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Chapter 4. Risk
It was not a cheerful group that rode out from the Smials, not by any stretch of imagination. Grim and determined would be a better description of the mood, though an onlooker might have been fooled by the occasional jest to be overheard, a burst of laughter in one quarter, a question called from one side of the group to the other, and a jaunty answer flung back in return. A song arose, followed by others, and the ponies trotted in rhythm with the music as their riders carried the tune along and bellowed out the choruses. It helped to make the miles pass more quickly. Greenacres, the area in general as well as the particular farm that bore the same name, was a good hour’s ride from Tuckborough at a trot. A shorter time was possible for a rider that might be in a tearing hurry. But these riders needed their ponies to be fresh and alert when they got to their destination, and so they kept the pace relatively slow and easy on the ponies.
So they rode, resembling an unlikely moving forest. Each rider steadied an upright spear that was fastened to his hunting saddle, deadly metal tip honed to razor-sharpness, oiled and gleaming in the sun, and ready to be lowered into position to fend off a charging boar when the time was right.
In the last mile or so, the group fell silent as if by accord, and they rode with only the thudding of ponies’ hoofs on the path or turf beside it, an occasional jingle, a creaking of leather. Renilard rode at the fore with his chief assistant, Raolf. Ferdi, having the keenest eye amongst his fellow hunters for following tracks and reading trails, followed close behind with Hilly and Tolly flanking him. The rest of Renilard’s hunters rode next, and the remaining hobbits of the Thain’s escort brought up the rear.
Before they reached the little wood that Hilly had chosen from the map in the Thain’s study, Reni held up a silent hand, and the entire group came to a halt. It was time for every one of them to string his bow and check his spear a final time, making sure the base was firmly set into the special socket built into his hunting saddle. This would allow the superior weight and power of the pony to stand against the force of a charging wild beast and would help to hold the deadly point steady in the rider’s aiming hand.
Ferdi strung his bow with the rest, ran his thumb over the string, and hung the weapon from its hook on the saddle, ready to snatch up at need. He reached over his shoulder to check the arrows in the quiver at his back, loosening them in preparation for a quick grab. Finding all in order, he fingered the strap holding his spear upright and settled the shaft in his hand, ready to release it from its confines and lower it into position at the first sign of danger.
Renilard glanced behind him and nudged his pony forward, into the shadows under the trees. The riders following him spread out into a line. They’d sweep the wood systematically, looking for signs of swine. Spears were the best defence against the largest and most dangerous of the creatures, while arrows would suffice for younger and smaller animals. Reni meant to wipe out as many as they could manage to flush from their resting places before the wily creatures ceded their newly adopted territory and scattered.
When they came to a patch of marshy ground that bore evidence of sharp split hoofs and digging snouts, the chief hunter signalled another stop. He got down from his saddle, spear in hand, and waved to Ferdi to do the same. Without a word, he moved to one side of the clearing, Ferdi to the other, both scrutinizing the soft, disturbed soil to determine the freshness of the signs left there, while the rest loosed their boar spears and lowered them into position. This was one of the most dangerous moments of a boar hunt, the time before they knew exactly what they were dealing with, how many, and where the nocturnal creatures might be biding away the daylight hours.
Paradoxically, it was also one of the most ridiculous, considering its heart-pounding nature, if the signs should prove false or, if true, too old, meaning the sounder had moved on. Ferdi grimaced at himself, tempted to use one of Mayor Sam’s pet phrases. Don’t be a ninnyhammer. He tightened his muscles, then forced them to relax as he concentrated on reading the ground.
Tolly's shout, sounding at his back, gave him a split second of warning before a sudden strong smell of musk hit him, followed by a growl that came from the underbrush before him and a little to his right. Moved by instinct, he dropped his spear, spun and dashed for the line of riders behind him. He could swear he felt the ground shaking under the sharp hoofs of his massive pursuer, but he didn’t dare look around, simply lowered his head and sprinted for all he was worth.
