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Kindred  by GamgeeFest

This story came about while I was working on "A Grand Tradition". While I was writing that story, Pervinca and Merry told me about one of their relations who had never before entered into any of my stories, even though I knew of this Hobbit's existence from the family trees. 

This relative's story, while compelling, simply did not fit into "A Grand Tradition", even as an anecdote. So I removed all mention of this relative from "A Grand Tradition", knowing I would later write the story on its own, once it was all known to me. I had no idea it would take me this long to write this story. I began this in 2008 and just now completed it. There are several reasons for this, the majority to do with real life, but there was some flustering about where the story was going and how it was to progress. 

The bridge story, the part in italics at the start of each chapter, takes place in the ‘present’ day, while the main story begins in 1364 SR, at the time of the Free Fair, when Adalgrim is 83, his wife Clematis is 78, their children are Amber 41, Heather 38, Amaryllis 31, Paladin 30, Esmeralda 27; Fortinbras is 85, Lalia 80 and Ferumbras is 47; Rorimac is 62, Saradoc 24, Merimac 22. Bilbo 72, Dora 62. 

Of course, none of these characters are mine - except the ones I made up. :D I'm making no money from this.

GF 6/26/2011

Continue to story...


1402 SR

Great Smials, Tuckborough

Thain Ferumbras sat in the middle of his study, lit only by the faint glow of a single candle. The room looked different at night, but he still knew every niche on the walls, every squeaky board in the floor and every single one of the books and scrolls cramming the bookshelves. He could navigate this room with his eyes closed. Sometimes it felt as though he had spent his entire life in this room. He certainly spent more time here than his apartment, this last week especially so. 

He glanced up at the portraits of his parents over the mantle. “Oh, Mother,” he said and stopped, unable to form any thoughts beyond that. The pain of her loss was still fresh, and the havoc of the last week had exhausted him. He had hoped that things would begin to settle down after the burial, but rumors had lives of their own.

And what rumors they were. Poor Pearl was distraught, and Paladin and Eglantine were livid that anyone would entertain the idea that their daughter had deliberately dumped the matriarch over the threshold and down the hillside. Ferumbras believed it as little as they did, and he had even given the lass a string of his mother’s pearls in an attempt to show he held no ill-will against her. The lass had only been doing his mother a kindly service, and that was not the first incident Lalia had encountered with that rickety old wheeled-chair. “Chairs with wheels are like hobbits in water – they don’t mix,” he had warned his mother on several occasions, always to be dismissed with a flap of her meaty hand. 

His gift unfortunately had done little to stem the rumors. If anything, they had grown since then and now that Lalia was underground, the tongues of the Tooks had been loosened as never before. Pearl in her shame had not gone to the service. Her aunts Amber, Heather and Esmeralda and her parents Paladin and Eglantine had given only brief observance over Lalia’s grave, a slight even the dullest hobbit would be hard pressed to miss and served only to add fuel to the fire. 

Wasn’t it astonishing, the gossipers whispered, that Heather and Amber (or The Aunts as everyone called them) were now the eldest matriarchs of the Took family? Well, you know that Esmeralda got herself married to Master Rorimac’s eldest son as soon as he came of age and look at the position she enjoys now. And wasn’t it convenient that it was Paladin’s own daughter who was tending Lalia that fateful morning? Why, he’s next in line to be Took and Thain. The feud between the Whitwell Tooks and the elderly matriarch knew no limits; Ferumbras had better sleep with one eye towards the door and the other to the window.

Feud. Ferumbras frowned ruefully at the word. Oh yes, it was true enough that the Whitwell Tooks only tolerated Lalia and gave her a wide berth on visits, but they were no different from anyone else in that respect. Indeed, the Aunts had dwelt in Great Smials all these years with nary a concern or cross word either way. Esmeralda had simply followed her heart, and as for Paladin, he was perfectly happy overseeing his farms in Whitwell and would pass over being Took and Thain if tradition didn’t dictate that the titles be passed to him. 

There may have been a feud between the Whitwells and Lalia the Great at one time, but it had been one they had buried long ago. Ferumbras wasn’t so blind, or sentimental in his mourning, as to overlook that there had still been ill feelings, but to continue to call it a feud was taking it too far. Yet he supposed they were a more likely target for such rumors than anyone else, all things considered, and poor Pearl was caught in the middle of something with which she had nothing to do.

The only solution Ferumbras could come up with was to unearth the root of those rumors once and for all, and to do that he would have to leave Tuckborough. He had told no one where he was going, only that he had important business to attend to and would return by the evening. Hopefully, he would not be returning alone.

He filled a snifter with a finger of brandy and lifted it at his parents’ portraits over the mantle as if in toast, but words failed him at the last. There were too many things to say and all of them too late. He took a sip and waded through his memories of the last week. Indeed, the last thirty-eight years.


Chapter 1 – The Darling of Tookland

28 Forelithe, 1364 SR

Great Smials, Tuckborough

Clematis Took frowned at the piles of luggage near the apartment door. So far, only Adalgrim and herself were packed. They would each be taking two bags to the Free Fair, while the rest of their luggage would be delivered to their house in Whitwell, but of her children’s luggage, none was to be seen. Despite her sternest warnings that they will be leaving after elevenses, her youngest children were continuing to take their sweet time. At least she need not worry about her eldest daughters, Amber and Heather, anymore. They were in their own apartments, and Amber was punctual as a clock; she would see that they were at the stables on time. 

Their annual visit to Tuckborough had been as enjoyable as ever. The children always looked forward to these visits, the Great Smials being such a magnificent and grand mansion to them in comparison to their humble farmhouse in Whitwell. There were endless cousins to run about with and many other relations from across the Shire they only saw during these visits. 

The annual visit was more hectic than normal this year, in part due to the Mayoral election. Normally, the Tooks celebrated the midsummer holidays here at the Smials but the election required Fortinbras to travel to the Free Fair in Michel Delving. The Took and Thain preferred for his first cousins to go as well so he could hear their opinions on the mayoral candidates, which meant Clematis and her family were obliged to go. As it was also Overlithe this year, an occasion of special significance to the Whitwell Tooks, Clematis had used the visit to make her various plans, and a great many of the Tooks would be following them to the Free Fair to help them celebrate it.

But they had to get there first.

Shaking her head at the luggage, Clematis wandered into the kitchen, where a chambermaid was packing the cupboards as ordered. As the family would not be retuning, all food not needed for the journey to Michel Delving was to be distributed to those remaining behind.

“How is it coming along, Belinda?” Clematis asked, looking about the little kitchen with scrutiny. At first glance, everything appeared to be going well, which Belinda quickly confirmed.

“Nearly there, Mistress,” the chambermaid replied, looking up from her work. “I’ve put aside your traveling provisions as you asked, ma’am, and numbered them for you. You’ve a pack for luncheon and tea today. For tomorrow, second breakfast, elevenses and luncheon.” She pointed at the well-stuffed packs.

“Very good,” Clematis said, eyeing three smaller packs next to those. “Are these for extra, in case we run out?” she inquired. She had not asked for extra provisions, but she admitted they would come in handy. Her children, Paladin in particular, could eat to feed the whole of Great Smials. 

“Oh, er, no ma’am. I packed those for Barley, Nab and Sprig,” Belinda said, looking uncomfortable. At her mistress’s blank stare, she elaborated, “The coachhobbits, ma’am.”

“Of course,” Clematis said, feeling chagrined at her own thoughtlessness. Naturally, the drivers would have to eat as well. “Thank you for remembering them, lass. And what of the remaining provender?” She looked around at the many little baskets spread across the counter, each with three satchels in various stages of filling.

“I’m nearly done, ma’am,” Belinda said. “I’ve only a couple more cupboards to go and then I’ll be off to deliver them.” She paused briefly, considering her mistress’s mood before continuing. The mistress had accepted the coachhobbits’ meals well enough; she decided to try it. “Since so many Tooks are going to the Fair this year, I thought to hand out the food to the servants, ma’am, if you’re willing. It will go bad otherwise, with all the celebrating.”

Clematis nodded at this. “That seems wise. We don’t want it going to waste. You’re a good lass, dear.”

Belinda bobbed her head at this, exhaling slowly, and waited. Her mistress wasn’t quite finished with her yet.

“I may require you to help my children with their packing before you go, though. I’ll let you know,” Clematis stated.

“Of course, Mistress,” Belinda said with a slight curtsy before opening the next cupboard, already nearly bare.

Clematis went down the hall to the bedchambers and stopped between the three that belonged to her youngest children. Growing up, the lasses had been obliged to share rooms, both here and at home, but with Amber and Heather in their own apartment, her two youngest lasses now enjoyed the pleasure of their own beds while at Great Smials. Paladin, being the only lad, had always had his own room, a fact he enjoyed gloating at every possibility. The door to the left was closed, but the two to the right were open. Interesting.

Being the more accessible, Clematis turned to the right and looked in at her two youngest children. She nodded in approval at what she saw. Paladin was a messy tween but he cleaned up a room as quickly as he brought it to clutter. He was mostly packed, having only a small pile of waistcoats to divvy up between the Free Fair and home. Esmeralda was somewhat tidier and was in the process of digging through the armoire drawers for any overlooked belongings. Her bags were already packed and squared away. 

“Coming along, dears?” Clematis asked in delight. They might actually be at the stables on time, which meant she would not have to hear any lectures from Amber on the importance of being punctual. 

“Yes, Mum,” they replied promptly, but there was a slight edge to Pally’s tone and a tense set to Esme’s shoulders. 

With a sudden feeling of dread, she turned around to the closed bedchamber door and opened it. What she saw inside was nothing short of astonishing, though not in any way she would consider good. She was greeted by a room that, while not exactly fitting the description of disarray, certainly could not be considered orderly either. A trunk sat open upon the floor, half-filled with neatly folded clothes, while a second, smaller trunk was already packed and locked for the journey, which was promising. What was not promising was the empty pack and the pile of clothes thrown upon the bed and such personal items as brushes, ribbons, gloves and – stars above! – smallclothes still scattered about the room, not to mention the complete lack of a daughter. 

Striving for calm and failing miserably, Clematis turned from the chamber and called through the apartment, “Darling! Where have you got to, dear?” As she had feared, there was no answer. She turned back to Pally and Esme and waited, hands on hips. Paladin was being exceptionally fussy over the folding of his cloak, while Esme seemed to have found something of immense interest under her bed.

“Well?” Clematis asked and at this simple inquiry, her two youngest stopped cold and looked up guiltily. 

“She went to find Rumbi,” Esme answered. “She had something she needed to return to him.”

“She said she’d be right back,” Pally put in.

“How long ago was this?” Clematis asked. 

Her children shrugged. “A while ago,” Pally admitted. 

Clematis sighed and rubbed the bridge of her nose, a tell-tale sign of a headache looming near. 

If Amber was like clockwork, Heather was sensible, Esmeralda was organized and Paladin was efficient, then Amaryllis was flighty and absent-minded, never able to get anywhere on time, except for meals. Clematis knew already what would happen. Ami would remain distracted until elevenses, return to the apartment only in time to eat, and they would be forced to delay their departure for an hour while she finished packing. Amber would be quite put out, being made to wait for an hour by the stables with a rambunctious four-year-old in tow, and Heather would be making a list of everything else she could have done in that hour, even if the only reason she was on time was because she came with Amber.

“I can finish packing her things, Mum,” Paladin offered gallantly, though not without reservations. He eyed the chamber across the hall with bemused hesitancy. Clearly, the mysteries of a lass’s room were ones he did not wish to solve.

Clematis smiled warmly at him. She had a better use for his talents. “No lad. I need you to find Darling and bring her back here. Esme-love?”

“Yes, Mum. I think I can figure out what she wants to take from what’s left to pack, and I’m finished already with my room,” Esme said, and indeed she was. She only needed to close the trunk and fasten the packs; her brother wasn’t too far behind her. 

“Thank you, dear. I’ll send Belinda to help you shortly and to take your things to the parlor. Darling can complete one of your chores when we return to Whitwell,” Clematis said. “Pally, finish up quick and find your sister. If she’s not at Rumbi’s then she should at least still be in the Smials. I’ll go round up your father.”

Pally threw his cloak and the two remaining waistcoats into his travel pack, closed up his trunk, then sprang to his feet and was down the hall in two blinks. Esme secured all the fastenings on her packs and closed her trunk, then stepped across the hall to her sister’s room, taking a deep breath before entering the wreck. Clematis returned to the kitchen, where Belinda was double-checking all the cupboards. 

“Change of plans, Belinda,” she said. “Darling seems to have disappeared. Esme will be needing your help packing her room, and you’ll need to bring all their luggage to pile by the doors. To the left for the Fair, to the right for Whitwell. You can deliver the food once we’ve left.”

“Yes, Mistress,” Belinda said.

“Put our food packs and the ones for the coachhobbits with the Fair luggage, would you? I need to track down my husband.”

“He was going to visit his cousin, Mr. Sigismond, Mistress,” Belinda informed her. 

Clematis nodded, heading for the door. “I’ll call for the coachhobbits to come and collect the luggage shortly,” she said before opening the door.

“Yes, Mistress,” Belinda replied, breezing down the hall to Amaryllis’s chamber, where Esme was already waging war with the clutter.

Pally went first to the Thain’s apartment. He had only been there a few times before, when his parents had taken him and his sisters on visits to Fortinbras and Lalia. 

Fortinbras, or Peanut as his cousins were fond of calling him, was a jovial chap, with pockets always full of bags of nuts, berries or sweets, which he liked to nibble on while listening to the complaints of his relatives, tenants and servants. He was also quite generous with his horde when it came to his youngest nephews, nieces and cousins; Pally and his siblings could always get a handful of the treats to munch on during their visits. 

Lalia kept no such sweets on her person, but she did keep a box of toys and games in the linen chest for children to entertain themselves with. She expected the tweens to sit quietly and obediently during such interviews, to practice being proper adults rather than behaving like wild beasts. She spent such visits dispensing her practical, if oftentimes unsolicited, advice with abandon. She was kindly to her relatives and peers, but anyone of less standing was hardly worth her time beyond telling them when to light the candles or how to prepare her tea. In this respect she was little different from many of the other Tooks, except that she was more blunt to the help than good manners would strictly allow.

Pally wasn’t worried about running into Lalia though, as she and Fortinbras had left for the Fair yesterday morning. As the Took, Fortinbras needed to arrive at the Fair early, along with the other family heads of the Great Families, to hand over the votes of the Minor Families taken two weeks before. As such, Pally didn’t hesitate to rap smartly on the Thain’s apartment door, whistling gaily and rocking back and forth on his heels as he waited.

Only a half-minute passed before the door was answered by Ferumbras himself. Rumbi never kept servants about the apartment when his parents were gone, preferring to see to himself and no doubt luxuriating in his hard-won solitude. 

Rumbi smiled warmly at Pally, only a hint of a question in his eyes. 

“Hallo, Rumbi,” Pally greeted. 

“Good morning, Pally,” Rumbi greeted in return. “This is a pleasant surprise. Won’t you come in?”

“I would like to,” Pally said and meant it. He wasn’t close to Ferumbras, being nearly seventeen years his junior, but he liked his cousin well enough and enjoyed what time they did spend together. “I can’t stay though. Actually, I’m looking for Darling and she said she was coming here.”

Now Rumbi’s eyebrows disappeared beneath his bangs. “She was here to return Mother’s riding shawl, too late I’m afraid. I will have to answer for it later,” he said with a shrug. “That was nearly an hour ago though. Darling hasn’t returned yet?”

Pally shook his head.

“Lost another one then, have you? Your sisters haven’t been taking lessons from the wizard on how to disappear have they?” Ferumbras jested.

“I wouldn’t have thought it of them, but they do seem rather taken to the habit of late,” Pally answered, equally as lightly, despite the twinge of concern this observation brought on. No one spoke of it directly to him or his family, but they had noticed during their visit that Amber and Heather would each have times when they could not be found, materializing only when they were ready to. 

Their cousin Rosamunda had whispered to him and Ami that this little habit began over the long, cold winter, and it didn’t appear to be getting any better. “I thought they were going to the family plots, but I went there once looking for them and couldn’t find them,” Rosamunda had finished her account softly, her eyes filling with tears. She had shivered and drew her arms around herself, as though shielding herself from a sudden chill. “The elders say it wasn’t as harsh as the Fell Winter. If that’s true, I wouldn’t want to guess what that must have been like.”

Rumbi didn’t shiver or cry, but his face softened with empathy. “I understand that Amber and Heather will be returning to Whitwell with you after the Fair,” he said. “I think it will be good for them to get away for a time.”

Pally nodded. “I think so too,” he agreed, though this was mostly the influence of his mother. Clematis had finally succeeded in convincing Amber and Heather into coming to Whitwell for the rest of the summer. Whether that was for the good or not was yet to be seen. After all, there were plenty of places for them to disappear to on a farm. Ami though was another matter entirely, of which Ferumbras quickly reminded him.

“At least Darling, sweet thing, prefers to hide in the open,” he said, stepping into the tunnel and closing the door behind him. “Let’s see if we can’t track her down. She shouldn’t be too hard to find.”

Nor was she. They soon enough discovered her sitting in a nearby parlor, surrounded by a small group of young cousins. Fond of attention in all its delightful forms, Ami was ever the center of any gathering, and now was no exception. Her emerald eyes sparkled with mirth, her face lit with mischief as she regaled her audience with a recount of the latest gossip from Tookbank. She carelessly pushed a thick lock of auburn curls behind an ear as she leaned forward, so intent on her story she failed to notice her brother and Rumbi standing in the entryway. 

“And then she picked the thing up – in her bare hands, if you can believe it – and proceeded to chase after the brut with it. He screamed and hollered and ran about, sounding and acting more the lass than any of the maids there, but he was much too distracted with evading his one-time prey to notice the taunting coming his way. He nearly got away too, except her brother stepped out from the bushes near the gate and blocked his path until the lass caught up with him. Then she pulled back her arm, slung the sheep dung and hit them both square in the face – her brother by accident, or so she maintains.”

Ami sat back, her tale concluded, and delicately crossed her wrists over a knee, smiling prettily so that a dimple sat in the middle of each round cheek. One would think she was telling modest tales of familial bliss if they had not heard the subject matter.

The reaction from her audience was a mixture of horror, amusement and disgust. Humor won out when she feigned thoughtfulness, touching a long-nailed finger to her fair chin, and said, “He’s not so fond of sheep anymore but she quite thinks them lovely, all bleating aside.”

Beside him, Rumbi chuckled heartily. Pally couldn’t help grinning either; he had heard the tale twice before and thought his sister had polished it quite effectively. He waited until the laughter mellowed into giggles, then stepped into the parlor and cleared his throat. Everyone turned to discover the source of the distraction but only Ami moved.

She jumped to her feet, horror stamped on her pretty features, and trotted across the room with a hasty wave to her cousins. She came to a stop in front of her brother, smiling briefly at Ferumbras in acknowledgment of his presence.

“Is she very angry?” she asked of their mother.

“Well, I certainly wouldn’t want to be you just now,” Pally replied. “Esme and the chambermaid are packing the rest of your things.”

Ami’s face darkened. “Esme doesn’t know which dresses I was going to take. I’ll end up with nothing but smallclothes and a shift to wear at the festivities.” 

“You best hurry then, Darling,” Rumbi said. “I doubt Mother would be so quick to lend you so much as a handkerchief now.”

“I said I would apologize to her for that,” Ami replied, reminded of the riding shawl. “Though I doubt very much it will do me any good.”

“I doubt it also, but she’ll come around,” Rumbi reassured. He reached out a hand and lightly cupped her cheek. “She likes you, after all.” Putting down his hand, he stepped into the tunnel. “If you do intend to apologize, though, you’d best go and see to your packing. Mother isn’t likely to take you seriously, wearing nothing but your smallclothes and a shift.”

He bowed graciously and as she passed him he hurried her along with a gentle push on her lower back, the momentary contact sending a thrill through his fingers and arm. He and Pally watched her as she trotted off then followed at a more leisurely pace. Pally, after all, was finished with his packing and was in no hurry to return to the apartment. Rumbi would have liked nothing more than to follow Ami anywhere she went, but that was hardly appropriate behavior.

“Do you really think Lalia will forgive such a serious offense?” Pally asked, unable to suppress a grin. Lalia was a most fastidious and fussy dresser, and if she had wanted the shawl before departing, it was only because it matched the rest of her traveling attire and thus completed the ensemble. To have to ride all the way to the Free Fair mismatched would infuriate her to no end. If he didn’t know his sister better, he would be tempted to think that Ami forgot the shawl on purpose.

Rumbi sighed and rolled his eyes. “No, but she’ll pretend to, if I ask her. Do me a favor? Don’t let Darling apologize until after I’ve spoken with Mother. I’ll tip you a wink.”

Pally nodded. “That would be wise,” he agreed.

They parted at the Thain’s apartment. Rumbi would now have to leave near the same time as Adalgrim, rather than the following day as he originally intended, if he was to find his mother and speak with her before Ami lost patience with her brother’s interruptions. He had his own packing to finish in a hurry and no chambermaid or sibling to help him.

With luck, Ami arrived at the apartment before her parents, though she was not without company when she got there. Sitting against the wall opposite the apartment door were the coachhobbits her father had hired. She grinned at them warmly as they scrambled to their feet and bobbed their heads, their hats clutched in their hands. 

“Good morning, lads,” Ami greeted. “Has no one let you in?”

“We knocked, Miss, but no one answered. We were just setting to knock again in another minute,” the first hobbit said. 

“Well, you can come in now,” Ami said. She opened the door and let them inside. She noticed her luggage was still absent from the piles stacked on either side of the door, for which she was grateful. She could still make sure she had the right clothes for the Fair.

She pointed to the larger stack. “This will be going home, and the other will need to be piled on the carriage for the Fair,” she instructed, looking at the piles dubiously. It would take at least a dozen trips for all the luggage to be hauled off, and the bags and trunks were not lightly packed. 

“My goodness. Do we really have this much stuff?” she asked. The coachhobbits said nothing, but they thought for a family of five, the amount of luggage was actually quite little, compared to what they were accustomed to seeing. 

Ami turned to the coachhobbits again, looking worried. “This is quite a bit to be carrying by yourselves, and my luggage is still in my chamber. Will you need additional help?”

“Oh, no, that’s kind of you Miss, truly, but we’re fine as we are, begging your pardon,” the first hobbit said, blushing deeply at her regard. 

Like his partners, he was in his tweens and had been apprenticed to the Great Smials just over ten years. Nearly the first thing all apprentices learned was to never burden the gentry. This did not always coincide with the second thing they learned: never refuse a request by the gentry. Such conflicts for them were rare, as they took their orders from the master ostler, who took all requests for carriages, traps and ponies, worked out the details with the gentry, then handed the assignments to the apprentices and junior ostlers. The apprentices rarely spoke with any of the gentry directly and even less often with the ladies, other than to say ‘yes sir’ or ‘yes ma’am’. They were now junior ostlers but had not been in their new positions long. As such, they were easily flustered when situations such as this occurred, especially when confronted by comely young lasses.

The second coachhobbit, who was the oldest of the three, faired better. He bobbed his head again for good measure before adding, “We pulled a trap up outside the nearest exit, Miss. We’ll load that and take that back to the stables where the carriages are waiting. We’ll not be mixing the Fair luggage with the rest, I assure you, Miss.”

“Now that is clever!” Ami complimented, making them blush even more. “Best get started then. I should have my luggage ready by the time you’re finished with these. I’m Amaryllis Took, by the way. You can call me Darling or Ami. Everyone else does.” And here she extended her hand and smiled sweetly, a dimple winking at them from each round cheek.

The coachhobbits paused, taken by surprise at this gesture, but manners quickly won over their shock. 

“Sprig,” said the first coachhobbit, taking her hand in a tentative, quick grasp, horrified that he hadn’t thought to wash his hands before coming up from the stables.

“Nab, Miss Ami,” said the second coachhobbit, also making quick work of the handshake. His hands smelled of oats, soiled hay and sweating ponies; he would have sooner stuffed them in his pockets than taint that fair hand with his own. He suppressed the urge to tell her to wash off the grime only by biting the inside of his cheek. No doubt, the very first thing she would do was head for the nearest basin.

The third coachhobbit followed his companions’ lead, except he wiped his hands on his trousers first. “I’m Barley, Miss Ami.”

“Nice to meet you,” Ami said, taking no notice of their discomfort nor the reason for it. “Which of you will be coming with us to the Fair?”

“Nab and I will be driving you and your family, Miss,” Sprig answered.

“Oh, how lovely. Well, I look forward to learning more about the both of you,” Ami responded, dimples still grinning in her cheeks. “Let me know when you’ve finished loading the trap, and I’ll get you all some water. It’s so hot out there; you shouldn’t be starting a long journey on parched throats.”

“Yes, Miss Ami,” they said and gratefully turned to their task as Ami headed down the hall to her chamber. 

“She’s nice,” Barley said, grabbing hold of two smaller bags in each hand. 

“She’s a pretty one,” Sprig added, speaking quietly. He reached for a larger bag and hoisted it up across his shoulders.

“Aye, she is,” Nab agreed, lifting a trunk with a grunt. He eyed Barley’s load. “Want to trade?”

“Not on your life,” Barley replied, stepping into the tunnel and leading the way to the exit, which they had propped open with a rock. 

Sprig followed after him. “I’ve never been to the Free Fair afore. Mayhap I can ask Miss Darling for a dance come Midsummer Day.”

Nab snorted at this. “Don’t be daft, lad. She likely won’t talk to you once we’re on our way, and you won’t even catch a glimpse of her once we’re in Michel Delving – lest she wants something. No. She’ll be among friends and family, sleeping in an inn or one of those tent circles, and you’ll be sleeping with the ponies. Hope you have a comfortable sleeping roll.”

“I’ve got mine packed,” Sprig said. “The others lads as have been there afore say as we might be able to get hired on at one of the inns. They’re always needing more help during the Fair, aren’t they?”

“Aye, but you got to get there early to snatch up the good posts,” Barley informed them. “Elsewise, all you’ll be working for is your food and board. Don’t count on earning any extra coin, lest you’re lucky at betting on the races.”

They reached the exit and went outside to the waiting trap. They had pulled it up to the path, just a few steps from the door, and they had brought a larger one, thinking there would be more luggage for them to load than there was. A rope was tied across the trap, separating the bed in half, so they could put the luggage heading for Whitwell in one half, and the rest in the other. 

They placed their burdens in the bed and headed back inside.

“I’m a fair hand at cards,” Sprig said, considering. “I just hope Mint doesn’t try and take my sleeping spot whilst I’m gone.”

“You know he will, the scab,” Nab said, then scratched his chin, looking thoughtful. “You know, they don’t got any sleeping rolls for themselves either. It’d be an inn for them, then, and no wonder.”

“What do you mean?” Barley asked. 

“Well, you know as the reason so many Took are going to the Fair this year is acause of Miss Ami,” Nab said, lowering his voice automatically as they entered the apartment again.

“I thought they were all going what with it being an election year,” Sprig said, picking up another load.

Nab shrugged, balancing another trunk in his hands. “The Took maybe,” he said, this time leading the way into the tunnel. “But he always takes his first cousins with him, or so they say, so there would always be more Tooks at the Fair than usual. But I heard it from Belinda this morning that even more than that are going and it’s because of Miss Ami.”

“How’s that?” Barley asked.

“It’s her birthday on Overlithe,” Nab said, stepping outside. “An unusual birthday too at that. You know the last Took as was born on that day was born nearly a hundred years afore she was?”

“I didn’t know that,” Sprig said. “It’d be mighty strange, having a birthday as only comes around once every four years.”

Nab nodded sagely but waited until they were outside again before speaking further. Sprig set his load down next to Barley’s and helped Nab push the second trunk flush to the first. That’s when Nab leaned forward and whispered again even though there was no one about to hear him. 

“And that’s not all. They say as that birthday is cursed for the Tooks, acause the last Took as had it, a Mr. Hildigard, was born sickly and he died all of a sudden at the tender age of twenty-eight, just like that.” He snapped his fingers to illustrate his point. “No one’ll say it to Miss Ami or her family, but they reckon as it’s just a matter of time afore the curse gets her too. That’s why they be calling her ‘Darling’ see. She’s darling enough, and that’s for certain, but it’s also acause they know they’ve only a short time with her.”

Sprig and Barley looked doubtful. “You’re jesting now, and it’s in poor taste,” Sprig chided. “I heard as Mr. Hildigard were cursed by the Old Forest. He went in as you know, and they say as only Brandybucks can go in there and hope to come out with their lives.”

“That’s right,” Barley said. He was originally from The Yale and knew of such legends as the Brandybucks told. “He went in during the Hedge trimming one year. He was one of them racers who try and get through every year. He was the only one as made it though, and too bad for him that he did. No one’s attempted it since. Or rather, they still race, but none of them mind much when the Bounders catch them up and send them back afore they can reach it.”

“Oh, I heard that story too,” Nab said, waving it away as so much nonsense. He headed back inside, Sprig and Barley following after. “You trust my word. That Miss Amaryllis ain’t got much longer to be living among the Tooks, one way or another. Are you going to get her a present?”
“What?” Sprig asked, taken off guard by the sudden change in subject. He looked scandalized at the very thought. “I can’t do that!”

Now Nab and Barley laughed, and Nab ribbed his friend. “You can’t at that, so don’t go thinking on it. You’re sweet on her already and you just meeting her.”

Sprig laughed ruefully along with his friend. “Sweet I may be, but I’m not daft, lad. Now get in there and let’s get to work, lest we be hauling this luggage all morning. I’d like to eat afore we leave, you know.”

Ami found Esme and Belinda in the process of folding her smallclothes. “Hallo!” she greeted them. “I just found the coachhobbits in the tunnel, waiting to be let in. Did you not hear them knock?”

Esme and Belinda shook their heads. “They weren’t waiting too long, I hope,” Esme said. 

“I don’t believe so,” Ami replied. “Did you get my Overlithe dress packed?”

“If it’s the yellow one with the pink sash, yes,” Esme said.

“No, that’s for Midyear’s Day,” Ami said and held out her hand for the shift her sister was folding. “Here, I’ll finish this up.”

Esme relinquished the shift and happily left the room. Ami then dismissed Belinda so the maid could return to her duties in the kitchen, and set to sorting out her luggage. 

Ami found her Overlithe dress still hanging in the wardrobe, along with a handful of other items. Everything else had been packed already, but she went through her bags to make sure the correct frocks and accessories had been packed for the Fair. Then she set about packing the remaining clothes in her wardrobe and double-checking the room for overlooked items.

By the time her parents and brother returned, Ami was finished packing and the coachhobbits were hauling her bags out of the apartment. She was in the kitchen, pouring cups of water for Barley, Nab and Sprig, when Clematis entered.

“Darling,” Clematis started, looking stern.

“I know. I’m sorry, Mum,” Ami apologized promptly and smiled winningly. “It won’t happen again. I promise. And see? Just in time for elevenses.” She waved in the general direction of the clock in the parlor as proof.

If anyone was still in doubt, Pally entered the kitchen and announced, “I’m hungry. Are we going to the dining hall now?”

“Soon, sweet,” Clematis said, not taking her eyes off her daughter. “You’re nearly of age, Darling. You need to be more responsible and less forgetful. Can you do that?”

“I can, Mum,” Ami said. “I’ll just take these out to the lads, and I’ll meet you all in the dining hall. Promise.”

She pecked her mother on the cheek and winked at her brother as she stepped out of the kitchen, glasses balanced on a tray. Clematis put a hand on her arm as she passed though; while she knew her daughter would never dream of being late for a meal, she would rather not separate again. 

“Let Belinda do that,” she said, taking the tray and setting in on the counter. “Go fetch your sister. We’re leaving now.”

After elevenses, they left the Great Smials and headed over the hills to the stables. There they found the carriages waiting, piled high with their luggage, as well as Amber’s, Arlo’s and Heather’s bags. Sprig and Nab were on top of their respective carriages, checking the fastenings on the luggage and readying the carriages for departure. 

Standing in the shade of the stable wall were Heather and Arlo. The four-year old was scattering seed for the chickens as his aunt cooled herself with a fan. Surprisingly, Amber was nowhere to be seen. 

“Where is Amber?” Adalgrim asked as they reached the carriage. 

“She forgot something in our apartment,” Heather answered. “She’ll be along shortly enough.”

“You mean, we’re actually here before her?” Pally asked, disbelieving. 

“Will wonders never cease?” Esme agreed.

“What does that mean, Aunt Esme?” Arlo asked, hand paused in the middle of grabbing more seeds.

“It means, your mum can’t nag us next time we’re late,” answered Ami instead. She glanced up at the nearest carriage, where Sprig was climbing over piles of luggage. “Hallo Sprig! Barley left already?”

Sprig nodded, not pausing in his work. “Aye, Miss Ami, not five minutes passed.”

“I hope you didn’t put the food beneath all the luggage,” Clematis said.

“No ma’am. It’s just there,” Sprig answered, pointing to the packs just behind the seat. Similar packs stood behind the seat of the other carriage as well.

Adalgrim walked around the carriage to the second, where Nab was now checking the halters on the ponies. “You have driven one of these double-drawn carriages before, I take it?” he asked, looking dubious. “The master ostler assured me experienced drivers, but neither of you can be more than thirty.”

“Aye, sir,” Nab admitted. “I’m twenty-seven and Sprig there’s twenty-nine, but we’ve driven these beasts plenty of times. We have enough hours at the reins to get your family to the Fair safe.”

“Of course you do,” Ami said, giving her father a pointed look. 

Adalgrim returned it with a shrug, and so they both missed the coachhobbits’ rolling their eyes at each other. Gentry, the looks said.

“Mummy!” Arlo cried suddenly. He dropped the sack of seeds and dashed towards his mother, who was just coming over the last hilltop. 

“We’re all here then. Everyone in the carriages,” Adalgrim ordered.

“Can I sit with Sprig?” Ami asked.

Now the coachhobbits shot each other looks of alarm, before Nab’s slowly melted into a sly grin. He wiped his face into a neutral expression though when he turned around to open the door. Sprig climbed down from the roof and likewise opened the door to his carriage.

“I don’t know, Darling,” Adalgrim said slowly. “You’ll take too much sun.”

“Just until we stop for luncheon?” Ami amended and looked as pleading as she could manage.

“Only if Pally agrees to join you,” Adalgrim finally relented.

“Then I get to sit up, too!” Esme protested.

“There’s not enough room,” Clematis started.

“There’s two coaches, Mum,” Pally pointed out. “I’ll sit with Ami and, what was it? Spring? Esme, you can sit with the other driver.”

“It’s Sprig, not Spring. And Nab,” Ami informed her brother.

Nab and Sprig pretended to ignore this exchange as they helped the mistresses into their carriages. Adalgrim shook his head at his children and entered the first carriage after his wife, with a bow from Sprig. 

At length, Amber reached them, her son in her arms and a small bag in her hand. 

“Good of you to join us,” Pally teased.

“You know, Amber, it’s very rude not be to somewhere when you say you’re going to be there,” Ami added.

“Do you know what else we could have been doing while we waited for you?” Esme put in.

“I’m sure those lost two minutes would have been full of mischief, and so I’m equally sure I’ve done everyone in the Smials a favor,” Amber returned, taking the jests with grace. She rounded the first carriage to the second and placed Arlo inside before accepting Nab’s hand up to join her sister.

Nab rounded the back of the carriage to pick up the forgotten bag of seed. He tied it closed with a knot and tossed it into the seed barrel that stood just inside the stable door. He came around to the front of the carriage to find Esmeralda standing there, waiting patiently. She was clearly younger than her sister Ami, and while she wasn’t the beauty that Ami was, she was still quite pretty. She beamed a toothy smile at him and extended her hand.

“I’m Esmeralda,” she introduced herself, “but you can call Esme.”

“Miss Esme,” Nab said with a bob of his head. He shook her hand quickly, wondering just what it was about these Took lasses that compelled them to shake hands with everyone. “I’m Nab, Miss.”

“A pleasure to meet you, Nab,” Esme said, and waited, looking expectant.

Nab noticed then that Sprig was helping Ami atop the other carriage. Paladin was waiting below for his turn to climb. Nab bowed again, somewhat hastily, and quickly climbed into his seat before reaching down a hand to help Esme aboard.

‘Great,’ he thought. ‘What am I supposed to do with her for the next hour-and-a-half?’ 

Next to them, he could see similar thoughts running through Sprig’s mind. They met eyes and shrugged at each other. They would just have to drive as close together as possible to allow the siblings to talk, and hopefully in that way, they could avoid having to make small talk themselves.

When everyone was settled and ready, they each took up their reins and clucked gently at the ponies awaiting their instructions. Then they were off, the Smials and the stables growing smaller behind them, the Free Fair calling them westward.

To be continued…

GF  6/26/11

Twitch was awakened by the master ostler firmly shaking his shoulder. He blinked up into the darkness and the darker outline of the ostler.

“Wha-?” he muttered.

“The Thain’s asked for you, lad,” said the old master, sounding gruff from sleep and too much ale the night before. “Up you get. I’ve the carriage ready.”

Twitch blinked again. He had to fight the temptation to ask ‘what’ again, but he knew the ostler didn’t like repeating himself. That would only earn him a boxing over his ears and no answers. “Yes, sir,” he said, even as a hundred questions flitted through his head.

He got up, pulled on his clothes and clambered down from the hayloft, careful not to disturb the other junior ostlers and apprentices. He stopped briefly at the barrel and threw some water on his face, more in an effort to wake himself than to wash. He may not be accustomed to sleeping in like the gentry did, but he never woke this early either.

He stepped outside into the crisp air and looked to the east. There was no hint of dawn approaching. From the stars, it had to be about three in the morning and daybreak was still nearly two hours away. Why would the Thain be going anywhere now?


Chapter 2 – Here We Go A Traveling

At luncheon, Adalgrim ordered a stop just off the road out of Tookbank with the excuse that his family needed to stretch their legs. In truth, he was just as interested in eating as he was in getting his children into the carriages where they belonged before they could cross paths with any other travelers. 

Nab and Sprig survived the ride with only slightly frayed nerves. Their riding companions only interrogated them for the first half-hour, asking them about their homelands, kin and favorite foods, before moving on to the more agreeable entertainment of traveling games. In this manner, Ami, Pally and Emse learned much about their riding companions. 

Nab was born in Waymoot, was the third cousin once removed of one of the gardeners at the Smials, and loved anything made with apples. He could even recite the receipts to several apple-based entrees and desserts. Working as a groom, he didn’t get much opportunity to cook, but whenever the chance presented itself, he would sneak off to the kitchens. One did, after all, have to keep their skills honed.

Sprig, they were surprised to discover, haled from Pincup. One of his second cousins worked as a cook at Ridge Manor, the ancestral home of the Banks family. He however was not surprised to discover that their cousin Flambard Took’s wife was a Banks; it was under her mother’s recommendation that he had been apprenticed to the Smials. As far as food was concerned, he loved nothing more than to relax with a loaf of bread, a cup of tea and a good book.

“What sorts of things do you read?” Pally asked.

“Words, mostly,” Sprig answered, sending the siblings into giggles.

“Who taught you?” Ami asked.

Sprig shrugged. “We play cards some nights with some of the other workers in the Smials, including a couple of the post messengers. One of them made me a bet he couldn’t pay off, so I suggested he teach me my letters instead.”

“That’s quite entrepreneurial of you,” Paladin said, impressed.

Sprig shrugged again. “It was winter. There weren’t much else to do.”

“Since you have your letters, maybe you’d like to play a game,” Pally offered. “You too, Nab. You don’t really need your letters to play, but it can help. Really, all you have to do is listen.”

“And what game might this be?” Nab called from the other carriage. 

“It’s called ‘I’m Going to the Free Fair.’ Have you played it?” Pally asked.

Sprig and Nab shook their heads.

“Oh, well, it’s quite simple,” Esme explained. “We all take turns saying what we’re bringing to the Free Fair. Depending on what you bring, you can either come or you have to wait until your next turn to bring something else. I’ll go first. I’m going to the Free Fair, and I’m bringing éclairs.”

Pally and Ami nodded. “All right, you can come,” Ami said. “I’m going to the Free Fair and I’m taking apples.” She winked at Nab, who blushed in response.

“You can come then too,” Pally said, frowning slightly at this byplay. “I’m going to the Free Fair, and I’m bringing a plum.”

“Then you can come,” Esme said. “What about you, Nab?”

Nab and Sprig chanced a furtive glance at each other over the distance between their carriages. “Um, I’m going to the Free Fair, and I’m bringing a sleeping roll.”

“Oh, sorry, but you can’t come,” Pally said. “Sprig?”

“I’m going to the Free Fair and I’m bringing biscuits?” he guessed, wondering if perhaps the trick was to bring food items.

“No, sorry, you can’t go either,” Ami said. “Your turn Esme.”

“I’m going to the Free Fair, and I’m bringing emeralds,” Esmeralda said.

“You can come,” Paladin said. 

“I’m going to the Free Fair, and I’m bringing amber,” Amaryllis said.

“You can come,” Pally said and took his turn. “I’m going to the Free Fair and I’m taking posies.”

“Nab?” Esme asked.

Nab shrugged. “I’m going to the Free Fair and I’m taking a water skin.”

“Sorry, but you can’t come,” the three Tooks chimed.

“Sprig?” Pally asked.

Sprig thought hard. They said the trick was to listen, but he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to be listening for. Clearly, no one would take emeralds or amber to a fair, unless they were a jewel dealer, which the Took children were not. So it must not have anything to do with practicality. Then again, the other items they had all brought had been quite practical. What was he missing? 

“I’m going to the Free Fair, and I’m bringing a … butterfly,” he finally guessed, his eyes catching the flicker of delicate yellow wings amongst the wildflowers.

“Sorry, but you can’t come yet,” Ami said and patted his arm consolingly. 

Sprig’s arm tensed instantly. To make matters worse, her brother caught this motion as well and eyed Sprig with some suspicion. Only after several moments passed, and Sprig neither acknowledged the pat nor returned it in any way, did Paladin relax again.

They played several more rounds, with the coachhobbits getting no closer to figuring out the trick to the game. On a couple of occasions, they managed to guess items that would permit them to go to the Free Fair, but such instances were pure luck.

Meanwhile, Adalgrim and Clematis were enjoying their carriage ride in silence. Adalgrim had brought a roster of the family heads who would be voting for Mayor. He knew many of them from previous elections, but a few had passed since then and been replaced by their wives or eldest sons. 

Clematis had some embroidery on which to work. She would have preferred to read as well, but she found that reading in a moving carriage or cart made her nauseous. For some reason, she did not have the same problem with embroidery and so she always brought a few panes to work on while traveling. 

