Author's Note:

More than one reader has commented in early chapters of this story (those who have read the draft are rather farther along than you here reading the polished version), that the hobbits are portrayed as all too primitive. Please rest assured that they are not so much primitives as they are refugees, which will come out in later chapters. If this gradual unveiling of history/fact/circumstances bothers you, drop me a review and my editor and I will talk it over with regard to possible further revision.

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Prologue


...but there has not always been a Shire!

Ah, best beloved, when you crinkle your nose that way you always make me laugh! Let your old Gran-da get his pipe a-going and I'll tell you somewhat you haven't heard before. Yes, it's an old tale, and a long one, such as you young sprouts don't often take the time to hear anymore these days. Takes a broken leg, I s'pose, to get you to sit still...

There now, where was I? O yes, that's right, the Shire. Rather, before the Shire. Don't you remember, the tales I used to tell around the hearth when you were little? Aye, before you grew past three foot and-a-half high and yer old Gran-da had to look up to you, that's right. What do you remember?

That's right, quite right. Marcho and Blanco of the Fallohides, they were, came West over the Stonebow Bridge from Bree with a paper from the King in Norbury and a great many hobbits following behind. But no, that's not where hobbits started. You think they sprung out of the ground in the Chetwood, do ye? Acorns fell to the ground in Breeland and hobbits grew up? Haw, I know that's what they tell the little ones... told 'em so mysel' a few times, I did. (Chuckle. Clearing of throat.)

Nay, long before those twain, hobbits dwelt in the vale between the Great Forest and the Great River. Brandywine? Hah! What're they teaching young-uns these days, I'd like to know? Not the River, the Brandywine, and not the Old Forest. The Great River, I said, and Greenwood the Great, as it was called in the old days. Yes, that's the one, on the other side of them mountains it is. Some of the hobbits, the Harfoots it were, lived in the foothills of the mountains, but the Stoors liked to be near the River and the Fallohides loved the woods and trees.

No, yer Gran-da's never seen mountains, and never will, I warrant. Green Hills are enough for this old gaffer. Anyhow, we're getting off the trail.

What's that? I don't know how hobbits started, nobody knows anymore these days. Many of the gaffers who had the old stories in their heads perished in the Bad Times, you see, when they were hunted like beasts by Orcs and Men, or they froze in the crossing of the mountains. Terrible, it was. As it is, we only know from those who lived through the crossing. Five hundred years afore Marcho, as a matter of fact, the Fallohides crossed over, and they weren't the first. The Harfoots were first, that's right, and they passed down their own tales. What I'm telling you comes from the Fallohide branch of the family. We've a fair bit of that in our blood, we do. Anyhow, the ones that crossed the mountains and lived to tell the tale -- when they became gaffers, they passed the story on, same's I'm doing...

Chapter 1. Shadow

Third Age. c. 1150

'Time to get up! Breakfast will get cold!'

The eldest of the young Fallohides of the Thorn clan rubbed the sleep from his eyes and pushed at his brothers, still buried under the covers they shared. 'You heard Mum! Up, now!' He raised his head to sniff the air. 'Mmmm, corncakes and mushroom gravy! Go ahead, you sleepy-heads, I'll have your portion!'

'Not on your life!' the next in age to him said, pushing back the covers, but the third brother groaned and pulled the the warm, furry skins up over himself as the two oldest jumped to their feet.

'Blackthorn! Hawthorn! Apple! Box! Pick!' their mother's call came again.

'C'mon, Horry, we can't eat until everyone's at table, y'know!' the eldest said with a scowl. Together the brothers tipped the bed frame, sliding the others to the floor, then picked up the blankets and hastily tossed them on the bed, pulling them as smooth as boys who must make their beds before breakfast are wont to do.

The three younger lads untangled themselves and raced for the door.

'Wash first,' their mother reminded them, and it was a shoving match to see who could splash water from the carven bucket on their hands and faces first, hastily swipe with a towel and find a seat. Two older girls were setting the table whilst two younger ones sat dressed, washed, prim and proper, one holding the babe.

Finally all were settled and the mother served out the crisp acorn-flour griddle cakes, spooning over the rich mushroom gravy. When she reached the youngest son, she frowned. 'You didn't wash behind your ears,' she said.

'I couldn't, Mum, they was all pushing so, and I...'

'They were all pushing so, and you...' she said sternly. 'You may go back to the bucket and start over.' She served his plate, then slapped his hand away. 'No food until you're properly washed!'

'Where's Da?' Blackthorn said through a mouthful of food.

'There's been some trouble over by the Berry's hole,' she answered. The lads looked automatically towards the door, sure enough, their father's stout staff, bow, and quiver were gone.

'Eat up, now,' Mistress Thorn said, settling with a cup of bitterbark tea.

Applethorn showed his empty plate. 'More?' he asked.

His mother sighed. 'I am sorry, my dears, but there is no more. We're having to be careful with the acorns; they are not as plentiful this year as they might be. I thought squirrels might have got into the storeholes, but your father assures me that it is simply a matter of a scanty harvest.' There was no use sighing for the sacks of barley they ought to have in the storage holes. The last of the Big Folk deemed trustworthy by the Fallohides had disappeared from their holdings by the River several winters ago, and now even the lands of the hostile Big Folk lay abandoned and fallow. The Fallohides were turning more and more to foraging for food, and as the cloth wore out they must clothe themselves in animal hides, until Mistress Thorn thought perhaps they would become spirits of the Forest instead of People someday, the way things were going.

