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Staddle was … amazing.
It was his first town, and Estel gaped openly as he followed Cres through its streets. He had never seen such a jumble of buildings, and so close to each other! He recognized the purpose of a few of the structures as they passed—smithy, stable—and guessed others from painted pictures hanging outside the doors—butcher, seamstress. For some, there was no way to determine what manner of labor or craft they might house. Accustomed as he was to the Last Homely House, Estel wondered at the purpose of so many separate buildings. In Rivendell, the sprawling House was the center of all activity—not only government and entertainment and living quarters for many, but day to day work as well. Tasks such as smithing and farming and the like were relegated to their appropriate places, of course, but even those outer laborers often came to the House to offer reports and discuss needs. Here in Staddle, Estel saw no large building that might serve as a center for the town, and he wondered how all of these people in their separate buildings ever coordinated themselves.
Set back outside the town’s center, and also scattered in a few places among the larger buildings themselves, were smaller structures that he guessed must be homes. Some were of a size with Luanna and Marks’s farm house, but most were smaller—or shorter, at least. Estel guessed that his head would nearly scrape the ceilings in some. The hill that settled its firm bulk against the western edge of the town also held two rows of round doors—the first row near the base of the hill and the second higher up. Well-worn paths led up between them, and branched out to the very doorsteps of the colorfully painted doors, which spread out along the entire length of the town and stretched past its outskirts. All of these holes and small houses had been built with Hobbits in mind, for Staddle, Cres had informed him, had been primarily settled by Hobbits.
And Hobbits were everywhere. It was like walking into one of his bedtime stories from when he was small—he was surrounded by small curly heads and large hairy feet scurrying every which way in the falling dusk, and despite his general anxiety he couldn’t help grinning from the sheer wonder of it all. He had never been the tallest person anywhere before. Actually, he had rarely been taller than anyone before—only his mother and a few of the Elf maidens were short enough that he had recently surpassed them. Of course, he wasn’t really the tallest now, either. He saw a large Man across the way in the smithy, and a Man and Woman crossed one of the side streets with a basket and a baby as Estel followed Cres past, but for the most part Estel towered above the crowd. It seemed that in the end-of-day bustle no one was much interested in the newcomers. Cres received a few calls of greeting, and waved a few times himself, but none stopped them or tried to talk. It was just as well. Cres hurried through the streets with barely a pause.
“We’ll want to get to The Dusty Mathom as soon as may be. Darlo will be busy once the usual supper crowd descends, and I’d like us to have a room and a meal by then.”
They finally reached the inn, which was set off the main road near the hill, and stepped inside. The building itself was of a size which would easily fit Men, but when they entered Estel saw that the bar and many of the tables were much shorter than the ones at the last inn. There were a few tall tables, though, and already a group of Men sat around one, pints before them. The inn itself smelled better, or perhaps he was just becoming accustomed to all the new scents that seemed to go with Men and Hobbits. Cres hailed a Hobbit behind the bar, and was greeted warmly.
“Creston!” The portly Hobbit rounded the bar and embraced Estel’s companion. “I didn’t know you was coming. How’s Cam? What’s news?”
“Cam’s fine, just fine.” Cres motioned to Estel. “Darlo, I’d like you to meet Estel. Estel, this is my cousin Darlo Sandheaver, the owner and proprietor of The Dusty Mathom.”
Darlo offered a bow, which after a brief hesitation Estel returned. He wasn’t entirely comfortable with the gesture and felt a little silly, but he wasn’t certain how else one was supposed to greet a Hobbit. Darlo turned a raised eyebrow to his cousin. “And where did you pick up this lad? There’s a story here, I’m thinking.”
Cres sighed. “Indeed there is, and we’re hoping you’ll be able to help. We’ll have a room, and supper up in it, and I’d be right grateful if you’d come by for a spell after the rush.” Estel was briefly disappointed that they would be eating in their room, but decided it was just as well. The long day’s trek had left him exhausted, and he truly wasn’t sure if he would rather eat or sleep.