After a time, though, her thoughts got the better of her. “What are we going to do about Amber and Heather?” she asked.

“We’re taking them back to Whitwell,” Adalgrim said. “What else can we do?”

Clematis shrugged. “I don’t like the stories I’ve been hearing about them. Amber is a mother; she shouldn’t be disappearing for hours on end. What if something happened to Arlo during one of these episodes? She would never forgive herself.”

“What could possibly happen to Arlo?” Adalgrim asked, looking up from his list to lift an eyebrow at his wife. 

“Anything!” Clematis exclaimed. “I think this winter has proven that we are not invulnerable to the elements.”

“Of course not, but it’s hardly helpful to worry about things that haven’t even happened yet. Who’s to say they ever will?” Adalgrim asked. “Though you are right about one thing: they shouldn’t be disappearing like they do. At the very least, they can tell each other where they’re going.”

“Algie,” Clematis started to protest.

“Now, hear me out first,” Adalgrim requested, holding up a hand for silence. “They’re grieving, is all. We can tell them we understand, that the pain will get easier to bear, that time will heal them. That isn’t what they need right now. They need to be able to get away from prying eyes and ears and just weep. Or scream. Or be numb.”

“It’s been five months,” Clematis countered. “It’s time they remember how to live, and I intend to remind them.”

They looked at each other for several moments, a truce reached in the creaking of the swaying carriage. They bent their heads back to their work; they would speak no more about the subject until they were home in Whitwell. 

In the next carriage, Amber and Heather were entertaining Arlo with a game of Shapes and Colors. Amber had made several cards from parchment, on which she had drawn shapes and painted them a single color. She had a large stack of the cards and would put them down on the floor one at a time. The more cards Arlo identified correctly, the longer he could stay up that night when they made camp. 

“A red square!” Arlo cried at the next card.

“Very good!” Amber exclaimed and placed down another.

“A blue ball! No, a circle!”

“You are such a smart little lad,” Heather complimented.

“A yellow triangle! A green rectangle! A black square. A purple, um, a purple…”

“What do we call it when it has five sides?” Amber prompted.

“Um, a, uh,” Arlo stammered, stumped. “A square plus one?” he guessed at last.

Amber and Heather laughed kindly, and Heather clapped her hands. “Oh, good one! You are so inventive. I do believe that is what it should be called,” she said. “Alas, it is not. It’s called a pentagon.”

“Pet-is-gone,” Arlo said, looking concerned. “Where did the pet go?”

“No, dear, not pet. It’s pent-a-gon,” Amber clarified.

“Oh. Where did the pent go? What’s a pent?” Arlo asked.

“A pent is a five-sided object,” Amber said. “I’m not sure where it went, though. Sometimes things just go.”

Heather cleared her throat and glanced down pointedly at Arlo. The little lad was looking up at his mother with even more worry than he’d shown before.

With an effort, Amber grinned widely and picked up the cards. She counted them out loud. “Twenty!” she finished. “That’s twenty minutes you get to stay up past your bedtime! You are mummy’s smart lad. You make me so proud.”

Arlo’s worried face melted into a warm smile. Then he jumped up and hugged his mother around her neck. 

She kissed his cheek and hugged him back. “What are you going to do with your twenty minutes?” she asked.

“Tell you a story about where the pent went,” Arlo said.

“Oh, so you know what a pent is now?” Heather asked.

“No, but I’ll know by then,” Arlo said with confidence.

“I’m sure you will,” Amber agreed. “Here, play with your block letters for a bit. Your Auntie Heather and I need to talk about grown-up things.”

“We do?” Heather asked.

Amber nodded. “How long until Mum and Da ask us to stay on in Whitwell?”

Heather considered the question for a moment. In truth, she wouldn’t mind staying on the Whitwell farm of her childhood indefinitely. There was something dangerously appealing about having parents to take care of her again. Had it been possible, she would have crawled into her mother’s lap when Clematis first arrived at the Smials at the beginning of Thrimidge. She knew Amber though would rather move to Northfarthing than return to Whitwell for longer than a season, if even that long. 

Heather finally shrugged. “I’m sure they’ll wait until we’re at least within sight of Whitwell before asking. We have a week of peace, I think.”

“We should never have agreed to this,” Amber said with a sigh. 

“I think we need it, love,” Heather said again, as she had said before when she talked her sister into the visit. “I know I do. I miss Chaco so much sometimes; it’s like I can’t breathe. And I know you miss Mallard.”

“I’ll still miss him in Whitwell,” Amber said. “At least at Great Smials, I have cousins to teach how to read, things to distract me.”

“I think we should stay through winter,” Heather announced, and braced herself for her sister’s wrath. There was no great time to bring up the topic, so they may as well figure things out before their parents could corner them. “I don’t think I could withstand being in the Smials this winter. Anyway, I plan to stay.”

Amber didn’t say anything at first. She watched her son on the floor as he played with his blocks. He could spell his name already and a few shorter words like ‘cat’, ‘dog’, and ‘bird’. He concentrated hard on his letters, forgetting everything else around him. He probably wouldn’t even notice if she brought out the bag of snacks she had packed for him unless she put it under his nose. He had his father’s nose, small and round, and his father’s short brow and narrow cheeks. 

Amber smiled fondly at her son and nudged him gently with her foot. She had to nudge him a few times before he finally noticed and looked up, wide brown eyes questioning. “Yes, Mum?” he asked.

“Would you like to have Yule at your Grandmum and Grandda’s this year?” she asked him. 

Arlo nodded. “Can I play with the little chicks?”

“You may feed the chicks, if there are any. And there’s always the chance one of the barn cats will have a litter while we’re there,” Amber said.

“Can I keep a kitty?” he asked hopefully.

“We’ll see,” Amber answered and patted his cheek. She waited until he was playing again, then sighed and looked at her sister. “Fine. We’ll stay through winter, but only if we stay in the guest house.”

“I’ll speak with Da after the Fair is over,” Heather said.

After luncheon, they all took the opportunity to stretch their legs and walked over the hills for an hour. Heather, Clematis and Esmeralda crowded around a tree with Arlo and showed the lad all the things hiding in its branches. Amber and Adalgrim hiked up the steeper of the hills, enjoying the sunshine and light breeze in companionable silence. Nab and Sprig tended the ponies, then strolled a short distance away to survey the hills and road in order to decide the best track to take to Waymoot. Pally took Ami aside and led her to an empty outbuilding at the edge of a nearby field.

“What exactly do you think you’re doing with Sprig?” he asked her.

“What do you mean?” Ami asked in return. “I’m being his friend.”

“Is that all? Because you’ve been flirting with him ever since we’ve left the Smials,” Pally accused. 

Ami laughed, too stunned to do anything else. 

“I’m serious, Darling,” Pally said. “You ask to sit with him on the ride, you start asking him questions about where he’s from, you touch his arm.”

Ami gawked at her brother, her shock quickly turning to anger at what he was suggesting. “I don’t believe you!” she finally got out. “What? I’m forbidden to talk to them? When you flirt with every single barmaid at The Wooly Ram!”

“That’s different,” Paladin said.

“Oh really?”

“Yes, it is. You’re expected to be a little bawdy and flirty at a tavern. It’s one of the reasons for going. The barmaids and the patrons all know their place, though, and while we might flirt inside the tavern, it doesn’t go beyond those walls,” Pally said.

Ami shook her head. “If I want to be friends with Sprig and Nab, I don’t see what’s so wrong with that! They’re perfectly nice lads.”

“If you want to be friendly with the help, that’s all well and good,” Pally said. “The flirting is not.”

“Listen to you! I never took you for such a prude, Pally. ‘The help!’”

“Yes, they are the help, whether you accept that or not. You are in a position of authority over them, and you sit there next to Sprig, blushing and fawning. It’s not exactly as though he has an option in it, and if you paid any attention you’d realize you’re making him uncomfortable. But he can’t very well tell you to back off and mind your place, now can he? Now, they’re nice lads, as you say, and I like them quite a lot. Which is why I don’t want to see either of them get dismissed, which is exactly what will happen if you continue on like you are,” Pally said, crossing his arms. “So either you start behaving yourself, or I’m telling Da what you’re doing. He’ll send Sprig back to the Smials as soon as we reach the Fair. Is that what you want?”

“No,” Ami said through clenched teeth. “I don’t want that.”

“Then leave him be, and the other one as well,” Pally warned. He turned on his heels and headed back for the carriage, leaving Ami to brood alone.

Ami returned to the carriages only when it was time to leave. She ignored her brother, opting to ride with Heather, Amber and Esme. Pally took Arlo to the other carriage and handed him to Clematis, ignoring Ami as well. He knew it would be pointless to talk to her again until she had time to calm down and really think about what he’d said. She was rational enough, given time. Adalgrim followed Pally inside and joined his wife in playing with his grandson. Nab and Sprig shut the carriage doors and climbed into the coach seats, grateful for some peace and quiet. 

They stopped again for tea, but only to stretch their legs and take a small bite. They were all eager to get to Waymoot, and so they were on their way again just a half-hour later. They reached the town as the sun was beginning to wan, turning the sky above a brilliant shade of pink. Nab pulled his carriage ahead of Sprig’s and led the way to The Lounging Kitten Inn.

The inn was bustling and bursting with guests traveling to the Free Fair. There were a large number of carriages, carts and traps parked in the field next to the inn. They would park the carriages there for the night before stabling the ponies, but first, they had to drop their passengers off at the door. They slowed the ponies to a pace and waited until the cart in front of the inn’s door pulled away.

“We must be there,” Ami said and pulled aside the curtain. 

“So we are,” Heather agreed.

A moment later, the carriage stopped with a small jolt and they could hear Nab climbing down from the coach’s seat. The door opened and Nab offered his hand to help the lasses climb down. They were joined soon by their parents, Pally and Arlo from the carriage behind them. 

Adalgrim nodded formally to Nab and Sprig. “You will see to stabling the ponies,” he stated.

“Of course, Mr. Took,” Nab said, bowing back. 

The coachhobbits waited until their passengers were inside before climbing into their seats one more time. They were about to pull away from the door when Ami stepped back outside, followed closely by Pally, who she ignored completely.

“Master Sprig,” she said formally. “I am sorry if I caused you any discomfort with my attentions this morning. Rest assured, I will not put you in such a position again.” Then she paused, waiting.

Sprig was stumped. He couldn’t begin to imagine what she meant by that, but at last he simply nodded, removing his hat as he did so. “I thank you, Miss Ami,” he replied, as that was clearly what she wanted to hear, or so he thought.

“You’re welcome,” Ami replied tightly. She turned back to go inside, sparing her brother a scathing look on the way.

“What was that about, do you wonder?” Nab asked, once they had parked the carriages and were unfastening the ponies.

“Couldn’t say,” Sprig answered. 

They took the ponies to the stables and saw them to a stall. They brushed them down, fed and watered them, then went to find their own refreshment. Sprig turned towards the inn door, but Nab continued towards the road. Sprig hurried to catch up.

“Where are we going?” he asked.

“Home,” Nab said. “I want to introduce you to my runt of a sister. She’s no beauty like your Miss Darling, but she’s comely enough and more within your reaches, I daresay.”

“Won’t they miss us?” Sprig asked.

“They won’t even notice we’re gone, so long as we’re back by first breakfast,” Nab replied. “Now come on; Mama’s the best cook in these parts, better than any cook they’ve got at the Smials.”

With that promising statement, all other thoughts fled their heads as they dashed up the road towards the outskirts of town.

Inside the inn, Adalgrim quickly secured his family’s lodgings for the night and they followed the proprietor to the room. He ordered dinner to be brought to them, and while they waited for their meal, they each took turns at the basin, washing away the travel grime and sweat. 

There were only two beds in the room, but they were large enough to fit six stout hobbits with room to spare. The lasses took the bed nearest the window, leaving the lads with the other.

“Five lasses in one bed, three lads in the other,” Pally said. “It doesn’t seem fair.”

“You’re sleeping with Arlo. Trust me, it’s fair,” Amber corrected. 

Their meal arrived then. Heather let in the kitchen hand, whose hands were too full of the tray to work the doorknob. He stepped into the parlor, which also doubled as the dining room, and set to arranging the plates and dishes on the table. Behind him came a barmaid with another tray loaded with mugs of ale as well as a tea service. They both bowed or curtsied when they were finished, then let themselves out as the family sat to their meal.

When the food was finished and all their corners filled, the family made their way back to the common room. They had only just glimpsed the other patrons as they came through earlier. They had noticed many working-class hobbits but also a good number of gentry. Now they saw that the room was full of Bolgers, Clayhangers, Boffins, Brownlocks, Hornblowers and Bagginses.

“Bilbo’s here!” Esme exclaimed in Ami’s ear. “Do you think he’ll tell us some of his Adventures if we ask?”

“Have you ever known him not to?” Ami replied, just as eager as her sister for a tale or two. 

“I think I’ll step outside for a stroll,” Amber said.

“I’ll join you,” Heather said. The sisters linked arms and made their way outside into the warm night air; the sun had set whilst they were eating and stars now dotted the sky overhead.

“Dora’s here,” Clematis said with surprise. “I hadn’t expected her.”

“Why not?” Ami asked.

“Her mother’s been sickly,” Adalgrim answered. 

“That’s hard. Bilbo’s Aunt Linda passed this winter also,” Pally said.

Clematis nodded. “It was a hard winter for many folk.” She glanced around the common room, searching. “I don’t see Dudo or his family. Perhaps they stayed behind to look after Ruby, rather than Dora. Let’s talk to her, dear.”

She took Arlo’s hand and made her way through the crowd to where Dora was sitting. Adalgrim followed after her.

“Look, the children are starting to sit around Bilbo,” Esme said and tugged on Ami’s arm. “Come on. We’ll want good seats.”

Ami, Esme and Pally joined the others around Bilbo, who grinned up at them in eager excitement. Bilbo loved telling his tales, nearly as much as the children enjoyed hearing them. The Took children were by far the oldest of the group here tonight. The Bagginses and Bolgers in attendance were all in their teens or younger. 

Four-year old Nora Bolger took the seat of honor on Bilbo’s knee. Ami and Esme took seats next to Peony and Porto Baggins, and Pally joined Ponto Baggins and Wilimar and Heribald Bolger. A few Boffins and Hornblowers were in attendance also, and they all looked up at Bilbo expectantly.

“Miss Nora,” Bilbo said to the lass on his knee. “What story would you like to hear tonight?”

Nora put a finger to her mouth and considered the question seriously. “I don’t know,” she said slowly a few moments later, still thinking.

“What about the feast at Lake Town?” her brother Heribald suggested.

“Um… No,” Nora finally decided.

“What about the dinner party of the Wood Elves?” Peony prompted.

“Um… … No,” Nora rejected at last.

“Honey cakes with the bear!” her other brother Wilimar exclaimed. 

“No,” Nora said with a shake of her head.

“The troll mutton!” Ponto and Porto said at the same time.

“Ew! No,” Nora said. “I want to know what you had for breakfast,” she finally announced. 

There was a brief pause at this, then the air was buzzing with questions.

“Did you have to cook for all those dwarves?” Ponto asked. 

“Who did the hunting?” Porto and Wilimar wanted to know.

“How did you know what herbs to gather? Do they look like our own?” Peony asked.

Bilbo laughed and held up his hands for silence. “Now, those are all very good questions,” he said, tipping a wink to the Tooks in his audience. Plenty of time for more adventurous stories later, once the younger one were abed.

“Now, believe it or not, I did very little of the cooking,” he began. “Let me tell you a secret about Dwarven fare. It’s the most delicious food you could hope to eat that isn’t fixed by a hobbit’s hand, but it does give you the oddest dreams…”

Across the room, Clematis and Adalgrim finally made it to Dora, having been stopped along the way for brief greetings with some of the other patrons. 

“Good evening, Dora,” Clematis greeted. “Would you mind it terribly if we joined you?”

Dora looked up, her face lighting into a grin as soon as she saw them and little Arlo. “Why, it would be my pleasure,” she said and moved aside to make room for Clematis on her bench. Adalgrim took the bench opposite. 

Dora held her hands out for Arlo and sat him in her lap. “Why, aren’t you sprouting up like a weed!” she exclaimed to the lad. 

“I sure am!” Arlo agreed, having heard this statement several times over his short life.

“You remember your cousin Dora Baggins?” Adalgrim said to Arlo. “She’s your second cousin twice removed on your mother’s side.”

“Hallo Cousin Dora,” Arlo said. “I can count to five.”

“You can? Well, I would truly love to hear that,” Dora said.

Arlo held up a hand and started counting as he raised one finger after another. “One, two, three, four and five!”

“Very good!” Dora praised. “Aren’t you a smart lad?”

“I sure am!” Arlo agreed again and grinned toothily, missing Dora’s look of shock.

“Arlo dear, why don’t you run off and join the others?” Clematis said, pointing towards the group surrounding Bilbo. She took Arlo back and set him on his feet. She watched the little lad run off and waited until he was safely in Ami’s lap before turning back to Dora. She patted Dora’s hand. “How are you, dear? How is your mother?”

“Oh, she’s well enough,” Dora replied, instantly looking ten years older. “She’s recovering. I was going to stay with her, but Dudo talked me into coming to the Fair for a bit of a holiday. I’ve been caring for Mother since winter without pause for breath.”

“It must be so trying for you,” Adalgrim said.

“She’s my mother, so I make do,” Dora said. “I must admit though that it is nice to get away, and Dudo was right. There was little point in my remaining behind, what with him staying behind to see to the Bywater Fair. His Ana can care for Mother just as well as I can, after all.”

“How are Dudo and Ana, and little Daisy?” Clematis asked.

They spent the next hour going over the Baggins news and gossip, before turning the conversation to the Tooks.

“I am dreadfully sorry to hear about Mallard and Chaco,” Dora said, taking her turn to pat Clematis’s hand now. “I thought I saw Amber and Heather earlier. How are they faring, the poor dears?”

“Not well, I’m afraid,” Clematis said. She told Dora briefly of the problems their daughters were having. “We convinced them to come home to Whitwell with us after the Fair. We’re just not sure what else to do. Would you have any advice for us?”

“I believe that you’re doing all that you can already,” Dora said. “You need to give them time and space to grieve, which you are. That they are still so fragile is troubling, but they were married for so little time. Amber and Mallard had but six years together, and she lost the bairn she carried on top of that. She has two loses to grieve. Poor Heather had barely two years with her Chaco. They could still remarry, I suppose, but I think we all know that’s rather unlikely. Amber at least has Arlo, but Heather will never know what it’s like to be a mother. Just give them a little more time. You'll know when it's time to push them to take the next step, if they don't do so on their own.”

“I just feel like we should be doing more,” Adalgrim said. “I feel so useless.”

“You’re doing enough,” Dora assured him and Clematis. “Trust in that. If you’re not sure of yourself, how can you expect them to be?”

“Thank you, Dora,” Clematis said, feeling better already. “We can always count on you for sound advice.”

“I do what I can,” Dora said. She patted Clematis’s hand once more and turned the conversation to more cheerful matters. “What of your other children. Has Darling any suitors yet?”

“There are a good number of lads interested in Darling, but she doesn’t seem to want to settle on any of them,” Adalgrim said. “She spends most of her time with Rumbi, but I honestly don’t know what I would do with Lalia as an in-law.”

“Algie,” Clematis chided. “Lalia isn’t so bad. Besides, it’s Darling who would have to deal with her more than us.” She shook her head. “I don’t doubt that Rumbi would make her a fine husband, and to be the future Lady is quite an opportunity. It helps that Lalia likes her so much; she wouldn’t be so overbearing and Rumbi does know how to handle his mother. I just don’t think Darling is as interested in Rumbi as he is in her.”

“Then she shouldn’t marry him,” Dora concluded. “A lass must listen to her heart as much as her head in such matters.”

“Darling is just so… impulsive,” Adalgirm said. “Honestly, I have nightmares of her coming home with the innkeeper’s son.”

Dora raised her eyebrows at this but smiled kindly. “There are worse decisions Darling could make than the innkeeper’s son, so long as the lad is respectable.” Meaning, of course, that his father owned the shop and did not simply rent it or work it for the Hobbit who did own it.

“I suppose that is true enough,” Adalgrim admitted, though they both noticed his shudder.

“Is Paladin courting any lasses?” Dora asked, and they spoke of their children’s potential romances for the remainder of the night.

Their children, meanwhile, sat out the storytelling of Dwarven food and cooking techniques, until at last they were the remaining three members of Bilbo’s audience. Bilbo gave a mighty sigh and beamed down at his Took cousins.

“Now, how about a real adventure story?” he said with a wink.

Ami, Esme and Pally all nodded eagerly. “Tell us about the eagles,” Ami and Esme said. 

Pally would have rather heard about the dragon’s hoard again, but given that Ami was still angry with him, he figured that appeasing her was more important at the moment. He nodded at their choice of story, and they all settled in to hear about Bilbo’s narrow escape from the wolves and goblins of the Misty Mountains.

The following morning saw the Bagginses and Tooks heading out together. They ate second breakfast in their carriages, but stopped off the road for elevenses and luncheon. The children ran over the fields, releasing their energy and excitement as best they could. Pally was pleased to see that Ami didn’t even give Sprig a backward glance. She still wasn’t talking to Pally, but at least she wasn’t flirting with the help anymore either.

They came to Michel Delving just in time for tea. If they had thought The Lounging Kitten crowded, it paled next to the commotion that bubbled through the town and spilled out onto its fields. The carriages could hardly be navigated down the streets, so crowded they were with hobbits coming and going. The fair might not begin for another day, but nearly everyone had already arrived, to secure rooms at the inns or in private homes, or field space for their tents, booths and exhibits. 

The Bagginses veered off towards The Soaring Falcon Inn but Nab and Sprig continued to the other side of town to The Roosting Pheasant Inn. There Adalgrim confirmed their room was in order, then he and Pally lent their hands to unloading the carriages. Clematis and Amber reached the room ahead of them, to decide who would sleep where in the tight quarters, then directed the coachhobbits and ostlers where to put the luggage. 

The family took turns in the bathing rooms to wash properly and change into clean clothes after their tea, before setting off across town to join the Bagginses for dinner at the Falcon. Before going though, Ami slipped outside to the stables to speak with the master ostler. She might not be permitted to speak with her friends, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t look out for their welfare.

“Oh, they’re bedded down in a soft patch of hay already, Miss,” the master ostler assured her. “Don’t you fret. We’ve plenty of work for them here, what with all the guests and all. They’ll earn their food and then some.”

“But they must be allowed to enjoy the fair as well,” Ami insisted. “This is their holiday and I will not have them work through the whole thing.”

“Of course not, Miss,” the master ostler agreed, nodding his head. “I said as they’d earn their food and then some. They’ll have coin to spend at the fair, not a worry.”

“They are to have at least a half-day each day. Morning or night, it makes no difference, so long as they get to choose,” Ami continued.

The master ostler paused only a moment at this. It would deprive him of two good grooms for much longer than was normal, but they could make do easily enough. “I’ll let them know, Miss,” he agreed. He would also let them know that taking so long on the fairgrounds while the other ostlers only had a few hours to enjoy the sights was likely to be frowned upon by their fellows. He would leave it up to Sprig and Nab how long they chose to play.

Ami curtsied. “Thank you, Master,” she said and twirled around to return to the common room before her family could notice she was missing.

To be continued…

GF 6/30/11

Twitch stumbled towards the carriage and made himself climb into the coach’s seat. He took the reins the ostler handed him. “You’re to pick him up outside his study. The Thain’s study, not his private one. You remember where that is now?”

Twitch had no idea where the Thain’s study was. He wasn’t the Thain’s usual driver. In fact, he had never driven the Thain or the Lady anywhere, for which he had always been grateful. He was too tired to fret over the prospect now. Instead, he politely asked for directions and listened carefully as the ostler rambled them off and pointed vaguely towards the next hill, under which lay the Great Smials of Tuckborough.

“Get on with you. He’ll be a waiting in his study for you, and he wanted off quick like. No dallying.”

“Yes, sir,” Twitch said. He tugged the reins and clicked his tongue. The ponies pulled gently forward and they were on their way.

Some minutes later, Twitch was navigating the tunnels of the Smials, hoping he was heading in the right direction and to the right door. He walked down the empty and silent passageways, his footsteps loud in the absence of any other noise. He held a candle in hand, picked up from the entryway, and he counted doors until he reached what he hoped to be the Thain’s study. 

He knocked lightly, tentatively, and was relieved at the immediate muffled response. He had the correct door and the Thain was offering admittance. Twitch opened the door and took a hesitant half-step inside. He spotted the Thain almost at once, standing at the window that overlooked his private garden. Outside the window, the earth was cool and blue under a waning moon. A single sconce glowed on the wall by the door, casting the Thain and the room in shadow. 

“Thain Ferumbras, the carriage is ready,” announced Twitch.

Ferumbras nodded. “I’ll be there in a moment. Take the baskets and wait for me by the carriage.”

Twitch spotted a pair of picnic baskets sitting by the door. He picked them up and retreated. He wanted desperately to know what was going on but knew his place well enough not to ask. He would be told what he needed to know in due time. He followed the passageways back the way he came, pausing at the entryway to blow out the candle and return it to its sconce. He stepped outside again and only then noticed that the carriage the master ostler had readied was not the Thain’s but a guest carriage instead.

More bewildered than before, Twitch climbed up to his seat and prepared to wait.


Chapter 3 – Many Meetings

Adalgrim woke the next morning feeling displaced but eager. Displaced, for he was waking in an unfamiliar bed in an unfamiliar room with the unfamiliar presence of his children surrounding him and his wife. Eager, because as much as he complained about being dragged halfway across the Shire to give his cousin advice on mayoral candidates, he had always enjoyed the Free Fair and this year would be no different.

In fact, this year would be even more special than any fair prior. Not only was it an election year, it was also a leap year; the two events corresponded only every twenty-eight years. More importantly, this Overlithe would be Ami’s thirty-second birthday, and while her official coming of age was still a year away, it was close enough to mark this as a very significant birthday indeed.

“And she’s perfectly healthy,” Adalgrim muttered under his breath as he hopped one-footed, struggling with his breeches in the dark of pre-dawn.

As careful as folk were, he would still catch them whispering about the so-called Curse of the Tooks. He shook his head, wondering how such sensible hobbits could believe in such ridiculous rumors. To think anyone would entertain the notion that his daughter was somehow doomed just for being born on Overlithe was absurd!

Adalgrim finally slipped into his breeches and buttoned them. He slipped his braces over his shoulders while scrutinizing his matted hair in the mirror. “Absurd,” he told his reflection.

“Nothing a comb won’t fix, dear,” Clematis said sleepily from the bed. She reached behind her and pushed aside the curtain to let in a sliver of grey light. “You’re going to wear that?”

Adalgrim looked down at himself and noticed the white shirt he had blindly selected from the wardrobe was actually a pale cream. It clashed harshly with the maroon breeches and braces. Muttering, he slipped off the braces and pulled off his shirt. 

“Do you have any plans for the day, dearest?” Adalgrim whispered, so as not to disturb the other sleeping forms in the bed and on the settee. He pulled another shirt from the wardrobe, double-checked its color and slipped it on.

“Oh, nothing so exciting as sitting in the Town Hole, interviewing potential Mayors and talking politics,” Clematis answered. “I’m sure I’ll manage not to get too horribly bored. Everyone else should be arriving today, so we’ll be on the campgrounds helping to set up their tents. Don’t you think we should have brought a tent as well? The children will want to sleep near their friends.”

“Do you really think so?” Adalgrim asked, feigning innocence. A moment later, his face split into a grin and he waggled his eyebrows suggestively at his wife through the mirror. He finished with his wardrobe and attended to his hair with a few quick pulls of the brush.

Clematis chuckled. “Planning to get me alone, are you?”

“Planning. Hoping. Wishing. Bribing if I must,” Adalgrim answered. He turned from the mirror, leaned over the slumbering forms and kissed his wife. “Don’t count on me for luncheon, but we should be done by tea. Meet you here?”

“Come alone,” Clematis purred and kissed him back. “I’ll be waiting.”

“We are awake, you know,” Ami muttered.

“Shh!” Pally hissed.

“Keep quiet! You’ll embarrass them!” Esme whispered.

“I will not keep quiet if they’re going to start doing that!” Ami countered. 

Clematis and Adalgrim kindly obliged, their eyes meeting over silent laughter. Tea. Alone. Adalgrim pressed his wife’s hand, then slipped out the door.

The room grew silent again, its occupants warm and content in their wrappings. Then…

“Does this mean we have permission to sleep wherever we want?” Pally asked.

“Within reason, yes,” Clematis answered.

“You’re going to have to be more specific, Mum,” Esme said, giggling. “Pally’s idea of reasonable isn’t very reasonable.”

Ami sniggered next to her. Pally managed not to box them both on the ears, but it was a near thing.

“If you’re going to insist on being awake,” came Heather’s groggy voice from the settee, “would you be so kind as to be useful and put in our order for breakfast?”

“You’re closer to the door,” Pally pointed out.

“I had to sleep on the settee all night!” Heather complained.

“So?” the others asked.

“We drew straws. You lost,” Esme said.

“Shhh!” Amber hissed, but not in time. Arlo woke, whimpering. “Oh, good job!”

“Thank you,” Pally said and was quickly reminded that Amber did not possess his restraint. “Ow! That was my ear!”

“Serves you right,” Clematis said, rising. She pulled on a robe and quickly straightened her hair. “Since we’re all awake, we can all get up and go out to breakfast together. I’ll fetch Arlo some milk.”

“Thank you, Mother,” Amber said, rocking Arlo in vain hope he might drift back to sleep.

Clematis went out the door, and Heather rose from her makeshift bed, her back cracking. She shuffled about the room, lighting oil lamps and sconces, then peeped outside the curtain. The sky was lightening to a pale blue tinged with pink and yellow, and already hobbits were bustling about, making ready for the day. She dropped the curtain and tapped Pally hard on the head.

“Out, you,” she ordered.

“Why me?”

“So we can get dressed,” she replied.

“I won’t watch,” Pally promised. His nose wrinkled at the thought of spying on his sisters.

“Right you are, because you won’t be here. Out,” Heather ordered again.

“Why don’t you go – OW!” Pally suddenly roared, ending any hope of Arlo returning to sleep. The child woke with a startled cry. “That was my leg!”

“Yes, and this is your arm,” Ami said, aiming to pinch again. 

Pally scooted away, but Esme prevented him from getting too far. “Will you stop it!” he demanded.

“Get out then,” Esme said, pinching him smartly on his cheek.

Pally retaliated by pulling her hair. “Don’t do that to her!” Ami ordered and kneed him in the buttocks.

“Hey!” Pally protested. 

“This is getting out of hand,” Heather said, stating the obvious to little effect. 

“WAAAAAH!” Arlo wailed, confused with all the ruckus. 

“ENOUGH!” Amber exploded, getting up. She picked up her son, grabbed Pally hard by the ear and hauled him from the bed. She ushered him to the door, pushed him into the hall and thrust Arlo into his arms. “Get him milk!” she ordered and slammed the door in his face.

Arlo stopped crying, stunned into silence along with his uncle.

Pally blinked at the door, then down at his nephew. “Well, how do you like that?” he asked. “Abused, assaulted, violated and thrown out like rotten fruit. Is that any way to treat one’s brother?”

Arlo blinked back at him. It was too early in the morning for him to form coherent thoughts, much less make sense of anything that just happened. He was however quickly overcoming his shock of having his mother slam a door on him. His lower lip pouted outward and tears were quickly forming in his big green eyes. “I’m hungry, Nuncie Pally,” he complained.

“Come on then,” Pally said. “Let’s get you some milk.” He put Arlo down and took hold of his hand. They walked down the hall to the common room.

“Why are you limping, Nuncie Pally?” Arlo asked, bouncing on his feet. Whatever had happened in the room, he was now on his way to get food, which was all that really mattered to him.

“Because your aunties and mum are very mean, wicked sisters,” Pally answered. “Be glad you don’t have any sisters, Arlo. You’ve been spared a torment I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy.”

“What’s an enemy?” Arlo asked.

“Someone you don’t like,” Pally answered.

“Like who?”

“Your Auntie Darling and Auntie Esme come to mind,” Pally muttered, entering the common room and heading towards his mother at the bar.

The Town Hole of Michel Delving was actually a house, though built in the fashion of a smial: long, domed and topped with turf. Many round windows peeked out of the turf in all directions, and two round yellow doors stood at the east and west ends. A smaller house for the Mayor’s residence stood behind it.

Adalgrim entered the main house through the west door and into the hallway that dissected the Hole into two halves: the Mayor’s Hall to the south and the various conference rooms and studies to the north. He walked the few short paces to the Mayor’s Hall, where the 

various functions of the Mayor’s position were performed. The Lithe weddings were performed here at every Free Fair, just as several other seasonal feasts and celebrations were throughout the year. The annual meetings of the post messengers and bounders were also held here, as were the rare Shire-moots and even rarer trials that were brought forth to the Mayor for his ruling. 

For today and tomorrow, the Hall would be hosting the Shire-moot for the election of the next mayor. The stage that stood at one end of the hall was bare today; tomorrow it would hold chairs for the current mayor, the Thain, and the Master of the Hall, as well as the mayoral candidates. On the main floor, the benches were currently arranged into opened squares, to allow for the family heads and candidates to mingle in small groupings. Tomorrow the benches would be arranged in rows facing the stage for the final interviews. 

Only a handful of hobbits was present at the moment but more arrived every minute. Adalgrim spotted Fortinbras near the center of the hall. He was already speaking with their first cousins Sigismond and Flambard. Adalgrim swept the room with his eyes as he made his way towards Fortinbras, and he spotted their other first cousins congregating near the stage. They were surrounding Isengar’s widow, Gardenia Clayhanger Took, the only remaining Took of the previous generation and Lalia’s first cousin once removed. The only first cousin not in attendance was Isemond, Isembold’s youngest son. Isemond had been lost to the plague of winter last. His widow, Delphenia, sat beside Gardenia, looking tired from the journey but determined to do her part in her husband’s place.

“Good morning Peanut, Siggy, Rabbit,” Adalgrim greeted. “How is she?”

“Morning Algie,” they greeted in return. 

Fortinbras looked in the direction Adalgrim was pointing. “Delphi is as stubborn as Aunt Gardenia. I told her a dozen times that no one expects her to attend this year, and that just made her all the more resolute that she must come.”

“Clematis and I will need to invite her to tea before the fair is ended; we didn’t get to spend as much time with her as we had hoped during our visit,” Adalgrim said, then set his gaze disappointedly towards the nearly bare buffet tables that stood against the wall. The tables were dressed with festive cloths, and plates, cutlery, cups and napkins sat at one end, but not a crumb of food was to be seen. “No breakfast yet?”

“Soon enough, Algie,” Sigismond assured. “How was your night at the Pheasant?” 

“Fine enough, though I’m hoping tonight will be finer,” Adalgrim replied coolly.

His cousins grinned, not to be fooled. “Caltha and I will be happy to keep your children over the night,” Sigismond offered.

“I thank you,” Adalgrim said. “I will mention it to them, though they may well have arranged their own sleeping quarters by the time I see them next. If you want to shepherd off Rosamunda and Ferdinand later in the week, don’t hesitate to ask. Same goes for Adelard,” he said to Flambard.

Flambard waved a hand. “That lad is never about at night anymore. He’s always off visiting some friend or other. In fact, he didn’t even come with us this year. Couldn’t bear the thought of being away from his sweetheart for so long.”

“Has he asked for Isabella’s hand then?” Fortinbras asked.

“He plans to do so this very Overlithe,” Flambard answered. “He’s quite nervous about it, but I don’t imagine she would turn him down, not the way she dotes on him. And what of Rumbi? He’s getting to an age where one expects grandchildren.”

Fortinbras glanced at Adalgrim and shrugged. “He is wanting to ask Darling, of course. He thought to do so on Overlithe as well. It’s a lucky day for making Promises, they say, and it’s her birthday as well. I wasn’t going to say anything until he had a chance to speak with you, but I’d rather save us all the misery of anticipation and just have it done.”

The cousins laughed. “I will speak with him,” Adalgrim said. “He arrives today?”

“Tomorrow,” Fortinbras said.

“No, today,” Flambard corrected, pointing towards the doorway, where Ferumbras stood.

“Son!” Fortinbras called over the murmur of the room. He waved his hand to help Rumbi locate them. “You are early,” he stated without need when Rumbi approached.

“I had no choice,” Rumbi said, nodding hello to his cousins. “Darling is bent on apologizing to Mother. Have you seen her? Mother, I mean. I went to your tent, but she was already gone.”

“She’s with the wives across the hallway,” Fortinbras said, lifting his eyebrows at Adalgrim, who nodded. “But surely your mother can wait. You must have ridden all night to get here. You must be exhausted. Have some refreshment and take a rest first.”

“Come, Rumbi,” Adalgrim said, steering the lad towards the buffet tables, where the cooks were now setting out the food. “Let’s get some food, then you and I can talk.”

“Talk?” Rumbi asked, taken off guard by this. Then his eyes darkened and he glowered at his father. “Da!”

Fortinbras shrugged. “What can I say, son? Your cousin Algie is a persuasive hobbit. Had it out of me before I knew what happened.”

“I’ll bet,” Rumbi muttered but followed Adalgrim to the tables, his father and cousins not far behind.

Plates full of sausages, ham, eggs and hash, Adalgrim led Rumbi to a corner near the empty stage where they could speak more privately. 

Adalgrim had sensed this day was coming for some time. He and Clematis had spoken of it just a few weeks before. They liked the lad dearly, and were as fond of him as they were their own children. They did not doubt he would be a good husband to their daughter. He could keep her grounded, where otherwise she’d likely fly off for the Blue. There was, of course, his position to consider, and they wished nothing more than to see their beloved Darling set up as the next Lady of Tookland, their future grandson in line for the Thainship. 

There was also Lalia. They bore her overbearing presence with as much grace as they could, but they were hesitant to agree to such a contract as Ami would then be forced to endure much more than annual visits. Lalia would be her mother-in-law, as well as her tutor and guide for learning her future role and duties as the Thain’s Lady. Ami would likely be with Lalia on a daily basis, shadowing her around the Smials and Tuckborough, doing for her like a servant and being treated nearly as bad. That Lalia was fond of Ami was little comfort, as her regard and esteem was nearly as flighty as Ami herself. It would take very little for Ami to fall into Lalia’s poor esteem. Before Adalgrim and Clematis could agree to putting their daughter in such a position, they needed first to be reassured that Ferumbras would protect her at all cost if such a need arose. 

Adalgrim motioned for Rumbi to go first. 

“Cousin Algie,” Rumbi began. He was unprepared for this, having spent the last two days going over speeches that would convince his mother to be forgiving of Ami. Once that obstacle was successfully behind him, he had then planned to prepare his speech for Adalgrim. Now Adalgrim stood before him, and he had nothing to say. 

“Rumbi-lad,” Adalgrim returned and took a bite of his sausage. 

Ferumbras ignored his food, too nervous to eat. The little box that he carried safely in his inner-pocket pressed hard against his chest, reminding him of just what he planned to do in a few days. Well, one way or another, this conversation was going to take place. Might as well get it over with, even if it meant appearing unpolished.

“I am fond of Darling, as I’m sure you know,” Rumbi began. “I’ve known her all her life and these past few years, I have seen her grown into a very special young lady. She has a spark, a charisma, that pulls others to her, and she is the kindest, sweetest lass I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. I would like nothing more than to ask her to be my wife, if that pleases you and Clematis.”

“I think it’s more important that it pleases Darling,” Adalgrim said.

Rumbi nodded. “Of course, her wishes are foremost in my thoughts. I assure you, she will not be left wanting for anything, whether that be freedom to continue her drawings, to visit her family whenever she wants, or simply buttered scones for second breakfast.”

Now it was Adalgrim’s turn to nod. “I know Peanut approves of the match. What about your mother?”

Rumbi kept his face neutral with much effort. “She is fond of Darling. She couldn’t ask for a better daughter-in-law. I will of course be moving out of my parents’ apartment once I’m married. I am not required to live within the Smials while my father is still the Took.”

Adalgrim chuckled under his breath. Straight to the point then. “I think that would be best,” he agreed. “A little cottage near town perhaps.”

“Wherever Darling wishes to settle and make a home,” Rumbi said. “Even Whitwell. There will be more than enough opportunities for Mother to instruct her on visits.”

Now Adalgrim laughed. “That is true enough, I suppose, though perhaps not to your mother’s liking.”

“She has everything else to her liking,” Rumbi replied smoothly. “She will just have to learn to live with disappointment in this one small area. I am sure that she will recover.”

“Very well then,” Adalgrim said. “I will discuss it with Clematis. Will you be taking supper here at the hall tonight?”

“I will be,” Ferumbras replied. “I am to take over for my father one day, and so must learn to mingle diplomatically.”

“I will speak to you again tonight,” Adalgrim promised.

“Thank you, cousin,” Rumbi said, then dropped his cool visage, letting a hint of worry leak into his eyes. “Do you… Do you think Darling will be pleased?”

“I can’t imagine why she wouldn’t be,” Adalgrim replied, patting Rumbi on the arm. “She is fond of you as well.”

“I rather hope so,” Rumbi said.

“You’re a good lad,” Adalgrim said. “I will be more than happy to call you son.”

By this time, nearly all the family heads and mayoral candidates were gathered in the hall. While there was no formal agenda for today, the Mayor would be calling everyone to attention once they had eaten to give his customary opening speech and introduce the candidates, who would then have a few minutes to say something about themselves. After the speeches, the candidates, who were each assigned a certain square, would speak casually with the family heads who visited them. There would be breaks for meals and to allow for ventures to the privies, but most of the day would be spent in the busy business of conversation and gossip.

Rumbi returned to his father’s side and watched the bustle about them. Rorimac had just entered the hall, with Bilbo behind him. The new Master of the Hall looked just as exhausted as Rumbi felt, and he wondered how much of that had to do with the long journey from Buckland and how much from the loss of his father this past autumn. Yule in Brandy Hall had been a somber affair compared to previous years, or so he had heard. He nudged his father and lifted his chin towards the door, where a small crowd of sympathizers was gathering around Rory.

“He looks to need rescuing,” Rumbi said and followed his father to Rory’s side.  He could wait until the speeches were over before speaking with his mother.

Ami and Esme left the inn together as soon as first breakfast was finished. They had eaten enough to see them through to luncheon, as they would be busy greeting their cousins and helping with the arrangements of the festival tents with their mother this morning. Clematis would be following behind once Amber and Heather had Arlo ready for the day. Pally, as far as they were concerned, could hike out to the Elf Towers and never return. From the look he had given them when they left, the feeling was mutual.

