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Where the Love-light Gleams  by Lindelea

Where the Love-light Gleams

Merry turned the conversation from himself. ‘You’re looking well, Pippin,’ he said. ‘I do believe life amongst the Tooks is agreeing with you.’

 ‘Hard to credit, what with the disagreeable nature of the Tooks,’ Ferdi said dryly.

 ‘Now, Ferdi!’ Pimpernel remonstrated, but her husband only laughed.

 ‘Indeed, they take great care of me,’ Pippin said. ‘My least wish is their greatest desire! Why, should I express the slightest longing, say, for honey-cured bacon from the North Farthing, it’ll appear on my breakfast table within a day or two, allowing time for a swift messenger to ride northwards and back again with a sackful of the stuff.’

 ‘I thought you were looking well-fed,’ Merry said with satisfaction. ‘D’you suppose it would work, in my case?’

 ‘I do not know,’ Pippin said thoughtfully. He turned to Diamond. ‘What is your opinion on the matter, my dear?’

 ‘I think that Merry would have to express his wish to the Thain, and the Thain would have to repeat that wish in the hearing of the steward, as if it were his own in origin, for such an event to have any promise whatsoever,’ Diamond answered.

 ‘Ah, that clears things up marvellously,’ Pippin said. ‘Offer me any wish, with a sufficient bribe, of course, cousin, and I will repeat it in the hearing of the most excellent steward of Tookland as if it sprang whole and in its entirety from my thought.’

 ‘A sufficient bribe?’ Merry echoed, bemused.

Pippin harrumphed like an old uncle and fixed Merry with a gimlet eye. ‘Do you think Northfarthing honey-cured bacon grows upon trees?’ he demanded. ‘It comes dear, very dear indeed, especially when one takes into account the cost of swift pony and rider!’

 ‘Unless of course the swift rider is the Thain’s special assistant,’ Ferdi said, leaning back with a grin. ‘In which case his salary covers all such expense. It helps, of a certainty, that said assistant owns the fastest pony in the Shire.’

 ‘Ferdi!’ Pippin said severely. ‘How ever am I to chisel gold out of my Brandybuck cousin’s hide if you insist upon being so dashedly truthful?’

Pimpernel and Diamond were laughing out loud by this juncture, and tea ended very merrily indeed.

-- from All that Glisters, Chapter 4.

Chapter 1. Where the Love-light Gleams 

'Northfarthing honey-cured bacon,' Ferdi muttered to himself.

'Beg pardon?' Farmer Oatley said, turning back politely. 'Was there something else? Did you want some bacon along with the ham, perhaps?'

'No, no,' Ferdi said, but thinking twice about the matter he lifted a hand. 'A goodly suggestion, Master Farmer, indeed. Why not throw in a bag of bacon? I can tie it on my back as easy as anything.' The head cook could put the bacon in the deepest storage hole; it'd keep a while, and Ferdi'd not have to return all the sooner to the North Farthing.

'Tie it on the back of the saddle, lad,' the good farmer said. 'Them hams, and the sides o' bacon we grow, such-like weighs enough to stun a goblin, they do. Some say t'wasn't a club old Bandobras used to knock off that goblin chief's head, but a ham!'

'Goblins came upon him on a picnic, did they?' Ferdi said.

The farmer laughed heartily, and then said, 'The next time you come, you ought to bring a pack-pony with you. Hams hanging from either side of your saddle, and the saddlebags full of cheese, and bacon tied over all--you going to be leading that pony, instead of riding him?'

'I'm just a great ham myself, or so my wife tells me,' Ferdi said with a grin. 'What's one more ham atop the load?'

'Still, if you're to be back before the morning,' the farmer said with a look at the sky.

Ferdi wasn't worried. Certainly the Sun was kissing the horizon, but then she was early to bed this time of the year. He'd have to ride through the long winter night to manage it, but he'd come to the Great Smials before second breakfast. Did he not ride the fastest pony in the Shire?

'Lastday's nearly over. Last day o' the year, hard to believe!' the farmer added, and Ferdi pulled his mind back from its wanderings.

'I think every year goes by quicker'n the last,' he said obligingly.

'That it do, young fellow,' the farmer agreed. 'And you're to ride through the night, I gather, that the Thain may have my good ham for his Firstday breakfast?'

'He won't be up all that early,' Ferdi said. 'He'll have seen the old year out, as you know...'

'Ah, yes,' the farmer said. 'Don't we all?' He stifled a yawn at the thought. 'Gets a little harder, every year.'

'Don't see much point in't myself,' Ferdi said practically. 'Old year'll see itself out, whether we stay up to see it out or no.'

'An' the new year'll come creeping in, whether or not we're there to open the door,' Farmer Oatley said. 'But who'll answer the knock of the First Footer if everyone goes off to bed?'

'Well, if everyone goes off to bed, there'll be no First Footers out and about, will there?' Ferdi said reasonably.

The farmer was scandalised at this idea. 'I don't like it!' he said, shaking his head in a decided manner. 'I don't like it at all! Why, where'd the luck come from if no First Footers knocked at the door?!'

Ferdi conceded the point, and considering the matter privately, he thought perhaps he might do a bit of First-Footing himself that night, if he happened to pass a farmstead or hamlet in the middle night. After all, the first hobbit to walk across the threshold after the clocks chimed midnight, the passing of one year to another, brought with him the luck for the arriving year--if he were properly gifted, that was: a bottle of ale or wine to conjure a year's worth of joy for the giver, along with other symbolic gifts such as a coin for wealth, a loaf of bread for provision and a new-made article of clothing for prosperity. Yes, he thought, it ought not to slow his pony too much to add a little bounty to the burden. And bread and ale in the saddle would help the miles to pass more pleasurably, and help keep him awake into the bargain.


 *Title taken from the lyrics of  "I'll Be Home for Christmas" by Walter Kent (music) and James "Kim" Gannon (words), 1943

Chapter 2. Home Again, Home Again, Jiggety-Jig

If the farmer would only admit to raising an extra pig or two for the Thain's benefit, things would be so much easier, Ferdi thought. But each time he suggested coming back and taking away a waggonload of meat at a time, old Farmer Oatley would shake his hoary head. 'I'll be happy to give of the bounty we've enjoyed, this fine year,' he'd say, 'but if word got about that we were shipping our bacon and ham off in waggons, just as in the time of the ruffians, why, folk might get the wrong idea.'

'The wrong idea?' Ferdi said.

'They might think we're in the business of selling pigs!' Farmer Oatley said. 'Too many folk come round, askin', and pretty soon there's no ham left in our own pantry!'

'Why not raise extra pigs?' Ferdi said, thinking the question reasonable, but from the look the farmer gave him you'd think he'd insulted the hobbit, and that deeply.

'I'm a farmer of oats,' the farmer said. 'Oatley's the name, oats was good enough for the likes of my father and his before him, and oats is good enough for me!' He jabbed at his breast with a stiff thumb, winced, and rubbed at the spot. 'Surely, we have a few pigs, as does any good farmer, for they keep things cleaned up and eat what's left--you won't find us having to burn our refuse and foul the air! No, pigs take care of it, and fatten themselves while they're at it. Fine animals, pigs. Serve us in their living, and after!'

'Then...' Ferdi said, feeling his way.

Farmer Oatley leaned forward, shaking a stern finger at the Thain's special assistant. 'It's only right to keep a pig or three on the farm, to take care of the refuse, and I thank them for the ham and bacon they give us to take us through the winter, but I find pigs far too fine to raise them a-purpose, just for the eatin'!'

Ferdi choked a little at calling pigs "fine", but the farmer wasn't finished.

'Fine creatures,' he repeated. 'Fine, and more sense in 'em than some hobbits I know. But the boars grow dangerous as they reach their majority, or I'd just keep a few as pets and trash collectors, I would!'

'The Thain is very glad for the ham and bacon,' Ferdi said hastily.

'And I'm glad to give him what we can spare,' Farmer Oatley said. 'He pays a fair price for my oats, and I must say the coin's welcome. We'll search out a ham or two for him, whenever he wishes it, so long as I don't short my own little ones in the doing.'

Ferdi had to admit, it wasn't all that often the steward sent him to the North Farthing for ham or bacon. Once or twice a year, perhaps. Sometimes he rode to the South Farthing for the best wine. Sometimes he rode to the Woody End, to the cottage of a woodcutter known for his ability to find the finest mushrooms. Pippin knew full well how those around him, especially Diamond his wife and Reginard, steward of Tookland, sifted his words. He didn't want to take advantage of his position--he'd been too well trained for that, before he assumed the office of Thain.

Pippin knew full well, all right, the conspiracy that swirled around him to give him what he wanted, him who could not have what he truly wanted, ever again, no matter what the healers said about progress and getting better and little by little. Since the coach had fallen, and him under it, they'd watched him slipping away, slowly, ever so slowly, for he fought with all the courage he'd brought back from the Southlands, but little by little in truth.

And if Ferdi must ride through the night to bring him ham for his Firstday breakfast, well, it was too small a price to pay for Diamond's smile, for Pippin's surprise and delight.

He only wished that Farmer Oatley would raise a pig or three a-purpose for the Thain, and let Ferdi or even some other Took haul it away in a waggon, as if he'd come a-purpose to fetch the meat, and not as if Ferdi took away a ham or two on accident, or afterthought on the good farmer's part, as a sort of parting gift.

But no. Ferdi had to ride to the farm in the North Farthing, famed for its honey-cured bacon and hams (though none were for sale, it was said, and only to be had as gifts or at a neighbour's wedding breakfast), as if he were negotiating the purchase of a waggonload of next year's oats. The ham was a parting gift, sent to the Thain in thanks for his custom.

After a filling tea, Ferdi saddled his pony, wrinkling his nose as he added the saddlebags with their load of strong cheese. Though it was well wrapped in layers of paper, he suspected he'd have to discard those particular bags, unless Old Tom the stablemaster knew of a way to get the odour out, once the cheese went to the kitchens.

The pony tossed his head in irritation as the hams, also well-wrapped and tied, were hung in front of the saddle, cramping Ferdi's knees, and the large packet containing a generous slab of bacon tied over the back of the saddle, secured to the strap that held the saddlebags with their noisome load. It would not make for comfortable riding, all that bulk surrounding him, Ferdi thought, and patted the pony's neck as he swung into the saddle.

The fine ears were pinned back, and he could feel the pony's back hump under him. 'Steady, Star,' he said, 'It's only myself.'

The pony's head craned round, dark eye regarding him with a deep look. Yourself, and how many other hobbits? it seemed to say.

Ferdi laughed. 'The sooner we're home, the sooner you can be rid of your burdens,' he said.

Starfire shook his head, snorting as if in agreement.

Ferdi raised his hand to the farmer and his family, standing in the light that spilled from the open doorway. 'Good night!' he called. 'Glad Yule!'

'Good night!' they chorused in return, and the farmer's wife added, 'Safe journey!'

Trust a wife to think of such a thing, but Ferdi only called 'Good night!' once more, smiled at the fare-thee-wells that rose about him, and turned the pony's face away from the gleaming light.

Chapter 3. Best Laid Plans

There were possibly six hours' travel from the time he left Oatley's farm before the clocks would chime the turning of the year. Six hours to Overhill, Ferdi estimated, across the fields, if he didn't miss the path in the dark.

The day had been fine, a little chilly perhaps, but only to be expected for the time of year. He'd enjoyed letting Starfire stretch out into a gallop over the browning fields, pulling him down to a trot to breathe him at intervals though the pony was eager to run. They'd left the Great Smials early that morning: fourteen miles across the fields to Hobbiton, up the Hill and over and onwards, heading northwards, ever northwards, another twenty miles perhaps, all the way out the top of the West Farthing and into the North, though not quite so far as Bindbale Wood.

When he left Oatley's he paid little heed to the thin wisps of cloud rolling over the face of the moon. He was homeward bound, and eager to be on his way, and truth be told, he'd enjoyed the good farmer's ale perhaps a bit more than he should have. He was thinking about stories the farmer and his sons had told, and not strictly about his business, as he rode out of the farmyard.

