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Chapter 15. Aid
‘It’s not a five-day trip from the Great Smials to the Bolgers’,’ Farry said as they rode a zigzagging path down the slope, remembering what Ferdi had said about his sister expecting them.
‘Ah, but we’ll be dodging imaginary ruffians, much as I was doing my best to avoid the real ones back in the day,’ Ferdi reminded. ‘I’m sure you’ll find it quite diverting. Ruffians will slow you down, whether they’re real or imaginary.’ He chuckled and added, ‘And the return journey with an imaginary Estella will slow us down even more, you’ll find. Though not as much as I’d anticipated she would.’ The track narrowed, and he nudged Spatter ahead.
The conversation had helped to keep the lad awake; now Farry found his head nodding, jerking him awake in the saddle several times that he was aware of. As it was, he didn’t remember coming to the smial, nor his uncle lifting him from the saddle, carrying him inside and laying him down. He awakened slowly, to find himself on a soft bed, warmly covered, bright daylight shining outside the round window and promising smells in the air.
Hearing laughter and talk, he threw back the covers and emerged into the main room, where the long table was set for the farmer, his family and helpers. A hearty rabbit stew was bubbling away on the hearth and an army of loaves fresh from the oven steamed in their ranks on snowy cloths laid out along a long, well-scrubbed sideboard.
‘Ah, Master Faramir,’ Ferdi said, turning and addressing him formally. ‘If I may present Missus Warren...?’
Farry bowed and said, ‘At your service, and your family’s.’
The farmer’s wife made a deep courtesy to the lad. ‘We’re proud to be of any service to the Thain,’ she said with an air of formality that matched Ferdibrand's, hinting at much practice as she carefully enunciated each word, though a wild-country lilt peeked through as she spoke, ‘and of course, his son.’
‘Speaking of service,’ Ferdi said, putting out a hand to raise their hostess upright once more from her prolonged obeisance. He dropped his voice. ‘We’re keeping it rather quiet, if you please, mistress, that the son of the Thain is to be out and about in the wilderlands...’ She was more of a missus than a mistress, but she didn’t seem to mind Ferdi’s elevating her in rank in his form of address. Besides, her cookery smelled fit to serve to the King.
Eyes wide, she gasped, ‘O! O’ course!’
‘So if you please,’ Ferdi repeated, ‘we’ll just take our nooning now and not wait for the rest to come in from the fields. The fewer the better, as it were,’ he added, tapping the side of his nose with a cautionary finger.
‘Certainly!’ their hostess said with a solemn nod, and then she smiled and extended her hand in invitation to Farry. ‘Come, lad, sit yersel’ doon a-bench there, and we’ll soon hae yer bowl a-brimmin’!’
Ferdi encouraged the teen to “eat hearty”, and Missus Warren was happy to support his efforts. Farry lost track of how many times she topped up his bowl and added another hunk of fresh-baked bread to his plate. ‘Ah know how tweens eat, ah do,’ she said, and even though Farry was only a teen, he was glad for the bounty. They’d be eating dried food out of their packs for the next four and a half days, along with what little they could forage at this time of year (which was not all that much, from his understanding), and walking for hours, generating an appetite for much more than any hobbit could carry on his back.
Shouldering their packs, they walked out of the smial as the Sun reached her zenith, showering profuse thanks upon their hostess, who stood in the doorway to watch them go, beaming and waving enthusiastic farewells with a snowy pocket handkerchief.
‘That was a meal and a half,’ Ferdi said in satisfaction, once they’d finished receiving her farewells, proffered a final bow of thanks and turned to take up their eastward journey once more. ‘Good Farmer Warren and his helpers will have a feast to look forward to, an hour or so from now.’ He glanced sideways at Faramir. ‘You showed a great deal of your da’s usual cunning, getting up just in time for a meal.’
