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UPON THE ONE-HUNDRED YEAR anniversary of the death of King Elessar and the passing of Legolas and Gimli into the west – something happened in the Shire that brought the ‘long reign of peace’ to an end.

Many said that this was the moment that darkness crept back into the world. Yet, some whispered that darkness was always there, even in ages of happiness and prosperity. In such times, it just hid in the shadows, and bided its time.

So it was, in the year 1641, by Shire Reckoning, of the Fourth Age, that Rose Fairbairn, a young hobbit female, journeyed to Hobbiton. It was a trip she had made many times, from her home in Westmarch, on the far western borders of the Shire. Her family were the Fairbairns of the Towers, and Rose was the only child of Rowan and Ruby Fairbairn.

On a bright, late summer morning, Rose loaded up her father’s wagon with sacks of potatoes, bunches of spring onions and carrots, and crates of cabbages. It had been a bountiful summer, and the Fairbairns had a glut of produce to sell beyond their home in the Tower Hills.
“Ma, they’re letting off fireworks tonight, in honour of Gandalf and the hundred year passing of the Fellowship,” Rose informed her mother as she heaved the last sack of potatoes onto the wagon. “Why don’t you and papa come with me today? We can stay at the Green Dragon and make a holiday of it.”

“A holiday?” Ruby Fairbairn put her hands on her ample hips and surveyed her daughter with exasperation. “Since when have we Fairbairns taken a holiday? That’s an indulgence for other, richer folk!”

Rose sighed and glanced about her. The wagon and the stocky pony waiting patiently in front of it, stood before the white-washed gate of the Fairbairn hobbit hole. Around them rose the lush green curves of the Tower Hills. The hills were pock-marked with similar dwellings; although the Fairbairns had by far the largest and most beautiful home, with an extensive garden out front, filled with roses, honey-suckle, pastel-coloured lupins and stock. Rose’s family also owned much of the patchwork of fields that spread down the hillside beneath them.

“We’re not poor,” Rose frowned. “Why should other folk get to enjoy the celebrations and not us?”

“If we’re more prosperous than our forebears, it’s because we work harder,” Ruby sniffed, her hazel eyes narrowing. “Now enough of this nonsense and off you go. You will need to reach the market by mid-afternoon if you want to have a chance of selling everything.”

Rose sighed and climbed up onto the front of the wagon. There was never any point in arguing with her mother. Ruby Fairbairn was always right. Even her father said so.

Rose flicked the reins and the pony moved off.

“And don’t think about spending gold on a bed at the Green Dragon either,” her mother called after Rose. “The weather’s mild. You can sleep in the wagon.”

Rose bit her tongue and flicked the reins again, urging the pony into a brisk trot. They set off along the lane that wound its way down through the fields.

Ruby Fairbairn watched her daughter go and shook her head. At twenty-seven, Rose was in the middle of her tweens – a trying time. Yet, Rose had an impetuousness that Ruby had never been afflicted with at the same age. Her daughter questioned everything; a trait that could be very tiresome.

For her part, Rose was still chafing from her mother’s parting comments. The Fairbairns’ meanness was legendary in Westmarch – and there were times when her mother’s penny-pinching ways aggravated Rose.

As always, she looked forward to her trips to Hobbiton. It may not have been an adventure, not like the one her great, great grand-father Master Samwise had been part of over two hundred and twenty years earlier, but it was her chance to travel across the Shire, see fresh faces and hear new stories.

The road east was reasonably well travelled these days; used mainly by those trading between Hobbiton and Westmarch. Rose recognised a few faces on her journey down the hill, and waved as she passed. She was a familiar sight on the road, for both her parents preferred to stay behind and tend the fields rather than journey to market. They did not fear for her safety, for the Shire had never been as safe as now. Over two centuries earlier, King Elessar had issued an edict, forbidding Men from entering the Shire. Ever since then, the land had been blessed with a long peace. Rose felt not a twinge of fear setting out on her own, for the horrors that had once stalked Middle Earth, even shattering the tranquillity of the Shire, were nothing more than old stories in the Red Book her father kept in his study.