Some day, Ferdi vowed to himself, he'd return this way with time to spare, and he'd go on the extra miles to enter the Wood itself, a forest in its own right, and said to have good hunting. He'd like to meet Bolham the Red (named for his hair) who'd led a group of rebels in forays against the ruffians in the North Farthing. A number of hobbits had retreated to the fastness of the forest in the time of the Troubles, when ruffians had burned their homes and byres to encourage "cooperation". It seems the descendants of Bandobras are not as cooperative--or perhaps "not as easily coerced"--as other hobbits of the Shire, but then they are, after all, Tooks. North-Tooks by name, and Tooks by nature. As the old Shire-proverb says, "You can take a Took out of the Tookland, but you cannot..." and of course the rest is well known. Unlike the hobbits led by Ferdi's cousin Fredegar Bolger, Bolham's band had never been captured, and Ferdi wished to raise a glass with this distant North-Took cousin, compare notes, that sort of thing.

Six hours at a good clip from Oatley's to Overhill, that is, as long as they could go across the fields by light of moon and star. To go by road would be safer, in the darkness, but also longer. True, there was an unlit lantern hooked to the saddle that, lit, could direct a beam before them, but it would be tiresome to hold the light aloft for any length of time. The moon was full and cast a fine light over the fields, and all would be well... if not for the clouds that began rolling in when he was about halfway to Overhill from Oatley's.

Ferdi rubbed at his temple. There was an ache beginning there, and not something he could attribute to the ale he'd drunk in parting with good Farmer Oatley. No, it was a weather ache, reminder of a ruffian's club at the Battle of Bywater. He grumbled a little within himself. Sensible hobbits had weather aches in bones they'd broken, an arm, say, or a foot-bone. It was dashed inconvenient to have broken his head-bone, and thus saddled with an ache that made thinking more difficult whenever the weather changed.

Thinking or no thinking, a storm was rolling in. He'd have to cut over to the road before the light of the moon was blotted out, or fumble his way through the open fields in darkness. Either way he'd be slowed. He'd hoped to reach Overhill by midnight, then over the Hill and down to Hobbiton, to Bywater, and across the fields and into Tookland well before the dawning. Ham for Pippin's second breakfast, that had been the plan. And the rest of the day a holiday for Ferdi, and he'd planned to spend it well, with Pimpernel his wife, and their children, and eating, and drinking, and telling stories, and napping, and all the other pleasurable pastimes that a holiday allows.

Ah, well. He might be in time for second breakfast yet, if Starfire could gallop part of the time on the soft verge of the road. He'd have to leave off his plans for First-Footing, though. Going the longer way would eat up any cushion of extra time he had set aside.

He had planned well, though. Unless Starfire threw a shoe or some other mishap occurred, he'd be back to the Great Smials well in time for second breakfast. With a glance at the moon, playing "I hide and you seek me" amongst the gathering clouds, Ferdi adjusted their track so that they no longer proceeded due south, but angled now south-eastwards. He could turn due east and come to the narrow country road sooner, but he hated the thought of it. No, he'd ride south-eastwards, bending towards the road, and eventually meet up with it.

He didn't know what he'd been thinking, anyhow, considering First-Footing in these deserted parts! He hadn't seen a light or lamp in a window in the past hour. Likely there'd be farmsteads closer to the road. Perhaps he could stop, after all, just long enough to beg a glass of ale to dull the ache.

They had been making good time all along, and as the moon peeked from a hole in the scudding clouds an hour closer to Overhill, he saw the ribbon of gravelled road ahead, rolling and dipping on its way, beckoning him homewards.

'There it is, old lad,' he said, patting Starfire's neck, stretched out before them as if the pony might take flight at any moment. 'There's the track. Not much of a road, not compared, say, to the Stock Road and certainly doesn't hold a candle to the Great East-West Road, but it'll suit. And even if it buckets down rain, we'll be able to find our way.'

The wind blew a little brisker at that, and Ferdi shivered and pulled his cloak of waterproof oiled wool closer about himself. His jacket underneath was already buttoned up to his chin, and now he drew his hood up around his face and hoped for the best. His head was aching fiercely now, but once they reached the road, he'd turn Starfire's nose homewards and the pony would do the rest. Two hours to Overhill? More? Dare he hope, less?

The first fat raindrops were something of a relief as they blew against his face, cool and refreshing. Ferdi slipped his feet from the stirrups and  lifted his face to the sky, letting his hood fall back again, and closed his eyes, just for a moment, to feel the rain. Soothing, it was, and for the moment he felt as if he were floating somehow, borne along on the wind.

He felt the pony's gait change, and sat up in the saddle, fumbling again for the stirrups, but he was slowed by the head pain, and groggy with weariness into the bargain. It wasn't that long before midnight, and he'd been up well before the dawning...

Chapter 4. The Game's Afoot

One of the ponies in Ferdi's string would stand under saddle. Starfire was not that pony.

In the days of the Troubles, long before Starfire's time, Ferdi would ride his steady Dapple into ruffian territory, dismount, and leave the mare to stand in a thicket, her dappled brown coat hiding her well in the leaves and shadows, while he crept forward to hear the Men as they talked, sitting round a small campfire, laying plans for the benefit of the Tooks. Perhaps "benefit" was not the proper word. In any event, Dapple, when she had a saddle on, would stand patiently until Ferdi returned to lead her quietly away, with the Men no wiser, unless he had the necessity to mount and gallop off through the woods, his taunting laughter floating back to his overlarge, clumsy, crashing pursuers.

Ah, those were the days.

On this night, however, he was riding a fiery stallion, not a gentle mare.

Ferdi stiffened as a chorus of barking broke out around them. Starfire reared up suddenly, reared and plunged, striking out in every direction. Ferdi missed the stirrups and grabbed too late at the saddle, and next thing he knew the ground rose up to knock the breath out of him.

Stunned, he curled himself into a ball where he lay, arms protecting his head, expecting to hear Starfire's whistle of defiance turn to shrieks as the pack of dogs tore at him and the battle began in earnest, but no, instead he heard rapid hoofbeats pounding against the gravelled road, fading rapidly, along with the excited baying of the pursuing dogs.


Ferdi had a nightmare memory of another encounter with stray dogs that had not turned out so well, for him or for the pony. It had been a near thing, but at that time Starfire had come plunging onto the scene and trampled the attacking dogs under his slashing hoofs. It seemed that he'd saved Ferdi from dogs once again, this time by leading them away.

Rounding up strays was the business of the Shirriffs, and he muttered under his breath about the efficiency of the local hobbit. Stray dogs were a nuisance and a danger, for in a pack they'd abandon training and any friendliness they might have towards hobbits.

On the other hand, the strong cheese in the saddlebags had made Ferdi wrinkle his nose. What must it be, to a dog's more sensitive faculty? It was no wonder the pack had been drawn to follow them, and then to pursue the fleeing stallion. Ferdi's luck had held, it seemed; no dogs remained to menace him.

The rain began to bucket down, feeling almost like hail in its pounding force.

Ferdi pulled himself together and groaned to his feet. He'd have to trudge along until he came to a farm, beg or borrow a pony, and set off after Starfire. He'd no doubt that pony would run all the way back to the Great Smials, given half a chance, whether or not the dogs pursued him all the way. That pony was not one to let the grass grow under his feet, and he knew his way home, and that his manger would be filled with oats when he got there.

In fact, without Ferdi's weight to cumber him, likely the pony would arrive well before the dawning. The stablehands might even be awake yet, returning from the festivities to greet Starfire on his arrival. Pippin would get his breakfast ham, all right. But would he eat it? Likely he'd be out in the predawn darkness, leading a search party in the pounding, cold rain, and catch his death.

Such a thing could not be borne.

He forced himself into a run, moving along the road in his pony's wake at his best speed, his cloak flying behind him. He'd be soaked to the skin in no time at all, but what did it matter? He had to get back to the Great Smials just as soon after Starfire as was hobbitly possible.

He didn't know how far he'd run when he thought he saw a glimmer of light ahead, for the miles seemed to stretch on before him forever. He only hoped he hadn't got turned around in the fall. Wouldn't it be just the thing to be running northwards?

But no, Starfire had bolted in this direction, and the pony's instinct would have called him homewards.

He was wet to the skin, as he'd anticipated, and splashing through cold puddles now, and he imagined that his breath was smoking in the cold air, if he could but see it. But he put his head down and ran with all he had in him, and the light crawled slowly closer.At last he saw it, a cottage a little way off the road, of the sort a shepherd might inhabit when he was in from the field. Indeed there was a stone sheepfold to one side, Ferdi passed it as he jogged up the lane, outlined in the light shining from the cottage window, but the fold was empty of woolly life. Was the shepherd out, then, somewhere in the surrounding hills?

But someone was at home in the little cottage, surely. No one would leave a lamp in the window, burning bright, and nobody at home.

He reached the door and bent over, panting, then raised a fist to pound on the door.

He was greeted by the sound of barking, and a heavy body slammed against the sturdy wood. Of course a shepherd would have dogs, to mind the sheep. But if the sheep were out, surely the dogs would be out as well.

This did not sound like a sheepdog. The sheepdogs Ferdi knew were rather more silent in their manner, quietly menacing, crouching and running and staring the sheep into submission.

This sounded rather more like a large, fierce dog, of the sort Ferdi'd heard about in stories told by Pippin and Merry, of Farmer Maggot and his fields of mushrooms and marauding Brandybucks and their visiting cousins.

And this dog was on the inside of the door that Ferdi had been hoping would open to welcome him into warmth and light.

Just lovely.

Chapter 5. Putting his Foot in It


The shout was hardly reassuring, even though the furious barking ceased. Fang? What sort of creature bore the name "Fang"? In his mind's eye, Ferdi imagined slavering jaws, red-glaring eyes, teeth that gleamed white and deadly.

The door opened, and Ferdi stepped back involuntarily, so strong was his apprehension.

An old, wizened hobbit stood with a quizzical look on his face, and crouched at his feet was an enormous hairy monster, massive head resting on huge paws, eyes staring up at Ferdi.

The old hobbit's face broke into a great grin, laugh-lines springing to life, his eyes twinkling with pleasure and welcome. 'Birdie!' he shouted. 'Birdie! It's the First-Footer, it is! Our First-Footer has come at last!'

'Eh? What was that, old hobbit?' a cracking shriek came, and another old hobbit in a shapeless gown turned from the hearth. 'What'd you say?'

'A First-Footer!' the old hobbit thundered, and then turning to Ferdi, he said at the top of his voice, 'But I'm forgetting my manners, sonny-lad! I'm forgetting my manners! Come in, come in!'

'I'm not First-Footing,' Ferdi began, but the old hobbit didn't seem to hear him, and the dog growled, and his voice trailed off in uncertainty. He had to step past the dog to come in, and the old bite on his leg pained him suddenly, as if his fear had reawakened the injury from years ago, but the old hobbit had him by the arm and was pulling him in... He staggered, and the grip on his arm shifted to sudden and unexpected support. The old hobbit was much stronger than he looked, certainly!

'Steady, laddie-mine!' the hobbit shouted. 'But you're soaked to the skin! Come in and warm yourself by the fire! We've food and...'

His wife came up to them then, to shriek, 'But it's a First-Footer, Harlo! Why did you not say so! Our First-Footer's come!'

She hurried to the wall where clothes depended from pegs, pulling something down and returning, even as her husband was urging Ferdi towards the hearth and unburdening him from his wet cloak.

'If I could borrow a pony,' Ferdi said, 'from yourself, or a neighbour, perhaps...'

It was as if he hadn't even opened his mouth. Birdie returned with an armload of knitting, which she proceeded to drape around Ferdi's neck, all the while shrieking, 'Knitted a muffler every year, I have, for the First-Footer, but we've had none these past four years or so, and...'

And Ferdi, looking down as he was enveloped in softness, saw that it was not one long muffler she was winding about him, but several: green, yellow, blue, and dark green with flecks of yellow as if blooming gorse had been captured in wool.

