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This and That  by Lindelea

Written for the hobbit_ficathon "Rivendell" challenge. A minstrel of Rivendell acquaints a visitor from Lothlorien with a very special house-guest.

Dorwinion Wine – 12/01/04

Very well, then, I'll admit I had a little more to drink that night than might be deemed proper, especially in the light of the next dawning... O my head!

But the Lord Elrond has decreed that there shall be music at breakfast, and as singing is one of my duties, sing I must.

I sing with what I hope is appropriate style and dignity. My fingers, usually so clever on the strings, go where they oughtn’t—a lapse in concentration, but young Estel smirks at me, nonetheless, for many’s the night I played softly as he wept in the Lord Elrond’s arms, tiny mite, newly bereft of his father and the rest of his kin. He knows this song nearly as well as I!

I close my eyes, the better to lose myself in the soothing music, and when I open them again he is standing before me.

At that moment I have the ill fortune to have a string break, and with this sour note my song is suspended.

No, not Estel, I meant the little fellow… Bilbo, yes, that’s the one, dozing in the corner there. He was much younger then, the first time he came to Imladris. You’ve never met him? Well, of course his wandering feet never bore him to the Golden Wood. Yes, that is he. He’s ancient, by their standards. You’ve never met one of their kind? Well, they don’t travel from their land, as a rule. He’s the first I’ve ever met, as a matter of fact.

But at our first meeting, he was wide awake, eyes bright, cheeks round and red as apples, not wrinkled as you see them now, and a broad grin on his face. Where was I...? O yes, the morning after his arrival, and I have just broken a string...

He bows, and chuckles. ‘That last sound was not quite so fair, Master Elf!’ he cries in delight. These hobbits, they delight in everything, it seems.

Not at all daunted by my frown, either, but then he’s been travelling with Mithrandir. My frowns can’t hold a candle to his!

‘Master Bilbo,’ I say with a bow. It might not have been as graceful as it ought, for my head aches most abominably.

‘You have the advantage of me,’ he says, but before I can introduce myself, he bows and says, ‘At your service!’ and then immediately launches into another topic. Ah, but they are a mortal race, and do not have the luxury we know of contemplating a subject at length.

‘The birds are singing their most cheerful songs,’ he informs me, ‘and here your strumming and crooning is fit to put me to sleep in my breakfast! How about something a bit more lively?’

‘I sing to please the Lord Elrond,’ I say with as much dignity as I can muster.

‘O come now!’ he says, his eyes sparkling. ‘I know for a fact that you know a livelier tune! How about “tra-la-la-lally, down here in the valley!”?’

I might have winced, for he winks and says, ‘Don’t you remember? “Tril-lil-lil-lolly, the valley is jolly!” ...but you’re not looking all that jolly at the moment! I could sing the whole for you, if you like! I’m quick at learning songs, often pick them up at first hearing!’

I curse the Elves of Dorwinion and their wine.

His look grows thoughtful. ‘But perhaps such a song does not fit these august halls,’ he says slowly. ‘It is better suited to perching in a tree, I think.’

At that point Mithrandir calls him back to his breakfast, and I return to my music-making, one string less, but somehow feeling more cheerful than I have felt since the dawning.


Written for Marigold's Challenge 12. The story starter from which this story is built was: ‘__? What does “__” mean?’

Title: The Un-Expected Guest
Author: Lindelea
Rating: G
Main Characters: Bilbo Baggins, Drogo and Primula, and a nameless party-crashing hobbit
Disclaimer: The characters aren’t mine, but I sometimes sneak out with them for a cup of tea and a biscuit or two, or sit and watch them sleep. Thanks to Dana for beta-reading!
Brief synopsis: Bilbo has an unexpected guest break in on an intimate birthday supper.

The Un-Expected Guest

 ‘Having a baby? What does “having a baby” mean?’

Drogo’s tone was as bland as the face he turned to his panicky wife. It was not something to be spoken of in polite company, after all, not even when the evidence was all too obvious to the casual eye. At any other time Primula might have flushed at the implied rebuke, but at the moment she was too frightened. And mortified. Yes, “mortified” described her feelings perfectly.

Bilbo chuckled and patted Primula’s hand. ‘My dear,’ he said, ‘but of course it’s been common knowledge for some months now. And when is the blessed event to be expected?’

Primula’s answer was drowned by the heartfelt moan that escaped her as her hands pressed hard on her protruding belly, as if she could force her body into submission to her will.

 ‘I’m sorry, cousin Bilbo,’ Drogo said, rising hastily. ‘It seems my wife is taken ill.’

 ‘What a pity,’ Bilbo said. ‘Perhaps something she ate is not agreeing with her?’

 ‘Perhaps,’ Drogo said, standing behind Primula and circling her with his arms. He bent to nuzzle the curls escaping the elaborately braided crown she’d taken so many pains over, what with the honour of being asked to an intimate supper with the renowned Bilbo Baggins! After all, she wanted to draw more attention to her face... than other regions. But now all her careful preparations were for naught! ‘My dear, would you like to retire?’

 ‘Why don’t you see your wife to the guest room whilst I pour out the brandy in the study,’ Bilbo said. ‘We can smoke and talk and sweet Prim might feel up to joining us for a little something later.’

The awful wave that had broken over her head subsided enough for her to speak once more.

 ‘You don’t understand!’ she said desperately. ‘I’m having a baby!’

A slight frown crossed Bilbo’s genial face. ‘I do believe we’ve covered that subject adequately,’ he said, emphasising the last word.

 ‘I’m having a baby—’ Primula repeated. This was a bad dream. That’s what it had to be. This could not be happening. Surely she’d waken, and it would be... yesterday, yes that would be perfect, yesterday, and this intimate birthday supper would still be something that Drogo was eagerly (and a little nervously, truth be told) anticipating. She grasped at Drogo’s hands and squeezed them—hard. Drogo took her hands in his and squeezed back much more gently than she had.

I’ll try to be a credit to you, darling, even if I’m just one of those Bucklanders from the Wilds on the wrong side of the Brandywine.

Of course you’ll be a credit to me, my love. And Bilbo’s been much farther than the Wilds of Buckland. He has no objection, I’ve noticed, to stopping over at Brandy Hall to enjoy your father’s hospitality!

Mortified. Yes, that was the word. Exactly.

 ‘I’m having a baby now!’ Primula managed. Honestly, had she not been wishing herself some means of disappearing on the spot, she’d have laughed at old Bilbo’s expression. But thinking of her husband, she managed a contrite look. ‘I am sorry, cousin Bilbo, but it seems...’ Another strong pain seized her and she was unable to continue her apology.

Drogo’s hands loosened and pulled away from hers. She thought perhaps he was stepping away from her, rejecting this highly inappropriate scene she was imposing on this momentous occasion, rejecting—her! Inconceivable as the thought might be... It was only after she heard the thump behind her that she realised her husband had fainted dead away.

This was not going as well as they’d hoped.

***  

 ‘An invitation to supper next week!’ Drogo said, waving the letter excitedly. He waltzed into the sitting room where Primula was keeping her feet up, for her ankles were swelling alarmingly on this warm September day.

He danced around her chair, light on his feet for all his bulk, and ended with a hug and a kiss for wife and a pat on her protruding abdomen for their babe, still a month away from arrival, or so the midwife thought.

 ‘Really?’ Primula said, hugging him back before pushing him away to resume fanning herself. He took the fan from her and waved it so vigorously that her curls danced in the breeze—but ah, it was so refreshing! She closed her eyes to savour the feeling. ‘I’m not sure I’m able to make the journey all the way to Brandy Hall, not in this weather at least, and so close to my time... Are they sending a coach?’

 ‘Not to Brandy Hall, my love!’ Drogo crowed. ‘Bilbo!’

 ‘Bilbo!’ she echoed, sitting up straight in her chair (as best she could) and opening her eyes. ‘Do you think...?’

 ‘He said he would give my proposition serious thought... it has been nearly a month, dearest. If he’s invited us to supper I’m sure he must be feeling agreeable about the whole matter!’

Primula wilted, but she put on a brave face for Drogo’s sake. ‘Lovely,’ she said. ‘I hope you’ll have a very nice time, and I’ll be sitting on pins and needles the whole time until you come back and tell me all about it!’

 ‘But of course you’re coming!’ Drogo said.

 ‘How can I?’ Primula said, looking down at herself. ‘Why, I’m in no condition... it wouldn’t be seemly...’

 ‘The invitation specifically names the both of us,’ Drogo said stubbornly.

 ‘O Drogo,’ Primula said. ‘It’s not that I don’t want to go. But to fight a crowd... and if one more gaffer pats me on the stomach with a fatuous look, I... I’ll... pat him, I will, and right on the nose!’

 ‘An intimate supper, it says,’ Drogo replied, waving the letter under her nose. ‘No crowds to fight.’

 ‘Next week?’ Primula said. ‘But not on his birthday, I take it.’

 ‘His birthday,’ Drogo echoed. He looked at the letter again, more closely. ‘September the 22nd!’

Primula thought that this must be what her mother meant when she said she was having palpitations. She gasped for breath, and Drogo fanned her quite vigorously for a moment or two before she was able to speak. ‘His birthday,’ she whispered. ‘An intimate supper. O Drogo!’

 ‘It must mean the answer is “yes”!’ Drogo said. He glanced about the little room with its shabby but lovingly polished furnishings. ‘My dearest, it must be! Bilbo has considered my idea, and will agree to help us with the business!’ Soon I’ll be able to keep you in the style you were accustomed to, growing up as daughter of the Master of Buckland.

 ‘Let us not put the cart before the pony,’ Primula said, ever cautious. She looked down at herself again. ‘But, Drogo, an old bachelor like Bilbo...’

 ‘My dear,’ Drogo said breezily. ‘Bilbo’s seen the world! Surely your delicate condition is nothing to upset or embarrass the hobbit.’

 ‘If you say so,’ Primula said dubiously. Surely Bilbo knew of her condition, though she’d not stirred beyond the gate of their small garden for the past fortnight, grateful for the kindness of neighbouring wives who took it upon themselves to do her shopping. It would be nice to eat a meal she didn’t have to cook herself!

She winced as another of the cramps struck. They were a regular nuisance! The midwife said it was quite common, and a preparation for the baby’s coming, and likely to continue right up until the baby’s coming as a matter of fact. ‘How will I know he’s coming, for sure then?’ Primula had asked.

The midwife had only patted her shoulder with a smile. ‘You’ll know,’ was all she’d said.

***

Bilbo welcomed the two younger hobbits with a broad smile and genial greetings. ‘Drogo! Primula! You’re looking wonderfully well, my dear!’ He did not pat her protruding middle, for which she was grateful, but then Bilbo was a gentlehobbit and knew the proprieties. Of course, propriety dictated that she should not even be out in public, having entered her confinement in her last month of waiting, at least according to the dictates of “society”, but then... she’d left society and all its dictates behind when she’d married Drogo. Dear Drogo! His father had gambled away the family’s fortunes, thrusting his son into the working class. And work Drogo did! He was not one to live off the wealth of his wife!

 ‘Happy birthday, Bilbo,’ Primula said as Bilbo divested her of her shawl.

 ‘And many happy returns,’ Drogo added.

Bilbo chuckled, an infectious sound, as if he had a delightful secret. Truth be told, he didn’t look any older to Primula’s eyes than he had the first time he came to supper at Brandy Hall after his wondrous return from the “dead”.

 ‘Well now, come in, come in!’ Bilbo said, draping the shawl over his arm and beckoning them from the entryway into the smial proper. ‘Let us sit you down... would you care for a glass of sherry?’

Delicious smells wafted through the air as Drogo solicitously settled Primula in the parlour in a comfortable chair—not too low, for she might never haul herself out again!—but well-cushioned. Bilbo, without comment, pushed an ottoman into position and gently lifted her feet. She thanked him with a pretty blush.

 ‘Absolutely glowing, my dear,’ he said kindly, patting her cheek with a gentle hand. He was back with a small glass of cordial for her, and two glasses of sherry for himself and Drogo.

 ‘A toast,’ he said with a twinkle in his eye. ‘To the newest business in the Shire! Baggins & Co.!’ He lifted his glass high as Primula gasped in wonder, tears coming to her eyes, and Drogo’s hand clasped convulsively on her shoulder.

 ‘Do you really mean it, cousin?’ he said, stumbling over the words. So much for being calm, urbane, making a good impression.

 ‘Of course I do!’ Bilbo said with a chuckle. ‘Now drink! For the luck, you know!’ Hastily they complied.

 ‘Baggins & Co.?’ Drogo asked. ‘Not Baggins and Baggins?’

 ‘I think it best, my lad, that I remain a silent partner,’ Bilbo said seriously. ‘If your suppliers hear that I’m involved they’ll charge you thrice what they charge anyone else.’

 ‘Ah,’ Primula said, thinking of the rumours of treasure brought back from far places.

 ‘It’s not that at all,’ Bilbo said, shaking a jesting finger as if he guessed her thoughts. ‘Knowing “Mad Bilbo” is a part of the business they’ll think there’s no sane head involved and they can take advantage of you. But of course there is a canny head in the business...!’ And to Primula’s delight he made a sweeping bow towards Drogo.

They moved to the formal dining room to celebrate with a festive dinner that Bilbo had cooked with his own hands. There’d be no ears to hear their business discussion. He insisted that Primula sit down at the table while he and Drogo took care of all the details of serving and clearing away.

It was as Bilbo was bringing out the grand dessert course that disaster struck.

***

 ‘I’ll just run next door and send Missus...’ Bilbo said, rising hastily from his chair, but Primula grabbed at him in panic.

 ‘No! Please don’t leave me!’ she said desperately. ‘I’m having a baby!’ It was all she could think of to say, for the feeling rose up in another wave, overwhelming her senses, and she thought her child might be born here at table. Perhaps appropriate, for a hobbit, but not necessarily desirable.

 ‘A bed’s the thing,’ Bilbo said, patting her hand and managing to disengage her gripping fingers. He turned away and bent over Drogo, patting his cheeks and calling his name, and turning, took a water goblet from the table. From the sound, though Primula wasn’t able to look around, he dashed the water into Drogo’s face. ‘He’s well out. Hit his head, perhaps, but I don’t think he’s badly hurt. Still, my dear, we cannot leave you here.’

 ‘No,’ Primula said, in complete agreement.

The wave broke and receded by the time Bilbo was at her side again, holding her elbow in a firm grasp, coaxing her to rise from her chair.

It was the most peculiar feeling, actually. She shuffled along as Bilbo clucked at her like a solicitous hen, lifting and pulling her along, but she stopped short in the hallway, panting like a bellows.

 ‘What is it, my dear?’ Bilbo said. ‘I’ve a nice bed just along here a little...’

 ‘Can’t...!’ Primula gasped.

 ‘No really,’ Bilbo said. ‘It’s no trouble at all. I always have a bed ready for guests...’

Primula’s answer was a great moan as she bent over as well as she could, holding herself. ‘He’s here!’ she said. ‘He’s coming... now!’

Bilbo muttered something under his breath, what it was Primula didn’t quite catch. It might have been Dwarvish, for all she knew, but he immediately added, ‘Then let us get you into the bed, and I’ll go ask the neighbours to fetch the midwife...’

However, forces beyond her control, and Bilbo’s for that matter, were at work. Prim’s legs wobbled under her and she crumpled to her knees.

Bilbo hauled at her arm, to no effect. ‘Well now,’ he muttered to himself. ‘Here’s a fine kettle of fish.’

Prim gave another groan and next she knew she was sitting on the carpet, leaning on her elbows, throwing her head back as an overwhelming urge seized her.

Bilbo had disappeared... no, he was burrowing under her skirts, and was chanting words of encouragement. How he knew to do what he was doing, Primula didn’t have time to ask. Perhaps later she'd consider the question, but for the present she'd just accept it as part of his mysterious past. Or not so mysterious. A mischievous, curious lad, exploring the myriad halls of the Great Smials...

In less time than it takes to tell Bilbo emerged with a wet and slippery body in his arms as a lusty cry arose from the newcomer. ‘Here we are!’ he cried cheerfully.

Primula felt an enormous sense of relief, but she was also taken with a sudden chill as she reached for the baby. ‘Oh!’ she breathed, staring into the wide eyes. The babe stopped crying and stared back.

Bilbo straightened up, unmindful of his bloody hands, and stripped off waistcoat and fine linen shirt. He wrapped the baby in the shirt, muttering about a chill, and said, ‘There now, you two get acquainted; I’ll be back presently.’ 

 ‘O you darling!’ Primula murmured as a tiny hand emerged from the wrapping. She marvelled at the perfectly formed fingernails on the miniscule fingers, and she tenderly kissed each digit in turn.

Bilbo was back as quickly as he promised, wrapping a fine woollen blanket around Primula. ‘Just a bit more for you to do, my dear,’ he said briskly, and proceeded to take care of business.

 ‘What’s this?’ Drogo was heard to say from the dining room doorway. ‘What’s going on?’ He was rubbing at his head and blinking as if he couldn’t credit the vision that met his eyes.

  ‘Well, well,’ Bilbo said, ‘you’re a little late, but come and join the party. I think you’re going to have to change the name of the business, however...’

 ‘You've changed your mind?’ Drogo said fuzzily. ‘Baggins and Baggins?’

 ‘No,’ Bilbo said complacently as he finished doing what needed done. ‘There now, dear Primula. Let us tuck you up and send for the midwife to look things over! What a wonderful birthday surprise!’

 ‘What to call it then?’ Drogo said, and he didn't mean the baby. In truth he had hit his head in falling, and he was having trouble getting his bearings.

 ‘Eh—what’s that?’ Bilbo said, looking up, and then he got up, went to Drogo, brought him to Primula’s side and sat him down upon the carpet. ‘No,’ he said, going back to his earlier comment. ‘I think you’ll have to call the business “Baggins and Son”.’

Written for Marigold's Challenge 14.

Title: In a Pig's Eye
Author: Lindelea
Rating: G
Main Characters: Pippin, Merry
Disclaimer: The characters aren’t mine, but I sometimes sneak out with them for a cup of tea and a biscuit or two, or sit and watch them sleep.
Brief synopsis: In Rivendell, Pippin makes an astounding discovery.

In a Pig's Eye

 ‘Merry! Merry!’

Meriadoc stirred slightly at his younger cousin’s excited tone, but detecting no panic, he pulled the covers up over his head and settled deeper into the pillow. Lovely large pillows they had here, all he wanted and more.

He ought to have known better. His hands fisted in the bedcovers as a game of “tug” commenced; all the while excited babbling nibbled him awake.

 ‘It’s wonderful! It’s marvellous! It’s the most astonishing...’

When, as was inevitable, his mouth was uncovered, Merry muttered, ‘Did you sleep at all, Pippin?’ He groaned as he felt a bounce on the bed.

 ‘Of course I slept!’ the younger cousin said, but under the older cousin’s sleepy stare he retrenched slightly. ‘Well, I went to bed, anyhow; couldn’t help it, with you hauling me away as if you were my minder or my mum... Merry-Mum, has a sort of ring to it, doesn’t—?' He gave a delighted yelp as Merry rolled over, grabbed him, and rolled him in the bedcovers, ending staring down at the unresisting younger cousin.

 ‘Ha!’ Pippin said, triumphant. ‘You’re awake now! You’ve got to see it! It’s the most fantastic...’

 ‘Yes, it’s wonderful,’ Merry agreed, flopping down upon the bed once more and closing his eyes, for all the good it would do. ‘It’s marvellous, how Lord Elrond was able to find the sliver, just when all hope was lost...’ A sudden thought had him sitting up abruptly. ‘Is he awake?’

 ‘Not Frodo, you nit!’ Pippin pronounced, bouncing with glee on the overlarge bed. Really, Elves knew how to do things properly, they did! Large beds with lots of bounce in them!

Merry appreciated the bed, as well, large, soft layers to sink into, rather like sleeping on clouds, only warmer. However, it seemed as if his appreciation was doomed to be cut short, at least on this morning.

He began to pull the bedcovers over himself once more, and Pippin, saying, ‘No you don’t!’ grabbed at them hastily. In another moment, Merry’s hand had prisoned one of Pippin’s.

 ‘Look at that,’ Merry said in disgust.

 ‘Let go!’ Pippin protested.

 ‘Your hands are a sight! The Elves are going to think hobbits are as dirty as—!’

With another bounce Pippin pulled himself free, reminded of his errand. ‘Give over, Merry, it’s not as if you could go back to sleep now that you’re awake! Come, it’s a glorious day! The Sun is just rubbing the sleep from her eyes, and—’

 ‘She’s not the only one,’ Merry grumbled, but conceding defeat, he rose, threw off his nightshirt, and began dressing. He seemed to remember dropping his clothing in a heap on the floor last night, instead of draping it neatly over a chair as he usually did. For one thing, the chairs here were inconveniently high, and for another, he’d been tempted to crawl into the bed fully clad, exhausted as he was over the long battle for Frodo’s life and his very soul. The snowy whiteness of the linens, however, and the heavenly softness and warmth... these were better enjoyed in clean nightclothes, not dusty, sweaty garments of the day.

However, his clothes were not puddled at his feet, but hanging over the chair, and when he lifted them, a fresh, clean smell came to his nose. He quickly donned his breeches, but buried his face in the shirt a moment before moving to put it on. ‘How do they do it?’ he muttered. The shirt smelled as if it had just come from the line, dried by sun and breeze of a pleasant summery day.

 ‘No time for that, Merry—you’ve got to come!’ Pippin said, grabbing at Merry’s hand as soon as his arms cleared the sleeves and pulling him to the doorway before he’d even begun to find homes for his buttons.

A smiling Elf nodded to them as she passed in the corridor, and Merry hastily did up the buttons as Pippin hurried him along. He was scarcely listening to the steady stream of talk coming from his excited young cousin. Pippin was acting more like an eight-year-old than his eight-and-twenty years, but then he was excited, and exhausted—Merry could read the signs that without doubt Pippin, sleepless in anxiety for Frodo all the days they’d been here, however many it might have been, for day had blurred into night—in any event, it appeared that, crisis over, Pippin had been too tightly wound to sleep.

When they stopped, it took Merry a moment to realise that this, indeed, was their destination. He rounded on his younger cousin.

 ‘You hounded me out of bed for this?’ he said, incredulous. ‘A dirty pigsty?’

 ‘Exactly!’ Pippin said in satisfaction. ‘Isn’t it amazing?’

Merry put the back of his hand against Pippin’s forehead to check for fever. The younger hobbit swatted it away, laughing. ‘I’d hardly call a pigsty amazing,’ Merry said. ‘It looks just like something we’d have back home. Pip, have you lost your wits?’

 ‘It does!’ Pippin crowed. ‘You’ve got it! It looks exactly like the pigsties we have back home!’

At Merry’s dumbfounded look he laughed again, so heartily that he had to grab at his stomach, bending over in his mirth. At last he came up, gasping, pointing a shaking hand at his older cousin. ‘Your—face!’ he gasped, and bent over again.

Through it all Merry stood like a stone, fighting irritation, though worry for his younger cousin was gnawing at his edges.

***

From the Homely House, two tall, lordly figures stared out, arrested by the sounds of merriment heard as they’d passed by the open window, deep in discussion.

Gandalf smiled, but Elrond frowned.

 ‘Their hearts are too light for such a heavy task,’ he said solemnly. ‘I will send them back to the safety of their homes.’

 ‘A dubious safety at best,’ Gandalf said, but Elrond shook his head.

 ‘They can bring warning to their fellows,’ he said. ‘In any event, the Shire will be safer than the journey that must go forward.’

 ‘We do not even know, yet, that Frodo will take the burden to the End,’ Gandalf argued. ‘He  has free choice in the matter.’

Elrond bowed his head before the other, and when he looked the wizard in the eye once more, his lips were set in a thin line. ‘Does he?’ he said, low. ‘Does he indeed? My heart...’

 ‘We will discuss this in the Council,’ Gandalf said. ‘Much will be made clear, then.’

 ‘Nevertheless,’ Elrond said, ‘if the hobbit does go forward, his cousins will wish to go with him, as you say. I would at the very least send the younger one back to his home.’ His lips twitched involuntarily as a peal of laughter floated to them on the breeze.

A messenger interrupted them then, with news of yet more arrivals, and the discussion was tabled by mutual agreement until a later time. Gandalf went to Frodo’s bedside, sending Sam off for a rest, and Elrond went to greet the newest guests.

***

 ‘It’s a pig sty,’ Merry said, putting space between his words for emphasis and striving to maintain an even tone.

 ‘You have the right of it, Merry!’ Pippin said cheerfully, and ducking through the fence rails he brought up a double handful of mud. ‘Isn’t it lovely?’

 ‘Pippin!’ Merry said. ‘You get out of there this instant!’

Pippin began to dance in the mud, singing some inane ditty about pigs in their sty and the Sun in the sky. The lone wakeful pig eyed them in mild astonishment. There were no little ones to protect, this time of year. Most of the pigs were burrowed into the straw at the far end of the pen, still sleeping at this early hour. They’d seek the cool mud as the day warmed, but for the moment there was plenty of mud to share.

Merry rolled his eyes and climbed through the fence to grab at his cousin. ‘Pippin!’ he said. ‘Get out of here this inst—!’ Pippin, losing his balance in the sticky, slippery mud, had grabbed at his arm, pulling them both over as he fell.

Sitting up, Merry was about to give Pippin a piece of his mind, but his cousin lay face-down in the mud, unmoving. Alarmed, he bent over Pippin, calling his name. He put his hands on Pippin’s shoulders, feeling them shaking. ‘Pippin!’ he said urgently.

Pippin came up from the mud, grinning, eyes and teeth shining white from his mud-caked countenance. ‘Merry!’ he said in return. ‘Isn’t it a marvel?’

Now that Pippin had his undivided attention, Merry sighed and gave in to the inevitable. ‘Isn’t what a marvel, Pippin?’ he asked resignedly.

 ‘This!’ Pippin said, flinging out his arms, little splatters of mud flying from his fingertips.

 ‘What, exactly, is a marvel about a pigsty, Pippin?’ Merry asked with exaggerated patience.

 ‘It’s just like a pigsty back in the Shire, Merry!’ Pippin said brightly. He put on his best lecturing manner, seeing his cousin’s mystified look. ‘Hobbits have ponies, Elves have horses. We have shaggy little cows, and the Elves have these great monsters of cows—why, I could walk under one of them and hardly have to bend over to do it! But look at this! Hobbits have pigs—and Elves have pigs!’

Merry was underwhelmed, but Pippin didn’t notice. He was dancing about, flinging handfuls of mud into the air, singing, ‘Elves have pigs! Elves have pigs!’

A pair of passing Elves stared in some astonishment, but when Merry caught their eye they stopped and bowed with great respect—probably on Frodo’s account—and went on.

Merry grabbed at Pippin’s arm, pulling him to a stop. ‘Pippin!’ he said in his most no-nonsense tone.

 ‘Yes, Merry?’ Pippin said brightly, panting slightly from his exercise.

 ‘Time for a bath, I think,’ the older cousin said crisply, looking down at his clothes with regret. Well, someone had made them fresh and clean in the span of a few hours, while he was sleeping. They would likely be made clean once again. He had great hopes, anyhow.

 ‘A bath? Before breakfast?’ Pippin said, oblivious to his state. He was swaying with weariness, Merry saw, and more than likely to fall asleep in his breakfast. But first things first...

 ‘A bath,’ Merry said, standing firm though mud squidged between his toes. ‘You have dirt under your fingernails...’ he said, and mud everywhere else went without having to be said. ‘Come along now.’

Pippin followed obediently, still talking about this remarkable point of similarity he’d found between Hobbits and Elves.

They met not a few Elves along the way, receiving bows and uplifted eyebrows. Merry snorted to himself. If the Elves were astonished by Pippin-of-the-pigsty, just wait until they saw Pippin-in-the-bath!

(3/16/05)

First published in Marigold's Challenge 15:

Title: Something to Do before the End
Author: Lindelea
Rating: G
Main Characters: Pippin, a Captain of Gondor
Disclaimer: The characters aren’t mine, but I sometimes sneak out with them for a cup of tea and a biscuit or two, or sit and watch them sleep. Thanks to Marigold for helpful comments!
Brief synopsis: The bonds of friendship survive beyond all bounds.

Something to Do before the End

Then Pippin stabbed upwards, and the written blade of Westernesse pierced through the hide and went deep into the vitals of the troll, and his black blood came gushing out. He toppled forward and came crashing down like a falling rock, burying those beneath him. Blackness and stench and crushing pain came upon Pippin, and his mind fell away into a great darkness.

 ‘So it ends as I guessed it would,’ his thought said, even as it fluttered away; and it laughed a little within him ere it fled, almost gay it seemed to be casting off at last all doubt and care and fear.
--from “The Black Gate Opens”, The Return of the King, by J.R.R. Tolkien

Shadows in ones and twos stumbled over the slaughter-ground, some of them scavengers of a sort, searching for life and dealing out death. Harsh cries wafted on the wind, death-cries of Orcs and other foul creatures, mingling with the moans of wounded Men.

One shadow stopped where a soldier cradled another; brothers gone to battle together, but only one would return to tell the tale. ‘Let him go, Berandon,’ he said quietly. ‘His spirit has already gone on.’ But the grieving brother heeded him not.

Shaking his head, the shadowy figure went on, only to be stopped by another. ‘Captain! How do you come to be here?’

 ‘Tarondil,’ the Captain said, placing a hand upon a bloody shoulder. He nodded to himself as if the touch confirmed his thought. ‘You do not belong here any longer. Your task is done. You have fulfilled your duty. It is time to take your leave.’

 ‘But I cannot find... I cannot find...’ the soldier said vaguely. He blinked in the gathering light that flooded the battlefield, throwing all into sharp perspective and driving shadows away. His Captain’s face was growing clearer in the Light, and wore an understanding smile.

 ‘He has gone before you,’ the Captain said, releasing the shoulder and turning the soldier towards the light. ‘Your task here is done—go now. It is time to go on, to leave behind pain and fear, sorrow and care. The victory is won!’ And raising his face to the sky, he laughed, a loud and ringing laugh full of gladness and promise.

Some of the wanderers on the field looked up at the sound and made their way to the Captain, greeting him with wonder and joy, and he sent them on their way with blessing, promising to follow when his final task was accomplished. The scavengers continued their grim duty seeming not to hear, desperately seeking the living among the dead.

The Captain found at last the one he sought, a faint spark of life still within. The Troll was no obstacle to him; he simply reached underneath the creature, wedging himself into a space where there was no space... but then, what was space to him? It was not as if he’d rob the unfortunate trapped soldiers of air, the way things stood.

It might be dark under the Troll, blackness and stench and crushing pain, but the Light flooded all, even this prison, and the Captain eased himself down beside the entrapped hobbit, whispering.

 ‘All will be well, Master Peregrin. All will be well.’

The hobbit murmured in return, ‘Boromir...’

From the hobbit’s far side another half-crushed soldier said, muffled, ‘What did he say?’

And the answer came, ‘Something about Boromir. He wanders in dreams...’

 ‘Steady, Beregond,’ the Captain said, though he knew the soldier would likely not hear him. Beregond’s voice sounded full of life, and though the words were laced with pain it seemed he was in no immediate danger. Only those on the threshold, or already crossed over...

 ‘Do you think anyone is looking for us?’ asked the second guardsman, one of three buried beneath the massive body on this forsaken hill.

 ‘They are looking, Targon,’ the Captain assured him, even as Beregond uttered doubt as to the ones to find them. Friends would be well and good, but to be found by the foe, to be taken alive... but the guardsman did not hear.

‘They are looking,’ the Captain repeated, ‘and they will find you while there is still breath in your body, for it is not yet your time...’ 

‘Anything would be better than this stench!’ Targon grumbled, but he answered Beregond and not the Captain at all.

Pippin’s breath came short and pained; he grew ever more solid under the Captain’s questing hand, not a good sign, if one were hoping for his surviving this ordeal.

 ‘Master Peregrin!’ the Captain snapped, trying to gain the young hobbit’s attention. ‘How many times did I tell you, strike and step away! When you face a much larger foe, ‘tis foolishness to plant your feet in the soil, to be felled like a young sapling!’

 ‘Crushed, more likely,’ Pippin murmured, so low in his throat that only the Captain heard him. ‘Boromir? What’re you doing here?’

 ‘I’m here for you, youngster,’ the Captain said in return, with a squeeze for the shoulder. ‘Breathe, now! One-two-one-two. In and out again. Just like sword work: In and out again. Do not wait for the foe to come to you!’

The Captain’s fingers closed together as the hobbit breathed and the small shoulder became less solid under the gauntleted hand. ‘That’s right,’ the Captain said in satisfaction.

 ‘How do you come to be here?’ The barest whisper, echoing in his thoughts. He laughed.

 ‘Why, Peregrin! Do you think I would abandon my City when she was yet in peril? Do you think I would find my rest, knowing her desperation?’

 ‘You stayed...?’

 ‘I stayed to watch over all that I care about.’ The joy on the Captain’s face dimmed. ‘I could do nothing for my father,’ he said sorrowfully. ‘The darkness held him in its thrall, and he could not win free—though he is free, now, and fully healed.’

 ‘Healed?’ Pippin breathed. ‘I am glad to hear it. And you?’

 ‘All is well, Master Peregrin,’ the Captain said again. He shifted his weight, reaching to put his hand on the hobbit’s cool hand, still clutching the sword of Westernesse. ‘Never let go your weapon; it seems you learned your lesson well. Now if you’d only stepped out of the way.’

It seemed to Pippin that he could feel the touch of the Captain’s hand; he forced another shallow breath and the touch faded again.

 ‘That’s it, youngster,’ the Captain said. ‘Just as in the drill. In and out.’

 ‘Hurts,’ Pippin moaned. ‘And I am so dreadfully weary. Let me sleep...’

 ‘No, lad,’ the Captain said at once. ‘You mustn’t sleep. Not yet. They are looking for you, you know.’

 ‘Weary,’ Pippin breathed, and it seemed his hand was growing colder as the Light brightened around them.

The Captain, casting about for an anchor to keep the hobbit from floating away, said, ‘But Merry will come, and it wouldn’t do for him to arrive only in time to bid you fare well! You’ll be the death of him indeed, as he so often threatened along the way!’

 ‘No,’ Pippin moaned, in protest, and Beregond offered muffled words of comfort.

It seemed that the mention of his cousin was strengthening to the hobbit; in any event the Captain could no longer feel the hand beneath his own. He sat back, for the Troll was no encumbrance, and circled his knees with his arms, a pose Pippin had often seen when the Company were at rest along the journey.

 ‘I’ll help you to pass the time,’ the Captain said. ‘And I’ve a scrap of unfinished business before I must go.’

He felt the hobbit’s curiosity rising, and he laughed. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Business! You see, I was there...’

The hobbit’s breath might have come shorter, if it were not already very short and shallow indeed.

 ‘I was watching over the City,’ the Captain said. ‘I was there in the siege; though there was naught I could do, really. Witless of me even to try, I suppose, but I could find no rest, so long as Minas Tirith might fall. My thoughts in life pressed ever after her, and afterwards, I could not give up my anguish, my determination for her defence.’ He rested his chin on his knees and added, ‘I was there beside you, for a part of the time, trying to succor you, to lend you support and courage, though I doubted you knew of it...’

The hobbit thought of Faramir, and the Captain nodded. ‘My brother,’ he said. ‘He was in great peril, and I could do nothing...’ His voice trailed off and his knuckles tightened into fists before he relaxed again, reaching out to almost-touch the hobbit’s sword hand. ‘If not for yourself, Master Peregrin...’ He called beyond, to Beregond, though the soldier would never hear him, ‘and to you, Beregond! I am indebted to you for the life of my brother!’

The hobbit’s thoughts turned to Beregond; his life was forfeit for his actions in saving Faramir, not only for leaving his post in time of battle but also for spilling blood in the Hallows. The Captain shook his head. ‘I cannot see his fate,’ he admitted. ‘He is not close to death at the moment, or perhaps I should say that Death is not close to him. He will survive, and will be pulled alive from under the Troll, as will you,’ his voice intensified as he felt Pippin’s hand taking more solid form under his, ‘just so long as you remember your breathing, youngster! In-and-out again!

He nodded satisfaction as the hand grew less substantial under his, indicating that the hobbit’s hold on life waxed stronger.

 ‘But know this,’ the Captain went on. ‘If he is put to the sword when he returns to the City, because of his crimes, he will be received as a hero in the Halls to come. I will see to it—nay, my father will!’

At the question he perceived in the hobbit’s thoughts, he laughed. ‘I said he was healed!’ he said. ‘The Lord Denethor, Lord no longer, proud and bitter, but just plain Denethor now, and a finer Man you have yet to meet—how grateful he is to Beregond for saving Faramir as he did! Why, if he yet lived he would remit all penalty and raise Beregond up in honour.

 ‘But then, if he yet lived...’ the Captain said, lower, ‘it is likely he would suffer even now from pride and bitterness, and unreasoned sorrow. For he would not know the joy to come, and the honour for his long and loyal service...’ He nodded, and his voice grew stronger. ‘He is healed, indeed! And sends his thanks for your own loyal service.’

The hobbit gave the ghost of a sigh, and the Captain continued to regale him with story and song until a muffled shout was heard.

 ‘Ha,’ the Captain said in satisfaction. ‘Never have I been so pleased to hear those unlovely tones! Dulcet, he is not, but our Master Dwarf’s voice is tuned to shout above a forge! He’ll soon bring help.’

Help came indeed, but Gimli himself hauled the carcase of the Troll from the soldiers buried beneath the creature.

The Captain followed close-at-hand as the limp hobbit was borne to the healers’ tents; he continued to whisper comfort through the hours that passed. He climbed into the wain that bore the hobbits—for to the Captain’s joy, Frodo and Sam had survived the Quest and been rescued from the sides of the fiery Mountain—from the battle plain to the living land of Ithilien, and he rode by Pippin’s side through that long journey, reminding him of the “drill” whenever the hobbit’s breathing seemed about to fail. When even the “sword drill” was not enough to strengthen the hobbit’s determination, mention of Merry would always bring him back from the brink. ‘Meriadoc is coming, lad. He’ll be expecting to find you. Don’t you disappoint him!’

And so the Captain remained with his young friend longer than he intended. Indeed, he remained by Pippin’s side in Ithilien, until a breathless voice was heard outside the grove where Pippin slept, propped up in bed, and Merry skidded to a stop at Pippin’s bedside, seizing his cousin’s undamaged hand and calling his name.

With a smile the Captain got up from the bed and sketched a salute to the two hobbits. ‘Farewell, my brave soldier,’ he said to Pippin. ‘May you remember me kindly, and hoist a mug for me in my City...’

Pippin’s eyelids fluttered and he seemed to stare into space, seeking.

 ‘Pippin?’ Merry said eagerly. ‘Pippin, do you hear me?’

 ‘Where did he go?’ Pippin said, his voice dreamlike. But then, he had been asleep but a moment ago.

 ‘Where did who go?’ Merry asked, keeping his voice light though his heart grieved at every bruise, every abrasion, every visible cut and every bandage that covered worse damage. ‘Where did who go, Pippin?’