Once she left the Tower Hills behind, Rose took the road that cut across the Far Downs. Here, the landscape undulated in a sea of grassy hills. A warm breeze caressed Rose’s face and she sighed. She adored summer; the smell of warm grass, the sound of insects, and the whisper of the wind. Last winter had been one of the harshest in living memory, even the Brandywine had frozen and those in Westmarch had heard tales of hungry wolves, the biggest seen in centuries, appearing on the fringes of the Shire. It had been a relief when the spring thaw arrived. Now, after months of balmy weather, summer was drawing to a close. Soon it would be harvest, and then the slow decline back into freezing winter.

Mid-morning, Rose opened a cloth-wrapped parcel of food
and helped herself to a slice of bacon and egg pie – elevenses. Her mother had also made her a door-stopper ham sandwich for lunch with a couple of blackberry tea cakes for later in the afternoon. Rose finished her slice of pie and rewrapped the rest. Although she loved her mother’s cooking, she knew there was enough food here to last her until she returned to the Tower Hills tomorrow. If she continued eating in this fashion she would soon be as stout as her mother.

It was getting towards three o’clock in the afternoon when the pony and trap rattled into Hobbiton. Locals looked up from their gardens as she passed. They were the frank, open faces of hobbits, with twinkling eyes and ruddy cheeks.

“Good afternoon young Rose!” an elderly hobbit called out to her from where he was bent over, weeding his carrots. “And how are your parents keeping?”

“Very well Master Robin, thank you!” Rose called back cheerfully. “Will you be at the celebrations tonight?”

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Master Robin replied.

“See you there!”

Rose followed the road into the heart of Hobbiton, and skirted the edge of Bywater Pool. She made her way up to the Party Field, where the monthly Hobbiton Market was held. A number of tents and marquees spread out over the grass, their awnings flapping in the breeze. Rose drew up outside the field. She got down from the cart and led her pony across the field. She set up her stall where she always did, next to where Marroc Brandybuck hawked his cheeses.

Marroc, a chubby-cheeked hobbit about the same age as Rose’s father, waved merrily at her. A crowd of hobbits, eager for some of Marroc’s fine cheese, clustered around his stall. Rose unlatched the back of the wagon and began setting out her produce, listening to the gravelly tones of Marroc’s voice as she did so.

“Yes, try this one Bertha – the flavour’s quite unique. I soak it in wine as part of the ageing process. It goes particularly well with ham!”

“Yes Marroc,” Bertha Proudfoot replied with a hint of exasperation in her voice, “but what I’m after is a cooking cheese. How well does this one melt?”

Eventually, some of Marroc’s punters left his stall and wandered over to Rose. The quality of her parents’ produce was well known in Hobbiton and soon she had a number of customers. As always, the potatoes were the first to go – Westmarch spuds were renown throughout the Shire.

The shadows were starting to lengthen and the sun cast a golden hue over the party field when Rose spied Pericles Took making his way up the hill towards her. The sight of Peri, who was only a year older than her, made Rose go both hot and cold all at once. He had a way of both infuriating and embarrassing her. There was something in his impish smile that made her feel as if he was laughing at her.

“Fair Rose!” he called out as he approached, causing Rose to blush deeply. “How goes it?”

She hated him calling her that. Decades earlier, the female Fairbairns had been breathtakingly beautiful – folk still talked of the fairness of Elanor, daughter of Master Samwise and Mistress Rose, who had been as beautiful as an elf-maid with long golden hair and alabaster skin. The legacy of ‘Elanor the Fair’ was a difficult one to live up to. Ruby Fairbairn was plain and plump, with a good humoured, ruddy face but little beauty. Her daughter, Rose, had thick light brown hair and large hazel eyes. She knew her face was too round to be called fair. Pericles called her such to mock her.

“Afternoon Peri,” she said coldly. “As you can see I’m very busy so unless you want to buy something I suggest you move on.”

“That’s not much of a welcome, is it?” Pericles Took stopped before Rose and picked up a cabbage. “Not the way you should treat paying customers.”

Rose’s gaze narrowed, and Peri grinned back at her. He was one of the handsomest young hobbits in the area, with a mop of brown hair, twinkling green eyes and a sensitive face. He always looked slightly unkempt, as if he spent his life sleeping rough in a haystack. Rose had not seen him do a day of work in his life. His parents ran the Green Dragon, and apart from pouring ale behind the bar on the odd evening, Peri appeared to wander through life doing what suited him, and little else.

