See here for the play report upon which this narrative is based.
“I have made up my mind,” Frodo said finally. He sat by the hearth of his house in Crickhollow. Around him sat and stood his friends and companions who had allied themselves with him to escape the Shire. Hobbits, elves and dwarves all crowded into the small house, leaving someone by the window at all times to keep watch for the Black Riders’ return. There had been no sight or sound of Gildor or Haladon who had stayed behind facing down the Black Riders to allow Frodo to cross over the Brandywine safely. “I am starting tonight, as soon as it is dark. But I am not going by road. If I go through the North-gate my direction will be known at once and the Bridge and the East Road near the borders will certainly be watched. The only thing to do is to go off in a quite unexpected direction.”
“But that can only mean going into the Old Forest!” said Robin Smallburrow horrified. “You can’t be thinking of doing that. It is quite as dangerous as Black Riders.”
“Not quite,” said Merry. “It sounds very desperate, but I believe Frodo is right. It is the only way of getting off without being followed at once. With luck we might get a considerable start.”
“Normally I would agree with you, Robin. But you didn’t see them up close,” whispered Fatty, “When I was little, I was told such stories about goblins and wolves and things of that sort in the Forest. I know they are just old bogey-stories, but stories must have come from somewhere. But those, those things…I’d sooner live for a year in the Forest than face them again.”
Frodo turned to Findol, the elf from Lindon who led his kin in Gildor’s absence, “What say you? Will you come with us through the Old Forest?”
Findol frowned, “I will neither counsel for nor against this path, for there are both virtues and dangers involved. I cannot speak for my kin, but as your mind is decided, for myself I shall go with you.”
On hearing this, the other elves murmured their own agreements to continue on with Frodo.
“Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens,” growled Bofur. “Dori and I shall go on with you.”
“It seems my lad our course is set. We await your word to depart,” said Bilbo from the corner, his face lit up by the glow of Old Tobey.
Frodo nodded slowly, “For now, I think we should get some rest while we can. Be ready to leave at sundown, all who will come.”
Frodo was napping in his chair by the fire when Merry shook his shoulder, “It is time to get up. It is half past four and very foggy. Come on! Sam has gotten some food ready for everyone before we leave. Even Pippin is awake. I am just going to saddle Bill. Wake that sluggard Fatty if he still wishes to come with us.”
Rubbing sleep out of his eyes, Frodo rose and wandered through to the dining room. Laid out on the table seemed to be the entirety of his pantry; breads, cold meats and cheeses, boiled and poached eggs, bacon and sausages fresh off the pan, newly-harvested and boiled carrots and potatoes, a haunch of cooling mutton, cakes and scones, butter and jam, honey-cakes offered by the Dwarves and wafting from the back of the room came the smell of fresh mushrooms to Frodo’s nose. Overcome by a sudden hunger, Frodo sat down at the table and joined everyone in eating their fill.
“Tell me Sam,” asked Pippin between mouthfuls, “did you get any sleep at all?”
“I’m not one for sleeping during the daylight, and I thought it best we all had as full stomachs as we can before heading off,” said Sam as he placed a jug of ale on the table. “Our packs all have food in them as should keep for a week or so, at least as much as we can carry, and Bill has more. This is nearly all the rest here. Wouldn’t be proper to let any go to waste whilst we’re away, see.”
Dori raised his mug to the hobbit, “That is sound thinking, Master Gamgee, sound thinking indeed!”
Findol and his kin were persuaded to join them, and before long the house was filled with the sounds and smells of good company made better by good food. But eventually the food was finished, the drink ran dry and the dishes were cleared. The company began their final preparations to depart, each checking and double-checking they had all they needed, or thought they might.
Robin Smallburrow and Rosie Cotton were to stay in Crickhollow to keep up the pretense of Frodo having stayed there by leaving lights in the windows and smoke in the chimney, but were to flee to Brandy Hall at the first sign of the Black Riders’ return. Tom Cotton was resolved to see Frodo to Bree, else he wouldn’t be able to face the Old Gaffer knowing he had let Mr Baggins just wander into the Old Forest with his son.
