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Chapter 26. Time
Farry broke away from the Querier’s gaze. He looked around the quiet, comfortable room, with its gleaming brasses, polished furniture, well-brushed rugs, cheerful fire in a shining grate. Though there were no windows in the Thain’s apartments, deep as they were in the Great Smials, the glass on the lamps lighting the room sparkled. A faint smell of beeswax hung in the air, testimony to Sandy’s determined efforts, though it was swiftly being overtaken by delicious smells coming from the small kitchen. ‘There’s no grass growing between the stones in the courtyard,’ he said in confusion. ‘And all the windows are shiny-clean! ...from what I remember, anyhow.’ He looked down at the floor, and then up again at the Querier. ‘And there are no holes in the rugs...?’
The Querier sighed and seemed to remember he was talking to a young hobbit. ‘When your grandfa first took over as Thain,’ he said, ‘he came from a tidy, prosperous farm to being obligated to oversee a country in itself.’ He stared at Faramir. ‘He had no warning – Ferumbras died suddenly – and no preparation to be Thain of all the Shire, much less the Tookland – and no resources.’
‘I know about the treasury,’ Faramir said, glad at last to be following some part of this remarkable conversation. He was also a little relieved that the Querier had seemed to forget he was supposed to be asking questions.
’Hah!’ Ferdi said. ‘You succeeded in diverting him from his course! I cannot tell you how many times your da did the same to Merry and myself...’
‘Only briefly,’ Farry said.
‘Sometimes “briefly” is all you need, if you are looking to get into mischief...’
Fortinbrand stared at him in astonishment and then, of a wonder, laughed. ‘O’ course you do, lad!’ he said, leaving off his careful, precise manner of speaking. Only briefly, as it turned out, for he resumed his serious expression. ‘But that is neither here nor there,’ he said.
Faramir looked from one side of the room to the other and then back to the Querier. Truth be told, he was tiring of all this serious conversation.
But the Querier had not finished. As a matter of fact, the Querier was drawing him back... back, the lad suddenly realised, to the crux of the matter, to what had Sandy, that unflappable hobbit, so perturbed. ‘But we have gone far afield of what we were supposed to be talking about, lad,’ Fortinbrand was saying as Farry, tired as he was, attended to him once more. ‘And for that, I extend my apologies.’
Farry forced himself to concentrate, clenching his fists in his lap as reality reasserted itself. The very lives of Tolly and Uncle Ferdi were at stake here! He had managed to get the grown-ups to see reason, there in the Woody End, when Hilly was clutching the branding iron in his hand, and Haldi and Isen were holding Ferdi tight between them, and the other grown-ups were watching – simply watching! – as injustice was about to be carried out.
’I thank you for that, Nephew.’
And here it was, happening all over again, like a bad dream that kept repeating, and no matter how he tried, he couldn’t seem to waken himself from it. ‘But it’s not right!’ he burst out. ‘They all agreed!’
‘Who all agreed?’ Fortinbrand said, understandably thrown off his course by Farry’s outburst.
‘There was restitution,’ Farry insisted. ‘They all agreed on it! O Ev’ard shouted at everyone, and he seemed to think they ought to banish him at least – I was listening from where we were playing, you see, though the grown-ups thought none of the children heard them talking, I think.’ He looked to the Querier in distress. ‘I don’t know why anyone should be banished, Uncle Ferdi, or Tolly, or Ev’ard...’
‘Or the Thain,’ Fortinbrand added quietly.
Farry gulped. ‘They agreed,’ he said weakly. ‘I heard them, though I wasn’t supposed to be listening.’
‘The problem we face, Farry,’ said Fortinbrand, speaking as if Farry were a fellow adult, ‘is that the Thain – your da – has lost control of the Tooks. The Talk was bad before... but now, it is running wild through the back corridors. “Serious crimes”, Tolly and Ferdi were accused of, e’en as the Thain announced to all in the courtyard when he proclaimed their Release, and so, don’t you know,’ and bitterness crept into the smooth voice, ‘speculation is spreading like wildfire as to the nature of their “serious crimes” – and as everyone knows, there is no smoke without fire...’
‘But it’s – it’s my fault – I – I ran away,’ Farry protested.
‘Who would blame a child for the ill-considered choices of a grown hobbit? Two grown hobbits, both with responsible positions...’ Fortinbrand said sadly.
Farry stared at him. ‘I would!’ he insisted.
Fortinbrand regarded him thoughtfully for a long moment. ‘I do believe you see more clearly than most, lad,’ he said at last. ‘But... though the Tooks were put off at first, by the Thain’s talk of restitution, once it became known that the Thain himself was the false accuser... and Ferdi and Tolly were – and remain to this day – obviously no wealthier than they had been before...’