“Are you going to buy that cabbage?”

“Perhaps.”

“Well, make up your mind and put it down if you’re not interested.”

Peri’s grin widened.

“You’re in a viperish mood this afternoon Rose – what ails you?”

“Nothing.”

“Are you staying for the celebrations tonight?” Peri nodded towards the other end of the Party Field, where a group of hobbits were setting up tents and long wooden tables, and draping streamers over the Party Tree. “It should be great fun.”

“I will.” Rose replied reluctantly.

“Shall I get my parents to make up a bed for you at the Green Dragon then?”

Rose shook her head.

“Ma won’t allow me to spend money on the Inn – I’ll be sleeping in the wagon tonight.”

Peri laughed at that and Rose tensed as cold shame washed over her. She should never have told him – he was always teasing her about her mother’s meanness.

“Why am I not surprised? See you tonight then.”
With that, Pericles Took put the cabbage down and walked off, whistling as he went.

Rose watched him go, and fought the surge of irritation that always followed a conversation with Peri.

By the time Rose packed up, as the sun slid beyond the western horizon, she had sold everything but three cabbages and one bunch of carrots – her mother could hardly complain about that.

Hobbits were now starting to gather around the party tree, and the cheerful notes of a bone whistle and the strains of a lyre drifted across the Party Field towards the market stalls. Rose parked the wagon and pony under the boughs of oaks on the far side of the field. She unshackled Pepper and tethered him to one of the trees so that he could graze a little. Then she gave him a nosebag of oats and a bucket of water. Glancing up at the sky, Rose saw that it was a mild evening and the sky appeared clear. It would not be so unpleasant to sleep outdoors after all, although she would miss a soft mattress.

With her pony seen to, Rose made her way across the field towards the Party Tree. The sun was setting in a blaze of pink and gold, promising good weather on the morrow. She had a pocket full of coins after the market but was loath to spend any of it – her mother would check her takings meticulously upon her return to the Towers. Yet, a cup of ale and a nibble to eat would not cut into her takings much; it was an important celebration after all.

It was a century since the last members of the Fellowship of the Ring: Legolas the Elf and Gimli the Dwarf had sailed away into the west from the Greyhavens. A century of peace had reigned. These days, there was little talk about what went on beyond their borders – and truthfully, few hobbits cared.

Old Largo Proudfoot had dressed up in a long grey wig, beard and cloak and was frightening the young hobbits with a deep, booming voice as he told them of Gandalf and his great adventures.

“You shall not pass!” he roared and slammed his staff into the ground as he mimicked Gandalf the Grey facing the Balrog in the Mines of Moria. Then, he had promised them a few fireworks later, in honour of the great wizard himself.

Watching the awestruck faces of the young ones, Rose smiled. She too had sat captivated when her father read her sections of the Red Book as a child; he also had acted out some of the most exciting scenes.

The dark deepened and torches flared into life around the Party Field, illuminating the festivities and creating a warm beacon in the centre of Hobbiton that drew every hobbit in the area to it. A full moon rose into the inky sky.

Hobbits were famed for knowing how to throw a party.
Long tables groaned under the weight of food and drink. There was music, dancing, laughter and singing. Rose watched, in amusement, as the local mummers group, dressed up as Elves, Orcs and Men, acted out scenes from the past. They were a foolish sight, a group of hobbits reciting scenes from lives they had never seen, and tripping over their costumes as they did so; yet the acting was fun to watch nevertheless. One or two of the actors were so drunk that they were bungling their lines, and causing the other members of the troop to glower at them.

“Er, you shall not have the ring, foul ringwraith!” the hobbit playing Frodo protested, waving his wooden sword and staggering backwards as a dark figure cloaked in black strode towards him, hissing under its breath.

“Be gone! Be gone!”

The terrible acting was causing onlookers to snigger but, oblivious, the drunken hobbit continued to stagger backwards, and crashed onto the table next to Rose. Cups, crockery, food and drink went flying. The hobbit gave a squeal and flailed about like a cast beetle.

