Middle-earth belongs to Tolkien.
The days of late summer were wearing out and the land was slipping into early autumn. In the mornings a different smell hung in the air, richer, deeper. Fruit trees stood laden in this quaint corner of the Eastfarthing, and the barns were filled with a pale golden harvest. The cooler winds had not yet awoken, and for a few precious days, it seemed as if time stood still.
Mrs Maggot had risen early, as usual, and seen to the cows. There were four: three brown and a black-and-white. After she had provided them with hay and fresh water, she milked them with nimble hands, watching the white liquid frothing in the pail. Then she put her stool aside and returned to the farmhouse, which stood squat under the trees with its thatched roof and cheerful green shutters.
In the pantry, the shelves were crammed with earthenware jugs and bowls. Dozens of long strings of mushrooms hung from the ceiling and filled the room with their aromatic scent. The brick floor felt cool underfoot. Mrs Maggot poured a portion of the milk into a brown pitcher, which she set aside, and then emptied the pail into a large round dish. In a few hours, she would be able to scoop off the thick, smooth milk fat and take it into the cold room, where the barrel would soon hold enough cream for churning. On her way back through the pantry, she picked up the pitcher and carried it into the kitchen with her.
Her daughter Pansy had already begun to set the table for the family breakfast. Wishing her a good morning, Mrs Maggot put the pitcher on the well-scrubbed table and busied herself with the fire in the stove. While she cracked eggs into a large pan, Pansy cut slices of bread and brought a couple of small cheeses out of the pantry. Mrs Maggot watched with approval the purposeful movements of her eldest. By and by, the other members of the household made their appearance in the kitchen, and soon eleven hobbits were seated around the table and partook in a hearty breakfast of bread, cheese and scrambled egg.
After the meal, the hobbits wandered off to see to their various tasks around the farm, and Mrs Maggot was left alone in the kitchen. She ran her hands down her apron, tucked an errant strand of grey hair back behind her ear, and began her chores. By mid-morning, she sent her youngest daughter Columbine, a bonnie young hobbit of nineteen years, out into the fields with scones and elderberry juice for her sons and the farm hands. Shortly afterwards it began to rain. A brief look into the wooden box by the door told Mrs Maggot that her daughter had forgotten to take an umbrella with her. She tutted. The lass would have to seek shelter where she could.
By noon it was hot again outside and she was glad for the cooler air of the farmhouse. After lunch, which saw the whole household united around the table again, she sat down in the rocking chair by the fire-place, the dog Grip curled up by her feet, and began some mending work. Columbine was humming a cheerful tune while she was clearing the table and washing the dishes. Mrs Maggot's glance fell on the hamper that the girl had brought back from the fields.
"Where is the jug?" she asked.
"Which jug, mother?"
"The jug for the elderberry juice, you silly lass! It's not in the hamper, where did you put it?"
Columbine slapped her hand on her forehead. "I must have left it out in the field," she said.
Mrs Maggot sighed and shook her head.
"What a scatterbrain you are! You'd forget your own feet, if they weren't stuck to your legs! Well, go out and get it, I'll finish clearing up here."
The young hobbit darted out and Mrs Maggot rose from her chair. She picked up the dishtowel and slowly dried plate after plate. Her husband appeared from the cellar and sat down on a chair near the open door. He chomped an apple; the crunching sound mingled with little grunts of approval.
"They're good apples this year," she remarked.
"So they are," agreed the farmer. "Best lot we've had in a dozen years, if I am not mistaken."
Mrs Maggot continued with her dishes. A large bluebottle buzzed against the windowpane, and she absentmindedly swatted it with the cloth.
Then she saw that a figure had appeared in the yard. It was one of the Big Folk, wrapped up in a black cloak and sitting on a huge black horse. Maggot must have noticed him, too, for he rose and went out to meet the stranger. Grip jumped up from his place by the fire and followed his master. She heard the dog yelp. From the window, she watched her husband's broad shape standing in front of the rider, who stretched out an arm towards the west. She could not see the farmer's face, since he had his back turned to her, but she could tell by the set of his shoulders that he was getting angry. Presently, the rider spurred his horse right at the hobbit, who dived out of the way. Mrs Maggot dropped the dishtowel and rushed to the door, just in time to see the horse galloping out of the yard.
"Maggot!" she called and ran towards her husband, who was trying to pick himself up from the ground. She helped him to get up and brush the dust off his trousers.
"Are you hurt? Who was that? What did he want?"
"Blast if I know," replied the farmer. "He said he was looking for Baggins."
"Baggins? Around here? Isn't there a Baggins up in Hobbiton? Primula Brandybuck's lad, the one who was taken in by that mad old Mr Bilbo?"