Pippin’s eyes focused and he saw Merry as if for the first time; he smiled. ‘Merry!’ he said weakly. ‘I knew you’d come...’

Written for Shirebound's and Belegcuthalion's birthday present (they didn't mind sharing, whew!), I thought I'd post this here for a bit of light relief from the continuing angst elsewhere on my list of things-to-do.

The Dancing Lesson

‘One, two, three, one, two, three!’

Frodo stumbled over clumsy tween feet and stopped abruptly, blinking at Bilbo. ‘It’s hopeless,’ he mourned. ‘I’m never going to “catch my balance”, as you say!’

‘Of course you will, my lad!’ Bilbo said heartily, casting about in his mind for a solution. He brightened suddenly and darted to seize the duster someone had jammed into the umbrella-holder. ‘Here we are!’

‘What?’ Frodo said, dumbfounded.

Bilbo plucked a feather from the hapless duster and with precision tucked it into Frodo’s breast-pocket. ‘There you are, lad, a spot of Elf-magic!’

‘Elf-magic?’ Frodo echoed.

‘Got this duster from old Elrond himself, a parting present,’ Bilbo prevaricated. ‘You’ll go light as a feather on your feet, see if you don’t!’

‘I don’t even want to go to that old dance,’ Frodo began.

‘You’ll go, my lad!’ Bilbo interrupted. ‘You’ll go, and more, you’ll enjoy yourself immensely, or I’m a dwarf!’

‘You’ve worn a dwarf hood in your time,’ Frodo said, fighting a grin.

‘Come now,’ Bilbo said, tying on Salsify’s apron more securely—the article of apparel was supposed to make him more lass-like, adding verisimilitude to the lesson. ‘Let us begin again. One, two, three...’ He led the lad through the steps of the waltz and stopped again. Perhaps it was, indeed, hopeless. ‘It would be better, lad, if you didn’t tread upon the lasses’ toes...’

But then... a bright idea came to him.

‘We’re going about this all wrong,’ he said cheerily.

‘I could have told you that,’ Frodo answered.

‘Come now,’ he said. ‘I’m—an Orc, yes, that’s it, or a Spider, or even that Gollum-creature, and I’m blocking your way to your greatest desire.’

‘The exit?’ Frodo said helpfully.

‘Something like that. In any event, you take my hand again, and put your other hand here at my back as if you’re trying to move me aside without my knowing... and we must coordinate your footwork, for if you trod on their toes in the dark, they’ll know where you are...! So once more, one, two, three...’

Success. At last, Bilbo instructed Frodo to lead him to a chair, sit him down, and fan him with the duster he’d stuck into the apron sash.

Both found themselves sneezing at the result.

‘Really, I must tell Sally to beat the dust out before she puts it away in future,’ Bilbo said.

‘I do believe you took it away from her in the midst of her dusting,’ Frodo said.

‘I did?’ Bilbo said in surprise.

‘You wanted to demonstrate some move or other you’d made with Sting, as I recall,’ Frodo said, ‘and it was the nearest thing to hand.’

‘Was it?’ Bilbo said.

‘And then when a knock came at the door you stuck it into the umbrella stand,’ Frodo said.

‘Well I never!’ Bilbo said. He mopped at his forehead with his pocket-handkerchief. ‘In any event, lad, it is time for tea, and then time to wash and dress for the dance. If you just remember your lessons, you’ll sweep the lasses, see if you don’t!’

‘Orcs—Spiders—Gollum,’ Frodo recited with a gleam in his eye.

Bilbo laughed heartily. ‘Well don’t tell them that!’ he said.

‘I wouldn’t dream of it,’ Frodo said. ‘But may we not stay home by the fire, instead, and read?’

‘Lobelia has put it about that I’m teaching you to be a hermit,’ Bilbo said, wagging a stern finger.

‘What a pleasant prospect!’ Frodo said, adding at the raising of one of Bilbo’s eyebrows, ‘When one considers all the mamas who will be pushing their daughters at me!’

Bilbo laughed again. ‘Dance with them all!’ he said gaily. ‘You’re only young once, my boy.’ He pushed Frodo towards the kitchen. ‘Now go and put the kettle on for tea!’

A sort-of sonnetlike poem--quest--thing thought up between the book I read recently, on explanation of poetic forms, and Piplover's challenge to form something from the letters "Welcome Home":

When weary trav'llers turn their faces home,
Expectant, looking forward e'en as they
Lament loss suffered while their feet did roam,
Comprising friendship, tears and dimming day--
O friend! Heart calls to heart as white ship sails;
May you find healing waits beyond the foam,
E'en as my heart within me falters, fails.

Hope beyond hope, you laboured to the end,
O'ercome at last, and forced this day to part!
My soul is torn in two--heart calls to heart--
E'en so, one day we two shall meet again.

Written for Marigold's Challenge 18. Lots of good stories there; check them out here!

Title: To Climb a Tree
Rating: G
Main Characters: Merry Brandybuck and Pippin Took
Disclaimer: The characters aren’t mine, but I sometimes sneak out with them for a cup of tea and a biscuit or two, or sit and watch them sleep.
Brief synopsis: Write a story that includes Merry climbing something or being on a height and freezing up, and Pippin being the one to rescue him.

To Climb a Tree

S.R. 1404

It was, as I recall, my Took cousin Ferdibrand who first coaxed me into a tree. He was the one, too, who was able to teach me to climb down again, or no doubt my bones would still be decorating the branches of that tree near the border of Whittacres farm. It astonishes me still, to think of a Brandybuck up a tree, especially when that Brandybuck is myself. But then, Ferdi could argue a cat out of a windowsill, he could, with that Tookish tongue of his. He always seemed to know just what words would work to move a fellow to his will. He'd be a great Thain someday, if the fates hadn't stolen his wits away.

In the case of tree-climbing, it was Pippin who was the key. 'What'll ye do if'n that young imp climbs a tree when in your charge and canna climb doon ag'in?' Ferdi asked me, the Tookish lilt very strong in his voice and his eyes green with mischief. 'Ye've got to be able to scamper up and down ag'in, to show him how it's done, er else ye'll have to fetch a grown-up each time he climbs up and fergits how to climb doon ag'in! And that'll grow tiresome, just see if it don't!'

And so I learnt tree-climbing, for Pippin's sake. I learned how to climb up--easy, that part was, and not to look down, and how to climb down again, feeling my way. And more's the time it has come in handy, with that little squirrel of a cousin of mine. Easy as 'atin' pie, I can hear Ferdi crow in my memory, and had I the luxury of time and quiet I would once again grieve the loss of my carefree cousin.

If only this were so easy...

The roar of the River is loud in my ears as I stare desperately upwards. Berilac's head is all I can see, for he's told the others to keep back from the edge. 'Merry!' he shouts.

'I'm here!' I call back. 'Where else would I be?'

In the River. It's in all our minds, but of course none of us will say so. Not even the Ferry will ply the wild springtide waters of the Brandywine, swollen from the melting of winter snows in the northlands, and spring rains hereabouts.

It is for Pippin's sake that I cling to my precarious perch above the raging waters. We were walking a trail along the high bank, about a mile from Brandy Hall, where the Eastern bank rears high above the waters and the trees hang over. In the summer months, young hobbits crawl out along the overhanging branches and swing, at last falling into the placid waters beneath, and then we swim to the bank and climb upwards, to do it all again. We bring ropes out with us, of course, for the bank is not all that climbable here.

Berilac had stopped short, before we got to the path along the top of the bluff, warned by some instinct, perhaps. He is two years older, and two years more knowledgeable, and more important, his father's an engineer and knows the ways of dirt and banks and diggings and has passed on some of that knowledge to Berilac, though my cousin is only a tween.

But Pippin darted past him, toward the edge. 'Follow the leader!' he cried.

'No!' Berilac shouted, 'It's not safe!' and so of course, I must follow, to haul my young cousin back, only to find the bank crumpling under my feet, and suddenly I am sliding down into the wild River, grabbing at anything and everything, while Pippin stares from only a few feet away. He's the smallest of us, and his weight was not enough to bring down the bank. Or perhaps he loosened it as he crossed. In any event, he remains safely above me, and slightly to my right, and Berilac's head juts out above me to my left, towards the Hall and more solid ground.

I am frozen in place, clinging to tree roots, a precarious perch at best. Every so often a little more of the bank gives way. Who knows how long I'll be safe here?

'Climb up!' Pippin shouts.

'Can't!' I call back, with what little air I can muster. My chest is heaving, and stars dance before my eyes. I cannot recall ever being so frightened in my life. Though I know how to swim, I also know with cold certainty that no swimmer can brave the Brandywine in its current state, and live. How will they rescue me? They cannot bring a boat under me, and with the bank so unstable how will they get a rope to me?

'Climb up!' Pippin insists.

'I'll go for help,' Berilac says, and then his head is gone. I hear a song start up; he has told the other lads, keeping well back, to sing, to keep up my spirits. They'll keep them up, all right, right up until the moment more of the bank gives way and tosses me into the waters. It would be best if Pippin weren't watching when that moment comes.

'Go back!' I say. 'Get back from the edge! Go and sing with the others!'

'Climb up!' Pippin repeats. 'It's not that far!'

'Can't!' I say. The slightest movement on my part sends dirt plummeting into the River. 'Go and sing!' I shout.

'Why?' he says, tilting his head to one side in that Tookish way.

'I love your singing!' I say inanely, for want of anything better.

He gives me an odd look and opens his mouth, then shuts it again. 'I can sing right here!' he says.

'It won't sound the same,' I say. 'Your voice won't blend right, if you're not standing right with them.'

'They're not standing,' he says, eminently logical. 'They're all lying down, so as not to disturb any more of the bank.'

'Get back!' I shout, exasperated, but in the next moment he is grasping one of the overhanging branches and sliding towards me. I hear the cracking of the branch, a shower of dirt lands in my hair and on my face, I close my eyes and bury my head in my arm, not wanting to watch him swept away.

In the next moment I hear his voice in my ear. 'Climb up,' he says again.

I open my eyes, and there he is, next to me, still holding the branch, bent and creaking under his weight.

'Are you daft?' I say.

'Probably,' he answers. 'Climb up, now.'

'I cannot,' I say.

He sighs in exasperation and gives the branch a shake. 'It's as easy as eating pie,' he says, and I hear an echo of Ferdi in his voice. 'Grab the branch and start to climb.'

'It won't hold the two of us,' I say.

He nods. 'You grab the branch, I'll grab the roots...'

'They won't hold you!' I begin, but he cuts me off.

'They've held you so far, and you're twice my size! On three...!' ...and I hear a bit of Frodo in his voice now, Frodo who can snap out a command and make you do what he tells you to do, partly out of surprise because most of the time his manners are so mild. 'One... two...'

And when he reaches "three" I grab at his branch, despite myself, if only to keep the two of us from plunging into the River when he grabs for my roots.

And there I am, hanging onto a tree branch.

'That wasn't so hard,' Pippin says breathlessly. 'Now climb. You remember how to do that, don't you?'

As my chin tilts, he adds, 'Don't look down!' and I automatically look up to meet his eyes, much too serious for a fourteen-year-old, and I wonder when he turned from a heedless child into this nearly-grown-up hobbit.

'Can you climb, now?' he asks. 'Or do we have to wait for Berilac to return with the grown-ups and rope, in which case you'll never live this down, Meriadoc Brandybuck!'

Actually I don't care if I never live this down, just so long as I live. But my hands seem to be frozen on the branches.

The singing stops, and next thing I know Doderic's head is peering over.

'Get back and keep singing!' Pippin shouts. 'We don't need your weight on the bank, and you need the singing practice!' Doderic nods, and his head disappears once more, and the music starts up again, thin and wavering, but gaining in strength as we listen. How long will it be, before the rope comes?

Just then more of the bank gives way, and Pippin grabs desperately at the tree roots. 'I don't know how long this is going to hold,' he says, calm for all the wideness of his eyes. His face has lost all colour and his freckles stand out clearly in contrast.

If I stay here without moving, I'll be safe until the grown-ups come with their rescuing rope. If I do not move, I won't put any more strain on the branch that holds me. If I stay here without moving, Pippin will fall into the River and be swept away, as more of the bank crumbles under our combined weight.

For Pippin's sake, I must climb.

'Right,' I say, and I take one hand from the branch and fasten it higher, pulling my body up. The branch crackles and sways, but it holds me.

'That's the spirit,' Pippin says.

I keep climbing, and he keeps up a stream of encouragement, as if he's the older cousin and I'm the younger. For some reason I don't mind.

At last I reach the top, where I can grab at another branch, and I hold tight while pulling with all my weight to drag my saviour branch down, practically pushing it into Pippin's face.

He takes a deep breath and lunges for the branch, and I cry out, thinking he'll fall... but no, he has it, and soon he's climbing, as limber as a squirrel, until he reaches the top of the bank and my outstretched hand.

'There you have it,' he gasps, and the colour is gradually returning to his cheeks. 'Easy as eating pie.'

The other lads are flat on their bellies, extending their hands to us, and we crawl across the treacherous ground to safety. Just as I grasp Doderic's hand, and Pippin reaches Ilberic's, behind us a great slice of bank breaks off, sliding down into the River, sending water fountaining up. My temporary refuge, and Pippin's, is gone. But no matter. We're on solid ground.

A belated birthday present for cpsings4him, who likes hobbits (especially recovering-Frodo) and popcorn and soft, fluffy blankets.

Gift from a Land beyond the Sea

'What do they call this stuff again?' Frodo said, hitching the soft blanket closer around his shoulders. Though a bright fire burned on the grate, there was a chill in the air as a spring storm rattled the tall windows.

'Pop -- popped -- corn,' Pippin said, stuffing another handful into his mouth, though he could hardly speak around the mouthful he already was chewing.

'Corn?' Merry said, examining a kernel. 'Not wheat...' he mused, 'nor barley, I should say. I wonder what sort of...' He popped the white, fluffy morsel into his mouth, and his eyes widened. 'It's like... it's like...'

'The texture is something like lembas,' Frodo said, extending the bowl to Merry, that his cousin might take a plenteous double-handful. But he jerked the bowl away from Pippin's reach. 'Lay off, you greedy wretch! Oldest first, as is only right...'

'No, it's "hungriest first" and you know that tweens are always hungriest,' Pippin said, reaching for the bowl with a feigned look of hurt that dissolved quickly away as the King's voice was heard outside the door. He jumped to his feet, starting to brush his buttery fingers on his front, but remembering in time to save the White Tree from such desecration, he grabbed up a serviette instead and hastily wiped his hands clean.

Elessar entered, smiling to see the bowl in Frodo's lap. 'Well now,' he said. 'I'm glad to see Cirdan's gift has reached its intended recipient.'

'What is this stuff, Strider?' Merry said, taking another handful.

Elessar took a closer look at Frodo, who was picking up pinches of the treat and nibbling absently, his attention riveted on the King as he awaited the answer to the question. The Ring-bearer was still much too thin for a proper hobbit, but no longer so emaciated that he resembled skin stretched over bones. 'Yes, Strider,' the hobbit said. 'Of all the wondrous things we ate amongst the Elves of Imladris and Lorien, I don't ever remember eating this! Yet you say it's an Elvish treat...'

'It comes from across the Sea,' Elessar said, stepping forward to take a handful of the butter-drenched stuff. 'I have had it once or twice in my life, but it is not common in Middle-earth. Cirdan sent a large sack of seed along with wedding gifts from Lindon--a rare and valuable gift indeed!'

'Mmm,' Frodo agreed.

'Peregrin? Why are you not eating?' the King said, his smile turning to a frown as he looked at his smallest guardsman.

'I--I'm on duty,' Pippin stammered, though he could not avoid stealing a longing look at the diminishing contents of the bowl. 'The head cook sent me to bring this to Frodo, and...'

'And you discharged your duty admirably well,' Elessar said.

'Yes,' Frodo laughed. 'Why, the bowl was still full when he arrived--of course, it was covered, and wrapped in a cosy to keep the contents warm, so he didn't know what he was delivering until we unpacked it...'

'And of course I had to test it,' Pippin said earnestly, 'to be sure that it wouldn't upset Frodo's digestion, or something of the sort.'

'Of course,' Elessar said. 'And now they are arranging a tea tray for the Ring-bearer and his companions, and the last I saw Samwise was waylaid by one of the gardeners with a question, so someone will be needed in the kitchens to see that the Ring-bearer's tea is brewed to his satisfaction, and that the food is all that it ought to be.'

'Well, I'm off duty at the moment,' Merry said, lounging back in his chair and reaching for more of the fluffy treat, which Frodo obligingly extended to him. 'I suppose Pippin had better go.'

'If you think I ought...' Pippin said, with a last longing look at the disappearing treat.

'It would be a proper part of your duties, I esteem,' Elessar said. He didn't think it necessary to cheer the young hobbit with the news that more of the popped corn was in progress, and that this time the stuff would be drenched in sweet syrup, to further tempt the appetite of the Ring-bearer, along with generous portions of other treats, savoury and sweet.

And if Pippin were to sample all the offerings, and eat a fair portion in the course of his duties, well, the cooks were prepared for such a contingency, and had as a matter of fact baked several seedcakes just for the benefit of the smallest guardsman.

'Very well,' Pippin said, standing straighter. 'Per your orders, my lord...' With a serious nod to his older cousins, he marched from the room.

'Perhaps we ought to save him some,' Frodo said, glancing into the bowl.

'Go ahead and eat that while it's still warm,' Elessar said, and added a hobbity phrase he'd picked up from his diminutive friends. 'Plenty more where that came from.'

Written for Marigold's Challenge 17.

Title: The Wings of Eagles
Author: Lindelea
Rating: G
Main Characters: Faramir Took, Goldilocks Gamgee, Pippin, Samwise and the rest of the Gamgees
Disclaimer: The characters aren’t mine, but I sometimes sneak out with them for a cup of tea and a biscuit or two, or sit and watch them sleep.
Brief synopsis: Regarding a message from Gondor, telling of a visit to come.

The Wings of Eagles

S.R. 1444

'You can't be serious!' Of all the things he might've said in that moment, he probably said the wrongest.

Goldilocks stood, feet shoulder-width apart just as Faramir's father had taught Farry to stand in sword-training, hands on her hips, eyes blazing her ire and contempt.

'Goldi! Farry!' Rose Gamgee's voice sounded. 'Time for tea!'

Without another word, Goldilocks flounced away, though she took enough time to wipe her feet carefully before entering Bag End.

She did not look at Faramir through the high tea that followed; Rose had outdone herself to honour the Thain and his son, called to Bag End by the Mayor, and hopefully not too terribly inconvenienced by the summons.

'Well, Sam,' the Thain said, when he'd reluctantly refused third helpings of everything. He folded his serviette and pushed himself slightly away from table, patting his stomach just as a much stouter hobbit might do. 'No, thank you truly, Elanor, I could not eat another bite without bursting.'

Rose refreshed his teacup from the freshly brewed pot; he liked his tea scalding hot, and there was no use pouring out from a pot that had sat, cosied, for any length of time.

'Well, Sam,' he repeated. 'What was this urgent summons all about?'

'I scarcely know what to make of it,' the Mayor said. 'Just a moment...' He waved Pippin to remain seated as he rose from table and exited the room. He was back within moments, a fancy letter in his hand, ribbons trailing from the waxed seal.

'From Gondor!' Pippin said, starting up. 'I've had no word...'

'It's something of a private matter,' Sam said, but his voice was uncertain.

'A private matter?' Pippin said, curious. 'A message from King to Mayor, and Master and Thain not informed? Private, indeed! So why have you called me in?'

'Well,' Sam said uncomfortably. 'You are in charge of the Shire-muster, after all...'

'Shire-muster!' Pippin said, and now he was more startled than curious.

'It's just that... well, I wouldn't want anyone to be alarmed, and call a muster, and have a panic break out and someone shoot before thinking...' Sam said slowly.

'Curiouser and curiouser,' Pippin said, leaning forward. 'Something's about to happen that would warrant a Shire-muster, but you don't want a muster for some reason...'

'It doesn't exactly warrant a muster,' Sam said, and then Rose broke in.

'O for mercy's sake, put the poor hobbit out of his misery!' she said.

'The Eagles are coming!' Frodo-lad broke in excitedly.

Pippin looked at him sharply. 'Words out of old tales,' he said. 'What brings them to light this day?'

'They are!' Goldi said, flashing a triumphant glance at Faramir. 'They're coming!'

'Here, now,' Sam said, thrusting the letter at Pippin. 'It's all in Elvish, but the second page is in practical writing.'

Pippin scanned the first page, noting Sam's name in Elvish but no mention of Merry or himself, and then he laid it gently aside to read the second.

'What is it, Da?' Faramir said, unable to suppress himself any longer. Perhaps Goldilocks had not merely been teasing, before tea.

'Gwaihir, the Windlord, is growing old,' Pippin said slowly. 'He wishes to bring his sons to greet the Ring-bearer, that memory of the great honour done the Eagles of the North should remain bright.'

'The great honour done the Eagles of the North?' Sam said. 'That's the part that puzzles me.'

'The great honour,' Pippin said, more slowly, 'was that Gandalf asked them to retrieve the Ring-bearer and his companion from the slopes of Mount Doom. Thus they shared a small part of the glory of Sauron's downfall.'

Sam sat, mouth half-open as he digested this idea. At last he found his tongue. 'But the Ring-bearer isn't here,' he said. 'Not in Middle-earth, not any more.' And he blinked, and swallowed hard, and mastered himself again.

'I don't think Strider is talking about Frodo,' Pippin said gently, and as Rose gently covered one of Sam's work-worn hands with her own, he continued, 'you, yourself, carried the Ring for a time, in the Dark Land.'

'Only because I had to,' Sam said very low.

Pippin shook his head, with a sad smile. 'Frodo would have said the same,' he whispered. 'Only because he had to.'

Silence reigned until little Tolman crowed and waved his spoon.

'Now then,' Pippin said briskly, putting down the second page of the letter, picking up his serviette, shaking it out, and folding it again as he spoke. 'What exactly is it that you wish the Thain to do?'

'Get the word out,' Sam said. 'Tell the Tooks not to shoot when they see Eagles coming!'

'They're not coming to steal their sheep, after all, or their children,' Rose said.

'I've sent word to the Shirriffs, already, and the Messengers are taking word round to the rest of the Shire-folk,' Sam said, 'but the Tooks listen only to the Thain, and so I thought I had better pull that weed roots and all, in a manner of speaking.'

'I'll spread the word,' Pippin said. 'No enormous birds of prey are to be shot out of the sky, or while resting on the ground, or at any time in between.'

'May we be there?' Faramir asked, almost shyly. 'May we meet the Windlord and his sons?'

'If the Ring-bearer gives us leave to be there,' Pippin said, with a glance at Sam.

Sam seemed taken aback, but he rose to the occasion. 'Of course,' he said. 'It would be my pleasure.'


 

Written for Marigold's Challenge 23.

Title: A Shivery Tale
Author: Lindelea
Rating: G
Main Characters: Bungo, Belladonna and Bilbo Baggins, Isengar Took, a polar bear, and Gandalf, Gimli and Gloin  
Disclaimer: The characters aren’t mine, but I sometimes sneak out with them for a cup of tea and a biscuit or two, or sit and watch them sleep. (This tale borrows from a true-life incident recounted in the story of the Endurance, a ship that was stranded in Antarctic ice near the beginning of the 20th Century.)
Brief synopsis: During the Fell Winter, a tale told by the fireside could be warming indeed.
Challenge Starter: Sentence to include: The drop was a hundred fathoms if it was a foot.
Four things to include: A sleeping draught, ice and/or snow, a whistle, a
large strange animal not found in the Shire.
Character to include: Gimli  

A Shivery Tale

And there was the Gull in the Bay, surrounded by ice, and more ice closing in, and no way to get down to her! The drop was a hundred fathoms if it was a foot.

Bilbo's breath came short in excitement. 'And what did you do then, Uncle Isen?'

The scar-seamed face creased further in a smile. 'I froze into a block of ice, lad, and when they dropped me over the side I shattered into a thousand icicles.'

'Isen!' Belladonna said in reproof. She had paused on her way to the table, a basket of bread in her hand, to hear one of Isengar's stories of the Sea. 'Don't fill the lad's head with nonsense!'

Bella made no move to continue putting dinner on the table, Isen noticed, and he gave the wink and grin of a younger brother who'd had success in getting a rise out of an older sister. Poor Bilbo didn't know what he was missing, having no brothers or sisters.

'Well, we had to get down to the ship somehow,' Isen went on, 'and before the ice closed in completely, trapping the Gull and crushing her hull. Certain death it would be for the crew, for Cirdan would not send a rescue so late in the season...'

'In August!' Bilbo said in surprise, and Bella sank down on the bench, dinner forgotten for the moment.

'In the Ice Bay of Forochel, winter comes early,' Isen said reflectively, with a shiver, despite the fire that roared in the kitchen stove. You'd hardly know that it was well below freezing outside Bag End.

'So how did you get down to the ship?' Bilbo insisted, hitching closer. 'Did you go back the way you came?'

'A week it had taken us to reach that point,' Isen said. 'A week, and nothing to show for it. No sign of King Arvedui at all, nothing to show that he'd been there. The Palantiri must have gone down with the ship that rescued him, and the rumour of one of the Stones left in a cave was simply that--rumour.

'I was shivering fit to break into icicles, I was, and the Third Mate wasn't much better, let me tell you, though the Captain had ordered him to wrap his coat round the both of us so we could share our warmth, what little remained of it. We'd eaten the last of the food we carried, and I thought I'd perish of the hunger. And there was the Gull, in the Bay below us, with food and warmth... and no way to reach her. We had rope with us, for certain, but not long enough to reach from the top of the cliff to the shore, not even if we tied the coils together. And then...!'

'And then--what?' Bella said, breathless, and her youngest brother smiled.

'Yes!' Bilbo said. 'What?!'

'The Captain, he had his hand on the Third Mate's shoulder, and he shoved us down in the snow at the edge of the ice cliff, faces in the cold snow, and if I thought I was cold before...'

Bilbo shivered, glad for the roaring fire that made the sides of the stove glow cherry-red.

'Here now,' came his father's cheerful voice. Bungo had come from the study, where he'd been going over accounts. He had come in search of dinner, and had found the table in the dining room set with plates and silver, but no food, and no family. 'What's all this?'

'O Papa, it is so very exciting!' Bilbo said. 'Uncle's telling all about the Ice Bay of Forochel, and the King's Seeing Stones that were lost when Arvedui's ship went down in a storm, and...'

'Filling your head with nonsense when you ought to be filling your belly with substance,' Bungo said comfortably. 'Very well, Isen, you had better finish your story, for you've got them too stirred up to eat, to all appearances.'

'O Bungo,' Bella said, half-rising, but her husband crossed from the doorway to the bench at the kitchen table, kissed the top of his wife's head, sat down beside her and took a bread roll from the basket she held.

Taking a bite, he gestured with the remnant and said to Isengar, his mouth agreeably full, 'Go on...'

'Well,' said Isen, lowering his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, ducking his head between his shoulders and peering about in a furtive manner, 'There was good reason the Captain had us huddling in the snow, as it turned out. One of the most enormous creatures that ever I saw,' he said, 'ever, and that in all the sailing to exotic ports that the Gull visited... besides the Oliphaunts of the Sunlands, that is... White and shaggy it was, looking soft enough to snuggle, but with a glistening black nose and little, unfriendly eyes... I knew that if the wind were blowing the wrong way he'd make a meal of us, he would!'

'What was it?' Bilbo gasped.

'A snow bear,' Isen said, letting his voice sink to an intense whisper. 'Larger than a Man, he was, O twice as large as the Captain, and he were a tall Man among Men.'

Bungo gave a low whistle, and Bilbo nearly forgot to breathe. He'd seen a bear in a picture book, but there had been no bears seen in the Shire in years, and a good thing, too, for they were large and ferocious, or at least they looked that way in picture books, with their enormous gleaming teeth. And yet the bear in the story had been sleepy and slow-moving and though hungry, easily outwitted by the hobbit-hero.

Still, the hobbit-hero of the story had climbed into the spindly branches near the top of a tree to avoid the hungry bear, and Bilbo had grasped from his uncle's description that there were no trees in the Ice Bay.

'Just then, the barking of seals came to us on the breeze,' Isen said, 'and looking over the edge of the precipice, we saw a herd of the creatures on the beach. It seemed they were safer than we! But the bear heard as well, and reared up, and then he lumbered to the edge and peered over, and then do you know what he did?'

'What?' said Bungo, completely engrossed, half-eaten hunk of bread forgotten in his hand. He knew what seals were; he'd bought Belladonna a winter hood lined with sealskin, at tremendous expense, from a dwarf passing through from the Havens West of the Shire, who had traded it from the Elves, and who know where the Elves had obtained it? The dwarf had spun a story of strange folk who lived in the icy North-lands, in exchange for his supper, but Bungo hadn't believed the half of it. Still, it made for diverting listening.

'He sat himself down in the snow and slid down the slope, steep as it was. O he slid at a tremenjous rate, he did, and we were sure he'd be dashed to pieces at the bottom, but no! He came sprawling to the bottom, in the midst of them hapless seals, and grabbed one in each great, clawed paw and one in his mouth, he did!'

Bilbo's mouth was an "O" of astonishment, as was Bella's. Isen politely averted his gaze from the half-chewed bread in Bungo's opened mouth.

'He tore two of the seals to pieces then and there while the rest of the herd fled into the Bay,' Isen said gravely, 'gobbled them up before our eyes, and we saw what our fate would've been, had the wind been blowing the other direction...' He gulped and shuddered at the memory. 'And then, taking the last seal in his mouth, he dove into the waters and was not seen again by our eyes...'

The air gusted from the young hobbit in a sigh of wonder, and Isen looked to Bilbo with a smile. 'And do you know what we did then?'

Bilbo shook his head slowly.

'We shouted thanks after that great bully of a bear,' Isengar said.

'Thanks!' Bungo said, startled.

'Aye, thanks indeed,' Isengar said. 'The Captain, he took off his cloak, for all the weather was trying to freeze us, and he waved and danced and shouted, there at the edge of the cliff. Ah what a sight he was, and I'd've been fit to choke for laughing had I not been so deathly cold! But then the flag went up on the Gull, and next I knew they were making move to launch the boat, to row to the beach below us. And then...'

'But how did you get down?' Belladonna said.

'Sister,' Isen said with exaggerated patience. 'That is what I was about to tell you.'

'Then tell on!' Bungo said, swallowing his mouthful. 'And tell before we all perish of hunger! Or suspense! Or something!'

'We took the two coils of rope we had, one for the Captain and one for the Third Mate, and laid them down at the edge of the drop, and the Captain sat upon his, and the Mate upon his, clasping me in his lap, and...'

Bilbo's mouth dropped open once more as he understood, and Isengar, seeing his nephew's face, laughed.

'Aye, little hobbit!' he said. 'We slid down, just as the young hobbits slide down the Hill to the Water when there's snow in the Shire... slid down on our rope coils, fast as lightning! I thought we'd break into a million icicles, I did, but no, we landed sprawling on the beach, laughing fit to bust a gut, and warmed through with the thrill of it all... and I wanted to do it again! But of course, that wasn't possible. And there was the Gull, and they were setting her sails to leave the Ice Bay afore the ice closed in completely, and there was the boat coming for us, the sailors pulling at the oars with all they had, and such a beautiful sight I think I'll never see again...' Isengar's face was dreamy as he remembered.

There was a long silence, and then Bella rose from the bench with her basket of rolls. 'A beautiful sight, I'm sure,' she said softly.

And Bungo rose, and went to help Isengar up from the rocking chair by the stove, and he took the muffler that was hanging on the back of the chair and tucked it around Isen's neck. 'Quite the story,' he said lightly. 'But now let us eat before we perish of the hunger.'

***

'So I see that Gandalf isn't to blame for kindling your adventurous spirit after all, Bilbo,' Gloin said, and his son Gimli beside him stretched, suddenly aware of muscles kinked from sitting too still, too long, while he was held rapt by the tale the old hobbit had spun. 'Rather, the blame would lie with your Uncle who'd gone to Sea in his youth...'

'Well, I'm not so sure,' Bilbo said. 'After all, it was Gandalf who was responsible for young Isengar going off into the Blue for a mad adventure in the first place!'

'Was it, really?' Gandalf said from behind them, his black eyes glowing in the firelight.

'Ah, Gandalf,' Bilbo said, turning round with a smile. 'Is supper ready, already?'

'It is, indeed, and Frodo and the others are waiting for you. Though it looks as if the music is about to start for the evening here in the Hall...'

'Then we had better make haste!' Bilbo said, getting up from his seat. 'Elven music in the Hall of Fire is better than a sleeping draught for an old hobbit! I don't wish to sleep through supper another night in a row!'

This story was written for a Yuletide compilation by gayalondiel for New Year's 2005, and cut by half in considering space. It appears here in its entirety.

A Very "Pippin" Yule

Merry Brandybuck? Merry!

Merry straightened at the sharp, joyous call, suddenly awake after the long, long coach ride. Pulling away from his mother’s hand, he turned away from the face of the Great Smials with its beckoning brightly-lit windows, promising warmth and food, baths and rest.

A small figure stood in the main entrance to the stables.

 ‘Ferdi?’ Merry shouted, incredulous. ‘Ferdi Took?’

The small figure broke into a run. Merry met him halfway across the yard. Their collision threw both lads to the icy stones, laughing and wrestling for the best hold.

 ‘Merry, you son of a Bucklander!’ little Ferdibrand was chortling. ‘What ever are you doing here?’

 ‘Ferdi, you son of a Took—!’ Merry was answering in kind, when a firm hand took him by the ear.

 ‘Enough of that, young hobbit,’ his mother staid sternly. ‘I don’t know what’s got into you, but...’

 ‘But I was only—!’ Merry’s protest fell on deaf ears, and he was marched across the yard and into the Smials without further ado, all the way to the Master’s private apartments, straight to the bath room, where his mouth was washed out with soap. This was promising to be the worst Yule Merry had ever known in his short life!

 ‘And don’t ever let me catch you...’ Esmeralda was saying, when her husband cleared his throat in the doorway.

 ‘Sarry-love,’ Esmeralda began, but Saradoc only said mildly, ‘Visitor, m’love.’

 ‘I’m not exactly ready to receive anyone,’ Esmeralda said wryly, thrusting a flannel at her wriggling son and trying to keep a straight face as he wiped assiduously at his tongue. O it wasn’t funny, but the face he made! Esmeralda remembered the taste of soap, and repressed a shudder, feeling sudden sympathy. Still, a taste of soap was much better than what might happen, should a Took hear a Brandybuck use that particular epithet!

 ‘I think you had better receive this Took,’ Saradoc said.

Esmeralda released Merry’s ear and brushed at her clothes. Was it Mistress Lalia? It was conceivable that the Mistress herself would greet them upon their arrival, though not likely. If so, perhaps Esmeralda had tendered rather more of an insult to the Mistress than her young son, just now.

To her relief, she saw young Ferdibrand’s uncle, “Old Ferdi”, sitting at his ease in the parlour. He rose at once with a bow and a grin.

 ‘Ally, ‘tis good to see you back in civilised parts again.’

 ‘Ferdi, impossible as always,’ she answered.

 ‘I thought I’d intercede for the lad, who was only answering in kind,’ "Old" Ferdi began, but at the sight of her face he shook his head. ‘Too late, I fear. Tried, found guilty and sentence carried out already?’

 ‘Washed his mouth out with soap,’ Esmeralda admitted. ‘He cannot be saying such—!’

 ‘He didn’t realise,’ "Old" Ferdi said quietly. ‘Don’t be too hard on the lad.’

Esmeralda put her hands on her hips, her Tookish temper rising. ‘He is the son of the heir to Buckland. He has to...’

 ‘Quite a mouthful, to describe such a little chap,’ "Old" Ferdi said. ‘Really, Ally, all who heard realised...’

 ‘All who heard?’ Esmeralda said in consternation. How many apologies were in order, and what if the news came to Mistress Lalia’s ears?

 ‘Only myself, Dinny, and a stable hand,’ "Old" Ferdi said, ‘not counting the lads of course. And young Ferdi understands, now, that what he said was wrong.’ Without the soap in the mouth, however. "Old" Ferdi’s brother Ferdinand was more a believer in stimulating deeper thought with a well-placed swat or two where his young son usually sat down, than in spoiling a youngster’s appetite with soap.

 ‘Lalia,’ Esmeralda said faintly, and "Old" Ferdi moved to put his arms around her.

 ‘Steady on, cousin,’ he said, as if speaking to one of the ponies he trained. ‘I know it unnerves you to be under Lalia’s eye, but Tom isn’t one to carry tales to the Mistress, and neither am I.’

Saradoc cleared his throat, and "Old" Ferdi released Esmeralda, saying, ‘You know she really ought to have married me.’

 ‘Well, I stole her away from you, and that’s the end of it,’ Saradoc said easily. ‘I’ll buy you a pint if you’ll drop the matter and promise not to bring me before the Shirriff for thievery.’

 ‘Done,’ "Old" Ferdi said, and twinkled sympathetically at Merry, standing at his father’s side. ‘Well, lad, I’m afraid you cannot lift a pint yet, at your age, but perhaps a sweet will help the taste?’

He put a hand into his pocket, coming out with a red-and-white-striped stick. ‘A Yuletide treat for the ponies,’ he said. ‘If I break it into small pieces it’ll go far. They like it better than carrots, perhaps because they only get it once in the year.’

He broke a piece from the candy and put it into Merry’s hand. The lad was wide-eyed, for while he always got candy at Yuletide, it was always on Last Day, a gift from Father Yule, and not a day before!

Merry popped it at once into his mouth, and Saradoc laughed while Esmeralda smiled ruefully. ‘I like it better than carrots, too,’ Merry said. All the adults laughed at that.

***

Merry was put to bed shortly after. His mother had relented and fed him a light supper, rather than making him go to bed on water rations with the taste of soap in his mouth. The candy had helped quite a lot, and the soup and hearty bread took the rest of the nasty taste away.

Next morning he was up early. As soon as he emerged from the Master’s suite, Ferdibrand Took pounced on him. ‘Merry!’

 ‘Ferdi,’ he said, cautiously, looking about, but the young Took simply pounded him on the back.

 ‘What are you doing here? You’re no Took!’

 ‘No, but my mother is,’ Merry said. ‘When Lalia called the convocation, she called all Tooks to come who could come.’

 ‘That’s why the Bolgers came!’ said Ferdi in sudden enlightenment. ‘We always have Yule at Budge Hall, always! I was wondering why we all had to come to the Great Smials instead!’ He looked puzzled. ‘But Auntie Rosa isn’t a Took anymore, she’s a Bolger, and your mother...’

 ‘O she’s still a Took, all right,’ Merry said, rubbing at the memory of his smarting ear. ‘You can take the Took out of Tookland, they say, but you can’t...’ He broke off suddenly, hoping no one had heard this Bucklandish proverb.