They quickly left the town behind, rounding the inn to the north and coming over the fairgrounds from the far side. They crunched over the grassy plain, dodging carts, carriages and ponies and narrowly avoided being shepherded into a temporary pigsty by an overeager dog and his flustered master. 

They finally reached the other side of the grounds and headed first to the largest circle of tents, which belonged to the Tooks. They were not the only visitors there. Menegilda and her sons, Saradoc and Berilac, stood talking with Flambard’s wife, Alaura, in the center circle near the cooking fires. Ami and Esme joined Rosamunda and Ferdinand, and after a while, the two Brandybuck lads came to join them as well.

“Morning all,” Sara said, sitting next to Ferdinand. Mac sat on Sara’s other side and mumbled hello.

“Morning,” the others greeted. 

“What is your mother talking to Alaura about?” Esme asked.

“To see if it’d be all right to join your circle,” Mac answered. 

“Don’t you usually take rooms at the Pheasant?” Ami asked. The Brandybucks and families of the Eastfarthing usually celebrated Lithe in Buckland, and so they didn’t have a designated area set aside for tents. Usually, they joined another circle, took up rooms in the inns, or stayed at residences with beds to rent.

Sara nodded. “Usually Grandmother makes the arrangements for the rooms, but it slipped her mind this year,” he explained. “She’s still grieving for Grandfather.”

“I’m so sorry about Gorbadoc,” Ami said, taking his hand for a brief squeeze. “I was fond of him.”

“How are you two taking it?” Rosamunda asked. “It can’t be much easier for you either. Have you had to move yet?”

“Not yet,” Mac said. “Father is Master now and so we should be living in the Master’s apartments, but we don’t want to put Grandmother out, obviously. She is seeing to having a smaller apartment redone for her and once that’s ready, we’ll make the switch.”

“We’re doing fine enough though,” Sara said. “It’s odd. Sometimes I wake up and think, ‘I’m supposed to get more pipeweed for Grandfather,’ and then I remember. It doesn’t hurt so bad anymore as it did right after he passed. Time heals, or so they say.”

“Indeed it does,” Ferdinand said. “Well, I’m sure there will be no problem with you putting up a tent. We’ve plenty of room. If not, you can always bunk with someone. You could stay with us. I’m sure Mum and Da won’t mind.”

“Mother probably would, and so would Father,” Saradoc said. “They’ve been grumbling about having to sleep rough as it is. I don’t see what the problem is. It’s no different than falling asleep atop Buck Hill or along the River. It’ll be a little adventure.”

Mac grinned at his brother and just barely restrained himself from rolling his eyes. “You and your adventures,” he said. “But how you are?” he asked Ami and Esme. “How are your sisters? We heard about their husbands.”

“They’re well enough, though still grieving as well,” Esme answered. “We’re just worried about them, and little Arlo. Mum convinced them to come home with us for the rest of the season.”

“And none too soon, poor dears,” Rosamunda said, in what she no doubt thought was a sympathetic tone. “They’ve been adrift all year and it’s getting worse, if you ask me.”

“I don’t recall anyone doing so,” Sara said dryly, seeing the offended looks on Ami’s and Esme’s faces. Rosamunda had the sense to appear contrite. “Care to get some food?” he asked them.

“We already ate,” Ami answered, rising. “Mum should be here soon, actually. We’re to help organize today. We should go look for her.”

“We’ll see you around then,” Mac said.

Ami and Esme made their way through the avenue of tents to the outer circle, each deep in her own thoughts. Then Ami stopped suddenly and turned on her heel. She returned to the cooking circle and waited for Alaura to take notice of her.

“Yes, Darling?” Alaura asked.

“Where is Lalia?” Ami asked. “I need to speak with her.”

“She’s at the Town Hole,” Alaura answered and returned to Menegilda. “You can put up a tent next to us. I’ll fetch out some of the lads to help.”

“Sara and Mac can manage on their own. It’s a small enough tent, and they’ve put it up before. Just show us where,” Menegilda replied, lifting a hand to wave over her children, who were just about to serve themselves breakfast. “You can eat later. Tent first.”

Ami gave them a sympathetic shrug and went on her way. She met Esme outside the circle and took her arm, leading her back into town.

“Where are we going?” Esme asked.

“To speak with Lalia,” Ami said, tightening her hold on her sister’s arm so she couldn’t get away.

“Why do I have to go?” Esme protested. “I’m not the one who stole her riding shawl.”

“I didn’t steal it either!” Ami protested. “I just forgot I had it. She’ll understand, don’t you think?”

Esme snorted. “Oh, Darling-dear, you do amuse me,” she replied unhelpfully.

Lalia was not understanding. She listened to Ami’s apology in silence, and when Ami finished, she pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes. She then proceeded to gently chide Ami in front of nearly every family matron in the Shire, lecturing her as she would an errant child caught nipping biscuits from the tin.

“But it wasn’t just the shawl, was it, Amaryllis?” Lalia began in a cool, calm tone. “You neglected to bring me my coat the other night at the feast, and you were the one who offered to get it. You forgot entirely about promising to help decorate the ballroom for Fort’s birthday party. As I recall, you decided it was more important to go into town and waste farthings on lace you didn’t need. You didn’t need it because you never did anything with it, did you? You were too busy sanding calluses into your hands making chairs or other such foolery than doing proper lass’s work. You left my son alone in the parlor the other day because the maid was feeling ill and you just had to go fetch the healer for her. It would have been a kind gesture if you had actually found the healer, but the maid ended up having to find her herself, didn’t she? Meanwhile, Rumbi had to sit there for nearly an hour before you saw fit to come back. The shawl is simply the final stroke.

“It is more than just irresponsibility,” Lalia continued, still calm, still quiet though there was a bite to her tone now that made Ami flinch. “It is inconsideration, not to mention a flagrant disregard for others. You do not forget things that are important to you, and so you clearly demonstrated that your promises to me and my son were of no importance to you whatsoever. Now what do you have to say for yourself?”

“I believe she already apologized,” Dora said, stepping neatly into the melee. She spoke softly while shielding Ami and Esme from Lalia’s glare. She was possibly the only matron is the Shire with the nerve to stand up to Lalia, except for Gardenia, who was unfortunately across the hall with the fellows. “A simple reminder to be more vigilant would suffice, if you are incapable of accepting her apology gracefully.”

“You dare to interrupt me?” Lalia asked, incensed.

“I do, and what’s more, I dismiss you, Darling, to go about your day. You’ve done enough here,” Dora said, looking sharply at Lalia. 

“Thank you, Auntie Dora,” Ami said, shaken by the encounter. She was tempted to apologize one more time but Esme’s pull on her arm made her think twice about it. Best to let Lalia calm down before attempting to speak with her again. She curtsied instead and fled as quickly as she could, missing the way the other matrons were glaring at Lalia on her behalf. 

“That went well,” Esme said once they were clear of the Town Hole and again nearing the fairgrounds. 

“How so?” Ami asked. Her face was still red hot with shame and not a small amount of anger. 

“She could have banished you from the Smials,” Esme replied. “I think there’s hope still.”

Ami rolled her eyes. “I think you’re sleeping on the settee tonight.”

“Come, Darling,” Esme said. “Let’s find Mum and see what we can do to help.”

The speeches finished, Rumbi excused himself from the hall and went across the way to the conference room where the ladies were gathering. They too would go into the Mayor’s Hall to interview the candidates, but they preferred to congregate in the conference rooms to discuss their opinions away from their husbands. 

He found his mother standing alone near the far window. He went to her and lightly pecked her cheek. “Morning, Mother,” he said.

Lalia looked at him in surprise before a grin split her face in cheer. “You’re early!” she exclaimed. “I was not expecting you until tomorrow. What a pleasant surprise!” She mussed his cheek in return.

“Mother, I need to ask you a favor,” he began.

“Anything you want, dearest,” Lalia said.

“I hope so. I want you to forgive Darling for forgetting about your riding shawl. She’s going to apologize to you at some point today, and I would appreciate it if you could be gracious,” Rumbi said.

“Oh, Rumbi,” Lalia said, her voice strained. “She already apologized. I was not gracious. I had a disagreement with your father this morning. It’s not an excuse.”

“What?” Rumbi said. “What do you mean? Darling was here already?” 

“She was,” Lalia admitted. “I may have snapped at her a little.” She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, gathering her composure. “I will apologize for my rudeness, though if you do intend to make that lass your wife, you will need to teach her respect.”

Rumbi felt his hackles rise at these words. It wasn’t a far leap to guess just what the scene had been like, the way the other ladies were keeping their distance. “What do you mean, ‘that lass’? You have always been fond of Darling. She made one little mistake. She forgot. It’s not like you’ve never forgotten anything before.”

“Everyone forgets sometimes. She forgets all the time,” Lalia said. “That’s not a quality one looks for in a future Lady. I may have to reconsider giving my consent to this match. I had my reservations from the start.”

“Reconsider it all you want,” Rumbi said, keeping his voice low so that no one would overhear. “I am asking Darling to be my wife, and if she says yes, she will be the Lady one day. You’re just going to have to get used to that idea. You will apologize to her for overreacting, and you will not insult her again. I don’t care what disagreements you have with Father; she is not a part of that.”

Lalia met her son’s burning gaze with a fiery glare of her own. “I already said I would apologize.”

“I’ll make sure of it,” Rumbi promised. He turned on his heel and left the room. 

He had to find Paladin and discover why he had failed in his assignment to keep Ami at bay. Then he needed to find Ami and make sure she was all right. She was not accustomed to being scorned or scolded, especially in public; she must be shaken, no doubt in shock.

He turned left out of the Town Hole and made his way across town to the Pheasant.

To be continued…

GF 7/5/11

Inside the study, the Thain waited for the door to close before slipping into the garden, snifter in hand. He gazed up at the stars and breathed in the fresh scent of summer. The flowers were closed up for the night; he missed their sweet scent and bold colors. Sweet and bold - just as an amaryllis should be.

Ferumbras emptied the snifter in a couple of gulps and went inside, locking the garden door behind him. He puttered around the wet bar, putting the bottles in a straight line, then rearranging them, the fullest at the left down to the least full at the right. He washed the snifter, dried it and stacked it with the others. 

Glancing into the mirror over the bar, he saw no hint of the younger hobbit he used to be. He was older to start, more grey hair now than brown. His mouth still smiled easily enough, but his eyes seemed to have forgotten how. But then he was in mourning. That was only to be expected. It would be disloyal to say that the past thirty-eight years hadn’t been happy ones, for they had been. Oh, but they could have been so much more. If only...

He realized he was stalling.

He shook himself and left the bar. He would have plenty of time to think in the carriage. Think, remember and wonder, not only of what might have been but what was yet to come. He had to get going first though.

With renewed resolve, he pulled on his long coat and gloves, blew out the candle and locked the study door behind him. He navigated the dark tunnels with expert ease and a few moments later was outside, the carriage before him. “We’re off, Twitch,” he said.

Twitch jumped down from his seat and held open the carriage door. “Where exactly are we off to, sir?” he asked.

“For now, the Woody End,” Ferumbras said and stepped into the carriage.


Chapter 4 – The Shepherd of Nohill

Ami and Esme ended up directing traffic. Fairgoers were coming in from all directions and the crowd grew larger and more disorganized as the day wore on. While they hadn’t been to the Free Fair in a few years, things were more or less always put in the same areas every year. A general wave in that direction or a quick point in this direction was enough to remind anyone they saw of where they should be heading. Esme was busy with a group of ropers just come in from Tighfield when Ami came across a young lad with a small herd of sheep.

He was standing rooted near the front of the grounds and looked very much the way she imagined a deer caught at the end of a crossbow would look: alert, overwhelmed and with the growing realization that there was little he could do to help himself. His breeches and shirt, though toughly woven, were dirty and torn from his journey; he had clearly come a long way but now that he was here he didn’t seem to know what to do next. 

Seeing that he was in need of help, Ami made her way over to him. “Good morning! Or, good afternoon, I should say now,” she greeted. She beamed at the lad, her dimples winking. “You look lost. Can I help you find your way?”

The lad looked at her, his expression changing little. He opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out. Finally, he looked down at his sheep and gestured helplessly.

“Are you here for the contests, or to sell?” Ami asked.

“Um, to sell,” he answered, his voice barely more than a whisper.

“Where are your kin staying?” she asked next.

“I’m alone,” the lad replied.

“Oh,” she replied, surprised to hear this. It was unheard of for a hobbit to come to the Fair alone. Even if he did not come with family, he would come with friends or fellow tradeshobbits, or as servants as Sprig and Nab had done. 

“Are you selling for fleece or the beasts themselves?” she asked next, looking down at the sheep. She was surprised further with how well-behaved the sheep were. Agitated by the bustle all around them, they nonetheless stood around their master in a patient huddle, now and again chewing on bits of grass within easy reach. 

“The beasts,” the lad murmured.

“They are adorable sheep,” Ami complimented, meaning it wholeheartedly. One ewe lifted her little black face and stared at her blankly. “You should have no problem finding buyers or breeders.”

“Thank ‘ee,” the lad said.

“I’m Amaryllis Took, by the way, but you may call me Ami.” She held out a hand.

“Perry,” the lad answered. “Perry Nettleburr.” He took her hand in a quick shake, and she noticed it was cold with sweat and fear.

“Well, let’s get you to where you need to go,” Ami said and hooked his arm through hers so she could lead him across the grounds. Simply pointing and riddling off vague directions would do this lad little good. If he was surprised by her actions, he gave no sign of it.

“Where’s your dog?” she asked.

“Dog?” He met her eyes, longer this time. His eyes were a golden brown, reminding her of honeycombs and the soft droning of nectar-sated bees. 

She smiled again. “I like your eyes.”

He smiled shyly, blushing under her gaze. The blush brought much needed color to his fear-stricken face, and she glimpsed for the first time a hint of life in those golden orbs. Ami noticed then that almost everything about him was golden. The hair upon his head was sun-bleached to a rich caramel hue. His brown skin showed not a hint of sunburn, further impressing upon her that this was a hobbit accustomed to working outdoors. The sun seemed to have seeped into his very being.

“Do you like bread, Perry?” she asked on impulse.

He nodded. “I do.”

“After we get you settled, I can take you to the bakery in town. They have the most delicious rye bread you’ve ever tasted,” Ami said. “How does that sound?”

“That’s right kind of ‘ee, Ami,” he replied, leaving off the ‘Miss’ she had expected. His blush deepened. 

“It’s not a worry,” she said. “I believe the livestock is this way.”

She took him across the grounds. They gathered many onlookers as they went. Hobbits stopped to point at the sheep who obediently trailed behind their master, with no baying dog to encourage them along their way. Perry noticed the audience they were attracting and swallowed deeply.

“First time at the Fair,” Ami said. The answer was clearly yes, and he confirmed this when he nodded. “How do you get your sheep to do that?”

“Do what?” 

“Follow you like that?” 

He looked back at his followers and smiled fondly, a softness stealing over his features that completely transformed him. Ami saw now that he was nearly her age if not a few years older, rather than younger as she had first thought, and while he might be frightened of so many hobbits pressing in on all sides, he was entirely comfortable in his role as shepherd. That sort of ease and comfort didn’t come from nowhere. 

“They just do,” he answered with a shrug. “Is that why everyone is watching?”

Ami nodded. “It’s fascinating. Usually, you have to drive sheep in front of you, or keep the ram on a lead and they’ll follow him, but you’re not doing either. Keep up like this, and you’ll have your sheep sold before you even set up your tent.” 

She noticed then that the only thing Perry carried was a bindle stick. No tent then, just a sleeping roll. She peeked down again at the worn cuffs of his breeches and noticed the dirt matted in his foot hair and clinging to his legs – no great alarm there, if he had worked in stables along the way to pay the nightly board for him and his herd. Still, where was he planning to sleep now that he had reached the fair?

Perry smiled shyly. “Just for that?” he asked doubtfully, recalling her to their conversation.

She laughed. “You might just have a bidding war on your hands. I hope your pockets are deep.”

Perry frowned slightly at this, his free hand fluttering down to nervously feel the broken seam of one pocket. “Have ‘ee thread, then?” he asked.

“No, but I’m sure we’ll be able to get you some,” Ami answered. “You don’t have a tent.” 

He shook his head. “Nights’re warm,” he replied. 

“They are, aren’t they?” she said. Perhaps he hadn’t stabled at any inns, then. “You camped under the stars the whole way here?”

“‘Tis a fine blanket they make, come summer,” he said. “‘Tis no other like ‘em.”

“No, I guess there’s not,” she replied, somewhat wistfully. She now wished that they had slept outside while they traveled here, rather than in an inn. “It must be something marvelous to wake up with the sun on your face.”

“Nay,” Perry said, surprising her yet again. “Most like, ye’ll wake up with dew on yer face or, in my case, the sheep licking yer ears. Sun comes out much later. Now, there is something to be beating yer clothes clean whilst the sun’s waking the world. I do love me a sunrise.”

“I can’t remember the last sunrise I saw,” Ami said. “I see plenty of sunsets though. They’re beautiful indeed.”

“They’re the same thing though really, so ‘ee have seen a sunrise,” Perry said. “You’re just seeing it from the other side, like.”

Ami didn’t know what to say to this, but she found the thought intriguing. She turned it over as they continued across the grounds. 

They reached the area set aside for the livestock and their masters. Ami saw that Perry was given a good pen for his sheep. They stowed his bindle under an empty water trough inside the pen where the rams could guard it. She helped him to procure water and feed for the sheep, introducing him to as many hobbits as she could, until she was satisfied they would take him under their wing when she had to leave. 

Once he was settled, she took him back over the grounds and into town to the bakery with the best rye bread in the Shire. Perry looked all about them as they went, paying little attention to directions, so absorbed he was by the sights and sounds all around. They reached the bakery and Ami bought a loaf of bread fresh out of the oven. Perry watched the exchange of bread for coin with puzzlement. 

Bread in hand, they went back outside and found a table in the shade. 

“Now,” Ami said. “You simply must tell me everything about you.”

He quirked his eyebrows at this, baffled by this attention. “Not much to tell, really,” he said.

“I doubt that. You show up alone out of nowhere, with a line of obedient sheep and insights into sunsets, or sunrises as you say. I think there’s a lot to tell.”

“Will ‘ee be telling me ‘bout yerself then?” Perry asked, looking hopeful.

Ami nodded and they split the bread on it. Perry’s eyes widened as his teeth sank into his half of the loaf and the flavor exploded in his mouth. He chewed with much consideration and only swallowed reluctantly.

“Me lor’, but ‘tis the best rye I’ve tasted ever!” he exclaimed.

Ami laughed. “I told you so,” she said. “So, then, Perry Nettleburr. Where are you from? How did you come to be here?”

Perry didn’t answer right away. He tore off another chuck of bread and chewed it over slowly, savoring the flavor and giving himself time to consider the situation in which he now found himself.

He hadn’t known what to expect when he set out for the Fair. There had been dire warnings of being assaulted or robbed upon the way, but no such thing had come close to happening. He had nothing worth stealing anyway, except his wee flock. Still, he had steered clear of the towns, not quite trusting he would wake up to the company of his sheep if he came too near where others might lure them away. He was nervous about leaving them for even a moment now, but he had been assured by everyone that his sheep were safe in their pen, and the little old chap who checked him in had given him tags to put about the sheep’s necks, to identify them as his if they were to get out.

Overwhelmed couldn’t begin to describe his feeling when he first arrived at the Fair. The buildings, which had looked small enough from afar, now towered over his head and winded all around him like a maze with no end in sight. He had eventually followed the main flow of the crowd to the fairgrounds which, for all their wide open fields, were even more imposing than the town had been. He had never seen so many hobbits in one place before, all of them darting around like wasps disturbed from their hive. He had fully expected to be stung by any number of them. 

Far from being stung, he had instead been rescued by this comely lass now sitting across from him. She had appeared out of nowhere, materializing from the crowd as if by magic. He had thought he was being approached by a fire-star fallen from the heavens, with her mane of red hair curling about her fair round face. Then she had smiled and he realized his error. She was not a star but the Sun’s daughter, come to walk the earth and light the way before him. What he had ever done to earn such grace he couldn’t begin to imagine, but he was hardly going to complain!

Tongue-tied as he was by her beauty, he had barely been able to follow her speech. He was only able to hope desperately that the words he was speaking were making even a small bit of sense. Then, before he knew it, she was escorting him across the grounds and he found his arm inexplicably linked through hers. The touch of her skin was foreign to him, cool and soft when he had expected scorching heat instead. Maybe she was a star after all, cool as the night’s breeze. 

It was at this point that he decided he must be dreaming. He followed along in a daze, answering her questions or trying to – what was a dog? – and feeling that the morning could not get any better. Until now. Fresh bread on an empty stomach and conversation with this beauty only cemented his belief that this was all a dream. He kept expecting himself to wake up and dreading the moment when he inevitably would.

He swallowed his bite and shrugged. Well, if he was dreaming, he may as well enjoy it while he could. “I’m from a spot of land called Nohill, just outside Pincup.”

“One of our coachhobbits is from Pincup,” Ami said. “Sprig Dingle. Do you know him or his family, then?”

“Can’t say I do.” 

“I didn’t realize there were any sheep farms there.”

“Ain’t a farm so much. We just got us some sheep,” he said with a shrug. “We found them wandering a while back, or my granddaddy did anyhow. Couldn’t reckon where they come from, so we just kept them. They’ve been keeping us in wool and mutton ever since.”

Ami nodded. This made sense enough. Her father had found plenty of lost livestock after thunderstorms. She supposed if ever he couldn’t find their rightful owners, he would keep them; it would hardly make sense to let them keep on wandering.

“Do you usually attend the fair in Pincup, then, or do you make the trek to Buckland?” she asked next. She had never seen this lad or his black-faced sheep at the Tookland fair before.

“We don’t get out much,” Perry answered, considering how much to tell her.

He knew well enough that she came from a good family, but then that would be true of virtually anyone he came across. Whether she had nothing but farthings or ducats in her purse, it was all the same to him. Yet her palms were not callused, her nails were long and clean, and her skin was fair, and that alone told him more than her clothes, coin or speech ever could. This was not a lass who had to work to survive. 

He had been warned not to say too much about where he came from, lest folk take him for a simpleton and try to cheat him out of a fair trade for his sheep. He had been especially warned against hobbits of her type, lazy hobbits as his grandmother called them. They didn’t know a day of work in their lives and so could never understand those who moved from sun up to sun down to put food on the table. Yet he would have to take someone into his confidence in order to learn what exactly was a fair trade for his sheep, and who was he to deny a dream? 

Coming to a decision, he took another bite of bread, swallowed quickly and leaned forward. “Truth is, I ain’t ever been to no fair afore now. I ain’t quite reckoning what all to be doing. It’s just, I knew of the fairs and I heard once as it was a good way of making trade, and we had us a good lambing this season. So I thought maybe I could trade some of the extra sheep, ‘stead of slaughtering them all. You know, trade them for what else we’re needing. Only, I don’t know how to do that exactly. So say I was to want me a couple of cows and a bull. How do I get them? Would it be a beast for a beast, or what?”

“Oh, well,” Ami said, startled by this revelation, which only gave her more questions than answers. If the lad was from Pincup, how could this be his first fair? Why come to this fair, when Pincup, Buckland or Tookland were so much closer? How could he not know how to trade or barter? Why wouldn’t he be selling as well as trading?

“Well,” she repeated, biting back her questions. They could wait for later. “I don’t think it works like that exactly. You have to consider what the beast is to be used for. Sheep can be used for breeding and food, and they have the added benefit of fleecing, which means whoever gets them will be able to benefit from them for many years to come. So you’d want to exchange them for a milking cow, or a bull, rather than a bit of meat that will eventually be gone. For meat, you’d trade grain, ale, pipeweed, things of that sort.”

Perry nodded at this. That was sense enough, but not exactly what he needed to know. He tried another way. “It’s just as sheep are small like, and cows ain’t.”

“The size of the beast doesn’t matter so much though,” Ami elaborated. “A milking cow will give you milk every day, whereas a sheep can only give you wool or lambs a couple of times a year. You need more sheep to equal the output of a cow, and yet the more sheep you have, the more land you need to keep and feed them.”

“So, if I were to offer two sheep for one cow, that’d be fair?” Perry asked. He had only brought a dozen ewes and two rams with him.

“Two if you can get it,” Ami agreed. “Three would be more likely though. I wouldn’t go any higher than four, and for that many I’d ask for a few hides to go along with it.”

“What about a bull?” Perry inquired next.

“A bull for a ram is the usual trade; they’re only good for the one thing,” Ami reasoned. “Though a ram too can be fleeced, which gives them more value. A bull and, say, maybe a hide or two. You’ll want at least two if not three cows and one bull to get started. You’ll have to trade the offspring each year, so as not to mix the bloodlines. It causes deformation and disease in the offspring if that happens. I saw fourteen sheep; how many rams did you bring?”


“Well there you go,” Ami said in triumph. “We’ve got you three cows, a bull and some hides, and you still have three ewes and a ram to go. Of course, it all depends who you’re bartering with. I suggest you watch how the others do business tomorrow. That way, you can determine who’s the most generous, and it’ll give you time to show off your own stock, thus improving your chances of success. I can’t imagine anyone being stingy once they see how well-behaved your sheep are. The biggest complaint among shepherds is how difficult it is to track down their flocks.

“I would suggest selling one or two for coin also. Ten to fifteen pennies would be a decent enough price for a ram; fifteen to twenty for an ewe, though you could certainly get more. You can take your pennies to the Town Treasury to have them broken down to smaller coins if need be; it’ll be heavier to carry but easier to spend. Coin, of course, can be used for anything.”

“We’ve not much use for coin where I come from,” Perry said, “not lest it’s big enough to plug a hole in a bucket.”

“You’ve no use for coin in Pincup?” Ami asked, flabbergasted by this statement. “A sell like that is enough to see you through to next spring.”

Perry didn’t respond, but looked down at his feet and finished his bread.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be rude,” she apologized.

“You weren’t rude,” he assured. “Do ‘ee come to the fair much then, Ami?”

“Not to this fair. We usually stay in Tookland. We only came this year because of the election,” she answered, a thought suddenly striking her. “Is that why you’re here then? For the election?”

It made sense, if Perry had never been to a fair before. He was a tad young to be a family head, but this winter had been kind to no one, and he had said he was alone. Could it be that he was the only fellow old enough in his family to bear the responsibility?

He shook his head though. “I just come for the sheep. I heard this was the largest fair, and what with the election and the leap day and all, ‘twas to be even larger than most years. Plus it’s free. Everyone thought I was foolish to come. I think now maybe ‘twasn’t so foolish though.”

“It wasn’t foolish at all,” she said. “You’ll be quite successful, I’m sure.”

“Well, I thank ‘ee, Ami, for yer kindness and yer help today. I’d still be standing lost on the grounds were it not for ‘ee.”

Ami’s eyes widened at this statement, and she jumped to her feet. “Oh no!” she exclaimed. “I’m still supposed to be helping! Esme’s going to be furious. I have to go, but um, well, you’ll be all right to find your way back?”

He nodded, startled by this sudden outburst, but too full on warm bread and sunshine to pay it much attention. “I’ll manage.”

“You’re certain?” she asked, reluctant to leave him alone despite his assurance.

“Aye, I’ll do fine, thanks.”

“Oh, all right. Well, it was lovely to meet you, and I hope to see you around,” Ami said, starting to go. “If you’re not doing anything else on Overlithe eve, we’re having my birthday party. You’re welcome to come. I’ll save you a dance if you do.” Then she turned and darted off before he could answer, lost to the crowd like the sun behind a cloud. 

Perry sat in his chair and watched the spot where she had disappeared, still waiting to wake up.

Rumbi finally found Paladin after luncheon, helping to set up the stage. A good number of Took lads were helping him, and Rumbi noticed Saradoc and Merimac Brandybuck in the bunch as well. They were hauling the long wooden planks for the stage floor from a wagon to where the stage’s frame already stood. Rumbi waited until they had handed over their load to the fellows who were laying the planks on the frame before heading over to confront his cousin.

“Pally, a word with you,” Rumbi said in a low, stern tone. He gripped Pally by the elbow and steered him away to some distance so they would not be overheard. “I would like to know how exactly Darling came to be talking to my mother this morning. Why didn’t you stop her?”

Pally pulled his elbow out of Rumbi’s grip. He had the good sense to look chagrined for breaking his word. “We had a fight the other day, then she kept pinching me this morning. It’s a poor excuse, but we aren’t exactly on speaking terms right now.”

“I don’t care what sort of terms you are on,” Rumbi said. “You gave me your word.”

“Was Lalia very harsh to her?” Pally asked, concerned.

“From the tension in the room when I left, she was,” Rumbi answered. “I didn’t wait to get the details. You disappoint me, Paladin. How could you let a personal squabble get in the way of fulfilling your duty, not just to me but to your sister? You left her to walk into the wolf’s den. How do you expect to lead your family one day, acting like that?”

Pally sighed and nodded. “You’re right. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again and I’ll apologize to Ami,” he said. 

“What were you fighting about that was so important?” Ferumbras asked.

“Nothing that should have prevented me from protecting her,” Pally answered. “Ironically, trying to protect her is what started the fight. She’s too friendly with the help.”

“She’s a kind heart,” Rumbi said. “No harm in that.”

“I suppose not,” Pally agreed reluctantly. “She should be around here somewhere. She was helping Esme direct traffic.”

They looked around the field together but saw no sign of Ami. They spotted Esme almost at once, her scarlet hair standing out from the crowd, but Ami’s fiery locks were not to spied anywhere. They spotted Rosamunda approaching and stopped her. 

“Rose, have you seen Darling?” Rumbi asked.

“I haven’t seen her, but I heard about her,” Rosamunda said in a disapproving tone. “She was seen leading about some ragamuffin across the grounds into town not too long ago.”

“Ragamuffin?” Pally asked, his pulse quickening with dread. So much for protecting his sister’s reputation. “What ragamuffin?”

“No one knows. No one’s ever seen the lad before. He’s a shepherd though; he has his livestock over there,” she answered, pointing to the corrals near the back edge of the field. “He created quite the sensation. Apparently, he holds some magic over the sheep, if you can believe that.” She apparently did not believe such a thing; she shook her head and chuckled as though the thought wasn’t even worth entertaining.

Pally and Rumbi smiled kindly at this but did not reply. Rosamunda went on her way, sauntering towards the crafts booths that were being erected in the center of the field, not far from the stage. 

“Well, I see Darling took my lecture to heart,” Pally said grimly. 

“I’m sure she has a perfectly good reason,” Rumbi defended. “Rose isn’t exactly the most reliable source for objective information.”

“Maybe,” Pally allowed. “Maybe I should talk to Da.”

“Let me handle it,” Rumbi said. He patted Pally’s shoulder and headed towards town. “You get back to your friends.”

Only Rumbi couldn’t find Ami in town. By the time he found someone who had seen her, ‘chattering with some queer grubber outside the bakery,’ she was already gone from her perch. So was the lad, as there was no one sitting there now that fit the description he had received from his informant: dark, dirty, bedraggled, and half-starved. 

Figuring he must have just missed her, he turned back towards the fairgrounds, where he soon enough found her being lectured by Esmeralda.

“You forgot!” Esme scolded. “Ami, you always forget! I’ve been here alone all morning. I didn’t even get a chance to eat.”

“Well I’m back now,” Ami said. “Go on and get some food. I can handle things.”

“Until you forget and take off again. What was so important?” Esme asked, hands on hips.

“There was this lad,” Ami started to explain but stopped, struggling with how to proceed. “He was… Well, he was lost and, well, I just… He’d never here before, he didn’t know his way around and I… just wanted to help.”

“Hm-mm,” Esme hummed derisively. “Who you should have been helping was me, instead of leading that lad all over the place by your arm. Don’t look so shocked; it’s all anyone is talking about. Did you really think folk wouldn’t notice?”

“All I did was show him where to keep his sheep,” Ami said.

“You’ve been gone a bit too long for just that,” Esme retorted pointedly.

“I bought him some bread. He was clearly hungry,” Ami replied. “Or is that not proper?”

Esme backed down at this, deflating in an instant. “No. I mean, yes, of course you should have helped him.”

“Good. I’m glad you approve. Honestly, you’re starting to sound like Paladin,” Ami said. It was at this point she noticed Rumbi standing there. Her face split into a grin and she jotted over to greet him with a hug and a peck on the cheek. “Rumbi! You’re a day early!”

“Darling-dear. Hallo Esme,” Rumbi greeted. 

“Planning to stay on for a while, Rumbi?” Esme asked and was grateful to see him nod. Comforted by the presence of an extra hand, Esme took her leave to find a belated luncheon, leaving Ami and Rumbi alone. 

Rumbi returned Ami’s embrace, then held her at arm’s length, searching her face.

She laughed. “What?”

“I heard you spoke with Mother this morning,” he answered. “What did she say?”

Ami shrugged and waved away any concern. “She was just upset. I’m sure she didn’t really mean it.”

“She promised me she would apologize to you for her behavior. You must tell me if she does not,” Ferumbras said.

“Really, Rumbi, it’s all right,” Ami said, putting on a brave face. She had actually been trying her best not to think about that confrontation. The last thing she wanted to do was face Lalia again, not right away anyway. 

“It is not all right. I won’t have anyone speaking to you in that manner, not even her,” Rumbi said, cupping her cheek. She smiled warmly at him and patted his hand. “Other than that, how have you been enjoying the Fair so far?” He dropped his hand and stepped away to a respectable distance, aware that they were attracting an audience. 

“Well, the Fair hasn’t started yet, which is probably a good thing,” Ami replied. 

“So, tell me about this lad you met,” Rumbi said casually.

Ami shrugged. “He’s nice. A bit odd. He says he’s from Pincup, but I don’t know. Maybe I’ll ask Sprig to befriend him.”

“Who’s Sprig?”

“He’s one of the coachhobbits who drove us here. He’s from Pincup too. He can help Perry feel more at ease,” Ami said, approving of this idea at once. 

Rumbi raised an eyebrow at this. He thought he understood now what Paladin meant about being too friendly with the help. Still, no harm ever came from befriending someone. “I’m sure this Perry lad will be thankful. It’s good of you to help him,” he said.

Ami rewarded him with one of her dazzling smiles that so often stole his breath away. “Thank you, Rumbi. I knew you’d understand.” She took one his hands and pressed it briefly, earning a smile in return.

From the edge of the field, Perry Nettleburr watched his rescuer and the burly chap with whom she was talking. He was finally awake.

To be continued…

GF 7/9/11

The carriage rumbled down the Stock Road, pulled by a pair of docile ponies trotting down the lane at an easy pace. Twitch watched the road closely from his high perch, looking for branches or holes that might jilt the carriage or harm the gentle beasts - no easy task in the pale morning light. The Thain was in haste, that much was obvious, but Twitch was reluctant to drive too swiftly. So far, the Thain hadn’t complained about their lack of speed.

Tuckborough was well behind them by the time they reached the forest’s edge. Once they were a fair distance inside the woods, Twitch heard a knock on the carriage roof behind his seat. He pulled the ponies to a stop, frowning in confusion. They were in the middle of the road, with naught but trees and filtered rays of pink sunlight surrounding them. Surely, the Thain did not wish to stop here, he thought, even as his stomach grumbled hopefully. They were in danger of missing first breakfast.

He opened the screen behind his seat to the carriage below. “Aye, Thain Ferumbras?” he asked. “Did you wish to stretch your legs some, sir?”

Ferumbras chuckled, knowing what was on the lad’s mind, or rather, his belly. “Aye, lad, it is time for a meal, don’t you think? There’s food aplenty for the both of us. Pull over at the first likely place and we shall eat.”

Twitch looked around the empty road. “Here’s as likely a place as we’re to find, sir.”

“Then let’s eat!” The Thain didn’t wait for him to jump down from his perch. He was out of the carriage and stretching his back and arms before Twitch could even stand. “Hand down the basket with the blue cloth. That’ll be our breakfast.”

“Aye, sir.” Twitch grabbed the mentioned picnic basket and hopped down. He left the ponies grazing in the grass and followed the Thain to a nearby tree, where they sat on the exposed roots. Twitch watched the Thain curiously, wondering even more where they were going and why, but he said nothing more than thank you for the food and tea that was provided for him. 

The Thain ate in silence, munching on the muffins and scones and drinking the cold tea in the water bottle, lost in thought. When they finished eating and were on their way back to the carriage, the Thain surprised him.

“I woke you untimely from your slumber, lad. How would you feel about a few winks before we continue on our way?”

“I’m fine, sir,” Twitch answered automatically, though honestly he wouldn’t mind another half-hour of sleep.

“Well I’m not, and I can’t sleep while the carriage is rumbling about. I’m just going to close my eyes for a bit. I’ll fetch you when it’s time to leave,” Ferumbras said, then surprised Twitch further by heading back to the soft grass and laying down. 

Twitch stood there, wondering if perhaps the Thain was ill or simply more adventurous than folk gave him credit for. In the end, his own tiredness won through. He picked a patch of grass not far from the Thain and was soon fast asleep.


Chapter 5: Tea and Conversation

Rumbi escorted Ami to Laburnum’s Teahouse next to the Falcon, where she was to have tea with Lalia. Lalia had sent the invitation after luncheon, and the messenger lad had found Ami while Rumbi was still helping her direct traffic. The wording of the invitation had been cordial enough, but Ami had been hesitant to arrive alone. Rumbi had offered to accompany her, though he warned that he could not stay indefinitely; the mayoral interviews ended at tea, but his father wanted him to return to the Town Hole so they could discuss the candidates together. 

They entered the teahouse and immediately spotted Lalia at a table near the center of the room. Gardenia and Dora were with her, flanking her on either side. Lalia sat between them, attempting to look sincere despite her pinched face. It was obvious to Ferumbras that Gardenia and Dora were as concerned for Ami as he was. That Lalia had allowed them to attend meant she was just as interested in seeing this situation resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, which relaxed Rumbi more than anything else. She was making the effort, if only for him.

Beside him, Ami relaxed considerably, even sighed under her breath. She would not be alone, and glancing over at the counter, she saw Esme there speaking with Alchemilla Took. Gardenia and Dora had brought reinforcements, should the need arise. Esme locked eyes with Ami and winked. Ami smiled back in response.

Rumbi saw Ami to her seat and patted her hand before pushing in her chair. He greeted Gardenia and Dora with a grateful kiss on the cheek, shot his mother a warning glance before kissing her cheek as well, then took his leave. He would thank Esme later; he felt it best not to call too much attention to the fact that Ami had so many supporters in the teahouse. Nonetheless, Esme caught his eyes as well and rolled her own, though she didn’t stop her animated conversation with Alchemilla. 

Rumbi could guess well enough what they were talking about. Alchemilla was to be married on Mid-year’s Day, postponed from Yule due to their uncle Isemond’s untimely departure. There had been very little cheer for many of the Tooks this past Yule, but summer was brining much needed warmth to the clan, thawing away the last of winter’s frigid grasp from their hearts. Alchemilla’s wedding and Ami’s birthday celebration will be the final strokes, he hoped, that would banish the ghosts of winter once and for all.

He was nearly at the door when he spotted Pally in the corner, also watching Ami. He had Saradoc and Merimac with him; the younger lads were not yet of age to drink ale, so they wouldn’t protest coming to the teahouse rather than the inn next door. Rumbi caught Pally’s gaze and gave him an appreciative smile, which was returned instantly. 

Rumbi caught a few snatches of their conversation as he passed them on the way to the door.

“You should come to the fair in Tuckborough next year,” Pally was saying. “It’ll be Darling’s coming of age. Mum’s already started planning it, and we haven’t even had her birthday for this year yet.”

“We’ll have to ask our parents,” Mac said.

“Then you can come to Buckland the year after that,” Sara said. “Aunt Primula makes the most amazing raspberry tarts you’ve ever tasted.”

Rumbi stepped outside in the mid-afternoon sun, the mild summer heat washing over his skin like a cloak, and headed for the Town Hole.

“Ami Darling,” Gardenia said after Rumbi left. “I trust you’ve had an enjoyable day. You’re practically glowing.”

“I have, thank you Aunt Gardenia,” Ami replied cordially, doing her best to ignore the unwavering regard of Lalia across from her. She was still rather shaken from their earlier encounter, but her day spent busily showing lost hobbits where to go had kept her from dwelling on it until now. “I trust your day was productive at the Town Hole.”

“Indeed it was,” Dora said. “We were quite impressed with the mayoral candidates. With Mayor Lightfoot retiring this year, there were more candidates than usual. The chap named Goodbeck from Nobottle shows the most promise, I think. I believe Bilbo agrees; we’ve yet to talk about it.”

“I rather prefer Mr. Diggle from Whitwell,” Lalia said. “He’s most impressive in his presentation and manner.”

“It is rather easy to imagine him conducting the wedding ceremonies on Mid-year,” Gardenia agreed. “Then again, it is another matter to imagine him running the Post Service or overseeing the Shirriffs and Bounders. He is not well-traveled.”

“No, but he does have all those shops in Whitwell and Whitfurrows that he manages,” Ami said, coming to Mr. Diggle’s defense as she stirred honey into her tea. “He’s not just a landlord, interested in nothing more than collecting his rents every quarter. He’s learned every aspect of the businesses run in those shops, and he never hesitates to step in and lend a hand for a day or two to give the proprietors a much-deserved holiday. I think he would make a fine Mayor.”

“Indeed,” Lalia said, her previous enthusiasm now somewhat lacking. She was of the opinion that the whole point of renting out property was so that one would not have to soil their hands with the lowly occupation of labor. 

“Well, then, I believe Mr. Diggle has my vote,” Gardenia said with a conspiratorial smile. “All fellows should be so willing to help those who provide them with their means of comfort.”

“Quite,” Dora agreed. “I may have to reexamine my own conclusions.”

“Mphh,” Lalia harrumphed but wisely said no more until, that is, Gardenia pointedly cleared her throat. They had more important things to discuss and it was time to get started. 

Lalia took a sip of her tea. “Amaryllis,” she said. It was not a promising beginning, which she quickly amended. “Darling, I fear I was most uncouth in my treatment of you this morning. It was not justified and I apologize. You’re a sweet and endearing lass, and a treasure to the Tooks beyond all worth. You did not deserve to bear the brunt of my overreaction. Can you forgive me?”

“Of course, I can, Cousin Lalia,” Ami said cordially, smiling sweetly, but Dora felt the slight jump of the lass’s hand under her own. “I should not have been so careless in my possession of your shawl. It will not happen again.”

Lalia rather had to agree with this, as she would never lend the lass so much as a handkerchief again. “You are most gracious to apologize when I was the one in error.”

Ami appeared placated at this. She relaxed visibly, settling back in her chair to enjoy the remaining conversation.