The company stole quietly out the back of the house, looking a peculiar troop to any who might be observing them as half a dozen hobbits were accompanied by another four or five elves and a pair of dwarves. Merry and Sam went in front leading a laden Bill, and took their way along a path that went through a spinney behind the house, and then cut across several fields. The grass was grey with cold dew left by the fog still wrapped around them. Everything was still. After walking for about an hour, they saw the Hedge looming suddenly ahead. “How are we going to get through this?” asked Fredegar.
“Follow me!” said Merry, “and you will see.” He turned to the left along the Hedge, and soon they came to a point where it bent inwards. A cutting had been made and went sloping gently down into the ground. It formed a tunnel that dived deep under the Hedge and came out in the hollow on the other side. Pulling their cloaks around them, the company took a breath and plunged into the tunnel, leaving the Shire out of sight.
At the far end of the tunnel, the path was closed by a gate of thick-set iron bars. Merry got down and unlocked the gate, and when they had all passed through he pushed it to again. It shut with a clang.
“There!” said Merry. “You have left the Shire, and are now outside, and on the edge of the Old Forest.”
The company now left the tunnel-gate and rode across the wide hollow. On the far side was a faint path leading up on to the floor of the Forest; but it vanished as soon as it brought them under the trees. Looking back they could see the dark line of the Hedge silhouetted against the sunset sky through the stems of trees that were already thick about them. Looking ahead they could see only tree-trunks of innumerable sizes and shapes: straight or bent, twisted, leaning, squat or slender, smooth or gnarled and branched; and all the stems were green or grey with moss and slimy, shaggy growths.
“Look here!” called Tom Cotton suddenly, “On this tree-trunk, it looks like someone’s gone and carved something here.”
“It looks like an elf-rune, wouldn’t you say Master Findol?” asked Bilbo as he peered at it.
“Indeed, though it was not left by an elf. The shaping of it is crude, like someone who is new to the lettering,” Findol suggested, tracing the rune with his fingers. “However its meaning is plain. It warns us of the trees, that they are not kind to intruders. But see, they have left something.” Reaching down into the undergrowth at the foot of the tree, the elf pulled out a satchel and examined its contents.
“The riddle becomes clearer. These are provisions and supplies of the manner used by the Dunedain. It would seem at least one of their number has been here recently, for the food is not yet spoiled.”
“Do you think it might be Haladon?” asked Merry.
“It is impossible to say, but whomever they are must have known we might come this way, else why leave us this warning.”
“We shall keep an eye open for them then, but we must not be deterred from our course. You had better find that path,” Frodo said to Merry. “We cannot linger here overlong. Don’t let us lose one another, or forget which way the Hedge lies!”
They picked a way among the trees, carefully avoiding the many writhing and interlacing roots. The ground was rising steadily, and as they went forward it seemed that the trees became taller, darker, and thicker. For the moment there was no whispering or movement among the branches; but they all got an uncomfortable feeling that they were being watched with disapproval, deepening to dislike and even enmity.
There was not as yet any sign of a path, and the trees seemed constantly to bar their way. Dori suddenly let out a shout. “Oi! Oi!” he cried. “Just let me pass through, will you!”
The others halted startled; but the cry fell as if muffled by a heavy curtain.The wood seemed to become more crowded and more watchful than before.
“I should not shout, if I were you,” said Findol. “It does more harm than good.”
“Pray, forgive me,” answered the dwarf, “This wood reminds me all too keenly of our own journey through the Mirkwood, and the enchantments that fell upon those who wandered there.”
“There is no need for forgiveness, my friend. I too have that feeling of recognition now we have passed the Hedge,” said Bilbo. “But it cannot be helped, we must go on.”
