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Chapter 9. Home, Sweet Home
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.'
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