale he could tell of his adventure would frighten many and cause others to doubt them both. It wasn’t, after all, something that fit well into hobbit sense. “Since it was destroyed, I suppose no one would ever believe me—or you.”
They approached the lights of Brandy Hall before Frodo asked, “It was destroyed, wasn’t it?”
“It seemed to be, and so I hope,” Bilbo muttered. He thought again of the wind, the great voice that had come from the ring, fueling his anger and fear with a power that he had never known before. It frightened the old hobbit more than he wanted to admit to the boy or to himself. “It is a good thing, Frodo, to go off searching for the answers you need, but sometimes those actions have unlooked for consequences.”
“Like what, uncle?”
“Well, like now. You have answered your need, I think. If you can, try to let others think what they will. And unless I’m wrong, I imagine that you can’t say you feel much better now, not as you thought you would when you started this quest.”
Frodo thought about that for a moment. Bilbo was right. He didn’t feel the loss of his parents’ death any less keenly. “I think I miss them more, now, than I did yesterday. I feel different, larger, somehow, and at the same time more vulnerable. Is that what you mean?”
“Yes, Frodo. That’s exactly what I mean. You have entered a wider, more wonderful, and also more dangerous world. But you are not alone, my boy.” They smiled at each other and made their quiet way into Brandy Hall, drawing no attention to themselves.
Peony, of course, welcomed them with relief, fed them, and saw to their baths. Bilbo stayed the night, talking long to Frodo about the nature of wights and where they had come from to bedevil the living. Still, even with that frightening lore in mind, Frodo slept better that night than he had for a long time.
“Will I, can I come see you sometimes, Uncle Bilbo?” the boy asked as his uncle readied the next morning for the trip back to Hobbiton. His pony stood outside the door, saddled and ready, champing in its nosebag. The sun was up and cast her golden beams upon the Brandywine flowing on.
“Yes, yes. We will see a great deal of each other in the days to come. We are companions, now, lad, and though some distance will separate us, for a while, you and I know that companions must keep a watch on one another.
“I will correspond with Peony and, perhaps start some important paperwork on your behalf. You will have to wait, though, to find out more about that. In the meantime, I expect to hear better reports of your behavior from Peony. Is that clear, sir?”
“Yes, sir. I will mend my ways, uncle and try to stay clear of the river.”
“Very well, though we have likely ended that threat,” Bilbo said, standing in the door of Brandy Hall. “And in most things, I expect you to pay no heed to what Marmadas Brandybuck has to say.”
“Yes, sir, uncle. Most things?” the boy asked.
“Well, stolen mushrooms do taste better,” Bilbo whispered. “Be as good, as cautious, and as curious as you can be. I will see you soon.”
“I’m looking forward to it, Uncle Bilbo,” Frodo said, smiling, watching his uncle, his hero, mount his sturdy beast and ride down the path that led to Buckleberry Ferry.