“I will.” Darlo nodded, rubbing at his chin. “That I will. Got Lily and Tam both tonight, so I should be able to slip out right enough.” He waved toward a door at the back of the main room. “Take your usual, it’s open. I’ll have a cot sent up for the lad, and Lily’ll be up with some supper soon enough.”
“Thanks, Darlo.” Cres patted the other Hobbit’s shoulder, then led Estel across the room and up a set of stairs. Down the hall and to the right, they entered a small but cozy room furnished with a Hobbit-sized bed, a table and two small chairs, a fireplace, cheerful rug, and water for washing. Cres motioned Estel toward the pitcher. “You first, I’ll get the fire going.”
Estel obeyed with alacrity, eager to wash away the dust and sweat of travel. When the fire was lit he exchanged places with the Hobbit, dropping to the rug to pull off his boots. He wrinkled his nose briefly at the smell, but it couldn’t be helped. He tossed them into the far corner and stretched out on his back, basking in the growing warmth of the flames. Almost immediately, however, a knock sounded and Cres opened the door to admit a Hobbit lass who held a tray heaped high with food. Estel jumped up to take it from her, bowing over the top of it. She blushed and giggled, then whirled and disappeared into the hall in a flash of skirts and curls. Cres snorted softly.
“It isn’t as if she’s never seen a child of Men before.”
Estel had not even noticed—he had eyes only for the feast before them. All thoughts of sleeping instead of eating quickly vanished. There was a loaf of bread, lightly buttered, a thick beef stew, a lump of white cheese, roasted potatoes, and berry tarts with a thick cream. For Cres there was a pitcher of ale, and for Estel a pitcher of milk. He set the tray onto the table, dropped into a chair, and fell on the food as though he had not eaten since before leaving Rivendell. Chuckling, Cres joined him. Estel ate until he was stuffed, and then ate two more tarts—only so that they would not go to waste. Then, barely able to move, he crept over to the rug, curled up in front of the fireplace, and was asleep in moments.
He knew not how long he slept before Darlo knocked on their door, but the sky outside the small window was dark and scattered with stars. Estel sat up, rubbing his eyes as Cres helped Darlo to set up the cot and then the two Hobbits settled into the chairs.
“So.” Darlo rubbed at his knees, his gaze moving between his cousin and Estel. “What is this tale you wish me to hear, and what manner of help can I offer?”
Cres glanced to Estel, who shook his head and looked down, scratching aimlessly at the rag rug. He was tired, and full, and he didn’t want to have to remember what he had told them at Marks and Luanna’s farm and what he had … glossed over in his attempt to hide the entire truth. The Hobbit seemed unsurprised, and didn’t push. He turned back to Darlo, and in a few brief minutes—showing remarkable restraint for a Hobbit, had Estel known it—Cres explained the situation to his cousin. Darlo whistled and sat back, shaking his head.
“I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
“Nor I, nor any of us.” Cres took a long drink of ale. “It’s a sad situation, for all involved.”
“Aye, indeed.” Darlo leaned forward. “But what I can be doing about it?”
Cres motioned to Estel. “Someone … needs to take the lad home. As I said, he lives near to the Elves at Rivendell. We thought, Cam and I, that you might know of someone who would be willing to make the journey. Perhaps two, for I cannot imagine wanting to make the return alone.”
Silence fell. Darlo turned his gaze into the fire and stared, rubbing at his chin. Trying not to be obvious, Estel held his breath. If no one could take him … if no one would take him … what would he do? He would have to try to make his own way home. The thought sent an unpleasant shiver through him. He knew enough of woodcraft and the hunting of small game, but the journey from the Bree-lands to Imladris was utterly beyond him. What else could he do, though?
“Perhaps Tanner’s son would be willing … or at least know of someone who might be.” Estel looked up at the Hobbit. “The smith’s son,” Darlo clarified, then sighed. “I don’t know … they’re a long way, are the lands near Rivendell, and there’s some dangerous road in between. Even our more adventurous lads don’t generally get beyond the hunting grounds up north of Archet.” Darlo shook his head at whatever he saw in Estel’s face. “Now, don’t be giving up yet, lad. Even if Dalton’s not willing, he’s got friends over in Bree. I know he’d be willing at least to take you over the hill and see what help can be found there.”
