Déoric awoke at daybreak and dressed himself silently, then set to work with his stylus. By the time Niarl opened his eyes, he had already written down most of what they had heard from the village folk. The story of the tree man was uppermost in his mind, not only because of the mentioning of hobbit holes, but also because those strange creatures had begun to pique his curiosity. He had heard rumours of them that connected them to the eerie forest at Helm's Deep, and he would have liked to know more, but it seemed too much to hope for that he would ever set eyes on one of them.
They broke their fast with their hosts, and soon afterwards Helmgar, their friend from the previous night, came to collect them. Outside, the sun had risen with the fiery intent of painting the land in vibrant colours. The young grass glowed like lit from within. Orange clouds, criss-crossed as if someone had scored them with a fork, stretched out in a long band over their heads and faded to a softer pink near the horizon. Verzino, thought Déoric, and orpiment with a layer of vermillion. Malachite glazed with verdigris would perhaps be a good way of rendering the colour of the grass. Not that he would have the opportunity to find out...
"What makes you frown?" asked Niarl.
"Nothing much, other than that I am a fool."
"Oh. Nothing new then."
"I thank you for your sympathy."
"It is nothing," said Niarl with a mocking bow.
Helmgar, who was riding ahead, waited to let them catch up. They rode three abreast and Helmgar begun to entertain them with further stories, for which Déoric was profoundly grateful.
An hour's ride took them to the banks of a small river, a tributary to the Limlight. In spite of its modest size, it had washed out a wide bed among the hills which bore witness to the strength that was not otherwise apparent in the waters that flowed sedately among pebbled shoals. On the far side, a slope rose nearly forty feet high and quite steep. Long grass grew on it, dotted with a few broom bushes that were just about to come into flower. A little further downriver, where the glen became narrower and bent to the East, Déoric could see dark patches in the bank; those had to be the holes of the Hobytla.
Since the river was shallow, they forded it with ease and rode up just along the edge of the water until they reached the place and dismounted. Helmgar offered to stay with the horses.
The holes sat at least fifteen feet up and if there had ever been a proper path leading to them, it was now gone.
"I can't walk up that slope with the crutches," said Déoric and handed them to Niarl. "It's too steep. I'll have to crawl."
With the help of a few handy broom bushes, this task was soon accomplished and Déoric entered the first hole after Niarl and took back his crutches. The hole was barely high enough to stand, in fact Niarl, who was the taller by about an inch, had to duck slightly. It was easy to see, though, that this hole would have made a comfortably sized room for a Halfling. Faded patterns on the wood-panelled walls indicated that the former inhabitants had cared for appearances. Grainy mud covered the floor, but when Niarl scraped it away with his boot, he revealed half-rotted wooden planks underneath. The place was empty, but a doorway led off to the left.
"Round doors," said Déoric as they went through, "how very curious!"
The next room was longer, more like a tunnel, and filled with a greenish light from a window that was overgrown with grass and hence not visible from the outside. Stone slabs showed where a fireplace had been. At the far end, they saw another door. Déoric realised that the Halflings had not dug back into the hill, but alongside close to the surface, to allow light to come in through window shafts. Even empty and dilapidated as it was, he could still tell that this had once been a comfortable home.
They peeked into the next room, which was the last and smaller than the other two. Déoric guessed it had served as a bedchamber. Like the others, it was completely bare save for the wood panelling and a shutter that covered the window from the inside.
Déoric drew in the earthy smell.
"Nothing much to see," said Niarl. Here in the back room, there was hardly any dirt and his steps squeaked on the floor boards. "Shall we go out again?"
The next hole consisted of only a single room with bare earth walls and floor. It had perhaps been a storage place of sorts. The third hole lay further along the slope and it took a fair amount of scrambling to reach it. It still had a front door, round like the others had been, with blistered traces of ancient green paint and a small hole in the middle where a doorknob might have been. It hung squint in its frame and opened outwards with much creaking.
