|Todo Ness scraped the hard soil with a hoe. The end of winter was weeks away, but getting the ground ready for carrots was a chore he could no longer put off. He shivered inside his patched woolen coat, then continued digging.
Some hours and two rows later, he pulled off his coat and draped it over the dark wooden fence separating his small farm from the Baggin's place. The sun had risen to mid-morning and he was making good time. Maybe Frodo Maggot was right. It was getting warmer, sooner.
He finished two more rows before Elevenses. He had just picked up his coat and turned toward his small shanty when an old man, one of the Big People with a flowing white beard and wearing white robes, walked around Hardbottle Hill. He carried a long, gnarled staff and was maintaining a goodly pace along Thain's Way that led from the village of Moss Downs, around several prominent hobbit holes, to end in the Underhill Estates of old Mister Dory Baggins. Of course, getting by the guards hired by Primella Baggins, old Mister Baggins' sister, would be a neat trick.
Todo, intrigued by the stranger, paused in his front yard and half-heartedly chopped at some fire logs. As expected, the old man spotted him from the road and came over to say hello.
"Isn't it a bit early in the day to be chopping fire wood?"
His voice was deep and rich. There was just a hint of merriment in it that helped ease a little of Todo's apprehension. It also helped that this old gent seemed to know hobbit custom. Chopping wood before the sun had set was said to bring unnatural bad luck to the chopper.
"Not if I be wanting some hot tea for Elevenses," Todo answered. "Got business up at the Estates, have ye?"
"Just curiosity," he answered. "I knew some Baggins back when they lived in the Shire."
"Well, that would make you old even for Big People. Orcs burned the Shire a hundred years ago, though I heard Nolo Took led a small band of hobbits back there last winter. Ain't heard nothing from them, or so old Ham Gardner told me last week."
"I'm older even than that."
Seeing the puzzled stare from Todo, the old man held out his hand. "I've been called many things, but the folk down at Bucks Town call me Mauraza."
Todo eyed the hand cautiously, then wiped his sweating palm on his old wool coat. "Mauraza, is it?" he asked as he shook hands. "Stranger ye be, but wise? What sort of wise man would be walking when it's time for Elevenses?"
"Well, hobbits have always maintained that Big Folk are not always wise, we just generally get things more or less right out of an astounding amount of luck."
That pulled a chuckle from Todo. No doubt about it, this fellow knew a lot about hobbits.
"Well, my name is Todo, Todo Ness of the old Hopsbury Nesses. When the Orcs burned Hopsbury, we lost everything. My grandfather and his family moved here and helped build Moss Downs. But that is a long story and long stories are best told over tea. Would you like some?"
"Yes, thank you." He followed Todo to the door, then paused looking around at the dismal surroundings. "Most unnatural," he mumbled, then followed Todo through the door.
Inside, the shanty was warm, though a bit cluttered. Like all hobbit dwellings, the ceilings were low and each room led one to another. They had entered a combination sitting room and kitchen that held a large fireplace against one wall. Two doors led deeper into the building, presumably to a bedroom and storage.
"Come in, come in. Find a seat where ye can."
Todo pulled two well-used cups from some shelves as Mauraza slid onto a large stool sitting near a window. Pouring hot water from a kettle set next to the fireplace, Todo soon handed the old man a steaming cup of aromatic tea. Mauraza breathed deeply of the steam, then pulled a rolled leather bag from his robe. Todo's eyes widened when the bag was opened and he smelled the unmistakable smell of Old Toby, leaf so rare these days some claimed it a myth. Todo had smelled it only twice before and each time had been up at The Estates.
'Why, why," he stammered, "that smells like..."
"Old Toby, yes. I got the same reaction when I showed up down at Bucks Town. I know two farmers just south of the old Shire that still grow a small crop of it. Would you like some?"
Todo nodded his head so hard he sloshed a little tea onto his vest. Mauraza smiled, pulled a pipe from the end of his staff, and lit up a huge bowl of the aromatic plant. He then handed the leather pouch to Todo.
Todo carefully sat his cup on a small table near the fireplace and with trembling hands took the leather pouch. Opening it, he found a Thain's ransom in leaf. Why, with this much he could buy most of Moss Downs! He pulled out a small pinch and placed it carefully in his old pipe. He lit it with a brand from the fireplace then took a long, slow pull. He handed the pouch back and found Mauraza watching him carefully. Did the old man think he would rob him?
"Finest weed in South Farling," Todo intoned as he handed the pouch back. It was a saying passed down from the previous age, now over 800 years gone. A few said the legendary Bilbo Baggins had started the saying, but many did not believe it. Most now believed that Samwise Gamgee, later known as Sam Gardener, was the first to use the traditional words.
"None finer," Mauraza said, making the traditional response.
The two sat for a moment just relishing the warmth, aroma, and taste of the leaf. Then Todo came to his senses when his stomach growled. "Goodness, where are my manners. Here it is past Elevenses, almost into Luncheons, and I haven't offered ye even a nibble of cheese. What can I get ye? I have some cheese and a mince pie that Miss Burny made for me. There's bread and ..."
"Nothing, thank you, the tea is splendid. You go ahead and eat. I will repay your hospitality by telling a story while you dine. Then you can tell me the story of how the Shire was lost."
The two talked well into the evening. Mauraza told of the grand adventures of hobbits, elves, and men at the end of the third age. The destruction of the rings of power was a favorite in the New Dells, as the Shire refugees had named their new home. His eyes seemed to take on a special glow as he recounted the tale and Todo could almost picture this old gent as the mythic Gandalf. Of course, that would make him over 800 years old and everyone knew that only elves lived that long.
Then it was Todo's turn and he began the Tale of Sorrow and the losing of the Shire.
To be continued...
©2002 Braxton S. Cook
Updated October 25, 2003