Cres nodded. “All right, then. We’ll go talk to him at first light. I—”
“That’s the only trouble.” Darlo sighed. “He’s away, up to Combe with his ma’s folks. He’s not due back until day after tomorrow.”
“Two days!” Estel burst out, dismayed, and then his face flushed a fiery red when both Hobbits looked toward him. He ducked his head quickly. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled, and Darlo shook his head again.
“Don’t be, lad. I understand, and I just wish there was aught else I could do. Most of us around here are Hobbits, though. We’re just not made for adventures and long travels.”
“No, I …” Estel shrugged, trying and failing miserably to hide his disappointment. “It’s all right. If he’s the only one you think can help, it’s all right.”
Cres leaned over to grip his shoulder. “That’s the way, lad.” He settled back again, and his face grew serious. “I can’t be away for that long, though. I need to be getting back. When Cam and I came to aid Master Ferrier, there was no thought that I’d be—”
“I’ll watch over him, no fear.”
Cres was relieved. “Aye?”
“Of course.” Darlo waved a vague hand. “He can stay here, help me sweep up and wash down tables and such.” He sent a grin and a wink Estel’s way, and the boy managed to smile back. Cres may have noticed his lack of enthusiasm, for he seemed suddenly concerned.
“Are you all right with that, lad? You don’t know Darlo, I know, but he’ll treat you right. We grew up together, I’d trust him with my life. He’ll see you looked after.”
The Hobbit seemed anxious that Estel should accept the situation, and in truth, Estel was not particularly concerned about being left in Staddle. After the past week and more, he was becoming almost numbed to the idea of depending upon strangers. They were, after all, all he had. No, he was busy worrying about what would happen if he waited for Dalton Tanner to return from Combe, and then found that the smith’s son would not help him.
Well. There was nothing he could do about that now—it was better to try to forget about it, for the night at least. He could pick it up again the day after tomorrow. Estel smiled up at the Hobbits again, and he knew that this time it looked better, even if it didn’t feel better.
“No, that’s fine.”
Cres left at first light, with thanks for his cousin and a last pat on Estel’s shoulder. After he had gone, Estel asked Darlo what tasks the Hobbit might have for him. It really was only fair, he supposed, to work for his keep. The innkeeper, however, shooed him outside. “Time for that later. Go take a look around now. You can’t get lost, no worries—we’re too small for that, but I’m sure you can find something to keep you occupied. Here.” He pressed a meat pie and a sticky bun into Estel’s hands. “Come back for lunch, and we’ll see then if we can find you something to do.”
Not inclined to protest either the lack of work or the opportunity to see more of Staddle, Estel thanked Darlo, took a large bite of meat pie, and wandered away from the inn. Instead of going back into the center of the town first, he climbed the large hill, curious if he would be able to see Bree. The climb took longer than he had expected, and he was hot and wished he had brought water when he reached the top. All he saw to the west were trees. Whether or not he might have been able to see Bree without them remained a mystery, but he had a nice view of Staddle and the trees to the south, as well as the first approaches of the thicker Chetwood to the north. Already the streets were bustling—it seemed that Hobbits as well as Elves rose with the sun, although perhaps for different reasons—and Estel finished the last of the sticky bun, wiped his hands on the grass, and made his way back down the hill and into the town.
He wandered the streets aimlessly at first, for he didn’t know enough of Staddle or its people to have any real destination in mind. Unlike the night before, most of the Hobbits spoke to him or at least gave him a curious glance as their paths crossed. Estel returned the greetings shyly, and was just as glad that no one made any effort toward a sustained conversation. He wouldn’t know what to say, and didn’t really feel like saying anything, anyway. The one place he made sure to visit was the smithy, and he spent a while hovering across the street, watching the smith work. It was difficult to tell anything about the Man this way except that he was industrious, and he seemed pleasant enough the few times people approached, laying aside his work and offering each his full attention. Estel finally turned away, hoping that Dalton Tanner was somewhat like his father.
