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Chapter 12. Rude Awakening
Nibs gloomily shoved the wheelbarrow a little closer to the pile of hay. The hobbits in the loft had finished their work, jumping down upon the pile they'd made and sliding to the stone floor with whoops of glee. 'The rest of the day!' one shouted. 'The rest of the day! I knew I was born a lucky hobbit! To draw the duty and then to be given the rest of the day!'
'Thanks, Nibs,' another said, giving him a poke in passing, and the third said with a smirk, 'Very kind, I'm sure.'
'Don't mention it,' Nibs growled, shoving the pitchfork into the hay and hefting the resulting forkful into the wheelbarrow. He'd like to shove the fork into one of the cheerful hobbits, he would, and let out some of that hot air... but he quickly put the notion aside, for it is not in a hobbit's nature to do deliberate physical harm to another.
'We won't!' the fourth shouted with a laugh. 'Come along, lads! We've the rest of the day for fun, food, and frolic!'
Linking elbows, they danced out of the stables, not even ducking as the drizzle bedecked them with dampness.
Nibs heaped the wheelbarrow high and trundled it around the corner, to the first row of stalls. The first few stalls were empty, kept for the ponies of visitors who might be staying but a short time. Indeed, the ponies that Ferdi and his escort had ridden were in the last two of the reserved stalls, and Nibs dutifully forked hay for the beasts; not as much as he would for the resident ponies, for he'd only have to clean up the leavings when the ponies departed.
Next came Ferdibrand's ponies, and then the Thain's, a tackroom, and then the ponies of the Steward and the Thain's escort. They were stabled close to the main entrance for the convenience of the stable hobbits, who were bound to saddle these ponies at a moment's notice, when they were called for.
Nibs grumbled as he tried to provide Starfire with a fresh load of hay, and the stallion laid his ears back and refused to move aside. 'It's all your fault, ye...' The hobbit said, and the pony stamped a threatening hoof.
'I'd talk sweeter were I you,' Tim said behind him, and he jumped. 'He's got a Tookish temper on him, for all he comes from the Outlands.'
That was one reason Nibs had filled the haynet, feed bin and water bucket while the stall was empty. He was a little afraid of Ferdi's stallion, and the beast knew it. But he put on a brave face. 'Sweet talk!' he said. 'He's spoilt rotten, that's what he is.'
Tim smiled and took the forkful of hay from Nibs. 'Steady, lad,' he crooned. 'Who's a handsome lad, then? Who's king of the Thain's stables, then? We know, don't we?'
Starfire's right ear twitched and moved forward to catch the soft words, he shuddered his skin as if shooing a fly, and then relaxed and moved to one side, allowing Tim access to the haynet. 'There now, lad,' Tim said with a pat for the pony's shoulder as he exited. 'Enjoy the feast! Plenty more where that came from!'
Giving the fork back to Nibs, he said, 'That's how it's done. Honey'll catch you more flies than vinegar.'
'Ponies don't care much for flies,' Nibs retorted, but he couldn't help a grin from twitching the sides of his mouth. He was that grateful to Tim for sparing him the chore of entering Starfire's stall with the stallion present. Tim knew he was afraid of Starfire, but instead of shaming him for his fear, he acted as if it were only a matter of time before the new stable lad would grow used to his duties. And it was only a matter of time. Nibs was resolved to make good, even if there was a lot more work to be done in the Thain's stables than ever was on the farm back home.
He wasn't lazy so much as he was stiff and tired! ...and he'd be stiffer, and wearier, by the end of this day. But if he made good perhaps he'd lose the appellation lazy and have less work to do... With a sigh he trundled the wheelbarrow along the row, stopping to see Ferdi's cloak lying atop a bundle between Starfire's and Dapple's stalls. 'What's this, then?'
'Ferdi'll return for it by and by,' Tim said. 'Or I'll take it into the Smials for him, when I go in. Don't you worry your head about it. You've enough on your plate as it is.' He ducked into the tackroom as Nibs hayed Dapple and Penny, emerging with an armload of harness, and upending a bucket a little farther along the corridor, he sat down and began to go over the leather inch by inch, stopping to mend where he found stitchery giving way. In this way he could keep an unobtrusive eye on Nibs, to make sure the lad kept working and didn't just lie himself down in the hay for some stolen winks.
Back and forth the wheelbarrow moved, from haystack in the entryway to the stalls in the corridor, a little farther down the corridor each time. When Nibs finished this row of stalls, Tim would have the option of staying here, close to the haystack, or moving to inspect the tack in the next corridor's tackroom. However, he was still considering, and Nibs was not quite halfway done with this row of stalls, when the quiet of the stables, heretofore disturbed only by the chomping of ponies, the occasional nick of a hoof against the boards, and the muted squeak of the wheelbarrow, was broken by voices raised in inquiry.
Tim rose hastily to his feet, seeing the Thain in the group. 'Sir,' he said. 'Did you want me to saddle your pony? We had no word...'
'Where's Ferdi?' Pippin said. 'We were told he was in the stables, with Star...'
Old Tom stepped forward. 'He was, last I saw of him,' and to Tim, 'Did he leave, then?'
'I...' Tim said, at a loss. 'The last time I saw him, he was with you!'
'He didn't come to the Smials,' Pippin said. 'We'd have seen him coming as we were going out... unless...'
'He might have gone to breakfast,' Old Tom suggested.
'Without reporting first?' Pippin said, dismissing the thought at once. 'Or seeing his wife? Nay,' he shook his head. 'Even if he's out of his head, I cannot see him forgetting his Nell.'
'I thank you for that, brother,' Pimpernel said, but her face was white and she was wringing her hands.
Nibs came trundling back with the wheelbarrow, ducking his head to make himself less visible, but the Thain stopped him anyhow.
'Did you see where Ferdi went?' he demanded.
'No, Sir,' Nibs said, ducking his head further with a blush, even as he pondered the irony of the matter. It was his not-seeing Ferdi that had landed him in this mess of trouble in the first place.
'Get on with your work, lad,' Old Tom said, not unkindly, and Nibs trundled the barrow past the group as quickly as he dared.
'Well if he's not in the Smials and he's not in the stables, where could he be?' Pippin said, turning to Tolly.
That hobbit suppressed a sigh and a retort. I don't keep him in my pockets! He went over in his mind all the places that Ferdi might be, but in the end he shook his head. 'I don't know,' he admitted. 'Hilly invited him to breakfast at the Spotted Duck, but he said he was giving the day to Nell and the children.'
Pippin nodded. 'Send someone to the Duck,' he said. 'It's a place to start, at least.'
While his betters were debating the whereabouts of the Thain's special assistant, Nibs reached the haypile. He picked up the fork from the wheelbarrow and shoved it deep into the hay, lifting the load into the wheelbarrow. Again, and again... he only needed to do this a few thousand more times, he estimated, before the hay was gone. Then it would be "sweep up the leavings, and scrub the stones" and then his work would turn to mucking out the stalls. He was dealing with the hay as it went in to the ponies, and as it came out again...
'Could he have gone to the meadow, to pick Nell a bouquet?' Woodruff was asking.
'No wildflowers, this time of the year,' Sandy said.
'Yes, but if he's off his head...'
A bloodcurdling scream interrupted the discussion, and the hobbits turned towards the entryway. The next words galvanised them into motion.
Help! Help! Murther!
'Murder!' Pippin gasped, as Sandy and Fennel lifted him between them to hurry to the haypile at a pace faster than he could manage, even with their assistance. 'What in the name of...?'
'Ferdi!' several of the hobbits said together, and then they rounded the corner to the entryway.
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