Just before dawn, Merry woke up, the call of too many flagons dispelling any hope of rolling over and going back to sleep. Silently, for he did not want to wake his still sleeping friends, he stole out of their camp and went in search of an appropriate spot. Not too far off he found a likely tree, and set about to do what he had come for.
His head hurt unmercifully this morning. Rubbing his forehead, and finding the big knot, he remembered why. Chuckling, he recalled the expressions of Sam and Frodo as Pip dropped from the tree. Never forget that, he thought.
His business finished, he was just about ready to turn back towards camp when he heard voices. Knowing they were not his friends, (he would have recognized them), he went to investigate. Probably someone lost their way. He was not prepared for what he saw as he peeked through the undergrowth.
An old man with a grey pointy hat sat on a log talking with a man. Couldn’t see the man’s face, but his bedraggled clothes and the huge sword that hung at his side meant that they were not talking about having tea.
Slipping back the way he had come, Merry hurried to camp as quietly as he could. Frodo and Sam were up working on the fire and Pip was still asleep, snoring.
“Where’ve you been?” Frodo asked as he laid more kindling on the fire, “Not like you to skip out before breakfast.”
“We’ve got trouble.”
Sam stiffened. “Trouble?” He had been anticipating this. Whenever there’s a Brandybuck and Took about, trouble was sure to follow.
Merry swallowed hard. “Big people in the Shire.”
Pippin woke up and Sam grabbed his frying pan.
Merry didn’t speak, just pointed. All four were motionless, thinking of the implications of Merry’s news. They had heard the tales of Big People from the old hobbits. Told around hearths, the stories spoke of people who towered over all hobbits, with big hands that always carried swords meant for only one thing. Every young hobbit was warned to avoid Big People at all costs, for they only brought danger.
As if of one mind, they moved at the same time, running past Merry, leaving him to warn against their loud footfalls.
The Big People were still there, still talking. The hobbits hid behind two trees: Frodo and Sam, Merry and Pippin. Too amazed to speak, they just stood there gazing at the two men.
The old one was nearest them. His face was craggy with a big nose planted in the middle of it. All was surrounded by a bushy beard that was grey like his cloak. It spread out around him and, even though he was sitting on a log, he was still the tallest person the four hobbits had ever seen. He was talking animatedly to the other man, the one with the huge sword. He was cloaked also, his hood obscuring his face. By their ease of conversation, it was obvious they were friendly, but that did nothing to allay the fear of discovering Big People in the Shire.
“I’m taking a closer look,” Pippin announced before darting away from Merry and their hiding place. He was gone so quickly that Merry did not have the time to even whisper a warning. There was nothing to do. The three huddled behind their trees while Pippin crossed the distance to certain doom.
For all his care to move with stealth, Pippin must have made one noise too many, for the Big People turned suddenly and looked directly at where the hobbits were crouched. They ducked behind the trees, just waiting to be discovered. Merry found a large stick and held it out, ready to strike as Sam gripped his pan, knuckles white. They waited.
From Pippin’s vantage point he watched the Big People tensely search the surrounding woods with their eyes. The old man’s gaze held on a large stand of birch trees, right where his friends were hiding. He hunkered down ready to spring his attack should either make a move in that direction. But, then the strangest thing happened: the old man’s face broke into a grin. He stayed the other man’s sword arm, nodding that all was well. The sword was replaced in its sheath, but the man did not look convinced that the danger had passed. Pippin wished he could see that man’s face, but the hood of his cloak hid all.
They spoke a few more hushed words, then the big one with the sword moved off. With one more terse glance back over his shoulder, he left, blending in with the forest. Pippin had caught a glimpse of the man’s hard blue eyes in the light of the newly dawned sun. In them he saw weariness and strength.
Merry could not see Pippin and he grew anxious for his friend’s well being. The old man just stood there nodding his head, smiling and staring right at them. Eventually, he sat down, lit up a pipe and began to blow smoke rings, never taking his eyes off the trees that hid the hobbits.
Frodo looked at that face and something familiar began to tickle at the back of his mind. He had never met the old man, of that he was sure. He would have remembered meeting someone like him. No, it had to be another reason why he seemed to know him. Something somebody had told him, a story maybe. Then it hit him. “Sam,” he whispered, tapping the other hobbit on the head below him.
Sam’s eyes popped open. The waiting had been long, the bed of leaves comfortable and he had dozed off. “What is it, Mr. Frodo?”
Leaning in close to his ear, Frodo said only one word. “Gandalf.”
Sam’s eyes grew even wider. He looked at the old man again. No, it couldn’t be. Those were just Mr. Bilbo’s stories, made bigger to entertain and amuse his listeners. Sam had heard all of Mr. Bilbo’s tales since he was a wee one, and, even though in his heart he had wanted to believe that goblins, trolls and giant eagles existed, his now older head told him they were all make believe. “That’s just a story.”
Frodo jumped at the sound of Merry’s voice over his shoulder. He had gotten bored being behind his tree alone, and thought he could get a better view of where Pippin was hiding over with his friends.
“Bilbo’s wizard,” Frodo said smartly, annoyed at being startled.
“Wizard?” Merry looked at the old man with new eyes.
“He’s not real,” Sam said again, trying more to convince himself than Merry. The old man looked exactly like Mr. Bilbo had described him, including the pointy hat. Just a coincidence?
Pippin, too, had found hiding tiresome and had picked out a new object to focus on. At the far side of the clearing stood the old man’s cart. He just had to see what was inside. Tiptoeing, careful not to rustle the leaves on the forest floor, Pippin circled around behind the old man, who was still sitting there smoking. Directly behind the log now, Pippin took a moment to make a gesture to his hiding friends, then sprinted off to the cart.
“What’s he doing?” Sam whispered harshly. That crazy Took’s going to get us all caught.
The hobbits watched their friend race across the grass and dive into the back of the cart, disappearing. As if he had been waiting for Pippin, the old man slapped his knees and got up. Without one word, he turned, walked back to his cart, tapping out his pipe on the way.
“Oh, no,” the three intoned together.
There was nothing in the cart except long sticks wrapped in colorful paper. Not even any food. Pippin’s stomach growled. They had gone in search of the Big People before breakfast and he was not happy about that. This was turning out to be an unadventure. At that moment, Pip heard someone approaching and, realizing he had no time to escape, burrowed under the sticks in the corner, trying to make himself unseen. All lamentations over missing breakfast vanished when he felt the cart pulling away.
As the old man drove the cart out of the clearing, Merry jumped up intending to rescue his friend. He was jerked down sharply by Frodo.” Wait!”
“We can’t just let him leave with Pip in the cart,” Merry cried as the last sight of the cart disappeared among the trees.
“Even though its three to one, we are still no match for him. He might be a wizard. We must use our heads and size to our advantage.” Waiting what he thought was an adequate time, Frodo bolted out from behind the tree and into the clearing. “We’re going to follow him,” he called back as he ran after the cart. Merry immediately joined him, leaving Sam standing there wondering how a simple trip to Buckland had turned into a chase across the Shire after what could be a wizard and that troublesome Took. “What about our camp?” he shouted at his friend’s retreating backs. But, they did not respond. With thoughts of those mushrooms he would now probably never taste Sam hefted his frying pan and joined in the chase.
We return to the forests again. Our hobbit friend has lost all faith and finds the true meaning of apathy by the end of this chapter. He is taken captive by a band of elves and one human. This chapter suggests that some of his past will be revealed soon.