 ‘No matter,’ Ferdi said in one of his lightning changes of subject. He pulled at Merry’s hand. ‘We’ll have such good times, having you here! You’ve never played “I hide and you seek me” at the Smials, have you? It’s so grand to see you again, and not have to wait until summer at Whittacres!’

Every summer Ferdi’s family visited Paladin Took’s farm for a month or more, as did Merry’s, and the lads had become fast friends during the overlapping weeks.

And so the friends had a glorious time of it over the next day or two, playing, eating, sneaking treats from the kitchens, eating, getting underfoot, in the midst of the decorating tweens, eating, listening to stories, and all the other pleasant recreations that happen when large families congregate for holidays.

***


On Last Day the lads were running about the yard between Smials and stables, having been shooed out-of-doors on an afternoon of rare sunshine. A grand game of “chase” was in progress when a pair of travellers trudged into the yard.

Ferdi was in close pursuit of Merry, leaning forward, shouting in triumph, when suddenly the Brandybuck changed directions, causing his pursuer to skid and fall on the stones.

Merry didn’t seen his friend fall; he was too busy greeting the arriving tween.

 ‘Frodo!’ he cried. ‘Frodo-Frodo-Frodo-Frodo-Frodo!’

At the last repetition he reached the two travellers, launching himself into the air, to be caught by the laughing tween.

 ‘Merry!’ Frodo said in kind. ‘Merry-Merry-Merry!’ He lifted the little hobbit high above his head. ‘My how you’ve grown! You’re taller than I am!’

With not a little difficulty, the travellers and their newly-added baggage made their way through the game of chase that swirled through the yard like a drift of leaves before a brisk breeze, up the steps to the Grand Door and into the Great Smials.

At the howl from the fallen little hobbit, “Old” Ferdi came from the stables where he’d been chatting with the stable master, and scooped up his nephew, jollying him into laughter in short order. Little Ferdi was soon ready to get down to resume the game, but ran into unexpected trouble.

 ‘I was about to fetch you in any event,’ his uncle said. ‘Your parents are called upon to dance attendance on the Mistress at tea this afternoon, and so I must dunk you in the pony trough and be sure you wash behind your ears!’

 ‘In the pony trough!’ little Ferdi said in dismay. He could see his breath on the wintry air!

 ‘I could make it a bath, if you prefer, but the trough is handier,’ "Old" Ferdi said. His nephew clung fiercely to his shirt, however, as uncle hovered him over the trough, and so uncle, laughing, suddenly squeezed the little hobbit in a tight hug. ‘O very well!’ he said. ‘A bath it shall be. But only if you promise to splash more water on the floor than you do on me!’

Because the game of chase was still swirling about the yard, Ferdi didn’t notice Merry’s absence.

***

Tea with Mistress Lalia was perishing dull, and worse, Merry and Ferdi had to be on their best behaviour. They were not close enough to kick one another under table, with the heads of so many families descended from the Old Took there at the head table. They had to content themselves with making faces at each other when the adults were otherwise occupied. Merry thought to himself that tea in the nursery would have been preferable to having to sit with the other “heirs”.

Halfway through tea there was a flurry in the entrance to the great room, and Paladin Took was hurrying to stand and bow before Mistress and Thain, apologies tumbling from his lips.

 ‘Waggon broke down?’ Thain Ferumbras said, rising to offer his hand to the breathless hobbit. ‘I hope your family wasn’t stranded in the chill for too long!’

 ‘With that tiny babe and all,’ Lalia said, not so pleasantly, with a significant nudge and look for her unmarried and heirless son. ‘I do hope that none has taken harm!’

 ‘Beg pardon, Mistress, and they’ll be along shortly,’ Paladin said with another bow. Lalia graciously indicated the places laid for himself and wife, and he nodded, moved to the door, and stood waiting until an equally breathless Eglantine appeared, hastily washed and changed out of her travelling clothes and into her best for this occasion. She bore a blanketed bundle, tiny Peregrin, Paladin’s heir.

Paladin and Eglantine moved forward to present themselves before Mistress and Thain. Lalia cooed, and Eglantine was obliged to hand the sleeping babe over to the Mistress for proper admiring. Lalia said all the proper things in too-high and too-bright a voice, and the drowsy babe’s eyes opened wide, as if seeing for the first time that he’d been handed over to a stranger. His little face crumpled alarmingly, and he began to wail. Eglantine hastily reclaimed her son, jiggling and soothing, and peace was restored.

 ‘Good lungs on that one,’ the Thain said equably. The latecomers found their places and tea resumed, dull as ever to the end, not even rescued by the spectacle of Eglantine balancing babe and teacup, for Paladin took the bundle from her early on that she might enjoy the lavish tea. With all the heads of families and their heirs in attendance, there was a great deal of grown-up talk that was of no interest to the younger ones present. Such a trial!

After being on their best behaviour under such trying circumstances, of course the lads were disagreeable once they were released to don warm clothes for the next event on this day of celebration. A disagreement broke out at once over Paladin’s heir, of all things!

 ‘He’s my special cousin!’ Merry maintained. ‘Frodo said so!’

 ‘And what would a Baggins know about anything?’ Ferdi shot back. ‘Pippin’s father is my father’s special cousin! They’re more brothers than cousins...’

 ‘So?’ Merry challenged.

 ‘Well, I’ll be his big brother then, which is better than only-a-cousin,’ Ferdi said.

 ‘You cannot do that!’ Merry said in outrage.

 ‘Come-come, now,’ Thain Ferumbras said behind them. ‘No fisticuffs! Not on Last Day, certainly! You’ll bring bad luck in the New Year! Not to mention, Father Yule is due to arrive at any moment, bringing treats to good little lads and lasses!’

He put a broad hand on each back and propelled Merry and Ferdi before him, and soon they had joined a throng on their way out to the yard, where torches had been lit in the dimming of the short winter day. Suddenly a faint jingling of bells was heard, and a shout went up.

 ‘He’s coming! He’s coming!’ There was much excitement and cheering, especially from the younger set.

A gaily-painted waggon, drawn by white ponies bedecked with ribbons and bells, drove into the yard, driven by a hobbit-sized figure with blackened face and fierce expression. Another hobbit-sized figure sat at his side, but this one was beaming of countenance, and unlike a hobbit he bore a beard as snowy white as the finest combed wool. Rich was his clothing and well-padded was his figure. His voice boomed out in greetings as he jumped down from the waggon seat.

 ‘Happy Yule! Happy Yule to all!’

Of course the crowd returned the greeting in a shout.

The grim-faced helper set the brake and jumped down, took up a bag filled with switches, and began to prowl the edges of the crowd, looking for naughty children to chastise. Finding none, he moved to the waggon and lifted out the first of many bulky sacks, bulging with promise, and brought it to Father Yule.

The august old fellow cleared his throat and withdrew from under his coat a list, a long, long list that unrolled until the end trailed upon the stones of the courtyard. ‘Pearl, Pimpernel, Pervinca, and Peregrin Took!’ he intoned. If his voice resembled the steward’s, certainly no one took notice.

Pearl looked up uncertainly at her parents. ‘Go on, my dear,’ Eglantine whispered, giving her eldest a push. Holding hands, the three young sisters stepped forward.

 ‘You were late to tea,’ the jolly old hobbit said. When the littlest lass showed alarming signs of bursting into tears, he added hastily, ‘but all is forgiven, of course, for you could hardly help the waggon breaking down. I only meant to say I’m glad you came in time for my visit! I have so very much to do this night, you know, to bring treats to all the good children of the Shire. There were so many this year! I would have hated to miss you, somewhere between hearth and Smials!’

He pulled a knitted cap from his sack and handed it to the youngest with a flourish. ‘The fruit of your labours!’ he said grandly. The opening of the cap gapped to show apples and nuts and wrapped sweets tucked in here and there. Pimpernel and Pearl eagerly accepted their own caps, and Father Yule piled another atop Pearl’s. ‘For that little brother of yours,’ he said in a conspiratorial manner. ‘I’m sure he’ll be happy to share what he cannot manage!’

Peering at his list, he said, ‘Meriadoc Brandybuck!’

Pearl, Pimpernel and Pervinca hastily returned to their parents as Merry stepped forth.

Father Yule pursed his lips and nodded his head solemnly as he read. ‘It says here that you are reluctant to eat good liver when it is placed before you!’

There was no such thing as “good” liver, but Merry wasn’t about to say so. ‘I’m sorry, Father Yule,’ he said, bowing his head.

 ‘Don’t give him sweets,’ the helper snarled. ‘Let us give him liver instead! It’s good for him!’

 ‘Hmmm,’ Father Yule said, and Merry’s heart sank as the old hobbit appeared to be giving this suggestion serious thought. ‘No,’ he said at last, ‘I’m afraid I didn’t bring any liver with me this trip. Perhaps next year.’ He lifted another well-stuffed cap from his bag and put it into Merry’s hand. It was weighty and satisfyingly plump, and Merry’s mouth watered at the fat apple he saw peeking from the opening. ‘Eat all the liver you’re given over the coming year, without complaint, and I’ll look for you next year!’

 ‘Yes, Father Yule,’ Merry promised, and stepped back as more young hobbits were called to stand forth.

Merry was allowed to eat that juicy apple before he was tucked into bed, and best of all Frodo was there to tell him a bedtime story, before the tween went off to the great hall for the rest of the celebrations. Merry would have to wait until he was older to take part in the late-night feasting and dancing, the roasting of mushrooms and bacon over the Yule log while the old year burned away, the noisemaking to scare away bad luck and wandering wights, the shout to welcome the return of Light after the darkening of the world, showering the “First Foot” with gifts to promote prosperity in the newly arrived year, and all the other traditions the Shire-folk observed.

Next day it was First Day, and of course the little hobbits were bright and cheerful after their night’s sleep. The adults were rather less so, and one of the difficulties of the day was keeping the little ones out of the great room where a grand mountain of gifts was growing. Servants bore several trunks from the Brandybucks’ apartments, trunks that Merry had caught a glimpse of during the packing-up, bright paper and curling ribbons. He followed through the bustling tunnels all the way to the great room, where he was denied entrance, along with several other young hobbits, but not before he caught a glimpse of the tantalising mountain within.

 ‘Teatime, young hobbits!’ a jovial servant said, shooing them away. ‘We’ll gather in the great room at teatime to enjoy the blessings promised by the New Year. Teatime and not before!’

The large doors were firmly shut, and the little hobbits stared at the door in vain for a time, at a loss, feeling that teatime would never come, before a group of tweens swooped upon them and organised a grand game of “I hide and you seek me” in the winding and branching tunnels of the Great Smials.

Merry kept returning to the great room as a moth is drawn to the candle, hoping for a glimpse of the bright promise within. One of these times he met Ferdi, evidently with the same purpose. Luck was with them this time, for one of the doors opened slightly, showing a flustered Pearl. ‘O Merry!’ she cried, seeing the lads. ‘I’m that glad to see you!’

She looked about, but no one was to be seen. Preparations had been concluded some time before, and Eglantine had volunteered to stand watch over the presents, her eldest daughter happy to help. The great room was growing dim and shadowy as the light from the high windows began to fade. The lamps had not yet been lit, though noise and laughter was to be heard from the kitchens on the far side of the enormous hall as final preparations were made for tea. Silver gleamed at the ready-laid places on the snowy tablecloths, and platters of food were covered with dampened cloths that bulged with promise. It seemed that teatime must be at hand. Indeed, the young hobbits heard calls echoing in the tunnels, mothers summoning young ones to wash and change in final preparation for the festive gathering.

 ‘I’m glad to see you,’ Pearl repeated. ‘Mum went to fetch something, and hasn’t come back, and I need to...’ she bit her lip and blushed, then rushed on. ‘In any event, could you come in and watch over Pippin? He’s asleep on a blanket, and I don’t want to waken him, taking him up, and I don’t want to leave him...’

 ‘I’ll be happy to!’ Merry said promptly, and Ferdi chimed in to say he’d help.

 ‘O good,’ Pearl said, and scurried away.

The lads crept into the great room and eased the tall door closed behind them, hardly able to believe their good fortune.

Dutifully they went at once to look at the peaceful babe, but Pippin didn’t seem to need much watching, and so they turned to the mountain of presents in the centre of the room. Merry saw some familiar paper, part-way up, and he pointed. ‘Those are ours!’ he said proudly.

 ‘They’re not!’ Ferdi countered. ‘I saw my mother wrapping that present particularly! It’s a doll for my sister!’

 ‘I’ll prove it to you!’ Merry said, and moved with purpose towards the towering heap.

 ‘What’re you doing?’ the younger hobbit hissed, but his cousin merely smiled in a superior manner.

 ‘Merry!’ Ferdi warned.

 ‘I’m climbing a mountain,’ Merry said. ‘Look! I’m Bilbo!’

 ‘And I’m a dwarf,’ Ferdi said sceptically, but his eyes lighted as the game caught his imagination, and as the carefully-stacked presents didn’t tumble down at once under Merry’s assault. He stepped forward to join the wondrous climb. ‘Bet I can beat you to the top!’

 ‘Bet you cannot!’ Merry retorted, and the race was on. It was a cautious race, of course, for a pile of presents is not quite so easy to climb as a precipice.

Unknown to the lads, baby Pippin had wakened and was looking about himself in wonder. Where was Mother? She’d just been here a moment ago. He opened his mouth, to send up a demanding wail, when motion caught his eye.

He’d noticed the bright paper and ribbons earlier, but sister Pearl had kept him happily occupied in games of peek-boo and other delights. Now no sister was nearby to distract him. The papers were not quite so bright in the dimming light, but ribbons still glinted in a fascinating way.

He’d learned to roll over recently, much to the delight of his sisters. The first time he’d rolled from tummy-to-back, Pearl had clapped her hands and called the rest of the family to see this new achievement. She’d placed him on his tummy once more and encouraged him to roll—which he did! Again and again he demonstrated his new skill, laughing into the doting faces above him, until Eglantine finally put a stop to the game, to nurse him and put him down for a nap to recover from his exertions.

Rolling from back-to-tummy was a little more difficult, but at last he mastered the trick. He lifted his little head and strained towards the bright ribbons, so tantalisingly close. Lifting arms and legs from the floor, he rocked on his round little tummy but came no closer. He was ready to wail his frustration when a bright idea struck him.

It was no work at all, really, to roll from tummy-to-back again, and he was that much closer to the prize! Working at it for all he was worth, soon he’d rolled to the bottom of the pile and was able to grasp the nearest curling ribbons, pulling them to his mouth in an ecstasy of delighted exploration... when there was a shout of alarm, and a shower of paper and ribbon and boxes around him.

A cook’s assistant was there at once, picking up Merry and scolding like a magpie. ‘How did you get in here, and what do you think you’re doing?’

Upon discovering Ferdi amongst the wreck her fury was doubled. With a young hobbit ear in each hand, the cook’s assistant dragged the recreants to the door and cast them out with a stern warning not to return until teatime! And they had better make good use of the time, and wash!

Pippin had been startled by the noise and confusion, and though he’d been ready to cry, he was overcome by curiosity and excitement to be surrounded by so many bright ribbons, and enticing paper that crumpled and tore with satisfying sounds and sensations! He rolled a little further into the fallen heap and found himself enveloped in softness. He rolled once more, wrapping the softness round himself, and pulling the soft folds of the lovely knitted shawl against his cheek with one hand, he found his mouth with the thumb of the other hand and resumed his interrupted nap.

Servants moved into the great room to light the lamps and try to undo as much of the damage as could be undone in the short time before the Tooks would assemble. Tumbled packages were righted, crooked ribbons were smoothed, torn paper hastily pasted together. A lovely knitted shawl was tucked back into the box that had fallen over, the box put right-side-up, the top of the box replaced and a new ribbon tied in place.

Eglantine found Pearl just coming out of the rooms assigned them. ‘There you are!’ she said briskly, pulling a brush from her bag and going over her eldest daughter’s curls. ‘I went back to the great room and you weren’t there! But of course...’ She was interrupted before she could congratulate her daughter on bringing the babe back to their rooms, to sleep in a cradle under a servant’s watchful eye while the rest of the family celebrated at the festive tea. (And of course Pearl, hearing that her mother had been back to the great room, thought as well that Pippin had been taken up and brought to his cradle...)

 ‘Eglantine! Pearl! Paladin sent me to find you...’ Esmeralda Brandybuck said, swooping upon them and taking their arms. ‘Come along now; the bells have rung already and tea’s about to begin. It wouldn’t do to be late two days in a row, and no waggon to blame this time!’ They joined the last of the stragglers on their way to the great room, and indeed had barely taken their places when Mistress Lalia swept into the room on her son’s arm.

 ‘Well now!’ Lalia said grandly, after being bowed to by all the guests. ‘Let the feast begin!’

The little hobbits, of course, could scarcely eat for excitement, seeing the somewhat lopsided mountain of presents in the centre of the room. Their elders, however, made sure that the platters of sandwiches and fresh and pickled fruit and vegetables and cakes and biscuits were well-apportioned before the mountain could be mined for its riches.

At last, after an eternity of eating, it was time. Thain Ferumbras rose from his seat and moved to the mountain. Taking up an armload of packages, he began to call out names, and hobbits came forth to claim their prizes and carry them back to their places. The presents would be distributed, a time-consuming process, and all would be opened at once when the last gift found its owner, prolonging the agonies the young hobbits were suffering.

Mistress Lalia laughed at the large box her son carried to the head table and set before her. ‘My goodness!’ she said. ‘You’ve brought me the largest present!’

 ‘And the heaviest!’ Ferumbras said. ‘It seems to have put on weight since I wrapped it up for you! Perhaps little fairies have added their treasure!’

The Mistress smiled broadly and hauled herself to her feet. Breathless the little hobbits waited. ‘Cousins!’ Lalia said grandly. ‘May the New Year bring to all peace, prosperity, and plenty!’

 ‘And plenty!’ the gathered hobbits echoed, and as one they began to tear away paper (if younger) or carefully loosen the paper from their presents so that it might be folded and stored away to be used again (if older).

There were murmurs of appreciation and exclamations of delight all around the room.

At the head table, Mistress Lalia lifted the lid from the large box and said, ‘Ah, but you spoil me, Ferumbras! Her eyes feasted on the snowy shawl even as her hands caressed the softness. ‘This must be wool from Paladin’s sheep, for there is none finer in all the Shire!’

 ‘Paladin’s sheep indeed,’ Ferumbras said, even as Paladin uttered his thanks for the compliment.

Reaching further to lift the shawl from its wrappings, Lalia remarked, ‘But there is treasure within, indeed! What have you done, my clever lad? Wrapped up something... but what...?’

She lifted the shawl and the folds fell away to reveal the blinking baby, who rewarded her with a bright smile. Lalia was no stranger to Pippin now; she’d been at some pains to make friends with this little one over the course of a morning spent with Eglantine, charming babe that he was as well as heir to Paladin, who might be Thain someday, if Ferumbras continued a bachelor...

 ‘Well now!’ she said in astonishment. ‘What’s this?’

Little Pippin crowed his delight and reached to pat the soft wrinkled cheek.

 ‘Treasure indeed!’ Ferumbras laughed, while Paladin and Eglantine stared, open-mouthed. ‘You weren’t thinking of giving the lad away, were you?’

 ‘I—I—I don’t know how—’ Eglantine began, but Pippin, hearing his mother’s voice, turned and held out his arms to her with a little chirrup of joy.

Of course she rose to go to her little one, taking him from the Mistress with a stammered apology.

 ‘No need to apologise!’ Lalia said brightly. ‘Why, it’s the nicest Yuletide surprise I’ve ever had!’

They never did discover which tween was responsible for the prank, for all disclaimed responsibility with perfect seriousness. (Quite a few suspected that young Frodo Baggins, who'd had a reputation as one of the worst young rascals in Buckland before Bilbo had rescued him from the Wilderland and brought him back to civilised parts; but he'd been in the company of Bilbo for much of the afternoon, and under Mistress Lalia's eye, as a matter of fact. Still, a number of people thought he might have managed it somehow.) No harm was done, and it put Mistress Lalia into a good mood for the rest of the day, and so one may suppose that it really didn't matter.

And a happy Yuletide was had by all.


Title: To Ask of Father Yule
Author: Lindelea
Rating: G
Main Characters:
Disclaimer: The characters aren’t mine, but I sometimes sneak out with them for a cup of tea and a biscuit or two, or sit and watch them sleep. This story is set in the "world" of "At the End of His Rope", the first part during the Yuletide when Mayor Sam and Rose were visiting Gondor, and the second part a year later, after their return. (However, the story does not treat with that visit, but rather with Faramir Took during that time.)
Brief synopsis: Of sending wishes to Father Yule in the smoke of the Yule Log.
Challenge Starter: The common theme is Yule. Elements: Dreary rain, Edoras, Faramir Took

To Ask of Father Yule

Reginard, steward of Tookland, sat in state before the great hearth, accepting slips and folded bits of paper with due gravity. There was quite a queue; all the youngsters in the Great Smials, pretty much all, anyhow, under the age of twenty. There were even a few tweens scattered amongst the younger ones, there to shepherd younger brothers and sisters, perhaps. Some of the wiser ones bore folded papers of their own, all the better to bolster the little ones' faith.

'It'll go direct to Father Yule?' one wide-eyed lass said, hesitating, pulling back her little paper before Regi could accept it from her.

'As direct as can be, Letty,' Regi said. 'Even quicker than if a quick post rider were to take it.'

'But how can Father Yule read it, if it's all in smoke?' Violet's sceptical bigger brother said, his own paper clenched in a grubby fist.

'It's magic--he's magic!' Violet said stoutly, her eyes wider at her brother's words.

'Of course,' Regi said. 'He sends his watcher, the Old Owl, to fly above the chimneys and gather the smoke in his wings, you know, and then the Old Owl brings the smoke to Father Yule and the smoke speaks aloud under the Yulespell, and gives up its secrets.'

'That's why we light the Yule Log at sunset,' Pimpernel said, bringing Regi a much-appreciated mug of tea. 'We couldn’t light it any earlier; why, the Old Owl would be abed, and he might miss some of the smoke!'

'Come along, then, Letty; there's people waiting,' the impatient brother scolded.

Letty climbed up in Regi's lap and gave him a hug, then pressed her scrap of paper into his hand. 'I'm hoping for a little sister,' she whispered, but it was the whisper of a little child, and so heard by a number of those around her.

Pimpernel hid a smile, but the big brother scowled. 'Now you've gone and done it!' he said angrily. 'You're not to speak your hopes aloud! Now it'll never come to be!'

Violet burst into tears, and Regi gathered her close, soothing, and whispered something in her ear that made the little one gulp back her tears. 'Really?' she said, her eyes wide and earnest.

Regi nodded. 'Really and truly,' he said.

'Shake on it!' Violet demanded, sliding off his lap. Solemnly, the two shook hands, while Violet's big brother rolled his eyes.

'And now you, Andson,' Regi said, and Violet's big brother, suddenly less certain of himself, hesitated.

Regi looked up to the tween behind them. 'Ah, Peribold! Did you come to bring your wishes for the New Year, for Father Yule to consider?'

Peribold gave a great grin. He might have winked, or he might have simply blinked away a speck of dust. 'That I did!' he said. 'Why, what hope have I of my wishes coming to pass, if I don't send them off to Father Yule in the smoke of the Yule log?' He unfolded his paper as if to peruse it for a last time, and the children waiting nearby saw that it was filled with writing before he restored it to its folds. 'It's quite a lot to ask,' he said. 'I do hope the old fellow will consider at least one or two of my wishes!' He extended the paper to Regi, who took it with appropriate seriousness.

Peribold slapped young Andson on the shoulder. 'Come along, cousin!' he said. 'I hear it's apple tart for tea!'

Andson hastily held out his paper to the steward. Peribold lifted little Violet to his shoulders, and he and Andson hurried away to make ready for teatime. A wash, at the very least, Regi hoped, placing the grubby paper with the rest. He sighed. He could read the signs. Andson was at that age where the magic was fading; soon he'd no longer believe in the Old Owl or the ability of Father Yule to grant wishes for the New Year. When he grew old, of course, he'd learn once more the value of wishes, but he had a long stretch of years of practicality ahead, if he was like any regular hobbit. Regi didn't know of many who'd maintained their capacity for wonder. Bilbo Baggins had been one, his heir Frodo another, at least until he went away and came back a changed hobbit. Thain Peregrin was another...

Perhaps his capacity for wonder was tied to the terrible things he'd seen, in the Outlands. He'd stared death in the face, it was said, and it was Death that blinked and turned away. But nowadays Thain Peregrin was staring death daily in the face, and this time it was all too apparent that it wasn't Death that would be the loser. Pippin had held his own, even with his ruined lungs, for years, indeed he'd gained in health with the care of the Tooks and their healers, but after the accident with the coach he'd been losing ground, slowly but steadily. Still he faced life, and its impending end, with courage and grace and a sense of whimsy that was a wonder to all those around him.

The line brought young Faramir, escorting his tiny brother and sister. On the little ones' papers were mere scribbles, Regi suspected. He accepted their whispers and sticky kisses with a smile, and added their papers to the growing heap in the enormous basket beside his chair.

As Faramir turned away, Regi said, 'But Farry! Where is your list?'

Faramir's hand went to his shirt pocket, and then he flushed and dropped his hand. 'I'm afraid I haven't had time to make a list this year,' he said.

'Do too have a wist,' little Merigrin said, tugging at his brother's shirt, and little Forget-me-not echoed, 'Doo too!'

'Don't either,' Faramir answered. 'Now come along, Regi's got a lot of lists yet to collect before teatime!'

Indeed, the servers were beginning to lay the tables at the far side of the great room. Soon the sun would be kissing the horizon, the lamps would be lit, and Reginard would carefully stuff the myriad lists under and around the Yule log, ready for the lighting ceremony at teatime. The enormous log would burn through the evening, into the night, burning away with last hours of the old year and falling to ashes in the dawning. The tweens and unmarried adults would roast bacon and mushrooms over the fire while talking about their own hopes and dreams for the coming year. The children's custom of writing down their wishes seemed much more sensible to Reginard; at least they went to bed at a decent hour and didn't start the New Year lacking sleep!

Faramir turned away, but Forget-me-not stubbed her toes and fell, wailing. Farry stooped to pick her up, and Merigrin, not to miss this chance, dove his fingers into Farry's shirt pocket, coming out with a much-creased paper.

'Give me that!' Farry said, and Forget-me-not wailed all the louder at his cross tone. Farry was torn between comforting his sister and retrieving the paper, but Merigrin, triumphant, toddled over to the basket with its heaped-up papers and thrust Farry's into the middle.

'There!' he said, dusting his hands as he'd seen the grownups do after accomplishing a worthy task.

Farry looked as if he wanted to swoop upon the papers and ferret out his piece, but stopped at the knowledge that nobody--but nobody!--was to touch the "treasure", save the steward. Regi accepted the papers on the behalf of Father Yule, and he was the one who tucked them under and about the Yule log, and he saw to it that no one read or disturbed the papers and thus the wishes they contained.

Farry also knew that it was the steward who donned a combed-wool beard and hairpiece and played the role of Father Yule, passing out sweets to the children in honour of the holiday, but he would never tell, and spoil the pleasure of the younger children.

'Farry?' Regi said quietly. How he wished the Master of Buckland was here for Yuletide, this year, and not in Edoras. He knew that the lad confided in Merry, things that he did not feel free to discuss with his parents.

Faramir's shoulders slumped suddenly. 'It doesn't matter,' he said, defiance in his tone. 'It's just stupid, anyhow.'

'Farry!' Regi said, but the Thain's eldest scooped up the two tots and hurried away.

When the line ended at last, Regi stood up and stretched.

'Quite a lot of kindling for the Fire this year,' a passing servitor said, a tray of plates and cutlery on his shoulder.

'Quite a lot,' Regi said. 'The Log ought to catch without any trouble!'

'That's a good thing,' the servitor said, and turned away to lay the nearby tables. Indeed, it was considered bad luck if the Log did not catch fire from the wishes, and more kindling had to be added. Regi had avoided trouble, however, for years by piling more substantial kindling, small sticks and wood shavings, behind the Log, unseen, but of great value in getting the Log to catch.

Now the last of the children were bustled out of the room and the great doors were closed as the final preparations were made. Platters of food were coming out of the kitchen now, and soon they'd be putting out the cosied teapots, and then the doors would open and the Tooks would stream into the room, and when all had taken their places the Thain would enter, take his seat, and proclaim the festivities begun.

And Regi would light the Log, and all would hold their breath until it caught, and then the feasting would start.

The steward picked up the basket, stirring the papers within. A goodly amount of kindling it was. For every teen who grew too old for such "nonsense" it seemed another babe or two was born to take up the custom of New Year wishes. Look at Farry; he was on the cusp of not-believing, but his younger brother and sister were just coming into the right age.

Regi bent to his task, occasionally catching glimpses of staggering letters, penned by a small, uncertain hand, or well-formed phrases contributed by one of the helpful tweens. One of the papers looked familiar with its many creases, as if it had been folded and unfolded multiple times, and Regi picked it up from the basket and hesitated, just as he was about to stuff it under the Log. He laid it aside, almost without thought, and continued his work, but at last he opened the paper, hiding the action with his body in case any of the servitors should glance in his direction, and perused the writing there.

Please, make my Da well.

This was crossed out, and underneath was more writing, smudged, as though a tear had dropped upon it.

Please, let my Da live.

A tightness came into Regi's throat, then. Farry knew the hopelessness of his first request. Nothing the healers tried had made any difference. Pippin could walk a little, supported between two cousins, but he walked less and less lately, and on days of dreary winter rain he walked not at all, but suffered himself to be carried wherever he needed to go.

Regi, watching, had seen when he'd given up hope of regaining his health, of ever being "well" again.

He'd not yet given up his fight to cling to life, but in the opinion of the healers, and those who watched him in love and fear, it was only a matter of time.

Regi hastily shoved the paper under the Log and squeezed his eyes shut, wishing himself young and innocent and able to believe in miracles.

Now you've gone and done it! he seemed to hear young Andson's accusing voice echo in the back of his mind. Now it'll never come to be!

'Please,' Regi whispered to the Log. He knew not whom he addressed. To whom does Father Yule speak his wishes?

***

A year had gone by, a year of great happenings. There had been deaths, and births; drought, and rain; pestilence, and healing; dearth, and bounty sent from far-away lands. The Shire-folks' crops had died in the dust, but the Kings of Gondor and Rohan had sent food, first by wain and then by ship, food and help, friendship and succour.

But none of these was the greatest happening--it was this: Mayor Samwise returned from a year in the South-lands, bearing with him a bottle filled with wonder from the tree-folk of legend. Thain Peregrin had drunk of the Ent-draught... he'd died of it, some said, and been reborn!

Regi didn't know about the dying part, though he'd heard of the agonies the Thain had suffered. All he knew was that these days Pippin was as vigorous as the tween who'd left the Shire for parts unknown, more than a score of years ago, able to breathe deeply, able to walk, nay, to run... to dance!

Farry had waited his turn in the long queue that stretched from great room hearth to great doors and out into the corridor. Though he was the Thain's son, he didn't feel it necessary to shove his way to the front of the line. Polite, the lad was, and considerate. He'd make a fine Thain someday, following in his father's footsteps.

Now he stood before the steward, flanked by Merigrin and Forget-me-not. Regi accepted each of their papers in turn, and then turned a quizzical eye on Faramir. 'No paper this year?' he said. 'Don't you want to send your wishes to Father Yule on the smoke?'

This year, for the first Yuletide in a long time of Yuletides, Faramir's face was relaxed, and his smile was unforced.

'Don't you have a paper?' Merigrin said, looking up, and Forget-me-not shook her little head in distress.

'Don't need a paper,' Farry said, and he crouched to circle the little ones with his arms as he smiled from one to another, and then at the steward. 'I don't need any wishes at all.'

'Is it 'cause you're too big for wishes?' Mergrin said, troubled. The little lad was too sharp by half, and often heard what he wasn't supposed to understand.

'Nay,' Farry said, as he squeezed his little brother a little tighter. 'It's not that, not at all!' He pulled Forget-me-not a little closer and said, simply, 'It's just that...'

'Just that what?' Regi asked.

The servitors scarcely needed to light the hanging lamps with their long brass poles with the wicks at the end. Farry's smile was bright enough to light the entire great room as he answered.

'Just that I have all I ever wanted,' he said. 'But you can stick this in for me, anyhow. I think that Father Yule just might read it in the smoke.' And he pulled a very small slip of paper from his pocket, and handed it to the steward.

'O' course he will!' Merigrin said.

Farry stood to his feet and tousled Merigrin's curls. 'O' course he will!' he agreed, and taking the little ones' hands he led them singing from the great room.

When the basket was full and the great room was again empty of children, Regi performed his duty of arranging the paper kindling around the Yule Log. He saved Farry's note for last, and holding his breath, he stuffed the slip of paper in the middle of the rest, but not before his eye caught, as if by accident, the writing that was there.

Thank you.

In Memorium

A/N: Am thinking of Beregond today, for some reason. This is too long for a drabble and too short for a story, and unfinished at best, but...

In Peoples of Middle-earth J.R.R. Tolkien writes that Beregond had another son besides Bergil, who was alive during the Siege of Gondor, and so this story, which takes place between "The Last Debate" and "The Black Gate Opens", reflects that.

***

'Captain Faramir said you wished to see me,' the man who might be King said with a quizzical look at the man in plain black-and-white who stood before him. 'Make fast the tent flap behind you, that our words might go no further.'

'Sir, thank you, sir,' Beregond stammered, complying, and the silence stretched between them until he took courage to speak again. 'If I might be allowed to go out with the armies of the West when you march...'

'But your place is here,' Aragorn said in patent surprise.

Beregond shook his head. 'I was a guardsman of the Citadel,' he said, 'but that no longer, and marked for death in any event, whether this War be lost or won. If I might go to the battle...'

'And leave your sons behind...?'

The man's face twisted briefly before he regained himself. 'It seems that I must leave them whether I will or no,' he said, 'and this is the better way. Better for them to think of their father dead in battle, than hanged in disgrace.'

Aragorn studied the man before him. Proud, as all the men of Gondor were, and yet humbling himself, for the sake of his sons' pride... Not quite begging, but...

'If my Lord please,' Beregond said, his hands fisting by his side, 'let me bear a burden, if need be; I'll walk with the pack-beasts...'

'That won't be necessary,' Aragorn said with a firm nod. He trusted Faramir's judgment in this and other matters.

[Bergil] was also downcast; for his father was to march leading a company of the Men of the City: he could not rejoin the Guard until his case was judged.

March 25, 1419
Just outside the borders of the Tookland, in the Woody End

Three hobbits crouch in the brambles, in the early-morning darkness. They’ve crept as close as they dare to the fire, even given the quiet with which a hobbit moves.

Reginard Took--who, being heir apparent to the Thain now that Pippin’s gone and got himself eaten by spooks in the Old Forest, really ought not to be here--pulls at Ferdi’s arm.

Ferdibrand Took shakes his head, and realising that the others won’t see in the darkness, takes hold of an arm of each of the others and gives a firm downwards tug. Stay.

And so they listen, scarcely breathing, their faces black with soot, their clothes dark as the shadows that hide them, to the talk that rises and falls, the jests, the coarse laughter, the boasts.

The ruffians who burned the Crowing Cockerel are seeking revenge. Aye, they’ll march into the Tookland, none of this polite business, following at Lotho’s heels like so many trained hounds, but striding, crushing the new-growing crops under their boots, crushing any of the Shire-rats that stumble into their path, until they reach the Great Sty where the so-called Thain cowers.

So hobbits thought to stop the Men who burned the Cockerel, did they? So they took out their little toy bows and shot toy arrows? (Needless to say, more than one Man died, and no hobbits were injured, but all the Shire-folk escaped, thanks to the Tooks.)

Perhaps there is an edge to the raucous laughter. Ferdi hopes so, for he’s the one who convinced Regi to listen, to give him a chance to set the traps. A hunter he’s been, nearly half his life now, and he knows his traps, the nooses and the trip lines, the bent trees and covered pits, and ruffians are simply vermin of a larger sort, fair game, are they not? Even if the aim is to keep them out of the Tookland, and not to harm or kill, well, traps are traps.

And under his shirt, torn from the tree where it was nailed, there is a paper with his name on it, and Regi’s, and yes, Hilly beside him, Hilly's name and his brother Tolly's into the bargain, though Ferdi and Hilly have never seen eye-to-eye. Wanted alive, it says. Wanted for what, Ferdi wonders. He has a good idea, having heard of the farmer who was put down his own well when he tried to stop thieving ruffians from “gathering” his chickens, and he's heard whispers of the life--if you could call it that--in the Lockholes.

And deep down inside, there’s a desperate sinking feeling. The ruffians are not many, scarcely a score, but they’re large, twice the size of a hobbit, and they’re angry, and they sound nasty, and they sound both determined and confident. Most of them have clubs, and a few have bows, and Ferdi’s seen the flash of long, wicked knives in the firelight.

And even if these are trapped, from their talk there are more, ever so many more in the Shire, and more arriving each day. Lotho must be mad, to invite these “guests” to come and stay, to overrun the Shire like... like vermin.

At last he’s heard enough, and he gives another tug, a backwards tug, to the arms on either side, and the hobbits ease away from the fire and the talk. It is time to check the traps a final time, and then, some time this day, the battle will be at hand.

‘So, our names are on a warrant, are they?’ Regi whispers when they are well away.

‘Wanted “alive” for what reason?’ Hilly says. ‘I wager they’re not all that interested in our good health.’

Ferdi is silent, thinking of the burning of the inn, and the rage of the ruffians, and how they’d blustered and threatened to set all the buildings ablaze with the hobbits inside (...but the hobbits had already fled, at the urging of the Tooks who’d been there). He lets Hilly’s comment go, for there’s no need to speak, and for some reason Hilly bears him, Ferdi, ill will. Perhaps he blames Ferdi for letting Pippin go off into the Wilds, for not telling the Thain that his son was going to follow Frodo Baggins to his death. No, that’s not it. He’s had it in for Ferdi since Ferdi can remember, for no reason Ferdi could fathom. He shrugs his shoulders, as one who eases tense muscles, and moves to check the fine fishing line, the first tripwire in the line of traps.

And after all the traps are checked, and the Sun is rising, well on her way to the nooning, and the birds ought to begin their singing for very belated they are this morning indeed, and the dread is growing in Ferdi’s heart; and on his companions’ blackened faces he reads the same doubt, the fighting of fear. The Woody End is silent, as if the birds and small creatures are hidden away, frightened by the Men in their midst. Or perhaps it is something greater that frightens them, for the fear, it is growing, growing in Ferdi’s heart, choking him until he can scarce draw breath.

And in the silence of the wood the laughter rings, harsh and triumphant, and the blood roars in Ferdi’s ears, as he’d imagined the roar of battle, hearing old Bilbo tell the tale of the Five Armies, and he quails, he sinks down, his companions follow suit, all of them pressed into the ground by their fear, and the knowing, and the not-knowing. And it seems as if the wind that rustled the leaves in the early morning is also fear-stifled, for it dies, and the Sun is bleared, and all sounds in the Woody End are hushed: neither wind, nor voice, nor bird-call, nor rustle of leaf, nor their own breath can be heard; the very beating of their hearts seems stilled. Time itself halts.

