The South Downs gave way to the hills of Bree-land, and for the first time since we left Rohan, as we rode through the day, we saw homes and farms, all the signs of cheerful domesticity. Mindful of the possibility that others might have been told of a reward, we kept to ourselves as best we could, but time and again some farmer would call out a merry greeting as we rode past. The Greenway here was traveled occasionally and we stepped aside for a waggon twice during the day, one heading north to Bree laden with an early harvest to be sold, and another returning nearly empty.
It was nearing midday when we saw our first hobbit, or actually five of them. Radolf and Darrien hadn’t even heard of such beings, but Shadryn and I had read fanciful tales of their short and rounded stature that, to our surprise, turned out to understate the matter. Here in Bree-land, the hobbits mingled freely with the “tall-folk,” as they called us; many kept farms, and it was such a family tending their fields that we first spied, mistaking them for children, until we saw their children playing amongst the chickens, and realized the others had been the parents. The father waved to us and called out a cheery greeting, but the mother scowled, and called her children into the house.
It took a few moments for me to determine what had been alarming about us. At first I imagined it was that we were armed and armored, but we had seen other travelers similarly equipped. When it finally dawned on me, I shook my head at how obvious it was. Over the last month I had gotten so accustomed to being in the company of a bog-lurker, I had forgotten what an odd, and frightening, sight it was.
By now it was taller than any of us, at least when it strode fully upright; it was just as likely to be stretched out longer than a waggon and its oxen along the road. It was sure to elicit stares from the calmest folks, and perhaps worse. “My Lady,” I started hesitantly, expecting her to be displeased by anything I might say about it. She turned and cocked her head towards me, her hair gliding over her shoulder, but she said nothing. “It occurs to me that Mushiebottom is likely to be unwelcome in the city, and indeed, if people see us traveling with it, we may share that unwelcome.”
She nodded pensively. “I’ve been thinking on the same matter,” she said quietly. “I think I will be able to persuade Mushie to stay on his own somewhere nearby, assuming we can find a boggy area not too far from Bree, and I’m able to visit with him regularly.” She gave me a challenging look. “After we’re settled in town, it won’t be a problem for me to go riding each day, and pay him a visit, will it?”
The idea of calling it “him” rankled me for reasons I couldn’t put my finger on, but Shadryn didn’t even notice herself doing it, and it hardly seemed worth making a fuss over. She’d been doing so almost since it had been given a name. I shrugged off the thought and turned to her question. “Certainly not, my Lady, so long as you bring one of us with you.”
“Even here?” she said, her eyes flashing with ire. “I thought the intent of coming to Bree was that I would be safe.”
“And yet just yesternight we learned of someone offering a reward for your capture,” I answered, which made her grow quiet. I did not go to mentioning how my orders, all those months ago, had been clear about the need for her to be guarded even in Bree; that would only make her cross, and the reward would serve just as well to convince her of the need for care. “We will not deprive you of your chance to ride, if you will allow us the pleasure of sharing that ride, my Lady.”
She made a low “hmph” and shrugged, then turned to Mushiebottom and whistled. The beast lumbered toward her and crouched so she could pat what I couldn’t help thinking of as its head, though it scarcely resembled a head any more than a body. She whispered to it at some length, while the soldiers and I milled about, waiting. At last, the bog-lurker turned and galloped into the east, soon passing out of sight in a copse of trees. “There’s a pond nearby, with turtles,” she said, leaving me to wonder how she might know such a thing. “He’ll be able to keep to himself there for now until I have time to find a better place, more sheltered, more boggy.” And with that she spurred her horse into motion once more.