Old Harlo sat Ferdi down in one of the rocking chairs flanking the hearth, and when Ferdi would have stood up again, he noticed the dog had accompanied them and now sat not far away, glaring. He decided to stay put.

Birdie went to lift a battered tin mug from the mantel. 'Got 'em right here,' she cried. 'Got 'em right here!' And she dumped the contents of the mug into Ferdi's lap, a shiny cascade of pennies. 'Polished 'em, I did, with salt and vinegar!' she crowed. 'Good as new, even the ones that've waited four years for you to come!'

Ferdi, cupping the pennies in his palms, wondered if he'd have to choke down four loaves and drink four bottles of wine into the bargain. Not that he'd mind an ale or two. Might do his head some good, after all.

'Down, sirrah! Stay!' Harlo boomed, and Fang dropped his massive head heavily onto his paws once more, with a gusty sigh. The hot breath washed over Ferdi's feet, and he shivered.

'But you're cold!' Birdie said, seeing the shiver. 'Don't just give him the bottles to take away, love,' she shouted to Harlo.

'Eh? What's that, dearie?' Harlo said at the top of his voice, cupping a well-worn hand to his ear.

Birdie grabbed her husband by his shirt and pulled him closer to shriek into his ear. 'He needs something warm!'

'Nay,' Harlo said genially, leaning down to pat the hairy head of the dog. 'Fang'll do him no harm!'

Birdie rolled her eyes, muttering about deaf old gaffers, and hurried over to the table where, yes, four wine bottles reposed, a corkscrew hopefully laid to one side. These, of course, were for the lucky First-Footer, but the case where they'd reposed to this point was well over half-full of bottles yet. Fishing out two of these and drawing the corks with some difficulty, the old hobbit-wife poured the rich, deep red wine into a long-handled saucepan, added a muslin bag of spices, and settled the whole over the coals until the wine began to steam. Then she poured a tall, sturdy mug full, adding a dollop of sweetening and stirring briskly, before handing it to Ferdi. 'Drink up, now!' she shouted cheerily. 'I don't want to have to tell you twice!'

The dog lifted his massive head from his paws and curled his lip at Ferdi, who took the mug and sipped. He didn't want to have to be told twice, either. It seemed likely that the brute would go for his throat if he appeared uncooperative. He sipped again and nodded with as broad a smile as he could manage. 'Good!' he shouted, hoping they'd hear him.

Satisfied, the dog laid his head down once more.

Birdie nodded and went back to the table, where she'd been carving roasted meat. The good smell of lamb reached Ferdi's nostrils, and his stomach rumbled. He hastily quaffed more of the hot wine. It went down smoothly, spreading warmth through his body and easing the ache of his head.

'I was getting ready for midnight supper!' Birdie shrieked at him cheerily. 'We always rise with the Sun and retire with her as well, but for this one night of the year! I roasted a nice joint to help keep awake, for I didn't want to sleep through the First-Footing! But I'm glad you came when you did, for my head was nodding as it was!'

There was no weariness in the bright eye, and her movements were quick and not weary. As a matter of fact, she cut a nice piece of roasted fat, larger than Ferdi's fist, free of the meat and tossed it accurately to the dog. With a flash of bright fangs, the chunk was gone with a snap of the powerful jaws.

Ferdi paled, and took another goodly swig from the mug. The wine went down easily at a gulp, and he was feeling more relaxed in spite of himself. Hot mulled wine did not lend itself to sipping, his usual approach to heady spirits, but demanded hearty swallows. He was in a fair way to becoming tipsy... but the ache in his head was growing less.

'Here, now,' Birdie said, cutting one of the loafs on the table lengthwise and layering meat inside. 'How about a nice little sandwich?'

'Don't mind if I do!' Ferdi shouted, and it seemed she heard him, for her wrinkled face was wreathed in merriment and she brought him the enormous sandwich with a little dance of delight. Ferdi started to rise from his chair, to bow to Harlo as host, but thought the better of it when the dog growled. Instead he bowed from his sitting position, and at Birdie's urging he tucked into the food in a way that warmed the old hobbits' hearts. Birdie turned to make up two more loaves into sandwiches, and Harlo tossed the lamb bone to Fang, and all gnawed contentedly at their portions.

Harlo and Birdie took turns telling Ferdi all about their sons, who were "out with the sheep". Actually, they told much the same story, several times over, but it didn't much matter since they appeared to be so deaf that neither heard what the other had said.

Birdie filled Ferdi's mug again, and poured the rest of the wine into cups for herself and her husband, and they toasted the New Year there in front of the roaring fire, while Ferdi's cloak steamed itself into a slightly less sopping state. And then Birdie packed up the four bottles of that good wine, wrapping them well, and four loaves, but thankfully no lamb (Ferdi had not forgotten the stray dogs in the neighbourhood), and Ferdi arose from the chair at last with the old hobbits' blessing, and thus unmolested by the watchful Fang as he donned his damp-but-no-longer-soaking cloak.

At the door he tried again. 'If I MIGHT...' he said.

'And a good night to you!' Harlo shouted joyfully, slapping him on the back.

'A PONY,' Ferdi tried again.

'Ah no, we're not lonely,' Birdie said brightly. 'Not now that you've come to brighten the New Year, and bring us the luck! Bless you, lad, bless you!'

Ferdi opened his mouth to try again, but looking down, he saw Fang standing between the old hobbits, his ears pricked forward and his lips pulled back from his shining teeth.

Surely there would be another neighbour, some way down the road to Overhill. If he had any luck at all, it wouldn't be far, and he wouldn't spoil that fine wine, jostling it as he ran.

Chapter 6. And All the Little Children, that Round the Table Go

The rain was pounding down, Ferdi's heart was pounding within him, his feet... his feet might have started out pounding the sodden ground, splashing through puddles, but now they seemed to skim the earth. He had the feeling of flying, and a most agreeable feeling it was, too. The small voice in the back of his brain told him that those two brimming mugs of mulled wine had been... what? The equivalent of four wineglasses? Six? As much as Ferdi might drink over the course of a fortnight--he had no head when it came to spirits, most times stopping at one glass, and that one sipped over the course of an hour or more.

'At least my head has stopped aching,' he told the small voice, and couldn't help a chuckle. Not so terrible a cure for the head ache, was it? Warm fire, pleasant company, roasted meat done to a turn, enveloped in the embrace of a hearty, fresh-baked loaf. And lovely wine, warming his insides, still sweet in the memory on the tongue. He'd have to ask Nell to mull the wine he was carrying home...

Home! He was making good progress, he thought. Why, he'd run all the way to the Great Smials, if he had to! He was feeling well, very well indeed, warmed by the wine and the exercise, kept by the cold rain from overheating. If only the dratted road would stay under his feet! He'd thought it a fairly straight path, earlier, but now he found himself blundering off the road on one side or the other. It did not occur to him that he was doing the weaving, not the gravelled track.

Ah! He might not have to run to the Great Smials after all! There was light up ahead, shining from a number of windows... Overhill? He blinked, and stumbled when his concentration wandered from the steady one... two... of his footbeats. He pulled up to consider just where in Overhill the Boffins lived; surely he could borrow a pony from Folco's uncle?

Windy, it was. The lights ahead were swaying in the wind, or perhaps Ferdi himself was wind-blown. In any event, it took him a moment or two of consideration to come to the conclusion that he'd not yet reached Overhill. No, this was a large, sprawling smial, probably two or more families living together, a father and his sons and their families, more than likely. But it was a chance for a respite from the rain he could feel trickling down his head, and perhaps a pony or a lift to Overhill? Perhaps he could trade one of his bottles for a ride.

Ferdi hefted his bag, stumbled forward, and began to run the last stretch to shelter. Unfortunately, the floating feeling had gone and his legs felt like lead.

He pounded on the door with his fist and then leaned against the sturdy wood. With all the light spilling from the windows, surely the family were at home, and at that, surely he was not rousing them from their beds... At least there was no furious barking to trouble him.

The door opened with a jerk and Ferdi fell inwards, into the arms of his greeters, a chorus of "Welcome!" swirling around him. He could not have known, but it had been two or three hours short of midnight when he'd called at Harlo and Birdie's little smial, and though he'd stayed long enough to eat and drink, and then run for more than an hour since, the clock had struck midnight not too long before he knocked upon this door.

'My goodness, first-footing out in this weather!' a plump hobbit matron said in dismay, as her youngest daughter threw a newly knitted muffler of tweedy brown and green around Ferdi's neck. 'Bring him in, Bert, and sit him down by the fire! He looks half drownded!'

Ferdi felt himself pulled, and he stumbled in the direction he was guided, though he was blinking and confused by the brightness inside the smial, after the long dark run. He scarcely felt his cloak lifted away, the now-five mufflers taken away, his jacket unbuttoned and pulled off, his shirt collar loosened. He came to himself at the taste of brandy, and found anxious hobbits clustered round. He lifted his hand to intercept the glass, and there was a general sigh of relief.

'You went away from us there,' one of the hobbits said. 'Feeling better now?'

'He's first-footing for sure!' a tween said. 'His sack's full of wine and bread, and look at all the mufflers!'

'He's half-drownded,' the matron maintained, and pushed at the glass in Ferdi's hand. 'You drink that up now, it'll do you a world of good!'

'My pony,' Ferdi said after a goodly gulp.

'There's no pony,' another tween said. 'I looked outside!'

'Ran away,' Ferdi said. 'Stray dogs...'

'Ah!' an older hobbit said. 'You fell from your pony and the pony ran away. Bumped your head, did you?'

'No wonder he's a bit "off",' one of the clustered hobbits whispered to another. 'Bumped his head, poor fellow, and half-drownded, as Mum said.'

 Well, we can sort it all out in the morning. We'll find you an extra bed and...'

'No,' Ferdi said, half rising. 'I have got to get back. They'll worry, and send out searchers, and...'

'And spoil the holiday, no doubt,' the matron said sensibly. 'What with worry for you, and all this cold rain, and someone's likely to catch his death into the bargain.'

'Exactly!' Ferdi said, all of his worry for Pippin returning in a rush. And not to mention his Nell, how she'd fret if they told her his pony had come back without him!

'You're in luck, young fellow!' the older hobbit said. 'My Lannie, here, he broke his foot just the day before yesterday...'

Ferdi failed to see how Lannie's broken foot constituted luck, but the fire was warming, as was the brandy, and when he drained the glass someone quickly topped it off again. 'Drink up! It'll help your head, it will!'

'Already has!' Ferdi said stoutly, and drank, and then some bread-and-cheese was shoved into his hand. It was a nice sharp cheese, making a lovely contrast to the sweet-sharpness of the brandy that was evaporating on his tongue.

'Grandson Lannie's a quick post rider,' the matron said proudly. 'But he'll be off his feet for a few days more...'

The crowd parted slightly and Ferdi saw a hobbit just out of his tweens sitting across the hearth from him, one foot propped on a stool. 'Pleased to meet you,' Lannie said, hefting a brandy glass of his own.

'You can ride Lannie's pony t' home, to reassure your family,' the patriarch said, 'and send the pony back to us in a day or three...'

'It's all the way to the Great Smials,' Ferdi said apologetically, to be greeted with exclamations of surprise.

'All the way to the Great Smials!' someone echoed.



'Always said those Tooks were daft...' someone else said, to be quickly hushed by the others. ' Imagine, first-footing this far from home!'

'Better pickings,' came the answer. 'Just look! He has five mufflers!'

'And four bottles in his bag!' the first tween said. 'Pr'haps there are too many First-Footers in the Tookland, and so he had to come further afield to have any luck!'

There was general agreement on this point, and a great deal of appreciation expressed to Ferdi, that he'd been so kind as to ride miles and miles from home just to spread the luck around a little.

His tongue felt too thick to form words, or he would have told them that he was a messenger of sorts, himself. Of course, they'd probably find it hard to credit that he was the special assistant to the Thain, in his sodden, inebriated state.

