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O The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night  by Lindelea

Chapter 24. In which something precious is restored, and what was lost is found again

Though she was out of breath when they reached the smial, Pimpernel had been watching for her opportunity. It came as they entered through the kitchen door. Ned paused, waiting out the exclamations, to ask Pimpernel's Aunt Hellebore, overseeing the last of the noontide bustle, if the healer was still on the premises?

Pimpernel quickly wrapped Ferdi's blanket about Rosemary's injured foot, a bulky bandage of sorts.

Rosemary suppressed a gasp of pain, as the eyes of the two conspirators met in complete understanding and accord. Pimpernel would likely be pushed aside, even shut out, but Rosemary would be borne to her parents—and by extension, to Ferdi's side.

'She's here, still with the little lad, as a matter of fact, poor wee bairn. They say as he's not moved nor spoken all the morn, and his poor mum is nearly out of her wits with worry.'

'Well now,' Ned said, 'and here's summat to take her mind off him, now...'

Hellebore looked up, really looked up for the first time, not a quick glance away from her carving but a full-fledged look. She put the knife down (a good thing, too, as Healer Sweetbriar had enough to deal with already) with a thump and shrilled, 'Now what have you little 'uns been doing with yourselfs, I'd like to know!'

'We were just playing—' here Nell allowed herself a small fib, in the interest of sparing the adults further alarm, '—in the yard, Auntie,' and seeing her aunt twisting hands in apron she gave a little nod, confirmed in her belief, strengthening the expression of sweet innocence she was maintaining.

Ah, my Nell, now, telling untruths? You'd not do such a thing, would you? At least, not to the face of your loving husband...

Never, Ferdi mine, you set your mind at rest and don't trouble yourself a moment more about it...

'Rosie turned her foot on a stone, and...'

'I did!' Rosemary put in, with just the right amount of quaver in her voice to stop Ned from telling where he'd found the lasses, and to push on through the kitchen and down the hall to the guest rooms, in search of the healer. And Rosemary, to her relief, had been able to tell the absolute truth!

Pimpernel followed, but it was much as she'd expected. Ned had pushed open the door, as hushing noises emanated from the room to greet him, erupting further into soft exclamations. And then the door had swung shut in Pimpernel's face, and she was left there to listen to muffled conversation, and pounced upon a moment later by an anxious Pearl.

'Where were you all the morning? I had to do your work so that no one would notice you gone! Gathered the eggs, and...'

'And many thanks, Pearlie,' Pimpernel said, grasping her older sister's arms and giving a triumphant little shake. 'We did it!'

'What, found Ferdi's precious?' Pearl said, while pulling Pimpernel down the hallway. She was positively chattering with relief. 'Merry's going to be all right, they said, and Mum's ever so much better... Mistress Sweetbriar said a few days of rest, a few good nights of sleep...' When Pimpernel resisted, wanting to know what was going on in the guest room, she added, 'You know what Mum or Da would say, should they find you listening at doors! Rosie's in there, I gather?'

Pimpernel nodded, and gave in to her sister's pull.

'Well then, we'll hear all from her when they let her out again.'

It was to be some time before they “let her out again” however, and Paladin's daughters had to hang on what clues they could garner from the comings and goings.

Pimpernel, after changing into a clean pinny, elected to help in the kitchen after the meal, that being the place where news was brought first, as a rule. She was complimented by her aunt for her industry, drying plates and mugs and cutlery, covering food and putting it away in the pantry, sweeping the floor several times.

All the other helping neighbours had gone on home after seeing the family, visiting relations, and hired hobbits fed, leaving only Hellebore and her eldest daughter to oversee the kitchen and run trays back and forth between the guest rooms and kitchen. Young Frodo had sat up at table to eat and been sent off to nap once more, Bilbo had taken himself off for a walk, Paladin was in the fields with the hired hobbits, Eglantine curled up with her youngest, Pervinca, both of them sweetly asleep, even the visiting Brandybucks were napping... It was a time of welcome peace, and Hellebore and Pimpernel might have been the only hobbits awake and stirring in the Shire, if one were to judge from the homely noises in the kitchen. Clink of glass, swish of broom, snap of a cheery fire, and Hellebore humming as she tidied away, that was all.

'Why don't you go out to play?' Hellebore said kindly, seeing the little lass plying the broom yet another turn around the room.

'I,' Pimpernel said, blinking rapidly. Looking up into her aunt's face, she thought the truth would be well received. 'I just have to keep busy,' she said. 'It helps, somehow.'

'That it does, my lass,' Hellebore said, her tone gentle. She took the broom from Pimpernel's grasp, however, stood it in its place, and sank down in the rocking chair by the hearth, patting her lap.

Pimpernel took her up on her invitation, snuggling close. Ah, but it felt good, her aunt's soft and ample lap, after the exertions of the day!

Hellebore began to rock and sing, softly, as if she knew the child's weariness. Ah, but it had been an anxious time for all, since the lads had disappeared the previous day!

Pimpernel stifled a yawn, but her eyes were closing of themselves when Healer Sweetbriar bustled into the kitchen.

Hellebore half-started up, Pimpernel in her arms, but the healer was wearing a satisfied look. 'Don't stir yourselves, my lasses,' she said, holding up a staying hand. 'I've just come to put together a bite to eat...'

'Little Ferdi? ...and Rosie-lass?' Hellebore said, but she'd started rocking again, and her hand was soothing on Pimpernel's back.

'He's sleeping, for the first time I think, not all curled up in terrified knots as he had been since they found him, poor wee mite,' the healer answered. 'Exhausted, I should think. A-worrited that something or other might snatch him from his mother's loving arms, I've no doubt, and yet at last he finally knows, somehow, that he's here and safe...'

Pimpernel gave a sigh and relaxed fully into Hellebore's embrace, as the rest of the conversation faded from her hearing.

'And little Rosie?'

'Badly turned ankle, naught broken, I warrant...'

Pimpernel sighed again, and slept.

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