“So Darling,” Gardenia said, “did you enjoy your lessons while at the Smials this year? Bergenia was most impressed with your enthusiasm for carpentry.” Bergenia was Gardenia and Isengar’s second-born and the Smials’ resident carpenter. “She said you made that rocking chair that sits in the east parlor now. It’s a stunning piece of work and so comfortable! I fall asleep nearly every time I sit in it.”

Ami beamed at the praise, blushing prettily. “I don’t know how to explain it really. It’s as though the wood just speaks to me, tells me what it wants to be.”

“You have a gift, my dear,” Dora said. 

“I enjoy working with my hands,” Ami said. “There’s so little to do at the farm; the servants and farmhands take care of everything. It will give me something to occupy my time, and Bergenia was such a patient instructor. I made many mistakes making that chair.”

“She has nothing but praise for your efforts. You’re her best pupil. She’s told me many times,” Gardenia said. “We will be needing another instructor, once she retires. She’s rather keen on the idea of apprenticing another lass.”

“Is she?” Ami asked. “That is something I must consider then.”

“What else did you do this summer, Darling?” Dora asked, and they went on to talk of Ami’s many adventures whilst visiting her kin. 

“Clem?” Adalgrim stuck his head into their room at the Pheasant but could see no sign of his wife. He’d had a job of it getting away from the Town Hole without inviting anyone back to tea with him, but he had managed to slip away when Mayor Lightfoot stood up to dismiss everyone for the day.

Adalgrim washed quickly while he waited and was just bending down to brush the dirt out of his foot hair when the door opened again. He looked up and grinned. His wife too had managed to get away alone. She returned his smile and locked the door for good measure; they didn’t want to be interrupted.

“Where’s the tea?” Adalgrim asked accusatorially.

“Oh, is that what you were wanting?” Clematis asked, looking crestfallen and very kissable.

“I suppose we can get it later,” Adalgrim said and held out his hand. “Come here.”

She took his hand and stepped into his embrace for a lingering kiss. 

It was much later that they went into the common room to sit for their tea. They had changed their clothes and been obliged to wash again, which had delayed them even longer. They now sat in a booth, their stomachs grumbling. They gave their order to the barmaid when she breezed by, just tea and crumpets as dinner was not far off and they were expected to dine with the Tooks at their camp circle.

“I had an interesting conversation with Rumbi this morning,” Adalgrim said as they waited for their meal. “It seems he is planning to ask for Darling’s hand on Overlithe.”

Clematis pursed her lips, the only response she could think to make.

“Do you not approve of Rumbi?” Adalgrim asked at her silence.

“Rumbi’s a dear, and he would make any lass a fine husband. He does, however, have the misfortune of his parentage,” Clematis replied.

“We spoke of that also,” Adalgrim said. “Rumbi is willing to move out of the Smials and closer to home, until the time should come that he must take his position as Thain and Took. Ami will need some instruction, but he doesn’t see why she can’t learn her duties as Lady during visits.”

“That does ease my mind somewhat,” Clematis said. “However, Lalia won’t like it if Ami steals away her precious son.”

“Rumbi said she could learn to live with the disappointment,” Adalgrim said. “Still, she will want to dote upon any grandchildren Ami gives her. She may just become a regular visitor at Whitwell.”

“That is what I am worried about,” Clematis said. “It’s Ami’s decision of course. If she feels she can withstand Lalia as a mother-in-law, we can only support her in that decision and make the best of it that we can. She may well decide on someone else, of course.”

“Do you think so? She’s rather fond of Ferumbras,” Adalgrim said just as the barmaid returned with their order. He waited until she was gone before continuing. “He was somewhat nervous she might turn him away. Do you think it’s a possibility? I assured him it was unlikely.”

“Darling’s as flighty as a hummingbird. Fond of him she may be, but she’s so free with her affections,” Clematis said. “She certainly has no lack of potential suitors. She draws the eyes of nearly every lad everywhere we go. Still, so long as she doesn’t meet some dashing stranger to capture her attention between now and Overlithe, I think Rumbi can be fairly certain of her response. It will help matters if Lalia can behave herself as well. I only saw Ami briefly after Lalia’s little tirade, but I could tell she was upset. She isn’t accustomed to be treated in that manner, and it could sway her in her decision. She wouldn’t be the first lass to give Rumbi a wide berth because of his mother.”

“That isn’t very fair to Rumbi, though I can’t say I blame them,” Adalgrim said, spooning sugar into his tea. “If Ami does turn him down, I doubt he would have very many other prospects.”

“Which is something Lalia should keep in mind next time she decides to berate my daughter,” Clematis said. Her hand clenched her teacup involuntarily.

“Perhaps we should have tea with Lalia and Peanut, so we can discuss that with them,” Adalgrim said. “Oh, I thought also of inviting Delphi to tea at some point.”

“It’s going to have to be soon,” Clematis said. “I’ll make the arrangements. Now, tell me of the candidates. Wasn’t Mr. Diggle included among the hopefuls?”

“He was and I believe he impressed a good many of the Heads, though he has a lot of competition, most notably Master Goodbeck,” Adalgrim said and launched into a discussion of the many candidates and their prospects.

Arlo sneezed loudly but did not stop his pursuit of his older cousin, who was holding the ball he wanted to play with. “My ball!” he protested.

“No, it’s mine! It’s pink!” Nora Bolger argued. She squealed and ran away as he pounced towards her. “Mama!”

Prisca plucked the ball from her daughter’s hand. “If you can’t learn to share, neither of you will get to play with it,” she said sternly and waited for her daughter to nod obediently. She handed the ball back and watched to make sure the two were playing quietly together before turning back to Amber and Heather. “Be glad you only have one,” she said, then immediately cringed, realizing her crassness. “Oh, dearest, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean-”

“It’s all right, Prissy,” Amber said, watching her son with wistful fondness. “You’re right of course. Raising one is hard enough. I don’t know how you manage with three!”

Prisca looked over her shoulder and across the cooking circle to where her sons, Wilimar and Heribald, were wrestling with Hugo Bracegirdle and Ponto and Porto Baggins under the watchful eyes of Odovacar Bolger. “I don’t know how I do it either!” she said with a laugh. “Those lads near make me mad sometimes. They’re always competing, trying to outdo each other. They’re sweet as sugar with Nora though.”

“That’s good. They should protect their little sister,” Heather said. “Not, say, throw her out the room in nothing but her nightshirt with a crying faunt to contend with.”

“You wanted Pally out. I got him out,” Amber said tartly. 

“What is this?” Prisca asked, eager for what sounded like a most amusing story. She could always count on her friends for engaging tales of domestic squabbles, and they didn’t disappoint her now. She was laughing to the point of tears by the time Amber finished her account, with a full and detailed report of Paladin’s astonished face as she slammed the door on him.

“It was rather humorous,” Heather admitted, allowing herself to smile at the memory. Her frown returned though when Arlo sneezed again, rewarding his cousins with a spray of spit and snot that made them jump back and wipe their faces with the tails of their shirts. “You should have waited to dress Arlo properly though. Or at least thrown out some clothes for Pally to change him into.”

“It’s just a bit of summer fever,” Amber said, looking over her son with a motherly eye. Aside from the sneezing, Arlo looked healthy as ever. He had survived the winter with nothing more than a sore throat, despite everyone else around him running fevers and coughing up phlegm. His colds tended to come during the spring thaws and early warming of summer, so she was not concerned at the rare sneeze or two now.

“Still, maybe you should see a healer,” Heather said. 

“It’s just all the dust and pollen being blown about by the wind,” Amber said. “He’ll be fine once he adjusts. So, Prissy, how are things in Hobbiton?” 

“They’re doing well,” Prisca said. “We finally got that sewing room of Auntie Linda’s cleared out; you can actually fit the spinning wheel in there again. Odo and his family have moved into the hole to help Uncle Bodo. Young Olo is such a gift to him. Bodo has got his second wind, as they say. He’s determined to teach that lad to fish and hunt and how to properly cure and work the hides for good trading. Odo couldn’t be happier. It’s keeping Olo out of the usual tween silliness, and Olo just adores his grandpa. Now they’re settled, Will and I will be going back to Budgeford after the fair.

“Otho and Lobelia though, they’ve made a right nuisance of themselves as usual. As you may know, Lobelia’s expecting her first bairn in a month or so, and thankfully couldn’t make the journey to the fair, but she is persistent that everything be perfect for her darling-to-be. She’s been coming over to everyone’s homes and not even bothering to be discreet about the fact that she’s only there so as to discover what they can give her in the way of furniture, toys or clothes! Why, after she left Bodo’s, can you believe we found one of Nora’s dolls missing! Will had to march over the Bywater just to fetch it back, and she had the gall to act like she didn’t know how it came to be sitting on the hearth mantle in the room she set aside for the bairn!”

“I believe it,” Amber and Heather said in unison. It had always been Bilbo’s firm belief that Lobelia had stolen away a number of his good silver spoons, and Lobelia had always protested it too much for them to think her innocent of the crime.

They gossiped through the rest of tea, allowing the children to play as they wished so long as they didn’t bicker or fight. Heather kept one hear tuned to Arlo all the while, however, and she was pleased that Amber appeared to be right. While Arlo continued to sneeze occasionally, and would now and then wipe a dirt-covered hand across a watery eye, he was otherwise his normal self, cheerful and with boundless energy, more than capable of keeping up with his older cousins.

“Will you be coming to dinner at the Took camp?” Amber asked after tea, as they were preparing to leave.

“No, we’ll be meeting the Will’s family at the teahouse,” Prisca said. 

Odovacar, pricked his ears at this statement and abandoned his game of pennies with Vigo Boffin. “Mother said I could go,” he announced. “Will Paladin be there?”

“I would imagine so,” Amber replied. “So will Rosamunda.”

Odovacar pinked at this statement but answered in the most flippant tone he could manage, “Oh, that’s nice.” He went back to his game, to discover that Vigo had won five of his pennies while he was distracted. “That is not nice.”

“You snooze,” Vigo said and flipped another penny from his growing hoard. 

“Smials!” Odovacar exclaimed, triumphant, and picked up the penny. “My turn.”

Amber and Heather took their leave, Arlo coming with much reluctance. “But I want to play!” he whined, dragging his feet through the dirt and pouting for all he was worth.

“You can play with your other cousins tonight at dinner,” Amber said, unmoved by this display. “For now, you are coming with us back to the inn so we can change and wash.”

“But I want to plaaaaaay!” Arlo cried, working up a few tears for good measure.

Amber lifted her eyebrows at this act. “Then you better behave yourself. Keep up like this, you won’t get to play with any of your cousins and you won’t get dessert either.”

Arlo narrowed his eyes at his mother, trying to figure out how serious she was with her threat. Amber crossed her arms. Arlo crossed his. “Dad would let me play.”

The tent grew still at this declaration and for several moments Amber did not even appear to breathe. Then she swallowed audibly, reached down and pulled Arlo into her arms. “That is not how you behave yourself.” She kissed Prisca on the cheek. “Good night, love. See you in the morrow?”

Prisca nodded and cleared her throat. “I’ll come looking for you,” she said, somewhat hoarsely. “Good night, dears.”

Amber and Heather left quickly. They were halfway across the emptying fairground when Amber suddenly stopped, shoulders slouched, and put Arlo on the ground. She lifted his head until their eyes met and squeezed firmly on his jaw.

“Don’t you ever embarrass me like that again,” she hissed. “Don’t you ever insult your father like that again. Do you understand?”

Arlo nodded, genuine tears forming. “I’m sorry, Mama.”

“Too late,” Amber said, releasing him as abruptly as she had seized him. She turned away and took several deep breaths in an effort to calm herself. When that failed, she turned her head halfway. “Heather?”

“I’ll take him,” Heather said, placing a comforting hand to her sister’s shoulder. “Go calm yourself.”

Amber stalked off, head raised, towards the far end of the fairgrounds. There the open fields stretched westward, and the gathering dusk blazed golden beyond the distant downs. Heather took Arlo’s hand and led him to the inn. He came quietly, glancing over his shoulders in the direction his mother had gone. 

“Is she coming back?” he asked.

“She’ll be back,” Heather soothed. “And when she comes back, you are going to be a clean and respectable young lad again. You misbehaved horribly though, so no playing with your cousins after dinner and no dessert.”

“Yes, Auntie Heather,” Arlo agreed, quelled for now, and followed his aunt into the inn.

Rumbi had managed to get away from the tea crowd early. He strolled casually about the fairgrounds, saying hello and good day to whomever he passed but not stopping for fear of being drawn into a prolonged conversation. In this manner, he eventually came to the rear of the grounds where the livestock were penned. He walked with as carefree an air as he could manage, reminding himself that he was not the only one taking an early account of the livestock on offer. He stopped here and there to chinwag with the shepherds and farmers in charge, just a few quick questions which was the norm for such inspections. Finally, he came to the pen that held the docile black-faced sheep that had made such a spectacle that morning. 

He paused outside the pen, pretending to evaluate the sheep while taking quick, furtive glances at the shepherd who was clearly their master. The sheep paid Rumbi no mind, their eyes following their master’s movements around the pen as he scattered fresh cut grass and clover and filled the water-troughs. The lad was young, no more than thirty-five, and he carried out his chores with the practiced ease that came from years of repetition. Now and then, he cooed to the sheep, imitating their language with such startling accuracy that it took Rumbi a few minutes to realize that it was the lad, not the sheep, making the bleating noises. 

“You’re quite competent with them,” Rumbi said at last, making his presence known.

He had expected the lad to spring to his feet and twirl around in surprise. Instead, the lad stayed in his squatting position and nodded. “We talk to each other. Keeps them happy,” he said. He scratched an ewe under her ear, patted another on her head, then stood and came to the low fence. He stuck out a dirt-covered hand. “Perry Nettleburr at your service.”

Rumbi shook his hand firmly. “Ferumbras Took at yours and your family’s,” he introduced himself, taking in the lad’s thin frame and bedraggled appearance with one quick glance. No wonder Ami had wanted to see the lad fed.

“Took?” Perry said, letting the hand go and stepping back as though to get a better look at him also. He squinted in the setting sun, and Rumbi realized then why the lad had not been surprised when he spoke. Their shadows stretched across the ground most deceivingly. Perry nodded at something. “‘Ye must be kin to Ami then. Ye’ve the same eyes.”

Rumbi paused, taken aback to hear Ami’s name used so casually by one so clearly destitute. Had the lad never learned his Rules, or did he believe himself above them somehow? “Miss Amaryllis is my second cousin,” he replied, cordially but firmly, with emphasis on ‘Miss’. He smiled kindly and pointed to the slumbering sheep. “She told me of your sheep, and I was curious to get a look at them. You don’t see many of this kind in the Shire. So far as I know, the only other farmer to have such sheep lives in Willowbottom. Did you acquire them from him?”

“No,” Perry answered, purposefully uninformative. 

“From where then?” Rumbi pressed, curiosity growing.

“Their grandsires came to us,” Perry said with a shrug. “They decided to stay on for a bit, and no one came to claim ‘em.”

A ram came up to the gate and rested his head on the rail. He bleated inquisitively. Rumbi reached down to pet it and in doing so managed a closer look at the ear, hoping for a telltale brand mark. There was none.

“You don’t brand your sheep?” he asked next.

“No need to. They ain’t common as ye say,” the lad said. “‘Sides, no point branding something you ain’t figuring on keeping.”

“How much are you selling them for?” Rumbi asked, thinking he would mention the lad to his father if the price was reasonable enough.

“Not selling. Trading,” Perry answered. “Two or three ewes for a cow, a ram for a bull.”

“I can’t imagine anyone turning that down,” Rumbi said, which seemed to relax the lad a great deal. So, he hadn’t been sure if such a trade would be viable or not. Interesting. “I’ll see if I can send some business your way, though many of my relations remained behind in Tookland. If you still have an ewe or two after the fair, I could carry word home with me and send whoever is interested out to see you. Where do you live?”

“No point making such plans as yet,” the lad answered, tension returned. “I don’t reckon on having any left after, see?”

“Yes, of course not,” Rumbi said. He patted the ram’s head again and shoved off the fence. “Well, nice to meet you, Perry.”

“Nice to meet you also, Ferumbras,” Perry replied, casual as sunshine.

Rumbi paused but decided to let the slight go without comment. He didn’t plan on seeing the lad again anyway.

He returned down the rows of pens to the path that led back to the fairgrounds. As he reached the end of the row, he noticed a hobbitess walking stiffly off the grounds to the fields beyond. He squinted into the sun, following her with his eyes. He was almost certain the hobbitess was Amber Lightfoot. 

He followed her around the nearest hill, where there was thankfully some shade beneath an oak for him to see her clearly. It was Amber, and she appeared to be crying. Hard. Rumbi debated leaving or staying, but he couldn’t turn away when she so clearly needed consoling. He looked about the ground and found a sturdy branch that could double as a walking stick. He picked it up and approached Amber.

“Amber?” he said, when he was close enough.

Immediately, Amber straightened, her hands batting away her tears in vain. “Rumbi,” she greeted, her voice strained. “What are you doing here?”

“Taking a walk,” Rumbi answered and brandished his walking stick as proof. It was close enough to the truth to not be a complete lie. “Is something the matter?”

“No, of course not,” Amber replied, sniffling loudly.

“Quite,” Ferumbras replied. 

Amber let out a deep breath and sniffed again. She looked away from him, and he wondered if he should just leave. His feet refused to comply with this impulse though, and he continued to stand there. All was quiet for several minutes, during which time Amber seemed to finally calm into a sort of numb stupor. Rumbi was beginning to think she meant to ignore him entirely until she finally spoke.

“I shouldn’t still be missing them,” she whispered so that he barely heard her. “It’s been four months, but I still wake expecting him to be there. This morning, waking up so crowded in that bed… Most of the time, I’m perfectly fine, but then I smell something or hear someone laugh, or someone just mentions him and I… It’s like it just happened, all over again. And the bairn, I never even knew her. She was a lass, you know? My arms ache to hold her. Does that sound silly to you?”

“Of course not,” Rumbi said. He dared to approach closer and put a hand on her shoulder. She didn’t inch away from the touch, so he sat next to her on the boulder. “Sometimes, I still think I can smell Grandda smoking his pipe in the parlor. I know he’s not there, but I can smell it. Sometimes I’ll be walking over the hills and see a patch of flowers like he used to pick for Grandmum, and I’ll choke up all of a sudden from missing him. But it’s only sometimes. It will get easier, Amber.”

“When? Everyone’s been saying that for months, and I’m still waiting for it to happen,” Amber said, looking at him at last. She wasn’t crying anymore, but her eyes were bloodshot and her cheeks blotched from the tear tracks. “I keep expecting it to happen, but it doesn’t, and I just…”

“Just what?”

“Want to scream and cry and laugh all at the same time. Am I going mad?” Amber asked. 

“You’re grieving,” Rumbi said. “No room for sense in that.”

“I suppose not,” Amber said. She folded her arms about herself and looked off into the distant sky. They were silent for a long time, Amber’s thoughts wandering as far away as the horizon. Ferumbras sat next to her, waiting patiently as he ran through his list of things that needed doing tomorrow. Finally, Amber sighed and shook her head. “I suppose there’s no sense in asking why either. Why Mallard or Chaco? Why any of them? I can’t help but wonder sometimes why some folk get better and others don’t. Not that I want anyone else to get sick, of course, or feel envy for those who did recover from the ague, but why didn’t he? Why did I, just to lose her?”

“Because he didn’t and you did,” Rumbi said. “I wish I could give you a better answer than that, but that’s how it is. You couldn’t have done anything to change it. You need to find a way to let this go, lass. You said you wanted to scream. Maybe you should.”

Amber sniffed and pulled out her handkerchief to discreetly wipe her nose. “That’s not dignified.”

“No room for that in grief either,” Rumbi said. “There’s no one around to hear, and I promise I won’t tell. Or would you rather I leave?”

Amber laughed, a small huff of amusement. “I’m not going to scream, Rumbi, but thank you for offering to stay. I just need some time alone. Go on to dinner, tell them I’ll be along shortly.”

“Are you sure?” he asked.

She nodded, a smile gracing her lips. “I’m sure. I just need to be alone for a while, and I need to wash. There’s a streamlet nearby.”

“Don’t keep us waiting too long,” he said. He kissed her brow and stood up. “Take care then, lass.” He placed the walking stick next to her and left.

Amber waited until he was gone before returning her gaze to the horizon. The sun was beginning to set, blazing in her eyes. She closed her eyes and felt the warm breeze of the mid-summer evening upon her flushed skin. “Oh, Mallard,” she whispered wistfully. “I do love you, for all you broke my heart. Take care of her for me.” She lay down in the grass and let night fall around her.

To be continued…

GF 7/13/11

A/N: Back in olden times, “to make love” simply meant to kiss someone on the mouth. ;)

The next time Twitch woke, it was to the Thain shaking his shoulder. “It’s time we’re off, lad,” he said, sounding more cheerful. 

Twitch sat up and yawned, blinking at the woods around him. The sun was now over the horizon and the dark night sky had given way at last to bright blue. Twitch stood and helped the Thain to his feet. They brushed themselves off and returned to the carriage without another word. Twitch opened the carriage door, stifling another yawn.

The Thain paused before getting into the carriage. “Your questions shall be answered, lad, once we’re a little farther from the Tooklands. Old habits die hard, you know,” he said and permitted Twitch to help him into the carriage again.

Twitch met the Thain’s eyes before closing the carriage door, stumped by such a cryptic announcement. Just what was going on here, and why, of all the more experienced and qualified drivers, had the Thain asked for him, Twitch son of Sprig, specifically? 


Chapter 6 – Admonitions 

Amber returned to the Took camp in time for the second serving. While still puffy-eyed, she looked refreshed and at ease, smiling freely. Heather made her a plate as she checked on Arlo, who was sitting obediently between his aunt and grandmother. 

Amber scooped her son into her lap, and Arlo leaned against her chest. 

“Are you still angry with me, Mummy?” he asked.

“No, lamb, I’m not angry anymore,” she said, sneaking a wink at Ferumbras, who sat nearby. They shared a secret smile, and Amber kissed the top of Arlo’s head. “I must apologize also. I overreacted earlier, so I’ll tell you what. You can play with your friends, but no dessert.”

“But Auntie Alaura made bread pudding,” Arlo protested. 

“All right, but if you have dessert, you can’t play with your cousins. It’s one or the other. You choose,” Amber said. She placed him back in his seat and took the plate that Heather handed her. 

Arlo remained beside his mother, leaning against her side as she ate, until the other children finished their meal and began playing. He sat, torn between his two choices. On the one hand, he wanted desperately to play. On the other, Alaura didn’t make her bread pudding every day. 

He might have sat there all night, except that the brothers Berengar and Hagar, grandsons of Isengar, ran past at one point, giggling infectiously. Hagar caught Arlo’s eye, reached out a hand and pulled Arlo off his perch, never once breaking stride as they ran away from the pursuit of their cousin Verbana. They had stolen the last of her mince pie as she was looking over designs for Alchemilla’s wedding gown, and she was most upset with them.

“You’re looking well,” Clematis said to her daughter.

“I’m feeling well, thanks to Rumbi,” Amber said.

“Why? What did Rumbi do?” Ami asked.

“He listened,” Amber said and commenced with her meal. 

Two hours later, they all returned to the inn. Pally, not eager to repeat the morning’s misadventure, had arranged to camp with Saradoc and Merimac for the remainder of the fair. Ami and Esme would be bunking with Alchemilla and her sister Dicentra tonight, and Heather would be staying with her good cousins Bergenia and Chrysanthemum, daughters of Isengar and spinsters both. Amber, too worn with spent emotions, couldn’t fathom sleeping on hard ground tonight. She would instead be keeping Dora company at The Soaring Falcon. Arlo had remained at the camp with his friends Berengar and Hagar. He would be sleeping over with them, borrowing a nightgown from Hagar, who was only two years his senior and small for his age. 

Pally and Adalgrim took seats at the bar to throw back a pint or two while the lasses retired to the room to wash and change. Ami and Esme changed into their nightgowns, pulling on cloaks that would cover them decently for their return trip over the fairgrounds. Their dresses for the morning they would carry folded over their arms. Heather opted to changed into the gown she would wear the following day, tucking her nightgown over her arm. Heather also took a change of clothes for Arlo in the morning. Hugging their mother and Amber good-night, the lasses returned to the common room.

“You can go in now,” Heather said sweetly to Pally. “Good night, Da.”

The lasses stepped outside, but Ami stopped at the stables. “You two go on ahead. I need to ask Sprig for a favor,” she said.

Heather and Esme both raised an eyebrow, their expressions identical. “Don’t be too long,” Heather said, and she and Esme continued over the grounds in silence.

Ami knocked on the main door. She didn’t want to just poke her head inside, lest the lads also be preparing for the night. A minute passed before someone answered: a lad just into his tweens, with a pock-face and springy black hair. His jaw dropped at the sight of her.

“Hallo!” Ami greeted cheerfully. “I’m looking for Sprig. Can you tell him Ami Took is here to see him?”

The lad continued to ogle at Ami until another lad came up behind him and kicked him in the shins. The lad’s jaw clamped shut. “We’ll fetch ‘im out for ‘ee,” the other lad promised, pulling the first lad away from the door in an almost brutal fashion.

Sprig came out a minute later. He smiled when he saw her. “Evening to you, Miss Darling.”

“Good evening, Sprig. How was your day?” Ami asked.

“Well enough, thanks,” Sprig answered. “I trust your own day went fine.”

Ami’s features darkened slightly but the moment passed quickly. She smiled, eyes sparkling in the lamplight from the covered sconces over the doorway. “It did. Actually, that’s why I’m here. I met this lad today by the name of Perry Nettleburr. He’s from out of Pincup and this is his first year being at the Fair. He was rather overwhelmed, and he’s here all by himself. I was wondering, if you wouldn’t mind too terribly, if you could search him out tomorrow? You could explore the fair together and I’m sure he’d be eager for the ear of a fellow townshobbit.”

“Oh, aye,” Sprig said, in a non-committal tone. The name Perry Nettleburr did not sound familiar in the least. He knew of no family by that name either. While he hadn’t lived in Pincup for some years now, he knew all the families who lived there, and this Nettleburr chap must be older than himself to be at the fair alone. Perhaps the family had moved there after Sprig had begun his apprenticeship at the Great Smials, though it seemed unlikely that his mother would never mention it. 

“So, will you do it?” Ami asked, looking as hopeful as she could manage.

“Where in Pincup his folk come from exactly?” Sprig asked.

“He said he’s from outside of Pincup, a ranch called Nohill. He has sheep,” Ami said.

“Sheep?” A few farmers kept some sheep about their farms, for the wool and mutton, but there were certainly no sheep ranches. Outside of Pincup… His eyes widened as a sudden thought struck him. But surely, she couldn’t mean… “Black-faced sheep?” he asked.

Ami nodded eagerly. She put a hand on his arm out of impulse. “Oh, they are the most adorable sheep, and so well-behaved! It’s a wonder, indeed. You know of his family, then?”

“Aye,” Sprig said and quickly made up his mind. He wanted to talk with this Nettleburr chap and find out what exactly he was up to. “Aye, I ken somewhat about them. I’ll be glad to call on him in the morrow. He’ll be with the livestock then?”

“He will. Oh, thank you, Sprig!” Amy hugged him and kissed his cheek, making him blush furiously. The whoops and hollers from the hayloft behind him didn’t help. He inched over, blocking their view of Ami as much as he could. “I do appreciate this. He needs a friend, poor lad. Oh, and another thing. You and Nab are invited to my birthday party. You will come, won’t you? There’s going to be truffles.”

Sprig did like truffles. “I’ll ask the master ostler if we’re able,” he promised.

“Wonderful!” Ami said, clapping her hands. “I’ll see you later, then. Good night, Sprig, and do say good-night to Nab for me.”

“I will, Miss Darling,” Sprig said. He bowed, face blazing, and closed the door with much relief. He turned to find the other stable hands all grinning at him from the hayloft. Nab looked both amused and befuddled at the same time.

“Why, Sprig, if you aren’t the Darling of the Tooklands now,” one lad teased, to the approval of his mates.

“That I’m not,” Sprig said. “Miss Amaryllis is a fine and proper lass, and I won’t be having you make such suggestions of her.”

“‘Tis but a joke, lad,” Nab said. “‘Cept why’d you have to tell her as we’d be going to her party? If it were to help serve and take coats, that’d be one thing, but sounds to me as she’s expecting us to come as guests.”

“I didn’t say we’d go. I said I’d ask,” Sprig said. 

“Aye, and who’ll deny us the lass’s wishes, huh?” Nab asked. “She’s knows it, what’s more, and she’ll be expecting us now.”

“We’d’ve been invited had we been at Great Smials,” Sprig said, not understanding. “There’ll be other servants there.”

“True enough, and they’ll be serving,” Nab said.

“Then we’ll serve her too,” Sprig said, to renewed laughter. His face reddened again, this time with indignation. “I didn’t mean it like that!”

“Come now. Your Darling seems to have a thing for rusty lads,” said one ostler, thinking of the shepherd lad. “I’m sure she’d mind none if you offered to serve her.”

“And I’m sure I said as no one aught speak ill of Miss Amaryllis,” Sprig said, his tone dangerous.

“Hush Nort,” the lad’s friend said. “You oughtn’t speak of your betters so.”

The discussion ended there and Sprig went to his sleeping roll. He lay down and closed his eyes, but he was far from tired. He would speak with Nort privately as soon as he may, and he would speak with Nettleburr and discover his ploy. His hands closed into fists beneath the cover of his blanket. He would gladly pummel anyone who posed a threat to his Darling’s good name.

Wait. His Darling?

Sprig groaned inwardly and wondered what the others would think if he were to turn those fists on himself. Drat that Nab for always being right, but he did love Miss Ami so, for all that it could never be.

Ami turned from the door and found Pally standing on the walk path, watching her with a scowl on his lean face. She lifted her chin and marched up to him, crossing her arms as she stopped before him.

“What?” she asked.

“What?” Pally repeated. “What?! What do you think?”

“I think many things, Pally. Right now I’m thinking you’re a spy,” Ami retorted.

“And a good thing for you that I am,” Pally said. He took her arm and marched her off towards the fairgrounds. “I don’t believe you, acting in such a fashion!”

“What did I do now?” Ami asked, panting slightly as she trotted to keep up with her brother’s longer stride. He might be two years her junior, but he already towered over her by nearly half a foot.

“As if you don’t know,” Pally said. “Did you already forget our talk yesterday?”

“Of course I haven’t. That’s why I asked Sprig if he would check on Perry tomorrow,” Ami said.

Pally snorted. “Is that so? That’s why you went out to the stables in the dead of night in naught but your shift and a thin coat, and then proceeded to make love to him in front of all the stable lads?”

Ami stopped short at this and yanked her arm from her brother’s hand. She whirled around on her heel and glared at him. “How dare you!”

“How dare you!” Pally shouted back, glad there was no one near enough to hear them. “What do you think it looks like, Ami? A lass of your standing, going to visit an ostler at this hour? Hugging him and kissing him in full view of everyone in the common room?”

“I asked him to do a favor!” Ami said. “Because of you! Because you said I shouldn’t be seen talking to working lads. So I waited until no one would be around to see, and I asked him to befriend Perry, since I’m sure I’m not allowed to talk to him either, but the poor lad has no one here to help him, and I am not going to just let him go floundering about.”

“Perry? Would this be the shepherd lad everyone saw you flirting with up and down the fairgrounds this morning, and pawing all over outside the bakery? Honestly, Ami. If you’re not going to listen to me, I thought you would at least listen to Rumbi.”

Ami gaped at her brother. Her disbelief was insurmountable, not only at her brother’s words regarding her own behavior, but at his indication that anyone paid such notice to it. Not to mention that Rumbi now was supposed to be in league with her brother. First Lalia and now this! If she was glad for anything, it was that the day at last was coming to an end.

Seeing his sister so flabbergasted, Pally made an effort to calm himself. He took a long deep breath, held it for a count of ten, then let it out slowly. He took Ami’s arms in his hands, squeezing gently. “You’re not a child anymore, Darling. You’re a young lass of courting age, about to come of age in another year. You must take more care for your reputation. I don’t want the things I’ve heard about you today to be repeated ever again.”

“What things?” Ami whispered. If she attempted to speak any louder, she would cry. Or shout. Or possibly do both.

“They’re not worth repeating,” Pally said. He pulled her closer and kissed her brow. “Don’t make me fret over you so, hm?”

“I guess I just didn’t think,” Ami said, shrugging as best she could with her brother holding onto her arms. “I didn’t realize that… anyone would say…”

“I know. You’re too accustomed to everyone giving you sunshine and roses,” Pally said. “But you are a grown lass, now. They won’t be so forgiving or blind-sighted to your actions anymore. What’s more, we’re not in Tookland. Other folk have a different way of seeing you than we do. So please, refrain from flashing your dimples at every lad who crosses your path? You don’t want the reputation of being a coquette, much less a seductress of the lower classes.” 

“No, of course not,” Ami agreed, still whispering. An icy cold prickle ran over her skin, centering at the back of her neck and head, as she at last understood the precarious position into which she had unthinkingly put herself. “Thank you, Pally, for looking after me.”

“That’s what I’m here for,” Pally said. He took her arm again and proceeded to lead her towards the camping circles. “I do agree though, that it isn’t fair, about us lads getting to flirt with the serving lasses at the inns, while you lasses can’t flirt with the working lads.” He shrugged himself. “But that’s just the way of things, and far be it for me to try to make sense of it.”

“You could stop flirting with the serving lasses,” Ami said, smirking. He answered this with a wordless grunt; he might agree with her, but that didn’t mean he was going to change his behavior. “So what should I have done instead? Let that poor lad starve?”

“Of course not. If he’s too proud to take your coin, then I’m sure Da would have gladly sent him a basket as a welcome gift,” Pally said. “I suppose I have some guilt to share in this though. If you have a request to make of Sprig or Nab, then by all means ask it of them, just not in your shift, all right? And make sure you have an escort next time, even if it’s only Esme.”

“All right,” Ami agreed, even as she quailed against the restraints being lowered around her. 

She had been of courting age for four years, and she had courted plenty of lads in that time, leaving behind a trail of broken hearts if one listened to Dicentra and Rosamunda. It was nonsense, of course, for the lads never took more than a week to find another lass on whom to spend their affections. Was it only because she was getting so close to her coming of age that folk suddenly decided to make issue of her actions, or was it as Pally said, that they were no longer in Tookland? Did the transition from twenty-seven to twenty-eight really make that much of a difference for lasses in the rest of the Shire?

She suddenly wished the fair was over and she and her family on their way back to Whitwell. She wasn’t sure if she could restrain herself for four days, nor play the role of the haughty gentle-lass towards her friends without feeling horrid. And they were her friends, whether Pally or anyone else liked it or not.

They reached the camping circles in silence. Pally found Sara and Mac quickly enough, as they were still sitting by the fire pit, tucking in the corners with a third helping of Alaura’s bread pudding. Ami wished the lads good night and wound her way around the circle until she found Sigibert’s tent.

Esmeralda was already there, tucked in between Dicenta and Alchemilla. They were talking in whispers, so their voices were heard only as murmurs, but Ami guessed they were discussing the wedding yet again. Ami hoped that such fuss wasn’t made over her nuptials, whenever she decided to marry, but she knew the likeliness of that was slim to nil. The Tooks didn’t understand the concept of a simple wedding, much less a small one.

Her sister and cousins scooted over to make room for her. She shed her coat, adding it to the lump of clothes on the floor, but she stored her dress for the morning on a small bench next to Esme’s dress. She scooted under the blankets and pillowed her head on her upraised arms. 

“Do you think I’m a seductress of the lower classes?” she asked abruptly, ignoring their greetings.

A moment of stunned silence was quickly filled with eager reassurances.

“Of course not!” Dicentra said, sounding scandalized at the mere thought.

“Who would dare say such a thing of you?” Alchemilla demanded, offended on her friend’s behalf.

“It’s utter nonsense. Who would dream up such foolery?” Esme asked.

“Pally said that folk are saying that about me, because I took that lad to get some bread,” Ami said. “He said I should have brought my concerns to Da, so he could send Perry a food basket as a welcome gift instead.”

Her friends shared a glance over her head, the silence this time only confirming her brother’s statement, despite their quickly continued reassurances.

“Pally’s just upset because Delana Hornblower refused his advances,” Esme said. “Don’t pay him any mind.”

“Who’s to say how long it might have taken Uncle Algie to send that poor lad a food basket? He could have passed out from hunger before then!” Dicentra exclaimed.

“You must act as you feel appropriate for the moment. You needn’t explain yourself to anyone,” Alchemilla said.

“But you heard folk say those things about me too?” Ami asked.

“Sweetie, people can be fools,” Alchemilla said. “Let them say what they will. They’ll see you are nothing of the sort and they’ll move on to something else. Such is the way of things. Why, just last year, folk were saying that I was doomed to end up an old maid.”

“You were only 35!” Esme said.

“With no suitors though,” Alchemilla said. “It didn’t matter how much I said that I wouldn’t just court any lad to make them happy. They made up their own minds and went about blathering their conclusions to anyone who would listen. And now here am I, about to be married.”

“Just be a duck,” Dicentra said.

“A duck?” the others asked.

Dicentra nodded. “Ducks don’t let water bother them,” she explained, shuddering at the thought of water. “They just let it roll off their backs, or so they say.”

“Be a duck,” Ami said. “I’m Ami the Duck.”

“Darling the Duck,” Alchemilla corrected, and the lasses laughed. Alchemilla sat up and put her hand to her chest, in perfect imitation of Lalia putting on airs. “Ducky-Darling! Why, your feathers are just glistening. What worms and muck are you eating? I must know!”

The lasses chortled aloud at this, causing those who had not yet drifted off to sleep to rebuke them with shushing noises. They quickly stifled their laughter but continued to snigger to the point of tears for many minutes. 

“Oh, Millie,” Ami said at last, still chuckling, “I needed that.”

“Don’t trouble yourself over fools, dearest. You’ll only end looking the fool for it,” Alchemilla advised. 

“I won’t,” Ami said and settled in for a long discussion of wedding dresses and the virtue of wearing veils instead of wreaths. 

Perry stretched against the night-cooled grass, the smell of wildflowers, hay, sheep, ponies and cows surrounding him on all sides. His herd clustered around him in slumbering groups of woolly contentment. One ewe even offered herself as a pillow for him, so long as he didn’t move too much. He lay still, looking up at the stars and going over the events of the day.

He was still nervous about what the next four days might bring, but he was feeling more confident in his plan now that he was here. Sitting around the cooking pits at home, it had been easy to listen to his grandmother’s warnings and the nay-saying of his neighbors and sisters. His brother alone had supported his idea of seeking trade, but he had understandably chosen to remain at home. There had been any number of times that Perry nearly turned around himself; it was pride more than anything else that kept him moving forward. He would not return home in disgrace when he had promised so much.

It had been on a night such as this that he had first learned of the fairs. He and his family had been sleeping under the stars as their hole had once again been flooded by the midsummer rains. His father had still been with them, and when they had complained about sleeping in the open, the old hobbit had just laughed.

“Ye’d be sleeping just the same at the Free Fair, or so I’m told,” Old Hobby had said. “I’ve never been meself, but your Papa can tell ‘ee a bit about ‘em. He’d gone a few times in his youth, and they sleep just like this. He’s told me so many times, he has.”

“What’s a Free Fair?” Perry had asked.

“It’s a grand thing, it is,” Hobby had answered. “Folk come from all over the Shire for the trade and contests and whatnot.”

“How come we don’t go?” Merlin, Perry’s brother, had asked.

“No place for the likes of us,” Hobby had answered. “We couldn’t do more’n stare and get in the way, and they’ll no thank us for it.”

Perry sighed and wished his parents could be here to see him now, among the general population of the Shire. If not quite fitting in, he was hardly getting in the way, and he would, with luck and a great job of pretending competence, be returning home with the very beasts that would guarantee his people a more prosperous future. 

He had wanted to come for years, but had been waylaid by his grandfather. As head of the family, as well as the leader of their little settlement, his word was law. Or had been. His grandfather had passed the previous year, shortly after midsummer, and Perry had taken it as a sign that he was meant to come to the fair this year. Problem was, none of them knew where the fair was held.

Their grandmother was against going outside to find help, but Perry, now the head of the family, overruled her, as much as it hurt him to do so. He knew, beyond doubt, that this was a necessary first step if they were ever to improve their lots in life. He had forged ahead with his plans, despite the protests of everyone else. Merlin had agreed to set out for the nearest farms and ask whatever workers he might come across for information. It had taken them well into winter before they had as much information as Perry thought themselves likely to get, and he had spent the cold, wet months making his plans. 

Now he was here. He still could not quite believe it. For starters, the Shire was much larger than he had thought it was, and the folk much kinder. He thought again of his lovely benefactor from that morning. Ami, his sun-star. The burly lad he had seen her talking with was her cousin, though this didn’t dismiss the possibility of romantic interest between them. He couldn’t be sure that Ferumbras had been offering friendly assistance or merely pretending to do so in order to discover more about his origins. Had Ami sent him? Clearly, she had told her cousin something.

Perry sighed and shoved her from his thoughts. He had not come to bring back a wife, after all, and while he would hope to chance upon her again, he wouldn’t hold his breath for it. 

He had met many of his neighboring fairgoers in the afternoon. When he returned from his meal of bread and tea, there had been a group of admirers outside his pen, feeding his sheep and cooing over them. He returned their interest by going to their pens to view their beasts. In chatting with his neighbors, he managed to find out quite a lot about the fair, those who attended them and what was expected. If his new acquaintances noticed that he gave away nothing of himself, they didn’t say anything about it.

He had been invited to dinner with a pony-breeder and his family, but he had been forced to decline as he would not be able to reciprocate the favor. He might not know much about the way of things in the Shire at general, but he was fairly certain that a favor accepted was a favor offered in return. He could not afford to be indebted to anyone, so he had declined on the purpose of needing to settle down his sheep for the night. Ami’s cousin had found him then, but thankfully had not stayed long. Once the sheep were tended and fed, he had taken his sling and gone out in search of dinner for himself, felling a rabbit and gathering some herbs for a thin soup. 

His stomach now full and his thirst satisfied, he went over his plan again. Tomorrow was First Lithe. In the morning, he would lead his sheep around for a walk for fresh grass to chew on. Then he would wander the grounds and observe folk at their trades. In the afternoon, he would make what conversation he could with the other fairgoers and make them aware of his intent to trade. He would see what offers he received, but would not accept anything just yet.