Merry led them, followed by Findol, and further into the trees they went until when they looked up they could no longer see the sky above them.
“It is no use,” cried Sam as he held his foot. “That is the third root, the third that I have stubbed my toe off. I am going to light a brand or two so as we can actually see where it is we are.”
Merry looked up and failed to see any stars. “Very well, but be careful with them. A fire in the woods would serve no-one.”
Soon there were three or four torches strung out across the company, and even the elves with their sharp eyes felt the benefit of them. They were still climbing gently, but they now went much quicker, and with better heart. But soon the air grew hot and stuffy. The trees drew close again on either side, and they could no longer see far ahead. Now stronger than ever they felt again the ill will of the wood pressing on them. So silent was it that the fall of their feet, rustling on dead leaves and occasionally stumbling on hidden roots, seemed to thud in their ears. Frodo tried to sing a song to encourage them, but his voice sank to a murmur.
O! Wanderers in the shadowed land
despair not! For though dark they stand,
all woods there be must end at last,
and see the open sun go past:
the setting sun, the rising sun,
the day’s end, or the day begun.
For east or west all woods must fail…
Even as he said the last word his voice faded into silence. The air seemed heavy and the making of words wearisome. The trees seemed to close in before them closer than ever.
“They do not like all that about ending and failing,” said Bilbo. “I should not sing any more at present. Wait till we do get to the edge, and then we’ll turn and give them a rousing chorus!” He spoke cheerfully, and if he felt any great anxiety, he did not show it. The others did not answer. Even the elves seemed depressed and subdued.
A heavy weight was settling steadily on Frodo’s heart, and he regretted now with every step forward that he had ever thought of challenging the menace of the trees. He was just about to stop and propose going back when the dark trees drew aside, and ahead they could see the path going almost straight forward. Before them, but some distance off, there stood a wide green hill-top, treeless, rising like a bald head out of the encircling wood. The path seemed to be making directly for it.
They now hurried forward again, delighted with the thought of climbing out for a while above the roof of the Forest. The path dipped into a small gulley, and then again began to climb upwards, leading them at last to the foot of the steep hillside. There it left the trees and faded into the turf. The wood stood all round the hill like thick hair that ended sharply in a circle round a shaven crown. The company scrambled up the sides of the hill until they reached the top, with Sam leading Bill up in circles going round and up the hill. There they stood and gazed about them. The air was crisp and starlit, and the elves laughed and sang to see them again, though they could not see any great distance as the woods seemed to swallow up the light.
“We ought to rest here for the night, that we may see our way better in the morning,” said Merry. The company quickly unburdened themselves and laid themselves down on the grass. Before long, Sam and Fatty had a small fire going and were soon passing round toasted ham sandwiches. Frodo sat with his back to his pack and drew out his pipe, contenting himself with the comforting glow and silken smoke rising from it. He was just drifting off to sleep when a shadowy figure rose onto the top of the hill.
Drawing his long knife, Findol called out “Who goes there? Be you friend or foe?” The company scrambled to their feet and turned to face the new arrival. Merry pulled out his blade and ran to join the elf.
“Peace, I am a friend.” Drawing back his hood, Haladon went over to them and clasped Merry’s hand. “Hail and well-met Master Brandybuck, and to you Luthien, it is good to see you again. I had hoped to catch you by the gate of the Hedge, but found no sign of your passing. Did you find my mark there?”
“We did indeed, Master Dunedain,” returned the hobbit. “We hoped beyond hope you had survived the Black Riders but did not look to find you here. How did you escape? Is Gildor with you?”
“I will answer all your question, but first I must ask to warm myself and take some food. That forest seems to have an enchantment over it to sap the energy of those who travel under its boughs. I was close to exhaustion when I saw a light on this hill and made my path here.”
