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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...
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