The following day would be Mid-Year’s Day, the mayoral election. This was of no consequence to him. There would still be plenty of folk about to make trade with, but if those he spoke with the day before should by chance be required to attend the election, then Perry might be able to talk them into a beneficial trade. It was a long shot, but one worth trying. If anyone wanting to trade on the day itself knew that some of his herd was already spoken for, that could make trading with him more appealing and thus give him the upper hand. If not, then he would simply have to do the best that he could.

Overlithe followed, and he hoped to do the majority of his trading on this day and fulfill any accepted offers from the previous days. He would have only this day and the next to acquaint himself with his new herd. He hoped it would be enough time for them to willingly follow him all the way home. He wasn’t familiar with the ways of cows, but the hobbits he had spoken with today assured him they were easygoing creatures, if lazy. 

He thought he might wait a day before heading home, leaving on the second of Forelithe to avoid the main rush of hobbits who left on the first. He might not be able to remain calm if he left with everyone else, and if there was one thing he did know about beasts of any kind it was they responded better to someone who was calm than someone who was upset and anxious. 

He yawned widely, his jaw popping with the effort. His plans now as secure as they were going to get, he returned again to thoughts of Ami. He owed the lass a favor, and the debt gnawed at him. He knew there was little he could do to repay her for the kindness she had shown him, but he was determined to find a way before the fair was over and she was gone for good. She had invited him to her party on Overlithe. It was likely to be the only other time he would see her. There must be some gift he could give her suitable enough to repay her, yet the only thing he possessed, besides his clothes and his sheep, were the pelts from the game he had hunted on his way to the fair.

“Well then, Perry, ye’d best make sure as they’re the nicest pelts she’s ever got,” he murmured to himself. 

This final decision made, he closed his eyes and drifted off to his dreams.

To be continued…

GF 7/19/11

Ferumbras settled in his seat. For the first time in a week, he felt almost happy again. Tuckborough was far away, the gossiping and whispering almost forgotten. He wouldn’t be walking into any rooms today only to find hobbits quickly abandoning their conversations and smiling too politely. He wouldn’t have to endure any hand pats or half-hugs, delivered with clumsy well wishes they only half-meant. No one had liked his mother. That isn’t to say they were glad she was dead, but they were certainly glad she no longer held the position of family head. Whether they were happy that Ferumbras now held that position was yet to be seen.

He tapped the ceiling. A moment later, Twitch’s face filled the little opening. “Aye, sir?”

“Up ahead on the right is the road to Pincup,” Ferumbras informed him, without need. Twitch had grown up in the Smials, but he had spent a few summers in Pincup with his extended family. “Turn there. I’ll give you further directions in due course.”

“Very well, Thain,” Twitch said, his voice full of curiosity. He straightened, closed the screen and a few moments later the carriage rocked into motion. 

Some minutes later, Ferumbras felt the carriage turn with expert ease. Twitch was a good driver. He heard nothing but compliments about the lad. 

He had seen the questions piling up in the lad’s eyes when he told Twitch to turn towards Pincup. Ferumbras grinned, remembering that all too familiar look. The lad might not be a Took, but he certainly thought like one. Twitch was right, of course. This was a longer road than was necessary to take, but in case they were spied leaving Tuckborough, Ferumbras didn’t want anyone to know where they were headed. 

They would not come to their destination for another few hours, more than long enough for him to figure out what to say once he got there, or so he hoped. After all these years, there was so much to be said, and yet nothing to say at the same time. What could he possible say to rectify the last four decades? 

Chapter 7 – 1 Lithe

“Why, my dear, you’re the very portrait of beauty!” Bilbo chirped over the brim of his teacup. He smiled approvingly at Amber, pushing a seat out with his foot. Dora pointedly cleared her throat, and he got to his feet to help her to her seat. “I see the night was well for the both of you. You look as though you could participate in the sprints today!”

“You flatter us,” Dora said, taking her seat. “We did sleep well though. You look quite bright-eyed yourself this morning, Bilbo.”

“I slept logs, dearest Dora,” Bilbo said, taking his own seat again. He patted Amber’s hand and poured her some tea. “There is nothing like traveling and adventure to make one appreciate a good night’s sleep.”

Dora and Amber hummed politely at this but wisely did not encourage Bilbo to continue in this vein of conversation. They instead buttered their toast and served themselves liberal piles of sausages and eggs. Amber was surprised to find herself famished, her stomach roiling in protest as though it had not been fed properly for months.

“Thank you for letting me stay the night with you, Aunt Dora,” she said, bidding her stomach to be quiet. “I couldn’t have borne sleeping on hard ground, or that lumpy settee in our room at the Pheasant. You’re so good to put up with me.”

“Nonsense,” Dora said, dumping sugar into her tea and stirring briskly. “I enjoy the company. Keeps me young.”

“You hardly look a day over forty,” Bilbo said.

“You are flattering us,” Dora said, looking suspicious. “What have you done?”

Bilbo widened his eyes in mock surprise. He even put a hand to his chest as one greatly affronted. “Why, my dearest Dora! Such accusations!” 

“This is the second time you’ve called me ‘dearest Dora’ in less than five minutes,” Dora said. She bit into her toast, content to let her observation stand on its own.

Bilbo grinned impishly. “For that is what you are, my dearest, darling Dora,” he replied and took a bite of his own toast. “Indeed, you are so dear and darling to me that I must insist you accompany me to the fairgrounds today. There is an entry in the agricultural contest that I would like for you to see, if you are willing.”

“I would love nothing better than to accompany you, dearest, darling Bilbo,” Dora said. “What are your plans for the day, Amber?”

“I need to pick up Arlo, then Heather and I were planning to see the displays and possibly purchase some lace and ribbon,” Amber said. “We’ll need to rescue Mum from the Town Hole at about two. She promised Da to sit in on the interviews with the mayoral candidates today, but she doesn’t want to stay for the whole thing. We’re to come up with some excuse to whisk her away.”

Dora frowned at this but merely took another bite of her toast. Bilbo considered the dilemma as he finished his first cup of tea. He set down the cup and nodded. “Tell her that you’ve come upon a snag with the party preparations and everyone needs her to come to some decision before the day is over. That should do it.”

“What sort of a snag?” Amber asked.

“Mix-matched decorations, dry cake, lack of bread for pudding,” Bilbo suggested. “I don’t think it matters much, so long as it sounds urgent enough to require her to leave that moment. There won’t be much time to see to these things tomorrow, what with the voting and the dances and whatnot.”

“I see. I think those will prove useful. Thank you my dearest, darling, delightful Bilbo,” Amber said, earning her chuckles from her cousins.

“You’re most welcome my dear,” Bilbo said. He handed her the plate of toast so she could select another piece and winked at Dora. They were both glad to see her eating so heartily again. “Eat up. We all have a long day ahead of us.”

Amber reached for more toast, eager to begin the day and fetch her son.

As it happened, it was another hour before she left the inn. Conversation with Bilbo and Dora was never a short-winded affair, and the food had been too delicious to put down. When finally she had her fill, she excused herself from the table and insisted on paying her portion of the bill. She retrieved her purse from the room, making sure to tidy the bedsheets and washbasin before going. Dora would not be heading out to the fairgrounds immediately and would come back to the room to read or stitch; Amber didn’t want her coming back to a dirty room, even if the servants would be along soon to clean it. 

Amber waved good-bye to Bilbo and Dora as she passed through the common room and headed outside. The rising sun was bringing its brilliant rays and unrelenting heat to an already balmy morning. Hobbits bustled to and fro, getting their booths, tents and pens ready for the day of trade, commerce and competition. Three long tables stood near the front of the fairgrounds and lines of rope were being laid on the grass in front of them. Those wishing to compete in the days’ events would soon be lining up there to enter their names. 

Many hobbits, both well-dressed or donning simple homespun, were making their way to the Town Hole. She spotted her parents strolling arm in arm around the edge of town, taking their time as they spoke in whispers to each others’ ears. Amber’s heart pinched a little to see them together, so happy and in love. Her own arms suddenly felt empty, deprived of the feel of the taunt muscle of her husband’s broad arms. She swallowed and drew a deep breath, letting the feeling ebb away with each piercing beat of her heart. The pain gradually lessened and she went back to observing the others heading towards the Town Hole. 

While most wives were content to let their husbands deal with the politics of choosing a new mayor, there were still a fair number of couples making their way to the Mayor’s Hall. A few widows stood out amongst the throng; they waved and called to their fellow hobbits with cheer and enthusiasm. They could put up with the long speeches and droning questions so long as good food and ale promised to be ready at hand; the cooks of the Town Hole would hold back nothing from their desperate patrons. Kegs of ale and whisky and crates of bottled wine and brandy were being carted into the Hole from the south entrance, and cooking tents had been set up on the west side, to enjoy the shade while they could. 

Amber sniffed at the scents of breakfast cooking; she was full but could eat some more. She would wait though for luncheon so that she could scout out the most delectable treats as she, Heather and her cousins made their way through the fairgrounds. Arlo was still too young to get much out of the fair, but he would have his cousins to play with and there would be beasts for him to pet and ride on. He would be happy enough and fast asleep come nightfall. 

She reached the Took camping circle and weaved her way around the narrow alleys between the tent rows. Her first stop would be the cooking pit at the center of the circle. If Heather was already awake, she would be there. If she wasn’t there, then it would only be a matter of time before she was. It would spare Amber the hassle of scratching on tent flaps. She could instead help the others to cook while she waited, and she could keep an ear out for her son, who’s wailing could be heard from miles away.

She needn’t have worried though. Heather was already at the cooking pit when she arrived, and she could hear Arlo’s screeching laughter, interspersed with the occasional sneeze, coming closer from somewhere near the south bend of the circle. Within mere minutes, a couple dozen Tooks were sitting to breakfast and chatting about the day ahead. 

By the time Amber and Heather finished their food, the second wave of Tooks, this one including their younger siblings, arrived for their turn at the cooking circle. Amber coaxed her son away from his cousins by promising him a handful of boiled sweets at the sweet shop in town. She and Heather headed out, waving at their sisters and brother as they went.

Paladin, Saradoc and Merimac took the plates handed to them by Bergonia and sat across the circle from Ami, Esme, Alchemilla and Dicentra. 

“Will we be joining your sisters today, Pally?” Mac asked in low tones. “Might keep them out of trouble.”

“We can keep an eye on them without having to spend all day listening to their chatter,” Pally said. “Besides, Darling may be kind-hearted, but she’s not a fool. She’ll behave herself now.”

“I’m signing up for the wrestling matches,” Sara announced. “Either of you lads brave enough to join me?”

“Sure,” Pally and Mac said. 

“I don’t want to wrestle you though,” Mac said. “I already know all your best moves. It wouldn’t be a fair match for either of us, and my win will be that much less satisfactory.”

Sara rolled his eyes. “I’m sure that won’t be a problem. You weigh half a stone dripping wet. You’ll likely be placed with the teens.”

“We should probably look over the ponies too,” Pally said, jumping into the conversation before the bantering could turn into arguing. “The pony races are always on the last day, but we can go and look at them as they’re paced and walked. We should be able to get a good idea of which pony we want to bet on.”

“They’re on the last day!” Sara exclaimed, dismayed. “What good does that do! I’ve been saving this brassie all the way from Buckland, figuring I could use it to win some decent coin for the fair, and the races are on the last day? This is poorly organized.”

“You could bet on the wrestling matches,” Mac reasoned.

“What am I supposed to do? Ask the contestants to roll around in the dirt and fling each other about so I can figure out who’s most likely to win?” Sara asked, shaking his head at the lost cause. 

“The pig races are tomorrow,” Pally said. “So are all the foot races. There are three of us. We could do the relay.”

“Pigs?” Mac said. “What about dogs?”

“What about them?” Pally asked.

“Do they have dog contests? Races? Obstacle courses? Anything?” Mac asked.

Pally shook his head. “No, but there will be the animal shows today, and jugglers and tumblers and the like. We could watch those.”

Sara and Mac exchanged glances and shrugged. Might as well make the best of it, and if wrestling was the only thing to bet on today… “You could bet on your brother,” Mac said, puffing out his chest.

“But I want to win,” Sara replied smartly.

“Come on. Let’s go sign up for the wrestling matches, then we can go and look at the ponies,” Pally said. “Never hurts to get a head start when scouting for a winner. The animal shows are in the morning anyway, and we’ll want a good seat.”

Sara and Mac readily agreed to this. They finished the rest of their meal with alacrity so they could get to the fairgrounds to sign up for the matches before the line grew too long.

Ami and Esme lingered with their cousins until the third wave of Tooks arrived for their breakfasts. They returned to the tent briefly to tidy their hair and dresses one last time before heading to the grounds themselves. 

Dicentra and Esme had weaves they wanted to enter into the crafts contests, while Alchemilla needed to finish a couple of last-minute preparations for the wedding ceremony tomorrow night. Ami had her own last-minute preparations to complete for her birthday party, mainly in the form of some gifts that required a finishing touch. She felt for the purse in her pocket and hoped to find some good bargains. 

“We’ll meet you at the crafts booths once we’re signed up,” Dicentra said, taking Esme’s arm and steering her towards the sign-up line for the crafts contest. The line was already long and growing with each minute.

“Do you think anyone will be selling this early?” Ami asked as she and Alchemilla started for the trade booths and tables. She saw a few proprietors setting up their booths but none looked to be in business yet. 

“Not quite yet. Give it another hour,” Alchemilla said. “Going early only makes you look desperate. You won’t get as good of a deal. Anyway, I want to see this lad of yours.”

“What lad?” Ami asked.

“The shepherd lad, of course,” Alchemilla said. “He’s all I’ve heard about at this fair so far. Even if he is a vagabond, there must be something about him to make folk take notice, other than being draped on your arm anyway.”

“Perry is not a vagabond just because he’s poor,” Ami protested. “And just because I bought him bread and showed him where to take his sheep hardly makes him ‘my lad’ as you say.”

“Ami! You’re blushing,” Alchemilla teased. “I know that look. You’re smitten.”

“I am not,” Ami said, blushing further. She could feel the heat of it on her cheeks and the day was still too young to pass it off for a sunburn. “He’s a nice lad, is all.”

“Hm,” Alchemilla hummed. She took Ami’s arm in her own and squeezed it gently. “Hm?”

Ami couldn’t stop the smirk from creeping over her face. “He is handsome. Beautiful even. His eyes are this most lovely shade of honey-brown.”

“Oh, now, I must see him!” Alchemilla said. She dragged Ami towards the backfields and soon they were dashing over the grounds. When they got near enough to the rows of livestock pens, they slowed down and resumed walking. 

“We mustn’t get too close though. I don’t want to give the lad the wrong idea,” Alchemilla panted and let Ami take the lead. 

Ami took them around the tents pitched up behind the second row of pens. They walked as casually as they could, Ami peeking between the tents every now and again to make sure she hadn’t bypassed Perry’s sheep. After about fifty yards, she spotted the sheep and stopped. They peeked around the tent, waiting, until a few moments later Perry materialized from farther down the lane. He had washed off the dirt and stains of travel from the day before, and his golden skin glowed in the morning sunlight. He had changed into different clothes, less stained and more intact than his traveling attire had been. He looked almost proper as he strolled down the lane, his face turned upward like a flower breathing in the sunshine. A mild breeze whipped through his curls like petals on a bloom. He stopped outside his pen to pet one of the ewes, who had sauntered over to the gate for attention as soon as she saw her master.

“Oh, he is a pretty one!” Alchemilla exclaimed in a whisper so they wouldn’t be heard. “No wonder Pally’s being such a prude about it. If that face were on a respectable lad… It’s a shame, really.” They watched him for a few more moments before ducking back behind the tent and returning down the lane.

“What do you mean, respectable?” Ami said once they were a safe distance away. “Wealthy, you mean? There’s a lot more to being respectable than money.” 

“True. There’s also lineage, property, education, and a standing in the community,” Alchemilla said. “He clearly doesn’t have those things. He just a common lad.”

Ami frowned. She felt herself coil inwardly, a snake ready to strike at the first hint of discourtesy. She drew in a deep breath and waited for the feeling to pass. It did not. 

“I didn’t mean to upset you, Darling,” Alchemilla said, sensing her friend’s disapproval.

Ami shook her head. “He may not have those things, but he’s not common,” she said, feeling she had to defend Perry from this unknown assault to his character. “He’s a very bright young lad. He sees the world in ways no one else does. He’s full of courtesy and he thinks before he speaks. Thinks far more than he says, if I’m any sort of judge on the matter. He isn’t afraid to take risks to ensure a better state of life for his family. That should be respectable enough by anyone’s standards.” 

“Perhaps,” Alchemilla said, thinking. “Perhaps he is worthy of respect, as you say, but he is still not respectable in the traditional sense. Because it’s not enough, dearest, and you know it. Best to forget about him.”

“I had until you brought him up,” Ami said, rounding the last tent only to duck behind it again. She grabbed Alchemilla’s hand and pulled her down to a crouch. 

“What are you-!”

“Shh! It’s Pally!” Ami hissed, and they both watched as Pally, Sara and Mac walked by on the main path, thankfully headed in the other direction. When they were swallowed up by the crowd and rows of tents, Ami stood again. “Let’s get out of here before I get into even more trouble.”

They turned back towards the fairgrounds and ran back to the contest booths where they were to meet Dicentra and Esme.

The Town Hole was crowded to bursting. The five remaining mayoral candidates sat on stage with Mayor Lightfoot, while the family masters and mistresses settled into their seats. The benches had been moved into closely-packed rows, with only slim aisles along either wall of the hall. With so many great families in the Shire to be represented, there was very little room for anyone to move around. The windows were thrown open, encouraging a gust of wind to enter, and water was constantly being served, passed down the rows in jugs whenever someone’s cup was drained. Second breakfast and elevenses would be likewise served. 

Most of the head mistresses had entrusted their husbands to give them full accounts of the day’s interviews, but there were still a good number of matrons in the hall, including widows and wives who had come in their husband’s place. There were also others like the Thain’s cousins, come at the bidding of their family head to give their input before the vote tomorrow morning. Altogether, there were nearly 300 hobbits packed into the hall and many were fluttering fans at themselves and their neighbors in an effort to at least keep the air moving.

Mayor Lightfoot had already gone down the row of candidates, allowing each of them to give a fuller account of themselves and their backgrounds. Now he opened up the floor to questions that anyone may wish to ask. The first inquisitor was a hobbit from Oatbarton in the Northfarthing. 

“I would like to ask the candidates what they think of increasing the number of shirriffs during the spring months,” he said. “We get a lot of rain during that time, and lightning storms up near the downs. Animals are running off constantly, and we don’t always have the time to hunt them down if we want to get the sowing done before the next storm comes through. We need more shirriffs during that time.”

There were many murmured agreements to this statement from others in the Northfarthing. Mayor Lightfoot gestured to the first candidate. “Mr. Goodbeck?”

“The shirriffs have always been twelve in number, three to each farthing,” Goodbeck said. “Increasing their numbers, even for just a few months, would not be a viable solution to your problem. I think a better solution would be to enlist the bounders for this. We need to keep our borders protected, surely, but there are a dozen alternates in any major town. We could call them to service during the spring months to go looking for any stray livestock and seeing them back to their owners.”

“The alternates have their own crops to take care of,” said the hobbit from Oatbarton. 

“Then we should recruit younger alternates, sons and grandsons who can be spared from the fields,” Goodbeck said. 

“Perhaps there are those among the gentry who would be willing to volunteer for the service,” candidate Diggle suggested.

“They already find a good many livestock in the hills while searching for our own beasts,” Mr. North-Took said. “No reason they couldn’t search the hills regularly. I could spare a half-dozen of them for that. What of everyone else?” He looked around the hall for his fellow Northfarthing gentry heads, who all nodded their consensus to this. 

“Not even elected yet, and they’re already solving problems,” Mayor Lightfoot said, to general laughter and approval. “Next question.”

A widow from Tighfield stood up next. “I was most impressed by Mayor Lightfoot’s determination to visit all the major towns in the Shire during his years in office. So often we rely on the post masters or lawyers to perform our wedding ceremonies when they aren’t to take place during the festivals and fairs held here. It was such a pleasure to see him marry my great-grandniece to her husband. Of course, there are too many of us for him to ride about the Shire to perform all the weddings, but would any of you be willing to make that same commitment?”

“Absolutely,” said candidate Downfeather of Willowbottom immediately. “My wife is often looking for excuses to get rid of me. She’ll have my bags packed before I even finish reading the request.” This was met with appreciative laughter.

“Why do you think my wife nominated me?” joked candidate Brownlock of Stock, bringing the mass of hobbits to tears with laughter.

Once everyone was back in order, Mayor Lightfoot went on to the third questioner, a mistress from Deephallow. “Every town and family have their own special celebrations, but it seems to me that nearly everyone now is celebrating the first day of Thrimidge, since all the sowing’s done and spring is by then well on its way. In addition, on elections years such as this, it does mark the beginning of the mayoral campaign, which was the original reason for many of the towns to begin celebrating the day. Would any of you be agreeable to making this an official holiday?”

“I didn’t even realize that it wasn’t an official holiday already until I was apprenticed to my uncle in Hardbottle,” said Goodbeck. “It was quite a shock when the first of Thrimidge came around and there were no plans for celebration. It has always been one of my favorite holidays.”

“As well as mine,” said Diggle. “I’ve had a good many apprentices who came from towns where they didn’t celebrate the end of the spring sowing, and they’ve all come to love it as much as those who grew up with it. It would be my honor to make it an official holiday, should the family heads be agreeable, after going home to discuss it with their families and tenants.”

“There are so many regional festivities throughout the Shire,” said candidate Hornblower of Frogmorton. “To make even one of them official would invite the possibility of making them all official. Many regions do have their own way of celebrating the end of sowing season and don’t necessarily wait until Thrimidge to do so, and other regions don’t see the need. I think it would have to be a unanimous decision.”

“We certainly don’t want to impose on the way others choose to celebrate,” Goodbeck agreed. “A unanimous decision would be the only way to go forward with a proposal of this magnitude.”

The questions continued throughout the morning. At noon, Mayor Lightfoot closed the interview session and dismissed everyone for an extended luncheon. Everyone was to return at two, when the candidates would be able to clarify any of their statements from that morning and make their closing statements. The candidates stood and departed the stage to appreciative applause. Lightfoot reminded all the family heads to not discuss their choice with anyone else until after the vote. 

Adalgrim and Clematis walked to the fairgrounds with their Took cousins in search of food from the many vendors whose fires were sending enticing scents into the air in all directions. Once they had their food in hand, they returned to the Took camping circle and met in the Thain’s tent to discuss the candidates.

Adalgrim and Clematis were naturally partial to Mr. Diggle, but after going through all of the candidates’ pros and cons, they had to agree with everyone else that Mr. Goodbeck had made the better overall impression. 

“He’s served as deputy mayor already during Lightfoot’s illness this winter and handled himself well,” Gardenia pointed out. “All reports I’ve heard from anyone who dealt with him have been glowing.”

“He’s well-educated for someone of his position, and he has the means and motivation to do well,” said Sigismond. Goodbeck was not one of the working class, but he was not gentry either. His grandfather had been one of those rare hobbits who had worked his way up from his working class roots to purchase his own novelty shop. His father had maintained the shop, but it had been Goodbeck who had expanded the business to four more shops. He also now managed a small pipeweed plantation in the Southfarthing, which was beginning to prosper in quality and reputation. It wouldn’t be too much longer before Goodbeck’s branch of the family tree could be considered new gentry. 

“I thank you all for coming and allowing me the benefit of your input,” Fortinbras said. “I will consider all you’ve said, and we’ll meet here again after tonight’s closing statements.”

They finished their meal and everyone slowly took their leave until only Fortinbras and Lalia were left in the tent. Lalia shook her head. 

“Mr. Downfeather at least is a proper gentlehobbit,” she said. “Even Mr. Brownlock from Stock would be a better choice.”

“I have made my decision, dearest, and it’s unlikely to change at this point,” Fortinbras said. “Master Goodbeck gets my vote.”

“Well, he doesn’t get mine,” Lalia said. “You might value your cousins’ opinions, but it’s mine that matters, in case you’ve forgotten.”

Fortinbras leaned back against his clothes chest and folded his arms. “All right. Convince me.”

Sprig and Nab were given the afternoon off their duties at the Pheasant’s stables per Miss Amaryllis’s request. The master ostler informed them of their special privilege over luncheon, speaking so that all the ostlers and temporary work hands would hear it. Beneath the lewd teasing and wistful jealousy of their mates, they detected a hint of silent ire. They therefore decided in a space of a glance not to take more than the three hours allotted to everyone else. Likely, they will be teased again for squandering their privilege, but at least they wouldn’t have to worry about getting the messiest stalls to clean and the meanest ponies to walk. 

They left shortly after luncheon with a few of the other stable lads. They had all been to the fair before, besides Sprig, and they talked excitedly as they crossed the grounds towards the bustling rows of tightly-packed food and vendor tents, contest booths, gaming fields, and livestock pens. A couple of the stable lads were year-long work hands at the inn and knew the itinerary for the fair as well as they knew their family trees and were able to quickly plan out their three hours to their fullest advantage.

They had all brought a few coppers worth of coin with them. Whether a regular employee of the inn or a temporary work-hand, the tips they received during the fair were enough to guarantee them a hearty winter, with coin to spare for enjoying the fair itself. Still, frugality was their creed and they quickly decided that they would each buy just one of the treats for sale at the many food tents to split equally amongst them. They would only get a bite or two that way, but they would still be able to sample a good amount of the fare while saving their money for gifts and necessities. 

First though, Sprig had a promise to fulfill and his own curiosity to assuage. He and Nab split up from the others, arranging to meet them in the carpentry section in ten minutes. They quickly found someone to point them to the livestock area and once there found someone to show them to the black-faced sheep. There was a small handful of hobbits there already, looking the sheep over with great admiration. Nab and Sprig leaned on the fence as if to inspect the sheep as well. A few moments later, Nettleburr finished with the others there and came over to introduce himself.

“Perry Nettleburr of Nohill,” the lad said, sticking out a hand for a solid, firm shake.

“Nab Clout of Waymeet,” Nab said. “Where’s Nohill then?”

“It’s just outside of Pincup,” Perry said.

“Sprig Dingle of Pincup,” Sprig said, introducing himself and tightening his hold slightly as he stated his birthplace. Perry showed no shock or dismay at this announcement though. 

Sprig let go the lad’s hand and gave him a quick inspection. He was clean from head to toe, even his clothes showed only the usual old stains. His clothes were more patched perhaps than was normal, and there were a few smaller tears that had yet to be addressed. The clothes hung off his thin frame: they either didn’t belong to him or no longer fit him for one reason or another. The overall effect made for a thoroughly disparate, if clean, impression in Sprig’s opinion. Sprig clenched his fists at his side, wishing he could use some of those wrestling moves on the lad now to get him to reveal his purpose here, and his reason for preying upon Miss Ami’s willing friendship.

Instead, he narrowed his eyes at the lad, feigning confusion. “It’s been a time since I’ve been home. I don’t recall any sheep ranches, or no place called Nohill for that matter. Have you recently moved there?” 

Perry didn’t hesitate for even a blink. “Like I said, it’s outside Pincup, just a little knockabout place. Ye must’ve been gone for some time then, if ye don’t know it. Are ye lads here to get offers for yer master?”

“Not quite,” Nab said. “We’re the valets for Mr. Adalgrim Took. One of his daughters, Miss Amaryllis, asked if we might come and make your acquaintance and maybe show you around the fair some, if you wanted.”

“Tis kind of her,” Perry said, but he kept his face purposefully expressionless. He of course remembered Ami telling him about her carriage driver the day before. He hadn’t expected this development though.

Nab nodded towards the sheep. “How much you wanting for them?” he asked. “I’m sure Mr. Adalgrim would be interested in buying. He’s a farmer, see.”

“Not selling. Trading, as I told Ferumbras when he was here last night to see about making an offer,” Perry said, with an eye on the other hobbits leaning over the fence and petting his flock. “I thank ye for the offer, about the fair I mean. It’s right kind of ye to come and all, but I’m quite busy as ye can see. I’ll have to pass, but enjoy the fair for yerselves, lads.”

Nab and Sprig paused. Sprig felt a fool. He should have realized the family would have been around to inspect the lad already. Nab shrugged. Perry clearly was busy, and if he didn’t want to accompany them, there was nothing they could do about it. Sprig though wasn’t about to leave it at that, not if what he suspected was true.

“I’m afraid I must insist,” he said. “I’m under orders, see. You don’t want me getting into trouble with Miss Amaryllis, now do you?”

Nab shot his friend a curious glance before saying lightly, “The fair makes good fun, as well as trade. Miss Ami wanted to make sure as you enjoyed your stay, being as it’s your first time here and all.”

“She’s a kind lass,” Perry said, a small smile forming on his lips. “Tell Ami I’m grateful for her concern, but I’m not able to frolic at the moment. I’ll try to get out and wander about in the afternoon, if that’ll ease her mind.”

“Aye, we’ll tell her that,” Sprig said, indignant at Perry’s casual use of Miss Ami’s name. It wasn’t unusual for working hobbits to drop the titles of their masters and mistresses when speaking amongst themselves, but the way Perry said her name was almost like a caress and not at all proper. “I’m sure Miss Amaryllis will be pleased for your gratitude.”

Nab stood up from the rail and pulled on Sprig’s elbow. “Good luck with your trading, and if I may offer a suggestion? Whatever you’re trading them for, raise your price. You can get more, but they won’t let you think it, eh? You’ve got a rare stock, and they’ll give you what you want for it, or near to it. You just have to go them a few rounds first.”

“I’ll remember that,” Perry said. He stood still and watched them curiously as they walked away.

Nab and Sprig headed for the carpentry section on the competition grounds.

“That went well. He seems like a sturdy lad,” Nab said. He noticed Sprig’s frown then. “I’m sure your Darling won’t be upset that he refused us. We did what we could, short of dragging him from his pen.”

“Aye,” Sprig agreed. “That’s not what worrits me. He’s no shepherd.”

They let the matter of Perry Nettleburr drop as soon as they found their friends. They strolled through the booths and stalls of the carpentry section, and Nab was able to trade a rock hammer for a lap cloth and a stack of sanding pads. His old lap cloth had been sacrificed for mittens over the winter and he hadn’t been able to find a suitable bit of cloth to replace it. Sanding pads were always a necessity, as his favorite pastime was shaping and polishing rocks. When he won a spare rock hammer in a chess game the previous week, he had nearly leapt for joy, thinking of what he could trade for it during the fair. 

They next strolled through the competition section, where the winning pieces from the morning’s crafts contests were on display. Crafts was a broad term to describe nearly everything made by hand, short of food; the cooking competitions would be held the last day of the fair and were by far the most popular contests. They admired the bowls, pots, jugs, rugs, blankets, quilts, shawls, bonnets and other entries on display. 

“Look! Miss Esmeralda won third place!” Sprig said, pointing at a navy blue blanket weaved with a starburst pattern of white, grey and yellow, fringed with a combination of the four colors. 

“My niece entered in the basket-weaving,” said Simple, one of the regular ostlers at the Pheasant. “I wonder if she placed.”

They went looking for the baskets next, but Simple’s niece was not among the winners. “Well, she’s only thirteen,” he said by way of explanation. 

They strolled through the remainder of the booths, gazing at the carpentry and equestrian pieces, the chairs, tables, swinging benches, the saddle and bridle sets, the riding blankets and curry combs. They were lingering over the grand winner in the saddle and bridle section, a gorgeous piece of soft wood padded with leather, dyed red and branded with a landscape of the Far Downs on the seat, when they heard the beginning of the wrestling competitions in the next field over.

They hurried to the gaming fields and gathered around the nearest pair of competitors, declining offers to place bets. None of them knew any of the competitors and so their only interest was in discovering who was the most skilled and picking up a few useful moves to practice that night in the stables. They watched until the end of the current match, in which a lad named Merimac Brandybuck of Buckland be advanced to the next round.

When it was getting near time to go, they nudged their way to the edge of the crowd and split up to purchase the food they had decided upon splitting earlier. Five minutes later and with food in hand, they strolled back to the stables, passing the food back and forth, their mouths too full to speak. 

They returned to work as soon as they entered the stables. Nab noticed his friend’s distraction but figure that Sprig would tell him in time what was on his mind, if he wanted to. Whatever had upset him about Perry, Nab couldn’t begin to guess. The lad had seemed all right enough to him. At any rate, Nettleburr didn’t seem like anything worth thinking over, considering they’d never see him again once the fair ended.

Sprig wasn’t so quick to dismiss his concerns though. He could guess well enough why Perry had chosen the Free Fair for his trade, rather than the fair in Pincup. Growing up, Sprig had heard the rumors, always whispered in the shadows when it was thought no one would overhear. There were squatters living in the open fields just beyond the last ranches and farms of Pincup, survivors of the immigrant camps that had popped up all over the Shire in the years following the Fell Winter. Most of these camps were now deserted, their members returned to their homes after things began to improve with the first successful harvests. The one beyond Pincup though continued to linger for reasons no one could quite fathom.

Every now and again, a couple of the squatters would come into town to trade their pelts and feathers from their small game catches. Sprig had seen them once when he was about ten, shortly before leaving for his apprenticeship in Tuckborough. He remembered his mother and grandmother gathering all the children to them. His mother had gone so far as the hide his face in her skirts, he being the youngest, so he could hardly see the two old hobbits standing outside the roper’s hut. He remembered that their clothes were adorned with more holes than cloth, the worn and frayed strands hanging from frames so thin he could almost imagine seeing the bone beneath, as brown and stained as their skin and clothes.

Every time the squatters appeared in town, there would be revived interest in doing something to help their plight. Baskets of food and cloth, blankets and gardening tools, pots, pans and sewing material, bags of seeds and bales of straw were put together by the concerned populace. Mr. Banks and his sons and cousins would ride out to the camp with the gathered goods and almost always returned home with most of it, except for what the squatters could trade for fairly. “They have their pride at least,” folk would always say with shakes of their heads as they took back what they had given.

There was nothing for it. When he next saw Ami, he would tell her the truth, as much of it as she could stand hearing anyway. She deserved that much, for her kindness to him.

Only Ami didn’t stop by the stables that night to ask Sprig how his day went. She was careful to remain in the company of her siblings or cousins at all times, and though it pained her to be haughty, she held back any smiles when dealing with any of the working lads around the fair. The strategy worked, so far as the whispers concerning her reputation went. No more such rumors could be heard, the sensationalism of them already savored to their fullest extent.  

She, Heather and Esme went to the inn to freshen up and have tea, and Ami didn’t so much as glance at the stables, though she was terribly curious if Sprig and Nab were able to spend time with Perry. After tea, she and her sisters returned to the Took camping circle to spend another night with their friends. 

They sat up late around the cooking fire discussing their many adventures of the day. Merimac showed off his second place ribbon from the wrestling match and Saradoc bragged how he knew his brother could place all along, his pockets now full of extra coin to spend over the next three days. Dicentra and Esme hadn’t brought their own ribbons, but Esme had shown off her blanket with great pride while Dicentra refused to remove her first-place winning hat from her head even as sleep began to overtake her. Her head began to bob up and down in her efforts to stay awake, the hat perched precariously over her curls, a sight that made them all giggle helplessly, drunk as they were on joviality and spiked punch.

No one was surprised the following morning to come to the cooking circle and find that none of the revelers had made it to their tents.

To be continued…

GF 7/23/11

Twitch closed the screen and straightened in his seat. To Pincup, the Thain had ordered. More curious with each passing hour, he eased the ponies up the road, feeling a twinge of regret. He would have liked to stop and visit his parents while in Pincup, but he was on official business and that was out of the question. 

Twitch wondered yet again about this official business. With everything going on back at Great Smials, why would the Thain choose to leave? Might this have something to do with all the rumors being whispered at the inn last night, some feud between the Lady and the Whitwells? If so, he had no idea how or why. Nor did he have an idea why the Thain had chosen such a roundabout way of getting to Pincup. Over the hills in a straight line would have been faster than winding their way along the forest trails. Perhaps answers might be more forthcoming once they arrived at their destination.

After a half-mile, a lane appeared on the south side of the Stock Road. Twitch eased the ponies into the turn, giving plenty of room for the carriage. He had only been this way once before, but he remembered the route well enough. Stay to the right of every fork except the last one to get to Pincup. 

He wondered how the Thain knew about this road. His father had told him once about traveling to Pincup with the Thain, though he hadn’t been the Thain then. Was that how the Thain knew about it? He wondered about his father’s friendship with the Thain, such an odd friendship for his father to have. His mother never cared much for his father being friends with the Thain. Twitch had once asked her why, only to be ignored. He wondered about that as well. But that couldn’t have anything to do with whatever was going on now, could it?


Chapter 8 – Midyear’s Day

Rumbi sat down next to Ami, who was yawning and stretching out the knots that had formed from sleeping on the hard ground. He plucked a blade of grass from her hair and handed her a cup of tea, which she took with a smile.

“Morning, Darling. Did you sleep well?” he asked.

“Wonderfully,” she replied, stifling a yawn. She sipped on her tea and blinked, trying to focus her blurred vision. She rubbed her eyes and attempted to wipe the dirt from her face, to little effect. She frowned down at her fingers, wet with morning dew, and giggled. 


“You’ll wake with dew on your face,” she muttered.

“What?” he asked again but Ami only shook her head.

“Never mind. Did you sleep well?” she asked, checking her pockets for a handkerchief. 

“Like logs.” He pulled a handkerchief from his own pocket, dunked it quickly in the pot of simmering water, waved it back and forth until it cooled, then gently dabbed the smears of dust off Ami’s face. He marveled at his own bravery, but as Ami didn’t pull away, he continued and when he finished kissed her lightly on her brow. “Will you join me for luncheon today at the teahouse? I have something about which I need speak with you.”

“Of course,” she said, though she wasn’t so sure if she wanted to meet him alone, not if he was going to give her a lecture on acting like a proper lass as Pally had promised the other night. “Do I get a hint?”

“You do not. You’re going to have to be patient, but hopefully you will enjoy the surprise,” Rumbi said, finding another blade of grass. He plucked this also, then pulled a comb from his pants pocket and lifted his eyebrows inquiringly. 

Ami promptly turned her back so he could comb her hair, feeling better about their meeting. A surprise would not include a lecture, of that she was certain. Rumbi didn’t have a flare for sarcasm or irony, so if he intended to surprise her, it could only be a good thing. “What if I guess?” she asked.

“Guess all you want,” Ferumbras said, gingerly pulling the brush through her hair. “I’m not telling you.”

“Even if I guess right?”

“No, not even then,” he said, even as his stomach clenched at that delightful prospect. 

Ami guessing his intention to propose, which would undoubtedly be put forth as a joke, would still be a definite sign that she felt the same way, that she would say yes when the time came. He was nervous enough to consider the test, faulty though he knew it to be. He was about to request Ami to begin guessing when she suddenly stiffened, straightened up and faced forward, her cheeks flaming. Rumbi looked up to find his mother standing at the edge of the tent lane, scowling around the circle at no one and everyone.

“I think your mother is still angry with me,” she said in a whisper. 

“No, she’s angry at Da,” Rumbi assured. “He didn’t listen to her argument for Mr. Downfeather as mayor. Or rather, he did listen but he’s going to vote for Mr. Goodbeck as he and the cousins agreed anyway. Another battle lost. I swear, every year she grows more determined to outlive my father so she can rule the Tooks the way she wants to.”

He had spoken lightly but Ami shuddered at the thought of Lalia as head mistress of the Tooks. She quickly changed the subject. “What about Mr. Diggle?” she asked.

“What about him? Da can’t vote for him just because he’s from Tookland,” Rumbi said. “He has to vote for the candidate he feels would make the best mayor, and he decided that was Mr. Goodbeck. I thought you would approve of the selection. His family comes from working class origins. It shows rather forward thinking on our part, don’t you think?”

“Forward would have been electing his grandfather,” Ami said. “He wouldn’t be the first new gentry elected mayor just so folk can prove to themselves that they aren’t complete snobs.”

“No, he wouldn’t be, but I can assure Da’s vote is sincere.”

“Which is what makes your mother all the more furious.” 

They both looked up, just as Lalia spotted them in the crowd. They looked down quickly again. “Don’t make eye contact,” he said, sending Ami into a riot of nervous giggles.

A moment later, a shadow fell over them. “What is so funny?” Lalia demanded.

Ami began to giggle more, so that she had difficulty even breathing. Rumbi mustered enough control to answer, “There are many things that are funny, Mother.”

“What are you talking about?” Lalia asked, trying a different track.

“That would be a private matter between Darling and I,” Ferumbras said, sobering quickly now. He looked his mother in the eye, despite his own advice. “Is there something you want?”

Lalia huffed, turned on her heel and stalked away to find someone else to intimidate. 

“Thank you,” Ami said, finally managing to control herself. “I appreciate that.”

“Don’t worry about Mum, Darling. I won’t allow her to be cruel to you again,” Rumbi promised.  “One o’clock. The teahouse. You’ll come alone?”

She nodded. “I’ll come.”

He handed her the comb so she could finish with her hair and went in search of his father; he needed to rehearse his proposal again. 

Esme and Dicentra arrived from changing in the tent at that moment. Esme watched Rumbi depart with a frown on her face. “What did he want?” she asked.

“Just saying good morning and inviting me to luncheon, so I won’t be eating with the rest of you,” Ami said.

“Why? Can’t we come?” Esme asked, sitting down and taking her sister’s tea for a drink. 

“He wants to see me alone,” Ami said. “He said it was a surprise. It must be my birthday present. I wonder what he got me?”

“If he’s smart, he’d get you your own riding shawl,” Esme said smartly and was immediately pinched by Ami. “Ow! Still a sore subject?” she asked, rubbing her arm.


“Sorry, love.” She looked around the circle and yawned. She took the comb from Ami’s grasp and pulled it through her own hair. Meanwhile, Dicentra sat behind Ami and began to braid her hair.

The hour was early. The sun in the east had not yet risen above the horizon. A few stars twinkled still in the west and the sky was lightened to a pale violet. Tooks were slowly starting to stir, and soon enough someone would be bringing out the cooking pots and provender. There was no official cooking schedule for the fair, though everyone lent their hand to cooking breakfast at one point or another. This morning was destined to be their turn, as they soon found out.

Calluna Took bent a finger at the lasses, as well as Saradoc, Paladin and Merimac, who were also awake by now. “Get up and be of use,” she said with cheer, indicating the cauldron and frying pan. They all leapt to their feet instantly; they dared not ignore a request by Isengar’s firstborn. The lads went to haul the cookery to the fire pit while the lasses helped to sort out what would be cooked for first and second breakfasts. Soon enough, they were all busy cooking as Calluna sat back, smoking a pipe with a twinkle in her eye. By the time Gardenia emerged, Calluna was regaling her younger cousins with lavish and wildly inaccurate retellings of her father’s many exploits over sea. Gardenia shook her head at her daughter, took the pipe away and went in search of the privy.