Gratefully accepting a sandwich, the ranger sat beside the campfire, warming his hands by it. “We had an unexpected ally by the Ferry, it seems. As you left, the Nazgul were closing in on us on their infernal steeds. Suddenly they found themselves unhorsed as a hidden archer struck them down from the shadows, casting their riders down onto the road. Gildor and I seized upon their confusion and attacked the closest, who had just freed himself from his own fallen mount.”
Merry nodded as he remembered the wet thuds of a sword cutting into the horses flesh. “Did you see the archer? Is he with you?”
“We did not, nor would we have escaped if he had done. The Ringwraiths who had been unhorsed turned to search for their assailant in the trees, allowing me and Gildor to drive back our opponent away from the river. As his allies turned from their search, Gildor and I pushed back our foe and fled into the waters of the Brandywine. The current seperated us, and I know not where he came to rest. I think he was not taken by the river, for I was swept away faster than he. His stroke must have been stronger than mine for I did not see him pass after I pulled myself out on the eastern bank, though I looked for him. I had hoped he might have rejoined with you.”
“We have seen no sign of him, though we too have looked for him,” said Frodo, “yet we are glad of this news. It seems there may be some hope of his survival.”
“I should say so, my lad.” Bilbo put his hand on Frodo’s shoulder. “Elves are a great deal more at home in the water than hobbits, and the Brandywine is not a fierce river. I’d wager we shall see him again.”
“I hope you are right uncle, but for now we need to rest. We shall continue on when it is light.” With that, Frodo made his way back to his pack and was asleep as soon as his head lay upon the ground.
“That,” said Merry, pointing with his hand, “that is the line of the Withywindle. It comes down out of the Downs and flows south-west through the midst of the Forest to join the Brandywine below Haysend. We don’t want to go that way! The Withywindle valley is said to be the queerest part of the whole wood – the centre from which all the queerness comes, as it were.”
Near at hand the mist was now almost gone; though here and there it lay in hollows of the wood, and to the south of them, out of a deep fold cutting right across the Forest, the fog still rose like steam or wisps of white smoke.
“What do you mean, queer? Are the stories about the forest true then?” asked Pippin.
“If you mean the stories Fatty was talking about in Crickhollow, I should say no. But the Forest is queer. Everything in it is very much more alive, as we saw yesterday, they are more aware of what is going on than things are in the Shire. And the trees do not like strangers. They are usually content merely to watch you and don’t do much. Occasionally the most unfriendly ones may drop a branch, or stick a root out. But it is night things can be most alarming. I didn’t want to say anything last night for fear of causing distress, but I thought all the trees were whispering to each other, passing news and plots along in an unintelligible language; and the branches swayed and groped without any wind. They do say the trees do actually move, and can surround strangers and hem them in.”
“Then let us not stay long enough to risk another night here,” advised Haladon, “let us be off.”
The path that had brought them to the hill reappeared on the northward side; but they had not followed it far before they became aware that it was bending steadily to the right. Soon it began to descend rapidly and they guessed that it must actually be heading towards the Withywindle valley: not at all the direction they wished to take. After some discussion they decided to leave this misleading path and strike northward; for although they had not been able to see it from the hill, the Road must lie that way, and it could not be many miles off. Also northward, and to the left of the path, the land seemed to be drier and more open, climbing up to slopes where the trees were thinner, and pines and firs replaced the oaks and ashes and other strange and nameless trees of the denser wood.
At first their choice seemed to be good: they got along at a fair speed, though whenever they got a glimpse of the sun in an open glade they seemed unaccountably to have veered eastwards. But after a time the trees began to close in again, just where they had appeared from a distance to be thinner and less tangled. After an hour or two they had lost all clear sense of direction, though they knew well enough that they had long ceased to go northward at all. They were being headed off, and were simply following a course chosen for them – eastwards and southwards, into the heart of the Forest and not out of it.
The morning was wearing away when they discovered a deep fold in the ground lay across their path unexpectedly, like the rut of a great giant-wheel, full and choked with brambles. It seemed to lie right across their line of march, and could only be crossed by scrambling down and out again, which was troublesome and difficult with their heavy packs.