And the hobbits cower, pressed to the ground, and still they wait, for the Men’s assault, they think, for they can imagine no other reason for this unreasoning fear. So still are they, so taut with listening, that they feel the tremor that runs through the earth; faint it is, as if it has travelled a long journey, and then a sound like a sigh goes up from all the Woody End around them; and their hearts beat suddenly again.

And all of a sudden they hear the Men’s voices, closer, and the crashing their boots make, walking through the woods, but it doesn’t matter, and the traps are well-planned and strong, and Ferdi leaps to his feet, his heart inexplicably as light now as it was heavy before, and a grin splits his face, and he raises his voice in a mocking song.

Catch me, catch me, catch me if you ca-an!

And he’s scarcely aware of it, but Regi and Hilly have leapt to their feet as well, and are echoing the taunt, and the crashing grows louder, the Men are shouting, an arrow flies past Ferdi’s ear, and he turns and flees...

All three hobbits flee, feigning terror, falling (not really) and getting up, limping as if injured, luring the Men along. They pass over the first tripwire and run on, a deadly race but ruffians are not so good with the bow as Tooks, perhaps, and none of the arrows find their mark.

And behind them the crashing becomes something more, as it is not only Men’s boots but their bodies that smash into into the ground, and the arrows stop. Not all the Men rise to follow the limping hobbits, tantalized as they are, like a hunter following a broken-winged bird.

Not far now, and the first scream rings through the woods, as a bent tree snaps suddenly straight, carrying with it a Man, snared by the ankle, dangling in the air, wildly gesticulating to a world turned wrong-side up.

The others who step into the waiting snares have not enough warning to avoid their fate, and soon a fine bevy of “birds” hang flapping their wings.

And hobbits can jump, quite wide they can, and so the three spring over the covered pits, and the rest of the following ruffians are too heated with dark passions and murderous anger to take heed, and so in they fall, and it will be some time before they can climb out again, and cut their dangling fellows free...

And the hobbits stop their headlong, limping flight, and panting, laugh, and slap each other’s backs, yes, even Hilly slaps Ferdi on the shoulder, and congratulates him on the success of the scheme.

And Regi calls back, his voice high and clear and mocking, ‘And if you’d like another helping, there’s plenty more where that came from!’

And leaving their guests to the hospitality of the wood, the Tooks creep away, their chuckles louder than their footfalls, as is only proper when one steps over the border into Tookland.

And for the first time, Ferdi’s doubts are laid to rest. Aye. They’ll keep the ruffians out of the Tookland. The Thain has the right of it.

***

A/N: A small amount of text was borrowed directly from "The Steward and the King", from The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Written for Marigold's Challenge 25.

Title: They Also Serve
Author: Lindelea
Rating: G
Main Characters:
Disclaimer: The characters aren’t mine, but I sometimes sneak out with them for a cup of tea and a biscuit or two, or sit and watch them sleep.
Brief synopsis: They also serve who only stand and wait: Marigold Gamgee does what she can.
Challenge Starter: Write a story including Marigold just before and during the time the Travellers return.

They Also Serve

If it wasn't for Rosie Cotton, and for the fact that my old gaffer needs me, I think I'd just lay me down and die, I really would. Dad's been awful sick, the past few weeks. It started with a cough, just a little one, for he held it in, not wanting me to worry, and o' course he never let on that it was paining him. Said 'twas the lack of pipe-weed, catching up with him at last. But we both know it's this draughty house, built so badly the wind blows in through the cracks and whistles in the stove pipe. Not that there's wood to burn, even with all the trees they've cut down.

Ever since Sam's been gone to Crickhollow and then up and disappeared altogether, or so they say, I keep hoping he'll get word somehow of how things are, and come back. I think on him, every night when I pull up the thin blanket over my head to shut out the wind that finds its way through the cracks in the walls, and I send good thoughts his way, for surely he must need a good thought or two, wherever he is. He must be facing danger ahead, and more danger behind, or he'd be back by now from wherever it is he went with Mr. Frodo.

That day he left, and that Black-cloak Man came round asking after "Baggins" I had a terrible bad feeling, and so I think good thoughts for Sam and send them after him, wishes for his safety, and hopes that he hasn't forgotten us as has been left behind.

I wish I could get word to Ham or Hal or Daisy or May, but there's no travelling allowed and no post, and it's just me and Dad here. If it wasn't for the kindness of the Cottons I don't know what we would do.

It's no use longing for Bagshot Row; it's all dug up and gone, Mum's garden, Dad's taters and all else, save Bag End, and they've made the garden beds into rubbish heaps and put up ugly sheds that block the windows. How I 'member me, bringing pots of fresh-made strawberry jam to Mr. Frodo, last Spring before he went away and took our Sam with him. The windows sparkled, and the breeze carried the mingled scents of the flowers, and Tom Cotton had asked me to walk out with him, and I was never so happy in all my life.

I went out to gather what herbs I could, for Dad's coughing fits grew so bad he'd go red in the face and gasping, and there's no going out without a "pass" any more these days, and even so a lass takes her life and virtue into her hands to stir outside her door. If it wasn't for Rosie Cotton...

I don't know how she manages, but she comes every week or two, a basket of rags on her arm, looking frightful. The last time she came, her eye was blacked and she was missing a tooth and her clothes all ragged-like and dirty and dirt on her face and she smelled as bad as a goat. I doubt any ruffian would come near enough to get a whiff of her and come any closer, close enough to bother her, much less tease her for a kiss, those nasty Men! I've heard worse, and Dad won't let me go out no more... any more. I'm forgetting what Mr. Bilbo taught Sam, and Sam taught me, how to talk proper and all such. It's just Dad and me, sitting by the cold stove, talking over things as we remember them.

But now I've started to write things down in the bound book Mr. Frodo gave me for a last present when he went away. Mostly happy things, like Mum's fresh apple tart, so good that Mr. Bilbo would knock upon the door to say how good it smelled, cooling on the windowsill, and she'd always ask him in and cut him a large slice and send him home with another. 'Twas his apples, after all. Dad always got a bushel to keep when we picked the apples in the orchard for the Bagginses.

Did I say a basket of rags? Well, yes, but the rags, they're only the top part, you see. Rosie has a pass to go to Bywater market every market day (Market, huh! Naught for sale but the ruffians like to make it look as though life goes on. I don't know just why.) to bring rags to the rug-maker. I don't know how she manages to come all the way here with a pass that says "market" but she does. I don't suppose she'd manage if we still lived on the Row. This shed is not above a mile from the end of Bywater, and that helps. Who'd've thought the ruffians would do us a service?

And under the rags she'll have a roasted chicken, and a jar of calves-foot jelly, and another of lamb broth, and a few vegetables that haven't yet been "gathered". At that it's more food than the ruffians allot us for a week of eating. I don't know what we'd do... in the old days we'd've et up that chicken in just one sitting, but now we stretch it out to two or three days, and then I cook the scraps into soup with the little bit of cooking wood the ruffians allot us. Good enough for two or three good fires a week, perhaps. Some folk might stretch the wood out with poorly little fires, but you can't really cook that way. I cook up griddle cakes and soup and bake bread with those two good fires, and we eat cold food the rest of the time.

The light is going and my old Dad's already snoring. O' course he is--I would hardly be writing this if he were awake. He never did hold with Sam learning his letters, and if he knew Sam had taught me he'd be right put out.

***

Dad's cough is some better. Rosie brought herbs from the farm, now that it's too hard for me to get out. Really I feel like one of those poor Lockholes hobbits, but at least I can see the Sun through these unnatural square windows. They may be badly made, and let in the wind, but at least they let in the light. They're not glass windows, o' course, that would be too good a thing for "Shire rats", but greased paper. Still, the light comes in, and it's a mercy that ruffians passing by cannot see in, for they'd want to know where the chicken came from, and such. As it is, we pry up a loose board in the floor, to bury what leavings we absolutely cannot stomach in the dirt under.

Did you know if you boil chicken bones long enough they'll be soft enough to chew? And vegetable peelings make a broth o' sorts, and if you close your eyes when you drink the soup, you can pretend the peelings are Mum's homemade noodles.

Rosie had been looking glum as anyone else, since they closed all the inns and hauled Mayor Will off to the Lockholes, but today she seemed different. Her other eye was blacked, that wasn't it--I mentioned a blackened eye before, and forgot to say it was her dad that did it. He didn't blacken her eye, not with his fist, but with smudges from a piece of charred wood. She looks a sight, with her front teeth coloured black and her black eye and dirty face, but under it all she was cheerful today.

We sat down for our usual chat over tea--she and Tom gather weeds as they're walking and we brew them in our day's allotment of water over a small fire--and Tom and my old Dad got to talking and she leaned over and said, 'It's going to be all right, Mari!'

My mouth must've dropped open, for she reached her dirty hand to my chin and pushed up before Dad noticed, and I closed my mouth again and stared. I was sure she'd lost her wits. She laughed, ever so soft, and Dad broke off what he was sayin' 'bout taters to ask her about the joke. She spun a tale of how a couple of those ruffian louts came up to her and Tom to ask for their "pass" but when they smelled the goat smell they waved Tom and her on without even looking at the paper, muttering about dirty rats.

When Dad and Tom went back to talking, she leaned close again. 'Sam's all right,' she whispered. I sat up straight as could be, but managed not to shout out loud. We don't want any ruffians knocking at the door, demanding to know what all the noise is about. Door's so poorly made it would likely fall in.

'You've heard from him?' I hissed, and questions tumbled out faster'n I could ask them, even. 'Where is he? What's...?'

She put a hand on my mouth and as quickly she put it back down in her lap before Dad could see. 'Don't tell the gaffer,' she said. 'But he's all right, and he'll be coming home.'

'When?' I whispered. I thought perhaps Dad, deaf as he is, and Tom could hear my heart pounding. Sam's been gone so long, and no word, and I know he'd've sent word if only he could, and if he knew what was going on and that they'd dug up Bagshot Row he'd never have stayed away if he were living and in his right mind. I was sure he was dead.

My hand is shaking so, I can hardly write the words. O Dad and I have talked, sometimes, about Sam and where he might have gone. 'That's what comes o' mixing with your betters,' he'd always say, but I've seen him wipe a tear away when he thought I wasn't looking.

I was sure he was dead. I don't think Rosie ever gave up hope, but like I said, she was looking grim, the last few weeks.

But today, even the blackened eye was sparkling, and I found enough hope down deep in the bottom of my heart to believe her. I've been thinking good thoughts for Sam's sake, all along, all the good things I remember, but it's been hard. What I really was doing, the past few weeks, was trying to keep him alive in my heart, for it seemed that so long as I could remember him, I'd not lose him.

***

It has been weeks since I wrote the last, and things is grim and grimmer in the Shire. They've cut down all the trees on the Avenue, Rosie says. It almost makes me content that I must stay indoors, in my ramshackle shed of a Lockhole, behind my greased-paper window, for the Shire remains in my mind as I remember it.

Sometimes I slip out when Dad is sleeping, for a fresh breath and a glimpse of the stars. Mr. Frodo loved the stars, he did, in a way that made me think of elvish things. (Stuff and nonsense, Dad would grumble when Sam would tell us one o' Mr. Bilbo's or Mr. Frodo's stories, but he'd listen all the same.) The stars make me think o' Mr. Frodo, and I wonder if he lives, still, or if only Sam has come through, whatever it is he's come through. Rosie won't say, and when I try to ask her she shushes me, with a look at my old gaffer, and squeezes my hand.

She and Tom can only come every so often, now. It's just as well, for we'd been cutting up Mum's old dresses, that Dad couldn't bring himself to give away when she died, we'd been cutting them up to add to the rags in Rosie's basket so it didn't look as if she left off anything when she visited our shack. It's the sort of thing a ruffian would notice, if the basket seemed piled high with rags when she went in, but the rags was half-gone when she went out again. Anyhow, there's not much left to cut up, not even any more of Samwise's clothes. We cannot very well go unclad, and so our clothes, worn and likely to become rags themselves sooner than later, must stay whole as can be managed.

When there's no food at all left, and Rosie and Tom haven't come, Dad'll go round to the Cottons', all against The Rules o' course, and they feed him a good meal and he hides food in his clothes to bring back to me, and so we eat for a little longer. Some folk go without altogether, he tells me, for the ruffians allot only enough food for a body to eat every other day, and call any hobbits that protest "gluttons" and such, and even haul them as says anything off to the Lockholes if they're in a foul humour.

And summer nearly over, and winter to follow, and how ever will we keep warm and fed?

It may be harvest time, but we've seen none of it, save what Rosie brings hidden under the rags. She says that waggonloads of stuff has been going South ever since last year at this time. Either the hobbits of the South Farthing are sitting on heaps of food, or it's going out of the Shire altogether. I wonder what's there, beyond the Bounds?

And still I think my good thoughts of Sam, and send my hopes his way, and hope he'll remember where it was he come from, and turn his face towards home once more. Even if there's not much "home" to come home to.

***

Mr. Frodo's and Mr. Bilbo's birthday come and went, but no Birthday Party, o'course. Dad poured out glasses of water for each of us and raised his hand in a shaky toast, and whispered his blessings, and he and I drank, and remembered.

And something else has happened. There's someone new come to Bag End, they call him Sharkey, and they say he's the Big Boss of all the ruffians. I only hope he sets them straight. They've run roughshod right over the Shire, and near to spoilt it to death. Perhaps now there'll be food, and the market will open again, and the inns, and...

...and Sam will come back. Bless him. I wonder if Rosie still thinks he's alive and coming home? It's hard to think the good thoughts, but I'll keep on, if only for Sam's sake.

***

I really do think that I shall lay down to sleep, and never waken in this world. I go to bed and I feel all hollow inside. It's worse than when I used to go to bed and the hunger would be a-gnawin' at my insides. But things is worse rather than better, and if we thought the ruffians bad, well, that Sharkey...

It seems he's the one behind the orders to cut down the trees, and fill the blue skies with horrid greasy smoke, and pour nasty offal into the water until the fish begin to wash up on the banks, stinking and dead.

And now they've taken Mistress Lobelia to the Lockholes, and nobody's seen Mr. Lotho in some time, and Rosie and Tom's not been by in days, and when Dad tried to go to the Cottons they stopped him and gave him such a fright, for they acted as if they were marching him off to the Lockholes, and only as they passed our shed did they shove him in at the door with loud and raucous laughter, and he was shaking and the tears was leaking from his eyes, even though his jaw was set and grim.

I've not seen Dad weep since the day Mum died. He's always been strong, tough and strong, like the roots that go down deep into the soil and hurt your arm, trying to yank them out, and even then they won't come out but break off and make you dig deeper to take hold once more, and even then you cannot yank them out!

He's afeared, I know, that if he's hauled away, the ruffians will come for me next.

***

I thought I'd seen a ghost, I really did. It was not much more than six o'clock, but the dark was coming down, and a knock came at the door. We knew it couldn't be a hobbit, being after the curfew hour and all that, unless it was a Shirriff, and so Dad told me to hide myself, and he opened the door, for what else could he do?

And I heard him cry out, and I grabbed up the skillet, heavy iron that it is, and the closest thing to a weapon we might have, and I stepped out and swung at the figure that stood there, metal shining out from under his cloak...

...and I near to knocked the brains out of my brother, dear Samwise, standing there real as life.

It was like he didn't even have to think about it, the way his hand come up and seized my wrist and stopped that skillet before I could even blink, and his dear voice said, 'Mari! Marigold!'

And I was laughing and weeping and clinging to him, and he was hard--it was like hugging a tree, only harder, for he was clad in a mail shirt under his cloak--and Dad was weeping and his arms was about the both of us, and Sam was weeping and...

Well, let's just say there was no dearth of tears in that shack for a good few minutes.

And now I am writing by the light of the fire, for before Sam went off again with our old gaffer he hauled a couple of armloads of wood from somewhere and told me to get myself warm, for I was all over gooseflesh.

I'll say I was all over gooseflesh. It's not every day you see the dead come back to life.

And Sam's gone off to throw the ruffians and their Boss out of the Shire, and I believe him, for he's not the same Sam that went off a year ago. He's hard, and it's not just that he's wearing a mail shirt and a sword, and there's a cold light in his eyes, and I wouldn't want to be that Sharkey-fellow when Sam gets through with him.

And Mr. Frodo is back, and well... well, perhaps not well, for Sam's voice faltered a little in the telling... but Mr. Pippin and Mr. Merry are back and tall as anything from drinking tree sap and they have swords and shields and know how to use them...

And they're going to throw the ruffians out of the Shire, and everything will be all right again.

So I guess Rosie really did know what she was talking about after all.

Rendering
Written on the occasion of Nilmandra's birthday. A double drabble. Many Happy Returns.

‘She’s beautiful,’ Sam breathed, staring at the picture. He wasn’t quite sure where he was—he’d got himself thoroughly lost, but it didn’t matter, with Mr. Frodo on the mend, sleeping, no need to hurry back. Gandalf had sent him to his rest, as a matter of fact, but blessed if he could find the rooms where their baggages had been sent. He’d turned into this room, having gone back to the last joining of corridors, and counted doors, and this one had been ajar, and in his weariness he’d stumbled against it, nearly falling into the room. An empty room, fortunately, with none to be bothered by his intrusion.

‘Yes, she is,’ a quiet voice said behind him, and he’d’ve started if his raw, exhausted nerves hadn’t caught the sorrow infusing the tone. Still he spun around, so fast he nearly overbalanced, and bowed.

‘L-lord Elrond, I...’

The Master of the House smiled, kind as summer, reaching out a gentle hand to steady the hobbit.

‘My beloved,’ he said. ‘And that is my favourite rendering.’

‘I-I can see why,’ Samwise said.

‘Come, Master Samwise,’ Elrond murmured, a hand at the hobbit’s back. ‘Let me show you to your quarters.’

Background:

This story comes from a challenge thrown out on the PippinHealers yahoo group, on the event of the group’s anniversary.

Write a story where each line or paragraph starts with a letter from the phrase “Happy Anniversary, PippinHealers!”

Being busy (what’s new?) I had set the idea aside, but after reading Dreamflower’s wonderful contribution I began to think about what might be done. I thought then about a scene from Flames where Ferdi’s father has just died, and young Faramir has wandered from his bed during the uproar over one of his father’s “breathless fits” (an asthma attack, or bronchitis, or something like), and he and Ferdi have a talk about fathers and eternity.

So for the sake of background, here’s the excerpt from the chapter in Flames from which this “Happy Anniversary, PippinHealers” story springs.

Later, he found his steps turning towards old Ferdinand's room. He entered, to find all much as it had been, his father's pipe on the mantle, the knitted blanket neatly folded on Ferdinand's chair as if waiting for him to be moved there from his bed for the day. He took the pipe from the mantle and sank down in his customary place, cradling the pipe in his hands. When he closed his eyes, he could smell the lingering richness of pipeweed smoke, could imagine the crackle of the little fire on the hearth, keeping the little kettle warm, could even imagine that he and his father were sitting in one of their comfortable silences... until a small voice broke into his thoughts.

'Is this your da's room?' Ferdi opened his eyes. As he expected, it was the son of the Thain.

'What are you doing out of bed?' he asked.

The little lad shrugged. 'They're all too busy to notice,' he said. 'It's all a-bustle right now, healers shouting for things and people running in and out.'

This news caught Ferdi in the pit of his stomach, but he managed to say calmly enough, 'And so no one's watching out for you?'

'No,' the lad said.

'Has anyone fed you since tea?'

'No,' little Faramir repeated.

'Sit down here a moment,' Ferdi said. 'Will you stay put if I tell you?'

'I know how to follow orders,' Faramir said.

'Do that,' Ferdi said. 'I'll be right back.'

He returned soon with bowls of stew from the pot the old aunties kept warm in the depths of the Smials, and crusty bread to go with it. He sat Faramir down in Ferdinand's old chair and the two fell to their meal without much to say.

Finally, Faramir showed his empty bowl, and Ferdi nodded gravely. 'Job well done.' He collected the bowls and laid them by the hearth, then he and Faramir sat regarding each other. The lad broke the silence.

'What's it like to die?'

Ferdi blinked. 'Well,' he said slowly, 'I've never died, myself, mind...'

Faramir nodded encouragingly, and Ferdi went on, '...but I've heard tell that you go beyond the Sundering Seas, to a land where there's no hurt or sorrow, and you walk in peace, all griefs forgotten.'

'That doesn't sound so bad,' the lad mused. 'Why are folk so frightened of death, then?'

'Because once you die, there's no going back,' Ferdi said.

'So you're stuck?'

'Aye,' Ferdi answered. They sat in silence awhile longer.

'There's no hurt?' the lad asked at last.

'Aye, and all that was ever taken away is restored to you,' Ferdi answered.

Faramir thought this over. 'So...' he said, still thinking, 'So your da's got his arms and legs back? The ones that were burned away in the fire?' Ferdi nodded. 'And he's got... he's got his brother back, what the fire took away?'

'How did you know about that?' Ferdi asked.

The lad shrugged again. 'People talk,' he said simply. Ferdi nodded. He knew how people talked.

'And my da will have his breath back?' Faramir continued. 'And he'll be able to run, and laugh until he has to hold his tummy, and chase little hobbits and catch them and throw them in the air and catch them again?'

Not trusting his voice, Ferdi only nodded. Faramir considered a moment more.

'That's not so bad then,' he said softly. 'I was afraid it would be all cold, and dark, and lonely, but... I suppose it's not so bad after all.'

The two sons sat quietly for a long time, thinking of their fathers, until the son of the Thain fell asleep, and Ferdinand's son bore him gently to the Thain's quarters, where things had quieted down, and the Thain slept, propped with pillows, healer on watch by the bedside, Diamond dosed to drowsiness and put back to bed to nurse her headache.

No one had missed Faramir or even noticed that he'd crept from his bed. The healer's eyes widened at the sight of Ferdibrand and his burden, but the head of the Thain's escort merely jerked his head towards the lad's room. Woodruff nodded, and Ferdi took the lad to his bed, smoothing the covers over him as gently as his own father might do.

'Good night, lad,' he said softly.

Faramir stirred in his sleep and smiled. 'Night, Da,' he murmured. 'Take me fishing tomorrow?'

'Well,' Ferdi whispered, 'I'll be a bit busy on the morrow, but I'll put Ferdi on it. I'm sure he'll take you if I ask him nicely.'

'Will you?' Faramir asked, still in his pleasant dream.

'You can count on me,' Ferdi whispered, smoothing back a stray curl. 'Sleep now.' He watched the lad's breathing become deep and even, and then stole from the room.

--From Flames

http://www.storiesofarda.com/chapterview.asp?sid=156&CID=962

A Breath of Fresh Air

He remembered the feeling: dark, suffocating, crushing pain, struggling for just one breath, just one little gasp, but the Troll was too heavy... too heavy... too great a weight upon his chest.

At his last gasp, he thought, rather irreverently perhaps, but his thought lingered long enough to laugh a little within him, so great was his relief that all was done, the burden of fear was lifted, and he could, at last, rest. To rest, to sleep, perchance to dream... Last gasp, and I cannot even gasp! I thought that I would at least get the dying part right...

‘Pippin!’ he heard, close at hand, a familiar voice that somehow did not fit, here in the darkness beneath the hill troll. Beregond’s voice, yes, or Targon’s, or even Gandalf, shouting amidst the faint and muffled muddle of battle, something about Eagles, but a feminine voice? Here?

‘Pippin!’ came the cry again, and it seemed to him that sharp nails were digging into his arm, clutching at him – perhaps someone was attempting to pull him out from under the troll. It would take the strength of a dwarf to do that, he mused, oddly detached, but peaceful now that the first struggle was past, and he felt himself sinking into the darkness, and the darkness a soft and welcoming place, not hard and harsh, no longer frightening but somehow offering more comfort than anything. Peace. Rest.

‘You called, Mistress?’ A bland and unruffled voice broke in, another that did not fit on a battlefield or under a troll, so to speak. It was the voice of a hobbitservant of long experience, one who greeted every scenario with no more than a raised eyebrow, who always presented a face that was “correct”, a silent rebuke to his “betters” when they grew excited over this-or-that trifle. Sandy, he thought in surprise. What was Sandy doing here, under the troll?

‘A healer!’ she gasped. ‘Fetch a healer at once!’

Now that was a capital idea. A healer, and so convenient, on the spot and under the troll, so to speak. But how did a healer come to be here, in this terrible place?

None of your nonsense, Pip, he could almost hear Frodo say. Frodo? Or was it Merry? Or perhaps Regi or Ferdi? Of course there’d be healers on the battlefield. The healers had marched to the Black Gate with the rest of the armies of the West, swords hanging at their sides, soldiers like the rest, though their swords were more intended for defence, yes, for defending their own lives, and the lives of those they’d tend during and after the battle. If a healer saw a man fall, he’d make his way to the spot and stand over the fallen to keep the blades of the enemy from hewing him as he lay. And then if the attack could be beaten off, if a respite could be won, then the healer would be on the spot, to bind up the wounds. Most convenient.

‘I’m here, Mistress.’ A bit out of breath, but Pippin recognized the voice of the healer he’d known most of his life. Well, all his life, he supposed, since she’d attended at his birth, only a healer’s apprentice at the time, but she’d become a full healer in her own right when Pippin was still a very small lad.

‘Very good, Woodruff,’ he whispered. ‘I don’t know how you manage it, to be here and under the troll and all.’

Even Pippin could not hear his own voice in his ears, but somehow the healer did.

‘Relax, Sir,’ she said. ‘Steady breaths. In... out... in... out...’ He wanted to ask how one managed steady breaths, crushed under a troll, but it would take too much breath to do so, and air was one thing that was definitely lacking in this time and place. They were sitting him up – someone was, anyhow. He felt himself lifted, propped more upright, softness behind him – pillows? – and bodies on either side, pressing close, one of which was soft and cushiony and warmly familiar – he knew every curve of that body, every nook and cranny, in a manner of speaking. But this was neither the time nor the place...

‘Sandy!’ Woodruff snapped. ‘Build up the fire. We need boiling water – steam! Herbs... in that bag there; when the water boils we’ll set them steeping.’

‘A draught?’ Diamond said, and yes, Pippin knew now that it was Diamond, and that he was in the Great Smials, and that his cold had turned into something rather worse than better. He was drowning, yes, that was it, drowning, his lungs filling with fluid. Fancy that he’d dreamed of being under the troll, rather than of falling into the Brandywine. A drowning dream seemed just the thing.

‘Right,’ Woodruff said crisply, and then Pippin felt the chill of the night air on his breast as someone pulled his nightshirt open, so quickly that he heard some of the buttons pop, and then there was a pungent smell, a familiar one that he remembered first smelling in Ithilien, something Strider had used on him as he was recovering from the battle before the Black Gate, something Merry had learned the making of, had brought back to the Shire for Pippin’s sake, to be used when shortness of breath returned for any reason, whether caused by dust or illness.

‘You’ll be wanting a blanket,’ Sandy said quietly at his elbow.

Pippin nodded. A blanket was just the thing! He was hot and cold by turns, undoubtedly a fever to go with the breathless fit, but definitely in the grip of a chill at the moment.

‘I -’ he managed, though with the shudders that seized him it came out sounding more like, ‘I-I-I-I-’

‘Pippin!’ Diamond said. ‘Save your breath, my love. Don’t try to talk...’

Pippin’s face screwed up in puzzlement. How does one save one’s breath, when one has no breath to speak of?

‘I think the kettle’s boiling,’ someone said. Pippin wanted to comment that they’d not been watching the pot, evidently, for everyone knew that old saw about a watched pot.

‘None of your nonsense, now, lad,’ Woodruff said firmly, to Pippin’s surprise. He must have spoken the thought aloud after all.

‘Healers,’ he muttered.

‘Exactly,’ Woodruff answered, and Pippin wanted to protest that now it was Woodruff speaking nonsense. But the healer was occupied about other things, one of which was placing the blanket to her satisfaction. The other voices became muffled, only Diamond’s and Woodruff’s low tones clear in his ears, and he realised that the blanket had been thrown over the top of the three of them, forming a tent of sorts, and a weight was on his lap, and Woodruff was urging caution that the steaming water not be tipped out onto Pippin’s nether regions.

‘And I’ll thank you for that,’ Pippin muttered. Another pungent odour arose, somewhat different from the first, but also familiar. This was not the same as the balm they’d smeared on his back and chest, that he could feel tingling as it worked, that could likely be smelled by hobbits in the next room, so strong it was. No, this was something else, something that you scooped into steaming water, to melt, to send fumes into the air, to ease the breathing of a young hobbit afflicted with the croup, or someone struggling with lung fever or the like. Yes. Pippin understood now. The blanket formed a tent to trap the medicinal steam, and Diamond on one side and Woodruff on the other propped Pippin between them, holding the basin that he might breathe (to the best of his limited ability, as it was, at the moment) and be eased.

‘Let it work,’ Woodruff murmured. ‘That’s it, Sir, steady breaths. In – out – in – out – in - ’

Eternity passed, or so it seemed to Pippin, and likely to those who watched and waited, anxious.

‘Right,’ Woodruff said again, at last, and this time her voice was not crisp and authoritative, but laced through with relief. The spasm was easing, and Pippin realised that he was drawing deep breaths once more. His head was clearing, and opening his eyes he saw a brief darkness that melted as the blanket was drawn away, and then Woodruff was taking a cup from the hand of her assistant, and holding it to his lips, and urging him to drink, and he was too limp and weary with the effort it had cost him to keep on breathing through the entire ordeal, and so he drank, feeling the warmth of the steaming draught spread through him, adding to the languor he was feeling. Odd, how one took breathing so much for granted, until the ability to breathe was taken away.

‘Sleep now, Sir,’ Woodruff whispered, and truly, his eyelids were so very heavy he could scarcely keep them open. He sighed – such a luxury, to be able to sigh! – and felt Diamond nestle against him, a wetness on the cheek against his own, either perspiration from being bathed in steam, under a blanket, or lingering tears of fear for him, or more likely tears of relief, but there was no time for wondering as he skidded towards sleep. His thought lingered a moment, laughing a little within him, and then fluttered away into the welcoming forgetfulness.

Written for the occasion of Marigold's birthday, this tale stretched and stretched well beyond the day itself. The last bit was written in the wee hours of a very hot day in the middle of a heat wave, and might not be completely coherent, but all's well that ends well, or so we say around here.

Thanks for dropping by. Comments are always welcome.

Bloom of Sunshine, Bloom of Gold

S.R. 1402

Tears poured down Marigold’s cheeks, but even as she suppressed her sobs, she lifted her apron, looking for a clean bit, until she was finally able to wipe away the aggravating moisture with the barest corner. Really! There was no call to be weeping like the littlest maid pursuing lost sheep. She’d only lost the family’s prize nanny, after all, for the maddening goat had chewed through the rope when she’d taken the beast out to graze the meadows below Bag End. She would have to fall asleep, under the warm sunshine, to the tinkling of Nan’s bell, only to waken later to birdsong, and sun lowering in the sky, and no bell... and no nanny goat, heavy with young, ready to pop any day now, to Hamfast’s great anticipation.

She had cast in ever-widening circles, calling and seeking, finally finding Nan on the rocky slope leading to the Old Orchard. She’d climbed – too bad the path down the steep and rock-strewn hillside from Bag End’s orchard was some way to the side. It was hard enough, going up or down by the straggling path. Most hobbits chose to go the long way round, by the road that ran from Hobbiton up the Hill, passing the Row on its way to Overhill. Nan’s bell had tinkled an invitation as the goat pulled yet another mouthful from the wildflowers growing over and among the rocks, and Mari had tucked up her skirts and resolutely climbed, though the thought of it, if she let herself think of it, would have made her head swim.

And all the while, Nan grazed greedily, her brush of a tail sweeping back and forth in her pleasure.

At least it wasn’t wash day, and she hadn’t found the laden clothesline this time, either the Gamgees' or any of the neighbours’. Why, once Nan had eaten Mr. Bilbo’s second-best waistcoat, shiny brass buttons and all! (And a good thing it wasn’t the best, with its buttons of gold...)

Marigold had grabbed at the trailing rope, Nan lunging away in a last-minute snatch at some bright blooms, and a rock had turned under Mari’s foot, and all in the same instant of time.

So now she sat, her ankle throbbing, watching Nan disappearing over the lip of the hillside into the Old Orchard, ignoring her tearful calls. Augh!

Her only comfort was that Sam was mowing the grass in the orchard. He’d see the goat and give chase, and unless Mari saw Nan descend the rock-strewn slope once more, she could trust that her brother would capture Nan and bring her home safe.

Which was more than you could say for Marigold.

***

Marigold touched her ankle with a careful fingertip. Ouch! Tender to the touch, and beginning to swell. Fresh tears welled in her eyes, and these were not all tears of pain, but disappointment and frustration.

Here she was, ankle broken or strained at the very least, at the bottom of the rocky hill, rather than where she was supposed to be, and on this special day of all days! O, she'd ruin the day, she would, with her carelessness! And how disappointed they'd all be. Some part of her wanted to cry that it wasn't fair, but she knew perfectly well that the fault was all her own.

Still, it would do her no good to lie here at the bottom of the Hill while all her family were in preparations at the top. She drew a deep breath and shouted. 'Sam! Samwise!'

With a stirring of hope she heard an answering call, her brother's voice, but no, Sam was calling to Nan, and worse, his voice rapidly receded into silence.

'Sam!' she screamed at the top of her lungs, deflating in despair when no answer came on the wind. Evidently the goat had surmounted the lip of the slope and kept on going, with Samwise in hot pursuit. Who knew when he'd return? Perhaps he'd be sent down the Hill to the meadows to seek her, and of course he wouldn't find her. How would they know where to look?

She thought she'd crawl up the slope. Yes, that's what she'd do. She'd crawl over to the twisting path, and make her way on hands and knees if she had to, up the steep and rocky way and into the Old Orchard. It wouldn't be far from there to Bag End, where Mr. Frodo was likely sitting and reading. She could call for help, and he'd hear through the window. Or if she could just get to the Row, she could hobble along, steadying herself against the wall. Yes, no need to bother Mr. Frodo any. She could take care of herself.

...but any movement sent agony lancing through the injured ankle. Marigold had as much courage as any hobbit, but the pain... she could not, simply could not imagine dragging herself up that slope and across the orchard, not with that unrelenting pain! It was only bearable when she gave up the effort and sat quite still.

She bowed her head, weeping again, her tangled locks falling over her face, shielding her eyes from the glaring sun, glowering in the western sky, reminding her that it would soon be time for her family to gather in celebration, and she'd spoil it all by not being there.

She didn't know how long she sat there, lost in sorrow, but it was long enough for her face to be wet, likely blotchy though there was no looking glass at hand, and her nose clogged with the results of her tears, when a cheery voice spoke close at hand. 'Hullo! What have we here?'

She gulped, wiping hastily at her face, pulling her hair back, but at seeing young Master Brandybuck before her, his good-natured face creased with concern, she exclaimed, 'Oh!' and turned her head, trying to hide, and rose as if to flee, forgetting momentarily the cause of her predicament.

Her ankle had not forgotten, however, and it folded under her, throwing her from her feet with an agonised gasp. But strong arms caught her, and eased her to the ground, while Master Merry said, 'Steady now!' and other such practical things. He was quite practical, for a gentlehobbit, or so Hamfast maintained, and of course Mari's father should know: He was an expert on many things and not just the growing of taters, after all.

'What seems to be the trouble?' Merry said now, in her ear, for she'd buried her face in her hands in her mortification. 'Hmmm,' he went on, adding politely, 'If I may...?'

And then time seemed to stand still, for he said nothing more, and she sat quite without moving, and so did he, evidently, for she didn't hear him move, and then, hands still over her face and her hair fallen over her fingers, she nodded, and time resumed its flow.

She felt gentle fingers moving over her foot, and she bit her lip, tensing in anticipation. But the most painful part was not probed, though she heard a low whistle from the young gentlehobbit. 'Nasty,' he said under his breath, and then louder and more cheerful, 'Well now, I see what the trouble is. You've turned your ankle, it seems.'

She nodded, still hiding behind hands and hair, completely mortified to be found in this dirty, dishevelled and distressing state, and by Master Merry, of all people, who'd always had a cheerful word and a smile for her whenever he'd been visiting at Bag End.

'Well now,' he said, 'I believe I'm owing you a word of thanks.'

Thanks! Mari thought, and peeped at him from between her fingers in her startlement. He was looking at her rather anxiously, and at her peeping a hopeful smile lit his face. 'Thanks!' he said with a vigorous nod. 'After all, it's not every day I'm able to help a damsel in distress.'

Mari knew this expression, from the stories old Mr. Bilbo used to tell the little Gamgees before he went away. She swallowed hard. She was hardly a damsel. Indeed, she felt more like the cinder girl with her dirty face and filthy feet. But Master Merry was speaking once more.

'If I may...?' and he was extending his hands towards her, as if to help her to her feet. Help her he did, but when she tried to hobble along with his aid, her bad ankle crumpled under her, throwing her against him.

'Oh!' she exclaimed in distress, but it was not for herself as she ineffectually tried to brush the dust from his jacket. 'I'm that sorry, I am, Master Mer--'

'No harm done, lass,' he said kindly, sounding twice his twenty years. 'But I think we cannot go on in this way. If I may...?' And this time at her nod he put one arm around her shoulder and the other under her seat, hefting her into the air, making her gasp at his boldness. 'Beg pardon,' he grunted, for good measure.

Very polite young fellow, as Hamfast was so fond of observing.

Was that a twinkle in his eye? But Mari's face was burning, to be held in so familiar a manner, and by a gentlehobbit at that!

'We'll - just - take - the - quick - way - up,' he said, his effort putting space between his words. She was only a year younger, after all, and nearly of his size. 'No need to go the long way round, by the road.'

...for which Marigold was eminently grateful. She could just imagine the gossip, if anyone were to see him carrying her this way, much as a bride was borne over the threshold by her blushing husband after the wedding dance concluded.

'No need,' she whispered, part of her hoping that this would all be over quite sooner than later, and part of her enjoying the sensation of his tweedy jacket against her cheek, his strong arms surrounding her, his breath on her forehead as he gasped reassurances.

Partway up the slope, however, Merry stumbled on the treacherous ground. Marigold’s hands clutched at him tightly, and she couldn’t suppress a yelp as they fell – yet somehow the young gentlehobbit twisted his body so that he landed next to her, instead of on top of her. Breathless, their words tumbled out, mingling together.

I’m that sorry...!

Beg pardon, miss, I...

Marigold tried to steady her breathing, and releasing her death-hold on him, she sat up a little, wincing at the pain in her ankle, but putting on a brave face. She tried to pull her arm out from under him, but he lay still, stunned perhaps, the breath knocked out of him, and in any event, his weight pinned her arm to the ground. But she could scarcely be annoyed with him. Indeed, her concern for herself, her worry about what people might say, faded quickly in her concern for him. ‘Is it well with you, young master?’

