“Wait, Habby!” the hobbit child cried as she hurried to keep up with the older boys. The lads ignored her cries and tried to match the swift speed of their leader, Habby Bolger. Habby looked back at the young Oblila and rolled his dark brown eyes.
“If you can’t keep up,” he called, “then go back home and learn to cook like any other hobbit lass should so you can feed us when we get home!” Some of the others laughed as they wheezed. Oblila frowned and picked up her pace. She would show the boys she was just as good as them. The group skipped up a green rounded hill and came back down to the other side. Oblila tripped over and root and almost rolled down the hill but managed to catch herself just in time.
Finally the rather thin hobbit leader stopped and waited for the others to reach where he stood. There was about six of them in all and they stood in silence as they tried to recover their breaths. “Habby,” a rather large-footed, even by hobbit standards, ten-year-old turned to the oldest and looked at him with sincere worry in his green eyes. “Why did you lead us here?” The other children looked just as concerned as the one who had spoken. Habby chuckled and turned towards the large looming forest before them. Large trees were crushed together wildly and large limbs hung over the Hedge that guarded Buckland from the life-like trees.
“The Old Forest?” one whispered, his fear apparent in his voice.
“You afraid, Doddy?” The young hobbit shrunk back and did not answer.
“Are you afraid, Oblila?” Habby asked. He had a strange expression on his face, one that Oblila could not identify but it unsettled her nonetheless.
“Me? Afraid of the Old Forest?” She raised her quivering chin up bravely. “No.”
“I bet you are,” a hobbit named Parren said. He grinned at Habby as he understood what he was planning.
“Am not!” she took a step forward and her eyes burned with pride and anger and a glint of fear.
“Prove it.” Habby turned towards the other boys who now watched the scene unfold before them with interest. “Prove that you are not afraid by going into the Old Forest.”
“What? You know we aren’t supposed to pass the Hedge!” Oblila whispered with horror as his suggestion.
“So, you are afraid, aren’t you? Perhaps you should go home.”
“No!” she cried then frowned. She was not sure yet whether she wanted to take this bait but before she could stop herself she burst out: “What do you want me to do?”
“Go into the Old Forest and walk for an hour, then we’ll come and find you.” The other hobbit children looked uneasy and shuffled their feet. Oblila hesitated and stared at the ground in indecision. “Well, aren’t you, or are you?” Habby demanded. Oblila looked towards the trees and gulped hard. Habby rolled his eyes. “Come on, lads, we might as well go, she is as afraid as a chicken.”
The hobbit lass looked up suddenly with determination in her gaze as she stared at Habby icily. “I’m going.” She turned towards the Hedge and quickly waddled up to it. Then with one glance at the hobbits, she passed through and entered the wood.
Habby started to walk back to Brandy Hall. “What are you doing?” Parren asked.
“Going back to Brandy Hall. She’ll follow.” The hobbit children looked at each other guiltily then shrugged as one by one followed Habby back to their home.
“Habby?” She heard leaves rustling nearby. More than two hours had passed from the time she set out into the dangerous Old Forest and there had yet been any sight of her companions. After wandering around for an hour she had sat down and waited patiently, thinking her friends would not be long in arriving where she was. But it was started to grow dark and cold and fear started to set into her about all the stories she had been told about the mysterious wood surrounding Buckland. “Habby, this isn’t fun anymore!” she cried with more volume and persistence. Soft drops of rain drifted and fell between the trees to the forest floor below and several loud creaking sounds permeated the stillness around her. She did not realize until then how eerily quiet it had been. The rain fell more steadily and the groaning increased with intensity. Oblila froze. The trees were moving.
She darted away from the old oak tree she had been sitting under a moment ago and tripped over a root that had just appeared. Her hands and feet slid in the thick slimy mud as she regained her balance clumsily. Her entire body was soaked through with the now pounding rain and her green and yellow dress was caked with mud and damp with water and tears. She pushed her mousy brown hair away from her face and trotted back in the direction she had thought she had come from, only to head for the heart of the deadly Old Forest.