‘Will they ever trust the Thain’s justice again?’ Farry said bleakly. And at Fortinbrand’s questioning look, he explained, ‘That’s what Haldi said, when my da insisted that they tell the Tooks the whole truth of the matter – that I had run away, and that my da had falsely accused Ferdi and Tolly...’ He went back to his original point. ‘But they agreed on the restitution! They said it was enough!’
‘So the Tooks have lost faith in the Thain’s judgement, and in his justice,’ Fortinbrand said. ‘And because Reginard has staunchly supported him throughout, they’ve lost their confidence in the Steward as well. And after Regi, Everard is next in line to be Thain, but he is under threat of banishment at present, since the restitution did not meet the requirements of the old laws... and Ferdi, next in line after him... and absolutely last in the succession... last in the line of hobbits descended from the Old Took...’ He shook his head and chuckled, though the sound carried unbelieving despair rather than merriment. ‘And so, we reach the end of the line. What are we to do?’
Farry stared at him in silent dismay. The adults seemed to have no answers. He was beginning to realise that not only had he put Ferdi and Tolly at risk of banishment, but Everard, and Farry’s own father as well, simply by his childish choice to run away. And perhaps – the thought occurred to him that much more was at stake than only those hobbits who had worked their way through a trial and resolution in the Woody End – perhaps all of the Tookland, and even the Shire!
But Fortinbrand was speaking again, haltingly. ‘And yet, Farry, your da has accomplished so much in his short time as Thain... Yes, his father kept the Tookland free of the riffraff, but he knew nothing of governing the Tookland after the emergency was over. Peregrin... If it weren’t for the Talk, bad as it has become, which now threatens every accomplishment he’s made, and any he might make in future... Under his watch, the land is being reclaimed – trees that the ruffians cut down are replanted, the farmers are cooperating together so that no one crop is overplanted to the detriment of another, the roads are in good repair... and perhaps most importantly, gaffers are keeping warm through the winter, and those who cannot care for themselves are being cared for, with kindness, love and tenderness. When he is able to keep hold of his temper, he is the best Thain the Tookland has known in a long time...’
’Impulsive, as I told you, Farry,’ Ferdi said.
Farry nodded, at last seeing the wisdom in what Ferdi had told him about his da, his strength-and-weakness. At last, he began to see a connection between what Fortinbrand had tried to explain to him, five years earlier, and what Ferdi had explained not so long ago. He took a deep, steadying breath, and then he went on with his storytelling.
‘I still don’t see why anybody needs to be banished,’ young Farry said stubbornly, though he was close to tears.
Fortinbrand opened his mouth as if to speak, and then, to Farry’s surprise, closed it again, staring at the young hobbit. Abruptly he jumped to his feet, calling for Sandy.
The hobbitservant was quick to respond, though as he stood in the doorway to the small sitting room, his nerves were showing by the way he twisted a linen polishing cloth in his hands. ‘Yes, sir? Was there anything wanted?’
‘I want you to feed this child,’ Fortinbrand said, then paused. ‘His minder is a Took, is he not?’ he said. At Sandy’s mute nod, he drew a long breath in through his nose and let it out in a forceful exhalation from his mouth. ‘It cannot be helped,’ he said. ‘He will be in the great room, I imagine, and must not be called away. You, however,’ and he eyed the hobbitservant. ‘You will remain here, I take it?’
Sandy stood straight and stopped twisting the cloth in his hands. He tucked the cloth into his belt and let his hands drop to his sides, as if he were a soldier called to stand at attention before marching off to battle. ‘I am not a Took,’ he affirmed with a quiet dignity.
‘Good,’ Fortinbrand said. Farry wondered why it was good that Sandy was not a Took? But then the Querier spoke again. ‘I must step out,’ he said, ‘and I wish the lad to stay here, and not take it into his head to wander...’ he looked down at Farry, ‘I imagine you’ve learnt your lesson about that sort of thing, but still,’ and he looked back to Sandy, ‘I don’t want to take any chances. Too much is hanging in the balance.’
‘No sir,’ Sandy responded, though the normally unflappable hobbit looked as befuddled as Farry felt. ‘I mean, yes sir.’
‘So feed him, and see to it that he lies himself down for a nap.’
It didn’t seem the right time for Farry to protest that he’d given up naps some time ago, so the lad kept his mouth shut. At least the Querier hadn’t ordered Sandy to tuck him into bed!
‘Yes sir,’ Sandy said, and then held out a hand to Farry. ‘Come along, young master.’
’So I took his hand, and he led me to the little kitchen and filled a plate for me, and I asked him to fill a plate for himself and please not to make me eat alone, and because I was only a child, I guess, he did so.’
‘So then what happened? How is it that Fortinbrand called you as a witness?’