Saradoc elbowed Esme, who giggled. “Never too old not to be told what to do,” he said.

“A sobering thought,” she agreed.

By the time the food was ready, the first wave of hungry Tooks were standing in line, plates at the ready. Fortinbras was among them, for he needed to be at the Town Hole early. He sat next to his son and glanced briefly across the circle at Ami and her friends. “Don’t forget to take the gift with you,” he whispered.

Rumbi patted his pocket. “Luncheon is an eternity away.”

“It will be here soon enough,” Fortinbras said. “The morning’s work will see to that.”

Rumbi raised his eyebrows in doubt. “Casting a vote and then standing about waiting for the ballots to be counted doesn’t strike me as particularly thrilling. If the sun stops in midair, I wouldn’t be surprised.”

Fortinbras laughed. “You’ll see,” was all he said. 

They finished their meal, washed their dishes and departed. They stopped by the tent to put their dishes away and continued to the Town Hole without a word. 

The main hall was nearly full when they arrived. Nearly three-quarters of the family heads were already present, and the rest were not far behind. The mayor stood on the stage with Master Rorimac, and Fortinbras and Rumbi quickly joined them. They said their good mornings and chatted idly about the weather and the fair until the last of the family heads arrived and the doors were closed. It was time for the voting to begin.

None of the candidates were to be present for the voting. The family heads each took their seats when Mayor Lightfoot held up his hands and clapped twice. “Thank you all for arriving promptly. I know you are eager to enjoy the fair, so we shall be as prompt as possible. As there are among us many who have not participated in an election year before, I will briefly go over the process for today’s voting. I trust you have all given considerable thought to what you heard at yesterday’s debate and have arrived this morning ready to cast your vote. Are there any of you still uncertain of your decision? Do not be hesitant to speak up.”

A few hands slowly went into the air, followed by a few more. 

Lightfoot motioned for the hands to be lowered. “As I suspected. All our candidates have their own admirable qualities and unique set of attributes. Were I voting, I’d be struggling with the decision as well.” Those who raised their hands sighed almost as one. “Yet a decision must be made. As there are those who are uncertain, we will conduct the vote by secret ballot, so as not to influence those who need more time. You can review the candidates’ written statements, as well as the notes taken of the debate, both of which can be located along the back table. For those of you ready to cast your votes, you should have found an envelope on your seat when you sat down. Is anyone missing a ballot? ... No? Good. Then proceed to the front table here, mark your selection, fold your ballot in half - please be sure the ink is dry before folding it! - and place your ballot in the box. Once you have cast your vote, you are free to go. Please do not speak about your vote to anyone until you are outside the Hole.”

Fortinbras and Rorimac were the first to the voting table. They had been given their ballots by the mayor when they entered the hall and as the Thain and Master they were granted the privilege of first vote. Rumbi knew better than to hope this meant an early departure for them. He already knew they would have to remain to ensure the rest of the vote ran smoothly. Several hobbits forgot to wait until the ink was dry before folding their ballots and needed new ones. Others were caught whispering amongst themselves, comparing notes and observations, while others were prone to peeking over shoulders. 

The dozen or so hobbits who had migrated to the back of the hall were, much to Rumbi’s surprise, the quietest. They flipped through the written statements and the debate records, only stopping to ask each other if they recalled the candidates’ exact wording on this matter or that, as the notes only paraphrased. Rumbi quickly noticed that each of them were new to their position as family head, thus explaining why they wanted to make certain of their decision before casting their votes. When they each came to a conclusion, they quietly joined the lines, their faces set.

Fortinbras was right: the morning went by without Rumbi even realizing it. By the time the last ballot was slipped into the box, it was just past time for elvenses and only two hours before he was to meet Ami. 

He pressed his pants pocket again and felt the box. He had chosen his grandmother’s butterfly pendant necklace with a matching bracelet as his promise gift. He had thought at first to give her the traditional promise gift that has been handed down the Thain’s line since the time of Isumbras III, a heart-pendant necklace, but that would have required asking his mother for it. After their last conversation, he thought it would be unwise to approach his mother for the favor, not to mention that Ami would likely refuse it out of hand after the scolding she had received over the shawl. 

As he helped his father, Mayor Lightfoot and Master Rorimac to collect the boxes for delivery to the lawyers across the hall, he went over again how he planned to propose. He hoped he did not forget it all when the time came. He placed his ballot box on the table in front of the nearest lawyer then stood back to watch unobtrusively the beginning process of the tallying of votes. So as to leave no room for doubt, each lawyer opened one ballot after another, showed it to each of the other lawyers and their two aides, whose job it was to keep the count. If at the end of the tallying, there was any discrepancy in the total that the aides came up with, the ballots would be recounted until the tallies matched. Thankfully, Fortinbras pulled Rumbi out of the room after only a quarter-hour. 

“How many times do they usually have to recount?” Rumbi asked, stifling a yawn as he followed his father back to the Mayor’s Hall. A handful of servants were already there, cleaning up and straightening out. Mayor Lightfoot and Master Rori sat at the edge of the stage, their legs dangling over the side. 

“Usually no more than two or three times,” his father replied. “I’ve heard that the record is still held by the election of 1128, when the ballots had to be recounted twenty-three times.”

“Twenty-three?” Rumbi asked, appalled. How could anyone stay awake that long? Then again, perhaps that had been the problem.

“I heard it was thirty-two times,” Lightfoot said.

“Then there was the Great Debacle of 1322,” Rori said. “That was one of the last years they conducted the vote by raise of hand, because folk kept changing their minds when they saw how their friends were voting. After that, they tried voting in sets of ten, then five. Finally they went to the secret ballot in 1343. Since then, I believe it’s only been conducted by hand three other times.”

Lightfoot nodded. “Even if they had all stated to be fully certain of their decision, I would have kept the vote to the ballot.”

“So what do we do now?” Rumbi asked.

“Now, we go to the Falcon and get some food,” Lightfoot said. They stood with the Mayor and went with him out of the hall. “They should be done with the count by tonight’s announcement ceremony.”

“What if they aren’t?” Rumbi asked.

“Then the announcement will have to wait,” Lightfoot said practically. 

Rori harrumphed. “Won’t that get folk talking! To have a mayor announced on Overlithe would be the jam on the scone to many. Such a mayor would have to be destined for greatness!”

“Well he may be, whichever day the announcement is made,” Lightfoot said. “If it’s all the same, I’d prefer it be tonight, so he can help me with the wedding ceremonies.”

Rumbi excused himself. His stomach was tied into knots and he doubted he’d be able to eat until Ami was sitting across from him anyway. He spent the next hour and a half wandering the fairgrounds and enjoying the contests and displays. When the sun neared one, he headed for the teahouse. He found a table near the back for privacy and kept a watch on the door. He ordered the food and tea but asked for it to be brought only when Ami arrived. 

The minutes ticked by. Rumbi wrung his hands. His eyes never left the door but he began to wonder if he had somehow missed her coming in despite that. He glanced around the teahouse but saw no sign of Darling anywhere. The barmaid came by again and this time he accepted a cup of tea. He glanced at his pocket watch while the barmaid poured him a cup. 1:15. Where could she be? Had she decided not to come? Had she forgotten?

He finished his cup and waited a few minutes longer. He was just getting ready to head out and look for Ami when the door swung open and in she dashed. She looked harried and was puffing like a bellows. She had clearly been running to get here. Rumbi stood so she could spot him. She grinned and waved and proceeded to weave around the tables and other patrons.

“Hallo Rumbi!” she greeted, running a hand through her curls in an attempt to tame her hair. “Sorry I’m late, but I was with Esme, Pally, Mac and Sara picking out race pigs. Before I knew it, I looked up and it was one! You haven’t been waiting too long, have you?”

Rumbi smiled in return and gave her a quick peck on the brow. “Not to worry, Darling. Did you find a good swine?”

“We think so,” Ami said, sliding into the booth. “She’s a husky sow and has just the right amount of spunk.”

“It’s good that you’re enjoying yourselves. If you have no objections, I’ve already ordered.” He caught the barmaid’s eye and motioned that he was now ready for the food. He sat across from Ami, who was still panting slightly. “What else have you been up to? Surely you haven’t been looking at sows this whole time?”

Ami grinned. “Oh, there’s so much to see and so much food to eat! It’s such a shame you’ve had to be cooped up in the Mayor’s Hall the last two days, but it’s over now, isn’t it?”

“It is, the voting part at any rate. I do not believe there is anything else I need to do, except enjoy the pleasure of your company of course,” he said and lit up at Ami’s sweet smile. He clenched his hands in his lap and only just remembered to thank the barmaid when she arrived with their food. “Eat up. You must be hungry.”

“Oh, I’ve been nibbling all morning,” she said but picked up her soupspoon with enthusiasm all the same. “We ate these little custard tarts from Nobottle, and smoked meat from the Brockhouses, and the most wonderful round bread I’ve ever tasted. I didn’t think anything could beat the bread they make here at the bakery, but I was wrong. Did you know there’s this gaffer with a wild wolf? And he’s taught it to do all these tricks. He even has a small cast of falcons and they hunt with the wolf! It’s amazing!” 

“It sounds like you’re having a delightful time, indeed.” 

They ate then, commenting only on the food before them, when they spoke at all. Once they were finished and the barmaid had cleared their table, Rumbi reached into his pocket and pulled out the box, careful to keep it concealed below the tabletop. Ami noticed the movement and paused, waiting.

Rumbi paused also, holding his breath for a moment, then plunged ahead. “Amaryllis, my dearest Darling, words alone cannot express what you mean to me. You have been a dear friend, and a joyous cousin, and always do you delight me in every way I can imagine. I wish for you to have this.” He opened the box and placed it atop the table. 

Ami opened the box eagerly, and her breath hitched. She recognized it instantly of course, for she had seen the portraits of her great-grandmother and great aunt wearing the necklace and bracelet. “Oh, Rumbi,” she whispered.

“I ask that you accept my proposal and give me your hand in marriage,” Ferumbras said.

Ami sat looking at the heirlooms. She reached out as if to touch but stopped short of contact, either too mesmerized or too afraid to touch. “Oh, Rumbi,” she said again.

Rumbi wasn’t sure how to judge this reaction. He sat, a nervous cluster of anticipation, and waited.

Finally, Ami settled on reaching across the table and covering his hand with hers. “Rumbi, you know you are dear to me as well, and I think of you with the utmost affection.” She wavered on the brink of saying more, uncertainty creeping into her eyes. Rumbi’s stomach dropped. “I just... I... need time to think about it.” She squeezed his hand, as though that would quell the pain and disappointment that stabbed his heart at that moment. “Please, dear Rumbi, allow me until the end of the fair.”

“Of course,” Rumbi said and smiled bravely. “I understand this is somewhat sudden. I would be remiss if you felt pressured to answer at once.”

“Thank you, Rumbi,” Ami said.

An awkward silence settled over their table. Ami still hadn’t touched the heirlooms and Ferumbras was uncertain of what to do next. He had hoped of course that Ami would say yes, but he was not so foolish as to disregard the possibility of a no. Somehow, he had overlooked the chance of Ami’s uncertainty. Finally, he reached for the box, closed it, and slid it towards her again. 

“It is for your birthday, after all, whether or no,” he said. He paused, his mind racing. Why was she uncertain? His mother’s disapproving scowl popped into his head. “Are you still worried about my mother? I meant it when I said I would never allow her to speak to you like that again.”

Ami smiled weakly. “I know you meant it.” She wrung her heads, looking miserable. “I just wasn’t expecting this, I suppose. You’ve caught me rather off guard.”

Another silence fell upon them, during which Ami fiddled with her curls and Rumbi surreptitiously wiped the sweat from his hands and tried not to be sick. The barmaid came to fill their cups but Rumbi stopped her and paid her instead. He stood and offered his arm to Ami. She finally picked up the box and slipped out of the booth. She hesitated a moment and took his arm.

“Do you have any plans for the rest of the afternoon?” she asked.

“I do not,” he said. Whatever marvelous plans he had been imaging were most assuredly shattered. “I do however need to check with my father to ensure there is nothing else I need to do, and I am to observe the... wedding ceremonies as well.”

“Oh. Well, Esme, Pally, Sara, Mac and I will be watching the races,” Ami said as they stepped outside into the midday heat. “Join us?”

“I will look for you.”

Ami turned to him and began to stretch up on her toes for her customary good-bye peck on the cheek. She hesitated again, clearly not knowing what Rumbi expected. He solved the problem for her by lifting her hand and kissing the back of it. “Shall I keep you company until we find your friends?”

“I don’t want to keep your father waiting. Come as soon as you can. After the pig races, we’re going to watch the pairs races and the four-hobbit rally,” Ami said. “I’ll see you then.” She turned and dashed away, either in a hurry to find her friends or leave his side or both.

She was soon swallowed up by the crowd and Ferumbras went to find his father. He found Fortinbras as he was leaving the Falcon. Fortinbras only needed one look at his son to know that all had not gone according to plan. He took his son back inside to one of the private sitting rooms and closed the door. 

“What did she say?” he asked.

Rumbi shrugged and smiled weakly. “She needs to think about it. It’s not a no at least. Not yet, anyway. She promises to have an answer for me by the end of the fair.”

Fortinbras hugged his son and patted his back. “I’m sorry, son. I know it isn’t what you were hoping for, but don’t be discouraged. There are many a lass who linger over the decision, for it is not a small one, even when they were courting the lad.”

“And we weren’t courting. I can’t wait until Mother hears about this,” Rumbi said, his mouth pinched into a thin line. “I can already hear her saying ‘I told you so’.”

“We won’t tell her yet,” Fortinbras said. “We’ll wait until Darling gives you her answer.”

Rumbi snorted. “Good luck with that. I’m surprised Mother isn’t here right now, demanding to know every detail.” He paled as a horrid thought crossed his mind. “Unless Mother is out there hunting her down. You don’t think she would do that, do you?”

Fortinbras opened his mouth to reassure his son but stopped. He too could envision that particular confrontation only too well. He didn’t doubt that Lalia would be kind in her questioning, but he knew that would make little difference considering current circumstances. “She’s supposed to be helping to make badges for the contest winners,” he said. “I’ll stop by and check on her. You go to Ami. Just be her friend right now.”

“Thank you, Father,” Rumbi said. 

They parted ways once they reached the fairgrounds, Fortinbras going in the direction of the sewing circles and Ferumbras to the competition fields were the races were taking place today.  He had no idea how he would get through the next couple of days, but for Ami he would do his best not to put any more pressure on her than what she must already be feeling. He scanned the grounds for his mother as he went and was glad to reach the racing grounds without spying so much as a glimpse of her. He found the others without difficulty but he was surprised to discover that Ami wasn’t there.

“Hallo,” he greeted.

Paladin, Esmeralda and Saradoc looked up, just as surprised as he was. “Where’s Darling?” Sara asked.

“She said she was coming here,” Rumbi said, his stomach dropping yet further. 

“She told us she was having luncheon with you,” Esme said, in an almost accusing tone.

“We did have,” Rumbi said. “I needed to see Father afterwards and she invited me to join you for the races. She was coming here.”

“Oh, well, you know Darling,” Pally said with a wave of his hand. “She must have met someone and got distracted. She’ll be along. What do you think of the swine we chose?” He pointed to a black-spotted sow rutting in the dirt.

“She looks hale,” Rumbi said, though he wasn’t paying the sow much attention. 

He scanned the crowds for Ami. He couldn’t help but wonder if he had something to do with her failure to appear and tried to reason with himself that Pally was most likely right. She had come across a friend or cousin and stopped to talk then forgotten herself. At any other time, he would have found it endearing and he tried to do so now. He failed miserably in that attempt. “Perhaps I should look for her.”

Esme narrowed her eyes at him. “Why? What happened at luncheon?”

“Nothing. Nothing at all,” Rumbi said, trying his best to sound cheerful. 

Thankfully, they were soon joined by more of their cousins and soon after that, the races began. The races proved poor distractions though and as the afternoon wore on, Rumbi began to worry that something was truly wrong. Even Pally and Esme were beginning to watch the crowds more than the races once the sprints began. 

As the tracks were being set for the relay, Rumbi made a decision. “I’m going to look for her,” he announced. 

“I’m coming with you,” Pally said and handed his wager to Sara. “Stay with Esme. If Ami shows up, keep her with you. If we don’t come back before the end of the races, meet us at the tent circle.”

“All right,” Sara said.

“Is there something I should know about?” Paladin asked as they inched their way through the crowd.

“I proposed to Darling. She’s thinking about it,” Rumbi said.

Pally whistled low. “I’m sorry. I thought for sure she would say yes instantly. She adores you.”

“I hope so,” Rumbi said and laughed ruefully. “When she was late for luncheon, I started to wonder if she was trying to avoid me.”

“I’ve never seen a lass run that fast, when she realized what time it was,” Pally stated. They made it through the press of the crowd and into the general foot traffic. Pally paused, thinking. “You would have given her a gift. Maybe she went to the inn to put it away.”

”It’s worth a try,” Rumbi said. Without another word, they both turned and headed for the Pheasant

To be continued...

GF 7/27/11

Ferumbras sighed again and closed his eyes. The rocking of the carriage lulled him into a near slumber - he hadn’t liked lying to Twitch earlier, but it had been clear the lad needed more sleep - and he thought back on the events of the past week from a safe distance. 

After his mother’s passing, there had of course been an inquiry. Paladin and Eglantine had sat stiffly, their daughter Pearl weeping between them. Pearl had explained everything that happened as best she could: struggling to push Lalia to the main door, Lalia insisting that she prop the chair as close to the edge of the stoop as possible, Pearl doing her best not to get too close to the decline, Lalia nagging her that she still didn’t have a good enough view. Pearl, flustered and anxious to satisfy the Lady of the Smials, had done her best to inch the chair forward, but Pearl was just a little thing and had to put most of her weight and strength behind every push and prod, and the last one had proved the fatal one. 

There had been a few witnesses on hand. A couple of laundresses carrying a load of wash rags from the stables cleared the bend in the hill in time to see the chair’s front wheels tip over the edge and balance there precariously for a half-minute as Pearl struggled to pull it back, quickly losing the battle. Lalia had not helped, sitting back in her chair with such force that she knocked poor Pearl away and the chair and nature had taken over from there. The laundresses and Pearl had run down the hill to try to catch Lalia and the chair, but they were simply not fast enough.

The last witness had been none other than Reginard Took, coming back from some mischief no doubt. He had been at the bottom of the hill, enjoying a leisurely walk, when he heard the calls of the lasses on the hill above him. He looked up just in time to see the runaway wheeled chair and step aside from its path. A couple of lengths above him on the hill lay Lalia, prone, still and silent. He had run up the hill and reached Lalia at the same time as the lasses. A quick survey of the situation had convinced him to send Pearl to fetch the healer. He had then gone off to the barn to see about getting a stretcher made, leaving the laundresses to attempt reviving Lalia. 

Ferumbras had spoken at length with the healer. She examined Lalia thoroughly and determined that the fall itself would not have been fatal, had Lalia been of slighter build. “Bruised and sore for certain, and a break or two would be only expected, had it been anyone else. But Lalia, the poor dear, was likely crushed to death under her own weight. Three ribs cracked and pierced her lungs. Even if the laundresses had succeeded in turning her onto her back, it would not have helped.”

The news had traveled fast, and the rumors even faster and wider. Soon enough, Tooks and relations from all over the Shire began to descend upon the Smials to view Lalia’s remains, if only to assure themselves the rumors were true. Ferumbras realized quickly that a public statement in regards to the true nature of his mother’s passing needed to be made to stem the whispers and fingers pointed at Pearl. The statement had done some good, but there were still many who believed it all a plot of the Whitwell Tooks.


Chapter 9 - Decisions and Dilemmas

To say that Ami was surprised at Rumbi’s proposal would be an understatement. Of all the surprises she might have guessed, the box of heirlooms she now clasped in her hands would not have been one of them. She wasn’t at all certain what to make of it, except that she was relieved beyond words that Rumbi had agreed so readily to giving her time to think.

She crossed the fairgrounds lost in thought, oblivious to the hobbits who were made to dodge out of her way to avoid running into her. She was fond of Rumbi and cared for him deeply. He had always been one of her special cousins, whom she could rely on for anything. She was certain beyond doubt that he would make a fine husband and that they could be happy together. She simply had never thought of him in that way before now, not for herself at any rate. Rather, she had always thought he’d be well-suited for Heather, except that she had picked Chaco Brockhouse, only to lose him after two short years this winter past. 

She tried to think of him that way now and found it surprisingly easy to do. She could picture perfectly waking up in Great Smials every morning, walking hand in hand with him down the ramps and tunnels to the dining hall, or even making first breakfast in their own little kitchen. She could help teach the children their sewing and history, and enjoy leisurely time with her friends. She might even see Rumbi in the tunnels at times. They’d share a secret little smile before passing each other and going on their ways. In the evenings, they would talk about their day or read by the fire. As for the more romantic implications of marriage... Ami blushed and was grateful that no one was watching her too closely. She didn’t even know what it would be like to kiss him, much less anything else. 

She cleared her throat and moved onto to other matters. She was sure that her parents approved of the match. Rumbi would have asked their permission first. There was Lalia, of course, and the obvious need to be trained in the duties of the Thain’s lady. Rumbi had promised not to let Lalia snap at her again, so Ami knew that would not be a worry. She could live under Lalia’s tutelage, and once Lalia forgot her scorn, she would be pleasant company again. Ami wasn’t concerned on that account. And Fortinbras was a dear, sweet uncle who had always favored her. She would be near Heather, Amber and Arlo. She missed seeing her nephew grow up. Each time she saw him, he seemed to have grown by leaps and bounds. Yes, she could see it all very well. 

So why wasn’t she more excited?  

She reached the Took tent circle without realizing that she had been headed there. She paused, wondering what to do next, and realized she still held the box in her hands. She couldn’t very well walk around the fair with such valuables; she loathed the idea of putting the box down somewhere and losing it. Shrugging, she went to Sigibert’s tent, as she would be going there later tonight, after the bonfires. 

Unfortunately, in her state of distraction, she had managed to forget that it was Midyear’s Day. The wedding ceremonies would be performed tonight and Alchemilla’s sister, mother, aunts and female cousins were streaming in and out of Sigibert’s tent in a flurry to get all the last-minute preparations completed. Ami managed to tuck the box beneath her things before she was spotted and not a moment too soon. Before she knew what happened, she was right in the middle of the throng and everything else was forgotten.

Lalia, Gardenia and Dora sat in the middle of the Falcon’s common room, enjoying a cordial luncheon. They had already exhausted the topic of the elections and were discussing the various attractions and displays available at the fair. Gardenia wanted to stroll the art section, being in need of a new landscape for her dining room. If she could not find something she liked, she should be able to find an artist who would accept a commission. Dora requested to go to the carpentry section afterwards, as she required a more comfortable rocking chair for her parlor. Lalia, not one to stroll about when she could have someone else do it for her, would be heading to the sewing circle, where she intended to begin work on a new shawl for Ami.

Dora raised an eyebrow at this but only said, “That’s kind of you.”

Lalia’s mouth pinched in at the corners. She sniffed and said, “Ferumbras is convinced I can make my forgiveness more apparent to the lass by giving her my riding shawl for a Yule gift. However, that was the last thing my mother ever gave me, so I’m rather attached to it. Giving Darling one made by my own hands should be apology enough. She is a dear thing, for all she can’t keep a thought in her head for more than half a minute. It’s the least I can do, considering she may well be my future daughter-in-law.”

“I’m sure she will appreciate the effort and thought behind it,” Gardenia said. “The poor thing still looked shaken last time I saw her. She is not accustomed to being scolded in such a manner, except by her own mother of course, and Clematis can never stay angry with her for long.”

“She’s an endearing young lady,” Dora said. “It is always difficult to remain angry with anyone for too long. Add that dimpled smile of hers, and it’s a wonder Clematis can become angry at all.”

“Oh, that isn’t the reason,” Lalia said with a wave of her hand. “Everyone’s always tiptoed around Darling because of this Took curse she’s supposed to have, of all the inane things to believe. Everyone knows the luck of the Tooks, yet they continue to insist that Darling is going to fall over at any moment because she was born on Overlithe - considered the luckiest of days for near everything else! She’s been pampered beyond what is good for her because of it. I doubt she’d be so forgetful if she had to live with some consequences.”

Dora and Gardenia had to concede the point, if not the spirit in which it was given. Dora finished nibbling on her last strawberry. “Whoever started that rumor at any rate? It wasn’t considered ill luck when Hildigard was born, nor even after he died so young.”

“Undoubtedly, it was one of the servants, and it just spread like wildfire from there,” Lalia said. “Leave it to the help to come up with such ridiculous prattle.”

“I’ve known a fair number of learned Hobbits who come up with ridiculous prattle as well,” Gardenia said, a slight edge to her voice and gleam in her eye. Lalia managed to look contrite. 

“Come dears,” said Dora, “let us pay the bill and head for the fairgrounds. I’ve been cooped up for the last two days and I’m eager to see what the fair has to offer.”

They each left a couple of coins on the table and departed without another word spoken between them. 

Rumbi and Paladin left The Pheasant, no more the wiser as to Ami’s whereabouts. They found only Amber and Arlo in the room, both curled on one of the beds fast asleep. Ami was nowhere to be found. They asked the barkeep, who stated Ami hasn’t been back since she left last night. On a hunch, Pally went to the stables and spoke with Sprig, but he had even less information to offer than the barkeep. 

“At least she is being careful to keep her distance from the help,” Rumbi said with forced cheer.

“She’s not hiding from you,” Pally said assuringly. “She’s giving thought to your proposal. That’s a good thing.”

“Perhaps I should have waited until her and Mother were on good terms again,” Rumbi mused. 

“Something like that would not influence her decision,” Pally said. “Wherever she is, I’m sure she’s all right. Let us get back to the races. I want to see how my wager went.”

Ferumbras did his best not to think about Ami for the rest of the afternoon, a goal he succeeded at only one in every ten attempts. He was burning to know what had happened to her and why she hadn’t kept her word to meet him. Despite Pally’s reassurances, he was certain that his proposal was the cause for Ami’s disappearance. Well, there was nothing he could do about that now, except give Ami the time he had promised her to make her decision. If only his best mate, Adelgar, were here, but he had stayed in Tuckborough to help with the running of the fair there. Pally at least was proving a good friend in a pinch, and for that Rumbi was eternally grateful. 

Finally, the races were finished. Paladin did well with his wagers, breaking even. Saradoc faired better, winning a ducat overall, which he split with his brother for his sound advice in wagering. Esme had only betted in one race and she jiggled her winnings in her purse. 

“I’m going to look for Ami,” she announced and, turning on her heel, headed towards the tent circle.

“What is going on with your sisters anyway? Every time I turn around, one or another seems to have vanished,” Mac said.

Pally shrugged. “Amber’s at the inn with Arlo or was a couple of hours ago. Heather is no doubt helping Alchemilla prepare for the wedding, and Darling is... well, she’s Darling.”

“I’m surprised she doesn’t have a suitor yet,” Sara said. “I would figure the lads would be cramming the tunnels to knock on her door.”

“We don’t live at the Smials though, do we?” Pally said smoothly, sparing Rumbi from having to answer. “I’m grateful for it. I would hate to have to be batting lads away all day. The only suitable lads in Whitwell are already courting or married, or still years from reaching courting age, so that rules any of them out.” He glanced at Rumbi, hoping this information would ease any worries he might have about Ami being courted by another without his knowledge.

Mac jiggled his winnings in his pocket. “Do you think there are any of those fishing reels left? They were dandy and I need a new one.”

“Only one way to find out,” Sara said and the friends changed direction. “I think I will get Mother some gloves, and Father needs a new set of braces. We should get our aunts and uncles something too. Aunt Prima will want lace or yarn, and Uncle Dodi always needs chalk and slate, and...”

“Are you planning to get yourself anything?” Pally asked, amused.

“Oh aye,” Sara said and winked. “A whole apple pie all to myself. No sharing this one, lads. You’re on your own!”

“Is that so? We’ll see about that,” Mac said.

“You won’t actually, as I’ll be buying it when none of you are with me,” Sara said. “Such as now!” He darted off without warning, but Mac and Pally were fast on his heels. 

Rumbi stood back and watched them go. He would see them later at the wedding ceremonies, and he knew Pally would make some excuse for his sudden absence. He needed to get ready for the wedding ceremonies himself. The Thain usually took no part in the ceremonies performed at the Free Fair, but his father did conduct a good many in the Tooklands throughout the rest of the year. Fortinbras wanted Rumbi to be at the ceremonies tonight, ready to observe the mayor and learn all he could.

He went to the tent circle and changed into his best suit. His father was already there, waiting and taking the opportunity to read.

“Has she asked?” Rumbi asked without preamble.

“Hm?” Fortinbras hummed and looked up from his book. “Oh, your mother. I haven’t seen her yet, but I’ve decided what I will tell her. I’ll tell her that you became too nervous to ask Darling but you were determined to do so before the end of the fair. That should give you the time you need, she won’t have reason to harass Darling, and she’ll likely feel so sorry for you that she’ll make you hotcakes for first breakfast tomorrow. She’ll likely also want to speak with you.”

Rumbi nearly hugged his father. He would happily take his mother’s lectures if it meant that Ami would be spared them. “Thank you, Father. Have you seen Darling?”

“She’s with Alchemilla,” Fortinbras said with a wave of his hand in the general direction of Sigibert’s tent. He went back to his book.

“Has she been here all afternoon?” Rumbi asked.

Fortinbras nodded. “From what I can tell, any Took lass that made the mistake of coming here throughout the day got roped into doing something. You know Diantha. Once she has you in her clutches, you’re lucky to get away. She’s worse than ever at the moment, barking orders and sobbing in between about her little lass leaving the nest. Sigibert isn’t much better, so I suggest you stay away from the groom’s tent as well. Best you just sit down and wait it out until six.”

“I can do that,” Rumbi said and sat next to his father. He picked up another book from the small stack, but paid no mind to the words in front of him. He could feel hope fluttering in his chest again and he imagined just how wonderful it would be to call Ami wife. 

“Oh, Millie, you’re a portrait!” Ami said as all the lasses stood back from the bride-to-be.

Alchemilla stood in the middle of the tent. She wore a periwinkle dress trimmed in white lace. The bodice dipped slightly between her bosom, and a lace necklace with a teardrop amethyst rested upon her chest, a gentle tease for the bridegroom. Her hair was swept back with a simple lace ribbon, her curls trailing down to tickle her shoulders.

“Really?” Alchemilla said, nervousness and excitement colliding in her gut. She just wanted it to be midnight already; she and Ronaldo wouldn’t be able to slip away until after the bonfires were lit.

Heather nodded in approval, a fiendish gleam in her eye. “You’re lovely. Don’t plan on wearing that dress for very long.”

“Calluna Took!” chided Diantha. It took everyone a few moments to realize Diantha was talking to Heather, so rarely did anyone call her by her proper name. 

The elder Calluna merely chuckled and took advantage of her mother’s absence to draw out the pipe she had taken from one of the young lads earlier that day. “Your Ronnie will have you out of that gown in two winks is my bet.”

Diantha turned her scowl on Calluna. “Now really!”

“Oh, posh!” Calluna said. “How is the lass to know anything, if we don’t warn her? It’s custom, after all.”

“Warn her?” Ami asked.

She shouldn’t have spoken. Realizing that there were still innocent tweens amongst them, she and her younger cousins were soon ousted from the tent, nearing colliding with Esme. Ami clapped a hand over Esme’s mouth before she could speak and they all pressed their ears to the tent flap. Their attempt overhear anything revealing was thwarted when Gardenia walked by with her arms full of fresh-cut flowers. With an arch of her eyebrow, she had them following her back to the cooking circle where they sat and made garlands for the bride and her court.

“What do you think she meant, warn her?” Ami asked. “About what?”

Rosamunda shrugged. “How am I supposed to know?”

“I know, and it’s nothing like you would think watching the livestock,” said Verbena. She was the second youngest of Isembold’s granddaughters, but only a couple of years younger than Ami. Her sister Euphorbia had been married earlier that year and had whispered a few secrets to her. She leaned forward and whispered them to her shocked cousins.

“No! That’s a lie!” said Rosamunda, looking scandalized.

“Ronnie is going to be doing that to my sister?” Dicentra asked. 

Ami remained silent for a moment, her cheeks flushed. “How did your sister know? I mean, how did she know that she’d found the right lad?”

Verbena giggled. “She said she knew she was in love with Marco when he picked a leaf from her hair. It was last autumn and it was quite windy. The leaves were falling nearly ten a second and one caught in her hair. He took her hand to stop her - they were strolling along the riverbank at the time - and he reached up, plucked away the leaf and pushed her hair behind her ear. She said that was when she knew she would marry him.”

“Just like that?” Ami asked.

“Why would that make her want to marry him?” Esme asked. 

Verbena shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s her story, not mine.”

“Millie said she knew from the moment she saw Ronnie,” Ami said.

“Mum’s said the same thing about Da,” Rosamunda said. She giggled. “She also teases that if she had just looked the other way instead, she would have saved herself years of headaches.”

Ami fingered the half-completed wreath in her lap. “Amber and Heater both said similar things about their lads, not about the headaches but about knowing. They just knew. I remember Amber asking Mum about her own story with Da, the night Amber and Mallard were promised. Mum said it didn’t happen that way for her. Instead, she said that she had always liked Da as a friend. They were good friends for a long time. It wasn’t until after they were married that she realized she loved him and had the whole time.”

“How did that work?” Verbena asked. “Why did she agree to marry him if she didn’t already know she loved him?”

“Because she knew she’d be happy with him,” Ami said. Was that the answer then? Was she to be like her mother and come to realize her love for Rumbi after they were married?

“So how did she know she loved him, then?” Verbena asked, interrupting her thoughts.

“The first winter after they married, he had the flu,” Esme said when it appeared Ami wasn’t going to answer. “She and the healer took it in shifts to watch after him. Even though he was ill and feeling dreadful, he still found the charm to win over the healer, who was one of those healers who think that fellows can’t possibly be as good at the healing arts as lasses. That’s when she knew.”

“I suppose it does happen that way,” Dicentra said, “but it sounds to me like she loved him before that. Maybe she just thought it would feel different than what it did.” 

“Then what is it supposed to feel like?” Rosamunda asked, but none of them knew the answer.

They finished the wreaths and delivered them to Diantha. They had tea with the others in the bride’s tent, then went to the fairgrounds to find a good spot to sit and watch the ceremonies. They joined Amber, Heather and Arlo. Not too far from them were Pally, Mac and Sara, and a few Took lads. 

“Where have you been?” Heather asked Ami. “I understand you went missing earlier?”

“Helping Millie get ready,” Ami said and avoided Esme’s eye. Esme hadn’t questioned her about how she had come to be in the Took camp in the first place, but Ami knew the question was coming. She would rather have it come later though, when there weren’t so many people around. As if reading her thoughts, Esme reached out and gently pressed her hand. Ami met her gaze then and smiled. Later, they would talk.

The sun slowly waned and as six o’clock approached, the couples to be wed began to arrive. The stage was already set and soon the Mayor was there, with the Thain and Ferumbras, the mayoral candidates and the chief lawyer in charge of the ballot counting. Clematis and Lalia showed up just before the start of the ceremony to hand over the award badges and ribbons. Clematis joined Adalgrim, but Lalia remained near the stage. Fortinbras leaned over and briefly whispered something in her ear. By six o’clock, all were present and the field surrounding the stage was packed full of Hobbits so that not even a bare spot of ground could be seen. 

There were over three dozen couples to be wed tonight, a colossal number even for Midyear’s Day. Usually, the couples would form a line, with their witnesses standing nearby. One by one, each couple would move forward to the altar, exchange their vows, have the license signed by their witnesses and then move aside for the next couple. Usually, there were no more than a dozen couples. With so many couples being wed, it would take well past midnight to finish.

“This is going to take forever,” Verbena said, voicing Ami’s thoughts.

“No it won’t,” Saradoc said. “Father said they’re going to have two altars this year. Thain Fortinbras will be helping the new mayor, whoever that is, to conduct half the weddings, while Mayor Lightfoot does the other half. So it will only take half as forever.”

“Half as forever?” Esme asked. “That makes no sense.”

“Sure it does,” Ami said. “Instead of taking forever, it will only take half that long.”

At long last, Mayor Lightfoot tapped the stage with his cane and began with the announcements and prizes of all the contest winners for the day, which in itself took a half-hour to complete. Finally, he called the mayoral candidates to the stage, introduced them and commended them on a successful campaign.

“Unfortunately, we can only have one successor,” Mayor Lightfoot finished his speech. The chief lawyer stepped forward and handed him a sealed scroll. “I would like to commend Mr. Hayfield and his associates for their upstanding job of counting the tallies today.” Everyone applauded. Mayor Lightfoot opened the scroll, unrolled it and read aloud: “Mr. Goodbeck! Step forward, good sir! You are our new Mayor!”

The crowd burst into whistles and cheers, the working-class hobbits clapping louder and longer than the others. Goodbeck stepped forward, looking proud and surprised.

“Would you like to say a few words?” Mayor Lightfoot asked.

“Um.... thank you!” Mr. Goodbeck said and the crowd cheered again.

The other candidates all stepped forward to congratulate Goodbeck and then take their places amongst the crowd. Mayor Lightfoot removed his sash, put it on Goodbeck and shook his hand. 

“Now, without further ado, we have couples awaiting their vows. Are you up to it?” Lightfoot asked.

Goodbeck looked dazed, but he nodded and went to his altar. Fortinbras was there to help him if needed, and Goodbeck had a script from which to read to ensure everything was done correctly. Rumbi stood next to his father, silently tormented. He wished now he had waited to propose to Ami. With his own happiness so uncertain, he didn’t know how he would get through an evening of endless weddings.

The first two wedding parties stepped forward and the ceremonies commenced. As the couples completed their vows and the witnesses finished signing the licenses, the parties stepped aside to let the next one come forward. It was a long process, and there were so many couple that by the end of it even Goodbeck no longer needed the script. Rumbi even could have conducted the ceremony, had he the authority. The last two couples sealed their marriages with a kiss, and the audience cheered all the newlyweds while the final witnesses signed their contracts. 

The moon was high in the night sky by this time, and the regular feasting hour was well passed. The crowd departed, some going off to their own tents, rooms or homes, but most separated with the wedding parties back to the feasts that awaited them at their camps. While they celebrated, workers would clear the stages and assemble the bonfires for the midnight festival of Overlithe.

The Tooks assembled in their tent circle, the bride and groom at the center to greet them. The feast was grand, considering the limited cookery available. The servants had not let that stop them from creating a meal worthy of the Great Smials banquet hall though. Soon everyone was eating and laughing, and some juniors took up their lutes and pipes. Those who were done eating put down their plates to dance in the aisles, while the others went back for thirds and fourths. 

Ami and Esme hugged Alchemilla tightly. Millie was glowing, grinning from ear to ear. “Oh, love, you look so happy!” Esme said.

Millie nodded. “I feel like I’m floating. That is, if I knew what floating felt like, it would probably feel like this,” she said. 

“Where’s the honeymoon?” Ami asked.

“You know I don’t know that,” Millie said. “I wouldn’t tell you even if I did. I’m nervous enough without having to worry about scheming cousins showing up to ruin things.”

“We would never do such a thing,” Ami said.

“I would,” Pally said, coming up behind them. He hugged Alchemilla too. “Where’s your husband? Have you lost him already?”

“Husband!” Millie exclaimed. “Can you believe it? I’m a wife now! Oh! There he is. Eating again. I hope he doesn’t get himself too full. I better go check on him.” She dashed off. 

“So it begins,” Esme said. “Just a couple more years, and it may be us. Can you imagine?”

“I can,” Ami said, half-wistful, half-uncertain.

“Can you?” Pally asked. “Do you have any prospects?”

Ami frowned and pulled Esme away. “Actually, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about,” she whispered.

Figuring the most private tent would be Sigibert’s, given his family would be celebrating with the bride, she led Esme there and peeked inside. Empty. They slipped in undetected. Ami went to their sleeping area, pulled out the box containing the bracelet and hair clips, and handed it to Esme. Esme’s eyes nearly popped out of her head when she opened the box and saw what lay inside.

“That’s why Rumbi wanted to see me for luncheon,” Ami started but was interrupted by Esme, who bounced on her feet and gave her sister an enthusiastic hug.

“You’re getting married!” Esme exclaimed. “Oh, Darling, this is wonderful! Rumbi’s a good lad, very practical, and he dotes on you so.”

“I told him I need to think about it,” Ami said, stepping back from her sister’s embrace.

Esme paused, her smile dropping. “What’s there to think about?”

“Lots of things,” Ami said. She explained her earlier considerations, which only seemed to confuse Esme more.

“So then what is the problem, if you can see it all so clearly, and it sounds like a delightful life? I think you’re over-thinking things, love. Just go with what your heart tells you. Aren’t you fond of Rumbi?”

“Of course, I am!”

“Then why are you hesitating?”

“I’m not sure. I was surprised, to be certain,” Ami said. “We weren’t even courting. Don’t you think it’s odd that he never asked to court, if he was considering this?” She waved feebly at the box Esme still held, forgotten in her hand.

“Not all couples court before they get married, Darling,” Esme said. “Maybe you’re like Mum and Da. You may grow to love him still and realize you’ve loved him the whole time. He’s a dear to you and always has been. He’s never broken his word to you. He’ll take good care of you. You’ll never want for anything.”

“I know I won’t,” Ami said. “Maybe you’re right and I’m thinking about this too much. Maybe I should just listen to my heart, but my heart says to think about it more.”

“Well, don’t think about it too much,” Esme said. “You did tell him you’d have an answer by the end of the fair. I suggest you stop fretting about it. Enjoy the rest of the night and have fun on your birthday tomorrow. It only comes around once every four years after all. Spend some time with Rumbi and just enjoy his company. My guess is the answer will come to you as easy as pie and you’ll wonder why you spent all that time thinking about it.” She grinned mischievously. 

Ami laughed and nodded. “All right.” She stowed the gift box away again. Then she and Esme returned to the festivities. 

The sun was setting as they emerged from the tent. Ami stopped to watch as blue turned to gold and crimson to deep violet. Esme stood with her, their arms linked. When the sun sinked below the horizon, Ami sighed. “What a lovely sunrise, don’t you think?” she asked.

Esme arched an eyebrow. “That’s a sunset, dearest, but it is lovely.”