She spent an hour trekking through the Old Forest, tripping over sudden tree roots, ducking wayward branches that always seemed to purposely aim for her sweet face, and trudging through muddy puddles. The state of her situation came to Oblila: she was lost. Exhausted and scared, the young hobbit lass collapsed wearily against a birch tree and hugged and stroked its smooth bark for comfort. Her eyelids began to droop and despite her circumstances, Oblila escaped into the world of deep dreams. Visions of gold hidden deep within a large cave danced before her dreaming eyes. In her dream, she wandered the cave for hours until she came upon a fierce and evil dragon that raised his proud head and breathed fire in her direction.
Oblila awoke suddenly and heard snapping, groaning and rustling above her. The night air was chilled and sharp, and Oblila tucked her shivering knees under her skirt and rested her head on her curled legs. The forest was too dark to see and no moonlight shone through the thick over brush. She leaned back against the tree for warmth and comfort and to her surprise the tree supplied what she needed. The roots pulled themselves out of the wet dirt and wrapped around the hobbit-child in a comforting embrace. Several hundred browning leaves floated softly through the air from above and landed in cushy piles on the child’s body.
A flash of lightning brightened the area and revealed something Oblila did not understand. The surrounding trees were leaning over her and threateningly sticking branches at her, only to be pushed away by her tree. It did not occur to Oblila that the tree was protecting her, but regardless of her fright and confusion the child rested against the birch tree and hugged it once more, only to soon fall into a deep exhausted sleep.
Dawn’s bright rays of sunshine splashed over the beautiful land known as the Shire. Hobbits greeted the day with a filling breakfast and a slow willingness to start on the new day’s chores.
Some of the hobbits did not react so peacefully to the sun. “She has been gone all night,” cried Oblila’s mother. Salma Boffin sat restlessly at the Master Brandybuck’s breakfast table. She was eating little, proving to the Brandybucks that she was truly distraught. Salma Boffin, her maiden name Brandybuck, had knocked on the Brandybuck’s door late last night because her young daughter had not come home.
It was perfectly normal at Brandy Hall for hobbit children to run freely throughout the buildings and surrounding lands, and was always deemed perfectly safe. Once the children came to the age of tweens they would stop their silly games and act more stationary, but no less wild.
Estella Brandybuck offered Mrs. Boffin some tea while Meriadoc Brandybuck, Merry to his friends and family, sent his son Wiladoc, called Willy or Will, to see if Mrs. Boffin’s sister would stay at Oblila’s apartment in case she would return there.
Willy was very worried for his friend, Oblila, for he knew her very well. She liked to go on risky adventures and act very un-hobbit-like sometimes. Willy resembled his father very much in looks and personality. He had tight brown curls and brown eyes that shone remarkably like Merry’s, and was unusually tall for a hobbit his age. His heart-shaped face and mushroom round nose he had acquired from his mother, but in everything else he was a miniature Merry. He had a natural born confidence and purpose and his father taught him to think rationally and clearly. Responsibility for his fellow hobbits and himself was instilled in him at a young age. He was bred to be the next Master of Buckland.
He swiftly twisted through the intricate hallways on the way to his aunt and uncle Brandybucks. Hobbits passed by him and greeted him warmly, to which he smiled in return, and the hobbits headed without a care to their daily activities. Willy bit back a laugh as he watched a frustrated mother chase her willful, partially dressed toddler down the hallway. Willy loved Brandy Hall, its warm wooden structures, its busy and excitable occupants, and its warmth and cheer.
He turned one last corner and knocked on the large, round door. He could hear light footsteps and then the door opened to reveal large feet covered in brown hair. Willy looked up into the happy, good-natured face of his Uncle Berilac.
“Hullo Uncle Berry, is Aunt Hilda inside?”
“Why yes, she is. Would you like to come in?” Willy walked in purposefully and glanced around the spacious hobbit home for his aunt. They weren’t really his aunt and uncle, but Berilac was Willy’s grandfather’s son. Berilac was not much older than Meriodoc, only about fifteen years, and Berry’s children were younger and the same age as Will.
“Willy!” exclaimed a little hobbit of about two years old. Willy looked down into the round face of his little cousin, Celadina. She lifted her pudgy arms, demanding to be picked up and Willy complied and laughed when she kissed his cheek.
