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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.
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