#2 Something Unnatural Part 3 - The Chase

"Hobbiton," Merry said between gasps, "He's headed toward Hobbiton."
Even though the would-be wizard's pace had been slow, running after a horse and cart through the forest was taking its toll on the hobbits. At least the territory was familiar to them, and they were able to stay just behind and hidden from view. They had been trailing him for hours, the warm mid morning sun had ceased to be cheery as it streamed down between the overhanging branches and caused them to become sticky with sweat.
Sam brought up the rear, glad with each step that he had left his pack behind. Imaging lugging that thing around everywhere, he thought, fighting to breath.
Their quarry halted suddenly, just at the edge of the trees, causing Frodo to skid to a stop. Merry, who had been running with his head down, watching each step, ran past Frodo for a few steps before he realized his mistake. By the time he retraced his steps back to Frodo, Sam had caught up and collapsed at his feet.
"Why did he stop?" Merry asked, picking burs out of his hair. He hated those prickly things and now he was covered in them. Pip had better be grateful for this, he thought as a particularly stuck one came out with a clump of hair.
"Who cares?" Sam puffed, falling back on the springing moss, "Just glad he did."
The sun streamed in from the edge of the trees nearly blinding their view of the cart. Frodo could see the silhouette of the grey man as he sat atop the cart, but what he was doing, or thinking, he had no idea. If only he would get down from the cart and walk away, just a little bit, then they would be able to sneak up and rescue Pippin. But, the old man stayed sitting right there. If they approached from anywhere, they would surely be seen.
"We're almost to Hobbiton. Why would he be going there?" Having done the best job he could on his hair, Merry had moved on to his jacket.
The sound of jangling reins, illicitated a groan from Sam. "Looks like we're about to find out," Frodo said. He slapped at Sam's reclining form. "Come on, Sam, let's go."
"Great," he mumbled as he pulled his already stiffening muscles up off the ground, "Here we go again."
He caught the other hobbits at the edge. They stood there reluctant to go out into the open. "We can't go out there," Merry said dejectedly. To have come this far to fail.
"Not if we stay low," Frodo said, crouching to demonstrate.
"We can't run like this," Merry complained, imitating Frodo.
"Then how else can we follow him without being seen?"
"Let's go around and come up the river. We can cut him off at the bridge," Merry suggested with enthusiasm.
Frodo scoffed at that. "Take too much time. We should cut through the Proudfoot farm on the right, then turn back towards the main road up by the ..."
Sam could take no more of this intricate planning. By the time these two come up with a plan they can agree on, the old man will be passing by the West March. Hitching up his pants, Sam said matter-of-factly, "There's nothing for it, we go this way," then sprinted out into Farmer Bolger's field.
Frodo and Merry looked at each other, then at Sam barreling across the field. Both busted out laughing, as they sprinted after him.
The old man and his cart were just passing over the bridge when they caught up to him. Taking no heed of being caught anymore, they raced behind him in full view of everyone. Once in the midst of the busy marketplace of Hobbiton, the cart was forced to stop on several occasions, allowing Merry a good look in the back of the wagon. He saw only long sticks, no sign of Pippin. Each time the cart slowed the hobbits grew bolder, and they finally had enough courage to come up to the cart close enough to touch. There was still no sign of Pippin.
Suddenly, the sticks began to move and hopes rose. But, what emerged from the pile of sticks was not another hobbit, but the biggest toad they had ever seen. It looked right at their paralyzed faces, croaked once, then hopped off the back of the cart and down towards the river.
Frodo, Merry and Sam stood there, while the rest of Hobbiton bustled about them, their prey for so many miles disappearing around the bend in the road.
"He turned Pippin into a toad," Sam said, fright tingeing his voice, "Pippin into a toad."
Whether this old grey man was Gandalf or not, Frodo's fun in this grand chase ended when the toad had appeared. Not given to flights of fancy, Frodo was finding it hard not to believe that Pippin was now hopping towards the water. The old wizard, for surely he was one, had turned his friend into that ugly mottled green thing, and was now headed out of town. Absently he wonder why. There wasn't much out that way, the Party Field, Bagshot Row, and... "Bilbo!" he shouted and ran off like an arrow fired from an elven bow to Bag End.
Despite his sore body, Sam ran after his friend with Merry right behind.
The old man was just reaching for the front door when the hobbits arrived at Bag End. "Wizard," Frodo called out, as he jumped the gate and stood confronting him, "What's your business here?" As if for moral support, Merry and Sam stood shoulder to shoulder with their friend.
The old man turned to gaze at his accuser. "And who are you to ask me?"
Drawing himself up to his full height of 3', he lied, " I am master here and I demand to know your intentions."
The old wizard's eyes danced. "Demand? Those are harsh words for one so young, Frodo Baggins."
Sam was taken aback. "How does he know your name?" he said aside to Frodo.
But, Sam was ignored. "My age has nothing to do with it."
"Only the young would believe that, Frodo."
"How does he know your name?" Sam repeated.
Having enough of this small talk, Merry pushed Frodo to the side and confronted the wizard himself. "Where's Pippin?"
A hard glance fixed on Merry. "Peregrin Took is exactly where I left him."