As it was, he fancied he felt hot breath on the back of his neck as he passed between Hilly’s and Tolly’s lowered spearheads, heard the outraged squeal of a large and angry boar, mingled with the whistling challenge of a pony, the thud of collision amid shouts of alarm.
He bent over, then sank to his knees, kneading at a stitch in his side that he hadn't noticed until he'd halted, gasping for breath and fully winded, and took in the chaos unfolding behind him. The dynamic force of the charging boar, running onto Tolly’s spear, had nearly overset the escort’s sturdy gelding, driving the pony onto his haunches. As Ferdi watched, two more hunters moved in, thrusting their spears at the maddened monster. Hilly kneed his pony closer and slid from his saddle, greatly daring in the face of furiously slashing tusks and sharp churning hoofs, to deliver the death stroke with his long, keen-bladed hunting knife, only to be caught in the gush and spray of a crimson fountain as the blade found the lifeblood of their terrible quarry.
Into the silence that followed, Renilard spoke as he returned to the group, moving warily. ‘That’s one,’ he said. ‘Come along, time’s wasting. Let’s go and see how many others we might stir up.’
Hilly held out his hand, and Ferdi allowed himself to be hauled to his feet, though he was still breathing hard. ‘You look a sight,’ the head of escort said. ‘None of that blood’s yours, I trust.’
Hilly laughed and pulled out a handkerchief to wipe at his face and neck. ‘Mine’s all inside, where it ought to be,’ he said. He nodded at the fallen creature. ‘But that certainly ought to count for more than one! Why, he weighs easily as much as three of you – or more!’
Not deigning to answer, Ferdi gave a low whistle to call Dapple to him. He rubbed gently at the velvet nose and pulled a piece of carrot from his pocket for the mare’s pleasure. ‘Be that as it may,’ he said, climbing into the saddle, ‘better him than me.’ Renilard had recovered Ferdi’s spear from the ground, and Ferdi reclaimed it with a nod of thanks as he fastened it in place on his saddle.
‘Well, I think we’ve established that the swine in this particular sounder are to be found hereabouts,’ Reni said, raising his voice just loud enough to reach the entire group. ‘Let us get to hunting!’
‘What have we just been doing, I’d like to know?’ Hilly said in an undertone, and Tolly gave a humourless guffaw.
‘That was just the appetizer course, little brother,’ he said. ‘Now for the soup plate!’ But as it turned out, when he nudged his pony, the poor beast took a faltering step and nearly fell.
Tolly instantly dismounted and went to the pony’s head, stroking and soothing. Ferdi called to Reni to halt the group and slid down from his saddle once more, telling Dapple to stand. He knelt beside Tolly’s gelding and began gently to go over the sturdy legs, from shoulder to coronet. Looking up at Tolly, he shook his head. ‘He’s done, for now, any road. He'll heal and hunt another day, I warrant, but he took a serious strain, standing stalwart against that charge.’ Even so, he blessed the pony’s courage and strength. The gelding had held firm, saving Tolly and very likely Ferdi from serious harm.
‘Lame?’ Tolly said, stroking the shining neck. ‘Ah, lad, I’m that sorry.’ He wasn’t addressing Ferdi.
‘Ride my Whitefoot, Tolly,’ Raolf said, dismounting and offering his reins to the escort. ‘Reni has me butchering, this trip. I’ll watch over him until the hunt is finished.’
‘He’ll have to be hand-walked back,’ Ferdi said.
‘O aye,’ Tolly said. ‘And it’s a long way to the Smials.’
Ferdi put a hand on his shoulder. ‘Greenacres Farm is closer,’ he said. ‘Walk him there, when we’re finished... After what he’s done, I’ll wager the family will fete and feed him to his heart’s content, and rub liniment into his muscles all hours of the day and night.’
‘Brave lad,’ Tolly said with a final pat, and then he traded reins with Raolf. ‘Take care of him.’
