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O The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night  by Lindelea

Chapter 5. In which a young hobbit’s resolve grows, and he decides to set his plan into motion, in the interest of justice

The youngest hobbits were up with the rest of the family for early breakfast, tucking into their bread-and-butter and bread-and-jam with great appetite, washing these down with quantities of cambric tea, accepting the soft-cooked eggs offered them while the others scattered to the early chores. Pearl was old enough to help with the milking, but Pimpernel had recently been taught about gathering eggs, and so Pearl accompanied her younger sister at this task, holding the lantern and directing Nell’s every move as is the duty of an elder sister.

Esmeralda was quite touched when her Merry slipped down from his seat and reached his arms as far around her as he could, hugging hard, his muffled words difficult to discern but having something to do with love. ‘I love you too, my darling,’ she said, returning the hug.

Little Ferdi followed suit, bringing tears to Stelliana’s eyes and a fond smile from Ferdinand. Merry, to his credit, did not seem as irritated as usual at the mimicry as he had earlier in the visit, when he’d bitterly protested Ferdi shadowing him and copying his every move.

‘O lovie,’ Stelliana said, squeezing her little lad. ‘Really, Dinny, I think he’s sorry for what he did yesterday.’

‘Sorry,’ piped Ferdi. ‘Didn’t mean to ‘poil all the pretties.’

‘Aw, now,’ Eglantine said, rising from the table. ‘I’m glad to hear it.’ She turned to the pantry, coming out with two plates that contained generous portions of apple tart. ‘We saved some tart from tea, last night, for it was baked especially because it’s Merry’s favourite. It hardly seemed fair to eat it all up without him.’

Merry brightened and nearly reconsidered last night’s plans, but then Pervinca lisped, ‘An’ do we get pitties on our dwesses, Mama? If they get cake?’

Esmeralda leaned forward to place a hand on Eglantine’s, laying Merry’s plate upon the table. ‘We will make it good, Aggie! After all, it was Merry’s fault, and Ferdi’s...’

‘Yes,’ Stelliana said earnestly. ‘No need for you to suffer, dear, for our son’s doings!’

Eglantine looked troubled, while little Vinca clapped her hands together in hopeful delight. ‘But Paladin,’ she said doubtfully. ‘He’d never accept charity... We work very hard for what we hold, and he wants no hobbit’s pity for the burden he must bear.’

Ferdinand cleared his throat and looked pointedly around the table at the three young hobbits left there, glaring from under his bristling eyebrows. The topic of the farm family’s debt to the Thain was hardly a topic to be brought up in front of the children. Though Paladin nominally owned the land he farmed, passed down to him from father and grandfather before him, his grandfather had borrowed heavily, years ago, after heavy flooding had nearly wiped out farm and family, leaving his descendants with repayment that more than matched the rent a tenant would have paid to use land the Thain held for the Tooks. Of course, when the final payment was made, sometime in Paladin’s lifetime, there’d be no more to pay, whereas if he were leasing land the lease would end with his death. It was a fine thing to have land to pass on to one’s sons. Unfortunately, Paladin had no sons.

‘But the fault was Merry’s, and Ferdi’s!’ Stelliana said.

Eglantine sadly shook her head.

Merry’s resolve quickened. It was not fair that Auntie Aggie should suffer for something her daughters had done, and yes, even though Pearl and Nell and Rosie had spoilt the batter, so to speak, he and Ferdi had burned it in the baking, to complete its ruin. But Uncle Dinny would only see the offer to replace the pretties as “charity” rather than restitution for wrongs done.

Merry didn’t care a fig if the lasses had their pretties for the year; he rather thought they ought to take their punishment, even as he scooped apple tart into his mouth. (It wasn’t warm, for one thing, so he really had had his punishment; it hadn’t been lifted.) But Auntie Aggie... Yes, he thought with a nod. He needed to take this situation to a higher authority.

He’d half thought of going to Bag End, to talk to Frodo, but now he could see that this was something even Frodo couldn’t solve. No, and he couldn’t bring it to the Thain, for Mistress Lalia would take it into her head that Paladin was unable to pay his debts, and she might cancel the repayment contract “for Paladin’s own good” and reduce him to a tenant on what had been his family’s land. Rent payments would be less, Merry knew, from something Frodo had said on last year’s visit to the farm, but the land would no longer be Paladin’s. Merry felt rather strongly about the matter, seeing that the land was also his mother’s, her being Paladin’s sister! He certainly did not want to see the land pass out of the family and into the Thain’s holdings!

The highest authority in the Shire, next to the Thain, was the Mayor.

Yes, Merry thought with a nod. Michel Delving was in a different direction from Bag End. He had a vague recollection of seeing it on the map, hanging on the wall of his grandfather’s study. He’d have to go to the Northwest, and not to the Northeast after all. The easiest thing, of course, would be to take the road to Waymoot and then over to Michel Delving, but Paladin and Saradoc would be returning by that road sometime today. If they were to find Merry on the road, he’d be in bigger trouble than ever, and it would be no help to Auntie Aggie at all. He’d have to head across the fields and count on his memory of the map and his sense of direction. He had a pretty good sense of direction, from following Frodo all over the land surrounding Brandy Hall, and Bucklebury.

You were setting off, alone, across the fields...? And what were you, seven years or so? My word, Pippin, is there something in the water at Whittacres Farm that encourages young hobbits to wander at such a tender age? You were about that, were you not, when I found you wandering...

I was “about that” indeed, Master Conjurer, but I wasn’t alone.

Ah, yes, I forgot your faithful shadow, the sheepdog. And you, Master Merry, did you have a sheepdog following you, to guard you from foxes and such?

He had something rather better, I think.

Eh, what’s that, Ferdibrand?

I think you know already, from the smile on your face, my Lord King. Ah, yes, he had a faithful shadow of his own...

Faithful pest, rather!


Followed me everywhere, he did, drove me half out of my wits with his persistence! Difficult to get away from him, and the questions he would constantly be asking...!

Ah, Ferdi, I see you gave Merry plenty of practice in dealing with younger cousins before Pippin came along...

Plenty of practice indeed!

Now, Merry, calm yourself. Here, I see your cup is empty. Let me pour you a little more of the King’s brandy. (Pest! Hmph!) ...but you have them all sitting on tenterhooks, waiting the rest of our adventure. Indeed, I myself am waiting with bated breath. Do go on, before I turn blue... Not my best colour, you know. Green suits me rather better...

Enough, Ferdi! (Thanks, yes, this brandy grows better with every sip.) Now, let me see...

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