1. The Ford

Spring, S.R. 1253

Gandalf avoided the puddles in the road as he walked north in the Shire. Sarn Ford had hardly deserved the name; the water had come up past his waist and the rocks were covered with mud. The heavy rains of the last few weeks swelled creeks into rivers, turned low lying fields into bogs, and made the dirt track of the road a wretched mire.

Arathorn is dead. Thráin is dead. The White Tree has died, and Sauron has risen again. The wizard sighed and tried to pick the least muddy path along the track. The walk from Minas Tirith had left much time for thinking, but still he had no answers. Saruman's adamancy at the Council was confusing, nay, disturbing. Why not? Why not attack now? Gandalf muttered a small curse as he stepped squarely into a puddle while distracted by these thoughts. He stopped for a moment to gather his wits before he managed to fall flat on his face in the mud. He felt as if he had been falling in mud for some time.

Gandalf looked about at the green hills and could not suppress a smile. The Shire. He was just south of the branching to Tookbank, near the little Took Creek that wound its way through the southern lowlands to meet the Baranduin west of Sarn Ford. Hobbits. I need to see hobbits. I need to forget the great trials of the world for a few days, smoke my pipe, and hear of the small doings of hobbits. Eventually he would have to take the East-West road to Bree and see if he could locate Argonui. The death of the White Tree needed to be known in the North. Then Rivendell. There had been no opportunity after the White Council to speak privately with Elrond, and he had needed to go to Minas Tirith quickly afterwards. Even so, he arrived too late to speak with Belecthor before the Steward died. Always, too little, too late, arriving just in time to see things fail.

Almost, as he crossed Rohan, he had gone to speak with Saruman at Isengard, to try to puzzle out why the other had opposed attacking Dol Guldur. Gandalf had gotten within a mile to the encircling walls, had seen the spiked tower of Orthanc, then had stopped. He camped for a day just beyond sight of the wall, packed his knapsack, and set out north. Some things he did not know how to approach. His wisdom was failing him.

Right now, all he wished to consider was a pipe, a filling meal and some gentle talk. As he gazed about, Gandalf thought he heard some voices in the distance, down the around the hill. He strode briskly along, listening as the voices – shouts, actually – became louder. He came around a low ridge of the hill and saw the source of the sound. Little Took Creek was now rather large and full, and a wagon had become stuck in the mud of the ford. It was holding a load of wood, quite heavy, and the wheels had sunk into the mire. A poor little pot-bellied Shire pony stood listlessly in the traces, sweat-stained flanks attesting to the effort the poor beast had made to pull the wagon from the ford's clutches.

A number of hobbits walked about, sizing things up and trying to figure out how to get the heavy wagon out of the stream. Gandalf's brow creased as he considered the depth and swiftness of the water. It would be dangerous for these small folk to attempt to wade into the creek. A few had dared, and these stood on the bank nearest Gandalf, soaked.

One of them on this bank appeared to be in charge of the entire situation. He was a bit taller than the others, and not quite so broad. A Took, no doubt. The hobbit's chestnut hair had a great white streak over one temple, though he did not look at all old. Perhaps from a scar. He was calling for others to throw ropes to his side of the creek to keep the wagon from being shifted downstream or overturned by the force of the current. Gandalf watched with growing admiration as the hobbit got this done with a minimum of confusion, at one point plunging into the stream to grab the end of a rope that had been tossed short. With the ropes snugged up on a tree and a boulder, attention turned to leveraging the wagon out of the muck. Gandalf decided he needed to lend a hand.

He quickly walked over to the hobbit with the white streak. The other hobbits saw him approach and turned to face him, watching warily. Gandalf wondered at their suspicion then gave himself a mental shake. Fool! You haven't been here in over sixty years! None of these young fellows will have seen you. He watched a few back away as he approached. The leader, the silver-locked hobbit, did not turn, though the set of his shoulders said he knew there was something behind him.

Gandalf stopped a few feet back and cleared his throat. The hobbit's head turned a fraction, but he did not look over his shoulder.

'Tom!' Silver-lock called out to one across the river, 'Get a few of the branches from the tree. We'll push them under the fronts of the wheels to get traction. Bill, make sure the pony doesn't have any stones caught in his shoes. Grim, up on the wagon, boy, and check those knots!' A very young hobbit, barely a tween from the looks of him, scampered up over the pony's back, along the cart shaft, and onto the wagon, nimble as an elf. He signaled back to Silver-lock that the ropes were secure. A few hobbits took hold of those ropes, one to either side of the pony, preparing to throw their strength into the task.

