“You want to be careful on the Great East Road. Try not to look too wealthy and be wary when you sleep.”
As the son of an innkeeper, this warning is the mantra of Egil’s childhood. His mother, Brieda, offers the same advice to every patron when they leave the Prancing Pony and while some men listen and some scoff, everyone in town knows that Brieda speaks the truth.
People disappear on the Great East Road and caravans go missing. Not enough to stop the flow of trade, but enough for folks to notice. Enough that most of Bree has kin among the lost.
Traveling these lands is dangerous no matter what the season and even locals can be tempted by the chance of rich reward. Egil’s favorite cousin perished a few years ago when he agreed to guard a desperate merchant trying to beat the winter cold. Ingar’s whole caravan was slaughtered before they reached the Misty Mountains and the sole survivor still won’t speak about what happened without a lot of alcohol.
Only in his cups does Davr talk of demons. He says his group was stopped by bandits that were the size of children, tiny demons with silver tongues and no mercy in their eyes. The leader of his caravan had scoffed when the bandits demanded all his treasure; he laughed and then the monsters cut every person down. Davr only survived because he was knocked unconscious and another group of merchants found the carnage before he could bleed out. They brought him back to Bree and he hasn't traveled since.
The first time Egil heard this, he thought the man was lying. But when he asked his parents, they supported Davr's story – the part about the bandits if not demonic tendencies.
Although most of Bree has never seen one, everyone knows that hobbits roam wild in these lands. The legends speak of tiny bandits riding ponies who demand a toll of treasure and several merchants have verified that such a group exists. Those who surrender are not hurt and those who try to fight are always slain to the last man.
“But where did they come from?” Egil asks his mother one spring evening, still young enough to believe that she must know everything. But for now he's right enough and Brieda gives her son a smile as she keeps carding wool.
“They were peaceful once,” his mother tells him quietly. “When my father was still young, the hobbits lived quietly in villages down south. They were farmers and gardeners and most of them had never picked up a weapon in their lives.”
“So what happened?”
“The Fell Winter happened. A winter so long and cold that the rivers froze solid and everyone went hungry. A winter so harsh that a horde of orcs was driven from the mountains to pillage and to feed. These monsters fell upon the Shire without mercy, slaughtering whole families and leaving ashes in their wake. The hobbits fought back, of course – forced to violence for survival – and while they won that struggle, the cost was far too high.
“The Shire had been utterly destroyed by the time the last orc fell – travelers from the south have told me that the land is scorched earth still. The hobbits’ home was gone, grief and sorrow hardening the hearts of the survivors and turning those once peaceful folk down the path of thievery. They swore that they would steal what they needed at the point of sword and dagger just as their own futures had been stolen by the orcs and winter chill. The days of peace were over and they could not be reclaimed; the hobbits of the Shire would never be that vulnerable again.”
“You sound almost sorry for them,” Egil says when she has finished.
“I am sorry,” his mother replies. “Although I do not agree with the hobbits' choices, they did not deserve what happened and I am sorry for their pain. Indeed, Bree could easily have shared the Shire's fate and then we might be the ones earning our livelihood through banditry instead of honest work.”
To tell the truth, being a brigand sounds kind of neat to Egil since being the son of an innkeeper is much more boring than the stories always claim. There are no skilled bards to spin tales of courage and death-dealing, just a few shabby minstrels who can barely hold a tune. No great band of heroes comes together by his fire; no epic quests are begun beneath the Prancing Pony's smoke-stained beams. Egil spends his days dealing with other townsfolk – mostly the same five drunks as always – and the odd weary traveler, usually some sort of merchant just trying to get by.
So the boy spends hours dreaming about hobbits, wondering what they’re really like and wishing he could meet one in real life. Tiny people can’t actually be that dangerous; Egil knows that legends have a way of growing in the telling and he’s certain that weather and bad luck have destroyed their share of caravans.
These daydreams keep him entertained through many hours of hard labor but as he grows into adulthood, his interest in hobbits lessens. Like many young men, Egil is more concerned with food and women than with potential dangers, and helping to run the Prancing Pony takes up what thought he has to spare.
His family’s inn needs customers in order to survive and Egil’s sixteenth year is a hard one all around. A dry parched summer leaves the orchards shriveled and when the rain finally comes, flooding destroys much of the harvest before it can be saved. There are fewer travelers that season and those who arrive do not carry the coin or wares that they would have normally. This lack of business leaves the Prancing Pony struggling and the inn is still half empty when Egil's mother catches a chill she cannot shake.
Brieda is quickly bed-ridden and Egil is forced to split his time between her bedside and his chores, he and his father struggling to keep the Prancing Pony running smoothly on their own. Brieda was cook, hostess, and house-keeper all in one and despite the lack of guests, both men are soon exhausted with the work that must be done.
Indeed, Egil has driven himself to the bone by the time the autumn leaves begin to turn and he prays that his mother soon gets better. If she does not, the young man fears that they will bury her by Yule.
This fear keeps Egil at his mother’s bedside when he really should be working and he lingers after dinner on this winter night as well. The young man knows that there are beds to make and dirty dishes waiting in the kitchen, but he just can't bring himself to move. He's hoping that the healer’s new herbs will finally ease his mother's cough and indeed, her breathing does seem better as she falls asleep tonight.