They continued to make their way around the circle lanes, stopping to chat with their friends and cousins as they passed them by. Eventually they made it to the cooking circle again and sat for another bite while there was still food to be had. By this time, Rumbi was also there. He and Ami locked eyes over the fire pit. Rumbi smiled shyly, uncertain, and gave a little nod before going back to his conversation with Reynard Chubb, Calluna’s son. He kept his distance as the evening aged towards midnight, giving Ami the room he had promised her, watching her from the edge of the circle as she laughed and danced with her cousins and friends. Finally, as midnight neared and the time for the lighting of the bonfires approached, Rumbi came to her and offered his arm. She hesitated only a moment before slipping her arm through his. 

“Enjoying yourself?” he asked.

“I am,” Ami said. “You and Reynard seemed to have much to talk about.”

“He’s contemplating what he will study for his apprenticeship next year,” Rumbi said. “He’s quite skilled with his hands and has an eye for intricate details. He can’t decide between carpentry and leather craft. I told him he could easily take apprenticeships in both until he figures out which one is more appealing to him, and there’s no reason he can’t continue with both if he decides that as well. Then I started telling him about my failed apprenticeship with carpentry. To this day, Master Tobold runs in the opposite direction whenever he sees me. Clearly, he’s still in fear for the safety of his thumbs.”

Ami laughed. “You weren’t that bad, surely?”

“I’m banned from even touching a hammer,” Rumbi said. “I’m not even allowed to look at a saw.”

Ami giggled helplessly, relaxing into his side. “Well, now, you must tell me these tales. How come I never heard them before?”

“Haven’t you? I thought everyone in the Smials has heard them.”

“I don’t live in the Smials,” Ami reminded him.

“Fair point,” Rumbi said. “Now, let me think. I suppose I shall have to start at the beginning, as it’s also the end. I only had the one lesson, see? From my very first assignment, it was clear I didn’t have the skill for it. All I had to do was hit the nail with the hammer.”

“You couldn’t hit it?” Ami guessed.

Rumbi grinned. “Oh, I hit it several times. Unfortunately, the nail in question happened to be attached to Master Tobold’s finger.”

“You’re making this up,” Ami accused through her laughter.

“Oh, that I were,” Rumbi said. “But alas, it is the truth I speak. After my failed attempt to master hammering, Master Tobold thought I might at least be able to handle a wood plane. It was a good theory, but-”

“Ami!” Heather called them from the fairgrounds as they emerged from the circle. She ran up to them, looking concerned and frantic. “Have you seen Mum or Da?”

“No. What’s-”

“It’s Arlo,” Heather interrupted, wringing her hands. “He’s worsened. He had a slight fever earlier today, so Amber took him to the inn to rest thinking he’d had too much sun. But it’s worse now. He started screeching a horror and he wouldn’t stop fussing. Oh, I knew I should have said something earlier.”

“Where are Amber and Arlo now?” Rumbi asked.

“Going back to the inn as we speak. I thought maybe Mum would know something to give him,” Heather said.

“Why don’t you call for a healer?” Rumbi asked.

Heather frowned. “She doesn’t want a healer.”

“She’s getting one,” Rumbi said. He let go of Ami’s arm and patted her hand. “Find your mother and father and get them to the inn. Heather, go with Amber, get some hot water ordered from the kitchen and get as many candles lit as you can in your rooms. The night is warm, so the healer may not require a fire but she’ll still need light. Get the hearth ready with wood and tinder, just in case. I’ll get the healer and bring her to the inn.”

They separated, Ami returning to the cooking circle to recruit Esme and Pally in her search for their parents. The word of Arlo’s illness spread faster than she could search however, so it was her father who found her fifteen minutes later. Clematis was already on her way to the inn, with Esme and Pally in tow.

“What do you think will happen to Arlo?” Ami asked, her heart in her throat. The glow of the bonfires dotting the fairgrounds, usually a welcome and serene sight, now gave her a sense of foreboding.

“I don’t know,” Adalgrim said. 

By the time they reached the inn, Heather, Esme, Rumbi and Pally were sitting in the common room, each looking exhausted. They were sharing a jug of beer. A steaming kettle sat ignored on the table, the teacups untouched. Ami poured herself some tea and listened intently as Heather addressed their father.

“The healer and Mum are with Amber. Arlo’s complaining of a headache, and he’s vomited at least once. The healer thinks it is heatstroke and is working on him. She’s already given him some juices to drink, which seems to have helped, and she has Amber sponge-bathing him,” she said. 

“But he’ll be all right, won’t he?” Ami asked.

“Of course he will,” Adalgrim said. “He wouldn’t be the first one to suffer heatstroke during this fair, and he won’t be the last. I’m going to go peek in on them.” He disappeared down the hall.

Rumbi leaned over and poured some beer into Ami’s teacup. She drank without tasting either.

A few minutes later, Clematis and Adalgrim joined them. Adalgrim poured drinks for them both and went for another jug. Clematis smiled bravely for her children. “He’s just a little overheated. He’ll be fine by morning. Why don’t you all go back to the bonfires and enjoy the festivities? There’s really no need for you to be here, and you can assure everyone else that all is well.”

“Can I see Arlo first?” Ami asked.

“Of course, dear. We’ll wait here for you,” Clematis said. 

Ami knocked on the door before entering. Inside, the scene was somber. Arlo was stripped of his clothes and lying on the settee. He seemed to have cried himself out and was instead whimpering in between hard breaths. Even in the candlelight, his skin looked pink and angry. Amber sat next to the settee, wringing cloths of cool water from a basin and placing the clothes over her son’s exposed skin. The healer stood at the dining table, rooting through her satchel. Various bottles and bags were scattered on the table around the kettle. The healer, who looked to be about her mother’s age, looked up when Ami entered and smiled. 

“You must be the other sister,” she said.

Ami nodded. “Amaryllis Took,” she said with a curtsy. She kneeled across from her sister and ran a hand through Arlo’s soaked curls. “How are you feeling, button?”

Arlo murmured, too soft to make out the words. A small smile fleeted over his lips before he closed his eyes again.

“He’s better than he was,” Amber said. “Poor lamb.” She looked ready to pass out where she sat. Her eyes were puffy, whether from the late hour or earlier tears or both, Ami didn’t know. Her hair was coming out of its bun and sticking up at odd angles. She looked older than her years. 

“Do you need me to help with anything?” Ami asked.

“We’ve got it under control, Miss Amaryllis,” the healer said. She came over with a cup of juice. Amber sat Arlo up so he could drink, then lay him back down. “He’s a strong lad, quite hale. He’ll be running around again in a few days, as though nothing happened.”

Ami nodded. “I can stay though,” she offered again. She cast her eyes around the room, looking for something that needed doing. Her gaze fell upon the soiled clothes and sheets that Arlo had been sick on. “I can do the washing.”

“That’ll keep till morning,” the healer said.

“It’s not a bother,” Ami said. She stood and gathered the washing into a basket that was near at hand. In her haste, she didn’t notice she had grabbed the wood basket nor that her hands were shaking. “I’ll be right back.”

“Ami, leave it,” Amber said. “One of the servants will take care of it in the morning.”

“But it’s his favorite shirt,” Ami said. “It won’t take but a minute.” Not waiting for another argument, she left the room.

Her family and Rumbi stood when she entered the common room. None of them asked her about the laundry but they left the inn as one. Heather, Pally and Adalgrim proceeded to the fairgrounds, but the others remained behind. Ami hitched the basket onto a hip and smiled. “I’ll be along as soon as this is finished,” she said.

“I’ll help you,” Esme said, with a pointed look at their mother and Rumbi. Clematis lingered for a moment, then kissed them both on the brow and went to catch up with her husband. 

Rumbi looked less convinced but kissed Ami’s brow also. “You won’t be long?”

“Not long at all,” Ami said. Rumbi left then too and Esme and Ami made their way around the back of the inn to where a small streamlet flowed. They followed the streamlet to the river that ran behind the fairgrounds. It was quiet there and isolated. The moon was already high, providing some light to see by. Ami dropped the basket and began to remove the clothes. 

“Where’s the soap?” Esme asked.

Ami paused. “I must have forgotten it.”

“We won’t get far without it,” Esme said. “I’ll run back and get some.” She turned and headed back down the stream, walking at a leisurely pace despite her words.

Ami watched until the night enveloped her, then shook out the clothes and sheets. Heedless of the stinging in her eyes, she picked up Arlo’s shirt and dunked it in the river, the water chilling her hands. She twisted out the water and dunked again, repeating this process until it was as clean as it was likely to get for the moment. Then she sat back, pulled her knees to her chest and let the tears fall.

To be continued...

GF 7/31/11

The Thain felt the front of the carriage veer to the left and knew they would be reaching the upper pass to Pincup soon. He peeked out the window, wondering how much further it would be. He received no clues from the trees that passed by, so he let the curtain fall and waited for the tell-tale dip that would indicate they reached the hill road. It came sooner than he would have thought.

He peeked out the window again, keeping out of view. He had forgotten how many curves the road had, but the steepness of the hill made it necessary to prevent carriages and traps from gaining too much speed. He spied plumes of smoke from Pincup below. Already there were a few smials and even a small tavern, The Top of the Hill Inn. Ferumbras wondered if the curves would prove too difficult for Twitch, but the lad knew what he was doing and kept the carriage close to the hillside.

Nestled in the southern edge of the Green Hill Country, Pincup peeked from the forest and dotted the hillside spreading to the plains of the Southfarthing at its feet. Home to both working hobbits and the respectable Banks family, the town had both quaint homes and traditional hobbit-holes, some simple, others grand, but all furnished with the necessities and comforts hobbits had come to enjoy and expect. Little gardens decorated the yards, livestock ran along the lanes with the children, and old gaffers and gammers chinwagged over low fences. The town was much the same as it had always been.

The carriage slowed as Twitch navigated around a particularly steep turn. They rounded the bend and the quiet town came into full view below, the road gradually became less steep as they neared the bottom of the hill. Children played in their yards and on the hills. They waved as the carriage rolled by, while the gammers, gaffers and workers tried to spy who was inside. Ferumbras was grateful for the curtains: it was enough that the carriage would be identified as coming from Tookland by the door emblem of a crossbow over the Green Hills. He had refused the Thain’s carriage with the shooting crossbow; there was little chance his arrival would be announced ahead of him but he did not want to take that risk. 

At length, they reached the bottom of the hills and rode out of the trees into the heart of Pincup.


Chapter 10 - Overlithe

Ami heard the snap of a twig behind her, but she didn’t turn around until she heard, “Ami? Are ye all right, lass?” It was Perry. 

She looked up, wiping the tears away with haste. “I’m well,” she said, which was partly true. 

After her initial tears, she did feel much better than before. Whatever had been pent up inside her had run its course. Now she merely felt the lateness of the hour and the slight chill in the midnight air. Midnight. It was Overlithe at last, and she was thirty-two. This realization struck her as absurd and she laughed.

“Ami?” Perry asked again, stepping out of the shade of a row of trees.

“Sorry. It’s been an odd day,” she said. 

She sniffed and attempted to make herself look decent, for all that there was hardly any light to see by. The crescent moon barely out-shined the stars. Then suddenly a great glow of brilliant orange leapt up from the direction of the fairgrounds, hidden from by view the copse, and the hobbits assembled there roared and clapped. Music began to play and some folk sang, though the words could not be made out. The bonfires had been lit.

Perry seemed not to noticed. Instead, he came closer still and risked a smile. “Day’s just begun,” he said, then tipped his head in the direction from which he just came. “If I may ask, why are ye not at the bonfires? It’s all anyone could be talking about the last coupla days. Is something wrong?”

“Nothing, really, not anymore at any rate,” Ami said. “Arlo, my nephew, he came down with heatstroke and gave us all a scare.” She looked down at her nephew’s soaked shirt and felt the cold tighten around her belly. “He’s had hay fever for the last couple of days, and then this... It all seemed so familiar, like it was winter again. But he’s on the mend and the healer says he’ll be all right in a few days. I don’t know why I cried.”

Perry came a few steps closer still and crouched down to her eye level. He shrugged. “Sometimes, ye just need to cry. That’s what my ma would tell me anyhow. Why winter again? Was it a bad one for yer kin?”

She nodded. “My sisters both lost their husbands, and Amber took sick as well. She lost the bairn she was carrying. Arlo’s her son.”

“Ah,” he said. He sat tailor-fashion on the ground, some feet away from where Ami kneeled by the river. They both watched the river in silence for a time, letting the soft babble soothe them. The echo of music and laughter added its own joviality to the air. Finally, he said, “It happens like that sometimes, but it’s naught to be sad over.”

“How can you say that?” Ami asked, aghast.

“I reckon as the only reason to be sad would be if you’re certain as to never see them again. I’m not certain as I won’t,” he answered. “It don’t keep me from missing ‘em at times, but it’s more like ye miss someone as gone off for a hunting trip and ye’ll know as they’ll be back in a couple of days. Only in this case, it’s them as is doing the waiting.”

“Who are they?” Ami asked.

“I lost my ma a few springs back. The ague. My dad followed a month later. My gammer said it was a broken heart as got him. Last autumn, my gaffer went on. He was almost 110, and I remember thinking how disappointed he’ll be as he didn’t make it.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” she said. She put the shirt down, spread it across the grass, and sat back, facing Perry. “You weren’t sad at all?”

“Oh, aye, it’s always sad at first, but I have my siblings, and my gammer still,” he said. “Besides, I’ve still got my parents and gaffer in a way. I have their memories and all the things they’ve taught me. It’s not the same - I can’t be hugging a memory - but I can sometimes imagine what they would be doing or saying, especially since coming here. I’m sure as they’d have a lot to say about all this!”

“I can’t imagine losing my parents,” Ami said with a shudder. “You know, everyone figured I’d be gone by now. Supposedly, there’s some sort of curse for any Took born on Overlithe. It’s just silly nonsense. I’ve wondered sometimes what my parents would do if the curse were true and it had got me.”

“They told this to ye?” he asked, disturbed at the thought. 

“Of course not. No one knows that I know, but I overheard it, several times,” she said. 

“That’s a dark thing to be living with.”

She shrugged. “I figured there wasn’t anything I could do about it if were true, so why worry about it? I forget it entirely most times. I don’t know what made me think of it now.”

“It is Overlithe,” Perry said. “Happy birthday.”

Ami smiled. “Thank you.”

“Is that the cause of all the oddity then, yer nephew and yer curse?”

“No actually. I met a friend for luncheon and was asked to make a decision. I’ve been round and round it ever since, and I still can’t make up my mind,” she said. “I’m not sure what to do, except that I promised to have an answer by tomorrow.”

“Maybe I can help,” Perry offered. “Since my gaffer passed on, it’s been up to me to make all the decisions. Gammer is a great help, but in the end it’s my choices as say if we eat or go hungry. To tell ye the truth, I still don’t know most of the time what I’m about, but I do like to think as I’ve got better at pretending it. Would ye like some general tips? They’re likely not worth much.”

Ami nodded. “I would love that. It can hardly muddle up my thoughts more than they already are.”

“All right then,” Perry said, repositioning himself to face Ami, as a tutor to his pupil. “Tip the first: Your first reaction, if ye have one, tends to be the right one. That’s not always the case, but more often as not, I go with it and all works out in the end. Tip the second: get advice, if ye can. Someone else might see something as ye missed, or offer a side of things as ye didn’t think of. Tip the third: Know when to stop looking for advice. It won’t do ye favors to go looking till the time for the decision has passed ye by. Me, I ask my gammer and my brother. They’re forever disagreeing with each other, so I figure between the two of ‘em, I’ll get all the information as I’m likely to need. Tip the fourth: Once ye have all as ye need to make the decision, make it and don’t change yer mind once ye’ve made it. If after looking over everything, you’re still not sure, then go with yer first reaction. Tip the fifth: Sometimes, ye just have to draw straws. And finally, tip the sixth: Ye’ll never know if yer decision was the right one, or if deciding different could of been better. Ye’ll only know the outcome of the decision ye do make. Don’t doubt yerself. It’ll bring ye to no good.”

Ami considered all this and nodded. “That’s sound advice, but I’m still confused. I did seek advice from someone I trust, and she said I should do it. I do see her point. It’s a practical solution.”


Ami shrugged. “My first reaction was to sit there dumbstruck. That’s not much help.”

“Are ye so certain it ain’t? My gaffer told me once as there’s three things to listen to in making a decision: yer gut, yer heart and yer head. Some folk always decide with one or another, usually whichever one serves them best. I tend to go with my gut. My head and my heart usually aren’t far behind. I take it ye tend to go with yer head, and yer head can’t make up it’s mind?”

“My head says that my sister is right. On the one hand, I can see so clearly everything that will come of saying yes, and it’s all quite lovely. On the other, I just can’t seem to actually say it. I suppose my gut is telling me there’s something else I’m not considering, and my heart...”

“What kind of decision is it?” Perry asked.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, it’s clearly not a choice between apple pie and raspberry tarts, in which case I would say get one of each, or two or three,” Perry said. 

Ami laughed. “If only it were that simple.”

“Some decisions require ye to go with yer gut more, such as when I decided to come here. I couldn’t use my head as I’d never been here and didn’t know what to expect. I couldn’t use my heart, which in any case was telling me to stay put, because the outcome of this fair doesn’t effect only me but everyone as depends on me. It weren’t a personal choice, I mean to say.”

“This particular decision usually tends to be a heart one, but there are several others who make it with their heads and are perfectly happy. Their hearts followed their heads, as you say.”

“But yer head ain’t certain what to do,” Perry pointed out. “I think we let fate decide. Close yer eyes.”


“Ye’ll be fine.”

Seeing no reason not to, Ami did as she was asked. 

“Now, image I’m holding up two straws in my hand. One is long and the other short, but ye don’t know which one is which. Can ye see ‘em?”

Ami nodded. “I see them.”

“The short one means ye say yes. The long one, ye say no. Reach yer hand out and pull a straw.”

Feeling somewhat silly, she reached up. She focused on the image in her mind. She was imagining herself in the stables in Whitwell. The familiar scents and sounds around her were comforting, but as she looked at those two pieces of hay sticking out from Perry’s hand, she hesitated. Could her decision really come down to this? Surely, this was too important of a decision to allow a piece of hay to decide it for her.

“Pull a straw.”

Holding her breath, she reached out and plucked a straw.

“Ye’ve pulled the long straw. How do ye feel?”

Ami let out her breath and started to cry anew. “Relieved.”

“Are ye sure, lass?”

She nodded. She took some deep breaths and gathered her resolve. “I’m sure. I just loathe having to tell him.” She opened her eyes and found Perry watching her closely, his eyes filled with concern. She smiled. “Thank you for helping.”

“Did I then?” he asked. 

“You did. I find it difficult to believe you have a hard time making decisions.”

“I’ve had to make a lot since autumn. I try to be brave about it, but most of the time I am just pretending. Doesn’t help as they can all tell. I think as they only go along with what I say out of sympathy most times.”

“Now that I absolutely refuse to believe. You came all this way, alone, not knowing what to expect. That’s a kind of bravery I’ve never seen before. It certainly requires more courage than I’m capable of.”

Now Perry tilted his head in obvious disbelief himself. “Ami, you’re the bravest person I know.”

“What makes you think that?” she asked.

“Because when I’m with ye, I’ve never felt so brave,” he said. “I meant it the other day when I said I’d still be standing on the grounds, frozen to my spot, if ye hadn’t come along. Ye gave me hope I was doing the right thing.”

Amy wasn’t sure how to respond to such a statement. The only thing she could think to do was reach out and place her hand over his. His skin was warm despite the cooling of the midnight air. She hadn’t realized how cold her own hands remained until then, the water’s chill still damp on her skin. Her hand trembled. Perry must have noticed this also. He turned his hand and placed his other on top of hers to warm it, rubbing gently. Warmer she did feel. It spread throughout her body, tingling her skin in its wake. 

She cleared her throat and looked down at her free hand. “What are you doing up at this late hour anyway? Enjoying the bonfires?” she asked, desperate to fill the air between them. The air itself seemed to have warmed by several degrees. 

“Nay. I was laying in the pen, thinking over the day, when I saw a falling star,” he said. “They say as if ye find a fallen star, ye’ll have good fortune to the end of yer days, so I thought as I’d try and find it. And I found ye.”

Ami started to laugh, thinking it a jest, but when she met his eyes again, the laugh caught in her throat. Everything around them seemed to fade away and the only thing that seemed real was his hands covering hers and the thinly veiled yearning in his eyes. She leaned forward, pulled into that gaze.


Esme’s sharp voice shattered the moment. Cold swept in from all around and Ami bolted to her feet, swaying slightly from standing too quickly. Perry stood more slowly and caught her elbow, steadying her until her head stopped spinning. 

“Esme,” Ami said. Her voice sounded panicked to her ears, and her heart was racing as though she had just competed in a foot race. 

Esme stood a few yards away, carrying soap and a pair of washboards, her expression unreadable. “Who’s your friend?” she asked.

“Hm? Oh! Uh, Perry, this is my sister Esmeralda Took,” Ami said, finding her voice and her manners with difficulty. “Esme, this is Perry Nettleburr.”

Making sure Ami could first stand on her own, Perry let go of her elbow and extended his hand to Esme. “At yer service.”

Esme stepped forward and shook his hand briefly. “At the service of you and your family,” she said, somewhat tersely. She turned to Ami pointedly. “Can you believe the barkeep had no idea where the soap was kept? He couldn’t even be bothered to look for it. He couldn’t fathom why you didn’t just leave the laundry there, which I must admit is a good point.” She glanced again at Perry. “Anyway, I finally found the soap and washboards. Mum and Da must certainly be wondering what is taking us so long, so I suggest we hurry.”

She went to the river and began to attack Arlo’s shirt with the soap.

“Good night to ye,” Perry said and started to leave.

“Wait!” Ami said. “My party. You are coming tonight, aren’t you?”

Esme stiffened.

“I thank ye for the invitation, but I don’t think I will be able to make it,” Perry said.

“Oh.” Ami felt deflated, but she pushed this aside and smiled charmingly. “Well, if you don’t come, I’ll have to look for you, won’t I?”

“I’ll try then,” Perry said, smiling back. He left, retreating back into the copse that ran down the river.

Ami joined Esme and they washed the laundry without another word between them.

Ami woke late the following morning, alone in the tent. The nearest sounds were far away, the general babble of folk enjoying the fair. She dressed quickly and went in search of food. From the sun’s position, she guessed it was close to second breakfast and she was right. Rosamunda and Verbena were there, just sitting down to their meal as well.

“Happy birthday, Darling!” they greeted in unison.

“Thank you!” Ami said. She piled a plate with eggs and ham and sat next to her cousins. “Have you seen Esme or Dicentra?”

“They were stopping by the Pheasant before going to the shows,” Verbena said. “Your mum left not too long ago. She said Arlo’s already much improved.”

“Thank the stars,” Ami said, relieved. “I think I shall follow them.” She ate quickly and departed, stopping at the tent for her things. 

It had been a mistake to take Rumbi’s proposal gift there yesterday. It was only by sheer luck that it was not discovered in the flurry of activity of preparing for Alchemilla’s wedding. She needed to put it in her case until tomorrow, when she could tell Rumbi of her decision. She wished that she could tell him today, but it would be poor form to return a gift on her birthday and worse luck still to reject a proposal on Overlithe. 

She concealed the box by rolling it in her sleeping gown and made her way to the inn. When she arrived, she found her entire family there, all of them looking tired but hopeful. They greeted her with a cheerful “happy birthday” and hugged her each in turn. Only Amber and Arlo were absent from the parlor. They were fast asleep in the bedchamber, resting now that the worst had passed. Ami tiptoed to her bags, put her things away, then returned to the parlor, thinking she would drag out the trunk holding her birthday presents once Amber and Arlo were awake. She sat next to her mother and resisted the urge to lean against her.

Adalgrim sat forward and cleared her throat. “So, Ami?” he began, sounding expectant. “Is there something you wanted to tell us?”

“Tell you? I don’t think so.”

“Nothing?” Heather asked. 

“Maybe something that happened yesterday?” Pally prompted.

“Yesterday?” Ami repeated, blushing. Her mind leapt immediately to Perry, but surely Esme wouldn’t have said anything about that. She glanced at Esme, who was watching her with that same, expressionless face. Esme lifted an eyebrow.

“About Rumbi, dear,” Clematis said. Her excitement was even less veiled than her husband’s. “Didn’t you meet him for luncheon?”

“Oh!” Understanding finally came to Ami. “I did, but at the moment there is really nothing I care to say about that. Perhaps later.”

Clematis and Adalgrim exchanged quick glances. “Perhaps later then,” Clematis said. She placed an arm around Ami and hugged her briefly. “If you need to talk, just ask.” She kissed Ami’s brow then stood. 

Adalgrim followed suit. “Come on, children. Time to get to the fair.”

“I’m going to stay and help Darling with her gifts,” Esme said.

“What about Di?” Pally asked.

“She went to get a wheelbarrow for taking Ami’s gifts to the party,” Esme said.

Soon enough, Esme and Ami were alone. The only sounds were the soft breaths of their sister and nephew in the other room. Esme closed the bedchamber door and sat across from Ami. “Well?” she whispered.

“Well what?”

“Don’t play innocent with me. I saw you last night. You were about to kiss that Nettleburr chap if I hadn’t interrupted you. What were you thinking?”

“I wasn’t about to kiss him,” Ami said, blushing further. “After you left, I started crying. He just happened to come along and he... he was nice. He distracted me.”

“I’m sure he did.”

“Not like that! We talked, that’s all.”

“And what about Rumbi? Why haven’t you seen him yet? I figured that would be the first thing you would want to do,” Esme said.

“I’ll speak with him tomorrow,” Ami said.

“Why not today?” Esme asked, though she could guess well enough the reason for the delay. “Darling, we talked about this. He’s a good match for you, and just because you don’t love him in that way now doesn’t mean you won’t come to do so later. Look at Mum and Da.”

“It’s dishonest, Esme,” Ami said. “I am fond of him, but as a brother. I can no sooner marry him as I could Pally.”

Esme watched her sister closely. She wanted to say more but knew it would come to no good if she did. She touched Ami’s knee instead. “That is your decision, isn’t it?”

“Of course it is,” Ami said. “Who else’s decision could it be? He didn’t go around proposing to every lass he crossed paths with. At least I hope not. The coffers would likely be run dry if he did that.”

Esme snorted. “Especially here. Have you seen the way all the lasses have been fawning all over him, just because he’s the Thain’s son? I think that’s why I was hoping you’d say yes. At least you would love him for who he is.”

“He’ll find another lass,” Ami said. “And he can find a lass better suited for being the Thain’s Lady.”

“I think you would have made a fine Thain’s Lady,” Esme said. “So if not Rumbi, then who?”

Ami shook her head, even as Perry’s face floated into her mind’s eye. “I don’t know.”

A few minutes later, Dicentra returned. She knocked twice before letting herself in, and between the three of them, they managed to haul the trunk from the bedchamber without waking Amber and Arlo. Ami was fairly certain that everything was already in order, but she wanted to check the gifts one last time, so Esme and Dicentra went to order elvenses while Ami went over her checklist. She added a few more gifts to the already packed trunk, little trinkets she had bought here for Sprig, Nab and Perry, if they came. Since Sprig had his letters and enjoyed cooking so much, she had bought him a small receipt box with empty cards waiting to be filled. For Nab, she bought a pair of gloves, knowing the ostlers were always in need of them. Perry’s gift had been the hardest, as she knew so little about him. Finally, she had found a set of cowbells, which would come in useful for his newly acquired herd. Hoping that all her gifts were well-received, she closed up the trunk and joined her sister and cousin in the common room for their meal.

By the time they finished eating, Amber was awake and ready to eat as well. Having anticipated this, they called for the food they had ordered for her, then hugged her and left. They only made it halfway down the hall with their luggage before a pair of serving lads showed up to take over the load. They led the lads to the service door, where the wheelbarrow sat, but insisted that they could haul the load to the party grounds, which were not that far away. There were already a couple dozen servants there, setting up the pavilion and stage. Ami entrusted one with guarding her trunk, then went with her friends to enjoy a show or two before she would need to be back to greet any early guests. 

The party was to begin at tea but Ami was sure to return by three. There were already a few guests there, and she retrieved their presents and greeted them, chatting about the fair and the weather and whatever gossip they had acquired since they last time they spoke. She finished just as more guests arrived, so she took her spot at the entrance to the pavilion. Most of the gifts were mathoms she was ready to pass on. For her special friends she had made drawings or selected gifts she knew they needed or wanted. By teatime, there was a long line of Tooks awaiting entry into the pavilion, so she promised to find them and speak with them later, once the food was served. Near the end of the line was Alchemilla and her new husband.

“Millie! You made it!” Ami exclaimed and hugged her fiercely.

“Of course I did. I wasn’t about to miss this!” Alchemilla said, hugging her back just as tight. 

Ami shook Ronaldo’s hand and gave them both their presents. She watched them walk away hand in hand. She had never seen her friend so happy and glowing. 

The last in line were Rumbi, Lalia and Fortinbras. She greeted them all with a hug and a peck on their cheeks. “Rumbi. Auntie Lalia. Uncle Peanut. I’m so glad you could make it! Do come in and have a seat.” She handed them their gifts.

Lalia and Fortinbras took their gifts, Lalia with a great amount of grace, and moved into the pavilion. Rumbi lingered behind. “How is Arlo?” he asked.

Ami pointed to the front table, where Arlo rested in his mother’s lap and under the shade. His skin was a deep red and he was quite uncomfortable in even the nightgown he was dressed in, but he had wanted to come. Amber consented on the grounds that it would only be for tea, after which she suspected he would be tired and ready to return to the room at any rate. 

“He’s well. He’s keeping his food down and he’s still on the thirsty side, but he’s fine. The healer gave him a paste for the burn and a scrub for when it starts to peel, poor dear.”

“I am glad to hear it,” Rumbi said. “And how are you?”

“A little tired, but well,” she said. She left her perch, noticing that a few gifts still remained. She glanced at them quickly: Sprig, Nab and Perry. Well, perhaps they would arrive later, after dinner and their chores.

She walked with Rumbi to her seat and waited until he was seated before raising her glass.

“Speech! Speech!”

“Thank you all for coming to my party,” Ami said to much applause. She saw Bilbo in the crowd. He winked conspiratorially. She winked back and remained standing until the applause finally stopped. “It is such a treasure knowing each and every one of you, for you are lovely and dear friends. You have each touched my heart in ways I cannot begin to express.” More applause followed this and some moved as though to start piling their plates with cheese and pastries. She cleared her throat to get their attention and waited until they sat back in their chairs again. She decided to have mercy on them. “Though I am thirty-two today, this is but my eighth true birthday. I wish it to be a grand one for all of you, so without further ado, please enjoy your meal.”

Everyone dug into their meal with alacrity. There was tea of course, as well as cheese, fruit, scones, water-biscuits with preserve, seed cakes and crumpets. The pavilion was soon full of the sound of hobbits eating with delight, and several enjoyed seconds and even thirds. Some finished eating and picked up lutes, tambours, horns and flutes and began to play. Soon there was dancing and singing, and the pavilion hummed with the babble of happy and sated hobbits. A few continued to nibble at their meal and so were the first to be seated when dinner was served.

The party went long into the night, and Ami was able to fulfill her promises, making it to each of her guests to speak with them about anything and everything that struck their fancy. She danced with several of her guests, and Rumbi three times. Though she could see the question lingering behind his eyes, he did not mention the proposal once, for which she was grateful, but instead spoke about the shows and the last day of the fair and the confidence of the new Mayor. 

Just after eight, Sprig and Nab arrived. As Ami suspected, they had waited for the end of their evening chores before coming, not wanting to leave their friends to do their work for them. Ami also suspected that they had chosen to wait until after the family had the dinner meal, but there was of course still food to be had. She hushed their explanations with their gifts and pointed them to the food before promising them each a dance. 

Soon afterward, cake was brought out, as well as pudding, pies and tarts, and everyone sat down again to enjoy dessert. Toasts were made in Ami’s honor, much to her embarrassed delight. When all corners were filled, the music started again, and Ami was pulled to the middle of the pavilion for the Byrding’s Dance, in which she danced a set with each of the eligible lads in attendance. Sprig and Nab didn’t step forward to take their turns, and Ami didn’t press them. As soon as the next dance began, she insisted on getting them to their feet. Following their lead, the other servants joined in the revelry, and soon all were enjoying what truly was a grand party.

It was past eleven before the first revelers began to leave. Ami saw each of her guests to the entrance and bade them farewell. By an hour past midnight, only a handful remained, these being Ami’s closest friends who humored her in helping to clean before going with her to the inn where they would spend what was left of the night. 

“Darling, don’t forget this,” Verbena said, motioning to the trunk, which was now empty but for one gift.

Ami closed the lid without looking inside. She had been on the lookout for Perry all night, her eyes often straying to the entrance, as well as the shrubbery and grounds surrounding the pavilion, but he never appeared. She thought he might arrive shortly after Sprig and Nab, but as the hours flew by it became apparent to her that he would not be coming. 

The trunk was greatly lightened now and she and Verbena were able to carry it back to the inn with ease. They sat the trunk inside the door of their rooms, as Esme and Dicentra went to get them some ale. Rosamunda lit the candles and sconces and closed the shutters. Once Esme and Dicentra were back and the door locked, they happily stripped down to their underclothes, wrapped themselves in blankets and quilts, and gossiped into the predawn hours before they finally nodded off to sleep. 

But before Ami’s eyes drifted shut, she saw again Perry’s face, silhouetted by the glow of the distant bonfires. 

To be continued...

GF 8/8/11

Ferumbras almost didn’t notice when they reached the town center. His mind had wandered again, now to events beyond the last week. 

Lalia hadn’t been so foolish to overlook how little regard in which her fellow Hobbits held her. On rare occasions, she would let Ferumbras see how much it bothered her, but that was usually after a few too many shots of gin. Overall, she held herself tall, her chin even higher, and ignored the forced politeness of those who had to deal with her. She considered their various relations who refused to visit to be good riddances: one less family to accommodate, one less person to find mathoms for come Yule or her birthday. She was too proud to back down on her word, to take back slights and ask forgiveness for her rulings. She was proud, but not invulnerable. Ferumbras sometimes wondered if she was perhaps the most vulnerable person he knew.

He knew of only one thing that had ever truly hurt her, and that was when he finally left the nest for his own apartment. He hadn’t moved far away, just a few tunnels down, but to Lalia, it had been as though he moved clear across the Shire. “My own son,” she had muttered the whole time he was packing. “My own son would forsake me.” 

Ferumbras supposed he could have picked a better time to move out, rather than the week after his father’s passing. He had been upset that his mother refused to hand over the title of The Took to him, not because he particularly wanted it but because of what she might do with that position. She and Father had ever squabbled over decisions concerning the Family and the Tooklands. Now she had free reign to do as she pleased.

So Ferumbras moved out and his mother didn’t speak to him for nearly a month. She had ignored him in the tunnels and even at the dinner table, though she didn’t banish him from the head table as many thought she would. She may have continued to ignore him had he not come down with influenza. He had spent a miserable week in bed, his mother at his side the whole while. When he was well again, they simply went on as though the previous month had not happened, as though she had always been supportive of him moving out. It was simply easier that way. If they had started talking about that, there was no telling what other topics might awaken.

Best to leave the past in the past.

Then a week before her passing, Lalia invited Ferumbras to tea. What she said then astonished him to no end.

“I’ve made mistakes, Rumbi.” She was the only one who still called him that. “I quail to think of the happiness I’ve cost you. I no longer wish to be The Took, and I’ll announce it next month at my birthday. You’ll be The Took at last, as you should have always been.”

“Mother, are you ill?” Ferumbras had asked, full of concern. 

Lalia scoffed and patted his cheek. “Of course not, dearest. Eat your crumpets.”

Ferumbras smiled now, remembering that tea. Had she known somehow that her time was nearly at its end? The thought passed his mind fleetingly that his mother might have orchestrated that fall, but he pushed it firmly from his mind. It had been an accident, nothing more. Sooner or later, the other Tooks would believe it as well and Pearl would be able to put the whole incident behind her. 

He surfaced from his remembrances in time to feel the carriage slow to a halt.

Chapter 11 - 2 Lithe  

Amber waited anxiously as the healer examined Arlo a final time in Dora’s room in The Soaring Falcon. She had stayed again with Dora, giving Ami and her friends the room at the Pheasant to continue their party, and to be close to the healer, just in case. 

The healer’s face was hard to read, but Amber thought she saw a hint of a smile turning up an otherwise stern mouth. 

“You’re using the salve?”

“Yes, three times a day as you said.”

“And the juice?”

“Yes, as often as he’ll take it.”

“And the sun?”

“No, Miss, he hasn’t been allowed outside except for after sunset. It’s been hard, but he sleeps most of the time, which helps.”

“Is he sleeping that much?”

“Should he not be?” Amber wrung her hands, hoping she hadn’t done something wrong again. She would likely never forget the lecture the healer had given her the previous day for waiting so long to seek her services, and she felt like a foolish child every time she thought of it. 

The healer stood and pulled the sleeves of Arlo’s nightgown back down. She turned a level eye on Amber, then actually did smile. “He’s recovering quickly, lass. You’ve done well.”

Amber sighed and hugged the healer. “Thank you!”

“Keep him out of the sun for another week at least. When you get home, see your healer there. I wrote down the receipts for the juices and salves, though I’m sure she knows them already.” She indicated the folded letter Amber gripped in her hands.

“Our healer is a chap,” Amber said.

The healer paused at this but said nothing. Male healers were not unheard of but were a rarity in most of the Shire. The healer gathered her things. “He can write me if he has any questions.”

Amber saw her to the door and handed her a small purse with her payment.

“This is too much, child,” the healer said, feeling the weight of the purse.

“It’s mostly farthings,” Amber said, though it was in truth more than she would normally pay a healer. Considering the severity of her son’s condition though, she felt that the healer had earned every coin, including the three pennies that lay hidden at the bottom.

“Take care,” the healer said and let herself out.

Amber sat next to Arlo. “Can I go outside today, Mama?”

“Sorry, love, you heard the healer. I’d rather row with the Thain, Master and Mayor before crossing a healer,” Amber said. She reached for the jar of salve on the table. “Time for your next treatment, love.”

“Will I start peeling soon?” Arlo asked. He was beyond excited about his eventual malting. In the absence of being able to do anything else, Amber couldn’t blame him for his fascination.

“Very soon,” she said. She dipped her hand in the salve and started to spread the cream over his arms and upper chest. “By tomorrow, I would guess.”

“Really?” he asked. “Can I save them?”

“No, but you can toss them in the fire,” she said.

A knock sounded on the door and Dora entered. Behind her, a barmaid carried a tray of tea and first breakfast for them all. Amber finished applying the salve, washed her hands, then allowed Arlo out of bed to sit at the parlor table to eat first breakfast. The barmaid set the table, bobbed and left, clicking the door closed behind her.

“Did you enjoy your time at the party, Dora?” Amber asked. 

Dora yawned. She had been among the first to leave but was still tired from staying out so late. She had forgotten that Took parties tended to last well beyond the hour of sensibility. “It was a lovely affair, quite marvelous by all standards,” she said. “How are you holding up, dear?” She gave her a stern look, similar to that of the healer.

“I just feel a fool,” Amber said. “I knew he wasn’t doing well. I don’t know why I didn’t call for a healer sooner. I just kept imagining every horrible thing she might tell me and I couldn’t bare it.”

“There’s no point in ‘should haves’,” Dora said. “You’ll know not to wait so long next time.”

Amber hummed. “Next time. Does there have to be one of those?”

“There always is,” Dora said. “No point fretting over something that hasn’t happened yet, isn’t that right, young lad?”

Arlo nodded. “Can we eat now?” he asked.

“Indeed we can,” Dora said and they dug into their meal.

After they finished eating, they sent Arlo to Bilbo’s room next door. He was well enough that when he wasn’t sleeping he was antsy and impatient. Bilbo could entertain him far more easily than they could. 

Once Arlo was gone and the food cleared, Dora motioned for Amber to sit again. She studied Amber for several moments, her clever brown eyes taking in everything about her cousin’s appearance. When Amber thought she couldn’t withstand that stare a moment longer, Dora finally spoke.

“I know you miss your Mallard and the life that could have been,” she started, empathy in her eyes, “but you have a son to think about. You’ve mourned their loss long enough.”

“You know I value your advice, Dora, but you never married and you’re not a mother.”

“But I have loved, child. And lost. Grieving is good when it helps us heal, but not when we let it fester. Mallard would be heartbroken to see you like this. It’s time to start living again, lass. Go home to Whitwell and get yourself together again. I think your sister needs it as well. Heather has been spending so much time taking care of you and Arlo, she’s been ignoring herself.”

“I know,” Amber said. “She already told me she intends to stay at home through the winter. I said I would stay too, but I’m wondering now if it wouldn’t be wiser to return to Tuckborough without her.”

“You’ll know when it’s time to leave,” Dora said. “I do not think it’s necessary to leave Heather behind. She just needs to know you’re well again. We all do.”

Amber smiled gamely. “I’ll get better,” she promised and, for the first time since that fateful morning when she woke from her fever dreams and realized her world had broken around her, she realized she meant it. 

Lalia woke first. Always an early riser, no matter how long she had stayed up the night before, she dressed quietly and went outside to enjoy a walk through the grounds before the bustle of the day made it nearly impossible to move around freely. She said good mornings to those she passed but was glad when they didn’t stop to talk. She wandered around the near-empty stalls and booths, looking at the things on display. She had done most of her shopping already, but there were a couple of items she still had her eye on. She was disappointed to see that most of these had been sold or traded already, but the birch snuffbox was still there. She picked it up and looked at it again, admiring the expertise of the hand that made it. It would make a fine Yule gift for Fortinbras, and she could keep it at Gardenia’s so he wouldn’t stumble upon it by accident.

Some of the vendors and traders were already arriving to set up their booths, so Lalia lingered, perusing the other stalls while she waited. A few more early shoppers arrived, no doubt with the same intention as her. She remained away from the snuffboxes though as no one else had yet shown an interest in them. Just before eight, a hobbitess came up the lane munching on a scone and carrying a cup of tea. When she neared the snuffbox booth, Lalia made her move. She made it to the stall just before another lady and rested her hand on the birch box. The other lady scowled for a moment but politely moved on to look at the other boxes instead.

“Good morning, lass,” Lalia greeted.

“Good mornin’ to ye, Mistress,” the young hobbitess said cheerily. “I see yer eyein’ me box there. That one took me three weeks to finish, polish and all.”

“You made this yourself?” Lalia asked, surprised by this. Many of the vendors sold their own creations, but just as many hired workers to do the selling for them. Lalia looked at the box again, the carefully carved design on the lid, a birch tree and the hint of hobbit smoking at its roots. It was varnished and polished to a bright, high shine, and her critical fingers could not find a bump, dip or jagged edge anywhere. “It’s a marvelous piece. May I ask, who taught you your craft?”

