The Old Grey Wizard
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The Chronicles of The Kelvar: 5. Coarse-Mannered Ponies and Hole Dwellers
Part 1. Shadowfax.
Chapter 5. Coarse-Mannered Ponies and Hole-Dwellers
When dawn came, the Sun's bright rays illumined the strangest land I had yet seen. Used as I am to wide green plains and unchecked horizons, to winds unblocked by structures of stone or wood and to the distant vision of snow-crowned mountains, I was startled and annoyed by the country I now found myself struggling to cross.
Nothing was as it should have been! Every green field was trammeled with fences or scored with the lines of plow and hoe; the horizon was burdened by so many little tiny sheds, barns, roof-lines… Smoke rose from each miniature man-stable, and indeed, from the very hillsides! Everywhere I looked another barrier had been erected, it seemed, to hamper my passage. And instead of open rolling turf beneath my shining hooves, I found myself clomping along in a most ungainly fashion upon… ughhh… roads. This new land we had entered was, in short, stupendously ugly.
"What horrible place is this, Old Man?" I asked my Two-Footed companion. "This is the most unattractive country I have ever seen… By Nahar The Golden-Hooved, why have you brought us here, of all places?"
But the Old Greybeard merely laughed, as though I had produced some merry joke for his amusement. I snorted loud and stamped at that, and refused to carry on one more step.
"Laugh not at me, Old One!" I snapped. "I am King of the Mearas, and deserving of respect!"
Unfortunately that sufficed only to increase the volume of his guffaws. But I refused to move until he explained himself… and apologized. I waited until his ridiculous laughter finally subsided.
"Ah, me!" he sighed at last, wiping a tear from his aged eye. "I do apologize, my dear Shadowfax. This land is called The Shire, and it is the land I have sought lo these last six days and nights of swift flight upon your back...."
"This is the land we are seeking?" I said, incredulous. He nodded, and I began to trot on again. "But it is a horrible place! What terrible beings live here? Why, why do we seek this… this desolate place, so cut up into pieces, so…so ruined!"
He sighed, and this time he did not laugh. "I suppose that looking at The Shire from your perspective, it might seem unattractive to a free spirit such as you… But many who visit see a sort of simple loveliness in this land's orderly fields, gardens, little mills and orchards… And certainly The Shire's inhabitants find their country to be beautiful beyond compare!"
I snorted again, rather loudly. "I do not find it beautiful in the least. The opposite, in fact. And you have not explained who we seek—what sort of dismal, unimaginative creatures must dwell here, who have carved all these… lines into the very soil upon which they walk…"
But I quickly discovered the answer to my own question. For at that very moment, a peculiar round wooden doorway popped open in the earth itself—from the sloping side of a small hill that I was just then cantering by, a hill, I might add, that was smoking in a most gloomy and unnatural way. And to my unending shock, a rotund yet puny little Two-Foot emerged, just like one of the Hole-Dwellers that the Gold-Hair children sang rhymes about! I neighed in surprise, and as if he was just as alarmed to see me as I was to see him, the little fellow shrieked, threw up his chubby hands, and vanished right back through the door from which he'd come!
And of course, the dreadful scene just made the Old Man on my back laugh all the harder.
"And there is your answer, Shadowfax!" he cried merrily. "That, my friend, was one of the Shire-folk: a Hobbit, as they call themselves… A Halfling, if you like…"
"Halfling!" I snorted. "You mean, Little Folk, such as the Gold-Hairs call Holbytla? No such thing exists outside of Two-Foot storybooks, or so I've been told…"
"Ah, but they very much do exist," he said. "And we are here to find one especially important Hobbit, the dear friend I've spoken of, who is in terrible peril! He lives on the edge of a village near the center of this land… At least, he lived there, when I last saw him…" His voice fell to a whisper. "By all logic he should have received my letter months ago and set off at once… But alas, my heart says otherwise…" He stirred from his mutterings and pointed north and a bit west. "Take that lane, my friend, and hurry, as fast as you deem it safe to gallop on these small lanes without running one of the Shire-folk into the ground… We must come to Hobbiton by sunset!"
Through that overly long and tiresome day we wove through what seemed a very spider's web of interlocking lanes and cobbled thoroughfares. The awkward and halting gait I was forced to assume made me feel terribly restless. Yet the old Two-Foot seemed pleased at our progress as morning wore on into day.
We crossed through all too many villages where the dwellings of the tiny folk had clustered, and as if we were ourselves in league with the Nine Dread Riders we pursued, nearly every one of the Puny Two-Foots hid themselves hurriedly, slamming doors, diving behind sundry bushes and yanking their shutters closed with loud thuds. I thought it unaccountably rude, of course, but my companion seemed rather upset by the whole affair.
"Gandalf," I snorted. "I thought you knew this land and its miniature inhabitants! Whatever did you do to the folk about here, that they retreat from us with such unfriendliness displayed on their little faces?"