Still, the young man keeps his vigil, though he pulls out his carving tools to ease the guilt of idleness. Egil loses himself in the slide of blade on wood and he nearly slices off his finger when he hears a piercing scream. The sound splits the night seconds before the alarm bell starts to ring and the young man rushes to the window to try to see what's happening.
Egil peers through the darkness, straining his eyes until a flash of torchlight catches his attention. One, two, a dozen, then a score of torches rushes into view, a line of fire that moves toward him rapidly. It's only when the light gets closer that he sees the tiny figures standing at the fire's heart.
Hobbits! the young man thinks in shocked realization, Bree's attackers just as small as the stories always claimed. Child-sized but bristling with weapons and Egil feels a stab of fear when he realizes that the hobbits are searching every dwelling one by one. He watches in horror as small groups of bandits break off and smash through nearby doorways, returning with full sacks of loot and screaming in their wake.
“Father!” he shouts, throwing open the door to his mother's bedroom. “Father! Bar the door!”
But it's too late.
“What the bl-?”
His father's exclamation dissolves into an awful cry of pain and Egil sees a horde of hobbits pour into the inn. The young man can't be sure how many through the gap in the stair railing, but he knows that he can't hope to fight them all. Egil has never been skilled with weapons and even if he were, his bow and axe are still downstairs. All he has for protection is his simple carving knife.
Egil closes the door anyway, flipping the bolt and drawing his knife as he tries to think of anything. But even as he braces the door, he knows that he can't climb out the window; he won't leave his mother to face the hobbits' mercy and there's nowhere in this room for the both of them to hide.
The young man flinches when the door knob rattles, a muffled voice barking commands from on the other side. Egil can’t make out the words but he knows that tone; his mother used to sound like that when giving him his chores.
There's another rattle and he feels the door move slightly, the wood around the bolt already crumbling. Fear freezes Egil where he stands until the door suddenly slams forward and sends him stumbling. The young man almost falls before catching himself on his mother's bed and when he turns around, there’s a hobbit in the doorway. The creature truly is a demon, small but not a child – no child has ever smiled with such utter cruelty.
No, this is an adult, three feet of muscle wrapped in leather armor and swords in either hand. One blade is wet already, the lamplight glinting crimson, and Egil fears his father slain.
“Don't come any closer! Stay away!” he orders, waving his weapon wildly. But the bandit’s smirk just widens at the tremble in his voice. It starts to walk into the room and his hand tightens around his knife; maybe if he injures this one, the rest will let him go.
Egil is about to lunge when another hobbit appears behind the first. This one is shorter and yet he thinks that it is older. Indeed, the first bandit pauses when the new arrival speaks.
The young man can’t understand the language – that is definitely not Westron – but the hobbit’s words make its companion growl. The bandit bares its teeth at Egil, smile twisting with vicious glee when he can't help a flinch. But then it turns and stalks out of the room, leaving Egil and the other hobbit on their own.
Egil watches the bandit warily, waiting for it to draw the wicked axe that’s hanging on its belt. But the hobbit simply watches the young man in return. It seems to be waiting for him to act – prepared but not impatient – and Egil has a sudden flash of realization. He’s seen that look on hardened warriors passing through the Prancing Pony, the ones that never bother bragging but always win the bar fights, and he knows that if attacks this hobbit, he will not live to see the dawn.
“Please,” the young man says, lowering his dagger. “Take whatever you want. Just please don't hurt my mother.”
Egil isn't sure why he's bothering with begging since the hobbit has shown no sign of knowing Westron. But he has no other options and he doesn't want to die.
“Please,” he says again and at last the hobbit moves. It looks around the room, those cold eyes lingering on the worn lantern, the faded blankets and his mother's sleeping face. Then the bandit snorts something that sounds like “mathoms” and leaves the room, closing the door behind it with a click.
All Egil can do is gape, staring at the door in shock as the sounds of the Prancing Pony being ransacked slowly fade away. Indeed, it's a long moment before the young man moves again, rushing down the stairs to find his father and see what can be saved.
Bree recovers slowly from the hobbits' raiding party, the winter even harsher than expected with so much stolen from their stores. However, the hobbits only killed those who tried to fight them and they didn’t steal enough to destroy the town completely. Bree’s residents spend the winter hungry but not starving and as always, life goes on.
Egil's father keeps his arm, just barely, and his mother eventually recovers, though she'll never be as strong as she once was. He watches both his parents carefully as winter turns to spring, the grey in their hair and the weakness in their steps, and he knows that they likely only have a few years left. Soon it will be Egil's job to keep the Prancing Pony, to greet weary travelers and warn them about the dangers of the road. It will be his job to keep them safe and the young man already knows exactly what he’ll say.
“Be careful on the Great East Road. Try not to look too wealthy and be watchful when you sleep.”
Egil will speak these words as his mother did before him, though he plans to include an addition of his own. Because Davr was right; Egil has seen the demons and while he still doesn’t know why one chose to grant him mercy, he knows no one should scoff at the danger hobbits pose.
Thus the young man will offer up this warning to anyone who passes by the Prancing Pony and even if most travelers don't believe him, Egil needs for them to know: “If you ever meet a hobbit, do not try to struggle. Give it what it asks for and be grateful for your life. For when the hobbits lost their homeland, the days of peace were gone.”