Of course there had always been stories. The wandering elm-tree on the North Moors. The whispering voices in the Old Forest, passing secrets from branch to branch. Many who had walked the banks of the Withywindle that sprang from the Barrow-downs spoke of it only under their breath or behind their hands, as though afraid that even safe in their own homes, the wily old river might hear them. And Peregrin Took himself, thirty-second Thain of the Shire, had once been swallowed up whole by a great, wicked willow.
At least if one believed the tales – which Cobson Roper most certainly did not.
“Fiddle-faddle,” he often snorted in the common-room at the Pipe and Mow in Tighfield, when hobbits who had consumed more ale than was good for them strayed off into idle fancy.
But his wife Fern had Tookish blood, and whispered tales from the olden days to their children at night, and Robin and Sorrel listened and believed, as though bound by some ancient spell.
“You're filling their heads with nonsense,” Cobson would complain, sitting by the fire, the children in bed in the next room.
Fern would kiss his brow and gently rub the callouses on his fingers and hands. “There's truth in those old tales, my love, whatever you may think.”
Often Robin would lie awake and listen to them talking, kept awake by Sorrel's dry, jagged cough. He had heard the half-hearted arguments many times over the years, could recite his father's dismissive retorts – and yet something in his soul still soared at his mother's gentle defence of the magic in the legends that blew in from the East, falling from the lips of travellers or shared by some dream-eyed elder who remembered the Scouring. The names nestled in his heart like charms or treasured jewels. Gandalf. Rivendell. Frodo. Thorin. Mirkwood. Gondor. Beren. Elvenhome...
“It will do the children no good to grow up believing in fairy-stories. Soon enough the world will hurt them badly, and the fall will be all the harder if they think some wizard can fix their troubles, or that a magical flying ship will take them across the sea.”
His father would always end by saying that, or something like it. And they would both fall silent, and over the hush Robin would once again hear the rasp of his sister's breath as she slept, and he would close his eyes and wait for dreams to come, suspecting that he knew what his father meant when he spoke of the world soon bringing them grief and pain.