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Chapter 14. The Luck of the Tooks
It was a fine afternoon. The Sun, high above, teased them in speckles of light that crept through the heavy canopy of trees that sheltered them from the sky, and danced in a light breeze. Estella pulled her rabbit-skin cloak closer about her and shivered when the wind ruffled her hair.
‘A bit brisk,’ Ferdi said. ‘The wind will be high atop the Green Hills, bowling the clouds along…’
Estella peered upward. ‘Not a cloud in the sky!’ she protested.
‘Dry today,’ Ferdi agreed, ‘and the wind is sweeping away the mist and fog. But this time of year the weather is changeable. There might be sun, there might be rain or mist, and it’s not beyond the realm of possibility for hail or snow to fall, all in one spring day.’
‘Snow!’ Estella said, looking at him suspiciously.
But he only laughed and pointed ahead. ‘That looks like a fair specimen or three!’ And while Estella went to gather the mushrooms there, he walked at a tangent to another small colony and began to gather, examining each cap with care before stowing it gently in his bag. If not for Ferdi’s evident caution, his constant vigilance, watching about them and listening, they might have been on a casual ramble, a walking party, as in the old days when Frodo had kindly invited Estella to join him and Freddy, and sometimes Merry, when the latter was visiting from Buckland during one of Bilbo and Frodo’s stays at Budge Hall.
The first of the wild strawberries gleamed like rubies amongst the green leaves on the forest floor, and though they were tiny, more a matter of a burst of flavour than any sort of sustenance, they added spice to the exercise as the two walked along. At one point they stopped and sat down to rest, reaching into their packs for yet another portion of bread from their dwindling supply, supplemented by some of the specimens they’d been gathering, that were good when eaten raw. The mushrooms were delicious, of course, ‘though they’d be better sautéed with butter and a little good wine,’ Estella said through a mouthful.
‘Ah, but my sister’s bread makes up a great deal for what may be lacking,’ Ferdi said, smacking his lips. ‘Rosie’s bread, going stale, is still better than anyone else’s, fresh out of the oven.’
‘Really?’ Estella said, and shook her head with mock seriousness. ‘I don’t know… our Cook was an artist when it came to food…’
‘And you ought to know, when it comes to art,’ Ferdi said. At her raised eyebrow, he shrugged. ‘Your father showed us a roomful of paintings and sketches, on one of our visits.’ He chuckled at her expression of horror. ‘You were on a visit, some Bolger aunt or another… You didn’t know? He’s very proud of your talent.’
‘I never let him show off my work when I’m at home,’ Estella said in a small voice, looking fixedly down at her lap. ‘Poor as it is…’
Ferdi laughed aloud, albeit very softly, and patted her arm. ‘Poor in your eyes, perhaps,’ he said. ‘I know when I try to sketch or carve, it never comes out exactly as I see it in my head. But your “work” as you call it – you’ve nothing to apologise for, there. The works are pleasing to the eye, well laid-out, very life-like: I thought the squirrel, for example, was about to twitch his tail and scold!’
Estella coloured in chagrin and said hastily, ‘I wasn’t fishing for compliments.’
Ferdi was silent in reply, and the silence stretched out until at last she looked up, reluctantly, only to find him wearing a sympathetic expression. ‘I know that you weren’t,’ he said. ‘You’re about as far from “false and frivolous” as the Misty Mountains are from the Sea, as old Bilbo used to put it.’ A long, long way, he meant, though he had little idea of either Misty Mountains to the East or Western Sea, for the maps he’d pored over and committed to heart did not go beyond the Bounds of the Shire.
Now Ferdi picked the last of the crumbs from the cloth that wound together his food supply, and wrapped and tied the cloth carefully to conserve the rest. ‘Ah, well,’ he said. ‘Sun’s half-way down the sky, and we’re only half-way through the mushroom-gathering part of our journey… Our packs ought to be mostly full before we leave this part of the Wood and parallel the Stock Road once more.’
Estella nodded and followed suit, and soon they were about the business of gathering once more, walking together some of the time, going off in different directions to investigate some likely growths and harvest the best, and coming together again. When walking together, they alternated between soft talk and companionable silence.
Estella’s eyes were intent on her task, but Ferdi divided his time between mushroom hunting and his surroundings, always watching for movement or some sign of others. He had told Estella that he was fairly confident they’d encounter no other hobbits gathering here, what with the growing difficulty to obtain a pass to leave one’s immediate environs. There were no hobbit settlements in this part of the Wood, and little reason for Lotho to send his Men here – no hobbits to bully, or with goods to gather. Estella observed aloud that they might have been walking in the Shire before hobbits came at all, before Marcho and Blanco led their people to a new life in a new land, under a long-dead King’s protection.
‘We could use a good King!’ Ferdi said in an undertone, ‘if only there were such a person, to keep order and see justice done.’
‘Bilbo used to talk about Kings,’ Estella answered softly. ‘The stories he could tell… I remember Merry begging the old hobbit to take him to see the King, for he sounded so grand, and Bilbo always answered, “P’rhaps I will… just so soon as the fellow comes back…” He always made it sound as if the King had just stepped out for a moment, to smoke a pipe or somewhat, and would be back in a moment or two.’
