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Chapter 13. Worse
‘Yes, Pip,’ Hilly said, leaning forward. ‘How would you know how to find a well in the middle of wild country? Why, they’re not even to be found on the maps!’
But the Thain only threw back his head and laughed, while the others simply sat there and watched him, partly in irritation at his light attitude towards a potentially heavy subject, partly in amusement at his contagious merriment, and partly in satisfaction at this continued evidence of his good health, wrought when Mayor Sam had gone to the Southlands a few years earlier in search of healing for the Thain, returning with a wondrous potion from the Tree-folk of legend.
At last, gasping as a result of his extended bout of laughing (but – so happily! – not shortness of breath from long, wasting illness), Pippin wiped his forehead and shook his head, still working to contain a series of remaining rills of laughter. At last, he pointed to Ferdi, then Tolly, and finally to Hilly. ‘Why,’ he said. ‘The Thain always travels with an escort, or haven’t you heard? And the escort are all hunters, quite familiar with the wild Green Hills, or so I’ve been informed...’
And then he was off, laughing again, and this time, seeing the joke, the hobbits of the Thain’s escort laughed with him.
Early the next morning, Tolly sought Ferdi out in the stables, where the latter was usually to be found at that time of day, for it was his habit to exercise each of his ponies in turn and then give them a thorough grooming before starting his duties for the day. Though he had plenty enough to pay for someone else to work his ponies and care for them, the windfall of wealth from Pippin’s and Everard’s holdings had not substantially changed Ferdi's way of life. Nor Tolly's, for that matter.
‘I thought I’d find you here,’ the head of escort said. Tolly had been elevated to that post ever since Ferdi had become Pippin’s special assistant, and later chancellor, and he’d kept the position by winning the Tournament every year, though he’d been heard to say lately it was hardly worth the bother, the Shire was such a quiet place these days. No adventures to be had for love or money, it seemed. Thankfully.
He leaned himself against the wall and crossed his right leg over his left, a picture of careless ease. A long piece of hay protruded from his mouth. He removed it, ran his finger along its length, and stuck it in his mouth again, chewing gently at the stem.
‘Did you now? What was it, gave you the idea I’d be here?’ Ferdi said, vigorously plying his brush on Spatter’s dappled flank. The mare tossed her head, then pulled another mouthful of hay from her rack, munching contentedly.
‘You’re always here, this time o’ the morning,’ Tolly said easily. ‘That’s how the Thain knew where to send me to find you.’
‘Are you saying I’m driving my cart in a rut?’ Ferdi said. He reached a ticklish spot, and the mare tossed her head again and danced a little in warning. ‘Steady now, lass.’
‘More like you’re on a path,’ Tolly said around the hay stem he was chewing. ‘Unlikely to get lost, at least, off in the woods or wild hills.’
‘On a path... in a rut...’ Ferdi said. He sighed. ‘Why, we haven’t had a Muster in more than a year!’ He moved to the mare’s other side, offering her a piece of carrot from his pocket in passing, and commenced brushing again. ‘Pip, since his wondrous healing, has been marvellously well these past few years. Harvests have been abundant since the rains returned, ending the long drought. No fevers to speak of, sweeping the Shire and threatening lives. No incursions of wild swine or sheep-worrying dogs to test the skills and nerve of trackers and hunters. Not even any wolves, crossing the frozen Brandywine. In fact, the last two winters have been unusually mild!’ He punctuated each point with several strokes of the brush. From his tone, he might have been cataloguing a list of grievances.
‘Fear, fire, foes,’ Tolly quoted. ‘Be careful what you wish for, cousin.’
Ferdi snorted. ‘Too early in the year for fires,’ he said. ‘I doubt there’s more than a token Fire-watch set in the woodlands at present. And as for foes... I tell you, Tolly, life is so tedious, so predictable these days, since Elessar put his Edict back in place. What with those murdering ruffians nearly killing the Thain for his gold, a few years back, the King’s Men are certainly taking much more care in keeping their fellow ruffians from sneaking across the Bounds these days.’ He snorted. ‘I’d heard the Bounders are becoming quite fond of tea-parties!’
It was a jest, of course. The Bounders remained dedicated to their duty of beating the Bounds, though they hadn’t had to send word to the Thain to call a Muster in many months. The word had spread widely in the Outlands that Elessar’s northern Rangers were very efficient – and ruthless – in enforcing Elessar’s Edict, keeping Men out of the Shire, and not many rogue Men were willing to risk their necks these days on such a gamble. The Shire was too well-guarded at present, so those Men who would seek their fortunes by preying on others were looking for greener pastures, in a manner of speaking, and causing sufficient trouble elsewhere that the King’s Men were in no danger of falling idle.