Which did not seem to be in a fair way of improving. The sodden part, yes, he was feeling warmer, and his cloak and jacket were steaming on the rack before the hearth, but they kept pouring brandy into his glass, and it seemed churlish to just hold the glass in his hand and not drink the stuff, and yet every time the level dropped below half-full more would be added. And all the while bright conversation swirled around him, and songs were sung, and...

The patriarch was bending before him, peering into his eyes. 'Pr'haps you ought to sleep here,' he said with a frown of concern. 'If'n you're muddle-headed from the fall...'

'No,' Ferdi said, struggling to rise from his chair.

'We'll send one of the young'uns with a message to your kin,' the patriarch said.

Ferdi relaxed for a moment, but then he thought of the little ones, and his promise. He'd have the day free of responsibilities, and he'd promised the day to them! 'No,' he said. 'I promised my little ones...'

'You're in no shape to ride...' the patriarch said.

Ferdi pulled himself together, rose with an effort and stood swaying. 'I am well!' he insisted. 'Very well! That bread-and-cheese was just what was wanted, and the brandy wonderfully warming...'

'Brownie's saddled!' a tween carolled from the doorway.

'Tad, I think you had better...' the patriarch said, turning, but Ferdi put a firm hand on his shoulder.

'My head is much better for the rest,' he said. 'I'll be fine, just fine. I cannot thank you enough for your kindness.' He pulled the mufflers from the drying rack and began to wind them, one at a time, about his neck.

'If you're sure about this,' the patriarch said.

The rest of everyone's words rather blurred together, but Ferdi got the gist. Warm wishes, and thanks, and urgings to be careful, and stay dry (as if one could, in this weather!). He got on his jacket, though he'd have been hard pressed to find the sleeves without help, and fastened his cloak, and pulled up his hood over his head, and bowed to his host.

The tween who held Ferdi's sack said, 'I wrapped the brandy well, Dad, afore I put it in with the pennies!'

'Good lad,' one of the hobbits said. Ferdi couldn't quite make out who was who what with all the faces crowding round, and the amount of brandy--how much was it?--he'd had in the space of half an hour. A hand clapped his shoulder, and the same voice said, 'And there's plenty more where that come from! When you bring Lannie's pony back, why, we'll have to have a proper sit-down!'

'O aye,' Ferdi said, and there was a burst of laughter.

'Spoken like a true Took!' someone said, and Ferdi chuckled, and then they were escorting him to the door.

Chapter 7. A Little Goes a Long Way 

But it was not to be so simple as all that. Short of the door, the patriarch stopped with another frown.

'You're certain you won't stop over?' he said. 'We can send Tad as well as any...'

'Thank you very much for your kindness,' Ferdi said as firmly as he knew how. 'But my little ones will be hoping to see me at breakfast or not long after, and I'd hate to disappoint them by not coming until teatime!'

'Well then,' the old hobbit said, looking round the circle of faces: sons, grandsons, daughters, granddaughters, even one small great-grandchild snuggled in his mother's arms. Raising his voice, he turned back to the tween at the door. 'Tad,' he said, 'I want you to saddle Lannie's spare pony as well, and ride along to the Smials with this fellow. Likely they'll feed you breakfast when you get there, and pack a bag of victuals for your return...'

'Certainly they would!' Ferdi said as the tween turned out of the smial again, slamming the door behind himself. 'But no need...'

'You knocked yourself on the noggin, falling from your pony,' the old hobbit said grimly. 'It'd be most unwise of us to let you ride off on Lannie's pony, into the dark and rain, most unwise! Why, what if the dogs came on you again and you fell off Lannie's pony? Where would you be? And where, I ask, would Lannie be, his pony running loose over the moors?'

'I...' Ferdi began, wanting to assure the family that really, he was an experienced rider and his fall had been a fluke, more or less, but the old hobbit wasn't having any.

'Prudence,' he said, holding up a stern finger. 'I didn't get where I am in the world by taking foolish chances!' He looked around at the comfortable smial, and his family surrounding them. 'No,' he said. 'Sometimes you have to take chances, but even in such circumstances it's best to look before you leap! Better to be safe than sorry, that's what I always say.'

For the first time Ferdi noticed that the old hobbit wore braces as well as a belt. He nodded.

'Well then,' the old hobbit said again, and added, 'All's well that ends better, or so I like to say! Taddy'll ride along with you to the Smials, stop over for breakfast, and lead Lannie's pony home again, saving you the trouble of returning him. I think that's the best solution, all round, don't you?'

Ferdi nodded again. Who was he to argue?

They walked him to the door then, and a couple of the younger ones escorted him to where Tad waited with the two ponies, while the others stood in the doorway and sang.

Ferdi mounted with a little less grace than he usually employed, but then he usually wasn't in the habit of imbibing quantities of wine and brandy.

Perhaps the old hobbit had the right of things.

He swayed a little as they turned off the lane, into the main road, and Tad reached out to steady him. Good lad. Ferdi found himself grateful for the company as the tween lifted up his voice in song, and the ponies picked up their pace as if to keep time. And so, trotting and cantering, they rode to Overhill, and up the great Hill above Hobbiton, and then down the other side, down through Hobbiton, on to Bywater... and Ferdi's home.


Night was nearly spent when Starfire arrived home. He cantered through the darkened streets of Tuckborough, past the shuttered windows where celebrating hobbits had seen in the New Year and then sensibly gone to bed.

The stallion slowed to a trot on reaching the stones of the yard before the Great Smials, and then to a walk, heaving a satisfied sigh. He was home, and safe, and soon he'd be relieved of his malodorous burden. The dogs had chased him for some way before he'd left them behind, and he'd kept running for the sheer joy of it, until he'd tired. But he was heading in the proper direction, and the stables pulled at him as if he were a fish on a line. He'd walked a little, grazing at the verge, and then picked up in a trot, and then a blowing signboard as he passed a public house had startled him and he'd taken off in flight once more. Running and walking, he reached the Great Smials an hour or two before the dawning.

No stable hobbits were yet about. They'd made very merry the night before, and the earliest risers were as of yet barely stirring in their beds.

Starfire stopped before the stables and gave a whinny. He was answered by the ponies within. The stable lad on duty, pillowed in the hay of an empty stall, groaned and covered his ears. 'Go back to sleep!' he called. 'Too early for your breakfast, by half!'

Starfire pricked his ears forward and stepped lightly, entering the stables. He walked down the corridor to his own stall. The door was shut, but this was no barrier. They hadn't shot the special bolt, the one he couldn't work, and it was short business to take the regular bolt between his teeth, lift it and shove it over. The door swung gently, and the stallion gave it a helping nudge and moved into his stall.

It was bothersome to eat with the bit in his mouth, but the oats were welcome, the haynet was full, and the smell of fresh water rose from the bucket. He was home. He buried his nose in the feedbox and began to chew, one ear twitching. Perhaps he was wondering what he'd forgotten. Perhaps not.


A yawning stable hobbit found the stallion an hour later. 'Star!' he exclaimed. 'I didn't know you got back!'

He called to the stable hobbit who'd had the night's duty, still burrowed in his pile of hay. 'Nibs! Nibs, you lazy lie-about, why didn't you untack Ferdi's pony?'

'He never told me to,' Nibs said, stretching and then burrowing under his blanket. 'Leave off, Tim! You relieved me half an hour ago and they won't be serving the festive breakfast for an hour or so... I'm going to catch up on my sleep until then!'

'Likely you were sleeping when Ferdibrand came in,' Tim said. 'He'd tear strips off you with the sharp side of his tongue, he would, were he to come and find you fed Star but never untacked him!'

'Course I fed Star,' Nibs muttered into his blanket. 'Ferdi left orders to have the stall ready when he came, so's he wouldn't have to haul feed and hay and water after riding round the clock...' But Tim did not hear. He was already in Starfire's stall, unburdening the stallion of his load, loosening the girth, removing the saddle, carrying it away to a rack for cleaning, then fetching away the bridle, and then bringing a grooming box to the stall and brushing and polishing the stallion until he gleamed. When Ferdibrand came back from breakfast, he'd find the stallion properly cared for.

'Nibs!' he shouted again. 'Nibs!'

'What is it now?' Nibs groaned.

'You stir your lazy bones and take all this stuff to the kitchens! There's strong cheese in the bags, for one thing, that needs to be put in a cool room right away...'

'Is that what I smell?' Nibs said. 'I just thought you'd forgot to wash your feet...'

'Nibs!' Tim shouted, putting down the brush and going to the door of Starfire's stall. 'Do you want to clean stalls for the next fortnight?'

'I'm coming,' Nibs said, groaning himself to his feet. 'Coming...' His eyes widened as he saw the wrapped bundles. 'You expect me to carry all that?'

'Ferdi and Starfire did,' Tim said smugly. 'Ham for the Thain's breakfast, two of 'em, from the looks of it, and bacon, and smelly cheese for the Mistress. I'd say Ferdi made quite a haul, this oat-buying trip.'

'I'll say,' Nibs grumbled. 'It'll take three trips to get it all.'

'Then you'd best get started,' Tim said, picking up the brush again, and moving to Starfire's other side.

Chapter 8. Oasis in a Thirsty Land

The rain was pouring down so heavily that they might as well be ducks swimming their way home. Ferdi's head sank lower; his whole body felt as if it were weighed down by the burden of water, until he was nearly lying on his pony's neck, and the lad's steadying hand was a constant presence.

He didn't even notice that they'd stopped. For a moment he feared he was falling from the pony, and put out his hands to catch himself, but the hard impact of the ground never came; instead he was suspended in the air, a strangely heavy floating sensation.

'Steady!' he heard above the pounding of the rain, and then they were moving, and then the rain was gone.

Next Ferdi knew, he was sitting down and a mug of water was being held to his lips. He turned his face away; riding in the rain had already half-drowned him. He didn't need any additional water. He heard... Tad, was it? ...explaining that he'd been thrown from his pony earlier in the evening, and hit his head.

'What's he travelling for?' someone said. 'Oughter be in bed!'

'No,' Ferdi said, pushing at the hands that restrained him. 'No, promised the little ones...'

'He made a promise to his family that he'd be home to celebrate the New Year with them,' Tad said apologetically. 'My old gaffer, he didn't like it much, but he feared the hobbit would walk out into the storm to keep his promise, and so he charged me to ride alongside.'

'Drink up now,' a familiar voice said. 'Why, it's Ferdibrand Took!'

'Ferdibrand?' someone else said.

'Special assistant to Thain Peregrin!'

Ferdi blinked. Surely he knew the voice.

Tad spoke at his shoulder, sounding awestruck. 'Special assistant to the Thain? My goodness, we never knew who he was... he was too far gone to answer many of our questions. Just kept insisting that he needed to get home. He revived enough after some brandy to get up and climb on a pony, but...'

'Belongs in a bed, of a certainty,' the familiar voice said, 'but knowing how stubborn a Took can be...'

'Perhaps we ought to fetch a healer.'

A face hung in front of Ferdi, and the familiar voice took on a demanding tone. 'Master Ferdibrand? Do you hear me?'

'You don't have to shout,' Ferdi said thickly.

'Hit his head, you say? He almost sounds as if he's had too much to drink,' the familiar voice said. 'Revived after taking brandy, you say?'

'That was two hours ago,' Tad said. 'I'm sure it's wearing off by now.'

'We've got brandy, here now, Poppy! A glass of brandy for the Thain's special assistant!'

'What's he been doing, I'd like to know?'

'First-footing, from the look of it... five mufflers! He's had better luck than any of the First-footers who've come in to cap the evening.'

'Well then, he takes the prize, doesn't he? I don't think you need to wait for any more to come in. You can award the prize now, rather than at breakfast.'

'Let him lie down, take a little rest, and he can breakfast with us!'

Ferdi tried to rise. 'Got to get home to my little ones,' he muttered.

'Steady now,' said the familiar voice as hands pushed him back down, and then it added, 'Thanks, Poppy,' and then a glass touched his mouth and he smelled the heady aroma and opened his lips and allowed them to pour the brandy in. Ah, but that was good. He'd never truly appreciated the restorative qualities of brandy before...

Opening his eyes, he recognised the proprietor of the Green Dragon. 'Bywater?' he said.

