It took me a moment to collect my wits enough to finally say, "Petals, what the Halls are you doing here?"
"Bywater was getting too hot for me," Petals answered. "This Big Guy dressed all in black comes into the Dragon and starts hissing the name 'Baggins', and then starts wrecking the place when nobody pipes up. I figured it wouldn't be too long before some low-life rats me out, so I made like a tree. Then Legs here," he indicated Mister Sarcastic, "collars me and says he can hide me where Mister Black can't find me. Sounds like a good deal to me, so I tag along when he blows out of town. We went along the Water following your boat until you stopped here, so we waded across and Legs set up camp."
"It's good to see you, Petals," I said, and it was. Petals and me go way back. The first hole he ever nobbled was my Uncle Stinky's in Hobbiton, and I helped him fence the stuff he boosted. Made a nice piece of change, and gave me a chance to get back at the old rat for cheating Uncle Lucky. Then I looked over at the Ranger. "So what's the plan, Legs?"
"Khamûl and his buddies are going to be looking high and low for you, Deuce," said Legs, "so we've got to get you out of the Shire p.d.q."
"Buddies? Khamûl's got buddies? He didn't strike me as the convivial type."
"Eight of them," said Legs, "and they're all just as bad."
"Crap," muttered Petals. Maybe he was having second thoughts about palling around with Legs and me. I sure would.
"What's the deal with Khamûl?" I asked Legs. "Who's he working for?"
"Sauron," said Legs simply.
"You're full of it, Legs," I insisted. "The elves and the Westies took Sauron down a long time ago."
"Not for good they didn't," said Legs. "As long as the One Ring is still intact, Sauron can always make a comeback. And that's just what he's doing. If he gets his hands on it, he'll be back to his old tricks."
"What ring?" said Petals. So I filled him in on what Doc told me about the magic rings, with Legs chiming in now and then.
"After he got back the sixteen rings he helped Celebrimbor make," said Legs, "Sauron started handing them out to the dwarves and the Big Folk. He figured if he couldn't use them to take over Celebrimbor and the other top elves in Eregion, he could do it to someone else. It didn't work so well on the dwarves, just made them even more greedy than usual. But when one of the Big Folk puts one on, it makes him invisible, and helps him boss other people around. They loved that."
"I bet," I said. There's nothing Big Folk like more than bossing other people around.
"And they didn't get any older, and they loved that even more. But all the time the Big Folk were using their rings," Legs continued, "Sauron was getting them under his thumb. After a while, the Big Folk stayed invisible, even when they weren't wearing the rings. By that time, their minds were completely taken over. So Sauron ordered them to come to his hidout in Mordor and hand over the rings, and they did. After that, they did whatever he told them to."
I could see where Legs was going with this. "And that's who Khamûl and his pals are, huh? Immortal invisible Big Folk that Sauron has put the whammy on."
"You go it," said Legs. "Now he's got them all out trying to find the ring. Now that Khamûl thinks you've got it, Sauron's going to send the rest of them to find you."
"Crap," Petals said again. As far as I was concerned, that pretty much summed it up.