‘Please,’ he gasped, his face pale despite the rosy flush of sunset. ‘Don’t call me that! Makes me feel ever so stiff and proper.’

Stiff and proper would be... the proper thing to be, she thought privately. It was ever so improper to be lying here with him, tucked as snug together as peas in a pod... or married hobbits abed... She blushed at the thought, but resisted pushing him away. He was hurt, after all, or so she divined from the drops of sweat on his paling brow and the way his mouth twisted before he forced it straight. It was not just the results of the effort he’d made to carry her, she thought. This is a pickle, and no mistake. Aloud, she said, ‘But you’ve gone and hurt yourself, I think.’

‘All’s well,’ he said gallantly, pushing himself to sit up, but her mouth tightened at the lie, even as she pulled her arm free and put a handspan of space between them. He gulped a little at her stern expression.

‘Beg pardon,’ he said again.

‘You’ll have it,’ she said, sitting herself a little straighter, the better to stare him down. ‘But only if you’re truthful. I cannot abide a falsehood, nor a false hobbit, neither.’

‘Just like all the Gamgees,’ Merry said, and to her surprise she saw a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. ‘As true as a tree reaching for the sun, I’ve heard it said.’

She blushed a little and ducked her head at this unexpected praise, for she’d truly not been fishing for a compliment. But he interrupted her thoughts.

‘Well, now,’ he said, ‘this is a fine fix we’re in, for certain. I seem to have twisted my knee... I’m not sure I could carry you the rest of the way.’

‘Leave me, then,’ she said. ‘You can go and knock on our door and send one of my brothers for me.’

Leave you!’ he said, sitting a little straighter himself, and leaving off the rubbing of the injured knee. ‘That would hardly be proper!’

‘It’s not as if there are goblins or maiden-devouring dragons about...’ she began, but he shook his head decisively.

‘Foxes,’ he said, ‘stray dogs, or even a stray Man...’

She remembered that folk in Buckland were said to be more careful, more suspicious than the usual hobbit, even to having locks on their doors! It was no wonder that the Bucklander borrowed troubles and invented worries to gnaw upon.

‘Really,’ she said. ‘I’ll be fine.’ She looked at her ankle and swallowed hard. ‘I could even crawl up the hill if I had to,’ she added bravely. ‘That is, if you’re needing me to fetch help...’

The moment the words were out of her mouth she clapped her hand over her lips, blushing furiously, but of course it was too late. She would speak her mind without thinking! It was something her mum chided her for, and here she had gone and done it right to a gentlehobbit’s face!

Any of her brothers would have scoffed at the idea of a lass going for help, as if the brother were a helpless babe.

The Brandybuck, however, simply stared in astonishment for a brief moment before throwing his head back with a peal of laughter as merry as his name.

It was Marigold’s turn to blink in astonishment, but the gentlehobbit quickly got hold of himself again, pulling out his pocket-handkerchief to wipe his face, now flushed with merriment. ‘Oh—,’ he gasped, ‘Oh, my—.’ Seeing her puzzlement, he added, still chuckling, ‘I really ought to send you off to Bag End on my account! I wish I could see Frodo’s face!’

She essayed a tentative smile, and he added, ‘That’s better.’ He picked a bright flower that lay between them, slightly crushed by their passing, and tucked the golden snippet behind her ear with a flourish. ‘You have a very nice smile,’ he informed her.

Marigold wasn’t sure how proper all this was, but in the next moment he was twisting his pocket handkerchief into a rope—a very short rope, one might say, even for an over-large handkerchief, but the twisting might have done her Uncle Andy the Roper proud, though it likely did the hanky no good—and in the next breath he’d taken her injured limb in his hand and was applying hankie to ankle.

‘What in the world?’ Marigold said. When she bent her head to peer more closely at his work, the flower threatened to slip, and so she tucked it back in place without thinking much about it. He’d slipped the cloth under the sole of her foot, brought it up and crossed it, and seemed, oddly enough, to be tying her ankle up in the process. She’d never seen the like.

‘We’ve got to give it some support,’ he said, not looking up, ‘if you’re to get yourself up the hill.’

What! she thought. Was he really going to send her off, let a lass do the rescuing? She didn’t want to think ill of him, but...

However, soon the final knot was tied, and with some difficulty it must be noted, though the gentlehobbit was patient and clever with his fingers. And then Merry, with another “Beg pardon, Miss” was levering himself to his feet, using her shoulder as a brace.

‘There now,’ he said. ‘We’ll just have you up on your feet, er, foot...’ and he tugged gently at her, and taking the hint, she somehow managed to get up onto her uninjured foot without more than a twinge, thanks to the helping hanky.

‘Have you ever watched the lads at a three-legged race?’ he said then, and brightening with understanding, she nodded.

‘Well, then,’ he said. ‘We have three good legs between us—,’ and then he blushed a little, for he was well-brought-up, you know, and so he cleared his throat and stammered something about “limbs”.

‘Three good legs,’ Marigold said in firm agreement, clutching at his arm for balance. She knew the proper term for feminine appendages was “limbs” and not “legs” but she was hardly going to stand on her dignity when she could scarcely stand at all! ‘How clever, Master Merry! I do believe...’

He rolled his eyes at the “Master” but said only, ‘Merry and Mari—we merry hobbits must stick together, wouldn’t you say?’

‘Ah, yes,’ she answered primly, clutching a little harder to attempt a small hop. ‘I do believe that it’ll work... Merry.’ The last word was added a little shyly, for it was not at all proper, but she enjoyed her reward in the brightening of his countenance.

‘Well then, right-ho!’ he said. ‘Let us get to it,’ and he leaned heavily on her shoulder just long enough for a hop of his own.

‘Hop to it!’ Marigold said, and giggled. She hardly noticed her ankle this time, as she hopped a little further up the hill.

‘If it’s good enough for rabbits...’ Merry said with a hop of his own.

‘It’s good enough for merries!’ Marigold said, blending her name and his together into a whole that made her giggle again.

‘The more the merrier!’ he agreed, and really, it is amazing that they didn’t collapse in a heap again from laughing.

***

Bag End was the place to stop, obviously, but when Merry pushed open the green door with a loud and hearty hail, only silence greeted him. And so he sucked in a great breath, rather like a bellows, and shouted with all that was in him (for he did not feel up to hobbling down the long hall to the study, if Frodo, immersed in some book or another, had forgotten all about supper).

But no answer came, aside from the furious barking of a dog some way down the Hill in response to Merry’s noise.

‘Well,’ he said, rubbing at the side of his nose. ‘Nobody at home, or so it seems.’

‘Number Three is not so far, now,’ Marigold ventured, and of course it was the truth. She’d rather face her father’s scolding than importune Mr. Frodo, anyhow. ‘If you’d like to stop here, Mis--, er, Merry, I’ll just make my way along...’

‘Not at all!’ Merry said stoutly. ‘Why, I’m as likely to fall over as any old stick, should you lean me against the wall and leave me! I’ll see you safe home, Miss Mari, and don’t you go being contrary now when we’ve got on so well up to now.’

Marigold blushed a little at this reminder of the nursery song. The town lads sometimes had plagued her, when she was younger, by reciting How does your garden grow? when she passed by. But one day when her father heard the taunt as they were returning from the market, he’d stopped and swung around suddenly, piercing the idlers with a sharp glance. Marigold had nearly died of mortification, right there, imagining that her father would give them the rough side of his tongue, stinging them to greater insults when she should return later on some errand.

But no, the gardener had drawn himself up and laughed instead, and answered, “Very well, indeed! Very well! You won’t find none of them cockleshells in the beds up Bagshot Row, you won’t! But pretty maids a-plenty!” And he chucked his astonished youngest daughter under the chin and said, ‘Come along, Mari-me-gold, these fine strawberry slips won’t plant themselves!’

And for some reason the rhyme never bothered her ever after. Though this was the first she’d heard of it from Master Merry... Still, his smile was so kind, she didn’t think to take offence. Instead she ducked her head and said, ‘I wouldn’t be contrary, not a bit of it.’

‘Bless you, lass,’ Merry said. ‘Then you’ll let me walk you home, I take it.’

She caught her breath a little at this, but of course he meant nothing by it. She was a gardener’s daughter, after all, and he was the heir to Buckland. ‘Of course,’ she said, very deliberately leaving off the “young master” since it distressed him. And it was more like walking out, somehow, and it did no harm to make believe, now did it?

He put his arm about her shoulders once more, and she put hers boldly—so boldly!—around his waist, and they hobbled along until they came to Number Three as bold as anything, even though her insides were a little a-tremble as they approached the door.

But the door was ajar, and she pushed it a little further, and called, and no one answered!

‘Well,’ Merry said, after she had raised her voice and called, and he’d added his own voice for good measure, and still no reply. ‘Perhaps they’ve all gone off to supper, down to your cousins the Cottons?’

‘They wouldn’t have,’ Marigold said, but the tears came unbidden to her eyes. ‘Not on such a day!’

Merry looked at the sky, but there was no thunder threatening, not in the air at least. Indeed, the evening was fine, the sky fading into deep blue and the first star peeping shyly. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘we need to get that foot of yours up, before it swells into a—a pudding!’

He nodded, well satisfied, to see a smile break through the building clouds in Marigold’s countenance at his absurdity. ‘Come along!’

They hobbled into Number Three, into the entry, turning into the shadowy parlour, where the lamp had not yet been lit. Marigold caught her breath to see the table spread with the best cloth, and set with her great-grand-mum’s delicate tea cups and plates, though the pot sat cold and empty and the serving platters waited gleaming.

As for Merry, he was more concerned with settling Marigold in a well-stuffed chair and drawing up a footstool for the injured foot, to notice his surroundings, and then he busied himself undoing the handkerchief-binding, and he cluck-clucked over the swelling just as any old hen of a healer might’ve, and muttered about herbs and poultices in a way that reminded Marigold of Bilbo.

For some reason this brought her perilously close to tears. The old hobbit had been gone for months, but the low-voiced thoughts spoken aloud sounded so much like Mr. Bilbo, when he’d puttered about the shelves of his study to find something or other, while young Mari waited for her reward, a sweetmeat or some such, for having brought a basket of new-plucked strawberries, or dewy roses, or succulent peas waiting to be released from their pods. She gulped back a sob, and Merry snatched his hands away with a hasty apology. ‘Is it that painful, then? I’m so sorry...!’

‘No, no, it’s fine, really,’ Marigold hastened to assure him, but he straightened up, regaining his feet with a small grimace.

‘A cold, wet cloth, that’s the thing,’ he said. ‘You just stop there, on that chair, and I’ll be back in three shakes of a lamb’s tail.’ And making his way from chair to chair, and then with a couple of hops to reach the wall, he hobbled out of sight before she could gather her wits enough to call him back.

Merry reached the kitchen, calling a tentative greeting to any Gamgees who might be lurking there, but of course there was no one. The well-scrubbed kitchen table made the silence and emptiness of the smial all the more curious, for it groaned with good things to eat: stacks of dainty sandwiches, and plates of biscuits and scones and fruit, and even a grand cake decked with candied heart’s ease, the deep purple petals glistening with sugar. It struck Merry then, that Frodo had said something, as Merry had been going out the door for a ramble down the Hill, about being invited to Number Three for tea “in a grand style, and don’t come late, cousin, and insult their generosity!”

Merry wasn’t sure what the occasion was, for it might even have been to welcome him on his arrival at Bag End, as he’d arrived late the previous evening and no time to be greeting the neighbours. In any event, Bell Gamgee, motherly mum that she was, was always inviting Frodo and any of his cousins who happened to be stopping, to share the generous portions found at her table. She seemed to be of the opinion, before Bilbo left, that the elderly bachelor had no idea of how to feed a tween, and now that Bilbo was gone, she firmly believed that poor, abandoned Mr. Frodo could scarcely keep body and soul together, what with not keeping a proper table, and eating at the desk in his study, and oftentimes going out walking when he ought to be sitting down to a well-filled plate.

And when she wasn’t inviting Mr. Frodo and his young cousins to stop for “a bite of something”, she was leaving great smoking pies and pasties and loaves of bread and the like upon the kitchen table at Bag End.

Merry filled a basin with cool, fresh water from the bucket on the sideboard, and took up some cloths, and made his way back to the parlour, where he wrapped poor Marigold’s puffed-up ankle very gently indeed. But when he lit the lamp, he saw that she was pale, and lay limp against the chair, head leaning back and eyes closed. ‘I ought to fetch a healer,’ he said.

‘N-no,’ she said, lifting her head and opening her eyes. ‘No need.’

‘But you’re...’ he began.

Her eyes flashed then, and she said, much as she might’ve to one of her brothers, ‘I’d like to see that! Hopping down the Hill until you trip on a stone and come rolling to the bottom. And then who will it be, needs a healer?’ This fine sentiment was rather spoilt, however, by the rumble from her middle region.

...answered by a growl from Merry’s, and Marigold’s indignation dissolved into laughter, and Merry laughed right along with her. ‘In complete agreement,’ he said. ‘As it ought to be! How long has it been, since you’ve eaten? I cannot remember my last meal!’

(Which, for a tween, is not saying much. They are eating all the time, or so it seems, and thus distinguishing one meal from another must be altogether difficult.)

‘Nor I,’ Marigold said. She had brought a packet of paper-wrapped food with her to the meadow, but she didn’t remember now if she’d eaten it all, or if she’d fallen asleep only halfway through. The sun had been so warm, the breeze so refreshing, and she’d felt sleepy after the long walk down the Hill and through Hobbiton to the meadows outside of the town.

‘Right!’ Merry said, hobbling out of the room again at his best pace. It wasn’t long before he was back again, laden with a variety of edibles, and hunger and the abundance of good food soon put all other thoughts out of their minds, including wonderings as to where all the inhabitants of Bagshot Row might be.

***

Bell Gamgee was prostrated with worry and grief, why, she was practically carried up the Hill by her husband and eldest, with a sombre crowd in attendance. More hobbits, of course, were combing the meadows and combes and copses, even looking in the hedgerows for some further trace of the missing tween. It was a grim business. Traces had been found near a sparkling little brook that ran through a grassy meadow, not far from the foot of the Hill. Halfred, seeking his sister on the meadow to fetch her to the feast, had been the one to find Marigold’s shawl, lying in a heap by the waterside.

That was not so alarming in itself. The brook wasn’t deep enough to overwhelm a hobbit, running only ankle-deep. No, but it was the remnants of the food packet nearby, torn to pieces by some ravenous creature and scattered over the grass. Mari would never have thrown the paper on the ground; she was a thrifty lass, and would have folded the paper neatly and brought it home, and if any butter from her bread had soaked into the paper at the very least it might have been used to kindle a fire in the stove.

And the goat had come back home by herself. “Running up over the lip o’ the Hill as though very hounds were after her,” in the words of young Samwise, who’d given chase through the Old Orchard, finally catching the trailing rope and shutting Nan up safe, not long before his older brothers arrived with the Shirriff in tow.

The Shirriff had been sympathetic, standing at the door of Number Three, turning the shawl over in his hands. He’d talked quietly, hopefully even, with Hamfast, but May, standing behind her father, had cried out in so loud a lamentation that Mr. Frodo heard it through the open windows of the study of Bag End and came to investigate, and Bell had come from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a cloth, which she dropped when she saw the shawl, and the hovering hobbits’ expressions.

And then there was nothing for it but everyone had to go down the Hill to the meadow to see for themselves, and the neighbours, who’d stuck their heads out their windows and doors at May’s shriek, joined the procession, and it was quite a crowd that gathered to see the spot where the dastardly deed had been done, what ever it might have been.

‘Dogs,’ some muttered under their breath, whilst others whispered darkly about a stray Man that had been seen thereabouts, likely a tramp “up to no good”, and foxes were mentioned though a good strong tween ought not to be troubled by a fox. A wolf, perhaps, but no wolves had been seen in the area for years.

And so there was quite a crowd that came to the Gamgees’ door as darkness was falling. Far below, skirting the base of the Hill, sparks of lanterns and torches could be seen, giving an indication of the spreading search.

Daisy Gamgee, at least, had her wits about her, though the tears threatened to fall when she thought of her baby sister, lost, on this day of all days. ‘Please,’ she said tremulously, pushing the door open and turning to the crowd. ‘Please, come in and take a little something. We’ve plenty...’

All the neighbours would have come in happier hour, anyhow, having earlier been invited to a celebration. It was true. There was plenty: Dainty tea sandwiches that Bell and her older daughters had been at pains to assemble and cut and stack high on the platters in the kitchen, not to mention the scones and biscuits and sweet buns they’d baked, and the grand cake complete with pink icing, something that you didn’t see every day in the Gamgee kitchen.

‘O Mari!’ Bell sobbed, as Hamfast soothed and supported her into the smial. ‘O Mari-mine! O dearest daughter!’ It was enough to bring tears to the eyes of the most stalwart, and many surreptitiously wiped at their eyes as they removed their hats and wiped their feet on the mat before entering.

And in the next moment the distraught mum’s tears turned to laughter, and she was running forward to fall upon her dear departed youngest daughter, who had fallen asleep, replete from the tweens' feast, yes, was sound asleep in the chair, her head resting upon her hand, and young Merry Brandybuck of all hobbits asleep on the floor beside the chair, leaning his head on the chair's arm, much as if he were guarding the lass from danger!

‘Mum!’ Marigold said, bewildered and blinking, returning the hug. ‘Mum, where have you been?’

The bright flower, a little wilted by now, fell from its perch and she picked it up rather tenderly and tucked it back into place, before heartily returning to her mother's embrace, and now thoroughly awake, but still bemused as more and more hobbits crowded into the room behind her parents.

‘I might ask the same of you, young hobbit!’ Hamfast said sternly, but he could not maintain such severity in the face of his joy. Truly, he’d thought the worst, and rued the sending of his youngest daughter out alone, with only a goat for company, especially after hearing all the whispers of dogs and stray Man that he was not meant to overhear—but did.

Frodo, entering behind the Gamgees, exclaimed over Merry, and then there was a great deal of exclamation taking place in the room as more hobbits crowded in, and Marigold’s wrapped ankle was noted, and Merry’s injury was made known when he tried and failed to rise in respect for his elders’ entering the room.

There was a rising babble of voices, but somehow Frodo managed to send for the healer, and then he and Hamson between them lifted Merry to a chair, and May and Daisy were moving back and forth between kitchen and parlour and entrance--where the celebrating had spilled out into the front garden, the smial not being able to contain all the hobbits--carrying well-laden platters, and helped by some of the neighbour mums and older daughters, and the search had been called off, and folk were eating and drinking and talking and laughing and it was a party, as had been intended all along...

...and the healer came and pronounced Mari’s ankle a “bad strain” but not a break, and bound it up again, and coaxed her to drink a portion of willow-bark tea to go with her sugarplums, and Merry’s knee a “bad twist, but he’ll be right as rain in a day or two” –to Frodo’s relief, and then she sat herself down to enjoy the food Bell pressed upon her...

...and then Hamfast came, the crowd parting before him, and he and Samwise (as eldest and youngest of the family) bore the great cake between them, rolled it along on a trolley, rather, it being rather more than they could safely carry, and candles pierced the darkness (for Bell turned down the lamp before they entered the parlour) and hands began to clap along with the traditional birthday song, and how Marigold’s eyes did shine.

It was a birthday she’d remember always.

Perhaps Hamfast summed it up the best, as he was seeing the guests out, along about midnight, pumping Frodo’s hand—Halfred was wheeling Merry along to Bag End in a wheelbarrow—and thanking him for coming to the birthday feast.

All’s well that ends better, he said with a nod and a grin.

‘You can say that again,’ Frodo agreed, and so the gardener did.

All’s well that ends better.

Happy Birthday, Dana! (And many more) Til Death Us Do Part

Bridgefields, S.R. 1395

It was the most exciting of times, and it was the worst of crashing bores. Weddings are like that. The mums and lasses dither about, concerned with frills and flourishes, ruffles and lace, superfluities and trimmings and trappings until the dads and tweens go out to smoke their pipes just in order to find a little peace and relief from the encroaching clouds of giggles and whispers and excited fluttering.

This wedding was one of the grandest social events of the decade: Dinodoc Brandybuck was marrying Odovacar Bolger’s youngest sister, Bellanora, and as Odovacar was The Bolger and Dinodoc was a grandson of Gorbadoc Brandybuck and Mirabella Took, it meant that there were Bolgers and Brandybucks, Tooks and Bagginses, and unfortunately even Sackville-Bagginses in attendance.

Most weddings run from one dawning to the next, but this was a three-day affair, and more, if you counted the day set aside for arriving and the day or three set aside for guests to take their leave. (This latter was rather flexible, depending on how much celebrating had been done, and how much time was needed to recover before setting off for home.)

The lads took advantage of the affair with prolonged and glorious games and races and wrestling matches, and the lasses gathered together to dress their dollies in their finest frocks, and pretend to “take tea” and gossip much as their elders did, though some privately thought these pastimes tiresome (stupid, even) and longed, rather, to run and play and climb trees with the lads. Life, however, is full of trials, and we must learn to endure them.

One of the games beloved of young lasses is “dressing up” and acting as if they were a score or more years older. How “fine” they look, tripping about in trailing gowns and gloves that come to their shoulders, and hats that keep falling over their eyes! Any adult coming upon them with the least amount of kindness inside would control twitching lips, saving the hearty laughs until out of earshot at the very least. Unkind adults would scold, and pronounce the children “Ridiculous!” but since they were unkind, the children would take no notice, standing meekly enough to endure the scolding and then returning to the game when Lobelia or some other crotchety aunt was safely away.

But by the third day, “taking tea” was growing stale, and the lasses were looking about for some other diversion. Pearl Took, Paladin’s eldest, hit on a most enticing idea. ‘Let us have a wedding of our own!’ she cried.

‘A wedding of our own!’ came the general cry, with little jumpings and clappings of hands. ‘How delightful!’

Young Estella Bolger rolled her eyes at the idea. Tea parties were stupid enough, but a mock wedding?

‘A wedding!’ Mentha Brandybuck said, eyes glowing. ‘But how?’

‘Easy enough,’ Pearl said, surveying the group with a considering eye. ‘We’ll need someone with thick, curling hair so that we can festoon her with ribbons, and Auntie Rosamunda has the loveliest gown that is just dripping with lace and pearls, and she told me we could use it for dress-up, and...’

‘And Cousin Ruby said we could use her parasol,’ a bright young Bolger said. ‘It’s got lace and real diamonds sewn in, so that it’ll sparkle in the sunshine!’

Estella started. She did so love sparkly things, and she had yearned after that particular parasol, and been told on several occasions to “put that down, dear, and let it be! It’s not for young hands to be handling.”

And so when Pimpernel said, ‘Who’s to be the bride, then?’ Estella was the first to raise her hands in the air, and the loudest at claiming the role.

And because she was the daughter of The Bolger, and the occasion was a Bridgefields wedding, well, everyone soon came round to agree, even young Pervinca who was quite put out at not having the opportunity, herself, to hold the sparkly parasol (though Pearl told her aside that surely Estella would share, just a little).

In no time at all, they’d scoured the closets and travelling trunks of residents and visitors, and all sorts of finery were heaped up and spilling over, and the older lasses were dressing Estella’s hair and working in fancy ribbons “borrowed” from sewing baskets (and some of these were decked with dwarf-glass that shone like diamonds and rubies, emeralds and sapphires, and really were not playthings for young lasses). It took some time, but after a goodly amount of preparation, Estella was ready. Several of the older lasses had raided the jewellery boxes in the guest rooms, and so she was bedecked with strings of pearls and other sparkly stones, including some bracelets that had to be doubled over her slender wrists, and she looked absolutely magnificent.

‘I don’t think the Queen could look any more wonderful,’ Pearl said, mumbling through the pins in her mouth as she pulled the grand dress a little tighter around Estella, and adjusted the drape.

‘Who’s the Queen?’ Pervinca said, looking up with wide eyes.

‘She’s someone married to the King,’ Pearl said, ‘whoever he might be.’

‘There’s no such thing!’ Pimpernel said in a know-it-all tone.

‘That’s right,’ Celandine piped up. She was among the littlest of the lasses there, for the younger ones were kept under the stern eye of governesses and tweens. ‘Dod asked Father when he could have a boat of his own, because grandfather just gave cousin Merimas a boat on his birthday, and Father said, “When the King comes back.” And,’ she added importantly, ‘That means never, you know.’

Pearl sobered briefly. Seredic had been the one to pull Primula, Frodo’s mum, from the water after she’d drowned. But she forced a smile for the little one’s sake, and said gently, ‘That’s right, dear.’

‘But if the Queen is married to the King...’ Pervinca said, still puzzling over the idea. ‘...we have the Queen, but... where’s the King?’

There was a general confusion then, for the lasses had not thought of this! But of course, for a wedding a couple was needed!

Mentha Brandybuck led a small hunting expedition. The lads were in the nearby meadow, playing their ball-and-stick game; at least the older lads were playing, and the younger were watching and whistling and calling raucous comments. Mentha ran an eye over the prospects. Pippin, she decided. He was the smallest of them, barely old enough not to be tied to his mother’s apron strings. He’d probably tagged after Merry, and Merry, attached to the little lad as he was, had been happy for his company. But surely Merry was tired of playing nursemaid by now. He likely wouldn’t even miss Pip, seeing how he was out in the field, squinting into the sun, standing ready in case the ball came his way.

‘Pippin,’ Mentha said in her best coaxing tone. ‘Your mum wants you.’

‘Aw,’ Pippin groaned. ‘She doesn’t, does she?’

‘Bad luck, old chap,’ Doderic said, from his lofty stance of six years, one year more than Pippin. ‘She must’ve noticed you were missing.’

‘Merry asked if he could bring me,’ Pippin said. ‘He did! And she said “yes” if he’d keep an eye on me.’

‘But he’s not keeping much of an eye on you,’ Mentha said in her haughtiest tone. ‘If he’s to watch over a faunt, that means watching the little one, not watching the sky for a ball that might or might not come his way!’

‘I’m not a faunt!’ Pippin shouted.

Mentha looked down her nose at him. ‘You might’ve fooled me,’ she said. ‘You’re little enough to be one.’

Pippin fought back angry tears, for they’d only prove Mentha’s point. ‘I’m not!’ he said, his little hands fisting at his side.

‘Well, come along anyhow, and perhaps your mum will let you come back again once she’s seen you’re all right,’ Mentha said, quite as if she were Eglantine’s messenger.

‘You had better go, cousin,’ Ferdibrand said. He was nursing a black eye, from a ball that he hadn’t seen coming at him, which was why it was Merry squinting into the sun at the moment, and not himself. ‘If you make her angry, Mentha will fill your mum’s ears with all sorts of tales about how she found you wandering near the Water, and Merry was too busy to watch you, and then she’ll never let you out of sight for the rest of your life.’

They were not far from the Water, in point of fact, but Pippin certainly wasn’t wandering. He was sitting in the shade of a tree, and he said so. Nevertheless, when Mentha extended a demanding palm, he sighed and put his hand in hers, and allowed himself to be led from the meadow.

But instead of coming to the wide and pleasant veranda where the mums were sitting and fanning themselves and taking tea along with a little gossip, Mentha led him to the summerhouse, where the lasses were playing. ‘Is Mum here?’

Mentha gave a noncommittal hum, and so Pippin, not yet suspicious, allowed himself to be drawn into the shadowy interior. Perhaps Mum had one of her head aches, and was lying down in the quiet dimness.

Mentha’s grip on his hand tightened, and he pulled away, but a moment too late as a burst of giggles came, seeming to surround him. And then lasses were coming out of the woodwork, or so it seemed, and clapping their hands in delight, and pulling the shutters open to allow in streams of sunlight, highlighting a glittering figure in one corner, that turned out to be... Estella Bolger, a most unbecoming frown on her face.

‘Is that the best you could come up with?’ she said, hands on her hips. ‘He’s still wet behind the ears!’

‘I am not!’ Pippin said, indignant. ‘I didn’t even wash behind my ears today!’

At the gale of laughter that washed over him, he tried again to pull his hand out of Mentha’s, to escape, to no avail. He was surrounded, and they were seizing him from all sides, and some of them had sharp claws, and he thought for a panicked moment of Bilbo and the goblins.

But there was no escape, and though he struggled as well as he may (hampered by Merry’s instruction that he must never hit a lass), he soon found himself stretched out on the floor, his hands tied together behind him, and when he looked to see who it was, tying his ankles together... ‘You, too, Pearl?’ he said in despair.

‘It’s just so you stay put a few moments, until we’re ready,’ she said with a practical smile. ‘And so we don’t mislay you.’

‘But...’ he said, desperate, and then inspiration struck, though he’d never have thought to use this excuse when he was with the lads. ‘But Mum wants me!’

‘Of course she does,’ Pearl said, to placate him, ‘but she said that we could borrow you for a bit, first.’

***

The pilfered jewellery boxes had been discovered, in part because Ruby had gone to fetch her lace-and-diamond parasol, now that the sun had come out, and found it gone, and at the resulting shriek quite a few of the mums and older lasses had come at a run... or rather, a discreet hurry, for running was something only little lasses did, and that when their mothers weren’t looking.

It didn’t take long to establish that the younger lasses had been playing “dress-up”, and had been seen traipsing away bearing heaps of purloined finery. They’d told the maids that they had permission, and since the maids had seen them in their grown-up finery over the past two days, they hadn’t imagined any difficulty.

‘They’re in the summerhouse,’ Rosamunda said, when the outrage was brought to her attention.

As valuable jewels had been taken, along with the rest, it was deemed that the fathers ought to be brought into the affair, and so the gaffers and dads and tween sons were disturbed from their stone-casting contest, to be dragged along.

And so it was, when they came, that they found Pearl officiating over a wonderful wedding, with many wedding guests in fantastic costumes, dripping with pearls and drooping feathers, gowned and gloved, powdered and studded with jewellery, all very “fine” to the eye.

The adults had come very quietly up to the summerhouse, as quietly as hobbits can go (and they go very quietly indeed). And so, as they peered through the windows, there were a number of grins as well as gasps.

Poor Pippin stood in the grip of two of the largest lasses, fixed in his place beside an astonishing creature that might have been of faerie origin, so fantastic was her appearance.

‘...until I've drunk the last drop in the cup, and no more days remain to me...’ Estella was intoning in a high, clear voice.

‘And that’s that,’ Pearl said, satisfied.

‘I didn’t say it!’ Pippin wailed. ‘I didn’t say it, and you can’t make me say it!’

‘That’s all right, lad, Mentha said it for you,’ Pearl said, and several of the fathers snorted.

‘Then Mentha may be married to Stella, but I won’t!’ Pippin shouted. Several of the mums snorted at this.

Odovacar nudged Paladin Took. ‘You know,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘They do make a striking couple.’


Dreamflower has been posting a delightful series of chapters on Shire etiquette, as penned by Bilbo's very well-informed relative Miss Dora Baggins. A recent chapter on "The Giving of Gifts" sparked this bit of whimsy. Thanks, Dreamflower, for the spark of inspiration and for looking this over before it was posted!

To quote: 

And yet, I may pause here to say a Word on the Receiving of Gifts: a Gift is never to be turned away, whatever the reason. It is a Most Offensive Insult to Refuse a Gift!

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie

‘What is it?’ Frodo said, eyeing the furry mountain all but dwarfing his young cousin. ‘Some sort of lap robe?

‘It’s a puppy!’ Pippin said, his tone indignant. ‘Really, Frodo, I should think that you of all people would know a puppy when you see one!’

‘Looks more like a young Oliphaunt to me,’ Merry said aside.

‘A very hairy Oliphaunt,’ Frodo agreed.

Pippin’s face was turning red, but he managed an even tone—one of the signs that he’d matured over the past half-year or so—even though the space between his words gave evidence of his perturbation. ‘It—is—a—puppy!’ he said.

‘A very large puppy,’ Merry said, and couldn’t resist adding, ‘Are you sure it’s not a pony, by chance?’

‘Merry, I should think you’d recognise the difference between a pony and a puppy,’ Pippin said severely, but Frodo interrupted, for he’d moved in order to be able to eye the bundle of fur from another angle.

‘From the size of those feet, it’ll be as large as a pony when it’s grown.’

‘Then Pip can ride him home!’ Merry said with a shout, while Sam, fussing over the tea tray, fixing a plate to tempt Mr. Frodo’s appetite, accompanied by the perfect cup of tea, paused in dismay.

‘I do hope we don’t have to wait until he grows up, before we’re on our way home again!’ he muttered. Far be it from him to join in the conversation with his betters, here in the privacy of the guest-house, where people weren’t falling all over themselves to bow down to him and call him “my Lord” and all sort of uncomfortable things.

But Merry heard, and turned around to advance on the tea tray, with a slap of approval for the gardener’s shoulder. ‘Well spoken, Sam!’ he said. ‘Worth saying twice!’

And when Sam blushed and shook his head, Merry repeated the sentiment for him. ‘I hope we don’t have to wait until he grows up! From the look of him, he’s just left his mum, hasn’t he? He’s much too young to be walking the length of Middle-earth, and much too big to carry!’

The pup under discussion raised a sleepy head and yawned, disclosing long, needle-sharp milk teeth. By hobbit standards, these might have made fine daggers or ice picks.

Frodo, though he did not fear dogs as a rule, was reminded of Farmer Maggot’s enormous brutes, and he shuddered.

‘But you’re taking cold, cousin,’ Pippin said, struggling a little against the weight that pinned him to the floor. ‘You ought to cuddle up with Mittens, here.’

‘Mittens!’ Merry said in astonishment. One of his aunts had had a cat by that name, a small, tidy, white-pawed, engaging creature that purred whenever someone glanced in its direction. ‘What sort of name is that? This beast ought to bear a name like “Wolf”, or “Fang”, or...’

‘Oliphaunt!’ Frodo said, accepting the cup of tea Sam brought him with a grateful look. ‘Mmm, just right, Sam, thank you.’

‘Plenty more where that came from,’ Sam said stoutly, going back to the tea tray. ‘The teapots they have here are enormous, as you know, Mr. Frodo! Even cosied, I’m not sure we’ll be able to finish it all before it goes cold.’

‘Well then, we had better get to work,’ Merry said, lifting the heavy pot with a grimace. Sam hurried to help him, and together they managed to pour out three more cups, lightening the pot appreciably. The cups, too, were man-sized, after all.

‘You know how Paladin is,’ Frodo went on. ‘He has no use for pets... every creature on the farm must earn its keep. He doesn’t want any useless animals, eating their heads off...’ he gave the “puppy” a considering look. ‘And this one looks as if he’d eat quite a bit, given half a chance.’

‘He could herd sheep,’ Merry said, and then put his cup down as he was convulsed with laughter at the image that rose in his mind. ‘The poor things would be so petrified at his appearance, they’d bunch together and never scatter nor wander.’

‘They’d probably die of fright at first glimpse,’ Frodo amended. He sat himself down on the other end of the hearthrug to enjoy the cheery blaze on the hearth, set his teacup down on the floor beside him and accepted the plate that Sam laid in his lap. ‘My,’ he said. ‘Look at that! Fresh fruit! Strawberries! Where do you think it all came from?’

‘Sunlands, Mr. Frodo, those melons; and the strawberries are from Lossarnach,’ Sam said. ‘You ought to see all the new things on offer in the market now! Minas Tirith is no longer living off stores. The siege is well and truly over with, and there’s plenty of food now, and no more soldier’s rations.’

‘The siege ought to be over by now,’ Frodo said. ‘We’ve been here a month, already.’

‘Has it been a whole month?’ Merry cried. He went over to the bench by the window. It was a simple matter to climb up on the child’s footstool that Bergil had found for them, and from there up on to the window-seat, where he stood peering out. ‘The window boxes are blooming!’ he said.

Sam nodded. He’d noticed that fact a day or two earlier. Spring, although belated, was in full force in Minas Tirith and surroundings. The Pelennor was green, except for a black patch, and farmers were in the field from before sunrise until dusk, and the stone window boxes were covered in green, with bright colours peeping out as the plants began to blossom. A late blossoming it might have been, but the people of the City rejoiced in the blooms.

‘In any event,’ Frodo said, returning to the subject at hand, ‘you cannot keep this enormous monster, Pippin. It’s just not practical.’

Pippin’s flush grew brighter, and he swallowed hard. In truth, he found the “puppy” rather difficult to manage, it weighing quite as much as he did despite its infant state. When he’d sat himself down on the hearthrug, after coming off duty, the puppy had happily bounced over to him and flopped itself down in his lap... or rather, all over his legs, nearly flattening him, and proceeded to fall asleep after a tail wag or two. He could not imagine what he’d do if the dog grew bigger—as it inevitably would.

‘I don’t really want to keep him,’ he said, though his hand went out to rub at a blanket-sized ear when the pup put its head down again with a sleepy sigh. The tail thumped again, briefly, before the snoring recommenced. ‘He’s not all that practical, I know, but...’

‘But what?’ Merry wanted to know.

‘But he was a gift!’ Pippin said miserably. ‘I have to keep him!’

Merry’s jaw fell open, and he exchanged glances with Frodo. ‘I never thought of that!’ he said. ‘O Pip, why didn’t you say so in the first place?’

‘I thought, perhaps, he followed you home,’ Frodo said. ‘I remember the last dog that followed you home, and you asking your da if you could keep him...’

‘I was only sixteen at the time,’ Pippin said, balancing the plate Sam gave him on the hairy back, where it stood at eye-level. ‘And you have to admit, it was a winsome creature.’

Pippin had a way with dogs, it must be said. One of his firmest friends in his early years had been an old sheepdog that followed him everywhere when the dog wasn’t following the sheep. The dog had been Pippin’s devoted slave, though it towered above him. Frodo had found it difficult not to laugh, to see the tiny hobbit order the dog to sit, and then lie down, and then get up and fetch a thrown stick, and then lie down again, for the enormous creature would obey every command instantly and with great enthusiasm, watching the young tyrant with adoring eyes.

The “winsome creature” had been a large, hairy and ferocious-looking mutt that might have been twin to one of Farmer Maggot’s dogs.

Paladin had persuaded his son to give the stray to a neighbouring widow, to scare away any tramping Men, who were being seen more frequently than before.

‘In any event, you’re saying this Oliphaunt was a gift?’ Merry said. He rolled his eyes and put a dramatic hand to his forehead. ‘What, Frodo, are we ever going to do? You know what Miss Dora Baggins always said...’

And the four hobbits all quoted together in the same breath, ‘...A Gift is never to be turned away, whatever the reason! It is a Most Offensive Insult to Refuse a Gift!’

‘Yes, but she also said that it was unkind to give an inappropriate gift,’ Frodo added. He set his plate aside—only half cleared, Sam saw to his regret—and arose with a brisk air. ‘As head of the family, I’ll handle the matter, Pippin. Don’t worry. All will be well.’