'You know where you are,' a hobbit said.

Ferdi couldn't help feeling annoyed. Of course he knew where he was. What sort of fool did they take him for?

'Drink up,' the proprietor said.

Ferdi, in his muddled state, couldn't quite remember the hobbit's name. Tim... Tom... Tam... something. Ah well, if he just kept his mouth occupied with sipping the brandy, he wouldn't have to reveal his woeful lack of manners, forgetting a name!

'That's it,' the proprietor said, and as Ferdi lifted his hand to cradle the glass he stood upright with a sigh of relief. 'I don't think we need a healer. A little brandy, that's the ticket.'

'And a bed?' someone said.

The proprietor shook his head. He knew Tooks too well. 'He'd likely lie down to rest and then take himself off when nobody was looking. You heard him! "Got to get home to the little ones!" When a Took makes a promise, nothing will stop him but death, perhaps, or a flood.'

'It's raining enough for a flood,' an old gaffer said.

Ferdi drained the brandy, and then they gave him a mug of steaming strong spirits, hot buttered something-or-other--as he confined his drinking to the occasional ale or glass of wine, and on rare occasions, brandy, he had no idea what it was, but it went down warm and smooth--and he got that down too, and then Tad and the proprietor were helping him from the chair.

'How's your head?' Tad said.

'Much better,' Ferdi managed, though he'd have been hard put to it to stand without the helping hands.

'You'll be all right?' the proprietor said.

'O' course!' Ferdi insisted, and Tad answered in the same breath.

'We made it all the way here without mishap, two hours riding, and it's only another three or four hours to Tuckborough across the fields.'

'And the rain is letting up some,' the serving lass--Poppy?--said.

'Well then,' Tad said. 'There's no time like the present. He won't rest until I get him home to his little ones.'

'Fine, upright hobbit,' the proprietor said approvingly. 'Too bad there aren't more like him.'

Ferdi stood straighter, suppressing a belch. He was a fine, upright hobbit, after all.

'But you must have your prize!' Poppy said, and to the other hobbits crowded around, she said, 'He's the luckiest First-footer we've had tonight! We cannot let him leave without the prize! And I doubt any more will be coming in at this late hour... it's two hours or so past midnight!'

It seemed that the Green Dragon stayed open past its usual closing time on this night of nights, with hobbits from Bywater and Hobbiton and the surrounding area celebrating the passing of the old year and the arrival of the new. First-footers would come to show off their gains, and a fine breakfast would be served to anyone who stayed through the night or arrived at first light, before the Green Dragon would be closed down for the rest of First Day and all of the following night, not opening again until breakfast the following day.

'A capital idea!' the proprietor said, and there was a shower of acclamation from the onlookers.

Poppy went away and returned to throw another muffler over Ferdi's neck, this one a bright red with gold stars embroidered overall, and she handed the proprietor a bulky package wrapped in brown paper, which he in turn pushed into Ferdi's hands.

'Currant wine,' he said. 'My wife's own, and very rare!'

'I... I...' Ferdi stammered. 'I couldn't...!'

'Nonsense!' the gaffer said, whacking him on the back. (It was a good thing Tad was holding him steady.) 'You won, fair and square!'

'I...' Ferdi said.

'Take it, and drink it in good health, and toast the Green Dragon with wishes of prosperity if you'd be so kind,' the proprietor said genially.

'I... I'd be happy to,' Ferdi said, giving in to the inevitable. He fumbled the package into a secure place under his jacket; the sack of his "First-footings" was with the ponies in the stables.

As Tad escorted him to the door he heard the proprietor boasting about his wife's special currant wine, so special that they didn't even put it in bottles, but in wineskins.

They were just ready to mount their ponies when a hobbit came hurrying out of the inn. 'Glad I caught you,' he said breathlessly.

'Is there something we've forgotten?' Tad said, checking to make sure Ferdi's sack of wine bottles and bread and pennies and brandy was securely tied to the saddle. Ferdi had meant to add the newest bounty, but seeing the hard knots he decided just to carry the stuff under his jacket. If he got light-headed in this last stretch to Tuckborough, he supposed he could steady himself with the currant liqueur, though from recollection of drinking his grandmother's, the stuff would be sickly sweet and syrupy.

'Hullo, Jolly,' Ferdi said, recognising one of the Cottons.

'You don't want to drink that,' Jolly Cotton said.

'Drink what?' Tad asked.

'He doesn't want to drink that stuff he won,' Jolly said. 'Wonderful weed-killer it is, but you don't want to drink it! It'll lay you low, and the head pain the next day... don't drink it! Pour it out, and not on any plants that you value, neither!'

'It'll make a wonderful birthday mathom, then,' Ferdi said. 'I'll give it to Pippin, or better yet, Merry, on my next birthday.'

'Just warn them it's weed-killer,' Jolly said, helping Tad lift Ferdi up into the saddle, for it seemed the hobbit's knock on the noggin had affected his balance; he needed help just finding the stirrup.

'I'll do that,' Ferdi said. 'Keed-willer,' he added, and laughed.

'He really ought to be in bed,' Jolly said to Tad in a worried tone.

'He will be, soon enough,' Tad said. 'I'm sure he'll rest comfortably indeed, once I've got him home.'

'I'm sure I will,' Ferdi said with a smile, and hiccoughed.

'Here,' Tad said, tendering a water-bottle. 'The innkeeper sent this along in case you needed it.'

Ferdi took the water-bottle and tilted his head back. To his surprise and gratification, it was filled, not with water, but with brandy.

Chapter 9. Home, Sweet Home

The hard rain had diminished to a steady drizzle as they rode across the fields to Tuckborough. Tad stopped them at intervals, making sure that Ferdi took some of the sustaining brandy at each pause.

At last they clattered into the yard of the Great Smials, some time after the dawning. 'Here already?' Ferdi said in surprise.

'Here already,' Tad said, relieved. He'd steadied Ferdi for most of the journey, poor hobbit. His charge had been having trouble staying in the saddle, most of the way from Bywater, what with the knock on his head and all. He resolved to seek out a healer, first thing, since he'd been unable to argue Ferdi into seeing the healer on their arrival.

They rode up to the stables, where Tad leapt lightly down and hurried to help Ferdi from the saddle before that hobbit fell. 'Here we are,' he said.

Old Tom, the stable master, came to greet them. 'Ferdi!' he said in surprise. 'I thought you'd arrived hours ago! The cooks had the bacon and ham in hand, or so my son told me, and Starfire...'

'Starfire's back, and safe?' Ferdi said, and slumped in relief against Tad.

Old Tom hurried to them, to take Ferdi from the other side, and Tad explained. 'The pony threw him, some way before he came to Overhill,' he said. 'He got a bad knock on the head; could scarcely stand when we found him at the door.'

'I'll call Woodruff,' Old Tom said, and in explanation added to Tad, 'head healer...'

But Ferdi straightened in their grasp and shook their helping hands away. 'I am well,' he said with as much dignity as he could muster. If he spoke slowly enough, he could make the words come out clearly enough, without slurring.

'Surely, Ferdi, just to let Woodruff take a look...' Old Tom said, but Ferdi would have none of it. Old Tom wasn't much surprised.

'I'll just have a little talk with that pony,' Ferdi said. 'If you'll let the Thain know I'm back, and safe. I hope he didn't worry overmuch.'

'Last I heard, he hadn't wakened yet,' Old Tom said. 'Most everyone slept in this morning. There was hardly a soul at early breakfast, but the cooks are stirring up quite a feast for the Thain and Mistress, thanks to you, I hear.'

Ferdi nodded. He hadn't listened past "hadn't wakened yet". 'Well,' he said, 'I'll just take Star to task for leaving me in the mud, and then I'll be in to report to the Thain before I go off duty for the rest of the day...' Mistaking Old Tom's expression, he added, 'Regi did tell me to take the day for myself after I got back.'

'O of course, o' course,' Old Tom said, thinking furiously. He'd let Ferdi check on the pony, while he got word to Ferdi's wife, and to Woodruff. Ferdi did not seem himself, and a knock on the head was no light matter, especially to one who'd had his skull broken in the Battle of Bywater.

'Tad here had planned to breakfast before heading home again,' Ferdi said, thumping the tween on the back. 'Why don't you show him to the great room, Tom?'

'I'll do that,' Old Tom said, and pulled at the lad's arm. He'd take the lad to Woodruff, that the healer might question him before dealing with Ferdi. He raised his voice. 'Tim! Elbert! Ponies!'

Tim, Old Tom's middle son, and Elbert, one of the stable lads, came jogging from the stables to take the ponies in charge. 'We'll just give them a good feed and rubdown,' Old Tom said. 'When you're ready to take yourself home, just let us know.' Tim looked the ponies over, but as he made ready to lead one in, his father forestalled him. 'Elbert, take them both in, will you?'

'I'll do that, Tom,' the stable lad said, taking Tad's reins as well as those of Ferdi's borrowed pony, and led them clopping away.

'I thank you,' Tad said formally, with a bow to the stable master, and then turned towards Ferdi. 'May I escort you to the Smials, sir?' he said, mindful of Ferdi's position.

Ferdi laughed at this lofty address and slapped the lad on the back. 'You don't need to "sir" me,' he said. 'I'm just a working hobbit, like Tom here.' He blinked owlishly at Old Tom and said, 'You take the lad along to breakfast. I'll be in soon. I just want to see that Star took no harm in his headlong flight.'

'He was fed and watered as soon as he came in,' Tim said, 'and I groomed him within an inch of his life, Ferdi. I'm sorry, but the lad on duty thought you'd brought him in and left him in his stall, having been called to report to the steward, and snared by some responsibility or other. We didn't realise... he was in his stall, as quiet as an old mare, chomping away, and of course we thought you'd put him in...'

Ferdi snorted. 'Put himself away, more than likely,' he said. 'I do hope you shot the extra bolt when you were done grooming him!'

'I did,' Tim said with a firm nod.

'Who was the lad on duty?' Old Tom said. 'Was it Nibs?'

Tim hesitated, and his father nodded. 'Ought to have known,' he said. 'That one's bone-lazy, and the only cure for laziness is more work, I warrant. Where's Nibs now?'

'Sleeping,' Tim said.

'You put him on filling haynets,' Old Tom said. 'That ought to be a goodly labour for the lad. Tedious, and good for the muscles. He'll be fine sore by the end of the day.'

'End of the day?' Ferdi said.

Tom nodded grimly. 'Tim knows,' he said, as his son turned away to go and rouse Nibs from his sleep. 'He'll have the lad fill the haynets, starting at one end of the stables, all the way to the other end, and when he finishes with the last haynet, why, he'll just start over again at the beginning. I think two, three, four times carrying hay to every stall in the Great Smials stables, and the lad'll know something of the value of his labour.' His eyes twinkled. 'Ponies aren't called "hay-burners" for no reason.'

Tad whistled low, wide-eyed. The stable building was enormous, to his countrified eyes!

Old Tom smiled and indicated the Smials proper, across the yard. 'But let us not neglect your breakfast, lad! Ferdi-here will go and whisper sweet nothings to his ponies, and if he's not in for breakfast by the time you're on your second cup of tea, I'll roust him out of the stables myself and send him in to his rest.'

'He'll only be halfway through his first cup,' Ferdi promised. 'Star doesn't deserve a whole cup of sweet nothings, not after this night's work!' He turned away, swaying a little, but caught his balance as if aware of watching eyes, and made his way into the stables, not catching at the wall until he'd turned the corner and was out of Old Tom's sight.

Old Tom drew a deep breath and nodded. 'Right,' he said to Tad. 'We'll go and find the healer, fill her ears with what you know about Ferdi's fall, and then take you off to your breakfast.'

Chapter 10. Needle in a Haystack

Ferdi made his unsteady way past the rapidly growing pile of hay in the large, open entryway. Four of the stable lads were forking great quantities down from the loft for the morning feeding, and Tim, in passing, had called up to them, to tell them to double the amount that they usually threw down, and then they might have the rest of the day, until the evening time for cleaning stalls, for themselves. It was thus with a cheery tune that they worked. It seemed they'd not have to fill the haynets, nor sweep away the leavings, nor scrub the stones when all was said and done.