"I do not understand it," he said. "I cannot say that I would find a warm welcome in every farthing, farm or village of The Shire, but I am known in these parts, and am usually greeted with polite acknowledgement, and sometimes regarded with a measure of affection, I believe…" I glanced back and saw the frown of confusion on his old, wrinkled face. "It would be the Nine, I suspect," he murmured. "They must have flown through here nearly a week ago, thrusting their icy terror before them and about them… Yes, that must be it. These Hobbits are simply afraid of any Big Person, particularly one upon a horse… And who can blame them…"
At that he hurried me onward as fast as I dared canter on what was now a slightly wider road. Yet still our way was thwarted by a phenomenon I had hardly yet encountered in my days: that ugly mess known as traffic. For the farther north into the center of this little land we went, the thicker the roads were clogged with lumbering carts pulled by fat, sluggish ponies barely awake enough to pull, or with diminutive hairy-footed little riders upon slightly more alert but equally rotund little beasts. I did my best to weave between them, but the mythical Hole-Dwellers unattractive ponies were every bit as afraid of me as their riders were of my old companion. The resulting snarled messes arose with increasing frequency, and brought on rising frustration for me—and my rider.
The Sun was setting when at last he informed me that we approached our destination at last: the village wherein his friend dwelt.
"But I have little hope we shall find him here," he said darkly. "Yet it is the only logical place to begin…"
We had halted on the road at a low gate that enclosed a tangled, overly fussy-looking garden—overwhelmed with flowery, smelly vegetation, hardly a blade of nourishing grass to be seen. Half hidden behind this bank of weeds was yet another of the round wooden doors I had seen early that morning for the first time in my life, and which I had noticed again and again as we had journeyed through the Little Two-Foots land. The Old Grey One swung off me, and despite his obvious stiffness, he rushed up the path to the round green door, and with no further hesitation began banging upon it with the end of his staff.
A few moments passed before a whining, insinuating voice grated on my ears.
"Who is that pounding on our door?" the odd voice screeched. "What do you want?"
The Old Man seemed taken aback, and one of his wiry brows rose as he drew himself up to his full height.
"It is I, Gandalf the Grey," he said. "I am looking for the Master of the House—Mr. Frodo Baggins…"
The door opened a crack, and a greasy haired Little Two-Foot stuck his face out.
"Mad Baggins ain't Master here no more," he sneered. "I am Master here now…"
I knew Gandalf well enough by then to read the expression on his face, which was suddenly cold and had gone quite still. "Lotho Sackville-Baggins…" he said quietly.
"That's right, I am Master of Bag End now," the little fellow said shrilly as he emerged a bit more from the doorway. He clung to the edge of the round door as though he gripped a shield, and I could see well enough that the oily creature was terrified of Gandalf. From behind him I could hear an even more unpleasant and grating voice.
"Who's at the door? Is it that meddling old conjurer? Out of my way, Lotho, I'll give him a right good piece of my mind if he doesn't leave at once!"
The fellow at the doorway leaned back and hissed. "I am getting rid of him, Mother! I can handle this, just stay back…"
A frightfully ugly little female Two-Foot appeared at his side. The look on her face might well have spoiled the milk of every brood mare in my harem.
"You!" she shouted, thrusting her walking stick at my companion in a most threatening way. "You leave us alone, you old wanderer! You've no business at Bag End any longer!" I snorted and stamped in response, and both Little Two-Foots flinched in fear as they both noticed my magnificent presence at their gate for the first time. But the Grey-One gave me a stern look, and I contained my not inconsiderable fury at their behavior. But of course, it merely continued to get worse.
The old female stepped out of the doorway, and though she was no more than half my companion's height, she shook her fist at him as though she might well attack.
"Begone from here, I say! I am not afraid of you, you old conjurer… friend of that mad old Bilbo and his equally mad heir… They've gone, and aren't coming back, ever again!"
The Old Man regarded her coolly as he stared down into her scowling face.
"I don't suppose you would have news of your cousin Frodo, Mistress Lobelia…"
"If I did, I wouldn't give it to you," she snapped. "Now get off my property, before I am forced to summon the Shirrifs!" And she shook her stick at him once more.
Gandalf the Grey was furious, that I could easily see. He gripped his staff until his knuckles had turned quite white, and for a fleeting moment I thought he meant to strike her down. Then without a word he turned and flew through the gate, leaving it swinging on its hinges behind him. Without as much as a glance backward at the two ugly little Two-Foots, whose mouths were both hanging open, he fairly bounded down the lane toward another, much smaller and less well-painted doorway, not far away.
"Wait right there, my friend," he shouted over his shoulder. "I shall return in a moment!"
And I, Shadowfax, Lord of the Mearas, was left standing in the common roadway of a strange and uncouth country, to wait upon a Two-Foot! It was the height of improper behavior, and I stamped my hoof with impatient rage. But there was nothing to be done for it, I could see it well enough. I was forced to wait.
And while my tale is far from finished, the next hour or so occurred out of the range of my hearing. Thus, I shall yield the telling of this tale to another, for a short time.
This Chronicle will soon be continued… as told by another witness who overheard a remarkable conversation.
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