‘How?’ Pippin said, trying ineffectually to rise, but alas, he was firmly pinned to the floor for the duration of the pup’s nap. He’d heard that puppies sleep twenty-three out of twenty-four hours, and so he was wondering, dully, if he’d be found in dereliction of his duty on the morrow, having spent the night trapped under this furry mountain, and possibly most of the morning, even into the afternoon, up until an hour before teatime, anyhow...

‘I’m going to take a page out of Paladin’s book,’ Frodo said, and dusting his hands, he turned to Samwise. ‘Thank you, Sam, for a delicious tea. Put my plate up, will you? I wouldn’t want the babe to finish it off and upset his "little" tummy... besides which, I might feel a bit peckish when I return.’

‘I’ll be happy to, Mr. Frodo,’ Sam said, putting his own plate aside long enough to pick up Mr. Frodo’s plate. Looking around, he thought the table with its sawed-off legs rather an insufficient refuge, for the pup, standing, would tower above its surface. He settled for the window-seat, and then climbing down off the footstool hastened to his own plate, to secure it as well; but Frodo ordered him to “stay and eat and keep an eye on our two young charges,” and Merry elected to go along and keep Frodo out of trouble.

And so Sam found himself sitting down again, to finish his interrupted tea.


Written for Marigold's Challenge 33, 10/8/2006
Based on events found in As the Gentle Rain, here on Stories of Arda.

Title: Dressed to the Teeth
Author: Lindelea
Rating: PG
Main Characters: Faramir and Goldilocks Took, Rudi and Laurel Bolger
Prompt: Write a story that includes a Coming-of-Age, a dangerous animal, a chest of jewels, and a low-cut dress
Disclaimer: The characters aren’t mine, but I sometimes sneak out with them for a cup of tea and a biscuit or two.


Dressed to the Teeth

I know how to divert you from your purpose!’ Farry said, his tone triumphant as he entered the sitting room and swept Goldi into his arms.

‘I love it when you take that masterful tone,’ Goldi said, smiling smugly into his face. ‘It sets such a challenge, for me to see how I might sway you to my will...’ She accepted his kiss, nay, welcomed it, rather, and then she gasped, half pulling away, her hand going to her middle.

‘Goldi?’ Farry said, playfulness changing instantly to solicitude. ‘Is it...?’

‘The babe!’ she gasped, and her eyes, brimming with wondering joy, looked up to meet his once more. ‘I felt it move, Farry. O your kisses set my butterflies a-flutter, for certain, but this was something else again...!’

He laid a tender hand upon her abdomen and the hope growing there in secret, and she laughed in delight. ‘But it’s much too early, my love!’ she chided with a grin. ‘You won’t be able to feel anything for weeks, yet!’ Why, she didn’t even have enough of a bulge to leave off her regular clothes for the looser ones a mum-in-waiting wore, when comfort won over fashion.

‘I must practice, so I’ll know it when I feel it,’ he said, cupping his hand over the babe.

Goldi tilted her head to invite another kiss. When at last Farry’s lips left hers, she gasped a little, for she needed to take in air, and then she remembered, and spoke in her sauciest tone. ‘So is this how you mean to turn me from my purpose?’ she said. ‘You’ll drown me in kisses for the next half-a-week... until the first of the month has decently arrived, when it would be proper to begin the Yuletide preparations?’ She pouted. ‘I really don’t see the harm in beginning a few days early...’

‘And a few days earlier next year, and a few days yet earlier the next, and before you know it we’ll be hanging the Yuletide greens and ribbons and glass balls and other decorations at harvest-time!’ Faramir said. He put on a thoughtful look and said, ‘...but I do like your plan for being diverted...’ and kissed her once more, a brief kiss this time, that didn’t leave Goldi breathless. ‘Perhaps I ought to send word to Budge Hall that we won’t be coming after all...’

‘Budge Hall!’ Goldi gasped, and then, ‘the Bolgers! O Farry, what have you...?’

‘The Bolgers have invited us to spend a week in Bridgefields,’ Faramir said. ‘Their timing is perfect, of course. Perhaps Laurel, knowing you, realised that you would try to set all tradition on its head in your pursuit of pleasure...’

‘She’s in full agreement, I’ll have you know!’ Goldi said. ‘She’d have Yule celebrated the whole year through, if it were in her power!’

‘Good thing it’s not in her power, then,’ Farry said with a shudder. ‘Plum pudding in mid-summer! What an idea!’

‘Mmm,’ said Goldi. ‘Plum pudding the year-round.’

‘You’d tire of it, you know that you would,’ Farry warned.

‘I’d like to try,’ Goldi said saucily, and Faramir had to laugh, though of course he wouldn’t order the kitchens to make up a batch of plum puddings just to satisfy his beloved. It was more than a month until the actual days of Yule, after all, and Yuletide wouldn’t start for half a week, yet.

***

Because of her “delicate condition” Goldi reluctantly agreed to ride in the coach, rather than pony-back, and she allowed that they could make it a two-day journey to Bridgefields, stopping over in Frogmorton, even though it wasn’t much further to go along to Budgeford...

But she had promised her good friend Laurel Bolger that she’d let Farry pamper her, so long as she was expecting his child, the first of many, as they both hoped. Seeing that they’d been married a little more than half a year, they had made a good start on the matter. Goldi would rather not bother with being pampered, especially as it did not extend to spoiling. For example, Farry had not let her order the decorating of the Great Smials a full week before Yuletide began. And while he blissfully ordered, at Goldi’s whim, the strangest concoctions a hobbit could imagine, from the kitchens, at the oddest hours of the night, he would not let his wife stuff herself with sweetmeats alone. No, she had to eat plenty of fowl, and eggs, in deference to Healer Woodruff’s theory that because chickens laid an egg a day, hobbits must eat the birds and/or their offspring on a daily basis in order to be as free of trouble when producing young of their own. Goldi was growing to detest chicken. There were only so many ways to fix fowl, or eggs.

When Goldi wakened, stretching and yawning, it was still dark. Good, she thought to herself. She’d needed so much extra sleep these days... it was satisfying to awaken at her (former) regular hour.

...only to have Faramir throw open the shutters to streaming sunlight. ‘Good morning, dearest!’ he said cheerily.

Goldi had instinctively shielded her eyes from the onslaught.

‘O my love,’ Farry said, rushing to her side, to envelop her in his arms. ‘Is it too early? Do you need more sleep?’

‘What time is it?’ Goldi grumbled. ‘It must be ever so late! What must they think of Tooks, sleeping until midday!’

‘Adelbrim and I ate early breakfast,’ Farry said. ‘You were still sawing logs, and I hadn’t the heart to waken you.’

‘I don’t snore,’ Goldi said with dignity.

‘Of course you don’t, love,’ Farry said. ‘But you were... erm, you were deeply asleep, when I wakened, and so I closed the shutters so that the sun wouldn’t shine in your eyes, and I went off for early breakfast. It’s a lovely day, although cold, and the sun sparkling on the snow looks like a thousand diamonds.’

‘A veritable treasure chest,’ Goldi said, ‘as big as all outdoors!’ She yawned, and said, ‘but I’m starving, and the babe is ravening... Just what meal is it, anyhow?’

‘Elevenses,’ Farry said. ‘I was going to waken you soon, if you didn’t waken yourself!’

‘Elevenses!’ Goldi said in shock. ‘Why, we’ve missed two breakfasts!’

‘Then come along, my love,’ Farry said, lifting Goldi’s dress over her head and doing up the buttons for her. ‘Let us not delay. They were laying the tables in the common room when I left...’

Elevenses more than filled Goldi’s hollow places, and she enjoyed the company of the two male hobbits who doted on her every whim. One was her husband, of course, whose duty it was to dote upon her as his wife, and the other was the head of the Thain’s escort, whose duty it was to dote upon her as the Mistress of Tookland, whilst Diamond was away in the southlands with Thain Peregrin.

Adelbrim knew better than to take a servant’s role, eating in the kitchen or at the least at a separate table. Goldi would never stand for that, and Pippin had raised Faramir to be a sensible hobbit. The three of them talked and laughed, drawing other hobbits into the conversation, until it was almost as if there were a party at the Dancing Doves that day. Indeed, the innkeeper urged them to stop over another day, for the weather was bitterly cold and clouds were rolling in.

‘But no,’ Farry said regretfully. ‘The Bolger is expecting us this day...’

‘You could send a messenger,’ the innkeeper said.

‘In this cold! Why, no, I could not conscience such a thing!’ Farry said. ‘We’ll be fine, tucked snug inside our coach, and no troubles from the wind or the cold...’

Adelbrim, driving the coach, might be chilled, but it was all a part of his duty, and he was too brave and bright a Took to complain of such. He was over-young to be head of escort, of course. Tomorrow would be his birthday, as a matter of fact, the day he’d come of age. Because of his prowess with the bow he’d been allowed to shoot with the grown hobbits this year at the Tournament, and he’d won! By custom the Thain must offer him the job as head of the Thain’s escort, and to everyone’s surprise (and consternation, on the part of some of the Tooks, for that matter), he’d accepted the position, and thrown himself into his work with verve and enthusiasm, and amazingly good judgment for one so young.

He got on very well with Farry and Goldi, being about the same age as the one and a year older than the other, indeed was more a friend than a servant, and so being escorted on their travels was not so much of a rub as it might have been.

And so they were on their way after finishing elevenses, and due to arrive at the Ford well before teatime.

Truth be told, it was bitter weather, and Goldi was glad for the footstove, filled with coals before they departed, and she accepted the blankets that Farry piled over her as they rolled along. ‘I don’t know,’ she said, broodingly, ‘that it was the best idea, love, to go on so... Think how cold it is for Adel!’

‘He relishes the challenge,’ Farry said. ‘Not to mention, he’ll probably hint for extra pay, for the effort...’

‘He’d never!’ Goldi said, and Farry laughed.

‘Of course he wouldn’t,’ he said, ‘but I’m going to give him extra pay for this day’s work, anyhow. It’ll make a nice Yule bonus for the hobbit, and perhaps he can buy a pretty for that lass he’s had his eye on, and in presenting it he might actually work up the courage to ask her to marry him!’

‘And if he cannot work up the courage, perhaps...’ Goldi said, and Farry shook a warning finger in her face.

‘Now, lass,’ he said. ‘It’s his place to ask...’

She laughed. ‘But if I hadn’t been the one to pop the question to you would we even be married now?’ she demanded.

I asked you first,’ Farry said.

‘No you didn’t!’ Goldi retorted. It was an old argument with them, one they enjoyed re-hashing, especially with the inevitable making-up afterward which was indeed something to enjoy... except that this time they were rather... interrupted by untoward events.

***

‘What happened?’ Farry said, when the coach had stopped tumbling. He’d curled himself protectively around Goldi, and a good thing, too, for he felt quite bruised by the pelting he’d received, of loose objects inside the body of the coach.

‘I’m sure I don’t know,’ Goldi muttered, putting an unsteady hand to her whirling head. ‘I know that you adore kissing me until I’m giddy, but that kiss was the giddiest yet...’

‘Hulloo!’ came from the door of the coach, which was unaccountably above them rather than to the side. ‘Are you all right in there?’

‘All right?’ Farry said. ‘How could we be all right? Everything is downside-up!’

‘It’s not,’ Goldi countered. ‘It’s sideways.’

‘Coach skidded into the ditch,’ Adelbrim said apologetically. ‘I couldn’t stop it,’ he said, ‘I’m that sorry, sir, but...’

‘Stop your apologising and get us out of here,’ Farry said. ‘How far to the Ford?’

‘An hour’s walking,’ Adelbrim said. ‘But if you’d like to wait in the coach, I think you’ll be warmer.’

‘What!’ Goldi said. ‘Out of the wind, perhaps, but not warmer! And certainly not more comfortable. Why, all the seats are on the walls, and we’re practically sitting in the snow, what with us perched on the window, here!’

‘Get us out!’ Farry said. ‘We can stand to walk an hour... whereas if we sit here it’ll be teatime before we’re missed, and they come looking...’

‘I can walk!’ Goldi added.

It took a little more persuasion, but at last the head of escort agreed. With Farry boosting from under, and Adelbrim pulling, Goldi was soon sitting atop the side of the coach. The ponies stood in their traces, heads turned back in frank astonishment at proceedings.

‘And now for you, Farry,’ Adelbrim said, but just then something alarmed the ponies, a gust of wind, perhaps, and they began to fuss, and then to rear and plunge.

‘I don’t know what’s got into them!’ the escort said, and called down to Faramir, ‘a moment, sir!’ To Goldi, he said, ‘Wait a moment, Mistress!’

‘I always find myself looking around for Diamond-Mum,’ she muttered as he slid off the coach, to calm the ponies, and looking down at Faramir she said, ‘Comfortable, my love?’

‘Not particularly,’ Farry answered. He tried to find purchase, to get high enough to reach the door, pull himself up, and climb out, but couldn’t quite get a grasp. ‘We would have to take the great coach...’

‘In the interest of comfort and pleasure,’ Goldi said. ‘Your da had this coach made for your mum, as you remember, and a more lush and luxurious conveyance is beyond my imagining.’ She laughed in his face. ‘I told you that riding ponies would have been just the thing, but no, you insisted that the coach would be safer...’

‘Best laid plans,’ he sighed. ‘But you must be awfully chilled, up there, not to mention uncomfortable...’ He hunted around the jumbled interior, bundling together blankets and throwing them up at her, followed by a well-stuffed cushion. ‘Sit on that!’ he said, ‘and wrap yourself well. And what is wrong with the ponies?’ For he could hear their protests, even inside the coach.

‘I’m sure I don’t know,’ Goldi said, looking up from Farry’s face, but seconds later her own scream blended with those of the ponies.

If Farry could have, he would have launched himself up and out of the coach. As it was, he was so galvanised by Goldi’s scream that his leap brought him within grasp of the doorway, and he hung on grimly, swaying a bit, and somehow pulled himself up.

The ponies were screaming wildly, kicking and plunging, and Adelbrim was laying about himself with the whip, the only weapon he had, at the moment, and great, silent, fanged beasts were dodging in to slash at their chosen prey, and dodging out again—wolves! Wolves in the Shire! Wolves, for the first time since the Fell Winter, in Bilbo Baggins’ youth!


There was but one thing to be done, for some of the wolves were already leaping at the upended coach, some of them tearing at the coach itself, and if any of them should gain purchase, and be able to reach Goldi, on this precarious perch...

Drawing his sword, Farry jumped down, ignoring Goldi’s fresh scream at his peril, and he waded into the fray. He lamed one wolf with a mighty blow, and some of its ravenous fellows at once turned on it. With this successful distraction, Farry turned his attention to the ponies. They were hindered, bound as they were by the traces to the overturned coach. Rear and plunge as they might, it wouldn’t be long before they were pulled down by the attacking wolves. Of course, what he intended would seal their fate, most likely... but it was a necessary sacrifice. Goldi’s life, and that of their unborn child, was at stake.

He slashed through the traces with the razor-edge of his sword. It was not long before the ponies pulled free of the coach, fleeing, drawing the wolf pack with the irresistible urge to the chase... and soon the only wolf left was the badly torn creature that struggled feebly nearby, staining the snow with bright blood. Farry stepped over and with a quick thrust of his blade, put the wolf out of its misery.

Adelbrim stood panting, holding the whip aloft, mid-slash. ‘It’s over,’ Farry said, wiping the blood from his sword. ‘They’re gone.’

Adel started, as one wakening from nightmare. ‘Not for long, I fear,’ he said. ‘They’ll catch the ponies, or not, but they’ll be back, I think. They looked famished...’ He looked up at Goldi. ‘P’rhaps we’d best lower you into the coach again, Mistress,’ he said. ‘It’s some sort of shelter. And when we don’t arrive by teatime, the Bolgers will come looking for us before we freeze.’

‘If they come back, as you think, I’m not sure the coach will be much refuge,’ Goldi said. ‘I can see daylight right through one side, where they were carrying on...’

‘Better to make our way to the nearest farm,’ Farry said.

‘But to be caught in the open,’ Adelbrim protested.

‘We won’t be,’ Goldi said with more bravado than truth. She could not bear the thought of sitting here, waiting for the beasts to come back... and enduring their onslaught, watching the coach splinter around herself and Farry and Adel, when they did return, waiting for the powerful jaws to break through, reaching them at last...

Farry sheathed his sword and helped Goldi down. Adelbrim fetched his bow and quiver of arrows, and two bags from the luggage—more clothes, he said, just in case they needed to add to what they were wearing, as the temperature seemed to be dropping. Or so it felt.

‘How are you going to shoot wolves, if you’re carrying baggage?’ Goldi wanted to know.

‘The wolves aren’t returning any time soon,’ Adel retorted, remembering belatedly to add, ‘Mistress. You said so, yourself.’

‘Of course they aren’t,’ Goldi said with as much dignity as she could muster, pulling her blankets more closely around herself. Even with her heavy winter cloak, she was chilled. But she was not going to huddle in the uncertain refuge of the coach. The nearest farm was only a mile or two away...

They were skirting a patch of brambles when they heard the howling on the wind.

‘They’re coming!’ Adelbrim gasped, dropping the bags. ‘They’re nearly upon us!’

‘Quick, Goldi,’ Faramir said, drawing his sword and pushing his wife ahead of him. ‘Play that we are rabbits, and our home is in the brambles—they’ll offer some shelter, at least!’

Despite the cruel jabbing and scratching of the thorns, even through her blankets, Goldi dove into the thicket, shoving as deep as she could, until the tangles became impassable, and then she turned, seeing Farry and Adelbrim right behind her, facing the opening they’d made.

No wolves appeared at once, though the wind brought the howls to them, and Adel, a little shame-faced, scuttled out to fetch the bags he’d dropped. Piling them with the cushion Farry had carried, they made a little couch of sorts to keep Goldi off the frozen ground.

‘Now, if you could only kindle fire,’ Farry said, ‘we’d be quite cosy here.’

‘Not to mention, it would make another weapon to hold the wolves at bay,’ Adel said. ‘And someone might see the smoke and come to investigate.’

‘You fellows are full of all sorts of good ideas,’ Goldi said with asperity. She opened one of the bags, to dig out the box of matches she’d packed, and a bit of bright green-gold fabric spilled out.

‘Is that what I think it is?’ Farry said, raising an eyebrow.

Goldi blushed and shoved the fabric back before digging for the matches. Adelbrim, of course, had no idea, and if she could manage to keep the dress out of sight, he would remain ignorant, as was only proper. ‘It’s nothing,’ she told the curious escort, and after Adelbrim had nodded and turned away, moving to the edge of the brambles to survey their surroundings, she whispered to Farry, ‘I thought it about time to return the thing to Laurel... Now that she’s had her babe she’ll soon fit into it again, and we shouldn’t keep such pleasant diversions all to ourselves...’

‘Ah,’ Farry said, and then he blushed, endearing him all over again to Goldilocks, and then he took himself off to stand beside the escort, watching for the wolves’ return. And Goldi thought back to a visit to Budge Hall, some time before her wedding...

***

Goldi sneezed. ‘Really, Laurel,’ she said. ‘I don’t know if this is such a good idea...’

‘Really, Goldi!’ Laurel said in the same vein. ‘Where’s your sense of adventure?’

Goldi sneezed again. ‘I wouldn’t call a dusty old storehole “adventure”...’

‘Well,’ Laurel said, ‘surely there’s some sort of treasure to be found here, to present you for a wedding-gift! A box of jewels, maybe, or...’

‘Or...’ Goldi said, ‘a plugged nose, perhaps! Won’t I look fine, standing with my family as my father opens the Bridgefields planting festival, with my nose as red as a cherry!’

‘Redder!’ Laurel said in reassurance. ‘You’ll look absolutely charming, Goldi. That shade of red sets off the gold in your hair...’

‘Lovely,’ Goldi muttered.

‘But what’s this?’ Laurel said, pouncing on another dust-covered trunk. ‘Something from my grandmother’s time, I think!’ She opened it, and uttered a crooning ohhhhh as gold-green fabric glinted in the lamplight.

‘Beautiful,’ Goldi whispered, her eyes wide.

‘O but you’d look well in this,’ Laurel said, tissue paper drifting down as she shook the dress out of its folds and held it up. ‘The fabric is so rich—it looks as if gold has been woven into the cloth... and the lace! So finely woven... Here, try it on!’

The beautiful gown was not dusty in itself, having been sheltered in the cedar-lined trunk, and it shimmered as if it were some sort of liquid fire, draped over Goldi’s curves. But the bodice... what there was of it...

‘Really,’ Laurel said, casting a critical eye up and down the dress, as Goldi blushed before her regard. ‘It is a lovely dress indeed, that you’re almost wearing.’

‘What were they thinking?’ Goldi wanted to know, raising an arm to cover her upper region. ‘I mean, who’d wear a dress like this? Why, if my dad were to see me in this, he’d take off his coat and throw it around me and hustle me off to my room, and not let me come out again for a month!’

‘It was all the fashion during Mistress Lalia’s time,’ Laurel said, rolling her eyes. ‘The stories my grandmother told! Why, at one fancy ball, a fashionable young Took fell right out of her dress in the middle of a reel, and...’

‘I can only imagine the pandemonium that broke loose,’ Goldi said, ‘along with everything else.’

‘Still,’ Laurel said, her eyes dancing, ‘I can only imagine my Rudi’s reaction, were I to wear such a thing...’

‘Then you go ahead and wear it,’ Goldi said, trying to reach behind her to undo the fastenings once more, her front jiggling perilously as she removed the support her sheltering forearm had provided.

‘I just might,’ Laurel said wickedly. ‘Just think, when I was nursing a babe, I wouldn’t even have to undo anything...’

And she and Goldi shared a most unladylike outburst of laughter.

When Goldi and Farry opened their wedding presents, the dress was among them.

And yes, Farry had found it exceedingly diverting.

***

When the wolves arrived, Adelbrim was able to hold them off with his expert shooting. At first, Goldi was hopeful that he’d drive them away completely, but they kept returning anew, with fresh determination.

It appeared that the farmers had locked away their sheep and cattle and goats and ponies, in this bitter cold, and there was nothing easily available to satisfy the wolves’ starvation... except, perhaps, the three hobbits, caught out in the open.

‘Practically laid out on a platter,’ Goldi mumbled to herself, striking yet another match that only flickered and died.

‘What was that?’ Farry said, holding his sword tightly in his hand, though Adelbrim’s latest arrow had taken the nearest wolf in the throat, causing the others to fall back once more.

‘Nothing,’ Goldi retorted. ‘I’m running low on matches.’

‘I’m running low on arrows,’ the escort said. ‘What’ll we do when we run out?’

‘Goldi!’ Farry called behind him, where his wife sought to kindle fire.

‘Nearly got it,’ she gasped, even as a finger of wind found its way through the makeshift shelter and extinguished her latest effort.

Goldi was more determined than the wind. She’d flung off her cloak and hung it on the brambles behind her, forcing it onto the thorns, making a wall of sorts for the wind to whistle around. Though her hands and arms were scratched and bleeding, she bent with a will to her fire makings. ‘Please,’ she said, thinking of the Lady who’d sent water and light to her father in a parched dark land, ‘Please.’ Her hands were trembling as she lit the match. It was the last, and then she’d be reduced to the flint and steel that Farry always carried, though his cousins teased him that he was hopelessly old-fashioned in that way.

The fire would not burn! ‘Please,’ she said again to the Lady. With a sudden thought, she took the cushion Farry had brought from the coach for her comfort and tore a hole in it with the knife that Farry had supplied her, should the wolves break through. She pulled out the stuffing, blessing for the moment the bitter temperatures that insured it was dry despite the snow that was sifting down. She spread a piece of stuffing with her cold-stiffened fingers, to provide air and encourage burning, and laid the stuffing at the base of the kindling. Now she picked up the flint and began to strike it on her knife, directing the sparks onto the stuffing. ‘Please,’ she said once more.

The sparks landed on the soft, flammable stuff and smouldered as if deciding whether to burst into flame or die. ‘Please,’ Goldi whispered.

‘They’re getting bolder,’ Farry said.

‘You’ll need to protect your arm,’ Adelbrim said, fitting another arrow to his bow. ‘If they rush you, and your sword gets stuck as you thrust it—well, another of them might go for your unprotected arm while you’re pulling the blade free again, or so I remember from your da’s tales of his Travellings.’

‘Good thinking,’ Farry said, turning back. ‘Goldi!’

‘I heard,’ she said, not taking her eyes from the infant flame she was nurturing. She grabbed at the bag, pulling out the first garment that came to hand, and Farry hastily wrapped it around his arm, even as the wolves launched another attack.

***

The sullen sky was growing lighter. Farry threw another armload of sticks on the fire and returned to the relative warmth of the cloaks.

‘Daylight,’ Goldi said sleepily. ‘They haven’t returned.’

‘No,’ Farry said, putting his arm around her after he’d settled the cloaks as well as he could, to keep out the bitter cold. ‘Thanks to your fire.’

As the flames had taken hold in the fading of the previous day, Adelbrim had launched his last arrow and fallen back; a great wolf had moved forward in a silent rush, knocking the escort to the ground as the hobbit instinctively threw his arms up to protect his face and neck. Farry’s sword had bitten deep, and the wolf had rolled away, convulsing. More wolves rushed at Farry, but Goldi rose from the now-vigorously burning fire, a flaming branch in each hand, to smite them on their muzzles and send them howling away.

A wolf had fastened on Farry’s free arm during the attack, savagely tearing, but the wrapping had kept him safe from mauling, to everyone’s great relief.

Goldi used the respite to bind up Adelbrim’s bleeding arm with strips torn from her petticoats. They’d alternated pacing and huddling beneath the cloaks for the rest of the night, fearful of sleep.

The wolves had returned twice in the night, but a few well-aimed fiery missiles had discouraged them from trying to win their way through the narrow opening in the brambles. Faramir, sword in one hand and burning branch in the other, crept from the bramble patch at first light. He returned soon, his sword sheathed, bearing moss which he placed in the middle of the fire. Smoke began to rise. Farry kept feeding the fire dry wood and damp moss as they waited.

Some time before elevenses they heard ponies approaching, and a questing cry.

‘Here!’ Faramir shouted, unwrapping the torn garment from his arm, for he’d need the protection no longer.

‘Farry! Goldi!’ came the answer. It was Rudivar, the Bolger himself, come in search with a body of hunters. He leapt from his pony, thrusting his way into the briar patch without thought of scratches or jabbing thorns, and embraced Faramir and then Goldilocks. ‘You were due yesterday, and then when word came that wolves had crossed the Brandywine we feared the worst...’

‘How did they get across?’ Farry asked. ‘I thought the Brandybucks had the gates up on the Bridge when they heard that wolves were prowling around the High Hay.’

‘The River’s frozen all the way across,’ Rudi said, ‘just as it was in the Fell Winter.’

Farry whistled. ‘I knew it was cold,’ he said, ‘but...’

‘Don’t know quite how cold,’ the Bolger said. ‘The quicksilver’s all the way down in the glass.’ He looked to the escort. ‘But you’re injured!’ he said.

Adelbrim eased his arm in the makeshift sling. ‘Could be worse,’ he said. ‘If it wasn’t for the Mistress and her fire-making...’

Goldi smiled. ‘You bought us time with your arrows,’ she said lightly.

‘Come now,’ Rudi said. ‘Let’s get you to Budge Hall, and warm. Cider’s already simmering on the stove, waiting for us.’

‘I’ll drink to that,’ Farry said.

And later that evening, sipping tea in their guest apartments, Goldi sighed. ‘I think I’ve finally stopped shaking,’ she said. ‘At last.’

‘From cold, or from fear?’ Laurel said gently, slipping an arm about Goldi’s shoulders for a heart-felt hug. ‘I’m still shaking—with relief! What a close thing it was!’ She gave a sigh of her own, resting her head on Goldi’s shoulder. ‘To think I nearly lost the best friend I have in the world... besides my dear husband...’

‘O Laurel,’ Goldi said, close to tears. ‘And I’m afraid my Yule present to you has been ruined.’

‘I don’t want any other present,’ Laurel said with another hug. ‘It’s enough to know that you and Faramir are safe...’

‘Well, it’s a good thing,’ Goldi said, sitting up as her friend released her. She reached down, for a paper-wrapped bundle. ‘You might as well open it now, for it’s not worth waiting until Yuletide.’

‘I never wait until Yuletide anyhow,’ Laurel said bravely, with a little laugh, putting aside sentiment for Goldi’s sake. And true, the first of the month was still a day away, and Budge Hall was already decked in greenery and bright ribbons and all sorts of pretty decorations. She tore into the paper, revealing shining green and gold. ‘But it isn’t...?’

‘It is,’ Goldi said ruefully.

Laurel held the present up, eyeing it critically. ‘I must say, Goldi, there wasn’t much to this before, but there seems to be even less to it, now... Did it inflame Farry, perhaps, to too great an enthusiasm, when last you donned the gown for his viewing pleasure...?’

‘Something like that,’ Goldi said demurely, casting her eyes down, though she smiled a secret smile. ‘He certainly did appreciate the gown, whether I was wearing it, or not, as it were...’ And though she was well-married, and well on her way to becoming a mum herself, and Laurel was a mother four times over, a blush still rose in Goldi’s cheeks.

Laurel laughed and cupped Goldi’s blooming cheek. ‘Really, love, you’re glowing,’ she said. ‘I’m certain that you and Farry enjoyed our wedding present, and I’m so very glad!’

‘Yes,’ Goldi said, her blush turning to a chuckle. ‘We got a lot out of it, more than you can ever imagine, my dear!’

And laughing, she and Laurel embraced, and then their husbands were entering, with the well-laden tea trolley, complete with a pot of hot, freshly brewed tea and birthday cake for Adelbrim, the head of the Thain's escort following, and Laurel hastily shoved the remains of the gown behind a cushion, where it remained for the rest of the evening.

‘And how does it feel to be a hobbit grown?’ Farry asked, sitting back, replete with tea and cake.

Adelbrim winced. ‘Rather more painful than I thought it would be,’ he said. ‘No, wait, that’s the wolf, I think.’

‘And I might’ve said the same,’ Farry said, ‘but for my wife’s quick thinking.’

‘Oh?’ Laurel said, accepting a fresh cup of tea from her Rudi.

‘Yes,’ Farry said. ‘A wolf went for my arm—but Goldi jumped out with a flaming branch in either hand and beat him off.’

‘Good for you, Goldi,’ Rudi said, as Laurel exchanged a meaning look with Goldilocks. ‘I’d expect no less from a daughter of Samwise the Brave.’

‘Nor would I,’ Laurel said. ‘Very quick thinking, my dear. And I’m glad that our present gave up its all in such good cause.’

‘Indeed,’ Rudi said, though he didn’t know the half of it.

Something to be Thankful for

‘O Sam,’ Frodo sighed. He stared out the comfortingly round window and sighed. ‘They didn’t have a harvest celebration, because all the food was gathered.’

‘Just don’t seem like the Shire, with no celebrations,’ Sam muttered, lifting the lid of the teapot to see how it was coming along. He hadn’t any idea how he’d make it drinkable without sweetening. And it wasn’t even proper tea, but weeds gathered by Rosie and Mrs. Cotton and dried and brewed into something that was hot, at least, and had some flavour to it, even if it wasn’t tea flavour. They’d smoked their pipes after a scanty dinner, the previous evening, stuffing the bowls with more dried weeds. Pipe-weed hadn’t been seen in the Shire for months, now.

Sam poured a generous dollop of milk into one of Mrs. Cotton’s fancy china cups, dug up by Nibs from where the Cottons had hid their valuables when the ruffians had started their gatherings. At least the Cottons’ cows were giving milk. That was something to be thankful for. And they had a roof over their heads, and not a leaky roof like the Gaffer’s ramshackle shed. He found himself blinking a little, to think of his childhood home all dug up and gone. Really, he ought to be feeling more thankful. They’d made it, there and back again, just as in old Mr. Bilbo’s stories, and though they were battered and much changed, they were alive. But the Shire hardly seemed like the Shire, with the trees cut down and the streams fouled, and the hobbits thin and hungry.

He added the “tea” and watched the milk swirl in clouds, and gave it a good stir for old times’ sake. ‘Here you are, Mr. Frodo,’ he said. ‘A nice hot cup to soothe the weary heart.’

‘Thank you, Sam,’ Frodo said, taking the cup with a grateful smile, which only dimmed slightly as he sipped. He turned back to the window and sighed again.

Sam thought he heard his master murmur again, ‘No harvest celebration.’ He poured out his own “tea”, took a sip, and shuddered. At least it was hot.

‘Good tea,’ Frodo said bravely, taking another sip. ‘How fine it is to be back in the Shire, pouring out at teatime, and drinking out of proper-sized cups again.’

‘I’m that thankful,’ Sam said, untruthfully.

With the shortage of victuals there were no biscuits to go with the tea, no scones, no cakes, nothing of the sort. How was Mr. Frodo to keep up his strength and spirits without proper feeding? Why, it was nearly enough to make Sam want to pack him up again and ride with him to Rivendell. Wondrous feasting there’d been, there, after, and even before, come to think of it. ‘Farmer Cotton went out to plough today,’ he said, to make conversation. ‘He says he’s got great hopes for the winter wheat and barley, now Mr. Merry and Mr. Pippin are seeing to it that all the ruffians are thrown out.’ Next summer, he thought to himself. And what are hobbits to do for bread, until then?

He shook his head. This was hardly the homecoming he’d envisioned. Why, he couldn’t ask Rosie to marry him, when there wouldn’t even be anything to be had for a wedding feast!

So sunk in his misery was he, that he scarcely noticed the excited shouting outside, until Frodo straightened his shoulders with a jerk, leaning closer to the window.

‘It’s Jolly,’ Frodo said, ‘riding at a gallop! Waving his cap and shouting as if...’

‘Ruffians,’ Sam said grimly, putting down his cup. He picked up his sword. ‘You just bide here, Mr. Frodo,’ he said. ‘I’ll see what’s what.’

‘Nonsense, Sam,’ Frodo said, pulling his cloak from its peg. ‘If trouble’s come to the Cotton farm, well, we’ll all help out. After all, they are kind enough to give us a home whilst the rubbish is being cleared out of Bag End.’ And he wouldn’t heed any of Sam’s protests, and he walked out of the Cottons’ best guest room and on down the corridor and out the front door with barely a shiver in the chill November air.

And Sam was there, sword at the ready, just in case.

‘News!’ Jolly was shouting, waving his cap in circles above his head as he pelted towards them. ‘News!’

Nibs came from the barn, a pitchfork in his hand, and Nick came carrying an axe, though he’d not been chopping wood. They were expecting trouble, too, and looking out over the field Sam saw that Farmer Cotton had unhitched the plough ponies, jumped onto the back of one of them, and was jogging them towards the house.

‘Go on in the house, Rosie,’ Young Tom said, running up panting from where he’d been mending a fence. ‘You too, Mum. If there’s ruffians about...’

But then Jolly reached them, pulling up his dancing pony, which seemed to share his excitement. He leapt down, waving his hat, with a wild yell. ‘News!’

‘What news, you daft hobbit?’ Mrs. Cotton scolded. ‘If you’ve got news, then tell it, don’t keep us in the dark!’

‘ ‘s not dark, Mum,’ Jolly chortled, ‘why, sun’s only halfway down the sky...’

‘Jolly!’ Mrs. Cotton said, putting her hands out to take hold of her son’s shoulders, and giving him a shake. ‘What news?’

Jolly was breathing hard, but he was grinning fit to split his cheeks, and the others relaxed somewhat. ‘What news?’ his mother said, a little less sharply.

There was a jingle of harness as Farmer Cotton arrived and jumped down. ‘What news?’ he said, in echo of his wife.

‘Food!’ Jolly said. ‘Storeholes and storeholes full! The ruffians didn’t send it all out of the Shire, they didn’t!’

‘What is it, lad?’ Farmer Cotton said, patting the neck of the nearside plough pony. ‘What is it you said?’

‘Food, and beer, and goods,’ Jolly said. ‘Why, the old abandoned barn at the Clayfoots’, it’s stuffed full, and not hay, neither! And word’s just come from Michel Delving, for Deputy Mayor Frodo here,’ and he gave a hasty bow to the gentlehobbit, ‘that there’s tunnels in Michel Delving stuffed full to overflowing, and while the quick post rider was still talking a messenger arrived from the Bolger to say that they’d found foodstuffs and firewood and blankets and more in the old quarries at Scary, and...’

‘O my,’ Sam said, easing his sword back into its resting place, leaving his hand free to take Rosie’s in a warm and hopeful grasp. ‘O my.’

‘You said it,’ Mr. Cotton said, and all the hobbits gathered there broke out into grins.

‘Well, well, Sam,’ Frodo said, his tired face lit with a smile. ‘It looks as if the Deputy Mayor will have the chance to preside over a harvest celebration after all.’

‘I’m that thankful, Mr. Frodo,’ Sam said. And this time he meant it.

11/22/06

The Courtship of Samwise Gamgee

To Curator, Mathom House, Michel Delving

Sir,
While spring cleaning I have found this dusty manuscript buried beneath several layers in the museum. Is this the sort of thing we want to keep?

Yours respectfully,
Lindelea
----------------

[A/N: For the tune, click here: Music]

The Courtship of Samwise Gamgee

Words by Meriadoc Brandybuck
Tune by Peregrin Took

Come now all ye young lasses and lads, and lads,
Ye must listen to yer mums and yer dads, yer dads
If ye want to be wise, just open yer eyes
And I'll tell ye of Samwise Gamgee, Gamgee,
Of the courtship of Samwise Gamgee.

Well, Samwise was gone wi' his master, his master,
And he couldn't get back any faster, any faster,
He got back so late, but his Rosie did wait,
And she was so glad him to see, to see,
She was glad to see Samwise Gamgee

When young Samwise came back from the War, the War,
We all knew he loved Rosie full sore, full sore,
Though she waited a week,
He had yet to speak
And she worried he'd wait ever more.
She worried he'd wait ever more.

He'd crossed over rivers and peaks, and peaks,
But to Rosie he just couldn't speak, oh, no!
He could not meet her eye,
The poor lad was so shy,
So poor Rosie did wait and did wait, poor lass!
For her Samwise to find nerve to ask.

Mayor Frodo he had an idee, idee,
He said, 'Rosie, lass, listen to me, to me!'
With a wink of his eye, he said, 'Cook us some pie!'
'And we'll give your poor Samwise a tweak, a tweak,
'Yes we'll help him find courage to speak.'

Mayor Frodo and Peregrin Took, young Took
And handsome young Merry Brandybuck, yes, him too!
All sat down to eat, pie of mushrooms and meat,
And poor Samwise was eating that pie, that pie,
But he couldn't look Rose in the eye.

Then Merry he took him a bite, a bite
And his face was all spread with delight, delight
And he sang to the sky, with a gleam in his eye,
'Tis the finest pie ever could be, could be,
'Come, dear Rosie lass, marry me!'

Captain Merry, he turned then to Sam, to Sam
And he said, 'I'll advise ye, my lamb, my lamb!
'Better speak to her soon, beneath the full moon,
'Or soon she'll be married to me, to me,
'Better take warning, Samwise Gamgee!'