"Well, that's what I said. Hobbiton is the place to look for Bagginses. But he said Baggins was coming here." Farmer Maggot shook his head and sank down on a bench by the door.
"How odd!" exclaimed his wife. "Why should he come here? And what did that black fellow want from him?"
"I do not know, but I could tell that it was nothing good. Oh, Daisy, I shouldn't have told him to go to Hobbiton! What if some mischief comes out of it? We hobbits should stick together and not let outsiders meddle with our business."
"Maybe it was old Bilbo Baggins the stranger was looking for," suggested Mrs Maggot.
"Maybe it was, and then again, maybe it wasn't. I hope that young Mr Frodo will be safe and sound, right young rascal though he used to be. Well," he said, rising from his seat, "I'd better go and see if there's any other weird customers roaming about."
He whistled for the dogs and walked out through the gate with them.
"Be careful, Maggot!" his wife called after him. Then it occurred to her that she hadn't seen which way the stranger had turned. He might have ridden away towards the fields. She hurried up to the gate and almost collided with Columbine. The hobbit lass looked startled.
"Mother! What is the matter?"
Mrs Maggot pulled her daughter into the yard.
"There was a stranger here, one of the Big Folk. Have you come across him?"
"No, I've seen no strangers."
"Do you know where everybody else is?"
"Fastolph and Rudi are in the orchard, and I saw the other lads walking up to the copse. I think they were going to get mushrooms. I met Father just now in the lane, he told me to go inside quickly and then he walked away towards the causeway. I haven't seen my sisters since lunch time."
"They're in the stables. Get into the house and finish clearing up the kitchen."
Obediently, Columbine disappeared through the door. Mrs Maggot remained in the yard, where a washing line was strung between two elm trees. The laundry was just about dry after the earlier shower. She unpegged and folded the sheets and garments with skilled moves that required little attention, while her eyes kept wandering to the entrance. After about half an hour, the dogs appeared, followed by the farmer, who closed the gate carefully and walked up to his wife.
"Not a soul to be seen," he said and patted Fang's head. "I went as far as the causeway, but all is quiet."
"That's just as well," replied Mrs Maggot. "That stranger was a shifty fellow, and no mistake. I hope we'll never the see the likes of him again."
"Too many queer folks roaming these parts nowadays," her husband agreed. He picked up the laundry basket and turned towards the house, but no sooner had he done so, than the dogs let out a terrific baying and barking. Handing the basket to his wife, he called for the dogs, approached the gate, and opened it. The dogs pelted out into the lane. Mrs Maggot strained her ears.
"Hallo! Hallo!" she heard the farmer calling. "And who may you be, and what may you be wanting?"
Then, to her relief, came the reply of a cheerful hobbit's voice: "Good afternoon, Mr Maggot!"
Mrs Maggot carried the laundry basket into the house. Whoever the visitor was, he was likely to come in, and she wanted to check that the table was clean and the floor well swept. A quick glance reassured her that Columbine had finished her task well enough. She straightened a few chairs, then she took a huge jug and went into the cellar to fill it from the beer barrel.
When she came back into the kitchen, she saw not one, but three hobbits seated at the table with her husband. One of them she recognized as young Peregrin Took, another she had never seen before, and the third – well, if that wasn't Primula's lad! The spitting image of his mother and no mistake. All three greeted her politely, while she poured out the beer into four large mugs. After she had satisfied herself that the guests were settled and provided for, she took the basket into her chamber. She laid the sheets aside for ironing and put the clothes away into the chest, all the while wondering about the odd coincidence, if indeed a coincidence it was, that Frodo Baggins should turn up at her house the very day one of the Big Folk was looking for him.
Eventually she left the bedroom and returned to the kitchen to start the preparations for supper. The four hobbits were still sitting at the table, and she heard Frodo Baggins say:
"...we must be going at once, I'm afraid. Even now it will be dark before we can reach the Ferry."
"Ah, but wait a minute!" said the farmer. "I was going to say: after a bit of supper, I'll get out a small waggon, and I'll drive you all to the Ferry. That will save you a good step, and it might also save you trouble of another sort."
Mrs Maggot nodded to herself. This was nothing more than decent hobbit hospitality would have demanded at any time, and even more so at a time when cloaked strangers prowled the neighbourhood. She scurried into the pantry and chose a range of hearty foodstuffs for the supper. Well, fancy that, here was Primula's lad coming back to Buckland. He looked as if he had grown some sense since the days when he had been a reckless young trespasser. Suddenly a smile appeared on her face. She picked up a small wicker basket, filled it with mushrooms, and covered it with a cloth.