The sun was halfway up the sky by this point, and Estel wondered what he would do until lunchtime. He would never have imagined that, in a town full of Hobbits, he would be ready to go back inside and sleep again before noon, but he was. It wasn’t as fun alone as he had been thinking, and his anxiety of the night before was back, gnawing at the pit of his stomach. He wondered if Darlo would send him away again if he went back—often his mother or father (or any other Elf in the vicinity) would force him back outside if he tried to spend his time indoors on a sunny day. He was walking in the general direction of The Dusty Mathom, unsure yet of his actual plans, when he turned a corner and found a group of boys squatting or sprawled in a circle between two buildings.
There were six, and they were mostly Hobbit lads, although two were children of Men. They each had several small, smooth little balls of stone piled beside them, and were playing a sort of game that involved flicking one of the little stones at others, apparently in an attempt to knock them outside of a crudely drawn circle. Laughter and general chatter rose from the circle, and Estel drifted closer, intrigued. He had never seen this game before, or boys this close to his own age. He had been watching for several minutes, listening to their conversation (which shifted so often that Estel wasn’t sure how they could keep up) and trying to figure out the game (which seemed simple enough) when one of the Hobbits looked up and saw him.
Estel tried on a smile, and found that it came easily enough. “Hello.”
“You want to play?”
He was startled by the abrupt offer—they didn’t even know him. In fact, he did want to try, but he shook his head. “I don’t know this game.”
“Marbles?” The lad was incredulous. “Thought everybody knew about marbles.” He shook his curly head and motioned Estel closer. “Don’t matter, we’ll show you. It’s not hard.”
Still, Estel hesitated. “I don’t have any … marbles, though.”
One of the other Hobbit lads snorted, sitting up. “You can take my place. I’m not doing any good here, can’t get any worse.”
The boy beside him laughed. “You never do any good, Nob.”
“Well then, this is my chance, isn’t it?” Nob scooted out of the circle, pointing toward the open spot. “Here, I’ll tell you what to do. Come on.”
“Might not want to listen to Nob, there.” The first Hobbit laughed, not unkindly. “He’s losing.”
Nob sniffed, apparently unconcerned. “I’m a better manager than player.”
This drew a general round of laughter, and Estel slipped into the open spot under its cover. He smiled shyly at the small Hobbit beside him. “I’m Estel.”
A flurry of introductions followed, none of which he remembered, and then Nob moved up to peer over his shoulder. “Now, see that big orange and white one? That’s me shooter. Go ahead, pick it up.”
The rest of the morning passed in a blur of lessons and laughter and general forgetfulness, and Estel was surprised to find the sun past its high point when the other boys began to pack up their marbles. He had done well for himself—his hand-eye coordination was quite good, given his extensive training with a hunting bow—and he handed his newly captured marbles over to Nob, to (mostly) good-natured grumbling from the others. “I don’t have anywhere to keep them,” he insisted when the Hobbit protested, and finally Nob agreed.
“All right, then.” The Hobbit extracted the orange and white marble from his pile, and held it out. “You take this one, though.”
“That’s your shooter!” Estel objected, but Nob shook his head.
“It’s not doing me any good. I’ll find another here, maybe have better luck. You keep that one.”
“It’ll take more than a new shooter for you, Nob lad,” one of the other boys snorted, and even Nob chuckled as they all began to move away. Estel hesitated, then accepted the marble, rubbing it between his fingers as the others finally disappeared around and behind the near buildings. He stared after them for a long moment, then gripped the marble, shoved it into his pocket, and turned back toward The Dusty Mathom. It had been … a good morning. A fun morning even, despite everything. For the first time, Estel truly regretted the lack of other children in Rivendell.
Darlo greeted him cheerfully when he entered, asking after his morning and providing a lunch repast that would have served as dinner for two in Imladris. Estel ate quickly, then spent the rest of the afternoon assisting the innkeeper and his staff with sweeping and washing and the general upkeep required between the lunch crowd and the supper rush. When evening drew near, Darlo fed him again—Estel was beginning to feel quite full even between meals, and only managed about half of his supper, to the dissatisfaction of the Hobbit—and then positioned him at the kitchen door.