“Bongo Bracegirdle!” One of the other actors, dressed as Gimli the Dwarf, waded through the melee and yanked Bongo off the table by his ear. “You’re a disgrace!”

Rose was so engrossed in the mummery, and the additional entertainment that went with it, that she did not notice Pericles Took weave his way, carrying two tankards of ale, through the crowd towards her. It was only when he sat down on the bench next to Rose, and nudged her with his elbow, that she realised he was there.

“Here,” he passed Rose a tankard. “Let us make a toast to those of the Fellowship – who risked their lives so that we may live in peace!”

As usual, there was a trace of mischievousness in his voice. Yet, his face was serious enough.

“Wouldn’t it have been wonderful to have known them all,” Rose sighed, taking the tankard Peri offered her. “Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, Pippin and Merry. Their blood runs through our veins. Do you think we’d be capable of such bravery if put to the test?”

Peri shrugged, as if the thought had never occurred to him. “We’ll never know. Thanks to them, the Shire is enjoying ‘the long peace’ – long may it last!”

“But don’t you ever wonder what goes on beyond our borders?” Rose asked, taking a sip of ale and regarding Peri over the rim of her tankard. “Wouldn’t you like to visit the places they did? To see Rivendell, the Misty Mountains, Edoras and Minas Tirith?”

“I suppose I would,” Peri admitted with a smile. “If I were the adventurous type.”

“But you travel farther than most. You’ve been to Bree, whereas I’ve never been any further east than Hobbiton.”

“Bree’s not that interesting,” Peri replied. “Just full of strange, tall folk who look down their noses at hobbits.”

“Do they?”

“There was a reason King Elessar forbade Men from entering the Shire,” Peri gave her a pointed look before turning his attention back to the actors. “Men are not peace-loving like us.”

Rose frowned. This was the most serious statement she had ever heard Peri utter – and yet there was a tone of superiority in his voice, as if he knew better than she, that chafed her.

“Still... I do not think this isolation is good for us,” she said eventually.

That caught Peri’s attention. He turned to her, wide-eyed and a touch annoyed. “Why would you say that?”

“We live as if the rest of the world doesn’t exist,” Rose continued, “which would be fine, if it didn’t. If dark times ever come to the Shire again, none of us will be equipped to deal with it.”

“My my, what depressing thoughts,” Peri mocked her. “You certainly are glum these days Fair Rose.”

“Don’t call me that.”

“What, ‘Fair Rose’? That is your name after all – Fair Rose Fairbairn.”

“We both know I’m not fair, so just stop it,” Rose felt her face heat up as she spoke. Why did every conversation she had with Peri Took end in an argument?

The surprise on his face just angered her further. Rose slammed down her tankard and stormed off, leaving Peri staring after her.

The party continued on until late. Eventually, as the fires died away to smoking embers and the torches burnt down in their brackets, well-fed, inebriated hobbits stumbled their way out of the Party Field towards their hobbit holes.

Rose wandered back to where her wagon awaited her, shadowed under the boughs of the old oaks. The pony was dozing and it snorted at Rose’s approach. She whispered soothingly and fed him a handful of oats – not that he needed it. After a summer of rich grass, Pepper the pony was beginning to resemble a barrel.

“Good boy,” Rose stroked Pepper’s sleek neck. He still had his summer coat, although he became shaggy during the winter. “Folk are strange, are they not?”

The pony merely whickered gently in response, and Rose smiled.

“Present company not included of course. You’re the best companion a hobbit could wish for Pepper.” She stroked the pony’s furry ears and gave him a slap on the rump before turning away.

Her eyes stinging with fatigue, Rose climbed up on the wagon. She arranged the cloak she had brought in case the weather turned nasty, and some empty sacking, to form a bed of sorts. Then she lay down with a sigh and gazed up at the starry sky. It was a warm night without a whisper of a breeze. In fact, it was so still that Rose felt a little unnerved.

It was as if the world were holding its breath.
Rose was listening to the silence, and wondering what it meant, when a sound – the whisper of footsteps on grass – startled her. She bolted upright, her heart hammering, and saw the outline of someone standing before her.