This was the largest of the three holes by far, with five rooms, one of which had clearly been a kitchen. And here they found, at last, a sign of habitation: the broken remains of a stone sink. When Niarl lifted it up at one corner, a handful of woodlice scurried away.
Painted decorations were discernible on the walls here, too.
"There must have been more trees in the Wold at one time," said Niarl and ran his hand along the wooden panelling.
And that was all. Apart from that pitiful piece of masonry, the place was empty. Empty, empty, empty. Déoric rubbed his temples; his head felt heavy with disappointment. Well, what had he expected? Cosy homes, the fires only just died down, the pots still on the hearth?
It was after they had turned their back on the holes and while he was sliding down the slope on his bottom that he realised what he had hoped for: a clue, some kind of little detail that would be the key to the disappearance of the Halflings. He shook his head. How foolish to think that he would find something that generations before him had overlooked.
At the foot of the bank they rejoined Helmgar, who had found a pleasant flat stretch of grass that would do them for their midday meal.
"Have they always been like that, empty?" asked Déoric as he opened his saddlebag.
"Well," said Helmgar, "not always, but at least as long as I can remember. They'd left a lot of their things behind, it is said, and after many years, when it was clear they wouldn't come back, people went and took what they could use. My neighbour has a chair he says his father got from here. His little boy sits on it."
"But nobody ever found any, any bodies or so? Or signs of a fight?"
"Oh, no. Orcs didn't get them, if that's what you're thinking."
"Hm. I wonder," said Déoric. His mind turned to a story he had heard on his first journey and which he had quite forgotten until just now. It seemed to...fit. There was no telling, of course. But he would write to Meriadoc about it.
"Don't you think the air feels fresher?" asked Éowyn.
They had passed into Rohan. Merilwen, not one to disappoint her lady, drew breath and said, "It does a bit."
At the front of the group of travellers, Faramir reined in his horse and turned to speak with the guards. The men dismounted and led their animals to the brook that trickled out of the woods to their left. Soon a resting place was prepared with blankets and cushions on a flat grassy patch among the birch trees, and the women – Éowyn, Merilwen, the maid Acha and Rówiel, the infant's nursemaid – opened the saddlebags and laid out food for their meal. Elboron slept tightly in the woven basket that served as his travelling cot. The leaves of the trees had unfolded just far enough to provide a pleasant canopy, and the sun shone just brightly enough to make the travellers appreciate a bit of shade. In the fresh grass, twitching movements and gentle chirping noises revealed the presence of grasshoppers.
"We have made good speed this morning," said Faramir. He spread butter on a slab of bread and accepted a slice of cold ham from Acha. "If we ride swiftly for the rest of the day, we shall reach Aldburg before nightfall. I should be glad if we did not need to camp for tonight."
"I do not believe you," replied Éowyn with a grin. "The Ranger in you is all too happy to be out in the wild."
"The Ranger never had to consider the comfort of women and children," said Faramir.
"Women and children can cope," said Éowyn. "Look at Elboron, he is quite comfortable."
Indeed, Elboron had slept more during this journey than he ever did at home. The gentle movement of the horse lulled him into his dreams better than any cradle could.
"That is because he has a real rocking horse," said Faramir.
The basket with the sleeping child stood between them, and both parents kept looking at him and smiling throughout the meal. When all had refreshed themselves, Acha and Rówiel tidied up quickly.
"Let us rest now for half an hour and then prepare to ride on," said Faramir and gestured for the party to settle. He, however, did not follow his own advice but wandered off into the wood. The guards left to see to the horses. Acha and Rówiel curled up beside each other and closed their eyes. Just as they nodded off, the infant awoke and began to whimper. Éowyn picked him up and immediately a smile appeared on his face. "Ba," he said, displaying the single tooth in his lower jaw.
"Yes, clever boy," said Éowyn and put him on the blanket beside Merilwen.
While she leaned back, with her elbow planted on the ground , Elboron rolled over onto his belly and looked up at his mother with a triumphant squeal.