Farry laughed. ‘I’m actually getting to that, Uncle! What is it you say, when someone interrupts you in the middle of a story before the hearth in the great room?’
‘All in good time.’
‘That’s all well and good...’ Ferdi grumbled. ‘But I can feel my hair turning grey. I’m likely to die of old age before you come to the end of your tale.’
Farry sobered abruptly at mention of dying, though he knew his uncle had only been talking lightly in the face of much heavier realities. He forced himself to answer in his most cheerful tones, ‘We cannot have that! Very well, he fed me, and he deigned to eat at the table with me – but not our table, not the Thain’s table, I mean, not the one in the large sitting room, nor the one in the small, private sitting room. We ate in his little room, and of course it was an adventure of sorts as children are not allowed in the servants’ quarters as a rule. It is not a big room, but it has a bed, and a table with two chairs, that he might share a meal with the minder, I suppose, and so we ate our meal there.’
‘Ah,’ Ferdi said. ‘A little less talk about eating and drinking might be welcome at about this point in your tale.’
‘And when we were finished,’ Farry said obligingly, ‘he asked me if I knew the way to my bed, and I stared, for you know Sandy – he never tells a joke!’
Ferdi spoke so low, the lad almost missed the words. ‘You’d be surprised, lad, at what the common folk get up to when the gentry are not on the spot...’
Ignoring this revelation, Farry continued, ‘So I went to my room, and I lay myself down, and I could hear the splashing and clinking that meant he was washing our dishes, and then the most curious thing happened...’
Young Faramir had been feeling sleepy, in truth, somewhat drained by the heavy conversation with the Querier, not only the questioning but the talking that had gone along with it. His eyes drooped closed as he listened to the sounds of washing-up coming from the hallway that led from the small sitting room to the more public rooms.
But then the sounds stopped, and he heard voices! Yet he had not heard any arrivals... no knock had come upon the door to the suite, and the beginning of the conversation had overlapped the washing-up sounds, meaning that Sandy had not admitted anyone to the Thain’s apartments. What in the world?
So of course he crept from his bed to listen. He immediately recognised the speaker as Rusty, who served both Ferdi’s and Tolly’s families in much the same way Sandy served the Thain’s family. ‘...asleep. I peeked in on him just now.’
‘You oughtn’t –‘ Sandy began, but Rusty interrupted him hotly.
‘There’s an awful lot of things that people oughtn’t right now, I can say. You needn’t be looking down your nose at me...’
‘Don’t –!’ Sandy said, and Farry caught his breath, for the hobbitservant’s voice broke on the word, and was that a sob that followed?
‘The Talk is, they’re to be banished this day. All of them,’ Rusty said.
‘No,’ Sandy whispered brokenly. ‘In the name of all that’s good...’
‘It’s not good,’ Rusty said, ‘and they can never make it so.’ He gave a loud sniff as if he was himself fighting tears. ‘And I won’t stand witness to the branding! And I won’t stay in such a Shire, I won’t!’
‘What are you saying?’ Sandy said. ‘You cannot stop it. We... we cannot stop it.’
‘I’m going with them,’ Rusty said.
‘Going with –‘
‘I’ll follow them like a hound, if I must,’ Rusty said. ‘They’re my family, Sandy, those hobbits are. Tolly and Meadowsweet, Ferdi and Pimpernel, all their children! You know they won’t go into exile alone; their wives would never – never allow such a thing.’
Farry felt tears spring to his eyes at the desperation, and the fierce loyalty, in the hobbit’s tone as Rusty finished, ‘So if they’re to take their families with them, well then, I’m leaving the Shire too.’
‘But,’ Sandy said, and paused. He cleared his throat, and Farry could almost imagine him swallowing hard before he went on. ‘What life is there outside the Shire? I would, if I thought... Is there life?’
‘You haven’t listened well to your Master if you think they’re being sent to their deaths,’ Rusty said severely.
‘But... to live... outside the Shire...?’
‘There’s hobbits in the Breeland. They live peaceably enough,’ Rusty argued.
‘Do you think they’ll go to the Breeland, then?’ Sandy said humbly. ‘I...’ he added. ‘I never imagined life – my life, anyhow – anywhere but here.’
‘I don’t know where they’ll go,’ Rusty said, his voice firm. ‘It doesn’t matter.’
There was a short silence, and then Sandy said, ‘I thought – I thought it was only Tooks that could survive...’
Rusty laughed, a short, sharp, bitter laugh, and Sandy cautioned him to keep his voice down lest he wake the lad.
Too late, Farry thought to himself, but he withdrew to his bed and lay himself down, just in case the hobbitservant should check on him.
Which Sandy did, being thorough in all he did, which, at the moment, included minding the small son of the Thain.
When the voices resumed, Farry sat up again, listened to ascertain that they were once more in the little kitchen, and crept to the doorway to hear them better.
