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Chapter Four

The last rays of the sun fell on John’s face. He sat with Sam on the doorstep of the hobbit-hole (or smial, as he had learned it was called), watching the sun set in the west. He had spent the day with Sam and Elanor, meeting countless cheery Hobbits who lived in the hills nearby. Perhaps his questions had not all been answered, but it seemed to matter little. Already the human world was fading, replaced by the tranquility and large meals of Holbytlanna. In a shorter time than he had thought possible, the hard young man had come to love this place of gentleness and laughter. He squinted into the bronze sunlight.

“But always the sun must set.” he murmured to himself.

“True enough,” Sam answered, and John started, unaware that he had spoken aloud, “But at least it sets in the West, in the Undying Lands, and also rises again the next day.”

“The Undying Lands?” John asked, “Tell me about these lands, Sam.” He grinned. “I’ve told you more about myself than I thought I knew. It’s only fair that you return the favor with some stories of your own!”

“Well now, if you’re interested in the history of the Shire and its people, we can satisfy your curiosity easily enough! But I’m not the right person to tell it. Not a poet am I, not Sam Gamgee! No, we’ll have to find my father.” With that, Sam jumped up and ran into the smial, beckoning John to follow. John followed eagerly - too eagerly, it turned out, as he immediately hit his head on the chandelier in the entry room.

“Oooh!” he yelped, rubbing his forehead and biting back some rather shocking curses. “Sam, wait for me!” The young Hobbit had disappeared down one of the winding tunnels of the smial. John shook his throbbing head and followed, hoping fervently that he was heading in the right direction and not set on a course for, say, Mrs. Gamgee’s bathing room or something awkward of that sort.

“Sam?” John called, walking hunched over through a hallway hung with ancient portraits. No answer. He stopped short, wondering if he should go back. Shrugging, he tried the nearest door. It opened into a pantry. John chuckled quietly and tried the next one. It, too, was a pantry. Grinning, John opened a third door, speculating on just how much food one Hobbit family could consume in a year.

This time, however, he was not faced with a pantry. Instead, a dim and mostly empty room met his gaze. Little light came through the one window. The room was old, far older than anything John had encountered in his life - at least, so it seemed to him. There was a tall lamp in the corner and a small table with a stool in front of it in the middle of the room. Despite the room’s feel of age, there was no dust on the table. No dust, but something else. Curious, John stepped inside. He tiptoed carefully over to the lamp and lit it, fearing to make any noise and disturb the solemn stillness all around him. Turning, he looked at the table.

It was a book.

A huge, ancient red book lay on the tabletop. It had the look of something both well-loved and well cared for. It was covered in leather, and its pages were of a creamy, thick white paper. Most strikingly, it must have been at least a foot thick, and nearly as large as the table top in dimensions. Drawn by a desire he could not name, John opened the book and began to read.

To his surprise, the book was written not in English or any other language he knew of, but in a tongue completely alien to him and unlike anything he had ever seen or heard. Yet he understood perfectly. The language of the red book might have been his native one, though he did not even know its name.

John read, and as he read, he became more and more spellbound with wonder. Here was a tale that was also a history, a true story so marvelous it was nearly impossible to believe and equally impossible to reject. So the Shire was older than any country in the world today! And he had laughed at its people as kind but simple. His eyes widened in surprise as he came across the name Samwise Gamgee. So his friend bore the name of a hero of days long past! The name must have been passed down through generations, keeping alive the memory. He read of the Hobbits, and smiled. He read of the Ring, and shivered. Ents and Elves and Dwarves and Dragons . . .

A sound at the door broke John’s reverie. He looked up, and saw Sam and Mayor Gamgee watching him.

“I see you’ve found the Red Book of Westmarch.” Merry Gamgee said, “That’s a good deal of our history, there; the most important part at least.” John became aware that the Hobbit was speaking the same language the Red Book was written in. At the same time, he realized that Sam and every other inhabitant of the Shire had spoken nothing but this language, and yet he had understood every word and answered without knowing what he did. Confusion assailed him.

“What . . . ?” he said “Am I dreaming after all?”

“You must be wondering how you came to understand and speak Westron, our language.” Merry said, “I’ve wondered that myself a few times.” He shrugged. “The grace of the Valar, perhaps. If you’d like some more satisfactory questions to your answers, perhaps you’d like to come with me to Tuckborough, to discuss these matters with the Thrain and the Master of Brandy Hall. Bring the Red Book, if you like.”