Once safely out of Old Tom's sight, he leaned against the wall. Truly his head was muddled; the world spun around him. The water bottle of brandy was empty, of course, and it was attached to the saddle of his borrowed pony in any event, as was the bag of First-footing prizes. But he still had the package, under his jacket, and if his head grew too heavy he'd seek a nip of the stuff therein, before attempting the long walk across the yard to the Smials proper. He did not want to alarm his wife, after all, with staggering weakness.

The dizziness passed, and he straightened. Leaning against the wall for support, he made his way to Starfire's stall.

The pony was asleep, rump turned towards the door, one hind leg cocked. Ferdi stood silent at the doorway for a number of breaths, listening, his eyes searching the smoky flanks, the clean lines of the legs, unmarred by the jaws of the dogs that had chased him. No, Starfire was in fine fettle.

Ferdi fumbled with the special latch, but for some reason his fingers were clumsy. He wanted to go into the stall, to run his hands down the pony's legs, to make sure Star had taken no harm in his headlong flight, but at last he gave up the attempt. 'Twould be a shame to waken the pony, anyhow, considering that they'd left for the North Farthing before the dawning of the previous day. It was no wonder that the pony was so deeply asleep, his ears hadn't even twitched at Ferdi's soft greeting. Ferdi himself could use a bit of a nap... and after that, he'd promised the day to his little ones, and to Pimpernel.

Looking down, he saw that Elbert had laid the sack of wine and brandy, pennies and bread loaves, against the wall between Star's stall, and Dapple's. Good. He remembered that he wanted to ask Nell to mull some of that good wine... in the meantime, he removed the plethora of mufflers from around his neck and dropped them on top of the sack, following with his cloak. For some reason he felt flushed with heat, and the cool air was refreshing. On second thought, he took up the bright-red muffler and wound it about his neck again, tucking the ends into his jacket. It added a festive touch, he thought.

He moved to the next stall, where his aging Dapple resided, and with a soft whicker of welcome she moved to thrust her head over the half-door, rubbing her nose against him. 'I'm sorry, lass,' he said quietly, stroking the velvet nose, now growing grey with the passing of the years. 'I don't have a treat on me, but you'll have a Yuletide apple just so soon as my head clears...' The only "treat" he had at the moment was the prize from the Green Dragon, still in its wrappings under his coat, but it wasn't the sort of thing you'd give to a pony!

From the next stall along the row, Penny, Dapple's daughter, was murmuring pony greetings and tossing her head up and down, and with a smile and a stumble, Ferdi moved to greet her in turn. 'No treats,' he repeated, 'but I promise, I'll bring the fattest apples and carrots in the kitchen stores, I will!' He patted the eager neck, and she pushed at him, sending him sprawling.

The two mares looked at him in patent surprise as he propped himself up on his elbows. 'Steady, there,' he said, but whether he addressed Penny or himself was unclear. This would never do! It would be awkward if one of the stable lads should come along and find him lying in the corridor! They'd have the healers on him in a Buckland moment, and he'd end up spending the rest of the day in bed!

Not that he'd mind, if he only had Nell there with him... now there would be a fine way to ring in the New Year.

He realised that he was just lying there when he heard a stable lad's protest, and Tim's quiet answer, just around the corner. All the haynets in the stable!

'All. And by yourself, and when you reach the end of the last row of stalls, you're to begin again, until all the hay is gone.'

'But they're piling the hay to the rafters!'

Ferdi rolled over and got to his feet, brushing at his clothes when the two hobbits came around the corner from the entryway. Though his head was muddled, he remembered enough that had been said upon his arrival.

Fixing the unfortunate Nibs with a stern look, he said, 'What's this about you leaving my stallion in his stall, saddled and burdened, bridled and bitted? Why, he might have choked on his feed!'

'He ought to be comfortable now,' Tim said, 'and Da's ordered Nibs to do all the haying by himself...'

'It'll take all the day,' Nibs grumbled under his breath, but he stopped at seeing Ferdi's expression.

Ferdi spoke again, suppressing his anger, though he really wanted to take Nibs by the shoulders and give him a good shaking. Taking a page out of Pippin's book, he dropped his voice, speaking in a mild and reasonable tone. 'I don't think he ought to do the haying by himself,' he began.

He might have laughed at Tim's baffled expression, and Nibs' sudden hope, but instead he added, 'not for his only punishment.'

'Sir?' Tim said.

'I think he ought to muck out the stalls as well,' Ferdi said. 'Surely he'll be too busy, seeing to the comfort of the ponies, to attend the grand feast this evening.'

'Surely,' Tim said, his expression brightening.

'But...' Nibs said. 'It takes half a dozen hobbits, or more...'

'Then you had better get to the haying,' Ferdi said, his tone needle-sharp. 'It's very kind of you to volunteer to do all the feeding and mucking by yourself, to allow the hobbits with the duty to enjoy this day.' He gave Tim a significant look, and Old Tom's son nodded. Nibs wouldn't be left on his own to do the work. No, Old Tom's five sons would take turns overseeing the work, to make sure nothing was lacking. Switching off would allow them to take part in most of the celebration.

He smiled pleasantly at Nibs' open-mouthed expression, nodded to Tim, and turned to exit the stables. It took a great deal of concentration to put one foot in front of the other, but he didn't want to distract Tim from his duties.

Turning the corner, however, was a difficult task. Ferdi found himself losing his balance, and as he tried to catch it, he was distracted by the hay falling from the loft at the far side of the entrance. His legs seemed to turn to jelly. Trying to catch his balance, he wobbled, and with nothing to catch hold of, he knew he was going down on the hard stones.

With an effort, and none of his usual cat-like grace, he twisted his body, side-stepping, falling into the hobbit-high pile of hay, which caught him and eased him down. He breathed a sigh of relief and lay, blinking, gathering his strength to swim out of the hay, for it was difficult to find purchase in the soft, clinging stuff.

And then an avalanche of hay came down from the loft, for the four stable hobbits had dragged another load of hay to the opening, and shoved it over.

Ferdi found himself half-stifled, and when he opened his mouth to cry out, it filled with hay, and he was in real peril. He struggled to push the hay off himself, but to no avail as more and more cascaded upon him. Light and airy, the stuff was, on the end of a fork, but in sufficient quantity it bore enough weight to press down upon a buried hobbit, darkening his eyes and making breathing nearly impossible.

Already giddy, Ferdi stopped struggling to free himself and worked his arm up over his face, breathing through the fabric of his jacket, and then, overcome at last, he swooned.

Chapter 11. Sounding the Alarm

Old Tom guided the lad into the Great Smials, not giving him time to gawk. There'd be plenty of time for gawking later, after Woodruff had seen to Ferdi. Tom had never seen Ferdi in such a state... well, he'd seen the hobbit after the Battle of Bywater, for certain, and he'd been much worse off then, of course, but he'd seen Ferdi assailed by his head pains in the past, and yet never quite so glazed in the eye as he was now.

As stable master, son of a stable master, Tom knew that being thrown from a pony was no joke. And Ferdi such an expert rider, at that! It must have been a bad fall, to leave the hobbit so badly shaken, so many hours after. Indeed, it was a wonder the hobbit had, evidently by dint of sheer stubbornness, made it back to the Smials from the North Farthing.

'We'll just fetch the healer for Ferdibrand,' he said, pulling Tad through the doorway, 'and then we'll see to your breakfast...'

Barely acknowledging the festive greetings as he hurried them through the corridors, he reached the infirmary and inquired for Woodruff, only to be told she was attending the Thain.

Tad's eyes widened at this news, but Old Tom merely nodded. 'Everyone's belated this day,' he said, 'even the head healer!'

Without explaining to the lad that the head healer attended the Thain every morning, exercising his bad leg to keep the muscles from withering away, even though the leg was close to useless, Tom thanked the assistant and hurried them off to the Thain's quarters, deep in the Great Smials.

'Why not...?' Tad said, a little breathless at the pace the stable master set.

'Ferdi's that stubborn, he won't listen to anyone but the head healer,' Old Tom said grimly. 'And at that, there's a good chance he won't heed even Woodruff. Just as well we're going to the private quarters; we'll set his wife on him and then he'll have no choice but to agree.'

When they reached the Thain's private quarters, Tom hailed the hobbit of the Thain's escort, who stood ready at the door, in case the Thain had a message to send, even on this festive day. 'Tolly!'

'Tom! Glad Yule to you!'

'No time for that, Tolly. Ferdi was thrown from his pony last night, and I'm here to fetch Woodruff...'

'Thrown? But I heard he was back, and safe... and ham and bacon to show for his troubles...'

'Pony came back without him, and the lad with the duty too lazy to make inquiries when he found the pony still saddled and burdened. But that's neither here nor there. You'd best fetch Nell...'

'How badly was he hurt?' Tolly said. 'Where is he now?'

'In the stables, seeing that his pony took no harm.' Tom shook his head with mingled exasperation and admiration. That Ferdi thought more of his ponies than he thought of himself. 'This lad brought Ferdi home, bless him!'

'Right!' Tolly said, and took himself off to Ferdi's quarters, not far from the Thain's.

'Come along, lad,' Tom said, for Tad was hanging back as he pushed the door open.

'But... the Thain's private quarters...!'

'He puts his breeches on one leg at a time like the rest of us,' Tom said sensibly. He guided Tad into the receiving room (or so Mistress Lalia had grandly called the large sitting room just inside the entrance to the apartments), meeting the raised eyebrow of the hobbitservant who was polishing the fine, dark wood of a side table. 'Sandy, I need Woodruff, and I need her now.'

'She's nearly done with the Thain,' Sandy said mildly. 'Is there some sort of emergency?'

'Ferdi's been thrown from his pony,' Tom said. 'Hit his head, I hear tell, and I cannot stir him from the stables to see a healer about the matter.'

Sandy nodded wisely. 'If that's the case, the Thain will want to know,' he said. 'Come along.'

He led them from the sitting room down a corridor with doors opening off both sides, into a smaller, more intimate sitting room with a small round table laid for early breakfast: a basket of fancy breads, butter, pots of honey and jam, a cosied teapot, a pitcher of milk for the youngsters, enough to hold the family over until the grand feast with its Northfarthing ham was ready.

A youth and two tots were already sitting at table, the little ones jam-smeared and chattering away cheerily. The youth looked up in surprise. 'Tom?' he said.

'Need to speak to your father,' the stable hobbit said, as Sandy went to the door on the far side, tapped, and waited for acknowledgement.

Opening the door just wide enough to stick his head around the jamb, the hobbitservant said, 'Sorry to disturb, Sir, but something's come up...'

There was an inaudible murmur, and Sandy answered, 'Woodruff is needed, and perhaps yourself, Sir. It's Ferdibrand.'

An exclamation, and Sandy was saying, 'Thrown from his pony, and badly hurt by all accounts, but he won't let anyone bring him in from the stables. Insists on seeing that the pony is cared for, first.'

Tad pulled at Tom's sleeve at the words "badly hurt", his mouth working in silent protest, but he was in too much awe of his surroundings to correct the hobbitservant, who sounded so very confident and sure of his facts that Tad wondered if perhaps he knew more about the truth of the matter than Tad himself.

And so the Thain himself emerged, only a moment or so later.

Tad had heard the hobbit was lame, injured some time before when a coach overturned, and in point of fact the Thain leaned heavily on two hobbits, one of whom, a grizzled matron, ducked away to let Sandy take her place, and confronted Tom.

'What's this?' she said. 'Badly hurt? How?'

Old Tom nudged Tad, and the lad found his tongue. 'Hit his head, my old gaffer said,' he ventured. 'He came to our door in the pounding rain, barely able to stand, and before he got more than a word or two out he swooned and had to be carried to a chair. We revived him with a little brandy, but he insisted that he must travel on, to the Smials, or we'd have popped him into a bed and sent word. He seemed a little out of his head, the way he kept insisting. Grandad was afraid he'd take himself off once the family were all asleep, and so he sent me along to bring the hobbit home.'