‘He learnt it from Frodo Baggins,’ Farry said, and laughed. Under the gentle early-Spring Sun, which had burned away the night frost and morning mist, the land stretched out before them, fresh and green. The world seemed a fair place, and full of promise.
As if discerning the lad’s mood, Ferdi raised his arm to point ahead. ‘Now imagine the land covered in darkness and silence, except perhaps the hooting of an owl or rustling in the shadows,’ he said. ‘If the moon is bright, we’d have to take care to slip from shadow to shadow. And if not, we’d have to take care not to stumble over a stick or rock or rough ground in the darkness and turn an ankle or break our necks. Occasionally a border guard might touch your elbow, startling you out of your skin as he seems to appear out of thin air, because he's seen you from his hiding place, and he knows you need him to guide you around the traps. And all the while, watching and listening for ruffians on the prowl...’
Farry shivered, and his uncle nodded in satisfaction. ‘Now you’re seeing it properly in your mind’s eye, as it would have been then in the deep of the night,’ Ferdi said. ‘But it’ll be more real to you when darkness falls.’
‘A border guard?’ Farry asked in a subdued tone.
‘Aye,’ Ferdi said. ‘Were you not paying attention? They were out here in the borderlands, in hiding, watching for ruffians. When they saw them, they fired a warning shot, but if the ruffians were foolish, they might offer chase, and then it was the borderers’ task to lead them into the traps.’
‘Like Hilly,’ Farry murmured.
‘Exactly,’ came the quiet answer.
They trudged along for hours, it seemed (and in truth, it really was hours), uphill and down and around the edges of some of the great hills, along faint tracks that Ferdi told Farry were game trails, or splashing along shallow streams (“good way to conceal your tracks”), over grassy expanses and through cool, shadowy woods that seemed to grow deeper as they trended eastward towards the Woody End, even as the Sun followed her course down from her high place towards the western horizon behind them.
At first, they saw signs of civilisation, ploughed fields where the land allowed, dogs working a flock of sheep on a hillside, smoke rising from isolated farmhouses, and heard the ring of an axe, chopping. These grew fewer as the country grew wilder, less inhabited, the hills reared less high and the woods at last came together to the point where instead of copses of trees dotting a grassy landscape, the travellers were surrounded by trees with the occasional interruption of a clearing or streambed. The icy water in the streams made Farry shiver, but he didn’t complain. The constant motion helped him keep warm. Besides, he had no intention of giving Ferdi a reason to cut their journey short.
When the Sun was halfway down the sky, they took a brief rest in the shelter of a pine grove. ‘This would have been a good place to hide away a winter’s day,’ Ferdi said. ‘Another hour or two of walking eastward from this point, and we’ll be out of the borderlands and into the Woody End of the Shire proper.’ He indicated a large depression in the needle-covered loam. ‘The deer seek shelter here on bitter days, d’you see, Farry?’
The lad nodded. ‘And the trees are climbable,’ Ferdi added. ‘We won’t climb up for this short rest,’ he said, then studied Farry more closely. ‘Unless you’re tired, that is. We can stretch out the journey, stop at the Cockerel for more supplies...’
‘No,’ Farry said stubbornly, though his feet felt as if he’d been walking for days instead of hours. ‘That wouldn’t be right. The Cockerel wasn’t even there during the Troubles! ...seeing that the ruffians had burned it down when Lotho closed the inns.’ Then, with a sidelong glance at his uncle, he teased, ‘Unless your ancient bones are starting to ache, old gaffer, and you’re longing to quaff the best beer on the Stock Road.’
Ferdi chuckled and shook his head. ‘I’d hazard a guess that you’re not done yet,’ he said.
‘You’d guess right, then,’ Farry said. He stuffed the last of his share of the bread-and-cheese that the farmer’s wife had pressed on them into his mouth and rose, dusting his hands. ‘The day’s not getting any younger.’ Ferdi cleared his throat, and he amended, ‘The night, I mean, that we are pretending.’ A little afraid of the answer, he asked, ‘Will we be walking all the night through, then, until tomorrow’s dawning?’