Ferdi laughed at this, for “When the King comes back” was a common proverb among Shirefolk, when talking about something that would never happen. ‘I miss his stories,’ he said. ‘Fantastic things! Elves and warriors, dragons and Dwarves…’
‘Wolves and wizards,’ Estella agreed. She added several more carefully selected caps to her pack and said in surprise, ‘I’ve nearly filled my bag.’ It seemed as if they’d spent but a few moments searching and picking, walking slowly and talking as if it were just any spring day, before the Troubles had descended on the Shire.
‘And I,’ Ferdi said. ‘And a good thing, too! We’ll be losing the light soon – how quickly the time passes, and it’ll be harder to distinguish the good from the deadly, so we might as well pack up and walk on.’
They secured their packs so that no toothsome treats would fall out, and slipped the straps over their shoulders. Ferdi began to walk more purposefully, in the general direction of the setting Sun, but a little to the right of a straight course. Estella, walking beside him, said, ‘West, and a little North, I think.’
Well-pleased, he slapped her on the shoulder. ‘Well done, lad!’ (And with this, she understood that they had left Ferdi-and-Estella behind and were once more play-acting “uncle and lad” for the ruffians’ sake.) ‘We’ll make a hunter of you yet.’
‘Back toward the Road,’ she said.
‘And closer to civilisation,’ Ferdi agreed, ‘or what used to be. I’d say the Shire is growing less civilised instead of more, lately…’
They had walked some distance, and were picking their way down a hillside, and perhaps Estella ought to have paid closer heed to her footing, but basking in Ferdi’s recent approval, or the dimming light, or any number of reasons prevented her. In any event, a loose stone turned under her foot. With a startled cry, she threw out her hands to try and catch her balance, felt Ferdi grab at her sleeve, only to have it pull loose from his grip almost immediately, and then she was tumbling down the hill until she fetched up hard against a tree, dazed and hurting.
It seemed only a moment and then Ferdi was there, breathing hard, his hands grasping her shoulders as he gasped, ‘Estella! Are you hurt? Do you hear me?’ His hands were feeling her neck and head, as if probing for injury.
She wanted to weep in vexation and pain, but she remembered Rosemary’s lessons. She swallowed hard, took a careful breath, and grumbled, ‘I’ve ears enough, haven’t I?’
Hearing her speak, and evidently in her right mind, he picked her up from her crumpled ball and eased her back against the tree in a sitting position.
A little dizzy, Estella closed her eyes. She heard Ferdi’s relieved chuckle, though his hands were careful and gentle, feeling her limbs for injuries.
‘You’ve two, at the least,’ he answered, ‘and two eyes into the bargain, and glad I am to see them open and aware.’
‘Two eyes ought to be enough, I trow, though they weren’t, enough I mean, to see that the blasted rock would turn when I stepped on it,’ she said, and couldn’t suppress a yelp when he touched her ankle. Ferdi did not reprimand her for her strong language as Freddy would have; they were fully in character as “uncle” and “nephew” once more.
He frowned and explored with more care. ‘Turned your ankle.’
‘You noticed,’ Estella said sourly.
‘Not broken, I think,’ Ferdi said, manipulating it carefully while Estella gritted her teeth and winked away tears of pain and frustration. ‘Might not even be a sprain, but just a strain. In any event, it would be best not to walk on it for a day.’
‘What will we do?’ Estella demanded in dismay. ‘We can’t just stop here! Unless you know of a convenient hollow tree in these parts…’
But Ferdi was shaking his head. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I’ve no hidey-holes in this part of the Wood. We’re about halfway between our last rest, and our next.’
‘But if I’m not to walk, then what? Fly?’
Ferdi laughed at her acerbic tone. ‘That would be good, but I suspect you’ve left your wings at home, as have I, and there are no eagles hereabouts to offer us a lift.’ He was scanning their surroundings as they spoke, and now he handed her his sturdy walking stick. ‘Here,’ he said. ‘If any foxes menace you, just tap them on the nose with this.’ He got up from his crouch and began to pick his way to the bottom of the hillside.
Estella watched anxiously until he was out of sight, and then taking a firmer grip on the walking stick, she drew a deep breath. Twig might be fearful, but he’d never show his fear. Twig could split a sturdy log with a well-aimed blow of an axe, while helping Hally chop and stack wood. Twig could split the skull of a fox or stray dog as easily, with the hardened knob on the top of the walking stick – an elegant club, so to speak. Though Ferdi hadn’t used it as a weapon during their journey, having used it more to prod the path ahead of them as they walked through the darkness, or to thrust brambles aside from the path, Estella could now feel the possibilities in the fine balance of the stick in her hands.
Twig might only be a lad, but he’d wait bravely, weapon at the ready, and he wouldn’t quiver at the least sound rustling in the underbrush nearby. He wouldn’t hunch together like a fearful girl, lost in the little wood near Budgeford after following her brother and cousins, and falling behind, and realising she didn’t know her way home again, waiting for rescue and fearing the searchers might never find her in time, before some wild animal came upon her, or darkness fell, or both together.
“Twig”, Rosemary had named her. “Twig”, Rosemary and Hally had taught her to be.
Estella firmly put away all girlish thoughts of weakness and needing protection, as she’d been taught, as she’d been brought up to, from her earliest memories as a well-brought-up lass from one of the Great Families, and became fully Twig.
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