Blackthorn jumped up. 'Don't worry, Mum,' he said, taking up his plate and kissing the top of Mistress Thorn's head on his way to the washstand. 'Horry and I will go hunting today and find you a whole sackful of mushrooms.'

'Hawthorn,' his mother corrected automatically.

'And hopefully we'll snare a nice rabbit or two for stew,' Hawthorn contributed, rising from the table and picking up his own plate.

'I want to come too!' little Pickthorn said.

'We'll take you fishing this evening, Pick,' said his oldest brother kindly.

'But I want to go now!' Pickthorn protested.

'No, you stay here and help Mum,' Blackthorn said. 'With all the odd things going on at the moment, we need some big, strong fellows to keep the girls safe, now, don't we?'

'But I want to go,' Pickthorn wailed.

Hawthorn bent to talk to his little brother face-to-face. 'You stay around here, Pick,' he said. 'Don't go wandering off. Wouldn't want the gobble-uns to get you!'

'Gobble, gobble!' Applethorn crept up behind the littlest brother, his fingers wiggling and clutching like claws.

'Mum!' Pickthorn shrieked, even as Hawthorn swept him up from the floor into the safety of his arms.

'Don't tease him so,' he said sharply. 'It's not funny.'

Applethorn shrugged. 'Whatever you say,' he said. ' 'Twas only a jest. Anyhow, I need to go chop some wood.' He looked to the youngest. 'You can help me, Pick, I need someone to carry the wood to the hole as it's chopped.' He frowned. 'But are you big enough to do that?'

'I'm big enough,' Pickthorn said stoutly, struggling in Hawthorn's grasp. 'Put me down! There's work to be done!'

'You have the right of it, little brother,' Hawthorn said with a grin. 'You make a big woodpile for Mum, there's a lad, and we'll take you fishing this evening.'

'Hoorah!' Pickthorn shouted, and taking Apple's hand, he danced out of the hole.

~-~-~

Pickthorn carried wood until he thought his arms would fall off, but there was a nice big heap by the entrance to the hole under their treehome, and still Apple would insist on chopping more. Pickthorn took the latest armload from the chopping block to the doorway, set it down, looked at the pile, and sighed. Surely Mum had enough wood to last a week!

He could hear the steady chopping sound of his brother making more work for him, and he kicked at the woodpile. If Apple wanted to chop the day away, it was no fur off his feet! He was going to take a little walk, see what was what. Perhaps the redberries in the thicket down the little winding path were ripe; they'd still been green when last he'd looked. He pictured himself, triumphantly returning at noontide with a shirt full of juicy sweetness to share.

Whistling, he walked down the path, thinking of berries and fish and other pleasant things. At first he could still hear the steady chop-chop and the voices of his mother and sisters calling to each other as they washed the family laundry and hung it up to dry, but the voices faded as he walked along, and soon he found himself in the relative quiet of the woods. He stopped to hear her voice, made up of whispering leaves, rubbing branches, birdsong.

He was a little tired when he reached the berry patch, but redberries gleamed amongst the green of the leaves, promising a feast to come. He filled his shirt once and sat down in the lap of the woods, on a nice soft spot that she had prepared just for a little Fallohide, it seemed. She'd caused tree roots to grow out into a nice pocket and lined it with moss, all ready for him. 'Thank you, Lady,' he said politely to the woods, and the trees whispered a reply.

He ate up his shirtful, and was all the better for the food and the rest. Jumping to his feet again, he sang a little song as he filled his shirt for the second time. He did not notice that the wood was holding her breath; the birdsongs had ceased and even the leaves stopped their whispering.

Suddenly, rough hands grabbed him, low foul voices whispered to each other in glee, he was hauled into the air, redberries flying, by something that smelled horrid and looked... looked like a nightmare, a creature he'd never seen before, but somehow knew, in a horrified way, meant death to his kind.

'He hee, lookit what we got here,' one murmured to the other in horrible glee. 'A nice little mouthful, wouldn't you say?'

'It'll make a good addition to the pot,' the other growled happily. 'Wonder if there are any more around here?'

'Good hunting, the Boss said,' the first whispered, giving Pickthorn a pinch. 'Nice, fat little things...' his tongue snaked round his lips, revealing wicked fangs.

Pickthorn was too terrified to make a noise as the two hunters walked along, turning him in the air to examine him more closely, prodding him, commenting all the while.

'Come on, then, let us hasten a bit; sooner we get him in the pot the sooner we'll eat,' the first hunter said finally.

'Aow, but I'm hungry now,' the second grumbled. 'Can't we just take a little bite?'

'The Boss'll notice,' the first one warned.

'Just a finger! That's all, a finger each, he wouldn't see that,' the second whined.

'He'd notice that...' the first said, giving the matter some serious thought. 'Toes, now, he might not notice those...'

He grabbed at one of Pickthorn's legs, pulling the little foot towards his mouth.

Pickthorn found his voice, kicking and screaming. 'Mum!' he cried desperately. 'Mama! Mama!'

'Hold still, you,' the hunter growled cheerily, for the little creature's terror added spice to the anticipated mouthful.

The grey watcher erupted from where he had concealed himself when he heard the hunters approach. Though he was supposed to be an observer only, not interfering in the lives of the folk who lived here, the heartrending cries moved him to action.

With a great shout, he swung his staff, cracking one ugly skull, and then the other. Little Pickthorn had a glimpse of a grey-bearded giant bending over him, before the terrified little one fainted.