John stared down at the book dazedly, then back at the Hobbits. He shook his head, then picked up the book and followed Merry and Sam out the door.

John and the two Hobbits stopped outside as Sam lit a lantern. It had grown dark, and rain clouds had gathered in the East. Thunder rumbled, pompously proclaiming the arrival of a storm. The small trees on the ridge bent in a gusty wind, and John felt goosebumps on his arms. He clutched the Red Book of Westmarch as if afraid that it might blow away.

“Don’t worry, it’s not far.” Sam said as the lantern bloomed with light.

“And a good supper in front of a hot fire waits in Tuckborough!” Merry laughed, “Come, it’s but a short walk!”

“No doubt,” John said, losing some of his apprehension, “The supper will take longer than the walk!” The two Hobbits laughed, making no denials of the joke, and the three set off down the road to Tuckborough.

The first drops of rain began to fall around them, large and far apart. The wind picked up, blowing against them and rushing through the trees. Clouds hunkered down like a giant at his dinner table. John felt uncomfortably like the dinner. He bowed his head into the wind, following the light of Sam’s lantern. A flash of lightning bared the road and the smials at its side in a glaring white light, not at all like the soft radiance surrounding Galadriel in his dreams. John was just wondering whether the weather was some kind of omen, when ahead of him Sam dropped the lantern with a cry.

“Sam!” John called, but the wind whirled his voice away, “Sam, what is it?”

Sam and Merry stood staring at the sky, Sam with his hands raised, surprise showing in every line of his body. The young Hobbit spun around, and John saw that his eyes were wide, though he did not seem afraid.

“The Eagles!” Sam yelled, “The Eagles are coming!”

Uncomprehending, John stared up at the sky. Great birds of prey circled above them, seemingly coming straight out of the storm. They were huge, far larger than a man. Lightning cracked, and their silhouettes stood out starkly against the clouds. First one dove, then another, a third. They dove, talons outstretched, straight for John.

With a cry, John threw himself to the ground, dropping the Red Book. The first huge Eagle passed straight over him. Sam lay panting next to him.

“What are they doing?” John shrieked. Sam merely shook his head.

“I don’t know! They’re our friends!”

A bird of prey’s scream prompted them to hug the ground, as if hoping that the Eagles’ keen eyes would fail them in the dark. But this time they were not the target. A huge Eagle swooped down, and with one flick of its talons grasped the Red Book of Westmarch, carrying it away towards the woods.

“No!” John yelled, leaping to his feet. Lightning flashed as he sprinted after the Eagle.

“John, wait!” Sam’s agonized cry followed him, but John did not wait. Panting, he ran with all his might, all his thought bent on one thing - retrieving the Red Book. His lungs burned and sweat ran into his eyes. He was hot from running, but the wind chilled him and he shivered as he ran. His eyes were fixed on the small stand of trees on the ridge where the Eagle had disappeared with its prize. A rock turned under his foot, and he nearly fell, then redoubled his efforts, gasping.

Wild-eyed, John burst into the trees, hands clenching as he stared around him. His gaze lit on a large tree where a dark shape hunched upon the lowest branch. Lightning gave enough illumination for John to recognize the Eagle, with the Red Book in its talons.

“Give it back!” he yelled furiously, striding to stand underneath the branch. “Give it back!”

The Eagle regarded him solemnly. John expected it to say something, but it remained silent.

“Well?” he shouted, “Give it back or I’ll climb up and get it!”

With a cry, the Eagle launched itself into the air. The Red Book dropped from its grasp. John threw himself forward and barely caught it, panting at the effort. The Eagle was gone.

John stood still, waiting for his heart rate to calm. He hugged the book and hoped that it had not been damaged by the Eagle’s talons. What would he say to Merry and Sam? He had nearly lost their most precious family heirloom! Berating himself, John turned slowly and walked back down the slope to where he had left his Hobbit friends.

It had begun to rain harder, and John could only vaguely make out the shape of the hills. He could not see the road. Where was Sam’s lantern? He had dropped it, but it should still be burning. He squinted into the rain and stumbled over a sudden dip in the ground. Something was wrong. Where was the road?

John reached the bottom of the ridge and stood still, struck dumb with disbelief. Lightning flashed and confirmed his fears. The road was gone. The doors to the smials were gone. Any sign of civilization was gone. He stood in a narrow valley, untouched and pristine as if no one had ever set foot there.

Thunder rumbled, and the full realization smote him with the force of a cannon. Crying aloud, he cast himself on the ground and wept, as the heavens above poured down the full force of their fury upon him.

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