‘It’s all right; the lad’s sound asleep,’ Sandy said. ‘But if you had wakened him...’
‘What will they do to us? Banish us for neglecting our duties?’ Rusty said, though he kept his voice low.
‘Bite your tongue,’ Sandy said. ‘I was left in charge of the lad, and I mean to do my duty to the last.’
‘At least until you watch them draw a brand across the face of your Master and turn him out,’ Rusty scoffed.
‘I – Don’t!’ Sandy said, the last word a plea.
‘Mayor Sam hasn’t a drop of Tookish blood in him,’ Rusty said now, evidently confusing Sandy as much as their young eavesdropper.
‘I don’t take your meaning.’
‘You said only a Took could survive outside the Shire, or someone with Tookish blood. Granted, the Thain, his cousin the Master of Buckland, even Mr Baggins (the both of them), they were all Tookish, them as went off into the Outlands and wrestled with the Dark Lord, or what not. But Mayor Sam, he’s just like us. And yet he followed his Master to the end of the world, and back.’
‘To the end of all things,’ Sandy murmured. ‘And back again.’ He gave another sob. ‘But there’s no “back again” for them.’
‘No, there’s not,’ Rusty said, and somehow his voice was gentler, and then he was making soothing noises, and the sound of muffled sobs came to Farry’s ears, and he wiped tears from his own face to hear it as he could all too clearly imagine Sandy weeping, and Rusty holding him and patting his back.
At last the storm seemed to be subsiding, and Rusty said quietly, ‘So I’m going.’
Farry heard Sandy gulp. ‘We can go?’ he said, very hopelessness in his tone.
‘We can,’ Rusty said, and Farry had never heard him speak in such a firm tone, not even when he’d come upon young hobbits making mischief.
‘Then...’ Sandy said, and Farry heard him gulp back a sob. ‘Then I’m going too.’ He paused and added, ‘Even if my Master tells me to stay... I’ll – I’ll follow. Like a hound.’
‘We’ll be hounds together, then,’ Rusty said, and Farry heard a sound as if one of the servants had slapped the other on the back. But then Rusty seemed to have a second thought, for he said, ‘But Sandy... what about your sisters?’
‘My littlest sister just married, last year,’ Sandy said. He paused and then went on, ‘They’re all grown up and married now, with families of their own.’ He sniffed. ‘Maybe I can still write letters to them, and they can find someone to read them, and to send a letter back to where ever we end up living. I won’t be the one banished, my name unmentionable in the Shire ever after...’
‘It’s a travesty,’ Rusty said. ‘But the Tooks are making the bed, and much joy to them, lying in it when they’ve quite finished. I would hate to see the Tookland five years hence.’
‘But you’d better go,’ Sandy said. ‘For I don’t know where the Querier went, or when he will return, and if he finds you here...’
‘What can they do to me?’ Rusty said. ‘Discharge me from my position? Ha!’
‘Please,’ Sandy said. ‘We’re supposed to be grounded to quarters until after the Tooks have come to agreement.’
‘And then they’ll round us up to witness the branding in the courtyard of the Smials,’ said Rusty. ‘I had better start packing.’
‘But they won’t be allowed to take anything with them but the clothes they’re wearing!’ Sandy said. ‘You know – a small bag of food, enough for three days, a water bottle, and three silver coins. A brand on the cheek to prevent them from crossing the Bounds ever again. And every hand against them...’
‘Then I had most definitely better pack a bag, and so should you,’ Rusty said stoutly. ‘Just as Mayor Sam astounded the Tookish cousins with the heavy-loaded pack he carried all through the Outlands e’en to the Dark Land, full of wonders... everything except rope, to hear the Thain or Master tell the tale.’
‘Well then,’ Sandy said, and somehow he sounded calmer now, even somehow cheerful, in a grim and determined way. ‘Be sure to pack some rope in your bag. And so will I.’
Farry, peeping from his doorway, saw the two servants emerge from the little kitchen. He froze, but neither saw him. They shared a hug, and then an even more curious thing than Rusty’s sudden appearance in the Thain’s quarters happened: Rusty pressed a spot on the wall opposite the door to the kitchen, and a hidden door opened. ‘Until the Tooks have done,’ he said, and stepped through the doorway.
‘Have done their worst,’ Sandy said quietly, and closed the door behind Rusty, leaving, Farry had no doubt, a smooth-looking wall where the opening had been. He’d wondered how servants moved so quickly and quietly between quarters, and now he had an inkling that there was much more to the Great Smials than he’d ever before imagined.
Too bad his family were about to go into exile.
At least, that was what Sandy and Rusty, two level-headed, practical adults, were obviously expecting to happen as a result of the upcoming convocation.
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