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King Oak by Karlmir Stonewain

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Chapter notes:
I got the idea for this story from an ancient White Pine on my property which had toppled in an autumnal windstorm during the mid-1980's. The huge tree had survived for about a century before its demise.
Early morning sun-rays shown through the partly erupted spring leaves along the eastern fringes of the Old Forest near the Barrow-downs, warming the bare head of the old Maia-gone-native, Tom Bombadil.* For over a week he had forgone his usual colorful clothing in favor of drab peasant’s garb. His battered old hat hung on a peg back at his spacious cottage and ordinary, ankle-high, thick-soled work shoes took the place of his usual yellow leather boots.

Tom, you see, was in a sort of mourning state over the loss of an old friend of the woods, as well as a long familiar landmark. He leaned thoughtfully against the gnarled bark of the great, recently-toppled tree he had long ago come to fondly refer to as King Oak. A great sigh escaped his throat as he recalled the many times he and Goldberry had spent a pleasant summer afternoon picnicking in the shade of its spreading branches or sang gaily beneath its mighty boughs as they gathered acorns for Goldberry’s pressed winter cakes.

An early May breeze whispered through the woods, rustling the leaves of the previous year about Bombadil’s feet and carrying the fresh spring scents of life renewed across the land. Yet, Tom remained oblivious to the vernal bouquet as he remained lost in thought. The leaves and branches rustled in familiar whispers overhead, bringing him out of his reverie.

“You must tolerate Men in the forest for a short while, my friends,” he softly spoke to the trees about him. “King Oak must not lie about for decades to bring sadness to our hearts. He will be disposed of in a manner befitting a noble tree and his ashes scattered to enrich the earth.”

The old Maia’s address was interrupted by the loud clanging of a brass bell a short distance to the east. “Tom!” Goldberry’s voice rang out. “Constable Butterbur is here with the King’s engineers!”

Tom sighed again, wiping a few tears from his eyes as he took up his walking stick and trudged toward the cottage.

* * *

Captain Cordof Orgrip and Constable Ulbar Butterbur dismounted from their horses as Goldberry put her large brass bell inside the door of the cottage. “Can I offer you some cold water, gentlemen?” she asked with a warm smile.

“Water would be much appreciated, Lady,” the Captain replied as he removed his forage cap and wiped his brow. “The nights still have a touch of frost, but the days have been getting warmer than usual for the time of year.”

“It’s had a marked effect on the foliage,” the Constable noted. “Most of the hardwoods’ leaves are nearly fully erupted.

“Most of the spring wildflowers are now fully in bloom too,” Goldberry said as she emerged from the kitchen with two brass beakers of fresh water.

The men wasted no time in slaking their thirsts in big gulps. The sweet water had been drawn from a bubbling spring, deep and cold.

“There appears to be something missing on your person,” Ulbar remarked to the River-daughter as the beakers were emptied. “Where are the usual blossoms that have graced your lovely hair on my previous visits? Your handsomely stitched belt is gone too.”

“You’ll find Tom in a rather drab state also,” Goldberry replied as she placed the beakers inside the doorway. “We’re not in the mood for our usual merry-derry-dilloes right now. The great oak was our friend, especially Tom’s, and our moods are now a bit somber. Tom wasn’t too bad during the winter, but he’s been increasingly pensive and unhappy as the day of your visit approached.

Butterbur recalled dropping in on the Bombadils the previous fall when he was on his way to Bree to visit his older brother Barley. He had briefly examined the great fallen oak, but had not had enough time to fully evaluate the damage. Before leaving, he had promised to bring the King’s engineers the following spring to saw and split the oak into useable pieces.

The men turned as a stocky figure approached across the wide, blossom-covered meadow to the west of the cottage. Master Bombadil’s melancholy state was immediately apparent, for his favorite hat was missing and neither were his bare brown locks covered with a wreath of fresh leaves. Instead of approaching with his usual sprightly gait, he leaned upon his walking stick like an old man.