"A toad!" Merry pulled apples out of his pockets, ones that he had managed to lift in their short time in the marketplace, and hefted at one the old man. He deftly stepped out of the way and the apple hit harmlessly against Bag End's front door.
"He knew your name, Frodo," Sam said, unable to get that out of his head.
Seeing Merry's shot miss, Frodo, than Sam, each grabbed one of the remaining apples. "This is for Pippin, you nasty old wizard!" Merry shouted again. All three apples were thrown simultaneously.
Two things happened just then, both unexpected.
Having heard what sounded like a knock, Bilbo opened the front door. Two of the apples missed wide, splatting against the far wall of the entryway. But, the third, thrown by Frodo, hit Bilbo smack in the head.
The second unlooked for event was a cheery voice appearing behind the trio of hobbits. "Why're you pelting Mr. Bilbo with apples?"
Merry jumped back, Frodo straight into the wizard's arms and Sam, well, he went sideways into his Gaffer's prize rose bush.
"Will someone tell me what is going on?" Bilbo stood unsteadily in his doorway, pieces of apple hanging in his hair.
Merry and Sam were too busy staring at a transformed Pippin to answer. "We thought you were a toad," Sam said, unaware for the moment of the thorns all around.
A deep, throaty laugh filled the garden at Bag End. The old wizard threw his head back, enjoying the joke he didn't even know he had played on the four young hobbits.
"I don't see what's so funny, Gandalf," Bilbo said, irritated, "I hear someone knock and the next thing I'm dodging fruit."
Frodo looked up. "Gandalf?" Bilbo's stories were true. Here before him was the one and only Gandalf. The one who had saved his uncle from the trolls, the communioner with elves, and a friend to the giant eagles. He was Real! "Gandalf!" Without thinking, Frodo threw his arms around the old wizard, hugging tightly. And the hug was returned with warmth.
"Gandalf, meet Frodo."
Setting the young hobbit on his feet, Gandalf held out his hand. "Nice to meet you, Frodo Baggins." Then he added with a mischievous grin, "But I became acquainted with Frodo while we traveled on the road here."
"He knew his name!" Sam said, mostly to himself as he struggled against the rose bush. His Gaffer would have his hide after all, for ruining his roses. Sam didn't think he would believe an excuse about a wizard, a toad and flying apples.
"You knew we were there?" Frodo asked incredulously. And they had been so quiet!
"Every step," Gandalf answered, picking a bit of apple out of Bilbo's hair.
Merry still did not understand. "Pip, how did you get out...?"
"Snuck out when the cart stopped," he said, very pleased with himself. The Took luck holds again! "I was chasing you all the way here."
"But, the toad," Sam piped up from his rose bush, "We saw the toad."
Narrowing his eyes, Gandalf leaned in close to him and spoke in a conspiratorial tone. "Peregrin Took was not the only traveler I picked up on the road, Samwise Gamgee."
Sam shrunk further back despite the thorns.
A loud "Humph!" caused everyone to turn. A Proudfoot was standing in the road, glaring at them, his face declaring them all disturbers of the peace. Bilbo saw the need to try and protect what little dignity he had left, and began to gather everyone inside. Aside to the wizard, he whispered, "Seems you have further tarnished my reputation, old friend."
"Now, how could I do that? I'm a simple old man," and the wizard's eyes twinkled.
Yeah, thought Sam as it took both Merry and Pippin to pull him out of the rose bush, a simple old man who turns travelers into unnatural things.
Once inside, all enjoyed tea, made by Frodo, and Bilbo and Sam nursed their wounds. Gandalf began to tell his side of the Battle of the Five Armies with a few interjections by Bilbo, for clarification purposes only. It wasn't until the full moon had replaced the sun in Hobbiton's sky that someone reminded Frodo that he had never reached Buckland and the Brandywine. Frodo didn't care anymore. Bilbo's stories had come to life and were now sitting at Bag End playing checkers with Merry and winning. And, if Gandalf was real, all those other creatures in his uncle's stories must be out there somewhere, beyond the Brandywine, which all of a sudden seemed dull by comparison. They called to him, those new adventures, yet something held him back.
Standing at the front window, Frodo gazed out across the Shire. Under the moon's glow, all of Hobbiton sparkled. He doubted that even the elves could match its beauty. Behind him was Sam, covered with little white bandages, pouring over the latest book from Bilbo, who sat with Pippin in contended silence enjoying an after dinner smoke, who in turn was beside Merry, and he had just lost another game to Gandalf. Friends and family engaging in the everyday motions of life. This is where his heart lay. Not fighting spiders or chasing dragons. He was not ready, he knew that, to step out on the road that could take him anywhere. The Shire was still too much within him to leave it. The trolls and singing elves would have to wait for another day.
Feeling eyes upon him, Frodo turned to find Sam's gaze. The other hobbit just looked at Frodo, a slight smile dancing on his lips. It was as if Sam could tell what Frodo had been thinking. Whenever you're ready, Mr. Frodo, Sam's eyes seemed to say, I'll be ready to go, too.
Frodo returned his friend's smile, thinking, Not now, but soon. In the future Frodo knew the road would take them both, ever on, out there to meet the strange and unnatural things in the great places of Middle Earth.
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