Climbing down into it, the company was soon under assault by a swarm of flies and midges who had been resting in the cool gulley, but soon busied themselves biting and whining about their ears. Driven to distraction, Bofur and Tom Cotton found themselves snagged on the brambles and long trailers hanging down as they tried to swat the insects away. As though sensing their vulnerability, the flies seemed to gather around the trapped pair and increased their torments.
Snarling in frustration, Sam knelt as he lit his torch, waving it in front of his face to ward off the torturous insects. Many of them were not fast enough and flared out of existence as the flames licked at them. The rest of the company either lit torches of their own or set about trying to free their beleaguered friends. Hacking away at the brambles with knives and hatchets eventually the pair were freed, though not without more than their fair share of bites and scratches.
Dusting themselves down, the company found they could not climb out the other side as it was too steep and slick with leaves and loose earth. They were not able to climb out until they had travelled some way down it, and only on the right side for the left was blocked off by a wall of trees barring their progress. After they escaped the fold, they had to follow it back until they found the path again.
“Does anyone have any idea where we are?” asked Pippin once they had rejoined the path. “Or better yet, which was we ought to be going in?”
“This forest is old,” said one of the elves of Findol’s company, “Older than any I have seen, and I have walked under the eaves of Mirkwood in years past. There is a sickness on it, it seems. A malevolence that is guiding its will. Much wrong has been the cause of it, I feel, but also much wrong has been done to it. We can not find our way out, it seems, only follow whatever path it has set out for us. If these trees shift, and I believe they may, then that there is a path at all means we are not to die lost in these trees but rather we are to follow it. What lies at the end of the path, I cannot say.”
Haladon nodded, “Perhaps you are right Henamarth. Wherever this forest means for us to go, there seems to be no escaping it. Frodo I would suggest we follow this path until we can find a way out of here.”
“Very well, we shall continue on this path for now. But the moment we see a means of escape we shall take it immediately.” Adjusting his pack, Frodo starting back on the path, followed closely by Sam and Merry.
As they went on, the company came across more and more of these folds, with no means of going around to the left and north of them. Each time they clambered out, the trees seemed deeper and darker; and always to the left it was most difficult to find a way, and they were forced to the right and downwards.
“This is hopeless,” cried Pippin suddenly. “We shall forever be wandering in this accursed forest, lost and disorientated until the sun fails and the sea swallows up all of Middle-Earth.”
Frodo began to wonder if it were possible to find a way through, and if he had been right to make the others come into this abominable wood. Merry was looking from side to side, and seemed uncertain about the path ahead. All the trees were beginning to blur together and Frodo was pondering whether they were actually making any progress at all or if the forest was merely leading them round in circles and toying with them as a cat might with its mouse.
The noonday sun was high above them when they scrambled and stumbled into a fold that was wider and deeper than any they had yet met. The company began to attempt to scale the opposite wall as Henamarth spotted a boot sticking out of a bank of leaves. When a cursory investigation led them to discover the boot was on someone’s leg, the company quickly shovelled aside great handfuls of leaves to uncover whomever was lying in the undergrowth. Before long, an elf lay before them, dirty and dishevelled and with a great gnarly root lying over his torso.
“It’s Gildor!” yelled Frodo, “Quick, get him out from under that root.”
Haladon and Findol each grabbed a leg and slid him out from the root’s grasp, but the elf made no movement to betray whether or not he even registered the motion.
“He’s not responding,” said Findol as he examined his lord, “but I see no sign of injury or wound.” He poured some water on Gildor’s face from Luthiel’s offered flask, but the unconscious elf did not stir.
“He must be under some manner of enchantment. It’s this forest I tell you. We needs must escape at once,” Dori was getting frantic. “I can hear them Bofur, I can hear the spiders getting closer. Soon we shall see their webs in the trees above us, and their foul stench will assault our nostrils.”