By the light of the harvest-time moon, the moon,
Ye can hear the band playing a tune, a tune,
They are making quite fine, with good food and good wine,
At the wedding of Rosie and Sam, poor Sam,
Rosie got him to speak, the poor lamb!

Come now all ye young lasses and lads, and lads,
Ye must listen to yer mums and yer dads, yer dads
If ye want to be wise, just open yer eyes
And I'll tell ye of Samwise Gamgee, Gamgee,
Of the courtship of Samwise Gamgee.

[A/N: For the tune, click here: Music]

***********

To Curator, Mathom House, Michel Delving

Sir,
In answer to your questions about the newly rediscovered manuscript...

Well, perhaps "manuscript" is not the exact term to use. It is more of a hasty scribble upon what looks to have been a good tablecloth.

Despite the wine stains, candle grease and small scorch, the text and musical notation remain surprisingly readable.

I am doing a little research to refresh my memory on the facts of the matter, and will report my findings to you, as to historical accuracy and that sort of thing.

Thank you for the lovely basket of mushrooms!

Yours respectfully,
Lindelea

***********

To Curator, Mathom House, Michel Delving
Sir, While researching I have found the following errors in the manuscript.

1. Samwise and Rose Cotton were actually married in the spring.
2. The official record left by Mayor Samwise shows that he had already proposed to Rose Cotton without necessary involvement from his friends.
3. The marriage took place some time after the travelers returned, a year later, in fact.

In dealing with these points, let me just say that, meaning no disrespect to the most honorable former Mayor Samwise, wherever he may be, that he is the author of the official record. Need I say more?

Considering the reputations of Meriadoc Brandybuck and Peregrin Took up until they settled down to the proper serious occupations of Master and Thain, respectively, a few inaccuracies in the text are understandable. Poetic licence is a possible explanation, but I suspect they had already had a fair sight more than a whole half a pint by the time they composed and sang this at the wedding supper.

I would suggest that we keep it in the records.

Besides... it really is a catchy little tune.

Yours respectfully,
Lindelea


***

A/N: Thanks to Imhiriel, for bringing to my notice that this hadn't been published here at SoA.

Because GamgeeFest mentioned laughing layabouts in the LJ community Hobbit_Fluff, this began to prey on my mind.

***

Laughing Layabouts or "The Practical Joke"

‘What’s so funny?’ Merry wanted to know, but Estella could not answer for the giggles consuming her. Pippin was holding his stomach and laughing. When he turned to Ilberic, that hobbit simply howled and collapsed to the ground to join the other two, pointing a shaking finger.

He rubbed at an itch near one eye, and his finger came away black. ‘What...?’ he muttered, as the laughing intensified into hooting sounding rather like demented geese.

‘What...?’ he said.

‘Your face...!’ Pippin gasped, before going off again.

It was then Merry saw the soot around the eyepiece of the dwarvish spyglass.

***

(Partly inspired by dim memory of an episode of M*A*S*H, where Col. Potter brings down binoculars from his eyes, leaving racoon rings, and Radar falls down from laughing.)

This morning, Dreamflower posted on her LJ that she'd had something of a mishap in the night. I was alarmed in the reading, until I reached the part that said she was unhurt, whereupon the Muse began to nudge. Here is the result.

Dreamflower, I hope you find a chuckle and some comfort here.


Rude Awakening

The first assault crashed into them. Like a storm, the hill-trolls out of Gorgoroth broke upon the line of the men of Gondor, and beat upon helm and head, and arm and shield, as smiths hewing the hot bending iron. At Pippin’s side Beregond was stunned and overbourne, and he fell; and the great troll-chief that smote him down bent over him, reaching out a clutching claw; for these fell creatures would bite the throats of those that they threw down. Then Pippin stabbed upwards...

Crash. Merry woke from a sound sleep. He sat bolt upright, trying to orient himself. It was their first night in Crickhollow, the shadows unfamiliar and yet strangely recognizable, as if he’d slept there before. ...Of course he’d slept there before! Ages ago, of course, on the threshold of the adventure of a lifetime, a year of beauty unimaginable and terror beyond belief.

‘Pippin?’ he called. No answer.

He struggled into his dressing gown and rose, pulling the belt tight, his scalp prickling. For some reason he couldn’t explain, he took down his sword, the one King Eomer had presented him upon conferring his new rank as Knight of the Mark, from its pride of place above the bedroom hearth. Too ostentatious by half, to hang it in the parlour...

He nudged the door to his room open, just a little, and peered into the hallway. Nothing but a gurgling noise to disturb the night stillness.

Stepping out, he found the carpet on the hall floor uncomfortably squidgy underfoot. Definitely wet through. And Pippin’s door wide open.

He grasped his sword a little tighter--not that he planned to use it on Pippin, but why would a fellow be bathing, at this hour, when only owls and healers were wakeful? He laid the sword on the hall table and took up the turned-down lamp burning there. He turned the knob to expose more wick to the hungry flame, finding comfort in the resulting brightness as the shadows fled before the light.

‘Pippin?’ No answer. Curiously, the bath room at the end of the hall was dark. But the gurgling noise seemed to be coming from there, and it was the most likely source of water... Was Pippin splashing about in the dark, hoping not to disturb the older cousin...?

Squidge. Squidge. Squidge. ‘Pippin?’

Squidge. Squidge. Squidge. The door to the bath room was open, but the room itself was dark. The gurgling noise was louder here, and the stone floor swimming. And as Merry splashed his way into the room, he swung the lamp forward to illuminate... ‘Pippin!!!’

All he could see was a furry foot protruding from under the wreck of the platform and the cistern it had held, the cistern that collected rainwater from the roof and gutters through a cleverly situated pipe. If you turned a tap, water would run into the great copper boiler with its fire-pit below, and once you’d let the heat of the fire do its work you could turn another tap and steaming water would run from the boiler into the tub. It was an innovation they’d brought back from Gondor, the plans anyhow, and hired the construction when Frodo had given them Crickhollow: hot-and-cold running water, and a lovely thing, too. With their love of baths, it was a wonder hobbits hadn’t invented it in the first place. There was even a tap you could turn to empty the tub into a trough that ran out of the little house and into the kitchen garden. Marvellous work of modern efficiency.

But the tub stood empty and dry, not even glistening with recent wet, and Pippin...

Merry roused himself from his shock, set the lamp upon the small table by the door, and frantically began to pull the wreckage away from his younger cousin, calling. ‘Pip! Pip! Do you hear me? Pip!!’

At last he’d pulled the younger hobbit free. There was a large bump on Pippin’s forehead, and bruises were appearing, and a trickle of blood, and at first Merry was afraid he wasn’t breathing, until he took a gasping breath at last.

‘Pippin!’

Pippin’s eyelids fluttered with returning consciousness. ‘Cold,’ he muttered.

‘Stone cold,’ Merry agreed, sitting down in the puddle and cradling his cousin, safe from the water’s chill. ‘What...?’ He wasn’t sure just what to ask.

Pippin took another gasping breath and suddenly and startlingly sat upright, raising his sword. His sword?

Merry hadn’t noticed, but Pippin’s troll-bane was clenched in his young cousin’s fist. ‘Pippin?’ he said cautiously, leaning a little away. ‘Er, ah, why don’t you put that, er, down before you hurt someone?’

Not down on the flooded floor, that wouldn’t be good for the sword, but perhaps upon the little table, or even in the tub, nice and dry at the moment.

‘The Troll!’ Pippin gasped. ‘Where did he go? I stabbed him, and he fell...’

‘Pippin?’ Merry said again, and then he understood. ‘Pip, it was but a dream.’

Pippin grasped at Merry with his free hand, wincing a little as he used his wrist, evidently strained in the disaster. ‘Beregond! Where is Beregond? He was going to...’ He blinked. ‘He was going to bite out his throat, his jaws were gaping wide...’

‘It’s all right, Pip,’ Merry said, helping Pippin to his feet. ‘Steady, lad. The battle is done, the Troll is slain, and Beregond is saved, thanks to your stalwart thrust...’ Time enough to clear away the wreckage in the morning. Pip would scarcely be any help at all in his present state.

‘All right?’ Pippin said. ‘But Beregond...’

Merry knew from experience that Pippin, sleepwalking, was nearly impossible to waken. He’d learned to play along with whatever dream happened to be going. As from old practice, he guided his cousin back to the bedroom, eased the sword from his cousin's fingers, stripped off Pippin’s sopping nightshirt, robed him in dry clothing, and tucked him up in bed once more.

Pippin turned over with a sigh and drew up his feet as Merry smoothed the coverlet over him. ‘G’night,’ he murmured.

‘Good night, Troll-slayer,’ Merry said, half affectionate, half exasperated. He’d have to change out of his own wet things before seeking his pillow.

He took Pippin’s sword with him and put it away in the chest in the corner of the parlour, just in case.

***

A/N: Text in italics taken from “The Black Gate Opens” in The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien

(10/20/07)

Remedy by Lindelea
The hobbits take good care of Boromir...

First published at Marigold's Challenge 4 quite awhile ago


Title: Remedy
Author: Lindelea
Rating: G
Main Characters: The Fellowship, somewhere between Rivendell and Hollin
Disclaimer: The characters aren’t mine, but I sometimes sneak out with them for a cup of tea and a biscuit or two. Thanks to Dana for proofreading.
Brief synopsis: Boromir finds himself the object of hobbit attentions. (The story of the origin of Mayor Sam’s Famous Mushroom Soup)
Prompt: Italicized words in first line


Remedy

"Mister Boromir, you're shivering. Come and sit here by the fire and I'll bring you some tea."


The young lord of Gondor looked up in surprise, or down, rather, at the tug on his hand. ‘Master Samwise,’ he rasped, and had to clear his throat. ‘I am well,’ he said more firmly, straightening to his full height.

The hobbit was not daunted; he simply craned his neck higher to meet Boromir’s eye.

‘Come along now,’ he said in a no-nonsense voice that Boromir had heard often, these past days, when the little one was managing his master or one of the two young gentlefolk who’d been allowed, against all better judgment, to join the Company of Nine Walkers.

He felt his other hand seized in an eager grip and looked down his other side to a pair of bright, mischievous eyes. ‘Come along, Boromir!’ young Pippin said cheerily, tugging with his two hands at the large gloved hand. ‘Come along before you freeze yourself solid!’

‘It is not freezing,’ Boromir grumbled.

‘I can see my breath,’ Pippin’s cousin Merry put in. ‘Come along and be reasonable.’

Reasonable! Boromir huffed to himself. It was hardly reasonable, to be making this desperate journey, to throw away... Firmly he turned his thought. That way lay a long and sleepless night, he knew from experience. Better to accept the decision of the Council, though it rankled. All he said was, ‘We none of us is dry.’

‘All the more reason to sit by the fire,’ Frodo said, coming up to see what the matter was.

Boromir suppressed a sigh. He was surrounded, and there would be no peace until he acquiesced.

‘Legolas is watching from on high,’ Frodo added, pointing to a treetop. ‘You need not stand watch at the moment.’

‘I’ll take your watch, Boromir,’ Pippin piped up, his chest puffing out with self-importance.

Boromir saw a glance pass between the tiny mite’s older cousins, and then Merry nodded. ‘Good, Pip,’ he said. ‘You do that.’ Undoubtedly when the young one began to nod from weariness, Merry would poke him awake, send him to his blankets, and take his place.

Usurping Sam’s hold, Merry took a firm grip on Boromir’s thumb and tugged. ‘Come along,’ he added. ‘Sam, you go pour out that tea.’

‘Yes, Mr. Merry,’ Sam said, turning away and trotting briskly to the fire.

Aragorn watched with concealed amusement as the hobbits worried at the tall Man of Gondor like small dogs, tugging him to a spot by the fire and pulling him down. Gandalf looked up with a nod, a cup of Sam’s tea warming his own hands, and Gimli sat a little apart, muttering to himself as usual. Indeed, his companions had grown used to the noise, rather a rough lullaby, but in truth they’d have trouble falling asleep in its absence now.

And so Boromir sat now half in a daze by the fire in the dawning light, too numb to notice any warmth cast by the flames, his shivers growing in intensity though he tried his best to suppress them. He was in his driest clothes already—their baggage had been dampened by several days of misty rain, and when he’d fallen with a splash (a treacherous rock had tipped beneath his foot as he crossed an icy stream), the damp clothing from his pack had seemed a luxury. After walking the rest of the night, resisting the chilly fingers of wind that sought to breach each crack and fold of clothing, he could plainly feel the dampness, mixed of mist and fog and sweat of effort.

‘Here we are.’ Sam’s voice broke into his reverie. ‘Careful now, it’s hot.’

Boromir took the mug, feeling the heat between his hands. Too chilled to be cautious, he gulped at the contents and felt burning warmth enter him, travelling inward until it lodged somewhere in his middle region. ‘That’s good,’ he said in spite of himself. ‘But this is not the tea we brought from Rivendell.’

Sam ducked his head with a blush. ‘Herbs, it is, Mr. Boromir,’ he said. Boromir had given up trying to correct this novel form of hobbit address; he merely nodded. ‘Herbs as I gathered whilst we marched. More warming, you know.’

‘Indeed,’ Boromir answered, and took another, more cautious sip. Comforting warmth seemed to spread out from his middle, and soon he was feeling much warmer, and drowsy into the bargain. He found himself musing on these small creatures of legend, these Halflings, or hobbits as they called themselves. He leaned back on his pack, propped against a rock, and watched them through half-closed eyes.

Samwise was stirring something in the big pot, adding a handful of leaves, breathing appreciatively the steam that rose. The hobbit’s fingers were nearly healed, Boromir noted with a soft snort. Herb-gathering indeed!

***

Boromir remembered how Sam had been sucking those fingers as they stumbled into camp a few days earlier, and how the fingers had bled when Aragorn had examined them. The Ranger had had to be stern with the serving-hobbit. Even sitting upon the ground to see eye-to-eye, he’d drawn himself up tall and... Boromir was startled at the thought ...tall and... kingly somehow. No, not “kingly”, he told himself. Commanding, rather. A Man accustomed to giving orders and being obeyed. He was, after all, chief of the Rangers of the North, and though these might be a ragged remnant he seemed to command respect amongst the Elves of Rivendell. In any event, Aragorn had halted Samwise from his duties long enough to examine the bleeding fingers, smear some salve over them and bandage the hand.

‘Thorns, I s’pose,’ Sam had said ruefully. ‘I was gathering herbs, by the smell, you know, in the dark as we walked. You do it yourself, Strider...’

‘Exercise more caution in future, Master Samwise,’ Aragorn said firmly, but his face softened as the apologetic hobbit turned away. He met Boromir’s watching eye, pulled one side of his mouth into a wry smile, and shook his head. Boromir nodded. They were interesting little beings, these Halflings. You’d expect them to be soft as butter, looking at them, but they seemed to be as hard as the butter knife, on further acquaintance. They made for entertaining observation as well.

Young Pippin always threw himself down when they reached a spot to rest, there to rub his sore feet until one of his older cousins nudged him to join in the work of making camp. Not this time, however. He’d watched the washing of Samwise’s damaged fingers with wide eyes, and now he was busily gathering wood by the armload and scurrying back to the fire, racing to complete Sam’s task before the bandaging was done. By the time Strider had fastened the bandages to his satisfaction, Pippin had piled enough wood by the fire to cook the meal and had hauled several buckets of water from the nearby stream as well, and Merry was crouched by the crackling fire, stirring something in a pot, and another pot of water, destined to become tea was coming to a boil.

Now as Boromir watched, Samwise struggled with his bandaged fingers to untie the strings on his pack. The Ring-bearer called him away, to help spread blankets by the fire, and Merry quietly stooped to undo the fastenings while the hobbit-servant was working at the task his master set him. Sam came back to his pack, finding it open and inviting, and looked about in surprise. He met Boromir’s gaze.

The Man of Gondor shrugged. ‘Magic fairies,’ he said, lifting an eyebrow.

Samwise chortled, and covered his mouth with his hands to suppress his laughter.

Boromir smiled. The little folk had infectious laughs, indeed. Odd that they should be caught up with such a venture as this, taking the... He stuffed the thought down as Pippin brought him a plate of stew, settled beside him, and proceeded to do his level best to make the Man of Gondor choke to death while trying to eat, with his amusing stories and inexhaustible supply of jokes.

***

Boromir jerked awake, smelling something delicious. ‘A bit of Sam’s special soup, Boromir?’ Pippin said, holding a steaming bowl before him.

He inhaled deeply. ‘Smells as good as the best Gondor has to offer,’ he said, taking the bowl with a nod. Pippin waited politely while the Man of Gondor faced the west for a silent moment, before settling to eating. They ate in appreciative silence until their bowls were nearly empty, and finally Boromir chewed the last bit of solid from his spoon and swallowed to clear his mouth. ‘It is good,’ he affirmed. ‘What is it?’ He lifted the bowl to his mouth and tipped it to drink the rest of the savoury broth.

‘It’s Samwise’s famous mushroom soup,’ Pippin said in all innocence. A moment later he was blinking in astonishment, wiping at his face, which wore the remainder of Boromir’s final mouthful.

‘Mushrooms!’ Boromir gasped, and dropped his bowl. Fortunately it was made of metal, for sturdiness while travelling, and furthermore it fell upon moss rather than rock, and so did not clatter loudly and alert any hunters to their presence. ‘Poison!’ he said in dismay. Had the little folk guessed the treacherous thoughts that he’d fought down, and sought to put him away before he could become a danger to them? The Haradrim used poison, he knew, and hid murderous impulses behind elaborate hospitality, but he’d never have suspected the jolly Halflings...

Had he not been so horrified he’d have laughed at the expression on young Pippin’s face, soup streaming from the tousled dark-gold curls and down the rosy cheeks, good-natured mouth open in astonishment.

‘What seems to be the trouble?’ the Ranger spoke from nearby.

‘Aragorn! Poison!’ he gasped.

‘What?’ the Ranger said quizzically. He had to suppress the desire to laugh, looking from the hobbit’s soup-bedewed face to the white-faced lord of Gondor.

‘Mushrooms!’ Boromir said, waiting for the twisting in his gut that would signal his imminent demise. Indeed, the dwarf, yonder, was doubled over, undoubtedly in throes of agonizing death.

‘All is well,’ Aragorn said, his lips twitching. ‘Sam gathered them as we walked, but I checked them carefully before he added them to the pot. Not a bad one in the bag.’

Gasping, the dwarf rose from his hunched position, pointing an impotent finger as he said breathlessly, ‘Your... faces...’

Pippin’s silent “O” of surprise became a chortle and then an outright laugh. Frodo’s face was merry, and Merry’s positively glowed. Boromir looked up and saw the Wood Elf in the tree above him, his face shining with glee.

Sam turned from stirring the pot on the far side of the fire, his attention drawn by the laughter. Boromir saw him ask a question of the wizard, who only shrugged in answer before applying himself once more to his bowl. Sam rose then and walked around the fire, skirting several bedrolls, to the group by Boromir’s rock.

‘Are you feeling better then, Mr. Boromir?’ he asked. ‘Is there aught wrong with the soup, pray?’

Boromir gathered the shreds of his dignity around him. ‘Naught wrong,’ he said calmly, ‘save that perhaps there might be more of it.’

Sam’s plain face was instantly wreathed in smiles. ‘Indeed there is, Mr. Boromir!’ he said, beaming. ‘Would you like me to fetch you some?’

‘Indeed,’ Boromir said. He cleared his throat as suppressed laughter rose about him. ‘Finest soup I ever had, as I was just telling young Pippin here...’

Three Songs by Lindelea
Three songs, each sung in the depths of a dark night...

First published at Marigold's Challenge 22


Title: Three Songs
Rating: PG
Main Characters: Lotho Sackville-Baggins, Wormtongue, Frodo Baggins
Disclaimer: The characters aren’t mine, but I sometimes sneak out with them for a cup of tea and a biscuit or two, or sit and watch them sleep.
Brief synopsis: Three songs, each sung in the depths of a dark night.
Challenge Starter: Lotho was probably still alive when the Travellers reached the Gate at the Bridge. What did he think about their return? Was his body ever found?

Waiting for the Dawn (Lotho's Song)

When I was small, and dreams were ill:
Heard evil stir in darkness still,
I'd cry aloud and she would come
Her footsteps whispering on the stone.
Enfolding me in loving arms,
She'd whisper, "Love, you're safe from harm."

And now I wait through darkest night,
In hope and dread of coming fight.
For knights in mail are coming here;
Each step they take is one step nearer.
I wish them luck; I bid them haste,
As quick as shadows candle-chased.

My time seems short as night draws on.
I wait, impatient for the dawn.
"They'll come in time," I tell my heart;
At every little sound I start...
Don't sleep! Don't sleep! the warnings ring
Within, and what will morning bring?

Grima's Song

There once was a hobbit named Lotho,
The son of a Shire-rat named Otho.
He was stabbed in the back,
And he made a nice snack...
And I buried his bones wrapped in cloth-O!

Frodo's Lament

The lonely shade that wanders the tunnels of Bag End...
I only called him "cousin"; I would have called him "friend".
But ever turned away his heart, the lust for gold had stolen him.
It led him in a shining vision to an end both dark and grim.
His body I would bury beneath the mallorn bright,
Where silver bark and golden leaves would echo his delight
In shining things, in radiance, with beauty all around;
And so I've written in my Will: if his body's ever found.

Hope This Finds You Well by Lindelea
Sam takes care of some business in Bree...

First published at Marigold's Challenge 3, some years back.

Title: Hope This Finds You Well
Rating: G
Main Characters: Samwise, Frodo, Merry, Pippin, Strider, Barliman Butterbur, Nob
Disclaimer: The characters aren’t mine, but I sometimes sneak out with them for a cup of tea and a biscuit or two. Strider’s speech is taken from NewLine Cinema’s “Fellowship of the Ring”. A bit of book-verse has been blended with the movie-verse. Thanks, Dana, for your help!

Hope This Finds You Well

Samwise goes from dream to waking in the blink of an eye. He goes from sound-asleep, warm, snuggly, cosy comfort in the homiest bed he’d known since leaving Number Three to wide-eyed, sitting-up shock and alarm. Gazing about him, gasping for air, he sees the others still asleep. Others? As his eyes light on the silent figure by the window, memory comes flooding back.

He is in Bree, and the others are Mr. Merry and Mr. Pippin, now sitting themselves up, blinking sleepily, and Mr. Frodo, of course. The scream of a soul in torment sounds again in the courtyard below. No... no, Samwise, don’t let your imagination run away with you, you ninnyhammer. That’s a horse.

What are they? Mr. Frodo whispers, and Sam is that glad he asked, for he’s wondering the same.

The rough-looking Man by the window meets the hobbit’s eye and speaks in a voice soft with irony... but is there an undercurrent of menace? Sam doesn’t trust him, not as far as he could throw him.

‘They were once men. Great kings of men. Then Sauron the Deceiver gave to them nine rings of power. Blinded by their greed, they took them without question, one by one falling into darkness. Now they are slaves to his will. They are the Nazgûl, Ringwraiths, neither living nor dead. At all times they feel the presence of the Ring, drawn to the power of the One. They will never stop hunting you.’

Sam stiffens at that. Not his master, they won’t. He turns an unfriendly eye on the Man by the window. ‘And what about you, Longshanks?’ he says truculently.

The Man they call Strider smiles faintly, saluting Sam with the long, somehow graceful fingers of his dirty, battered hand. ‘I will help you watch over your master, Samwise,’ he answers.

Sam doesn’t much like it, but what can he do? He glowers at the Man, but at another shriek from the courtyard, Pippin quavers, ‘What if they find us?’

‘They won’t find us, so long as Frodo does not put the Ring on again,’ the Man says with a keen look at the Ring-bearer.

Indeed, Frodo’s hand is creeping towards his breast. Merry seizes it at once between his own two hands. ‘I’ll help you, cousin,’ he says softly, no condemnation in his tone. Frodo shoots him the helpless look of a rabbit caught in a snare, and he holds the hand firmly in one of his while stroking it gently with the other. The older cousin does not relax, however, until the last scream dies away and they hear the blessed sound of receding hoofbeats.

Released from the fear that has held them silent and spellbound up until this moment, the hobbits spill over with questions. The Man holds up a restraining hand, saying only, ‘There is not much left to the night, and a long march to begin in the dawning. Sleep now, talk later.’

‘I’ll never be able to sleep,’ Pippin protests, but Merry soothes his back with a gentle hand and it is not long before the youngster is asleep. Tweens need their sleep more than grown hobbits, after all. They need their sleep and they need regular meals, food in plenty, for they are still growing. What is Mr. Frodo thinking of, bringing a tween along?

Samwise lies wakeful as the others drop off, one by one. Finally he can stand it no more and rises from the bed. Strider seems to be in a light doze himself. In the semi-darkness he looks worn from great exertions. As quietly as a hobbit can, Samwise creeps from the room. As the door creaks the Man whispers sharply, ‘And where do you think you’re going?’

‘They’re gone, well gone, you said, and I’ve got to take care of some business,’ Sam whispers in return. Let the Man think what he likes. As a matter of fact he does feel the need to take care of a private matter.

The eyes bore into his a long moment before Strider nods. In silence, Samwise creeps from the room and down the stairs. Land o’ mercy, sleeping upstairs! The Gaffer would never countenance such goings-on.

Oddly enough there’s a light under the crack of the door leading to the kitchen, and soft voices. Sam pauses outside the door to listen. The voices don’t sound menacing. He pushes the door open a bit, to find Mr. Butterbur, Nob and Bob and a few others sitting around the large table in their nightcaps and bedclothes, sipping from mugs. Mr. Butterbur sees him at once and jumps up, to bend low to address the hobbit. ‘Little Master! Is there aught you’d be needing?’

‘A bit of paper and a pencil would set me aright,’ Sam answers. ‘I want to write a note to my old gaffer, you see.’

‘Going to tell him about...’ the innkeeper says, and shudders. ‘Never in all my life,’ he adds.

‘No,’ Sam says. ‘I just need to tell him all’s well.’

The innkeeper rolls his eyes to the heavens and several of the folk around the table make the sign to ward off evil. ‘All’s well, now that those... those... now that They’re gone,’ Barliman says in a husky voice. ‘I only hope they found what they’re looking for and won’t be back.’

‘I don’t think they’ll have any reason to come back,’ Samwise answers, and adds thanks to Nob, who hands him a piece of brown paper that came wrapped around some purchase from a local dry-goods dealer, and a stub of a pencil.

‘Have a seat, Little Master,’ Mr. Butterbur says graciously, indicating the tall bench on the hobbit side of the table. Sam nods; it’s as good as any and this is the only lamplit room in the inn, at the moment. He climbs onto the end of the bench, a little away from the others, and smoothes the paper while he thinks of what to say. The others politely ignore him, continuing to sip at their mugs and talk in near-whispers. No, they don’t quite ignore him: Mr. Butterbur plonks a steaming mug before him, saying, ‘It’s on the house, it is, Little Master, if you’ve had as great a fright as the rest of us.’

Likely a greater one, Sam thinks to himself, but he thanks the innkeeper for his kindness and takes a sip. Hot mulled wine, it is, with something stronger added along with the spices. If he drinks it all he’ll be muddle-headed in the morning, but a few sips might just let him get an hour or two of sleep after he takes care of this business.

He licks the tip of his pencil and smoothes the paper again. At last he begins to write, slowly, painfully, forming the letters as carefully as Mr. Bilbo taught him, those long-ago days in the sunny garden, or in the cosy study warmed by a cheery fire whilst the winter winds roared outside.

Dear Dad, he writes, and pauses.

All is well. You may hear some funny things but pay them no mind.

He pauses to lick the tip of the pencil again, thinking deeply. What kind of promises can he make, the way things stand?

I’ll be back as soon as I may, he finishes, and looks at the fruit of his labours with a great deal of dissatisfaction. What else can he say?

He sighs and writes, Hope this finds you well, and stops to think. He saw a real letter once, when he’d been sent with a message for Mr. Frodo. It had been lying open on the desk, and his eye had glanced over it automatically, for Mr. Merry had impressed upon him that any news might be of value.

He nods. He’ll do this up proper, he will, for it may be the last word his old dad hears from him.

I remain, as ever, your loving... He stops himself before signing the remembered name from that long-ago letter and shakes his head slightly. Ninny-hammer. Pressing hard, he adds, Samwise and is finished.

He folds up the letter and writes the direction on the outside, slips it inside his shirt, and starts to hand the pencil back to Nob. ‘That’s all right,’ Nob says kindly. ‘You keep it. It’s always good to have a bit of pencil handy.’

‘Thanks,’ Sam says, slipping the pencil into his pocket with a thrill of delight despite the desperate situation he’s in. He’s never had a pencil of his own before! He takes a last sip of hot toddy and jumps down from the bench. ‘Much obliged, Mr. Butterbur,’ he says.

Nob follows him from the room. ‘Beg pardon, Samwise,’ he says, ‘but don’t you need to be sending that off? It looks an awful lot like a letter.’

‘I was going to go by the post in the morning,’ Sam replies, ‘before we depart.’

Nob holds out his hand. ‘If you’re travelling with that Strider-fellow,’ he says, ‘more likely you’ll be off before the post opens. I’ll take it for you if you like.’

Sam looks him in the eye, finding honesty and good nature there. Besides, there’s nothing in the letter to give Mr. Frodo away, even if an enemy should lay hold of it. ‘I’d be that obliged,’ he says, and hands the missive over. ‘Well then,’ he adds, ‘I had better try to wink a bit more sleep if we’re to be off early.’

‘Good-night, Samwise,’ Nob says, putting the letter safely in his nightcap and back on his curly head. ‘Safe journey, and swift return.’

‘Thanks,’ Sam says again, shaking the hand held out to him. He climbs the stairs, eases himself into the room, exchanges nods with the scruffy Ranger, climbs into the bed and soon adds his snores to those of the other hobbits.

***

About a year later, a vastly different Samwise walks quietly down the stairs after seeing his master off to sleep. Truth be told, he’s feeling a bit restless. Perhaps he can find a bit of something to help him fall asleep.

Though it is late there’s a crack of light under the kitchen door. As he eases the door open to peep through, he’s hailed by the good innkeeper. ‘Master Samwise! Come join us for a night-cap! ‘Tis a bitter night!’

‘My thanks,’ Samwise says, taking his place at the end of the tall bench on the hobbit side of the large table. The lamplight glitters from his mail, now that he’s hung up his cloak. He accepts a steaming mug with a smile and an appreciative sip. Ah, that hits the spot.

Nob hops down and trots out of the room, returning soon with a folded paper in his hand. Blushing, he extends it to Samwise. ‘Here you are, Sam,’ he says, ‘and I’m that sorry to admit I never did get it off. As a matter of fact, the post was closed, that day you left, and the next time I tried there wasn’t nobody going to the Shire, and...’ He gulps and drops his eyes in chagrin. ‘So I kept it safe and told myself I’d see it delivered or give it back to you at the very least.’

‘Post’ll be running between Bree and the Shire again before you know it,’ Sam says easily. ‘The Rangers are back, as Mr. Gandalf said, and they’ll soon set things right hereabouts.’

‘I could wait until the post is running again and send it for you then,’ Nob says hopefully, seizing at the chance to redeem himself.

‘No, that’s all right,’ Sam replies. ‘You’ve done me a favour, keeping it safe all this time, and not letting the wrong folk get hold of it.’ Nob brightens, losing the shame-faced look.

Sam takes the missive from him and tucks it away. ‘I think I’ll deliver it myself,’ he says with a smile that he doesn’t quite feel, for he’s wondering what’s been happening back home whilst he’s been off in foreign parts. Will he find his gaffer still waiting for him in Number Three? Truth be told, he’d welcome a tongue-lashing, even, just to know that all’s well.

‘I’ll deliver it myself,’ he says again, and Nob nods with a tentative smile. He shakes Nob’s hand. ‘Thanks,’ he says. ‘Good night.’

Taking a last sip of his hot toddy, he hops down from the bench with a jingle of mail and takes his leave.

The Promise


Theme: Father’s Day Challenge
Elements: Beregond and Bergil
Author's Notes: Caution: character death. According to www.tuckborough.net, The name Borlas is composed of the Sindarin bor meaning "steadfast" and las from glass meaning "joy." None of the characters belong to me, I just take tea with them on occasion. Thanks to Dreamflower for the beta.
Summary: When the time comes to send the wains to a dubious safety, old memories surface, and Beregond must make a difficult decision.
Word Count: 1,146

‘Borlas,’ she gasps, looking up into my face, her fingers tightening briefly, all too briefly, on the blanket that enfolds our second son. ‘We’ll call him...’

All our entreaties cannot stop the gasped-out words, a little of her life leaking away with each, as the midwife strives in vain to staunch the flow of lifeblood.

‘Dearest, save your strength... please... my love...’

‘I thought...’ a new voice breaks in, and I look up, horror increasing, for there is my son, not yet five years of age, clinging to old Ioreth’s hand, staring speechless though Mistress Caliwen has pulled the blanket to hide her labours, and those of my beloved. And Ioreth, for the first time I can remember, is stricken dumb with dismay, but the silence is broken by my dearest love.

‘Yes,’ she whispers. ‘Bergil, love, come... near. Here is... your brother.’

The smaller brother he always wanted, eagerly anticipated, joy warring with uncomprehending fear on his young face.

‘Mama?’ he whispers.

‘Come,’ she whispers, holding out an eager hand. ‘Come and kiss me good-night, and then go to your bed, love.’ She is using precious strength from what little remains to her.

Pulling free from Ioreth, Bergil runs forward to fill his mother’s need. She pulls him closer, strokes his face, looks down to the babe on her breast, her eyes bright. ‘Greet your brother.’ It seems to me that she is better, stronger, perhaps the crisis has passed.

Caliwen is under the blanket, still at her work, the blanket moving slightly, but Bergil has eyes only for his mother, his new brother. He lays a strangely grown-up kiss on the tiny forehead, and has another kiss for his mother, and then he lays his head down on her breast, beside the babe, and sighs.

‘Come, lovie,’ old Ioreth says, and she’s there, pulling at him. ‘Your mother needs to rest, now, and it’s past your bedtime.’

Bergil looks to me in protest, and I assume the proper expression for a Guardsman of the Citadel, when duty is the topic of discussion. ‘Go on, son.’

‘Don’t...’ my love whispers, her eyes pleading. ‘Don’t send him away...’

But Caliwen emerges from under the blanket, locking eyes with Ioreth. ‘Take him,’ she hisses. ‘Now.’

Something frightens the little lad, and he grabs at his mother, only to be pulled away by Ioreth’s irresistible force, the old woman talking away volubly as if to cover his cries of distress.

‘Don’t! Don’t send me away!’

His mother looks after him, her hand reaching for him for a moment after the door is pulled to.

‘Come, missus, you must save your strength.’

A ghost of a smile touches her lips as I reach to take her in my arms. ‘Rest, my love.’

‘What strength?’ she whispers, in answer to the midwife, and then in answer to me, she snuggles into my embrace and sighs, the babe still safely tucked in the crook of her left arm. She pulls her free hand back to lie on Borlas’ blanket, works her fingers around his tiny hand, smiles in joy.

‘My joy,’ she whispers, and her hand grasps, and relaxes. Borlas.

***

How can I explain that his mother is gone?

He is so young, not yet five years of age, and yet somehow he knows. No words are needed.

He lunges suddenly, throwing his arms about my waist, holding tight and weeping, and I lift him in my arms, holding just as tight. We weep together.

***

He is afraid, the first few nights, to sleep. The Captain has given me several days to set my affairs in order. A wet nurse is found, and I send Borlas to her house, to her family. Bergil will go to relatives, for I cannot keep him with me.

But the first few nights, I stay with him, in our little home, the home that was ours in a happier time, the home that is no more, its heart gone.

I hold him close while he weeps, and my own tears flow freely. Half of my life, my self has been wrested from me, and the boys are all I have to remember her by.

He allows me to hold him, indeed, he grasps me with all his strength, and yet I have the feeling he is holding something back.

At last, it is time for me to return to the Third Company. We pack up his possessions together; most of the rest of our belongings have already been packed and moved to storage, or sold. The small home will know a new family, and may they have joy of it, and less sorrow than we have had.

And he speaks at last, his reproach. ‘You sent me away.’

I swallow bitterness. ‘I did,’ I say, as steadily as I may.

‘You sent me away, and she died.’

A sword thrust to the heart would strike less sharply. I cannot draw breath; I can only stare at him, shaking my head in negation.

‘You sent me away,’ he says, drawing himself up to his full height, and speaking so sternly that the Lord Denethor would be hard put to rival him for severity.

I find I must answer him. ‘I did.’

He nods, his eyes serious, his lips pulled tight in a firm line, looking years older. It is as if my father, his grandfather, stands before me, issuing orders that he expects to be carried out to the smallest detail.

‘You sent me away,’ he says once more. ‘Promise me that you’ll never do so again.’ For he knows that with a man of his word, a promise made is a promise kept.

***

The memory returns as Bergil faces me, standing as tall as his ten years will allow, defiance in every line. ‘Don’t send me away!’ he says.

‘Borlas...’ I begin.

‘Borlas may go off with the wains, with the women and babes, but not I!’

‘Bergil,’ I say.

‘Who is to say that they will be any safer in the hills, in any event?’ he says.

‘Then you must go, to guard your brother,’ I say, but he shakes his head, and brings to bear the weapon that I cannot counter.

‘You promised.’

I stop. A promise made is a promise kept. If I keep my word, I doom him to the City, soon to be attacked by the forces of the Dark Lord. They are on the march even now; our scouts have reported it. They will be here soon.

Hopefully our reinforcements will be here sooner. Will the Rohirrim come?

Will I keep my word, and doom my son? Or will I assume the mantle of oathbreaker, one who cannot be trusted, who cannot trust even himself, in order to consign my son to whatever safety might be found outside the City walls? If any?

A promise made...

Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Lindelea
The warg encounter after descending Caradhras...

First published at Marigold's Challenge 3 quite some time ago.

Title: Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Rating: G
Main Characters: The Fellowship and too many Wargs to count
Disclaimer: The characters aren’t mine, but I sometimes sneak out with them for a cup of tea and a biscuit or two. Some passages from “The Return of the King” by J.R.R. Tolkien, the chapter entitled “A Journey in the Dark”, have been incorporated into the text.
Brief synopsis: Caradhras behind them, Moria ahead, if they can survive to reach it.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

‘I wish I had taken Elrond’s advice,’ muttered Pippin to Sam. ‘I am no good after all. There is not enough of the breed of Bandobras the Bullroarer in me: these howls freeze my blood. I don’t ever remember feeling so wretched.’

‘My heart’s right down in my toes, Mr. Pippin,’ said Sam. ‘But we aren’t etten yet, and there are some stout folk here with us. Whatever may be in store for old Gandalf, I’ll wager it isn’t in a wolf’s belly.’

Merry stood by in silence, staring into the twilight. He wished he could muster an encouraging word for his young cousin, but truth be told he felt miserable: a drag on the Company, worse than useless. His knuckles whitened on the hilt of his sword. What could he do against something as fearsome as a wolf?