“Where is your mama?” he asked the toddler. Celadina frowned, trying to remember when she last saw her, and pointed to the kitchen.
Aunt Hilda was cooking some bacon when Willy entered the kitchen.
“Will, how are you doing? Would you like some nice crispy bacon?” she offered. Hilda knew something was wrong when Will politely declined.
Will saw her worried expression and explained, “Oblila, your niece has gone missing and has been gone all night. My Dad asked if you could stay at Mrs. Boffin’s house, seeing how she might come back and may need someone at home, that’s all.”
“Why, of course, Willy. I’ll go over there at once.” She untied her apron and washed her hands as she continued talking. “That lass is trouble, and no mistake. Begging your pardon, Willy, I know you two are friends, but she is always getting her mama all frantic by running off and causing a ruckus.” Willy nodded, but did not voice his opinion on his friend. Though life was seldom monotonous, Oblila was always around to make life more adventurous and exciting.
“Could you be a dear, and finish this bacon?” she called as she opened the door. Will waved to Hilda and began to flip the bacon in its pan over the fire. His cousin Doderic came into the kitchen.
“Will, what are you doing here?” asked Doderic accusingly.
Willy pulled the pan away from the flame and looked at Doderic in surprise. Doderic had a frown on his round face and his chubby arms were crossed in anger. “Oblila’s gone missing and your mama went to help. What’s that supposed to mean, Doddy?” he said, referring to Doddy’s tone.
The eleven-year-old flushed pink at the mention of Oblila’s name. He refused to meet Will’s eyes. “Nothing. You surprised me, that’s all. And don’t call me Doddy.” His eyes flashed at the mention of his old nickname. Suddenly he looked very vulnerable and he swung his arms and shifted his feet uncomfortably. “Will, can I tell you something?” whispered Doderic.
“What’re you about? You know you can tell me anything,” he said as he placed the bacon over the fire again.
“Oblila’s in the Old Forest.”
Will dropped the pan and opened his eyes wide. “She’s in the Old Forest?”
Doderic nodded and kicked the ground. “Habby and me and a few others led Oblila to the Hedge as a game and dared her to go in there and wait till we found her. We didn’t think she’d actually do it and so we left after she went in and thought she’d follow us. She may be still there, Willy.” Doderic looked up, his face plainly marked with fear for his cousin.
Willy gasped hard and leaned against the table heavily. No one survived the Old Forest if they entered at night. His father had told him how one time he and Uncle Pippin had gotten swallowed by a tree. Oblila could be trapped in a tree! The thought hit him hard and he cried out.
“We have to get to my father, quick!” He grasped Doderic’s arm and pulled him to the Master’s rooms as quickly as his feet could carry him.
“Father!” Willy cried out as he burst through the door. His lungs seemed to be failing him and he bent over, trying to breathe.
Merry’s voice strained over Will’s heavy breathing. “Willy, what is it?”
“Dad, Oblila’s,” he gasped for air, “in the,” he struggled to fill his lungs, “the Old Forest.”
Mrs. Boffin uttered a soft cry and began to sob on Estella’s shoulder. His father’s face looked worn and tight before it transformed into an optimistic and encouraging expression. Slowly Will’s breathing returned back to normal while he pondered his father’s amazing leadership. He could always be filled with hope and make others not worry. That split second before his face changed Will knew that the circumstances were deadly serious. But now, with Merry’s optimism shining like the sun, perhaps it was not so hopeless after all. Will soaked up the rays desperately.
Merry walked around with confidence, instructing his servant to call several hobbits there to create a search party. He made up a quick list while Estella reassured Mrs. Boffin and offered her some tea. The women sat down and drank tea while Estella explained that her husband would find her daughter safe and sound. Estella’s comforting voice soon had an impact on Salma and she stopped weeping.
A strange snuffling sound from the corner reached Will’s large ears. “Doddy?” he called to the shuddering form crouching in the corner. He silently shook himself with the memory that Doddy did not liked to be called by his nickname anymore. But Doddy did not seem to mind. The hobbit lad looked up with tears in his eyes and burst into despairing tears. “‘Tis all my fault!” he cried.