There was the sound of running feet, and a hobbit mum skidded into the room, wide eyed. 'What's this about Ferdi?' she gasped. 'Tolly said...'

'We're going to sort this all out, Nell,' the Thain said in a firm and soothing tone. 'Where is he now? In the stables, you said?'

'Sir, you needn't stir yourself,' said the matron, evidently the head healer, Tad realized. 'I'll just go out to the stables and...'

'If he's out of his head, he may give you trouble,' Pippin said. 'You remember how it was, the last time his head was so bad. His own sister thought he'd lost his wits, and was afraid of what he might do.'

Tad's mouth opened in astonishment, but the youth rose from the table.

'That was all a misunderstanding,' he said.

'We won't go into that again, Farry,' the Thain said, 'for it was a long time ago, and over and done with now, but the fact still stands that his own sister could not deal with him, at that time, and if he's hit his head...'

The youth nodded, and another hobbit mum, emerging behind the Thain, said, 'We'll wait here, my love, while you sort Ferdi out. And once you have him firmly under the healers' thumbs, we'll greet the morning properly... Now sit yourself down, Farry, and finish your plate.' And she moved to the table, taking up a dampened flannel, and began to deal with the sticky faunts. And Tad realised that he was looking at the wife and children of the Thain, and he was standing in the Thain's private quarters, and... His breath came short and his head spun a little at the thought. But he had no time for wonder, for the Thain was ordering Tom to lead them to Ferdibrand, and Woodruff had her arm around Nell, and Tom had Tad in a firm grip once more, and they were all proceeding down the hallway to the receiving room and out into the corridor, Tom and Tad, Woodruff and Nell, the Thain borne between two hobbits, and Tolly bringing up the rear.

Chapter 12. Rude Awakening

Nibs gloomily shoved the wheelbarrow a little closer to the pile of hay. The hobbits in the loft had finished their work, jumping down upon the pile they'd made and sliding to the stone floor with whoops of glee. 'The rest of the day!' one shouted. 'The rest of the day! I knew I was born a lucky hobbit! To draw the duty and then to be given the rest of the day!'

'Thanks, Nibs,' another said, giving him a poke in passing, and the third said with a smirk, 'Very kind, I'm sure.'

'Don't mention it,' Nibs growled, shoving the pitchfork into the hay and hefting the resulting forkful into the wheelbarrow. He'd like to shove the fork into one of the cheerful hobbits, he would, and let out some of that hot air... but he quickly put the notion aside, for it is not in a hobbit's nature to do deliberate physical harm to another.

'We won't!' the fourth shouted with a laugh. 'Come along, lads! We've the rest of the day for fun, food, and frolic!'

Linking elbows, they danced out of the stables, not even ducking as the drizzle bedecked them with dampness.

Nibs heaped the wheelbarrow high and trundled it around the corner, to the first row of stalls. The first few stalls were empty, kept for the ponies of visitors who might be staying but a short time. Indeed, the ponies that Ferdi and his escort had ridden were in the last two of the reserved stalls, and Nibs dutifully forked hay for the beasts; not as much as he would for the resident ponies, for he'd only have to clean up the leavings when the ponies departed.

Next came Ferdibrand's ponies, and then the Thain's, a tackroom, and then the ponies of the Steward and the Thain's escort. They were stabled close to the main entrance for the convenience of the stable hobbits, who were bound to saddle these ponies at a moment's notice, when they were called for.

Nibs grumbled as he tried to provide Starfire with a fresh load of hay, and the stallion laid his ears back and refused to move aside. 'It's all your fault, ye...' The hobbit said, and the pony stamped a threatening hoof.

'I'd talk sweeter were I you,' Tim said behind him, and he jumped. 'He's got a Tookish temper on him, for all he comes from the Outlands.'

That was one reason Nibs had filled the haynet, feed bin and water bucket while the stall was empty. He was a little afraid of Ferdi's stallion, and the beast knew it. But he put on a brave face. 'Sweet talk!' he said. 'He's spoilt rotten, that's what he is.'

Tim smiled and took the forkful of hay from Nibs. 'Steady, lad,' he crooned. 'Who's a handsome lad, then? Who's king of the Thain's stables, then? We know, don't we?'

Starfire's right ear twitched and moved forward to catch the soft words, he shuddered his skin as if shooing a fly, and then relaxed and moved to one side, allowing Tim access to the haynet. 'There now, lad,' Tim said with a pat for the pony's shoulder as he exited. 'Enjoy the feast! Plenty more where that came from!'

Giving the fork back to Nibs, he said, 'That's how it's done. Honey'll catch you more flies than vinegar.'

'Ponies don't care much for flies,' Nibs retorted, but he couldn't help a grin from twitching the sides of his mouth. He was that grateful to Tim for sparing him the chore of entering Starfire's stall with the stallion present. Tim knew he was afraid of Starfire, but instead of shaming him for his fear, he acted as if it were only a matter of time before the new stable lad would grow used to his duties. And it was only a matter of time. Nibs was resolved to make good, even if there was a lot more work to be done in the Thain's stables than ever was on the farm back home.

He wasn't lazy so much as he was stiff and tired! ...and he'd be stiffer, and wearier, by the end of this day. But if he made good perhaps he'd lose the appellation lazy and have less work to do... With a sigh he trundled the wheelbarrow along the row, stopping to see Ferdi's cloak lying atop a bundle between Starfire's and Dapple's stalls. 'What's this, then?'

'Ferdi'll return for it by and by,' Tim said. 'Or I'll take it into the Smials for him, when I go in. Don't you worry your head about it. You've enough on your plate as it is.' He ducked into the tackroom as Nibs hayed Dapple and Penny, emerging with an armload of harness, and upending a bucket a little farther along the corridor, he sat down and began to go over the leather inch by inch, stopping to mend where he found stitchery giving way. In this way he could keep an unobtrusive eye on Nibs, to make sure the lad kept working and didn't just lie himself down in the hay for some stolen winks.

Back and forth the wheelbarrow moved, from haystack in the entryway to the stalls in the corridor, a little farther down the corridor each time. When Nibs finished this row of stalls, Tim would have the option of staying here, close to the haystack, or moving to inspect the tack in the next corridor's tackroom. However, he was still considering, and Nibs was not quite halfway done with this row of stalls, when the quiet of the stables, heretofore disturbed only by the chomping of ponies, the occasional nick of a hoof against the boards, and the muted squeak of the wheelbarrow, was broken by voices raised in inquiry.

'Ferdi! Ferdi?'

Tim rose hastily to his feet, seeing the Thain in the group. 'Sir,' he said. 'Did you want me to saddle your pony? We had no word...'

'Where's Ferdi?' Pippin said. 'We were told he was in the stables, with Star...'

Old Tom stepped forward. 'He was, last I saw of him,' and to Tim, 'Did he leave, then?'

'I...' Tim said, at a loss. 'The last time I saw him, he was with you!'

'He didn't come to the Smials,' Pippin said. 'We'd have seen him coming as we were going out... unless...'

'He might have gone to breakfast,' Old Tom suggested.

'Without reporting first?' Pippin said, dismissing the thought at once. 'Or seeing his wife? Nay,' he shook his head. 'Even if he's out of his head, I cannot see him forgetting his Nell.'

'I thank you for that, brother,' Pimpernel said, but her face was white and she was wringing her hands.

Nibs came trundling back with the wheelbarrow, ducking his head to make himself less visible, but the Thain stopped him anyhow.

'Did you see where Ferdi went?' he demanded.

'No, Sir,' Nibs said, ducking his head further with a blush, even as he pondered the irony of the matter. It was his not-seeing Ferdi that had landed him in this mess of trouble in the first place.

'Get on with your work, lad,' Old Tom said, not unkindly, and Nibs trundled the barrow past the group as quickly as he dared.

'Well if he's not in the Smials and he's not in the stables, where could he be?' Pippin said, turning to Tolly.

That hobbit suppressed a sigh and a retort. I don't keep him in my pockets! He went over in his mind all the places that Ferdi might be, but in the end he shook his head. 'I don't know,' he admitted. 'Hilly invited him to breakfast at the Spotted Duck, but he said he was giving the day to Nell and the children.'

Pippin nodded. 'Send someone to the Duck,' he said. 'It's a place to start, at least.'

While his betters were debating the whereabouts of the Thain's special assistant, Nibs reached the haypile. He picked up the fork from the wheelbarrow and shoved it deep into the hay, lifting the load into the wheelbarrow. Again, and again... he only needed to do this a few thousand more times, he estimated, before the hay was gone. Then it would be "sweep up the leavings, and scrub the stones" and then his work would turn to mucking out the stalls. He was dealing with the hay as it went in to the ponies, and as it came out again...

'Could he have gone to the meadow, to pick Nell a bouquet?' Woodruff was asking.

'No wildflowers, this time of the year,' Sandy said.

'Yes, but if he's off his head...'

A bloodcurdling scream interrupted the discussion, and the hobbits turned towards the entryway. The next words galvanised them into motion.

Help! Help! Murther!

'Murder!' Pippin gasped, as Sandy and Fennel lifted him between them to hurry to the haypile at a pace faster than he could manage, even with their assistance. 'What in the name of...?'

'Ferdi!' several of the hobbits said together, and then they rounded the corner to the entryway.

Chapter 13. Putting a Foot Wrong

Nibs was standing stiff and still, staring in horror at the fork in his hands, the tines wet and dripping viscous, dark-red drops.

'What is it? What's happened?' A babble of voices greeted him, but Woodruff saw that the lad was not heeding, and she took him by the shoulders, avoiding the pitchfork, and gave him a gentle shake.

'Lad. Lad! What's happened?'

Slowly his eyes focused on hers, and he gave a sob. 'I've killed him,' he said. 'I'm as bad as one of those murthering ruffians.'

'Murdered him!' Pippin exclaimed, looking round the entryway. There was no sign of Ferdi. 'Where is he?'

Nibs nodded slowly at the haystack. 'He's in there,' he whispered, and then he dropped the fork and buried his face in his hands with a shudder.

His meaning was all too clear: Someone was in the haystack... the logical conclusion was that Ferdi, dizzied by his head injury, had fallen into the hay, or burrowed there if he were out of his head and hiding from imagined ruffians. The stable lad, forking the hay into the wheelbarrow, had...

Pimpernel gave a shriek and fell onto the haystack, pulling hay away as fast as she could manage, and Woodruff left off her hold of Nibs to do the same. Pippin pushed Sandy forward to help, leaning on Fennel, Woodruff's chief assistant, who with Sandy had helped him out to the stables in the first place. It was handy, having two experienced healers on the spot. He could only hope that Ferdi's wounds were not mortal, and that the healers would be able to do something for him and not stand helplessly by, watching him slip away. 'Hurry!' he said, as Tad belatedly joined the mad scramble to excavate the Thain's special assistant.

Tolly re-entered from his errand, stopped a moment in astonishment, and then seeing a protruding foot that had been freed from the haypile, joined the diggers.

I know the look of a hobbit's foot when I see one, Pippin thought inconsequentially, and his grip on Fennel tightened. He wished he could join the effort, but with only one good leg to stand on he'd be more of a hindrance than a help.

Nibs sank to his knees, the picture of hopeless dejection.

Woodruff's worst fears solidified at the flash of bright red beneath the hay, the feel of wet stickiness on her fingers--the buried hobbit was bleeding his life out before them, and so much blood... too much even to begin to staunch... and Nell, coming to the same conclusion, fell back and began to sob wildly.

Grimly the healer continued to pull hay away, but a sharp piece of haystalk spiked under one of her fingernails and she gave a cry, jerking her hand free of the hay and instinctively raising the offended finger to her mouth. Her eyes opened wide as she tasted cloying sweetness mixed with the saltiness of blood. Pulling her hand down, she stared... blood welled from her finger, a nasty jab it was indeed, and 'twould be sore and throbbing for some days, after the nature of such injuries, and she had better soak it in steaming water quickly to fend off the red swelling. But the sweetness...!