“Hush now Dori, we’ve nothing to fear from spiders in this forest. Nor any other beast I think,” muttered Bofur. “Come to think of it, I haven’t either seen sight or heard sound of any beast larger than a fly other than ourselves since we’ve past the hedge.”
“Yes, flies. Only flies in this forest. What does that make us? Just flies for the spiders above, and those below?” Dori’s word became faster and quieter, as though if no-one could hear his words they would not be true.
“Hush now,” Bofur soothed his friend, “What of you, master elves? Have your quick ears heard any passing of creature?”
“Save the insects flying about our heads, no sign has come to me of anything. No deer, no squirrels, not even any birds,” confirmed Luthiel as her face paled with the realisation. “There is a sickness Henamarth, you are right. But not of the physical realm. The air itself now seems to me tainted and sweetly foul. Every hour we delay, our peril grows. I fear that were it not for our night above the forest in the clear air, our fate would be the same as Gildor’s, left for the forest to do with as it will.”
“Then let us go now,” said Frodo. “Put Gildor over Bill, we cannot delay for him to come round. Stow your packs, tighten your belts. We must make haste.”
With a fresh resolve the company pressed on. The fold they were in was so steep and overhung that it proved impossible to climb out of it again, either forwards or backwards, without leaving Bill and their all baggage behind. All they could do was to follow the fold – downwards. The ground grew soft, and in places boggy; springs appeared in the banks, and soon they found themselves following a brook that trickled and babbled through a weedy bed. Then the ground began to fall rapidly, and the brook growing strong and noisy, flowed and leaped swiftly downhill. They were in a deep dim-lit gully over-arched by trees high above them.
After stumbling along for some way along the stream, they came quite suddenly out of the gloom. As if through a gate they saw the sunlight before them. Coming to the opening they found that they had made their way down through a cleft in a high steep bank, almost a cliff. At its feet was a wide space of grass and reeds; and in the distance could be glimpsed another bank almost as steep. A golden afternoon of sunshine lay warm and drowsy upon the hidden land between. In the midst of it there wound lazily a dark river of brown water, bordered with ancient willows, arched over with willows, blocked with fallen willows, and flecked with thousands of faded willow-leaves. The air was thick with them, fluttering yellow from the branches; for there was a warm and gentle breeze blowing softly in the valley, and the reeds were rustling, and the willow-boughs were creaking.
“Well, now I have at least some notion of where we are!” said Merry, almost with relief at having his bearings returned to him. “We have come almost in the opposite direction to which we intended. This is the River Withywindle! Look there, there seems to be something like a footpath winding along on this side of the river. If we turn left and follow it, we shall be bound to come out on the east side of the Forest eventually.”
There being nothing else for it and fuelled by desperation, they filed out, and Merry led them along the path that he had discovered. Everywhere the reeds and grasses were lush and tall, in places far above their heads; but once found, the path was easy to follow, as it turned and twisted, picking out the sounder ground among the bogs and pools.
The company began to feel very hot with the afternoon sun burning on their backs. At last they came suddenly into a thin shade; great grey branches reached across the path. Each step forward became more reluctant than the last. Sleepiness seemed to be creeping out of the ground and up their legs, and falling softly out of the air upon their heads and eyes.
Frodo felt his chin go down and his head nod. Just in front of him Haladon fell forward on to his knees. Frodo halted. ‘It’s no good,’ he heard Merry saying. ‘Can’t go another step without rest. Must have nap. It’s cool under the willows. Less flies!’ Frodo did not like the sound of this. ‘Come on!’ he cried. ‘We can’t have a nap yet. We must get clear of the Forest first.’ But the others were too far gone to care. Beside them Sam stood yawning and blinking stupidly. Suddenly Frodo himself felt sleep overwhelming him. His head swam. There now seemed hardly a sound in the air. Only a gentle noise on the edge of hearing, a soft fluttering as of a song half whispered, seemed to stir in the boughs above.