“Good to see you again, Ulbar,” Tom said dully as he reached the meadow’s edge. “’Tis a truly sad business we’ll be about shortly. I’ve been explaining it to the forest all morning. Where are the rest of your men?”

“They’re not my men,” Butterbur replied, trying to improve his friend’s mood with a hearty handshake, “they’re the Captain’s. Allow me to introduce you to Cordof Orgrip, second son of the King’s Chief Advisor and Chief Engineer to the government surveying projects east of The Greenway.”

“My men and wagons should arrive shortly,” Orgrip said. “The Constable and I rode on ahead to assess the situation here.”

“You don’t quite look like a real soldier,” Bombadil remarked in a puzzled tone as he extended his hand toward the Captain. The officer wore no uniform or mail, but only a cuirass bearing the White Tree of Gondor over civilian clothing.

“Actually, I’m not a soldier,” Cordof replied with a wry grin. “Although I’m in charge of a battalion of the King’s engineers, I’m still a civilian. My rank is merely a title denoting my pay grade.”

Bombadil nodded in acknowledgment. He had heard how Elessar maintained a small standing army whose men served as soldiers in times of war and engineers in times of peace. In the years following the War of the Ring, they had been transforming forested parcels of government land in Eriador and Dunland into useable farmland for the benefit of veterans and deserving citizens.

“Tom, you’d better show these gentlemen the tree now,” Goldberry said from the wide threshold of the cottage. “They’ll want to get their men to work immediately if the work is to be finished by tomorrow evening.”

* * *

This was not the first time a Gondorian Corps of Engineers had performed a service for Tom Bombadil. In the months after his coronation, King Elessar had learned of the ancient woodsman’s vital aid to Frodo Baggins and his companions soon after the Hobbit had entered the Old Forest carrying the One Ring. As a reward for his assistance and good will, the King had ordered that Bombadil be granted whatever help the engineers could offer during the seasons they were being employed in that region.

A much-needed outbuilding the engineers had constructed for the Bombadils was a fine woodshed capable of holding several cords, connected to the cottage’s south face by a covered walkway. During the following years, a twenty-mile cart road had been built westward from The Greenway though the Barrow-downs, ending at the wide meadow just east of the Bombadil cottage. Local peddlers now came by frequently to buy Goldberry’s arts and crafts, as well as cakes, milk, butter and eggs.

* * *

“Here is the old king himself,” Tom said sadly as he and the two men arrived at the spot where the great tree lay sprawled and partly shattered on the forest floor. Several smaller trees had also been brought down in a woody tangle by its spreading limbs.

“The ground is mostly level between here and the cottage,” Captain Orgrip observed. The cottage was just visible through the woods, about a hundred yards to the west. “The men should have no problem getting the wagons in here.” He and the Constable walked the length of the fallen giant to ascertain the best spot for the woodcutters to begin their work.

Hoofbeats sounded from the east as two horsemen entered the woods. The main party of soldiers and teamsters had arrived. Two sergeants reined up before the officer and saluted smartly. “Lady Goldberry directed us to your location, sir,” the senior of the two reported. “With Master Bombadil’s permission, we shall set up camp in the meadow to the west of the Barrow-downs.”

“That’s fine by me,” Tom said in resignation. “Now, if you gentlemen will excuse me, I do not wish to observe what must be done to old King Oak.” Without another word, Bombadil shuffled off toward the Withywindle and was soon lost among the tangle of bushes and tree trunks.

“Sergeants,” Orgrip ordered, “bring the wagons up at once and get the men to work. Have some of the other personnel come and lend a hand too, once camp has been set up.”

* * *

Bombadil rested his weary frame upon a large boulder next to the murmuring stream, soaking his aching feet in its glistening cold waters as his cows indifferently watched him from the opposite bank. For the first time in ages, he felt old. The songs of the soldiers could be heard over the sounds of their axes and saws.