' 'Tis a muffler!' Sandy gasped. 'A muffler!' and Woodruff saw the truth of it, the crimson not of Ferdi's lifeblood, spilled by the fork, but a bright muffler, snuggled round his neck where the lifeblood pulsed, and tucked down into his jacket... the jacket that bore a row of holes, through which a thick, dark-reddish liquid seeped... but not the red of blood.

Not the red of blood, she heard herself whisper. She put out a trembling hand to touch the sticky wetness, brought her fingers back to her nose for a sniff, and fell to undoing the buttons of Ferdi's jacket while the others fell back in dismay.

Pippin looked to Fennel, who was shaking his head. 'How bad?' he whispered.

'Right into his breast,' the healer said softly. 'His heart, his...'

'Murther...' sobbed Nibs, having overheard.

But Woodruff had the jacket open, revealing the paper-wrapped parcel that had been struck through with the fork. She lifted it, dripping, away to reveal the fine white linen of Ferdi's shirt, soaked red.

'But that's...!' Tad said with a start.

Woodruff worked the buttons of the shirt free as the Thain spoke sharply. 'That's... what?'

'His prize,' Tad said. 'From the Green Dragon, it was. He could scarcely sit his pony, for the brandy was wearing off, and we stopped in at the inn, seeing the windows full of light. They threw the muffler round his neck and presented him with some sort of cordial.'

'Currant,' Woodruff muttered, her attention on the bared skin before her. 'A touch of beetroot juice for richer colour.' She was a fine cook in her own right, and a taste had been enough to confirm the identity of the copious "blood".

'He said he'd bring it home to his Nell,' Tad said, and Pimpernel gave a sob. 'No, no, that's not right, it was the wine he was bringing home to Nell, to ask her to mull it.'

'The wine?' Pippin and Tolly said together.

'O aye,' Tim said, 'that's right. He brought a sack, tied on the saddle.'

'Prize?' Pippin said.

'First-footing prize,' Tad said, bewildered at this whole situation.

'The tines barely broke the skin,' Woodruff said, looking up, her tone relieved. 'No more than a scratch, really.'

Tim went over to where Nibs knelt and put his hands on the stable lad's shoulders, giving him a little shake. 'Did ye hear that, ye daft coney? Ye're not a murderer, after all.'

'What about his head?' Pippin said, and Woodruff bent to further examine her patient, pulling a handkerchief from her pocket to wipe her hands.

Old Tom, seeing the gesture, abruptly left the scene, returning but a moment or two later with a bucket of clean water and a handful of rags, and Woodruff thanked him and scrubbed the stickiness from her fingers before returning to Ferdi. Pimpernel, in the meantime, had couched herself in the haypile beside her husband and now held his hand, crooning assurances and appeals for him to waken.

'First-footing prize?' Pippin said now, his brows beetled, watching Woodruff's hands carefully going over Ferdi's skull. 'He was First-footing at the Dragon?'

'O no!' Tad said hastily, turning to the Thain. 'I didn't mean to give the wrong impression... we were not First-footing, not at all! He came to our house afoot, after the pony threw him off, and we thought at first that he was First-footing, so we filled his sack with brandy and bread and pennies...'

'Don't forget the wine,' Tolly muttered, but no one heeded him.

Chapter 14. All's Well, etc.

Woodruff finished her examination of Ferdi's skull, and suppressed a sigh of relief, finding no swellings or dents or other abnormalities, save the slight thickening that remained after the healing from the old injury.

'Ferdi? Ferdi-love? Come back to me,' Pimpernel crooned.

Woodruff gently lifted an eyelid, staring into the bloodshot eye, even as she held her breath in the face of Ferdi's brandy-washed exhalations. This looked awfully like...

'How much brandy did he have?' she asked idly.

Pippin limped forward, leaning on Woodruff's assistant, to bend over them. 'Brandy?' he said.

'The lad said they gave him brandy to revive him, and that he was scarcely able to sit his pony,' Woodruff said.

'That was when the brandy was wearing off,' Tad added helpfully.

'I'd rather think it worked the other way round,' Woodruff muttered under her breath.

'What was that?' Pippin said.

'Nothing, Sir,' the head healer said. She patted the unconscious hobbit on the cheeks, but his eyelashes didn't even flutter. 'Ferdibrand? Ferdi, do you hear me?' All the while she was thinking furiously.

Ferdi was Pippin's choice to succeed him as Thain. It wasn't common knowledge amongst the Tooks, for it would generate a storm of controversy. Woodruff knew from overhearing conversation between Pippin and Diamond when the Thain had been seriously ill, the previous winter, and all had thought he was dying. Mayor Samwise had stepped in at the time, bringing Pippin back from the brink of death with herbs and homely wisdom, cajoling him to eat, making him promise to take up the fight once more, at least long enough for the Mayor to travel to the Southlands and back again, hopefully bringing a cure for what ailed the Thain.

Ferdi, for all his glorious deeds, keeping the ruffians out of the Tookland in the time of the Troubles, had a spotted past. He'd lost his wits just before he'd turned twenty, when a horrendous stable fire claimed his uncle and maimed his father, and his mother died of grief. He'd been mute a long time after he came to himself, and then as fate would have it he'd been to blame for another disastrous stable fire--the Thain's stables, here at the Great Smials, and it had been whispered afterwards that he'd thus been responsible for the heart-seizure that had carried off Thain Ferumbras not long afterwards.

Not that it mattered that Pippin had been the instigator of the prank gone wrong--Ferdi was the older, and so the blame fell solidly on his shoulders.

And though Ferdi had redeemed himself in the Troubles, the Battle of Bywater had nearly put an end to him, and the head injury he'd sustained there... he'd withdrawn into the shadows for years after, forgotten by all but a few close cousins.

And the incident where a blow to the head had sent him into the past, reliving the Troubles, though quickly hushed up, would not bolster the Tooks' confidence, especially if it got around that now the hobbit had taken to drink.

Woodruff nodded to herself as she made a sudden decision. She cleared her throat, glanced behind her, saw that Pippin was all ears. Pimpernel beside her blinked away tears, put on a watery smile, and squeezed her husband's hand. 'He's hit his head, all right,' the healer said. After all, it was true. She hadn't said when the hobbit had hit his head, anyhow.

'How bad is it?' Pippin said, relaxing somewhat, as Pimpernel whispered, 'O Ferdi!'

'I could waken him, I think,' Woodruff said judiciously, 'if I applied enough pain to a sensitive spot, but he wouldn't thank me for it. No, I think it better to leave him sleeping--healing sleep, it is. Let us carry him to his bed, make him as comfortable as may be, keep the room dark and quiet for the sake of his head, and let him sleep.' Sleep it off, she said to herself. He'll have a big head when he wakens, no doubt. Aloud, she said, 'I imagine his head will be aching abominably for the next day or two.'

Tim nearly spoilt the effect by fetching Ferdi's cloak and all that had been beneath it. 'Here are the things he brought with him,' he said.

There was a moment of silence as they stared at the mufflers, and then Tolly took the bag from the stable hobbit, worked the knots out with a practiced hand, and brought out a bottle of brandy, and then a wine bottle.

'I thought you said he was not First-footing,' Pippin said, and the frost was back in his tone.

'He wasn't!' Tad said stoutly. 'His pony threw him off, and he walked through the rain--I have no idea of knowing how far, but he was wet through and muddy, and pounded on our door, and swooned in our arms.'

'Then where did he get the mufflers?' Pimpernel said, looking from the bundle in Tim's arms to her husband to the tween who'd escorted Ferdi home.

From the look on the Thain's face, he was wondering the same.

Tad gulped. 'He was wearing them when he arrived, and so o' course we thought he was First-footing,' he said, 'but for the fact that he arrived bare minutes after the clock chimed midnight. We've no near neighbours... it would have taken him more than an hour to walk from the nearest farm! Wherever he got the mufflers, it wasn't First-footing!'

'Farmer Oatley,' Tolly said, and the Thain nodded.

'Of course,' he said. 'That explains it. He was probably sorry for Ferdi, that he was called away from his family on the holiday, and loaded him down with presents to bring home. Wine for Nell to mull, and mufflers for some of their children, and pennies for the rest...'

'Of course!' Nell said, nodding her understanding.

'And he carried the bag himself, rather than trusting it tied to the saddle,' Tolly said with a nod. 'Very practical.'

'Good thing none of the bottles broke when he was thrown,' Pippin said dryly.

'They're well wrapped,' Tolly said, taking another look in the bag. 'None even cracked and leaking, or so it appears.'

'Still, it'll be undrinkable for some time, having had such a shaking,' Pippin said. 'Good thing Ferdi landed on his head and not on the sack.'

At Tad's dumbfounded look, Tolly said, 'It's the hardest part of him.'

'Well,' said Woodruff briskly, rising and dusting her fingers. 'It may be, and it maybe not. All I know is, he'll be more comfortable in his own bed, with all this sticky cordial washed away, and his scratches tended, and dressed in a nightshirt, and the covers piled high.'

'Does he have a chill?' Pimpernel said in alarm.

'Well, he's been riding in the rain for hours,' Woodruff said. 'His clothing is still damp, and a haystack is not necessarily so warm and comfortable as bed and blankets.'

'Not to mention the danger of pitchforks,' Pippin said, and slapped young Nibs on the shoulder. 'Take the rest of the day, lad. I'd say you've had enough for one morning.'

'Sir?' Nibs whispered.

'Go on, lad,' Old Tom said. They'd make do somehow. He had five sons, after all, and with himself into the bargain likely they could take care of all the stable work needing to be done, and with their experience they'd likely have it done in less time than some of the stable lads might. And then they could tuck into the fine feast, later in the day, having worked up a goodly appetite. He nodded at Nibs' befuddled look. 'Go on,' he repeated. 'Thain's orders.'

'Yes, Sir!' Nibs said, jumping to his feet. 'Thank, you, Sir, I...' He suddenly seemed aware of the circle of hobbits, with himself the centre of attention, and fumbled to a stop, blushing.

Pippin gave him a friendly nod, and the stable lad bowed low and hurried away.

'Well,' Pippin said. 'All's well that ends better, or so a certain gaffer of my acquaintance was fond of saying...'

'Yes, well,' Woodruff said. 'Let us get you back to your breakfast, Sir, before that good ham goes cold...' She nodded to Fennel and Sandy. 'Nell and I will see that Ferdi reaches his bed safely. Tolly, if you will...?'

'I'll fetch a litter,' Tolly said, restoring brandy and wine bottles to the bag Tim held, and taking the bag he stuffed the mufflers in as well. 'I'll just deposit this in your sitting room, Nell, for you to deal with later.'

And so the Thain was escorted back across the yard to the Smials proper, and though one leg dragged, his step seemed lighter than it had earlier. And Tolly returned at a trot with a litter and another hobbit of the escort, and they eased Ferdi onto the litter, tucked him up well with a blanket to cover the red-stained shirt, and with Nell holding Ferdi's hand, bore him away.

And soon it was just Tim, and Tad, and Old Tom left, standing by the haystack in the entryway to the stables.

'You haven't had your breakfast, yet, have you lad,' Old Tom observed. 'Tim, take him to the great room, and round up your brothers while you're at it! We have ponies to hay, and no time to waste if we're to come to the grand feast this afternoon!'

'Will ye be staying to the grand feast?' Tim asked.

'No, I promised my family I'd be back in time for tea,' Tad said. 'I had better make haste, as a matter of fact!'

'You'll be all the better for a good breakfast,' Old Tom said, 'as will your ponies. Tell you what, you go and clear a plate or two and we'll let them finish their hay and have them tacked and ready to go by the time you're done. And Tim, tell the kitchens to pack the lad a sack of provisions, that he need not stop along the way home.'

'I thank you,' Tad said with a bow and a grin.

'We're the ones owing thanks,' Old Tom said. 'Who knows where Ferdi'd be, or what state he'd be in, if not for your aid?'

'All's well that ends well,' Tad said.

'You can say that again,' Tim laughed.

And so he did.


A/N Thanks to Sulriel for advising on pony behaviour.

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