Will sunk down next to him and took his hand, rubbing it in a comforting manner. “She’ll be all right, Doddy, you wait and see.” Will chuckled a little. “Oblila has proven that she can take care of herself. “Remember that one time she climbed the roof shed?” Doddy laughed through his tears. The incident was famous, or rather infamous, among the hobbits. She had climbed the unstable roof of the wooden shed to see if the view was good from up high. Unfortunately the building caved in, but Oblila jumped onto a board and rode it down the in caved wall to the bottom safely. Everyone knew that she could have very well died, and considered it dumb luck that she survived at all. Not that they weren’t impressed though. “The hobbits are still talking about it.”
“Do you think they’ll find her?” Doddy asked seriously.
“Why, of course! This is my Dad, we’re talking about! He passed through the Old Forest before and he survived, so I know he’ll find Oblila.” Will said confidently. Doddy nodded, swayed by Willy’s certainty. Merry was one of the most respected and famous of hobbits, which was saying a lot. The older hobbits remembered the Battle of Bywater and how Meriodoc the Magnificent and his kinsmen defeated Sharky and saved the Shire. Every year the details grew wilder and more stretched until the rumor was that Merry single-handedly killed a hundred evil men and saved his bride Estella from certain death by the Evil Sharky’s hand. Merry smiled whenever he heard a new twist to the story from his son and told him not to believe everything he heard. A twinkle in his green eyes and the honestly he presented in them when he did tell his son the real story a few years back convinced Will that the real journey his father went on was much more wild and extravagant than any hobbit could come up with.
“Will,” Merry said, “stay here and spread the word around to the neighbors that Oblila is missing and to be on the look out for her.” Willy’s father swung on his favorite cloak, a green one with a beautiful leaf shaped brooch and called to the servants with more orders. Estella kissed him while Willy watched him. He thought him the bravest hobbit in the Shire.
Cheerful warmth played on her cheeks and eyelids. Oblila opened her eyes to see that she was still in the same situation she was yesterday, but the surrounding trees stood threateningly still. The roots that had sheltered her from the night’s cold were still secured around her small chubby body and pulled away slowly when she tried to get up. She didn’t filly understand what had happened last night, but she hugged her tree all the same. “Goodbye tree,” she told it. She realized she was very hungry and had nothing to eat. Her stomach groaned in petition of this emptiness and she looked around in vain for a little bite to eat.
The young hobbit lass walked around her tree for a place that looked like a way out. She, being still young and inexperienced about such things, did not notice the footprints she had left in the drying mud from the rain the day before. Oblila sat down as she tried to subdue her fears.
“Now,” she tried telling herself with all the hobbit sense she possessed, “no need to start crying and feeling sorry for yourself. Mama’s going to be worried; she’ll got some help. Someone will come for me and find me soon. Uncle Merry perhaps. No need to feel sorry for yourself.” But a single wet tear rolled down her cheek.
The company of about fifteen hobbits stood at the Hedge in front of the Old Forest. Some were a little nervous, but most stood calmly prepared for the task of finding the hobbit-child Oblila. It was not an impossible task, but the Old Forest was a terrifying and potentially dangerous place and it was necessary that they be careful. The group divided into groups of three.
“I want all groups to spread out and search as quickly and efficiently as you can. She couldn’t have gone far and we should be able to find her soon. Report back here in about two hours. If you find clues follow them even after two hours have passed. Any questions?” Merry’s voice rang out clear and over the volunteers’ heads. Everyone shook his head to show he did not have any questions, and they groups headed out into the dark green forest.
Merry went with Fatty Bolger and Bonty Proudfoot. They laughed and joked quietly but still kept on task. Merry had a determination apparent in his face, making the others’ hearts not feel so downcast. After an hour of searching the dim forest, Merry stopped suddenly. Bonty, who was walking close behind him in the narrow section between two close clusters of trees, ran into him and stumbled to the point of falling. Merry’s curled head lowered as he examined the ground before him. Fatty leaned over also and his eyes grew wide with excitement. “Could it be?” he asked.
Bonty adjusted his white and green clothes more comfortably and squatted down next to his companions. There, in the mud, were tiny hobbit footprints.