Ferdi tossed the brush into the grooming bucket, pulled out a polishing cloth that he’d tucked into his belt and commenced to rub Spatter’s coat to a high shine. ‘I can tell you, too, Tolly, it’s a real pleasure to let my lass sparkle... All that talk about the Troubles reminded me of how I left Dapple shaggy, just so long as her winter coat lasted, to be ready at any time for one of our excursions.’ He stepped back to admire the result of his exertions. ‘She stayed well-hidden, there in the woods, whilst I stole closer to a ruffians’ campfire to hear their talk, when old Paladin sent me out to gather news.’
‘Which reminds me,’ Tolly said, folding his arms. ‘Our baby cousin, the Thain, has sent for you.’
‘He’s early,’ Ferdi said. ‘He knows I don’t arrive at my desk until after early breakfast. Unless, of course, there were some emergency,’ he measured the head of escort with a glance, ‘which I rather doubt, at present, just from watching you chew your cud like a contented old cow.’
‘Hah,’ Tolly said, uncrossing his arms. He pulled the hay stem from his mouth, studied it briefly, and dropped it to the well-swept floor. ‘Who are you calling old? I’ll have you know I’m all of one month younger than you are!’
‘As I know very well,’ Ferdi grumbled. ‘You throw it in my face often enough. Age before beauty!’ He harrumphed, quite resembling an old, disgruntled gaffer who’d discovered he’d drunk more than half his pint without noticing. ‘And what would it be that our baby cousin would be wanting?’
‘That would be telling,’ Tolly said in his best know-it-all manner, which meant, Ferdi knew, that he didn’t know.
‘Did he say it was urgent?’ Ferdi wanted to know as he picked up the face cloth and dampened it, then moved once more to the mare’s head. She finished munching her mouthful of hay and lowered her face to be washed, along with her ears. Ferdi obliged, his moves as gentle as if he were tenderly caring for a faunt, and Tolly laughed.
‘Going to take her into your lap and read her a story when her bath is done?’ the head of escort asked.
Ferdi stroked the soft neck. ‘I would,’ he said, ‘but I hear the Thain is asking for me. Would hate to keep the hobbit waiting.’
When Ferdi entered the Thain's study, he found young Faramir standing with his father by the large map on the wall.
Pippin was tracing a line with his finger. ‘So,’ the Thain said. ‘We went from that point along the Stock Road. Of course, at that time, it was not well-kept – not much used unless a traveller was on foot or rode a pony, for it was hardly fit for carts in those days. Ferumbras had let the roads go to ruin, more or less, except for the great East-West Road, and Paladin hadn’t the resources for the repairs needed to set all in order when he became Thain.’
He tapped his finger on the map. ‘That is approximately where Frodo saw the first Black Rider, while Sam and I threw ourselves flat on the grass in a little hollow not far from the road to conceal ourselves...’ he shuddered, but when Farry rested a supporting hand on his arm, he smiled and said, ‘I am well, my lad, very well indeed.’ Drawing a deep breath, he added, ‘And glad I am, as well, that their kind is forever gone from Middle-earth.’
Almost as if it was not of his will, he shuddered again, and Farry felt his father’s muscles tense under his touch. ‘I can still remember their fell voices on the air, calling to each other... the rising shadows at Weathertop... running at them with a torch at the Ford...’ he shook his head as if to clear it ‘...as if a flaming brand were enough of a weapon against such as those.’ His eyes, unfocused, stared into the past. ‘Their Black Captain at the Gate of Gondor... and their cold voices at the Black Gate, crying words of death, as they flew out of the gathering mirk...’
Ferdi had frozen, just inside the door, and Regi at his desk sat still as a statue. Both knew from experience that it was best not to startle the Thain when his recollections seized him so strongly, a rare occurrence, but all the more memorable for that.
But Farry stood firm, his hand on his father’s arm, an anchor to tie this Traveller to reality – to life and love and well-being.
After several breaths, the Thain returned from the mists of distant memory and smiled at his son. ‘I am well, Farry,’ he repeated.
The son of the Thain, perceiving the softening of tension in his father’s body, relaxed as well. ‘Of course, Da,’ he said, and took his hand away again.
‘Now, Ferdi,’ Pippin said as if nothing out of the ordinary had just occurred. ‘Farry would like to trace some of the various notable journeys in our family history... I know we were talking about going to find one of the foresters’ wells, and Reni has informed me that one of them is to be found not so far – perhaps an hour or two of walking – from the Stock Road where it winds through the wild Green Hill country.’
Ferdi came out of his frozen stance and nodded, then moved to join the others at the map. He knew that particular well, had drunk of its sweet waters on more than one occasion. ‘That’s right,’ he said. He drew a small circle on the map with his fingertip, some way to the south of the line that marked the road to Stock. ‘Somewhere in this area,’ he said.
‘So I thought we would start at Bag End and follow Frodo’s journeyings as far as Crickhollow,’ Pippin said. ‘The well would not be much out of our way.’
Considering the Thain’s reaction just now to the memory of that journey, Ferdi was not so sure that this was the best idea for the moment. He said impulsively, ‘I have a better idea, cousin!’