In the kitchen she lit the candles, for the light was beginning to fail, and then set to work at the stove. The smell of fried mushrooms and bacon drew the other members of the household into the room, and in a short while fourteen hobbits sat down to eat. No mention of the ominous stranger was made, and the beer flowed as freely as the compliments for the well-cooked meal.
When they had finished, the farmer and his sons rose to get the waggon ready. In the general bustle Mrs Maggot slipped away to the pantry to fetch the basket, which she handed to her husband with a wink. He lifted it to his face, sniffed, and chuckled.
Soon the ponies were harnessed and the waggon stood waiting in the yard. It had grown dark. The farmer and his sons were moving about with lanterns, while the guests threw their packs on board and climbed in. They settled themselves, waved, and shouted thanks and farewells to their hostess.
From the door, she watched her husband on the driving seat.
"You be careful of yourself, Maggot!" she called. "Don't go arguing with any foreigners, and come straight back!"
"I will," he replied, and with this the waggon pulled out of the farmyard and into the lane. There was no wind, and the air felt chilly and still. Strands of mist drifted slowly through the night. Mrs Maggot took a few steps into the yard and then stopped, standing halfway between the house and the gate. Soon the sounds of the hooves and wheels faded in the distance. Fastolph and Rudi went back inside, but she lingered and listened to the familiar noises of the farm: The lowing of the cows in the stable, the faint rustling from the barn, where the cats were hunting for mice, and the muted voices of her children that came through the open door. There was no thought tonight of going to bed early.
She froze when she discerned another sound in the night; the clip-clop of hooves approaching from the dead end of the lane. Too late she realized that she should have closed the gate. From the darkness emerged a deeper shadow, a horse and rider, all in black.
"Fang! Grip! Wolf!" she called, but she heard the dogs yelp and retreat into a corner of the yard. She gripped the shoulder straps of her apron. Slowly, but surely the dark shape moved closer, until the black horse loomed over her and the rider bent down. She could discern no face inside the black hood.
"Baggins," hissed he. "Where is Baggins? He has been here!"
Mrs Maggot trembled. She tried to creep closer to the pool of light that poured out of the door, but the rider followed her. Laughter was heard from the kitchen. Mrs Maggot held her step.
"Yes, he has been here," she whispered.
The black figure leaned closer.
"Where did he go?"
"That way," she said without thinking, gesturing back up the lane towards the fields. Her heart beat so hard that she thought it would choke her. It was all she could do to send this stranger the other way. The rider moved his head in the direction she had pointed to and sniffed. Then he turned back and urged his horse another step towards her.
"Are you sure?"
She felt a cold fear creeping up her back, as if she was slowly being turned into stone. Back in the farmhouse, she heard the sounds of dishes clattering. Her thoughts were racing, searching for an answer the rider might believe.
"He had ... he had lost something," she stuttered. "He had to go back into the fields, because he had left something behind. Something important. He wanted to go back and get it. If you hurry, you will catch him."
The dark stranger wavered. For a few tense moments, it seemed uncertain if he would believe her words. She held her breath and clenched her fists. Then, without another word, the rider turned his horse and cantered out through the gate, up the lane towards the meadows, and soon disappeared into darkness.
Mrs Maggot remained standing on the spot for a good few moments, then she rushed forward and closed the gate. She called for her sons, and everybody came running out of the farmhouse as she was putting the bar across. A brief, whispered exchange of words told the younger hobbits what had befallen their mother. Her sturdy son Fastolph and Theo, the strongest of the farm hands, fetched pitchforks and set up watch by the gate. The rest of the family withdrew into the farmhouse, but they huddled around the door, which they kept ajar.
Mrs Maggot put out the candles and stood by the kitchen window, peering out into the darkness. In the foggy night, she could only just make out the shapes of the two hobbits by the gate. There was nothing else to be seen and no sound to be heard apart from the hushed conversation of the hobbits standing at the door. She tried to tell herself that all would be well, that she had sent the stranger off into the meadows, that Primula's lad and his friends would have reached the ferry by now and that her husband would be back soon. Yet darkness seemed to be closing in. She could still hear her own heart beating.
It was a long time for standing and worrying. At last she could make out a faint glow in the fog and saw Fastolph unbarring the gate. With a sigh of relief, she left her stance by the window, pushed past the knot of hobbits in the doorway and was out in the yard in time to see the waggon pull inside. She ran up to her husband and grasped his arm.
"Thank goodness you're back, Maggot!" she cried. "I've had the most awful fright...."
On the other side of the Brandywine River, the night was just as dark and foggy. Frodo and his companions had reached the house in Crickhollow. Through the gate in the hedge they scurried, across the lawn and under the eaves of the turf-covered roof. They knocked, and Fatty Bolger opened. Without delay they slipped inside and barred the door against the darkness.
Lines in italics are direct quotes from The Fellowship Of The Ring.