‘Nay,’ Ferdi said. ‘We’ll reach our first resting spot not long after middle night.’ It would mark the end of the first of five steady days of travel.
Farry breathed a private sigh of relief. ‘And even sooner, if you’ll stir your old bones,’ he said.
Ferdi laughed and rose to his feet. ‘As you wish, young hobbit.’ He stretched, picked up his pack by the loop fastened between the straps, and shrugged it onto his shoulders. ‘We’ve been working our way more or less on an eastward line to this point,’ he said, ‘following the course of my travels to gather information for the Thain.’
‘More or less,’ Farry said, thinking of their rather wandering course, if the angle of the Sun had been any indication of direction.
His uncle grinned. ‘O aye, young hobbit, and rather more than less, to this point, as I said.’
‘And now?’ the teen asked.
‘And now, we’ll turn aside from our trail for a bit,’ Ferdi said. ‘You wanted to see one of Lotho’s wells, after all, and the nearest one to our path is about an hour’s walk to the south from here. We’ll walk there and back again to this grove of pine, and then we’ll continue our eastward journey into the night so that you may have a taste of night-walking.’
Faramir knew the reason for this course of action. Tolly had also ventured into the Woody End to gather information in the Troubles, though his informants had not lived quite so far to the East as Ferdi’s, and so he knew and had used some of the same game trails Ferdi had followed in those days. That had been important, for some reason, to Farry’s da and the head of escort when they’d discussed how to proceed with this rather unusual history lesson.
But “Lotho’s Well” was out of the way of their familiar paths. It had seemed more prudent in planning this journey, or so the grown-ups had maintained, to stay within the general area of a well-known course. Accordingly, Ferdi had sketched a map of their planned travels, there in the Thain’s study, under the eyes of Tolibold and his hobbits of the escort, along with the chief hunter Renilard as well as Thain and Steward, including this side-trail to the South. In the case of unforeseen events, searchers would know how to trace their steps, even though Ferdi had been teaching Farry how to leave no trail that a tracker might follow.
‘Night-walking?’ the lad said now. ‘Different from sleep-walking, I hope.’
Ferdi laughed at that and started to answer in the same vein. But then the wind, blowing from the east, brought a faint sound of distant baying to them, and his face changed. ‘Dogs,’ he said under his breath.
‘Perhaps it’s hunters,’ Farry said, trying to reassure himself as well as his uncle. Wild dogs could be a menace, as he knew from personal experience, as did his Uncle Ferdi. He wondered if they might run into – or have to avoid, as it were, considering they were trying to eschew all contact with hobbits due to the nature of this particular journey – one of the local Shirriffs responsible for this Farthing of the Shire. One of the duties of the Shirriffs who worked under Mayor Sam was to track down wandering beasts, call together a muster of local hobbits if necessary, and capture those that were harmless or kill the dangerous ones. Dogs who looked to no hobbit as master, running wild in a pack, belonged to the latter category as they were capable of reverting to their wolfish ancestry, attacking deer and livestock... and Shire-folk.
Ferdi shook his head. ‘Wrong time of year for that,’ he said. ‘No, Farry, this changes the nature of our journey...’ He shook his head again and laughed, though now there was no humour in the sound. ‘Actually, it makes it more true to the life, in one sense,’ he said. ‘Weaponless and alone, I had to be ever ready to climb a tree for safety, to get away from predators on four legs as well as two.’
He eyed his nephew. ‘So, I think,’ he said. ‘We’ll dispense with travelling by night, and we’ll sleep in a tree during the dark hours.’
‘Good thing we brought our ropes, then,’ Farry said with a mixture of disappointment and relief.
‘Ah,’ Ferdi responded with a chuckle that sounded a little more genuine. ‘I could hardly not bring ropes along on a journey! You know what our Mayor Sam says about rope!’
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