"Well done!" cried Merilwen. "What a neat trick, young prince! But you don't want to eat that." She reached out and removed the grasshopper that the infant had by uncanny happenstance caught in his chubby hand and was about to put into his mouth.
"Here, have this instead," said Éowyn and gave him a rattle. Elboron looked as if he would prefer another grasshopper, but as none came his way, he settled for the toy. He held it in his right hand with a strong grip.
"Yes, my lady?"
"There's something I have been thinking. You're going to laugh at me."
Merilwen said nothing and looked at Éowyn with a kindly smile.
"It seems to me..." Éowyn lifted her head and fixed her eyes on the branches of the tree above her head. Her hand reached out and patted Elboron on the back.
"Well, you know how the Ringbearer lost a finger? And Elboron has got one to spare. I keep thinking that Elboron is going to give back to the world what the Enemy took from it."
She kept staring up at the tree.
"There's no reason not to see it like that, Lady Éowyn."
"Really?" Éowyn turned her face to Merilwen.
"Really." Merilwen stroked Elboron's little hand with the six fingers. "So much was lost in the War, much that can never be brought back. But for those that are born now, in this new age of peace – for them, everything seems possible."
"I have thought so, too," said Éowyn. "And yet, one does not wish to weigh down one's own child with expectations that are too great and too heavy."
"Not expectations, my lady," said Merilwen, "but hopes."
"Well put, Merilwen." Éowyn picked up Elboron and held him close to her face. "But the Child of Hope is smelly. I think it is time to waken Rówiel."
While the nursemaid changed the infant, Éowyn went down to the water and washed her hands and face. Soon the whole party was on the way again. This time, Éowyn rode with her husband and left the women to their own chatter.
"You look thoughtful," she said. "Are you worried about something?"
"Not really worried, no," replied Faramir. "But my thoughts do drift back to Ithilien. We left many half-done tasks behind."
"And left them in good hands for the time being."
"Hm." Faramir moved his lower jar from side to side, as if chewing a thought.
"Captain Cúmol is a very good man," he said. "He will handle things with wisdom and circumspection. I confess I am less pleased with your choice."
"You didn't say anything about it at the time."
"I had other things on my mind then. But, Éowyn, the more I think about it, the more I struggle to understand why you asked Lady Serveren to oversee the household."
"Have some confidence in her, my love. Her manner is not the most charming, but she is capable. I am sure we will hear a good report of her when we return."
"She is ambitious," he pointed out.
"Yes. This is a sentiment not unknown to me. Faramir, people respect ambition in a man, admire it even. Perhaps it is time we learnt to respect it in a woman, too. Serveren wants to distinguish herself. I gave her an opportunity to do so. She will make the most of it, mark my words. Where Captain Cúmol acts with circumspection, Serveren will act with determination. I think they will complement each other."
"You have told me before how irritating you find her presence at times."
"Yes, I do, at times. I believe, though, that her faults are of understanding rather than of the heart. She finds it hard to see how anyone could think differently from herself, and her way of thinking runs in tracks carved out by many simple minds before her. That often makes her a tedious companion, but I have no complaints about her beyond that. Narrow-minded she may be, but I've seen in her neither deceit nor coldness of feeling. She is always most tender and kind to Elboron. And she did marry Olcharad, even though he was not made Captain. I remember people predicting that she would break the betrothal. She didn't. I have observed her around her husband and I am convinced she is truly attached to him. Really, Faramir, I see no harm in her."
"Just to mean well is not enough," said Faramir. "She may go about with the best of intentions to set everybody's life to rights, but she is so awkward and blunt about it that she raises resentment in people."
Éowyn laughed. "Has she tried to set your life to rights, my love?"
"Hm, yes. She upbraided me about allowing the dogs into my study. She said it was a disgrace to have them roam the whole house so unchecked."
"And what did you say in reply?"
"Well." Faramir paused. "I had to thank her for rescuing my manuscript and clearing up the mess from the spilled ink."
Éowyn laughed again.
"Oh, well, my dear. You dug that hole yourself, and then you fell into it."
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.