“Yes, it could. It looks too fresh to belong to someone who came before and too small for any of the other searchers.” Merry flashed a grin at Fatty and Bonty and stood up. “Come on. We found clues and we must follow it! I have a feeling we are going to find a hobbit lass today!” He whistled a tune to a familiar hobbit song and soon the other two hobbits joined in merrily as they followed the footprints deeper into the forest.
Oblila looked up when she heard haunting voices coming from behind her. She gasped and stood up quickly and looked around. The trees were groaning with the sudden burst of wind and leaning so precariously Oblila was not sure if was safe to move from her spot in fear of being hit by the swaying limbs. The melody continued despite the sudden whispers of wind. Feathers of air puffed around the hobbit and caused bumps to rise on her skin as a chill settled on the forest. Oblila sat down on the opposite side of the tree where the ghostly song was coming from and curled into a ball for warmth. She was very frightened and sobbed without releasing any tears. She was too frightened to even cry.
The longer Oblila listened the more familiar the song became to her. She was amazed that these sylvan spirits of the Old Forest knew one of her favorite tunes. She caught herself singing a chorus before slapping her hands over her mouth in horror. She must not attract attention and be eaten! It was Oblila’s largest fear at the moment, to be captured by the spectral beings that surely roamed the forest and ate little hobbits. Her mother had told her about them and Oblila had not believed her, thinking it was just stories to frighten her into being good. Her opinion had changed now, however.
The wind blew wilder and the trees danced at its bidding. A pine tree shed its needles and many of them flew and landed where the hobbit child hid. Oblila brushed them off quickly and shook her fist at the tree who only bowed to her in response. The voices drew closer still and wind howled a countermelody with the hobbit song. The voices stopped suddenly. Oblila froze with horror as she could see the ghosts’ shadows cast on the ground. They were right behind her tree. Her brown eyes widened with fear and she tucked her dirty yellow and green dress close to her body in fear the wind would blow it so they would see.
“This is where the footprints stop,” a slightly familiar voice said.
“Do you think the tree swallowed her then?” another asked. Oblila could not help herself. She began to cry again. “What’s that noise? It sounds like a child crying.”
“Oblila!” the first voice called. “Oblila, it’s me, your Uncle Merry!”
“Uncle Merry?” she whispered. Were the spirits tricking her? Oblila looked around the tree to find three adult hobbits. The hobbits saw her and she was soon lifted up into strong arms.
“What are you doing, going out here alone and scaring your mama like that?” Merry chastised gently. Oblila looked down and saw that she was a mess and shivering with relief. She began to cry for no reason at all. Merry hugged her warmly and they set off back towards the Hedge.
“Mr. Proudfoot, Oblila’s gone missing, have you seen her?” Willy asked. He was doing his father’s bidding by going to the neighbors who knew Oblila and might have seen her, or saw her right before her disappearance. There was a chance Doddy could have been mistaken, and it was better for several hobbits to be on the look out for the young hobbit lass.
Mr. Proudfoot frowned at Will. “No, I haven’t seen her. Where has she gone to now? She’s a strange hobbit indeed if she went running off again.” Will thanked him for his time and moved on. Oblila was a strange hobbit; there was no doubt about it. He sighed wearily and moved on to the next wooden door.
“Will!” a voice called him from down the corridor. “Will, you won’t believe it! Your father found Oblila in the Old Forest, and now they are coming up to the house.”
Will raced around the familiar corridors of the Brandy Hall towards the back way which faced the Old Forest. A crowd of curious hobbits started to gather around the entry way, watching the group of hobbits walking at a moderate pace. Willy saw the bundle in his father’s arms stir, and he leaped up and cheered for the rescue squad of his friend Oblila. She was safe, and she was home, and all was right was right in the Shire again.
But Willy could not help wonder about the strangeness of Oblila, and also the disappointment that he felt that she had the adventure and he did not. Was he never to experience a journey like his father? Were the disappearance and recovery of one small hobbit child as exciting as life here was to become? Willy swiftly put his wondering heart to rest as he greeted Merry, Oblila and the searching crew, and knew that this life, including the lack of danger and adventure, was as good as he wanted it to be.