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Where the Love-light Gleams  by Lindelea

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.

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