“Sorry if I scared you Rose,” Peri’s voice cut through the still night. His speech was slightly slurred, meaning that he had imbibed more than his share of ale during the celebrations. Rose’s relief that it was only Peri was short-lived before a surge of irritation overshadowed it.

“What is it?” she snapped. “You’ll get a reputation, sneaking up on folk in the middle of the night!”

“I came to apologise,” Peri continued, as if she had not reprimanded him. “I didn’t mean to upset you earlier. When I call you ‘Fair Rose’, I really do mean it. I think you are beautiful – fair as a summer’s dawn. As pretty as a field of…”

“Peri,” Rose interrupted him sharply. “You’re drunk.”

“Maybe I am,” Peri replied, a touch annoyed that his monologue had been interrupted, “but many say that a hobbit speaks the truth when he’s had a drop too much.”

“Or that he speaks complete drivel,” Rose replied, although she could feel her mouth lifting at the edges as she tried to supress a smile. Peri was incorrigible.

“As I was saying,” Peri attempted once more. “You are fairer to me than…”

“Rose Fairbairn and Pericles Took?”

A new voice, female and coolly assertive, caused Peri to choke mid-sentence. Both hobbits whipped round towards the voice, their gazes settling upon a tall, cloaked shadow that had stepped out from behind one of the oaks.

Rose’s throat constricted with sudden terror – the shadow was far taller than any hobbit she had ever seen, and the voice was different too, of a lower timbre than most hobbit females.

This was no hobbit.

Peri obviously had come to the same conclusion, for he backed up against the edge of the cart and let out a stifled squeal.

“Quiet!” the figure stepped out into the moonlight and pushed back her hood. An oval face with high cheekbones and dark eyes held Peri fast. “You will wake all of Hobbiton!”

“Who are you?” Rose managed, her voice quivering. She stretched out her hands, fumbling for a weapon in the back of the wagon, but found nothing but sacking.

“Answer my question first and I will answer yours,” the woman replied coldly. “Are you Rose Fairbairn and is your companion, Pericles Took?”

Rose nodded mutely.

“Then I am Salrean, daughter of Rendur.”

“But who are you?” Peri managed. “Men are forbidden in the Shire.”

Salrean gave a quiet laugh at that. “I am one of the Dúnedain. My father is chieftain of Farnost. ‘Tis true that men are not welcome here – but in case it had escaped your notice Pericles, I am a woman.”

Rose stared at the stranger with awe. “You’re one of the Dúnedain?”

The woman nodded.

“But what do you want with us? How do you even know our names?” Rose demanded.

“I made some enquiries in Buckland. I have discovered that you both, and Marroc Brandybuck, are the last direct descendants of the Fellowship,” Salrean began solemnly,
“and I am here to warn you. After I speak with you, I will seek out Marroc.”

“Warn us? What about?” Now that Peri had overcome his shock at seeing a woman in the Shire, and a frightening one at that, he was regarding Salrean, daughter of Rendur, with suspicion.

Looking upon him, Salrean sighed. It was a weary sigh; of someone who had obviously travelled far to find them.
“May we sit together on the wagon?” she asked. “‘Tis a long tale and we might as well be comfortable while I tell it.”

Seeing as this woman did not appear someone to be crossed, Rose nodded. She shifted to one end and sat with her knees pulled up in front of her. Peri climbed up and sat down next to Rose.

“Should we trust her?” he whispered to Rose. “She might mean us harm.”

Before Rose could reply, Salrean jumped up lightly into the cart and settled down, folding her long legs underneath her.

“Yes you can trust me Master Took,” she replied with a wry tone. “If I’d meant you harm you’d both be dead by now.”

Rose swallowed painfully. That sounded less like an assurance and more like a threat. Yet, there was something about the woman’s manner that appeared sincere. Her lack of sweet words and any attempt to ingratiate herself, made Rose instinctively trust her.

“Well then,” Rose hugged her knees to her chest and regarded the newcomer. “What of this tale?”

Salrean sighed once more. The moonlight accentuated the angles of her face. In daylight, Rose imagined the woman would be attractive, but now she looked almost harsh.

“As I said before, I am here to warn you,” Salrean began softly, “But first, to understand why you are in danger, you must first hear a little of ancient history. My tale begins in the Realm of Angmar – where evil stirs once more.”
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