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Chapter 77. We have a celebration of our own
Hobbled, I wander about the edges of our little clearing, nibbling at the bark of the young trees. Bitter, it is, and yet it gives me something to chew and swallow, along with tufts of ice-frosted, dead grasses.
When I reach the spot where three of my hobbits huddle in blankets, my Sam appears to be much recovered. He is sitting up between Master and somewhat-Merry, and the three of them are eating from steaming cups, chatting cheerily.
The Other Big Man sits himself down nearby, and Young Mischief brings him a cup of his own. He thanks the hobbit with grave courtesy, but with the first spoonful his eyebrows go up and he smiles, and I can smell delight and surprise wafting from him. ‘But this is delicious!’ he says, and Young Mischief is all delight, himself, and Merry is truly merry, his – and Master’s – pride in the younger cousin evident on their faces. ‘As good as any feast I remember from my father’s table!’
‘High praise, indeed,’ our Big Man says, accepting his own portion from the young hobbit. ‘For his father is most exacting, and requires excellence of all who serve him – and such loyalty does he inspire, that he receives it.’
‘I should like to meet such a Man,’ Youngest says, cocking an eye upward.
Tall Hat snorts at this, for some reason of his own, but the Other Big Man leans forward, to say with an eager voice, ‘I shall take pleasure in introducing you to him myself, when we come to my City.’
‘Tell us about your City!’ Youngest says, with a matching eagerness, and Merry and Master stop eating long enough to add their own, ‘Yes, do!’ My Sam continues to eat, but I can see he is listening intently, as eager to hear as the others. Though I continue to listen to our surroundings with one wary ear, I cock the other in the Other Big Man’s direction, that I might hear as well. After all, if that is our destination, it would be good to know something of what to expect. ‘Is it even so large as Bree, perhaps?’ Youngest asks, giving the pot a last stir. He takes a portion of his own and sits down by the older hobbits.
Our Big Man muffles a sound, and I glance in his direction to see his eyes dancing with unvoiced laughter, a rare moment of levity, and Tall Hat bows over his food as if to hide his expression in his cascading beard. Then both bend to what remains of their meal, with renewed concentration, as the Other Big Man speaks, in between bites of “this excellent stew!”
I gain the impression that the Other Big Man’s home is rather larger than Bree, rather more sprawling in terms of land. There are several levels – “seven” is but a word to me, being higher than I can count, but it appears from the sound of it to be built upon a hillside, which strikes me as impractical if one is a horse or pony. I shake my head at the thought. Hauling sledges up and down hill in the Breeland, ah, but that was a hard life! I am well quit of it. …but I am not so sure I like the sound of this new place. Made of stone, it is, and what is a pony to eat, I ask you? Where am I to find grazing?
When all are finished eating (save the ones on watch, who will eat later), Youngest scours the cups and fills them with steaming tea that he prepared as the Other Big Man talked. I am glad to see my Sam hold the hot beverage between his hands, without any help at all, and sip without evidence of chattering teeth. I move behind my hobbits, the better to breathe warm breath over them, though they seem warm enough in their blanket wrappings, and Youngest seems to keep warm by never sitting in one place for very long, but hopping up to stir the stewpot, or refill someone’s cup, or trot over to me to stroke my nose and tell me I’m a “good Bill.”
The talk turns once more to New Year celebrations, Last Night and First Night. My hobbits are keenly interested in the difference between the custom of Gondor and Breeland and their homes in the Shire. Breeland and the Shire sound very similar, actually.
The Dwarf stalks into the clearing then, and Our Big Man rises, tossing his cup down by the fire, to take his turn at watch. ‘All quiet,’ the Dwarf mutters, and he nods in passing, and is quickly lost to us in the darkness beyond the cheerful light of our small fire.
‘But here is our First Footer!’ my Sam says. His voice is a little hoarse, but he rises from his blankets, shaking off the others, protesting that he is well and warm now, and that the proprieties must be observed, ‘for we can use all the luck we can get, or I’m an Elf!’
‘You’re no Elf, Sam,’ Master says, laughing in surprise at this unexpected turn of events.
My Sam is digging in his pack… He expresses his gratitude that the pack stayed mostly dry…
‘…though you nearly drowned to keep it so,’ Youngest observes, and Merry cuffs him gently on the head, with a mock scolding to “be courteous to your elders!”
…and he brings out a small bundle, and walks over to the bemused Dwarf.
‘I was not First Footing,’ the Dwarf says – he is invariably honest, I find, even bluntly so – ‘we don’t keep that custom under the Mountain!’
‘But we do,’ my Sam says.
‘Hush, now, don’t spoil the luck,’ Merry adds, with a wink. It is the merriest I have seen him, since setting out, nearly so merry as when he and Youngest came to the stables in the hidden Valley, smelling of spirits, but cheerful for all that, to bring me an apple and slice of cake from the feast after Master was recovered from his wound. (Very different from when my old misery came around, smelling of spirits, and more likely to knock me about than anything else.)
The bundle is a knitted muffler, wrapped around a bottle, jingling a bit – a few small coins drop out as he undoes the string that holds all together.
Youngest scoops up the coins and presents them with a flourish. ‘Tuppence!’ he says, and bows. ‘Good fortune in the coming months!’
‘And drink, that ye may never run dry,’ my Sam says, handing over the bottle, and suddenly Merry is there, taking the muffler and winding it quickly round the Dwarf’s neck. ‘And a gift, hand-made, to hold the luck!’
Tall Hat clears his throat, and I smell sudden, strong emotion on him, as of old memories come to the fore, and he fingers the silver scarf he wears. I wonder what he is thinking, but he only echoes, under his breath, ‘…to hold the luck…’
The Dwarf opens the bottle somehow, I don’t see how, and takes a swig. ‘Good!’ he rumbles. ‘Not Elvish beer…’ I have heard him and the Wood Elf arguing about spirits, along the way, and this is just a continuation of that, though the Fair One is not here to defend his sort.
My Sam blushes and ducks his head. ‘Nob put it in my pack before we left Bree,’ he said. ‘He said it was to bring luck to our journey, and I would know the right time to break it out… if I managed not to break it, that is…’
‘No wonder you fell on your face!’ the Dwarf says, toasting my Sam and taking another swig. And then he hands the bottle to Youngest, and says to make sure it gets round to everyone, even “that dratted Elf”, that he might have opportunity to taste the difference.
Youngest takes a swig of his own, and hands the bottle to Merry. He is then quick to serve stew to the Dwarf, who grumbles his appreciation before sitting down. The Other Big Man hurries to finish his portion, that he might take the Fair One’s place on watch, but the hobbits urge him to drink a little from the bottle before he goes, that the luck might continue.
'Why, it is practically snowing food and drink!' Youngest says.
'No,' practical Merry answers. 'I think it's just snowing.'
And then the Fair One is here, and the Other Big Man gone, and he eats his portion with a merry face, and drinks from the bottle, and commences to argue with the Dwarf over the merits of Elvish beer until the dawning, when the watch changes again, and it is time for those not on watch to sleep.
A/N: Gandalf is thinking back to his own introduction to First Footing, in Shire: Beginnings.
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