Frodo caught his eye, but there was no comfort there. Merry looked away, bitterly aware that his presence here, and Pippin’s, drew protection away from Frodo, for if the Men had to look to their safety, they couldn’t very well be looking after the Ring-bearer, now, could they?

They heard the Men muttering nearby. ‘Where then?’ Boromir said, his words coming more clearly to the hobbits as he raised his head to survey their surroundings. ‘I would fain climb to the top of this little knoll than cower trapped against its side, with foes perhaps jumping down upon our heads.’

‘A goodly notion,’ Aragorn said. ‘From the top we can command a view of our surroundings; we could hardly be taken by surprise.’ A wailing howl sounded nearer in the gathering darkness, and he drew his sword and held it ready.

‘Where the warg howls, there also the orc prowls,’ Merry whispered, repeating the words Aragorn had said bare moments before. ‘Frodo, what does Sting show?’

Frodo pulled Sting from its sheath and was relieved to see just the dull gleam of steel and nothing more. ‘No orcs,’ he said softly.

‘Not yet, anyhow,’ Sam muttered under his breath. He saw Pippin, shivering miserably, and forced heartiness into his tone. ‘Not far now, Mr. Pippin,’ he said kindly. ‘Just up to the top of the hill, and then you can roll up in your blankets and have a bit of a breather.’

Legolas ran lightly up the slope and disappeared; a moment later they saw a glimmer at the top as he waved them on.

‘The way is clear,’ Gandalf said, and with sword in one hand and staff in the other he began to toil up the hill. Gimli climbed after him, axe at the ready.

Without a word Merry and Pippin moved to either side of their cousin and the three began the wearisome climb, followed by Sam leading Bill, who scrambled up the rocky slope as if he were more goat than pony. The Men brought up the rear, watching to the sides and behind them as they went.

Reaching the top, they crossed a short periphery of rocky grass to a knot of old and twisted trees encircled by a broken ring of stones the size of boulders. ‘We will have some cover, at least, from orc arrows,’ Aragorn said.

‘For the moment I’m more worried about the wolves,’ Boromir said. ‘We must have a fire; it will be more our friend than our betrayer, to my way of thinking.’ He made haste to gather sticks and quickly laid them ready for firing in the middle of the circle.

A great chorus of howls broke out from the base of the hill where lately they’d sheltered. Pippin put his hands over his ears and crouched, wishing only for a place to hide himself away.

Merry put his free hand on his young cousin’s shoulder, saying quietly, ‘Steady, Pip,’ though he himself felt like throwing down pack and sword and running... but where would he run to? There was no escape.

A movement caught his eye and he saw Sam, who had tied Bill to one of the twisted trees and was now picking up sticks by the armload, carrying them to Boromir and dumping them in an ever-growing pile. Merry gave Pip a clout on the shoulder. ‘Come on,’ he said. ‘Might as well be useful as not.’ They joined the rest of the Company in gathering as much wood as was needed to last them through the night, and soon they were sitting with the others round a cheery fire, just as if it were a walking party in the old days, before they’d learnt the benefits of darkness and silence to keep them from discovery. With wolves on their trail, of course, it didn’t matter if they hid themselves in a cleft of a rock or stood atop a boulder and shouted greetings; the beasts would find them by their scent. They could only hope that these wolves, like those in Bilbo’s tale, feared flames.

In spite of their situation the hobbits dozed, exhausted by the labours of the last few days and feeling, in the glow of the firelight, warm for the first time since they’d begun the ascent of the snowy mountain. Boromir, too, sat quietly, head bowed in sleep, while Gimli the dwarf snored openly on the other side of the fire. Legolas perched in the branches of one of the ancient trees, his keen elf-eyes piercing the surrounding darkness. Gandalf sat staring into the fire, and Aragorn stood nearby, keeping watch and adding wood as needed to keep the fire burning brightly.

The howling of the wolves was now all round them, sometimes nearer and sometimes further off. Poor Bill the pony could not doze as his master did, but trembled and sweated where he stood. When a howl sounded especially close he’d throw up his head and snort, rolling his eyes, but Sam had tied him securely to keep him from being panicked into fatal flight.

Legolas called softly and slid to the ground; Aragorn stiffened as many shining eyes appeared over the brow of the hill, reflecting the firelight as they crept ever closer. Some advanced almost to the ring of stones, and one great dark wolf-shape halted at a gap in the circle, gazing at them in threatening silence before throwing back his head to loose a shuddering howl, a commander of troops ordering the charge. Answering snarls broke out all around the hilltop.

The hobbits woke abruptly and scrambled to their feet, grabbing for their weapons. Gandalf stood up and strode boldly towards the wolf-chieftain, brandishing his staff. ‘Listen, Hound of Sauron! Gandalf is here!’ he cried. ‘Fly, if you value your foul skin!’ The hobbits shivered and drew closer together, for the wolf seemed to be looking past the wizard... and straight at them. He licked his slavering chops, and then his teeth gleamed white in the firelight as he grinned evilly at the hobbits, a ravenous glint in his eye.

Gandalf eyed the wolf, raising his staff higher, adding, ‘I will shrivel you from tail to snout, if you come within this ring.’

The wolf snarled defiance and disdain and sprang past Gandalf, towards the huddled hobbits with a great leap. Desperately Merry threw himself in front of Frodo, colliding with Sam, both thrusting their swords towards the slashing teeth, but at that moment there was a sharp twang. Legolas had loosed his bow. The wolf gave a terrible yell and thudded to the ground at the hobbits’ feet with the elvish arrow in its throat.

Pippin cried out, ‘The eyes! They’re gone!’ and indeed, the ring of watching eyes no longer reflected the flames of their watch fire. The hunting packs had fled when their chieftain fell, and Gandalf and Aragorn found no sign when they strode to the brow of the hill. Boromir, standing beside Frodo, lowered his sword and cautiously moved out of the ring of stones, to pace the perimeter of the hill, looking outwards. The night was silent save the sighing of the wind.

‘Gone,’ Aragorn echoed the youngest hobbit. ‘Might as well settle back to sleep while you may,’ he said. ‘The night’s half done, and we’ll be leaving with the first light.’

If we may, Merry said to himself. It seemed folly to leave the protection of the hilltop, meagre as it was, but then they couldn’t very well stay here until they’d burned all the twisted trees, for what would they do when the fuel was gone? Still, he didn’t relish being caught in the open by a horde of hunting wolves. I’d have done Frodo more good had I stayed in Rivendell, he thought, and not for the first time. It was long before sleep crept over him again.

It seemed as if he had slept but a few moments when a storm of howls broke out fierce and wild from every side.

‘Fling fuel on the fire!’ Gandalf was crying as the hobbits scrambled to their feet. ‘Draw your blades, and stand back to back!’

They hurried to comply, hastily throwing armloads of wood onto the fire and then pressing back against each other, a small determined compass with a sword at each point. Many grey shapes sprang over the ring of stones in the leaping light of the renewed fire, and more and more followed. Aragorn thrust his sword through the throat of one great leader while Boromir hewed the head off another with a sweep of his sword. Beside them Gimli stood with his stout legs apart, swinging his dwarf-axe from side to side, while the bow of Legolas sang a lethal song. Bill the pony screamed his terror and lashed out with a strong kick of his hind feet, catching an attacking wolf under the chin and sending him rolling away.

Still the wolves came on with deadly grins. Merry felt hot breath on his face even as he struck and a furry body rolled at his feet. Frodo cried out, and Merry saw to his horror that Sting was stuck in the breast of a great wolf: while Frodo strove to free the blade another wolf made a rushing advance. Without thinking Merry struck, a quick slashing stroke, and another, and the wolf turned aside with a yelp. While his attention was diverted to the defence of his older cousin, another wolf leapt at him from the side. He turned belatedly to meet this attack, but Pippin’s sword was there first, coming down across the muzzle in a painful blow.

Gandalf seemed suddenly to grow, rising up in the wavering firelight, a monolith of stone and smoke and fury. He lifted a blazing branch and strode to meet the wolves, which gave back before him. He tossed the flaming brand high into the air where it flared like lightning in sudden white radiance that dazzled the eye. Close upon the heel of the lightning flash came the thunder of the wizard’s voice, shouting words that rang strange and terrible.

With a crackling roar the tree above him burst into blinding flame, spreading its fiery blossoms to the surrounding trees until the entire hilltop bloomed with blazing brilliance, reflection glaring from the swords of the defenders. The last arrow of Legolas kindled as it flew, and plunged burning into the heart of a great wolf-chieftain. The rest of the wolves fled the inferno.

The hobbits stood tense, still back-to-back, but no more wolves came. Indeed, the enemy was routed and did not return as the fire slowly died to falling ash and sparks. Letting his sword droop at last, Merry took a deep breath of bitter smoke in the dawning light. Truly he had not expected to be breathing at all when this dawn arrived.

‘What did I tell you, Mr. Pippin?’ said Sam, sheathing his sword. ‘Wolves won’t get him. That was an eye-opener, and no mistake! Nearly singed the hair off my head!’

Merry felt a light touch on his arm. ‘Thank you, cousin.’ It was Frodo.

‘Whyever for?’ he said, almost too weary to feel astonishment.

‘I thought I was done for,’ Frodo said quietly. ‘He was leaping for me, and I could not pull Sting free in time... Had you not been there, he’d have torn out my throat.’

Had he not been there... Merry thought, but what he said was, ‘It was nothing.’

‘Nothing,’ Frodo echoed, with a ghost of a laugh. He wiped Sting and sheathed the weapon, then grasped Merry’s arm. ‘Not nothing; I beg to differ,’ he said. In a lower voice, he added, ‘I’m glad Lord Elrond didn’t tie you up in a sack and send you home.’

‘So am I,’ Merry answered, and found to his surprise that he meant every word.

The One that (Almost) Got Away
Gandalf's observations of the hobbits along the way, not long after leaving Rivendell...

First published a little while ago at Marigold's Challenge 21

Title: The One that (Almost) Got Away
Author: Lindelea
Rating: G
Main Characters: Gandalf, Frodo, Merry, Pippin
Disclaimer: The characters aren’t mine, but I sometimes sneak out with them for a cup of tea and a biscuit or two, or sit and watch them sleep.
Brief synopsis: Gandalf's observations of the hobbits along the way, not long after leaving Rivendell.

The One that (Almost) Got Away

So, Merry, are you going to tell me what happened, or do I have to guess?

Pippin at his most patient is... well, let us just say that "Pippin" and "patience" do not belong, spoken together in the same breath. O I have no doubt that the lad will learn patience in time. He shows a remarkable potential for patience, say, when under an old wizard's direct gaze.

But let that wizard take his eye off the lad, now...

'Nothing happened, cousin,' Merry answered, and Frodo hid a grin.

'Nothing!' Pippin echoed, throwing his hands up in astonishment. 'You're head-to-toe in mud!'

'Nothing,' Merry muttered again, digging in his pack for some dry clothing. 'Legolas and I were teaching Gimli to tickle trout...'

'Looks as if the trout won the contest,' Pippin observed, arms crossed upon his chest. 'You look half-drowned!'

'I am not half-drowned,' Merry said between his teeth, shooting a glance at Frodo.

Pippin took the hint and sobered. It is better not to mention "drowning" in my young friend's hearing. Ah, Frodo, he puts on a good face, but much goes on beneath that determinedly cheery countenance that is never spoken, though Merry seems to have an instinct for the feelings that run deep.

'I slipped, coming up the bank, and...'

'And dropped our dinner!' Frodo said, slapping Merry on the back. He then gave a comical grimace, looking at the mud on his hand.

'Dropped our dinner!' Pippin cried in horror.

Frodo let him suffer on but for a moment; the poor tween is invariably hungry. Back in the Shire, he'd've been eating every hour or so, and hearty meals...

Seeing Frodo's smile dim, Merry said hastily, 'Not to worry; Legolas scooped them up almost before they left my hand. We'll soon have a fine fry of fish and all the trimmings...' For Sam had packed ground meal and dried dill amongst the supplies, as if he'd anticipated that a good many of their meals would be fresh-caught fish, at least while they were still near Rivendell in living land of tumbling streams.

I think it is a good thing that I persuaded Elrond to send the younger cousins along. There is something to the bond between the hobbits, something, I think, that might sustain our Ring-bearer all the way to the borders of the Dark Land, and perhaps beyond...

Written in response to a challenge by Golden, on the LOTR_GFIC list. It's definitely a challenge to formulate a story like this for a list with "GFIC" in the name.

Characters: Thain Peregrin (also known as Pippin) and Diamond
Rating: G (though it could be higher if you have the imagination)

'You've lost at forfeits, admit it! You've lost!'

'Rather hard knocks, for you to crow about it, ra-ther!'

'You have lost at forfeits, have you not?'

'But we were just... just... playing, were we not, dearest? Just a little game...'

'...of forfeits.'

*sigh* 'Forfeits.'

'Aha! So you admit it at last!'

'Very well, dearest Diamond, I admit it at last.'

'Hah!'

'Well?'

'Well, what?'

'What is my forfeit to be?'

(to herself, but aloud) 'Shall I keep him on tenterhooks, for a time, or shall I tell him right out and get on with it?'

'Tell me right out, pray, do.'

'As you've lost at forfeits, you know very well you must do whatever I tell you to do.'

'Within reason.'

'What ever I say.'

'But...'

'The rules of the game of forfeits...'

'You don't have to tell me the rules. You heard me crowing over Merry last week, on our last day in Buckland, didn't you? I thought I saw you smirking at tea...'

'Well, Merry did look awfully silly trying to balance a spoon on his nose in the great room with all those visitors from Bree sitting with us at the head table...'

*sigh* 'Very well. What must I do?'

'You're to tell Regi you're taking the day.'

'Taking the day...'

'Mmm-hmm, taking the day...'

'That doesn't sound so difficult...'

'Just you wait. You're taking the day, and Ferdi has Farry well in hand.'

'A good thing, too. Someone ought to have that lad well in hand.'

'...and we're hiding ourselves away in our quarters, and there are fresh linens on the bed, and I've sprinkled them with spices and scented waters...'

'This is beginning to sound interesting...'

'And I've given Sandy and the underservants the rest of the day off... for we're to be "off on a picnic," not at home to anyone, for any reason...'

'Are we?'

'In a manner of speaking, and...'

'A picnic! We haven't had a picnic for ever so long. But it's raining!'

'Cook's packed a hamper, a very large hamper, mind, with all my favourite foods... well, nearly all of them, anyhow, and it's waiting for us now on the rug before the fire.'

'And what is the menu to be?'

'You are, my darling. For starters, and the sweet course, and nibblings in between, I think.'

'Oh, my. Oh my, oh my.'

'Pippin?'

'I really ought to make a practice of losing at forfeits.'

Needle in a Haystack


1437
Faramir Took is 7, Goldilocks Gamgee is 6


Goldi sighed. It was tiresome, she thought, to arrive at the Great Smials, to be cheered – well, actually they were cheering her father, the Mayor, though she thought of him as “Dad” and didn't understand what all this Mayor business was about, anyhow, except that it meant he was often away for some reason or other. Sometimes he'd take the whole family with him, and then there would be (lovely) good things to eat and (tiresome) speeches for young hobbits to fidget or doze through.

Her thoughts tumbled one over the other, rather like the chuckling Tuckborn stream that splashed and danced over rocks, sparkling in the spring sunshine. She'd like to be there right now, chucking stones in the stream to watch them splash, while her sisters gathered wildflowers and wove them into wreaths and garlands. All the while her Mamma would laugh with Mistress Diamond and her Dad would talk with the Thain in low, pleasant tones. There would be picnic baskets full of good things, and when everyone tired and sprawled on the blankets, the Thain would tell one of his stories...

But it was tiresome, Goldi resumed her thought, to arrive and be cheered by the Thain and all his many Tooks, and then to be whisked off to bed, pressed to the bosom of a bustling matron who kept exclaiming how weary they all must be, after that long journey in the waggon, and there were baths for the young hobbits if need – no? Well, then, beds were ready for naps, then, and would Missus Gamgee care to join the Mistress in the best parlour, or would she rather rest and refresh herself first? (Meanwhile, the Thain had spirited Dad away who-knew-where? Not to a nap, Goldi was almost certain of that. Naps were for young hobbits – oh how she chafed at youth! – and for Mamma when she was feeling poorly and all were fussing at her to put up her feet.)

This was not one of those times, though. Mamma went off to join the Mistress, and Goldi was tucked up in a big bed with several other young Gamgees, tumbled together rather like puppies, all but Elanor and Frodo-lad, who were allowed to go and play.

It was tiresome, but Goldi was not tired. Not that kind of tired. Young Merry, Pip-lad, and Ham, Rosie-lass, Daisy and Prim, why, even little Bilbo in his cradle, soon all were sleeping under the minder's watchful eye. Soothing susurrus filled the room, but Goldi felt wide awake. She sat up from the bed, only to have the minder whisper to her to lay herself down, and would she like a drink, or...?

What she wanted was to bounce, but that would waken everyone and earn her a scolding. She'd learnt her lesson on an earlier visit to the Smials. She shook her golden head and curled herself once more, resenting the gentle hands that smoothed a coverlet over her. She was not sleepy.

She might have dozed, however, for she jerked sharply at a whispered summons.

She lay, blinking and wondering. A louder heavy breathing-half snoring had joined the young hobbits' sounds, and glancing cautiously at the rocking chair by the cradle, she saw that the minder's chin was on her chest and she was as peaceful as (most of) her young charges. So it was not the minder who had whispered. Who, then...?

The summons came again. Pip! Merry!

Raising herself slowly, she looked toward the doorway where a shadow hovered. The shadow was calling, she thought, and shivered.
Pip! came the call again, and Goldi wanted to stop her ears, or grab hold of her older brothers, that they might not answer the ghostly call, drawn to their doom while still sleeping, or... but paralyzed with fear, she could only whimper, eyes fixed fearfully on the shadow.

Again came the call. Pip! It was a little louder, less whisper and more voice this time, and the voice was young, and familiar.

It wasn't a very large shadow, she mused, shrugging the tension from her shoulders. A moment later, her suspicions were rewarded by the sight of a small, tousled head that poked its way into the room for a quick glance at the sleeping minder, and then hastily withdrew. Pip!

Young Faramir had evidently eluded his own minder and come in search of his Gamgee playfellows. Pip-lad was only a year older than Farry, and as he and Merry-lad were all but inseparable, the three of them would go everywhere together when the Thain brought Farry to Bag End, or the Mayor brought his family to the Great Smials. It was as if they were three pieces in a pie, or three peas in a pod, or so Goldi had heard it often remarked.

Farry was due to be disappointed this day, however. His erstwhile playmates were sound asleep, and rousing them might well rouse the slumbering dragon in the rocking chair.

Goldi, however, was awake, and accustomed as she was to tagging after the lads, she saw no trouble in responding to the summons, even though her name had not been included.

She slid silently from the bed, as silent as a young hobbit accustomed to slipping away from an unwanted nap when an older sister's attention wanders, or perhaps an older brother, set to watch the little ones, falls asleep, or... In any event, she was well-enough practiced that her older sisters Elanor and Rose and brother Frodo had learnt to take better care when given her charge.

Pip! Faramir whispered again, while Goldi crept to the doorway, and then she pounced, rather like one of the roly-poly kittens she and Farry had admired, nestled in the manger of an empty stall, on the last visit made to the Smials by the Mayor and his family.

Hush! she warned, eyes gleaming in the half-light of the turned down watchlamp. Do you want to waken the Orcs?

Farry's eyes began to dance. How he loved a good game! He put a tentative hand up to Goldi's, and she allowed him to pull her hand away from his mouth. Holding tight to her hand, he mouthed, But Pip? And...

Strider'll have to take care of them, Goldi whispered back, and then squeezed his hand with solemn meaning. Don't you see? she added. It's the perfect time to slip away from the others! You know you don't want them to follow all the way to the Fiery Mountain!

Farry nodded slowly, his eyes shining. No, he whispered. No, of course not. He took both Goldi's hands in his and squeezed. No, he said. I must take It all the way to the Fiery Mountain. 'Twere best to go that way alone... He lifted his head, and his eyes looked to a place far away, and his young face tightened with resolve, giving a glimpse of the hobbit he would one day become.

Goldi shook her head so emphatically her curls swung back and forth and tickled Farry's nose. He stifled a sneeze, while she whispered fiercely, O no! You cannot go without me! Don't you leave him, they said, and I don't mean to. O no, I don't!

Farry began to shake his head, but then he stopped still, Goldi's hands still in his. Ah, Sam, he breathed. I wish you would stay with the others, in relative safety, but I must say, I am glad to have you with me...

...and hand in hand, the two shouldered their burdens and crept into enemy territory.

April Sunrise (before a certain Wizard came to call)

The Sun painted her roses in the Eastern sky as Bilbo inhaled great lungfuls of the fresh morning air. His early constitutional had taken him to the top of the Hill this day. For some reason, he'd had trouble sleeping, roused by loud, pre-dawn birdsong while the world was still shrouded in soft, gentle darkness. He'd thrown off the bedcovers and dressed himself in haste, forgetting to tuck away a clean pocket-handkerchief, as he discovered when a sudden sneeze overtook him on reaching the hilltop.

Watching the stars fade into the brightening skies made such inconvenience but a minor matter.

A/N: This incident was first mentioned in a story told by Eglantine to a trapped and injured Tolly in The Greening of the Year, as she encouraged him to hold on until help arrived.

***

The Mathom

Peregrin Took was a faunt no longer. As of this day, his fifth birthday, he left faunthood behind and joined the ranks of breeches-wearing hobbits, and sat up at table at eventides instead of being put to bed after teatime, and was given the serious responsibility of scattering the grain for the hens, morning and evening, whilst an older sister gathered the eggs.

As of this day, his fifth birthday, he slept in a bed, a proper bed, mind, and not a trundle that slipped beneath his parents’ bed (as he had before he was weaned) or a sister’s bed up until last night. Today his parents had moved him into his very own room, with a little ceremony and a great deal of bustle and excitement. He was a big lad, now!

There were two beds in the room, four if you counted the trundles that slipped beneath the two regular beds. One bed was Pippin’s, and three were for guests, such as Merry or Frodo or Ferdi (his cousins) or even all three! …though if Frodo were visiting, he might stay in Bilbo’s room, as Merry or Ferdi might stay with their parents. But there were provisions, at least, for all the lads to share the room if need be. Pippin gave a bounce, just to think this thought, and then he settled down again.

It rankled that at the ripe old age of five he must still take a morning as well as afternoon nap, while Merry need only lie himself down in the afternoon, between the late nooning and teatime. Though it was Pippin’s own room, and he’d had his share of the planning and the painting -- what an adventure that had been! – it was lonely to be here all by himself, without Merry or even a sister for company.

He was not sleepy, or even tired. The Sun was bright outside, and through the open window he could hear the cheerful voices of the hired hobbits setting up tables and benches in the yard, for the birthday celebration. All the Bankses would be coming, and a number of Tooks, and of course Frodo and Bilbo would arrive soon from Hobbiton, and Merry was here already with his parents, and he and Ferdi were out playing somewhere or other, chased away by an exasperated Pearl – Pippin had heard her scolding them that if they took any more sultanas they mayn’t have any of the cake!

And here Pippin was, stuck in his bed, as if he were still a faunt.

And not just that, but being stuck in his bed meant that he could not solve a big problem.

It was a very big problem, and the longer he lay (he would have sat up, but for the occasional sister peeping in on him to see if he was napping as he ought), the greater the problem grew in proportion.

You see, it was his birthday, and now that he was no longer a faunt, but a proper hobbit, he thought he ought to offer a much nicer present to his mum than the usual handful of wilting flowers that he remembered picking and carrying to her the last two or three – he thought he remembered as many as three years back – years. No, it ought to be something much nicer! He’d overheard conversation recently, that gave him to believe he’d caused his mother a great deal of work and bother in the process of bearing him, and – he snorted – a handful of flowers hardly seemed grand enough to recognise such an effort.

But what could he give her? He thought over his few possessions and gave a shrug. A few stones, of various colours and textures. He’d set aside one for each uncle and cousin, with a story attached. Flowers for his sisters and aunts, picked after breakfast and keeping fresh in a mug of water. A large beetle in a glass bottle – that was one he’d collected with Healer Woodruff in mind, for she seemed to share his fascination with creatures great and small. An interesting leaf he’d picked up in the copse, an old leaf, with all the flesh worn away and only the intricate tracery of veins remaining – that was for his Da.

But for his Mum? What could be grand enough, on this, his fifth birthday? And time was running out. All the guests would arrive in time for the noontide meal, and he must have his presents all in order by then.

At last, released from his imprisonment by a sympathetic Pearl, he ran from the smial with her warning echoing in his brain (Come back when I ring the bell, that you might wash before the nooning, and don’t get dirty!) …which didn’t make sense, in retrospect. Why wash, if one didn’t get dirty? And why not get dirty, if one were to wash anyhow?

He ran straight to the barn, or as straight as a young hobbit might run, what with distractions all about him. The tables and benches were set up in the yard, and the hired hobbits were about some other business. Vases of bright flowers graced the tables, and there were too many place settings for a five-year-old to count. Suffice it to say, there were a lot of guests expected!

In the barn, in the hayloft, Pippin had secreted his treasure store. He got out the cloth they were wrapped in – the stones, that is, for the flowers in their mug were on his chest of drawers, along with the beetle-containing bottle. He went through the stones one by one, reminding himself of the story behind each, either because of shape, texture, or colour, for a part of grand gift-giving was in the presentation, and Pippin intended to be as grand as any proper hobbit, now that he was no longer a faunt. He lingered over the dull red stone he’d selected for Bilbo – how he’d enjoy spinning a story of the dragon that the stone brought to mind! He was certain Uncle Bilbo, having his own store of dragon lore, would be appreciative.

But there was still no suitable gift for his Mum.

Until… his eye fell on the cat, sleeping peacefully in the hay after a long night of hunting for vermin. She would, of course, waken when it was time for the milking, for Pippin’s sisters delighted in directing a spray of milk in the cat’s direction, just to see her sit up to catch it in her mouth. Her calico colours shone, especially the clean white parts of her coat, a brightness in that shaded place. He’d never noticed how pretty she was!

He folded up the cloth with its treasure trove of stones and tucked it away once more. The cat opened one eye at the rustle in the hay, then stretched, curled into a ball with her tail over her nose, and closed her eyes again. No mouse this time, just a little Pip.

Pippin crept on hands and knees over to where the cat lay, slowly so as not to startle her, and reached a cautious hand, for he’d been scratched before over an incautious move. The cat was so soft! She was lovely and soft, and she even began to purr as he ran tentative fingers over her head and back. Such a wonderful sound! Why, it was soothing and relaxing to hear, and persisted for a few seconds after he took his hand away, and returned when he petted her again. It was a wonderful sound, and he continued stroking her, just to keep the sound going.

Suddenly it came to him. It was brilliant! He’d give his mother the cat’s purr as his birthday mathom! He was certain she’d never had such a gift before!

‘Steady, Whiskers,’ he said now, continuing to pet and soothe with one hand, and as the cat seemed to settle further into the hay, he eased his other hand under her. She continued to purr as he lifted her gently into his lap – his heart sang! – and slowly stood to his feet.

The ladder proved an insurmountable problem. Er, he’d climbed up without any trouble – he’d been climbing that ladder for months now, though it would have worried his mother no end to hear of it. Getting down was another matter.

…and then he had the bright idea of getting down, the way Merry and Ferdi had shown him, only yesterday!

There was a large pile of hay to one side of the barn, where the hired hobbits forked hay out of the hayloft early in the morning, a full day’s supply, preparatory to feeding the cows and ponies in the morning, and again in the evening. Ferdi and Merry liked to jump from the loft into the pile of hay, when it was still large enough – before the evening feed. Pippin could jump down, into the soft hay!

He walked confidently over to the wide door, but hesitated on the threshold. It looked so much higher, without either Merry or Ferdi (or both) to sustain him…! Still, they’d managed yesterday – he’d managed yesterday, with their guidance.

He went over their instructions in his head once more, for good measure.

Hold tight to our hands! Well, that wasn’t practical, what with them out and about on the farm somewhere. Without him. It would serve them right if he jumped without holding anyone’s hand or hands. He’d show them; he was big now. Yesterday he’d still been four. Today he was all of five.

Still, it seemed a good idea to hold tight to something. He determined he’d hold tight to the cat, still sleepily purring in his arms.

Aim for the middle – the exact middle, do you see? That was Merry’s voice. He was always so precise in his instructions, and usually if Pippin followed his words, things came out well. Merry was good at thinking things through. He looked closely now. He was old enough, he thought, to be able to discern the middle of the pile, and it wouldn’t be hard to aim for it, having yesterday’s experience – practice! – to draw upon.

‘Hold tight… Aim for the middle…’ he murmured into the cat’s fur, ducking his chin to speak directly to her.

She seemed to have no objection.

‘All right then,’ he said, and began the count that his cousins had used. (It was a count that would stand him in good stead one day in the future, as he teetered on the edge of a fearful chasm in a far away place called Moria, but that’s another story.) ‘One… two… three… Jump!’

He jumped from the open doorway, out into the air – he was flying! – aiming for the middle of the haypile, holding tight, and a good thing, too! The cat no longer slept in his arms, purring slightly, but no.

She came awake, suddenly and thoroughly, and became a snarling, spitting thing, rapidly progressing to biting and scratching, trying desperately to win free. They landed in the hay, Pippin still holding tight to his companion, though she punished him with her claws.

‘Stop!’ he shrieked desperately. ‘Stop! No! Stop!’ But she would not stop, and though he tried to cast her away, her claws hooked into his shirt, and so, desperate, he hugged her tight again, trying to foil the raking claws. ‘Stop!’

And then his cries changed, as he saw his mother emerge from the kitchen in response to his cries. ‘Help!’ he said. ‘Help! She won’t stop! Mum! Da! Merry! Help! Help!’

‘Pip!’ she screamed. ‘Let her go! Let her go, Pip!’

The pain seemed to grow, along with his fright as the cat continued to yowl and fight. He hugged her closer and began to run, trying to run away from the fear and pain, but they followed him no matter how he dodged and ran. His mother, now, was chasing him, dodging with him, trying to catch him, and all the while she was shouting… which added to his confusion and fright, though with the noise of the cat, and his own screams, he couldn’t hear her words.

All was fear and confusion, terror and pain, until suddenly, something grabbed him from behind – he had the feeling of being swallowed by a monster, taken by the goblins from Bilbo’s stories (the ones he wasn’t allowed to stay up and hear, but crept from his bed to listen anyhow), swallowed alive!

He shrieked and sobbed and fought, at least until he became aware that strong, loving arms prisoned him in their grip, and his mother was holding him close, as close as he’d held the fighting cat, and she was crying out words of love and comfort. As he quieted, so did her voice, until she was merely murmuring as she rocked him. As he came to himself once more, finally aware that the nightmare was over, he realised that his mum was sitting, in her best dress, on the dusty ground, holding him in her arms, and there was dirt and blood all over himself, and all over her. Her carefully pinned hair had come loose and was flying wild around her head, and her face was scratched, and one eye looked as if it might be blackening from the blow of a small, desperate fist, but she looked at him with eyes of love and concern and crooned sweet nonsense without stopping.

‘There, there, my love. There, there, Pip, I’m here. Mum’s here and all’s well. All’s safe and well.’

And it was.

Though he still shuddered with sobs, his horror and helplessness were fading, and he nestled into her embrace. ‘O Mum! O Mum!’

‘There, there, my Pip, my heart.’

Once he’d calmed, she looked him over, examining every scratch, wincing herself to see the damage done, and then she got to her feet, still cradling him. ‘We’ve got to wash those scratches,’ she said. ‘We’ve got to wash them right away! A bath would be the thing, but I think it would sting too much…’

And she carried him into the kitchen, ordering her startled daughters to clear the table of its preparations for the meal – and all was hastily cleared away – and she laid her little son down on the tabletop and soon was gently dabbing at the welling blood with a cloth dipped in cooling water. She eased his torn clothing away, ordering Pearl to fetch him a fresh change of clothes, and washed him all over, quite as if she were a mother cat and he was her bedraggled kitten, as Pervinca observed.

But this only made Pippin burst into fresh tears, and he would not be consoled, not even when his scratches were all washed and smeared with soothing, healing balm, and he was freshly clad. His mother soothed and petted to no avail, and at last she picked him up and carried him over to the rocking chair by the hearth, where once upon a time she’d nursed each of her babes in turn.

‘There, there, Pip,’ she soothed, and she held him close and rocked him, hoping he might weep himself into healing sleep. But poor miserable Pip refused to be comforted.

Merry and Ferdi returned from their adventures and were hustled away by their mothers, to be washed and dressed in fresh clothes (they were quite disgracefully dirty) for the noontide meal, and still Eglantine rocked and soothed. She was interrupted by Pearl’s voice. ‘All’s ready, Mum, and oughtn’t I to ring the bell, to call Da and the hired hobbits from the field? The first of the guests are beginning to arrive…’

Eglantine started up from the rocking chair, Pip still in her arms. She was filthy! Smeared with blood, and dirt, her hair wild and unbound, and her little son wounded and weeping. And guests arriving!

Thinking quickly, she ordered her daughters out of the kitchen to greet the guests, to ring the bell for the hobbits in the fields, to shoo everyone away from the kitchen with the excuse that Too many cooks could spoil the broth -- every hobbit knew the truth of that saying. She needed quiet and time to think, for Pippin was in no condition to greet his birthday guests, and neither was she.

‘I’m sorry, Mum…’ her little Pippin was saying. ‘I’m so sorry.’

‘It’s naught, little one,’ she said, forcing brightness in her tone, for her heart was breaking to behold his sorrow. ‘It’s naught! It’ll all wash out… What’s important is that the scratches will heal, and you’re clean and safe, and it’s your birthday today, and…’

But that was not at all the thing, for Pippin, though he’d wept long, burst into fresh tears at this pronouncement.

‘But lovie!’ Eglantine said in bewildered protest. ‘A birthday is a joyous occasion! No time for tears!’

‘But… but…’ her son said, albeit rather muffled as his face was buried in her apron. She stopped what she was saying, to listen hard, for he seemed to be explaining the trouble, for the first time, and it had something to do with the reason for the day’s celebration.

‘What is it, love?’ she said at last, gently. ‘What’s the matter with your birthday? Was there something we left off? Something that was wanting?’

He said something indistinguishable, but her mother’s heart was listening closely, and she said, ‘…a mathom? Something to do with a mathom? O lovie, birthdays aren’t about mathoms and gifts, not at all, they’re about love!’

‘But they are!’ Pippin said, more clearly than before, for he’d reared up and was no longer muffling his words but speaking them out. ‘And I wanted to give you the best mathom, ever!’ And he gulped and sniffled, his face wet with tears and eyes overflowing with more.

‘The best mathom, ever?’ his mother said, mystified.

‘I was going to give you the kitty’s purr!’ he said. ‘It was so lovely, and soft, and sweet…’

Eglantine closed her eyes at this, to imagine such a thing, and then she had to stifle a sudden impulse to laugh, for she’d not hurt her little lad’s feelings, not for all the world. Mastering herself, she opened her eyes again, to his look of worry and sorrow. Smiling gently, she stroked a wayward curl back from his forehead. ‘But lovie, didn’t you know?’ she said, very soft, and stopped until she was certain she had his full attention.

He gulped again, looked up, and was caught by her loving gaze. ‘Don’t I know what?’ he said, and hiccoughed a little.

She chuckled, low in her throat, and stroked his hair. ‘Aw, lovie,’ she said. ‘I already have the best birthday mathom anyone could ever give me!’

Pippin gulped again, his expression tragic. ‘You do?’ he said in dismay.

She hugged him close. ‘O don’t look like that, love,’ she said, and put him back from her again, smiling through tears of her own, that surprised her by their advent.

‘But…’ he said, and swallowed hard. He was trying so hard to be grown up, and a faunt no longer.

How quickly the years pass, Eglantine thought, wiping a tear from the corner of her eye. How quickly they’ve passed, and my littlest isn’t a faunt any more. And too soon, in the blink of an eye, he’ll be all grown, and gone out the door…

But she hadn’t finished what she’d meant to tell him.

‘I do,’ she said firmly, and hugged him close again, and whispered in his ear. ‘I do have the best birthday mathom anyone could ever give me. Can’t you guess?’

And she put him back again, to gaze into his wondering eyes, where she knew she would find curiosity beginning to replace the sorrow, for he was a child of many questions – ah, the joy and the exasperation intertwined!

She chucked him under the chin with her finger and said, ‘But of course! You see, dearest heart, my greatest mathom… is you!’

He stared at her a moment, before understanding bloomed, and then he hugged her tight, and she hugged him, and they shared a long, sweet moment before she eased him back again, wiped his face with a clean corner of her apron, and said, ‘Well! Our guests are arriving, and I must freshen myself before I’m fit to be seen. Do you think you might go out and greet them for me, and tell them I’ll be right there?’

And Eglantine's most precious Mathom smiled suddenly, and said, ‘I will!’

‘There’s my great lad,’ she said, and that was all that needed saying, for some time after.

This was in response to a prompt about bravery, in a group in an online writing community:

Write a 300 word maximum piece inspired by the quote: 

A day may come when the courage of men fails… but it is not this day.”

– Aragorn

***

I misread the directions (isn't dyslexia wonderful?) so this is slightly over 300 words. This is from the point of view of a fisherman of Gondor, who finds himself at the battle before the Black Gate. Also added is a bit about a black-clad guardsman, to make it clear that this is not Beregond speaking.

*** 

The sound in my ears… I know somehow it’s made up of cries and screams and roars and inhuman shrieks, but to my ears, it blends and melds into the pounding of the surf and howl of the wind at the height of the storm—and the storm has broken upon us. Dull, it is, buried as I am, half under a fallen troll.

I think the Halfling slew the foul beast as it lifted the black-clad guardsman to his doom, but he is gone, buried, dead in all likelihood—safe from the breaking waves of battle around us. 

Dead, as I shall be soon enough, drowning in this tumult of storm and wrack and blood, red of men and black of orcs and trolls and fouler things.

The Nazgul soar in the sky overhead, their shrieks sounding high above the rest of the din, unlikely seagulls riding the storm winds beating against us as we make our stand upon this lonely hill, far from home and hearth and sail.

I think I can free my arm…

Though I lie pinned, as one tangled in the rigging when the mast has broken in the wreck, still doing what I can, even as we crash upon the shoals, driven by storm winds—though I lie pinned, my sword arm is free, the hilt still in my hand—somehow the blade shines, stained with black blood, yet unbroken.

A fresh wave of orcs is breaking upon us; I swing my blade at the nearest, passing.

Hamstrung, the foul creature falls, yowling, and it twists to strike out, flailing about with its spike-studded weapon in all directions. The thrashing orc brings its weapon down in a crushing blow, but the spikes catch upon the troll, bury themselves in the stinking flesh above me. The enormous noisome corpse that traps me now proves itself my shield and savior. Before it can yank the weapon free, I strike again. Headless, the black-blooded body falls before me, the beginning of my own roughly formed battlement. 

One.





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