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