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O The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night  by Lindelea

Chapter 12. Meanwhile

At just about the same time as Merry pushed his way out of the hollow log, Paladin’s waggon was turning in at the lane to Whittacres Farm. The waggon’s occupants were singing lustily and in fine harmony, a song of Bilbo’s composing, but Paladin broke off at the sight of every window pouring forth light into the gloaming, and figures moving about between home and barn, stable and byre, some with lighted lanterns though the Sun had not yet pulled her darkening bedcovers over the Green Hills, not completely. The western side of the hilltops were still glowing with sunset, and the farm itself was bathed in shining golden light, soon to dissipate, but beautiful to behold.

‘Ah,’ the good farmer said. ‘It is so good to come home again, and look! ...They’re expecting us.’

‘Of course they are,’ Saradoc answered. ‘We told them we’d be back sometime between teatime and eventides, and here eventides are nearly upon us...’

Paladin chuckled. ‘And here I was a-worrying, about bringing guests unexpected and unannounced...’ and one of said guests laughed, a hearty sound, for he’d not come empty-handed from Waymoot Market and he fully expected exclamations of delight from Eglantine and the lasses as he produced, as a magician might, wonders from the large bag resting in the back of the waggon.

Why, it looked as if half the neighbours were there to meet them, and smoke was streaming from the chimney, and good smells were on the air.

‘Ally is used to directing meals for the entire Hall; what’s a few more mouths to feed, to her?’ Saradoc said, turning with a wink to the other guest, riding behind them in the waggon bed.

But the faces that turned up to them as they drove into the yard were not cheerful and welcoming. Worried, they looked, and relieved to see them, and some other emotion they could not yet name.

Paladin pulled the ponies to a stop and jumped down from the waggon before the wheels had quite stopped turning. ‘What is it?’ he demanded of a hired hobbit who’d hurried up to meet the waggon. Others were milling around in seeming chaos, but Saradoc, peering more closely, thought he saw some purpose in their movements, and he jumped down too.

At the same time the hired hobbit greeted him. ‘Master Dinny, I’m that glad to have you home,’ he was saying.

‘Aggie,’ Paladin said, turning anxiously towards the kitchen door, but the hired hobbit caught him by the sleeve.

‘Beg pardon, but the missus is... well, she’s as well as can be, considering the shock...’

‘Shock,’ Paladin said, his initial relief at hearing his wife was, perhaps, well, evaporating as he turned over in his mind what the meaning of this might be.

His guest took charge then, taking him by the elbow and steering him toward the kitchen door. ‘I’m sure we’ll work out what it’s all about yet, Dinny.’

‘I thought--perhaps a welcome,’ he murmured, caught in the pit of his stomach by an unnamed fear. Saradoc took him from the other side, speaking soft reassurances that meant nothing, not after he’d so nearly lost his Eglantine, just a few weeks before, with the child that had been beyond the midwife’s saving.

‘Yes, a welcome,’ his guest said, ‘come along now Dinny, and...’

They entered the kitchen, to find a hive of activity, none of them of the immediate family, but all of them too busy bustling with the final preparations of enough food to feed a muster, to talk to the new arrivals or even notice them much, perhaps thinking them just come from the crowd of hobbits milling about the yard. At this, Paladin turned grey and had trouble catching his breath. It could only mean some tragedy had come to the farm, and no time yet to send a rider with a message to try and intercept him on his way home from Waymoot.

‘The parlour,’ Saradoc said with decision, pulling in that direction, and so they went down the corridor past the formal dining room, the polished dark wood table covered with a cloth and already groaning under a weight of food, to the parlour, where weeping and murmuring were to be heard.

Pausing on the threshold, the new arrivals saw, to their discomfort, a host of weeping wives and daughters, surrounded by helpless comforters offering tea, and encircling arms, and sympathetic tears of their own.

‘Ally!’ Saradoc said, dropping Paladin’s arm and striding to where his wife sat, holding a little jacket--it looked like Merry’s, he thought absently--to her streaming eyes. Stelliana was there as well with young Rosemary, their arms tight around each other, both of them sobbing as if their hearts had broken, and Eglantine...

Paladin walked softly to the rocking chair where Eglantine sat, dry-eyed, rocking quietly, looking at nothing. ‘Aggie?’ he said. ‘I--I...’

She didn’t look up at him. Her face was pale, and she paid no mind to her sister, standing beside her, pressing upon her a cup of cooling tea. Neither did she seem to notice her three daughters, huddled at her feet, clinging together and weeping wildly.

For want of anything else to say, Paladin gulped and, catching sight of the two hovering uncomfortably in the doorway to the parlour, he said, ‘I've brought Bilbo Baggins and young Frodo to share eventides with us... They’re stopping with us overnight, on their way to...’

Bilbo could see that things were very wrong indeed, and he neither smiled nor bowed, as he always did on greeting Eglantine, nor did he spout any of his usual flattery about the lightness of her baking, but he took Frodo by the arm and squeezed very lightly, as if to offer reassurance in a world gone badly out of kilter.

Paladin’s voice trailed off as Eglantine slowly looked up at him.

She took a sobbing breath and said, ‘They’re dead... drowned... and it’s all my fault.’ She buried her face in her hands and repeated, ‘All my fault. All my fault.’ And then she said no more.

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