As Pippin turned to him with a look of mild inquiry, he continued, ‘I think that you should plan to make that particular journey with Mayor Sam and Frodo-lad, at the least, and perhaps a few other of the older Gamgee children.’
‘O yes!’ Farry said. ‘I’m sure that Goldi would want to! We’ve talked about retracing the journeys of our fathers...!’ He stopped speaking suddenly, blushed, and dropped his gaze to his toes.
‘But organising such an endeavour would undoubtedly take some time,’ Pippin said. ‘And I must be off to Buckland next week, or early in the following week, to be there well before the middle of March.’
‘As you do, every year without fail,’ Ferdi affirmed. Since he'd learned the reason for Pippin's annual visit to Buckland, to support Merry through the memory of the battle that had nearly claimed the Brandybuck's life, nowadays he did all he could to smooth Pippin's path on these anniversaries. However, he felt the need to add, ‘And yet, with the King coming to the Northlands this year, you will only be ever busier as the time approaches to meet him at the Bridge.’
Distracted by this new topic, Pippin said, ‘Perhaps I can persuade you to accompany us to New Annuminas this time, Ferdibrand?’
As this was certainly not a conversational direction that Ferdi wanted to follow, he firmly turned the talk back to the topic at hand. ‘It would take some time and planning to properly retrace Frodo’s journey to Crickhollow!’ he said. ‘With so many hobbits (Mayor Sam and his children, you and your son, perhaps a few of the escort)...’ he ticked them off on his fingers, ‘...and you’ll be camping along the way, not staying in inns... and the nights are still very cold this time of year, for it is not even the first of March!’
‘What did you have in mind, Ferdi?’ Pippin said, one eyebrow raised.
‘If Farry would like to retrace some of the notable journeys in the history of the Tooks and the Shire, perhaps I could take him to the Woody End to start, in the same manner as I travelled when ruffians held the Shire and I was gathering information for Thain Paladin so that he could better plan the Tookish efforts at resistance.’
Seeing that Pippin was not completely persuaded, he added, ‘You had much better make your journey to Crickhollow in the autumn. That gives you plenty of time to plan it out with the Mayor, and better yet, you’ll be retracing Frodo’s steps, and yours and Mayor Sam’s as well, at about the same time of year when it actually happened. That will give the young hobbits a better idea, I think.’
‘Hmmm,’ Pippin said, rubbing at his chin in thought. ‘You have a point.’
Farry, recovered from his earlier fluster, jumped enthusiastically on this idea. ‘Perhaps we could even retrace Aunt Estella’s escape to the Tookland!’ he said, but then his face fell. ‘...though it wouldn’t be quite the right time of year. I think she said it was closer to May than March...’
‘But in May, you’ll be meeting with the King and Queen once more,’ Ferdi reminded the Thain, with a nod for the lad. ‘I do not think a few weeks’ time will make a great difference in this case. Autumn – when you and Frodo –’
‘And Sam,’ Pippin put in.
‘And Sam,’ Ferdi agreed, ‘travelled to Crickhollow – is a completely different season! And although Estella’s travels were in late spring, it seems as if springtide is practically on our doorstep, come early this year. The daffodils are already blooming, for this past winter has been so mild.’ He nodded. ‘The nights are cold, true, but we can bundle well in cloaks...’
‘...as you seek shelter in the hollow of a log or crook of a tree,’ Regi said dryly.
Ferdi laughed heartily, shaking his head in remembrance. ‘There were certainly no inns in my story,’ he agreed. ‘Lotho had closed them all down long before Estella made her daring journey.’
To his satisfaction, the Thain nodded after a moment of thought. ‘It sounds like a good plan,’ he said. ‘I don’t know that I’ll be able to join you...’
‘It takes several days longer than the usual journey to reach Hally and Rosie’s, travelling on foot, as would be appropriate for the journey we are "recreating" – my pony threw a shoe, that trip – so, traveling on foot, avoiding the road and following game trails and hidden ways,’ Ferdi granted. ‘And if we are to relive the journey that I took with Estella Bolger – now Brandybuck – I must admit that coming back will take even longer.’
Pippin shook his head. ‘I cannot put off my visit to Buckland,’ he said.
‘Not a problem, Pip,’ Ferdi replied. He looked to Faramir. ‘I think that Farry and I can retrace this particular journey, along with an escort or two for company,’ though he saw Farry stir at the addition, as if he would protest this departure from historical accuracy. This was neither the time nor place to fight this particular battle, which, knowing the stubbornness of Pippin’s son (the lad was so like his father and his grandfather before him), might take all of his powers of persuasion to win. So Ferdi forged on, ‘I think we can manage such a thing without too many difficulties.’
Author’s note: Some text taken from “Three Is Company” and “A Knife in the Dark” in Fellowship of the Ring, and “The Siege of Gondor” and “The Black Gate Opens” in The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien.
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