He lifted his heavy eyes and saw leaning over him a huge willow-tree, old and hoary. Enormous it looked, its sprawling branches going up like reaching arms with many long-fingered hands, its knotted and twisted trunk gaping in wide fissures that creaked faintly as the boughs moved. The leaves fluttering against the bright sky dazzled him, and he toppled over, lying where he fell upon the grass.
As the others laid themselves out on the grass, Luthiel and Tom Cotton dragged themselves forward and lay down with their backs to the willow-trunk. Behind them the great cracks gaped wide to receive them as the tree swayed and creaked. They looked up at the grey and yellow leaves, moving softly against the light, and singing. They shut their eyes, and then it seemed that they could almost hear words, cool words, saying something about water and sleep. They gave themselves up to the spell and fell fast asleep at the foot of the great grey willow.
Sam sat down and scratched his head, and yawned like a cavern. He was worried. The afternoon was still young, and he thought this sudden sleepiness uncanny. “There’s more behind this than sun and warm air,” he muttered to himself. “I don’t like this great big tree. I don’t trust it. Hark at it singing about sleep now! This won’t do at all!”
He pulled himself to his feet, and staggered off to see what had become of Bill. He found that he had wandered on a good way along the path with Gildor still strapped to his back; and he had just caught them and brought them back towards the others, when he heard a soft but very clear noise. It was almost like the the snick of a lock when a door quietly closes fast.
He rushed back to the bank and then Sam understood the click that he had heard. Luthiel had vanished. The crack by which she had laid herself had closed together, so that not a chink could be seen. Tom was trapped: another crack had closed about his waist; his legs lay outside, but the rest of him was inside a dark opening, the edges of which gripped like a pair of pincers.
Sam yelled with fright and the whole company started awake. They quickly set to work, frantically to pull open the jaws of the crack that held poor Tom. It was quite useless.
Frodo cried wildly with panic and fear, “Why did we ever come into this dreadful Forest? I wish we were all back at Crickhollow!” He kicked the tree with all his strength, heedless of his own feet. A hardly perceptible shiver ran through the stem and up into the branches; the leaves rustled and whispered, but with a sound now of faint and far-off laughter.
“Mocking us, is it now? Well we shall soon see about that,” growled Bofur. “Dori, bring our axes. And anyone else with a blade, fetch it now. Bilbo, start us a fire.”
Soon the dwarves set their axes to the truck of the willow. They had only struck but once each when Tom cried out, “Stop it! Stop it now! He says he shall squeeze me in two if you don’t! Stop it!”
“Who does? This tree? Well you tell him that if he does squeeze you in two, we shall hack him down and set this whole detestable forest alight using him as kindling!” the dwarf replied.
The branches of the willow began to sway violently. There was a sound as of a wind rising and spreading outwards to the branches of all the other trees roundabout, as though they had dropped a stone into the quiet slumber of the river-valley and set up ripples of anger that ran out over the whole Forest. A low throbbing came to their ears as from down the river a cloud of flies and midges thronged together into a thick cloud heading toward them. A sharp crack cut through the heavy air as a heavy branch fell from above them, narrowly missing Pippin as he leapt aside.
Findol put his hand on Bofur’s shoulder, “Master dwarf, I beg you put up your axe. We do not know what this thing is capable of, and the forest comes to its defense.”
“Whatever foul purpose drives this being, I care not! But I will not just allow it to seize two of our companions without recompense. I have lost too many to see that happen again! How is that fire coming Mister Baggins?” The dwarf’s face had turned a deep scarlet with rage.
“Don’t rush, nearly there, nearly there,” called Bilbo. “Though, don’t you think it might go smoother it you try talking to the thing instead of jumping straight to threats and violence? You see Frodo, dwarves are the most loyal of companions…”
“In your own time, Mister Baggins!”
“…but not the most patient. I am coming, Bofur!”