‘You know I will,’ the hunter promised.
Both hobbits of the escort mounted again, Ferdi on Dapple and Tolly on his borrowed pony, and the hunters lined up their ponies and set their spears, ready to continue.
They had ridden a little way when the rush of energy, that had seemed to give his feet wings as he fled the charging boar, wore off and reaction set in. It was a good thing Ferdi was sitting down in the saddle, for suddenly he felt weak and shaky. He raised a trembling hand to wipe at his face.
Tolly, beside him, noticed. ‘Is it well with you, cousin?’ he said.
‘O’ course,’ Ferdi answered, keeping his voice low and glad that he sounded steadier than he felt. He swallowed hard. ‘I was just thinking how glad I am that the Thain gave the order for trained hunters only, this trip. I hate to imagine...’
Tolly threw him a sharp glance. He’d been barely a tween at the time of Ferumbras’ disastrous boar hunt, as had Ferdi, when Verilard, Reni’s predecessor, in an attack of nerves or perhaps prudence, had sent all the tweens who were would-be hunters back to the Great Smials, except for his apprentice Ferdi, before they’d encountered their prey. Thus, Tolly hadn’t been on the spot when the wild boar had turned from hunted to hunter and charged the Thain. Still, he’d seen the damage and devastation when the hunting party returned to the Smials bearing the dead and wounded. He’d heard the stories the survivors told.
Truth be told, Tolly would hate to imagine, himself, the carnage that might have taken place less than an hour ago, had the gentry – much less, the Thain! – been allowed to accompany the hunt. Filled with curiosity as he was, Pippin would have been there on the ground with Reni or Ferdi, in the thick of things, his hobbits of the escort surrounding him, their attention necessarily split between him and their surroundings. He shuddered, and at Ferdi’s questioning look, said only, ‘Bit chilly, here in the wood.’
‘I’d have thought you well-warmed by your part in the action just now,’ Hilly said from Ferdi’s other side.
‘O aye,’ was all the older brother answered as they rode on. Renilard made a hushing sound, and the hunt continued in relative silence.
Raolf and two other hunters had the task of field-dressing each of the carcases in turn as they were felled, one plying his knife in quick, practised strokes, and the others mounted and standing guard over him, spears at the ready in case of stragglers. They loaded each carcase onto a pack pony when Raolf was done and followed behind the main body ‘to pick up the pieces, as it were,’ as Hilly quipped at one point, as if it were a simple child’s game of pick-up-the-sticks instead of a bloody and dangerous business.
The Sun was low in the sky when Reni decided they had finished sweeping the wood for stragglers. They’d bagged a dozen of the large and dangerous creatures, young males of three to five years, the chief hunter deemed, not yet adults of breeding age, but big enough to offer substantial peril and threat to life, especially when food was scarce, sending the sounder out hunting and foraging in a group. They'd fully burdened the pack saddles borne by the dozen extra ponies they'd brought with them based on the report of the farmer who’d been treed by the swine. Any additional meat might be wasted, even if they were able to flush another swine. They could hang extra carcases from a tree and send a waggon from the Smials back to fetch them, the head hunter supposed, but that was no guarantee against carrion birds or stoats. It was just as well that the hunting party hadn't flushed any more of the murderous nuisances.
Tolly returned his borrowed pony to Raolf with a word of thanks. He moved to the string of pack ponies and unfastened the rope of a piebald bearing more than a hundred-weight of meat, taking it in hand along with the reins of his own lamed gelding. He’d walk to Greenacres Farm, deliver the pork and his pony to the family there, tack up the pack pony with his own saddle and bridle and ride back to the Smials.
Considering the success of the hunt along with the gratifying lack of casualties (except for swine, of course), not an outcome that was ever to be taken for granted after a hunt for wild boar, Renilard was not willing to take any chances. The head hunter held up his hand to stop Tolly from leaving and said in a tone that brooked no contradiction, ‘I'm sending two of my hobbits along with you.’ At Tolly's look of astonishment, he levelled a stern glare at the escort. ‘If not swine,’ the chief hunter said, ‘then dogs.’