Gandalf cleared his throat again, but Silver-lock did not so much as twitch.

'I hear you, stranger. I have business to attend too.'

Gandalf's eyebrows went up in curiosity. 'Indeed, I can see that, Master Hobbit.'

Silver-lock finally turned around and fixed the wizard with an annoyed look. 'Then why, pray tell, are you bothering us, if you can see that we are otherwise engaged?' He had had his hands on his hips, and his light brown eyes met Gandalf's without a blink.

'I had thought to lend you some help in this task,' Gandalf replied, a bit unsettled by the hobbit's ire.

Silver-lock eyed the wizard up and down, then gave a short, derisive laugh. 'No thankee, old man. I have enough problems rescuing this wagon. I don't need to be pulling your ancient bones out of the water as well.'

Gandalf's eyebrows rose to dangerous heights. 'Indeed? I am in less need of rescuing than you might believe, my dear fellow. Quite the opposite.'

'Is that so? Well, how ever that may be, we are busy and have no time for you. Good day, old father.' With that, Silver-lock began to turn back to the wagon.

'Do you know who I am?' Gandalf rumbled, half annoyed and half amused.

'No.' Silver-lock began to walk off.

'I am Gandalf the Grey!'

Silver-lock whirled around and faced the wizard, anger obvious. 'And…?'

'I am a wizard.'

'How very impressive. If you will pardon us, we have work to do.'

Gandalf was feeling rather irked with this imperious fellow. 'Do you know what a wizard is, Master Hobbit?'

'Yes! A scruffy old fellow who stinks of second rate pipe-weed and who hasn't the sense to see when he's not wanted.'

Gandalf gaped at Silver-lock's impertinence. 'I think you need me quite a bit if you're to get that wagon out of the ford!'

'I rather doubt it. We have no use for you unless you have more to show than that you can't tell good pipe-weed from bad.' Silver-lock turned on his heel and took a step towards the ford.

Gandalf had reached the end of his patience and reached out, seizing the hobbit's shoulder. 'Now see here…'

Silver-lock whipped around and struck Gandalf's hand away hard enough to make the wizard hiss at the blow and step back. 'No, old man, you see here. I don't much care for your high and mighty manners, and I'm not much scared by your big size and your big stick. I don't care if you're the High King come again, you've no call to interfere with me or mine. Now, wizard, make yourself useful or make yourself scarce. I don't much care which.' The small hobbit bestowed a rather withering stare upon the wizard, which was a considerable feat given their difference in height and hobbit's relative disadvantage. After a moment, the hobbit turned his back on Gandalf and began ordering the others into place.

Make myself useful, or make myself scarce. The wizard felt a strange shiver in his spine, and knew he had heard something more important than mere words. Gandalf stood and watched the hobbits get ready, then shrugged off his pack, and carefully placed his cloak, hat, and scarf on top of it. He walked to the edge of the stream, holding his staff in one hand, and waited for Silver-lock to tell him what to do.

'You, wizard, go into the creek and put your shoulder into the back of the wagon. When the pony starts pulling, shove.'

Gandalf did as he was told. The water was deeper, colder, and faster moving than he had imagined. Even so, Silver-lock did not hesitate to plunge in, calling for the boy, Grim, to hand down branches from the wagon, so he could get them placed under the back wheels. Gandalf threw his strength into shoving the back of the wagon, using his staff to leverage it up out of the muck. Within a few minutes, the wagon was up on the far shore.

The wizard waded back to collect his gear, holding it overhead to keep it out of the water. Silver-lock waited on the far side. Both were soaked and filthy from the creek bed mud, and Gandalf started to shiver a bit in the crisp spring breeze. Silver-lock stared up at him with a calculating look, then his face broke into a big grin.

'You're more useful than you look, old man.'

Am I now? Perhaps this is true. 'Thank you. To whom do I have the honor of speaking?'

Silver-lock stuck out hand in greeting. 'I'm the Thain. Gerontius Took. And if you'll come home with me, I'll give you some dry clothes. And a pouch of good pipe-weed.' The Thain's eyes twinkled mischievously. 'I would think a wizard would be wise enough to tell good from bad.'

Gandalf chuckled despite the chill. 'Well, Thain Gerontius, perhaps you would be kind enough to instruct me in the matter of pipe-weed.' Perhaps it is a different wisdom I need to seek for now. I need the wisdom of Thains. And more lessons in how to be useful. The wizard set aside his dark concerns, set his belongings on top of the load of wood, and set out with the Thain.