“Don’t be bothered by the men's noises,” Tom said to the surrounding trees. “They’ll be done with their work shortly and there will be peace in the forest again. Our great friend will be disposed of in a manner befitting one of his quality.”

The wind whispered softly through the overhead branches as the leaves rustled in a long sigh of sympathy. The boughs of a small pine near the boulder drooped slightly as if attempting to place a comforting needled arm upon the woodsman’s shoulder. Bombadil lowered his head and wept.

* * *

Ulbar Butterbur stood back from a four-foot section of King Oak’s trunk as a soldier drove steel wedges into strategic spots to split the wood along its reddish grain. With a loud crack, a manageable-sized log fell away. Butterbur deftly lifted the log with a steel pulp hook and gloved hand, tossing it neatly onto those already stacked in the nearby wagon.

“That’s enough for this load, Constable,” the teamster said.

“Wait a bit,” Ulbar said. “I’ll ride to the cottage with you.” He quickly retrieved his shirt from a nearby bush. About two dozen men were working in the rapidly growing clearing, some using two-man saws, others working with lopping shears or axes. About a third of the huge tree had been reduced to logs.

“Hey!” the teamster yelled, giving the reins a shake as Butterbur settled on the seat beside him. The load of wood was heavy, but the four draft horses pulled the wagon easily through the woods and across the short meadow to the cottage. Ulbar breathed in the familiar, pleasant odors of the camp: horses, wood smoke, cooking──all mixed with the sweet scents of vegetation being renewed.

Ulbar alit from the wagon as the driver reined up beside the woodshed. Four soldiers plied two-man cordwood saws with great efficiency while a fifth carried the finished logs into the shed. There were two-foot lengths for the hearth and one-foot chunks for the kitchen stove. Two more soldiers, stripped to the waist, swung large-bladed axes, splitting the chunks further to fit the stove. Over a cord of wood had already been processed and neatly stacked in the shed.

Ulbar availed himself of one of the washstands and fresh water the camp women had set up for the soldiers. He hurriedly donned a fresh shirt and took a special parcel from one of the wagons. His strides were brisk and eager as he moved through the camp toward the cottage. The sun was nearly at its zenith and he wanted to see Goldberry before lunchtime.

“Where’s my favorite River Daughter?” he called from the threshold. The comely goodwife was caught busily working at the huge oaken table dominating the kitchen.

“Ulbar, you naughty rogue,” Goldberry playfully chided as she looked up from the huge pile of dough she was kneading. “Your wife keeps warning me about you in her letters, saying what a rascal you are.”

“’Tis well she is in your thoughts,” Ulbar grinned as he placed the pasteboard box before Goldberry, “for I have brought a gift for you, lovingly made by her own delicate hands.”

Goldberry lifted the lid of the box and gasped with delight. Within lay six exquisitely painted and fired ceramic soup bowls. “These are lovely, Ulbar! I’ll be sure to write her immediately and offer my profuse thanks.”

“Well, it’s her way of thanking you for the recipe for your delicious spiced cakes. She also wished for me to pass on something,” he said, taking up her floury hands. “This is from her,” he said humorously, kissing the back of one hand, “and this is from me,” he said, kissing the other.

“You are a mischievous rogue, indeed, Ulbar Butterbur,” the River-daughter smiled as she returned to her work, “but a very gallant one. Have you seen Tom about? I haven’t seen him since he led you into the woods.”

“He went off toward the pasture by the river as soon as we started work. I’m afraid he was rather melancholy──although you seem less affected.”

“His sadness is for King Oak,” Goldberry stated as she reached for the rolling pin, “but mine is in worrying about him. Tom feels everything connected with the forest. It is both a blessing and a curse. He frets in not having anticipated the tree’s decline and end. His power over the forest appears to be mysteriously waning, as is mine. I don’t know why.”

Ulbar took on a look of puzzlement as he folded his arms across his chest. “I’ve heard very similar claims from more than one quarter. I met some Elves in Bree last autumn who were on their way to the Grey Havens. They told me that the power and magic which they drew from the land was in decline as the Age of Men waxed stronger. Even the Barrow-Wights have disappeared. I must admit, Lady, that I lack any real understanding of these things.”