Tolly had opened his mouth to protest, but shut it again as Reni added, ‘wild dogs or strays might be drawn to the smell of fresh meat... Whether or not you’re the finest shot in the Tookland, you’ll be vulnerable afoot and alone.’
‘Ferdi’s the finest shot in all the Shire,’ Tolly countered.
‘Whatever,’ Reni said. ‘Just be thankful for the company.’
Renilard sent Ferdi cantering ahead of the rest, to bring the Thain a preliminary report on the hunt and to notify the kitchen staff of the freshly harvested meat, enough to fill an entire cold-room, that would be arriving in only another hour or two.
‘Well that is good news, I say,’ Pippin said, rubbing his hands together and seeming as pleased as if there had been no argument about his leading the hunt. He wasn’t one to hold a grudge, Ferdi had to grant him that. ‘What do you say, Regi? Shall we declare tomorrow a half-holiday for all the Smials, and have a grand feast of wild boar?’
‘For all but the kitchen workers,’ Regi amended. ‘Hard knocks on them, but I’m sure the Mistress can work out an extra half-holiday for them in her planning for the next week or so.’
‘P’rhaps when we’re in Buckland next month,’ Pippin said. ‘No need to put on airs or hold grand affairs whilst the Thain and Mistress are away, after all.’
Buckland? That was the first Ferdi’d heard of these plans. He’d have to find out more, for certain, to work out the escort’s part in the Thain’s journeyings.
But the Thain was addressing him. He wrenched his attention back to matters at hand, hearing Pippin say, ‘Well, then, Ferdi, go and inform the head cook.’
Regi added, ‘They’ll have to dig out the firepits – I don’t think those have been used since Yule, and considering the storm that blew in shortly after, they may need some work. I don’t think the kitchen has adequate facilities to roast more than two of the creatures at once.’
Ferdi nodded and turned to go, but Pippin stopped him. ‘A moment, cousin.’
‘Sir?’ he said, not certain if Pippin was addressing him in his official capacity or not. Sometimes it was difficult to discern with this baby cousin he’d often watched over during summers at Whittacres in their early years.
‘No injuries, you said – except for Tolly’s gelding.’
Ah. An official inquiry, then. ‘Aye, Sir,’ he answered. ‘And that brave lad will hopefully make a full recovery and go out on the hunt again. Tolly has him trained to a treat.’
‘No injuries,’ Pippin repeated in a lower tone. ‘That is something to celebrate, indeed.’
‘It would seem that your head of escort owes you a word of thanks for saving his life,’ Regi said dryly. At the others’ quizzical looks, he added, ‘Trained hunters only, as you remember, I’m sure.’ He'd had an earful from some of the disgruntled would-be hunters.
Ferdi swallowed on a suddenly dry throat. ‘I –‘ he fumbled. ‘I do thank you, cousin,’ he said. ‘I thank you, Sir,’ he repeated, ‘most sincerely.’
Pippin shot him a sharp look, glanced at Regi and then back to Ferdibrand. ‘I believe you,’ he said. ‘No need to go on about it.’
Ferdi might beg to differ.
Even now, he needed only to shut his eyes, and he could see Isumbold, Ferumbras' head of escort, and Palabard, a hobbit of the escort, shooting arrows that might have been toothpicks for all their effectiveness, and then throwing themselves between the Thain and the furious charging boar, whilst Baragrim, another of the Thain's escort, pushed Ferumbras out of the line of charge and covered the Thain with his own body, a fragile shield of flesh and bone against an enormous monster weighing more than all of the escort combined.
No, indeed. Pippin’s decision not to lead the Muster himself, even though the power of Regi's influence over the Tooks undergirded it... Ferdi fully considered that the Thain had saved the lives of his escort – and not least, Ferdi's own life.
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