“Tam’s out tonight. Usually when we’re one short the servers have to take in the orders, then go back in and get the plates themselves. What you’ll do, though, is pass orders from us to Barry in the kitchen, and bring plates out to the bar when they’re ready. Think you can do that?”
Estel nodded, and Darlo bustled off to greet the first of the new arrivals.
Supper was busy, and for a long while Estel forgot his troubles. They soon developed a working pattern—Estel and Darlo, Lily and Barry—and Estel scurried quickly back and forth between kitchen and bar, calling orders, carrying full plates, and returning used to a set of tubs near the large sinks in the back. Once or twice, when he knew that the order came from a close table, he took it himself, and he was returning from one such when he crashed straight into a patron, who was turning from the bar with a brimming mug. “Your pardon,” he gasped, looking up at the Man—and he kept looking up, for this Man was far taller than anyone else in The Dusty Mathom. Dark hair liberally streaked with grey, lined face, square jaw and grey eyes looked back down at him, and Estel momentarily froze.
This was a Man of his mother’s kindred. There was no doubting such features as those.
He did not recognize the Man, and was certain that this was not someone to whom he’d been introduced at any time over the years. Remembering that he had not been allowed to meet all those of his mother’s people who visited Rivendell—for what reason he wasn’t certain—Estel looked away and ducked back behind the bar, catching a flash of widened eyes and raised brows before he slipped through the kitchen door. He stood against the wall for a long moment, hoping that the Man would lose interest and return to his own table and his own business, ignoring Barry’s questioning gaze. Finally, he took a long breath and ventured out again into the main room.
The Man was gone, and he breathed a sigh of relief. Estel soon spotted him, though, at a table near the hearth, eating a bowl of stew and watching him. The grey gaze made him uncomfortable, and he could not help but send quick glances toward the Man as he worked, wishing he would look away. Darlo caught the direction of his gaze and shook his head.
“That’s old Scowler, it is. In here from time to time. He’s a Ranger, but he’s always been harmless enough. His money’s as good as any other’s, I say, and he’s never caused any trouble about town that I’ve heard of.”
“Scowler?” Estel repeated soundlessly, glancing back at him. The Man’s expression was grim, but he wouldn’t have called it a scowl. Glorfindel, now, knew how to scowl …
The Hobbit snorted a laugh. “Well, I’ve never heard his true name. It’s just what we call him around here, as no one’s ever seen him crack a smile.” Darlo snatched up two plates and hurried off. Estel looked again at the Ranger—what was a Ranger, he wondered, and what did they do—accidentally meeting his gaze. Estel looked quickly away, and spent the rest of the evening purposefully not looking in … Scowler’s … direction.
Darlo sent Estel up to bed before the common room emptied, which was just as well. Estel was dead on his feet. He fell bonelessly onto his cot, too exhausted to do much in the way of washing up before he was fast asleep. Consequently, he stunk of smoke and food when he woke, and spent a good while trying to scrub the odor from his skin and hair. When he had done as much as he was able, he stumbled downstairs. Darlo was waiting for him with another meat pie and sticky bun.
“You’ll not want to go far today. I don’t know when Dalton’s planning to get back in—I’ve talked with his da, who says it’ll probably be late afternoon, but if he’s in sooner you’ll not want to be out and about.” Estel nodded agreement, feeling his stomach cramp with anxiety. He put down the rest of the sticky bun. “Until then, though … I have an order in with the baker this morning—maybe you’d go pick it up for me. Do you remember the bakery from yesterday?” Estel nodded and stood, glad for some distraction from his suddenly whirling thoughts. Darlo pressed a few coins in his hand and he was off, around the front of the inn and toward the center of town. He had barely passed two buildings, however, when a hand seized his arm, pulled him roughly into the shadow of the weaver’s shop, and stilled his startled yelp with a quick shake.
Estel gaped up at Scowler, realizing now why the name fit. The Ranger leaned over him, resting on one hand against the structure behind, and gazed impassively down upon him. “Now, then,” he said, in a calm voice which belied his fierce expression, “perhaps you’ll tell me what a lad of the Dúnedain is doing by his lonesome here in Staddle, acting as errand-boy for a Hobbit.”
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