Goldberry suspected, however, that Butterbur knew a bit more about the Barrow-downs than what he was willing to divulge, for it was shortly after he became Chief Constable that he had assisted the King’s soldiers in the excavation and removal of the Wights’ treasures from the numerous barrows. The resulting funds had paid for much of the Corps of Engineers’ work in the region.

Butterbur paused for a moment or two, as if lost in thought. “Let me reassure you, Lady, that the great oak’s demise was completely natural. It came down as the result of heartwood rot at its base and possibly a few lightening strikes. It’s highly unlikely that it could have resisted many more windy storms. I don’t think our good Tom could have done anything about that.”

Goldberry absently brushed her flaxen forelocks from her eyes, getting flour in her hair. It only served to enhance her wifely beauty. “When will you be returning from Bree?”

“In about three weeks.”

“Stop by again, even if for only a day.” There was a tone of urgency in her voice. “I’ll give you a box of cakes to take home to your family, as well as a letter for your wife.”

The idea of delaying his return trip flitted briefly across Ulbar’s mind, but he banished the thought immediately. His friends’ welfare came first. “Yes, I’ll want to check up on how you’re both doing. Well, the camp women are almost finished cooking stew for lunch. I’ll see you and Tom again this evening.”

* * *

Tom Bombadil hummed tunelessly to himself as he trudged toward the front door of his cottage. About a dozen or more of those in the nearby camp looked up from their suppers and waved or shouted their evening greetings to the old forest master. Bombadil could do naught but nod in a friendly manner, for he carried a heavy milk pail in one hand and a basket of eggs in the other.

“There you are!” Goldberry exclaimed, as Tom stood sheepishly on the threshold. He had caught her stirring a pot of savory soup on the kitchen stove. “I was so worried about you. You moped all through lunch and left without a word afterward. It’s a relief to see that you kept busy these last few hours. Put those things in the butter cellar before they spoil.”

“I was a bit distracted,” Tom said over his shoulder as he descended the stairs. He emerged a moment later to grasp his wife about the waist and plant an affectionate wet kiss on the her tanned neck, forcing her to squeal with delight. He had to stand on tiptoes to do it, for his wife was several inches taller than he was. “I’m feeling somewhat better now. I just spoke with Captain Orgrip and he again reassured me that the work will be completed by tomorrow evening. A fine barrow of earth and stone will be raised over King Oak’s stump.”

The River-daughter had labored before the stove for the better part of the day. Despite the windows and doors open to the evening air and the fireless hearth, the kitchen remained hot──although not unpleasantly so.

“Go and wash up,” Goldberry said as she removed steaming loaves of bread from the oven. “The soup will be ready in a few minutes.”

Tom couldn’t resist going first down the hallway to the south entrance, then through the covered walkway to the adjacent woodshed. The sun was rapidly setting, but there was still plenty of light coming through the shed’s opposite open door. His numerous farming and gardening implements hung neatly from rows of hooks near the entrances. The building’s interior smelled pungently of freshly cut and split oak.

Bombadil regarded the neat rows of wood almost reverently as he ran his fingers gently over several of the nearest logs. The stacks were about a foot taller than his head, for the spacious outbuilding had been crafted according to Mannish standards. A bit of the old forest master’s wit and practical nature began to reemerge as he waxed poetically:

“This fine old grain has split at last,
So that we might have
The secrets of its years
To burn for our pleasure.”

Tom went to the opposite door and took in a deep breath of the cool evening air as he gazed upon the soldiers’ horses grazing in the west meadow. The odors of campfires and cooking was being carried along by a gentle breeze. Feeling more at peace, he abruptly turned and went back to the kitchen.

* * * * *
Chapter end notes:
*Tom Bombadil’s race is unknown, although there has been some speculation that he was Maia. See The Encyclopedia of Arda online for a discussion on this subject.
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