“Stop, stop!” Tom screamed out again. “He’s willing to talk! Stop before he kills me!”
“Put down your axe dwarf! We shall negotiate with this creature!” Findol grabbed the shaft of Bofur’s axe and pushed it down.
“Take your hand off, or I shall be forced to remove it for you!” Dori stepped forward. “All this is probably some elvish trickery anyway.”
“One of our own has disappeared! If this tree knows where Luthiel is I should like to hear it!”
“He says, he says it is too late for the other but if you promise to leave now he will give me back!” came Tom’s voice from inside the willow. “Please don’t let him take me too!”
“Too late?” Findol spun towards the tree, eyes wide with alarm. “What does he mean too late? Tom, what does he mean?”
Frodo’s face paled. “We should never have come this way uncle,” he whispered to Bilbo, “This is all my fault.”
“No it isn’t, so enough of that. There’s nothing we can do about it anyway, only thing we can do is try and stop things getting worse,” replied the old hobbit.
“He says the other has been taken, consumed,” sobbed Tom. “If he had known you was elves he wouldn’t have, only he hasn’t seen your folk since before the cleaving of the hidden city. What does he mean?”
Findol would not answer, but stood rooted to the ground, staring off into the trees. Frodo stepped toward the great willow. “Mr Cotton? Tom? Can you hear me?”
“Mr Frodo? Oh please get me out of here. I don’t want to be eaten by no tree!”
“Nor shall you. Tell him that we agree, that we shall take our leave of this forest and never return with either axe or blade. Tell him that once he lets you go, we shall follow whatever path he sets out for us to depart. Tell him this, on the condition that he lets you go and allows us to leave unmolested.”
There was a tearing creak and the crack split open, and out of it Tom sprang, as if he had been kicked. Then with a loud snap the crack closed fast again. A shudder ran through the tree from root to tip, and complete silence fell.
“Come away, my friend.” Frodo took Findol’s hand. “I am sorry I led us here, and I am sorry for Luthiel. But we must leave this place.”
Henamarth came over to them and murmured, “The halfling is right Findol, though he cannot take the blame for this. Luthiel shall be mourned, but not here. Let us go.”
Together they led the dazed elf, as though he were in a waking dream, and followed Merry who took the company along the path eastwards following the Withywindle. The afternoon was now hastening on and great shadows fell across them; trunks and branches of trees hung dark and threatening over the path. White mists began to rise and curl on the surface of the river and stray about the roots of the trees upon its borders. Out of the very ground at their feet a shadowy steam arose and mingled with the swiftly falling dusk. It became difficult to follow the path, and they were very tired. Their legs seemed leaden. Strange furtive noises ran among the bushes and reeds on either side of them; and if they looked up to the pale sky, they caught sight of queer gnarled and knobbly faces that gloomed dark against the twilight, and peered down at them from the high bank and the edges of the wood. They began to feel that all this country was unreal, and that they were stumbling through an ominous dream that led to no awakening.
Just as they felt their feet slowing down to a standstill, they noticed that the ground was gently rising. The water began to murmur. In the darkness they caught the white glimmer of foam, where the river flowed over a short fall. Then suddenly the trees came to an end and the mists were left behind. They stepped out from the Forest, and found a wide sweep of grass welling up before them. The river, now small and swift, was leaping merrily down to meet them, glinting here and there in the twilight.
The grass under their feet was smooth and short, as if it had been mown or shaven. The eaves of the Forest behind were clipped, and trim as a hedge. The path was now plain before them, well-tended and bordered with stone. It wound up on to the top of a grassy knoll, now grey under the pale starry night; and there, still high above them on a further slope, they saw the twinkling lights of a house. Down again the path went, and then up again, up a long smooth hillside of turf, towards the light. Suddenly a wide yellow beam flowed out brightly from a door that was opened.
Behind it a steep shoulder of the land lay grey and bare, and beyond that the dark shapes of the Barrow-downs stalked away into the eastern night.