“Me mam,” the lass said. “She only ‘prentices a lad or lass at a time, but she’s got the arthritis now and can’t be holding them wee tools for endless hours at a time anymore. ‘Tis a shame. She had real talent.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Lalia said. “What are you asking for this piece?”

“Fer ye, Mistress, not but three pennies,” the lass said.

It was easily worth twice that amount. Wondering why the lass would offer it for so little, Lalia opened the box and inspected the inside. Fine velvet lined the inside of the box, and the fit of the lid was tight and sure. The hinge was simple metal, nothing fancy there, but it opened easily and flawlessly. 

“You underestimate your skill, lass,” Lalia said and eyed the lass more closely. Sharp, keen eyes looked back at her. “But I suspect you know that. No doubt hoping I’ll end up offering more and save yourself the haggling.”

The lass laughed and snapped her fingers. “Yer the first as caught that ‘un, Mistress!” she said, not bothering to deny it. It was a risky tactic, but Lalia was certain it had worked well for her - until now. 

“I’ll give you two pennies,” she said.

“It’s three, or ye can move on,” the lass said sweetly. “Ye were here the last two days eyeing that one.  Ye want it that bad to come yerself, ye’ll pay three.”

Lalia huffed, then laughed. She reached into her purse and withdrew three pennies and a half dozen farthings. “Here’s a tip for you, lass,” she said, handing over the coins.

The lass took the coins, wrapped the box in a rag and took another bite of her scone. 

Laughing still, Lalia left the lass to her other customer. She hoped the lass was good at haggling, as there was no way the other lady had missed hearing their exchange. She had a feeling the lass would do just fine.

Lalia returned to the tent and found Rumbi and Fortinbras awake and already eating. She placed her purchase in her trunk and sat with her family. Fortinbras smiled. “Out robbing vendors already?” he asked, leaning over to peck her cheek.

“I was the one robbed this time,” Lalia said, “but it was worth every coin.”

Rumbi yawned. His hair was sticking out in various directions. Even his foot hair was matted and tangled. 

“Nervous, dearest?” she asked.


“You must ask Darling today, if you’re going to,” Lalia said. “Try not to over think it. Just out and ask the lass. She will be lucky to have you for a husband.”

Rumbi nodded. “Yes, Mother.”

“Don’t dawdle now,” Lalia said. “After today, you won’t see her again until Yule, or longer, and who knows what can happen in that time. Knowing her, she’ll say yes to the first lad who asks for her hand, so you better make sure you’re the one.”

Rumbi swallowed his bite of sausage, wiped his mouth and stood. “You don’t know her though, do you, Mother? Excuse me.” 

“Where are you going?” Lalia asked.

“To see a lass.” He ducked out of the tent, letting the flap drop behind him.

“What is that about?”

Fortinbras patted her shoulder. “He’s just nervous, love. Be patient with him. I’m sure by tonight he’ll have more than news for us.”

“He had better, for all the grief he’s been giving me on her account. I can’t imagine what made him stall the last time,” Lalia said, “unless his better sense is taking hold.”

“Darling is a fine young lass,” Fortinbras said. “Our son would be hard pressed to find better. You’ve always been fond of her.”

“I’ve tolerated her for our son’s sake,” Lalia said. “I will continue to do so, but I have my doubts that she’s the best he can do.”

Ami woke to the soft whisperings of her sister and cousins as they quietly scrambled to get dressed and ready for the day. Rosamunda and Dicentra were sharing the vanity and washstand while Esme brushed and ribboned Verbena’s hair. Verbena, who was facing the floor where they had all fallen asleep last night, was the first to notice that Ami was awake.

“Hurry, Darling!” she said. “We’re going to miss signing up for the cooking contests! Esme and I are going to enter in the desserts. We’re making apple crumble. You’re joining us, aren’t you?”

“Posh! We’re going to be making mixed-berry bread,” Rosamunda said. 

Ami reached for the nearest comb and started to work out the knots from her foot hair. “I’m afraid I won’t be able to join either of you. I need to find Ferumbras.” She met Esme’s eyes, who smiled in understanding.

“You’re spending a lot of time with Rumbi this week,” Verbena said. “He’s a nice lad. Shame about his mother.”

“We’re friends,” Ami said, concentrating on her feet. She said no more and was glad when her friends started talking about their plans for the cooking contest again. 

When they were dressed and ready, they stopped in the common room to eat a quick first breakfast. Esme and Dicentra retrieved their cooking supplies from the kitchen where they had stored it before heading for the sign-in tables for the day’s competitions. They were all tired but happy, and the warm sun and bright skies cheered them more as they marched over the fields. The line was already long by the time they arrived, but they passed the wait by recounting everything that they had done at the fair so far. Ahead of them in the line were Paladin, Saradoc and Merimac. They speculated on what the lads might be cooking for the contest, but their supply wagon was covered from view, allowing them little in the way of clues. 

“Sara!” Esme called suddenly, getting his attention. He trotted over to them. “What are you planning to make?”

“Cherry-blueberry pie,” Saradoc said. “It’s an old family receipt, quite popular in the summer. What’s our competition?”

“My apple crumble, and they’re making mixed-berry bread,” Esme said.

“Your apple crumble?”

Esme nodded. “It’s my own receipt and always in high demand.”

“Is that so? I’ll be sure to try some then. You’ll have to try some of our pie.”

“We’ll do that.” 

“Sara!” Mac called and waved for his brother to come back. The line was moving.

Sara rolled his eyes. “There’s twenty groups still ahead of us at least. You’d think we were running a race. Speaking of races, the pony races are this afternoon, finally. Will you be attending? We’ve been watching the trainers as they walk their ponies and we’ve got our picks made already. I rarely lose that bet.”

“We were planning on resting this afternoon,” Verbena said. “A quiet afternoon in the tents.”

“We’ll have more than time enough to rest tomorrow on the ride home,” Dicentra said. “I wouldn’t mind watching a race or two.”

“It would be fun,” Esme agreed.


“I best go,” Sara said. “We’ll try to save you tables near us, that way we’ll be sure to get a bite of each other’s receipts.” He trotted back to his brother and Pally. 

“Cherry-blueberry,” Esme said. “Interesting combination.”

“Sounds good though,” Ami said. She looked up at the sky. It was already mid-morning and second breakfast would be over soon. “I better look for Rumbi. I’ll see you at the pony races.”

She returned to the inn for the jewelry box and also the small package with the cowbells, figuring she could stop by the livestock pens on the way to the races later. She didn’t know how long it might take to track down Rumbi, much less explain her reasoning and ensure that he was all right with her decision. She placed both packages in a small covered basket and set out.

She went first to the tent circle and asked every Took and relation she could find where Rumbi might be. No one was certain, as it appeared no one had seen him. Stopping at the Thain’s tent did little to help as everyone was already gone for the day’s activities. With the mayoral vote finished, there would be no reason for Rumbi to go to the Town Hole again, though it was likely that Fortinbras might be there, making acquaintance with Mayor Goodbeck. Lalia most likely was at the sewing tents again. Rumbi, if they had been in Tookland, would be at the archery competitions today but they had no such contests at the Free Fair. He might choose to go to the pony races later, but Ami didn’t want to delay their talk for that long. She could either wander the grounds aimlessly until she stumbled upon him, or  someone who knew where he was, or she could check with his parents, who must surely know where he was.

She went to the Town Hole first and found Fortinbras almost at once. He was leaving the Mayor’s Hall with the Master and the new Mayor. As soon as he saw her, he excused himself and came to her. He didn’t know where Rumbi was however.

“Last time I saw him, he was going to look for you,” Fortinbras said.

“When was this?” Ami asked.

“Just after first breakfast, though it was closer to second breakfast.”

“Then he didn’t come to the inn,” Ami said, more to herself than him. “Did he mention anything else he was planning to do today?”

“I’m afraid he didn’t.”

“If you see him, tell him I’m looking for him,” Ami said. “I’ll be at the pony races this afternoon, if I don’t find him before then.”

“I’ll tell him, Darling.”

She strolled through the town and back through the grounds, looking for anyone who might have seen Rumbi. Unfortunately, half the Tooks seemed to be at the cooking contest and the other half couldn’t remember if they had seen him today or the day before. Finally, she found Gardenia browsing the pipeweed selections. So far, she was the only one who had seen him, but that was twenty minutes before.

“Where was he going?”

“Off towards the river,” Gardenia said. “Poor lad looked like he was tied in knots. Probably just needed some quiet.”

“Thank you!” Ami said and dashed off for the back of the grounds, the nearest access for the river from there.

A half-hour later, it was clear that if Rumbi had come this way, he hadn’t stayed here. Thinking he may have decided to take a bit of a walk, she crossed at the little bridge and wandered afield for a half-mile and looked around. Seeing movement to her left, she turned but it was soon apparent that she had not found Rumbi. A small herd stood around eating the fresh grass, and standing in the middle of them puffing on a pipe was Perry.

Ami smiled. “I do believe this is what they call irony,” she said once she was close enough to be seen. “I was going to look for you once I spoke to Rumbi, but I found you first while looking for him. Maybe if I had been looking for you, I’d have found him instead.”

“Rumbi?” Perry asked. 

“My cousin,” Ami said. “I need to tell him my decision.”

“The one he won’t like?”

“Yes, that one. Is this your new herd? You were quite a success!”

In exchange for his dozen ewes and two rams, he had acquired four cows, and a bull. There were also a handful of goats, three nannies and two billies. Perry scratched one of the cows on her head, receiving a happy moo in return. “I’ve some hides as well. Thank ‘ee for yer advice, and that of yer lad.”

“My lad?”

“Yer servant as came to see me the other day,” he said. He looked over his new herd with fondness and not a small amount of surprise.

“Were you not expecting favorable trades?” Ami guessed.

“Truth be told, I was expecting to be run off the moment I showed my face,” Perry said.

“Why would anyone do that?”

“I’m not knowing now. I’m starting to think as my grandfather weren’t quite honest with us, but then, he had reasons not to be,” Perry said, but whatever he meant by this, he didn’t elaborate. He shuffled his feet and cleared his throat. “I’m sorry if I disappointed ye last night. I was wanting to come to yer party, but my feet wouldn’t cooperate.”

“You were scared? Why?” Ami asked, surprised by this news. She stepped into the circle that the herd created around their new master, hoping to reassure him in some way.

Instead of reassuring him, this only seemed to worsen his discomfort. He took a step back - a small step. “I’m not a complete fool. I know of the Tooks and what yer kin are to the rest of the Shire. And I know well enough how they would see me.”

“I don’t understand.”

Perry shrugged and refused to meet her gaze. “It’s only that I care for ye, Ami. I thought if I went, they’d see it, and I didn’t want to get ye into trouble.”

“Oh.” It was the only response she could think of to this announcement. Her mind went numb, unable to process a coherent thought, while the rest of her tingled with anticipation. Her heart did a cartwheel in her chest. “I see,” she finally managed.

“I’m sorry.” 

“Don’t be,” Ami said. His apology was just the start she needed. “There’s nothing to be sorry for. Is there?”

“I broke my word to try to come,” Perry said. He gave another little shrug, as though this small gesture would explain every emotion and thought that was wrapped up inside him.

“Well, no matter,” Ami said. She hesitated and shrugged herself. The basket she carried bumped into her side, reminding her of its presence. Thankful for the distraction, she pulled her eyes away from Perry’s gaze and opened the basket’s lid. She pulled out his gift and handed it to him. He paused before taking it, his fingertips whispering against her palm, sending a shiver down her spine.

“Are ye cold?” he asked, noticing.

“No. Open it. I was going to give it to you last night, for my birthday. Sorry it’s late.”

“It’s not yer fault,” he said and opened it. Ami almost laughed at the confusion that flitted over his face as he first looked at then fingered one of the bells. He cleared his expression with some effort and smiled. “Thank ye.”

“They’re for your cows,” Ami explained. She picked up another bell. “They like to wander off, see. So you put some rope through here, something thick enough it won’t dig into their skin, and tie it loose around their neck. That way, no matter where they are, you’ll be able to hear them when they move about. And see? I had them branded for you with your initials, P. N., and a flat line, since you’re from Nohill. I couldn’t really think of anything else to designate Nohill than a line.” She put the bell back. “You can use them for the goats too if you like, but I don’t have enough for that. I regret to say that I underestimated your trading abilities. You’re certain you’ve never done this before?”

Perry still looked confused but he smiled again. “Aye. And thank ye. I’ll see about getting some rope afore I go then.” He fingered the chiseled initials on one of the bells. “That was kind of ye.”

“I hate it when they brand their poor little ears,” Ami said, patting the nearest cow on her head. “My da and others use the bells for that, but of course you can’t put bells on sheep. They have little tags to put through the ear instead, and that only seems to smart them for a minute or two. There are still some that use the branding irons though. They use numbing balm for the pain, but how can they be sure when it stops working or when they really no longer need it?”

“I suppose ye could press on the wound, lightly of course,” he suggested. “We don’t use brands ourselves.”

“I noticed. I like that.” 

A comfortable silence fell between them. Perry tucked his gift into his pocket and they stood for a time watching the beasts graze. The morning was cooler than in previous days and here and there small clouds dotted the sky. A warm gust blew over the hills, bringing with it the scents of food cooking on the fairgrounds and the subtle aroma of the wildflowers that grew thick around them. 

“How’s yer nephew?” Perry asked after a time.

“He’s well, thank you. Rather sunburnt, but he’s on the mend. I don’t know why I was worried before. I feel rather silly now.” 

“There’s no shame in caring.”

“No, I suppose there’s not.” Ami looked back to the fairgrounds in the distance. “I guess I should be going. I still need to find Rumbi, and I should check on Arlo. Are you leaving tomorrow then?”

“Day after. Figure I should use tomorrow to get to know my new herd. It’s a long walk home, especially if they like wandering off.”

“They seem very well behaved so far. You have that effect on beasts.” She hesitated. “We’re leaving tomorrow morning after first breakfast. I’ll try to come and see you before I leave.”

“Ye don’t need to be doing that, lass.”

“No, but I want to. I’d like to see you, one more time.” She hesitated again, then, drawing a deep breath, made a decision. She reached for his hand and pressed it between her own. “You are a dear friend to me, Perry, for all that I’ve known you so briefly. I’ll be there before dawn. I want to see the sunrise with you.”

Perry stood frozen, his gaze fixed on her hands enveloping his. She thought at first he had not heard her, but slowly he nodded and looked up. His hand clutched as if in reflex as he met her gaze and saw there the same terrified hope he felt within himself. His sun-star, whom he feared was never to be caught by a seeker such as himself, now stood before him promising... what? The question broke the spell that had fallen over him at her touch and he regrettably slipped his hand away from her touch. It felt cold at once.

“I’d like that, I truly would, but as I said, I don’t want to get ye into trouble.”

“No harm in watching a sunrise with a friend,” she said, smiling winningly. “I do have to go now, but I’ll be there by the river, before first light. Until then.”

“I’ll look for ye.”

She went off then, looking back every few hundred feet to find him still watching her. When she reached the other side of the river, and Perry was little more than a dot on the horizon, she waved then trotted back to the fairgrounds in search of Rumbi once more.

To be continued...

GF 8/14/11

The morning sun for the first time shined fully upon the carriage and Twitch was soon obliged to remove his overcoat and roll up his sleeves. A market spread out at the feet of the hills, bordered by a handful of farms and ranches that ran along the roads leading out of town, one towards Whitfurrows, the other towards Southfarthing. 

Twitch had been here a few times before, visiting his grandparents and later his parents after they retired from a lifetime serving the Tooks. He knew the market well and recognized many of the proprietors and workers. They recognized him as well and waved in confusion, some calling his name, trying to get him to stop for a brief word. Twitch would have liked nothing more than to stop, but he was mindful of his instructions.

He nodded at the hobbits he recognized, tipping his hat but not slowing, and pondered over the Thain. Growing up, he had always been told how kind the Thain was, how fair and considerate he was, so much like his father Fortinbras, who died the year after Twitch was born. Twitch had only known the Great Smials under the rule of Lalia the Great, a misfortune that had nearly caused his parents to send him to Pincup for his apprenticeship. 

He’d had few encounters with the Mistress over the years and she never remembered him, which he took as a good sign. He’d had more encounters with the Thain, who always had a treat in his pockets for the younger children. Twitch supposed the Thain was kindly, but he had still been afraid of him as a wee lad. How kindly could the Thain really be, given the Lady was his mother?   

He reached the middle of the market and looked down the two branches of the road. He was not even certain if he should have come this far, much less which way he was to take. He wondered why the Thain hadn’t spoken with more directions yet and began to worry that perhaps the Thain had fallen asleep, despite the swaying of the carriage. Was it proper to wake the Thain? And yet he couldn’t park here in the middle of the market square indefinitely. 

Slowly, Twitch pulled the ponies to a stop, uncertain of what to do. He was still intimidated by the Thain.


Chapter 12 - Fair’s End

“What are they supposed to be doing?” Verbena said. Her hands were wrist deep in batter and unavailable for pointing, so she lifted her chin in the direction of Pally, Sara and Mac’s table. 

They had managed to get tables close together and near the communal ovens. From her table, Esme looked two tables down to see her brother and his friends in the middle of what appeared to be a food fight. At any rate, they were getting more food on themselves than in the awaiting pie crust they had managed to make. Her hands too were covered in flour, so she wiped them quickly and put two fingers in her mouth. She whistled shrilly, gaining the attention of everyone within hearing distance.

“What are you doing?” she asked Pally, ignoring everyone else.

“We’re crushing the cherries and blueberries,” Sara answered instead.

“By beating them on each other?” Rosamunda asked. Dicentra laughed, as did the lads.

“No, we’re having a contest to see who can crush the most the fastest,” Mac said.

“More like, who can splatter the most,” Esme observed. “Why don’t you just ground them in a bowl like sensible folk?”

“That’s boring,” the lads said in unison, then proceeded with their game, taking turns with a mallet to pound the fruit to mush. 

“Mum’s not going to like you getting stains all over your clothes,” Esme tried next.

“They’re old clothes,” Pally said. “They won’t even fit in a couple more months.”

“These are our cooking clothes,” Sara said. “Mother won’t notice a few extra stains.”

“You have clothes just for cooking?” Esme asked.

“It’s a messy affair.”

“The way you do it, it is.”

“Precisely my point.”


“I thought roasted goose* was your area of expertise,” Dicentra said. Sara and Mac froze instantly, their faces flushing.

Pally scowled. “That wasn’t kind.” But the corners of his mouth went up despite that.

“We no longer work with poultry,” Mac said with what dignity he could muster, given his current appearance.

“All right, all right,” Rosamunda scolded. “We can chat once everything’s in the ovens.”

An hour later, they were sitting on the grass, their creations baking in the oven. They munched on the scones and fruit they had brought with them for their second breakfast and watched the other competitors. When their stomachs were satisfied, the lads brought out some pennies and started to play a coin toss game, the rules of which they appeared to be making up as they went along. Dicentra and Verbena had brought books to read and Rosamunda and Esme some needlepoint. Slowly, the flurry of activity around them calmed as more competitors finished their preparations. Every now and then, one of them would look up to check the sun’s position. They checked the ovens whenever another team opened it to insert their own creations. Finally, their items were done and they pulled them out to cool. 

The eleventh hour arrived and the competition was brought to its end. The judges came around and tasted samples of all the fare. Once the judges had come and gone, Sara snuck them over a small bite of the cherry-blueberry bread, so Esme gave them a small slice of the apple crumble, and Rosamunda cut them a bite of the mixed-berry bread. If they didn’t get to sample any of the other fare, they at least got to enjoy their own. Whatever concerns the lasses might have had about the lads’ bread, they were immediately forgotten upon tasting.

“It’s delightful!” Esme said.

Sara beamed. “I should hope so. Our grandmother taught us to make that herself.” His eyes widened as he nibbled the apple crumble. “This is the best I’ve ever had!”

“It took me most of a summer to get the receipt right,” Esme said proudly. 

“The mixed-berry bread is delicious,” Pally said.

“Is it?” Dicentra asked, relieved. “It’s only our second time making it.”

“You could have fooled me,” Mac said. “Can we have the receipt?”

The judging wouldn’t end for another half-hour at least. They spent that time writing copies of their receipts for each other, as well as any other receipts they thought the others might enjoy. When at last the judges had made their decisions, they scrambled to their feet and stood at their tables, waiting impatiently for their categories to be announced. The baked goods were the last categories, and they held their breaths as the winners for Best Bread were called to the stage. Dicentra and Rosamunda did not place, nor had they expected to, considering they were still learning the receipt, but Pally and his friends were awarded third. Esme and Verbena placed second in the desserts category and ran up to receive their ribbons.

Afterwards, they made a quick round of the other tables to sample what they could before taking the remainder of their ingredients back to their respective rooms or tents.  

As Esme and Verbena neared the Pheasant, Esme muttered, “I wonder if Ami found Rumbi. Perhaps we should look for them.”

“Oh, let them have their fun. I’m sure they’re not doing anything scandalous,” Verbena said with a knowing smirk.

Esme’s heart jumped a little at that expression. “What do you mean?”

“Well, he proposed, didn’t he? We’ve all been waiting for the announcement. Frankly, I thought they’d announce it last night at her party,” Verbena said.

“What makes you think he proposed?”

“She had Great-Grandmum’s necklace and bracelet. Di found them by accident while we were getting Millie ready for her wedding,” Verbena said. “So is it true? Did he propose?”

“I suppose all the Tooks know about this by now,” Esme said, more worried than before. Why had Ami left the proposal gifts in Sigismond’s tent, of all places! “I’m sure there will be an announcement soon enough.”

“Oh, how wondrous! They can marry on her birthday, though it wouldn’t really be her birthday since there’s no leap year next year but on Mid-year’s Day, which is when we always celebrate it. Every Took in the Tooklands would show up for such a party. It’s up to them of course, though. Do you think she will require a new dress to be made?”

“I think we should wait until there’s something to celebrate,” Esme said with veiled dread. If Ami had hoped to keep the proposal a secret to spare Rumbi any embarrassment, that hope was now dashed. It didn’t take much imagination to envision the uproar it would cause when it was discovered that Ami turned down Ferumbras, Thain’s son, on what many would consider nothing more than a whim. Oh, the noise Lalia would make! The Fair’s End Feast suddenly couldn’t come soon enough.


Ami found the nearest break in the trees and reentered the fairgrounds. It was like stepping into another world, noisy and busy, with hobbits bustling about in every direction. After the peaceful silence of the hills and lazy lolling of the cows and goats, it was an unsettling experience. Ami had to stop for several moments to gather her wits before continuing. She was no closer to finding Rumbi than she had been when she chanced upon Perry, but she thought she might know where to look for him. On a hunch, she made her way along the edge of the fairgrounds to the livestock pens. She didn’t find Rumbi but she did find Fortinbras and Bilbo, who informed her that Rumbi had just left and was going back to the Took circle to return his father’s purse.

She thanked them and dashed off. If she could find him inside his tent, she just might be able to speak with him in private, rather than find him in a crowd and having to ask him for privacy, which would only arouse curiosity. Hopefully, his mother wouldn’t be there. 

She was quick enough to catch him as he was exiting the tent.

“Rumbi!” she said, somewhat out of breath.

“Ami!” he greeted. He put a hand to her elbow to steady her as she bent over to allow more air into her lungs. “I was wondering if I would see you today.”

“Oh?” Ami asked. She straightened and fiddled with the folds of her dress. “Well, here I am. Do you think we could go inside the tent and speak in private?”

“Of course,” Rumbi said. He stepped aside and held up the tent flap for her. Once inside, they moved to the center of the tent where they could stand properly. Rumbi looked at her intently and raised an eyebrow. He had promised not to pressure her, so this was the closest he could come to the question.

Ami took a final deep breath, more to get her bearings and gather her nerves than for need of air. She took Rumbi’s hand. “You know you are dear to me, and I’m quite fond of you... as a brother.”

Rumbi’s shoulders slumped at the word ‘brother’ but he merely pressed her hand in return and nodded. “A brother? I suppose that’s better than nothing.” He smiled bravely.

“I’m so sorry, Rumbi,” Ami said. She could feel the tears welling in her eyes. She had hoped to hold them back until she at least reached the privacy of the inn. “I wanted so much for my answer to be ‘yes’, I truly did, but I don’t love you in that way, and I feel it would be dishonest to pretend that I might some day. I thought that would only hurt you more in the end. Can you forgive me?”

“Forgive you?” Rumbi said. He looked up into her eyes, now flowing over with tears. He reached up a thumb and gently wiped the tears from her cheeks. “My dearest Darling, there is nothing to forgive. I wouldn’t want you to be my wife out of some sense of obligation.”

Ami reached into her pocket and pulled out the box containing his proposal gifts. She handed it to him and he took it without noticing. “I do not wish for things to be awkward between us.”

“Never,” Rumbi said. “I would rather know you as a friend and a sister than not at all. I always knew this was a possibility. I accepted that when I asked you. Forgive me for waiting for such an inopportune time to ask.”

“There’s nothing to forgive,” Ami said. 

They hugged for a time and when Ami’s tears stopped, Rumbi kissed her once and requested to be left alone. Ami left and managed to cross the fairgrounds without being stopped. She found their room at the inn empty and curled up in the middle of the large bed to cry some more. Once her tears were spent, she washed her face at the washstand and looked at herself in the mirror. She took a deep breath, let it out and felt a weight lift from her shoulders. She had done the right thing.

She bumped into Esme and Verbena on her way out the door. “Did you place?” she asked at the same time Esme said, “Did you find him?”

“I did,” they both said. 

“And?” they both asked, and laughed.

“Second place!” Esme said. “How is Rumbi?”

“He’s fine,” Ami said.

“Only fine?” Verbena asked. 

“Yes,” Ami said and looked at Esme, who very slightly shook her head. She hadn’t said anything but the warning in her eyes told Ami to be cautious. “I’m sure he’s quite well.”


“Are you staying here long?” Ami said as Esme and Verbena went to the washstand. 

“We gave our remaining supplies to the kitchen,” Esme said. “We’re going to wash up then see if there are any final purchases we can make before meeting the lads for the pony races.”

Ami waited for them and they went to the grounds together. Several of the vendors who had been most successful no longer had products available but there still remained many wonderful items left to haggle over and buy. Esme came away with many bolts of thread for needlework and sewing, Verbena found many little trinkets that her younger cousins would enjoy when her birthday came next month, and Ami bought a few more bells and a couple of curry combs for Perry then treated her companions to cream puffs and taffy. They had to return to the inn again to drop off their purchases, then went with Verbena to the camping circle so she could store away her things, before going to the racing tracks where the lads were already saving them a spot. 

“Who are we betting on?” Verbena asked. 

“We’ll let you know,” Mac said, with a suspicious glance at the other hobbits nearby.

“It was hard to decide,” Saradoc said. “Several of the top ponies are racing in the same rounds, and of course, they’re all in the last few races. I think if we want any hope of winning something, we should stick to the rounds we can be certain to pick a winner.”

“That’s sensible,” Esme said, sounding surprised. 

“I do have my moments,” Sara said with a wink. 

“Very few of them,” Mac agreed. 

In the center of the race track, Mayors Lightfoot and Goodbeck stood to begin the races. The ponies for the first race were led to the track by their riders. They lined up at the start, mounted their steeds and settled into their saddles. In the audience, the bets were being placed in a quiet frenzy so as not to disturb the ponies. After several minutes that seemed more like seconds, Mayor Goodbeck lifted his hand, a silver bell with a silver ribbon wrapped around the handle in his grip. He shook the bell and the race began.


Ferumbras couldn’t be sure how long he sat alone in the tent after Ami left. It felt like years but he knew that impractical and possibly more like hours, or maybe just minutes. However long it was, when he eventually emerged, his stomach was growling and his feet led him to the cooking circle. Only a few Tooks were present. Heather and Calluna were enjoying the relative peace and quiet. Heather was working on some quilting blocks while Calluna was taking advantage of her mother’s absence to puff on a pipe she likely ‘borrowed’ from a younger cousin or nephew. There did not appear to be anything cooking.

Frowning at the unimaginable sight, Rumbi stretched and looked up at the sun. From its position, the hour was past luncheon and not yet close enough to tea for anyone to be preparing anything. “No food?” he asked.

Calluna narrowed her eyes at him. “Not when you wait until even the scraps have been licked off the plates. You looked distressed, but not about food.”

“Is there food anywhere?” Rumbi asked, ignoring the comment. 

“The vendors have some nice selections,” Calluna said. “That’s your best bet.”

Rumbi knew she was right. With the Fair’s End Feast coming up in a few short hours, he knew no one would be coming back to the circle to prepare anything. They would all take their tea and meal at the feast and wouldn’t come back to the tents until it was time for bed. He checked his pockets for coin and went in search of something to eat. The cooking contests were taking place of course, but as that would make up part of the feast, there was no point in going there. He found a vendor selling salted pork with apple sauce and bought a plate to eat back in the tent. He was surprised to find Heather standing outside it, waiting for him.

“I was hoping you wouldn’t take long. What’s the matter, Fer?” she asked. “You look forlorn.”

“Come inside.”

Once they were in the tent, they sat in the center and Rumbi offered Heather some food. She shook her head and watched as Rumbi proceeded to eat with considerably less enthusiasm than normal.

“Is it my sister?” she guessed. “Darling, I mean.”

“I know who you meant,” Rumbi said. He finished his food and wiped his hands with a kerchief. “I suppose you know that I proposed to her. She declined my offer.”

“I am sorry to hear that. Did she say why?”

“She considers me a brother. I don’t know how I’m going to tell my parents, especially my mother. I’m hoping to keep it out of her ears until we are home, but I don’t see how that will be possible.”

“You don’t think she’d scold Darling again, do you?”

“On the contrary, I’m sure she’ll be quite pleased and more than eager to point out that she was right about Ami not being a good fit for me,” Rumbi said and sighed. “I was never sure that she would say yes. Oh, but I had hoped it for so long. I don’t know if I will ever find another lass I care for as much.”

Heather moved to sit beside him and put her arm around his shoulders. She hugged him gently and rested her head on his shoulder. “Perhaps you won’t,” she said. “Everyone keeps telling me I can always find another lad, that I have the chance for love and a family of my own still. Perhaps they are right and it may happen one day, but I just don’t see it now. Folk will tell you that all the time as well. Just nod and say ‘perhaps you’re right’ and then quickly change the subject. I found that works well for me.”

Rumbi smiled sadly. “I’ll do that.”

Heather squeezed his shoulders, pecked his cheek then bounded to her feet. “Come! It’s the last day of the fair and too fine a day to be sitting in a tent moping over sorrows. I’m sure if we try hard enough, we’ll find something to entertain us. Oh! Let’s go to the Museum! I do love that shiny shirt Bilbo brought back from his adventures.”

“The museum it is then,” Rumbi said and stood. He offered Heather his arm and they stepped out into the sun. He smiled genuinely, for it was a fine day on which to be merry. 

They went to the museum then browsed through the many shops in town before settling at the bakery with a loaf of bread and a pitcher of tea. They stayed there and talked about whatever entered their heads until the time for the feast came. They strolled out of town and separated at the fairground’s edge. Rumbi sought out his parents and as he expected, his mother instantly leaned over to whisper in his ear.

“Did you ask her finally?”

“I did,” Rumbi whispered back.

“And?” Fortinbras asked.

“She declined.”

“I am sorry, son,” Fortinbras said and offered a consolatory pat on the shoulder. They would speak more, when they were alone.

Lalia embraced him. “As am I, for I can see you’re troubled. You’ll find someone else.”

Rumbi nodded, remembering Heather’s advice. “I’m sure I will. Have you managed a peek at the fare available?”

Fortinbras was about to run through a list of the dishes to be served when Mayor Lightfoot stood up on the stage and clinked his glass with a spoon. When those assembled quieted, he smiled and put his hands behind his back. “It has been another marvelous fair all around, has it not?” The Hobbits cheered. “Many congratulations to all those who won prizes and competed this year, and many cheers to our organizers who helped things to run smoothly.” More cheering, as well as whistling and whooping, followed. “As my last official duty as your mayor, I will announce today’s winners. Those who won prizes please step towards the stage at this time.”

After the winners were announced and had returned to their seats, Mayor Goodbeck stepped forward to much applause. “Thank you, and congratulations once more to our fine chefs and bakers! I had the pleasure of judging the cooking contests in years past, so I say with full confidence that we will soon be eating the finest fare the Shire has to offer! So without further ado, let the feast begin!”

If Rumbi had doubted his ability to get through the feast, he soon found his concerns were for naught. He caught sight of Ami from time to time, and while he felt the expected jab of disappointment each time, he was able to put it aside. He imagined that she couldn’t be feeling much better and by silent agreement they kept their distance. Only as midnight approached did they finally meet in the dance area for a round of the Springle Ring, which they always enjoyed dancing with each other. They did not speak, but the joy was still there and Rumbi began to hope that they could remain friends after all. After the dance, he kissed her hand and was rewarded with a dimpled smile.

He left the feast soon after and sought out his tent. As with many others, he planned to leave in the morning and wanted to be as well-rested as he could manage. He changed into his nightgown and snuggled into his sleeping roll. He was fast asleep mere seconds later.


The chambermaid tiptoed into the Pheasant’s Number Two guest quarters and over to the settee where Ami had told her she would be sleeping. The chambermaid checked that she had the right hobbitess before gently prodding her in the shoulder until she woke, as instructed. 

Ami woke reluctantly. Three late nights in a row were beginning to take their toll, but she forgot her weariness instantly as she pried open her eyes and saw the chambermaid there, a finger to her lips. The maid pointed towards the shuttered window and Ami was sitting up, yawning and rubbing her eyes. The maid left then and Ami silently dressed before following her. Once in the hall, she hurried to the maid’s quarters so she could wash up and fix her hair without fear of waking anyone and having to explain what she was doing. Thanking the maid profusely, she slipped out of the inn through the servant’s door and around the back into the predawn night. She ran along the river to the back of the fairgrounds and the livestock pens, but Perry was already waiting for her in the small clearing behind the grounds. 

Her heart leapt up into her throat upon seeing him. She slowed to a walk and by the time she approached him, she was breathing normally again. “I made it,” she said, unnecessarily. She fingered her hair and thought belatedly what all that running must have done to it. “Have you been waiting long?”

“Not but a few minutes,” Perry said. He had his small herd with him and she watched in amazement as he softly clucked his tongue and his herd followed. They walked up to the ford and Perry took her hand to cross the river. “Sorry, but the rocks can be slippery.”

“That’s all right,” Ami said and entwined her fingers with his. 

Their eyes met briefly, then Perry was leading them all across the ford and over the hills, farther away from the grounds than where she had found him the previous day. The world was silent before them, dim grey with the soft twinkling of stars before dawn. The grass was cool beneath their feet, while the predawn air whispered softly against their arms and faces, already promising the heat of the day to come. They walked until the fair and town were far behind and in the distance were the silhouettes of the White Downs. Finally, Perry stopped and they sat down as the cows and goats spread out to find grass to eat. He let go her hand but didn’t inch away as she had thought he might.

Encouraged, she looked up at the stars, which lingered still despite the approach of day, and pointed to the brightest. “They say that’s a ship that sails the night sky,” she said. 

“Who are they?” Perry asked, trying to see the one at which she was pointing.

“Oh, I don’t know. The Elves I suppose,” she said. “At least, that’s what my cousin Bilbo says. He should know. He’s been Outside and seen Elves.”

“I feel like I’ve been Outside,” he said. “Elves though...” He looked sideways at her, wondering if he should mention it. If he didn’t now, he may never have the chance to again. “I’d heard the Tooks had Faery blood in them. Is that true?”

“Not so far as I know,” Ami said, “though I have heard it said that we’re luckier than most.”

“What else do they say about the stars?”

“I only know about the others from what my da told me. There’s the bowman.”


Ami moved closer and leaned so he could better follow where she was pointing. “Those five stars there are the bow, and that’s his head, and his body. He’s standing with his feet apart, like he’s getting ready to shoot. See?”

Perry nodded. “I see the bow. The rest takes more of an imagination that what I’ve got though. What else is up there?”

“There’s the dipper. That one over there my brother says looks like a stack of hotcakes.”

He laughed. “Now that one I see!”

“I’ve always thought that one was a dragon. See, there’s the wings and the tail. She’s flying.”

“The dragon’s a she?”

“Well, some of them must be. What else? Oh, look! You can just see it, there, low on the horizon. It’s my favorite one. See how it looks like a lass dancing? There’s her arm up over her head, and her legs there, one is sort of up, at an angle to the other. I haven’t found her lad yet though. I’m sure he must be up there somewhere.”

“Maybe he’s the bowman. Maybe that’s not a bow, but a rose.”

“Maybe he is. He was there the whole time.” 

“The sun is coming. Here, lie down.”


“For the full effect. It’s the only proper way to see a sunrise.”

They lay down on the grass and looked up at the sky all around them. The dark velvet of night was giving way to pale grey. The dancing lass faded and was soon lost to the coming light. Slowly the grey spread out, chasing away the stars. Following quickly came the golden red of the waking sun, who soon peeked her face over the earth. The sky changed again to crimson, then pink, and finally blue as the sun rose full above, its surface now soft yellow.

Ami sighed and shivered. “That’s beautiful,” she whispered. 

“Not as beautiful as you.”

Perry took her hand, and she squeezed it in response. They turned their heads and their eyes met. They could see the same thought pass through the other’s mind. If this was to be their last time to see each other...

Their first kiss was brief, simple, questioning. Their second kiss was only slightly longer, their answer to each other. They lost track of time and everything but each other on their third kiss, and lost count of their kisses soon after that. When at length they pulled away, they were panting and flushed. Ami’s free hand was resting on his chest, a solid and reassuring mass. She could feel his heart pounding beneath her hand, dancing a jig. Perry’s other hand cupped her face, gentle and caressing, and he could feel the pulse in her neck hammering away. Their eyes met again, and his smile was apologetic. 

“I was hoping to make this easier,” he said.

“I know,” Ami said. “But I don’t regret it.”

He helped her to sit up and they sat for a time a hand’s width away from each other. When finally they were composed again, Perry stood and helped her to her feet. He dropped her hands reluctantly and stepped away with effort.

“I brought ye something. It’s to thank ye, for yer help.” 

He went to one of his billies, who had a small satchel hanging from the bell around its neck. He opened the satchel and brought out a folded bundle. He hesitated, suddenly shy. “I didn’t have time to fashion them into aught.”

“What is it?” 

He handed her the bundle, which she unfolded to reveal two rabbit pelts, once snowy white, now dyed the colors of the sunrise they had just witnessed. She ran her hands over the soft fur in awe. 

“Oh, Perry.”

“So ye’ll have the sunrise with ye at all times, aye?” He looked towards the sun, which had inched higher while they had been preoccupied. “Ye best be going. Yer family will be up by now and looking for ye.”

Ami knew he was right, and if the sun didn’t tell her, the grumbling in her stomach did. First breakfast was approaching and she would need to hurry to return to the inn and prepare for leaving. A coldness spread in her stomach at the thought of leaving. She wanted this moment to last, this peaceful, serene moment where the two of them could be together and alone. She brushed her hand over the pelts again.

“I’ll make them into mittens,” she decided, “so I’ll have sunrise even in dreary weather. Thank you.” She took his hand again and only then noticed that his fingertips were stained the same color as the pelts. “You dyed them yourself? You’re lovely.”

“Ye mean they are.”

Ami shook her head. “I mean you are.” She folded the pelts and tucked them into her left dress pocket. From the other she pulled out the bells she had bought yesterday. “Here, so they’ll all have one.”

He took them and put them in the satchel. 

“Maybe I can come visit you,” she said. “Next summer, when we’re visiting Tuckborough. It’s close to Pincup, not even a day’s ride away.”

“I don’t live in Pincup, Ami.”

“Outside it then. I’d love to see your home.”

“No, ye wouldn’t,” Perry said. “I’ve no home.”

“But you... You do. You have to,” Ami said, confused. “How can you not have a home?”

“We tried making some, like they have here and in Pincup, but none of us were knowing how. We don’t have aught to trade to ask the carpenters in town to come, so we just squat in tunnels we’ve dug under the ground. I should of told ye sooner, but I didn’t want ye thinking less of me, or pitying me, like those in town do.” He stuffed his hands in his pockets and shuffled his feet. He peeked up at Ami, only to find her looking back at him, stunned and confused.

“Why would that make me think less of you?” she asked. “Why don’t you move into town? Why do you live there at all?”

“I suppose we could now but they don’t want to move, and why should we? It’s our home, same as yers, just without the buildings and whatnot. As for why we’re there, my grandfather settled there after the Fell Winter and a few of friends followed him. Crops were scarce then. Lots of folks left the towns to seek food elsewhere. They just stayed.”

“I can still come to visit,” Ami said. “Or you could come to Whitwell.”

“Aye? And what would I do there?” He ran his hand over her hair and drew her close. “Just promise me ye’ll think of me from time to time.”

“Every day. And you won’t forget about me?”

“Never.” He kissed her gently, then kissed her brow. He let her go and turned away, crossing his arms over his chest. “Ye should go now. Take care of ye.”

“Farewell, Perry,” Ami said. 

With reluctance, she turned and left. Each step felt heavy and resistant, and the further away she walked the more she wanted to turn back around and return to his side. But he was right. First breakfast was quickly approaching and her family would be looking for her before too much longer. And after they ate, they would be leaving and she would never see Perry again. 

She held back her tears until she reached the inn. By the time she entered through the servants’ door and made it to their rooms, the tears were streaming heedlessly down her face. There was no hope of composing herself, for she had never felt so dreadful before. She entered the room and an instant later, her mother was at her side.

“Darling? What is the matter? What happened?” Clematis asked.

“I lost him, Mama.”

“Who, dear?”

The rest of her family was there now, watching with alarm, waiting for an answer. What could she say? How could she possibly explain? Would they even understand?

“Darling?” Adalgrim said. “Who did you lose?”

“Rumbi,” she said. The thought had popped into her head and she spoke before she could even think. It was the simpler explanation and an answer they had all been waiting for. “I told him no. I turned him down.”

To be continued...

GF 8/22/11

* - Reference to my story "How to Cook a Goose".

Twitch was just screwing up his nerve to awaken the Thain when he heard a rap on the carriage roof. Sighing with relief, he reached down and slid open the screen. “Aye, sir?” he asked.

“Take the Southfarthing road for a few miles, then stop. We will picnic off the road for our elevenses,” Ferumbras said. 

“Aye, sir,” Twitch said, heart sinking. He was already regretting not stopping at the inn. The food from the picnic baskets had smelled wonderful earlier that morning, but the inn looked inviting and a far more amiable place to stretch one’s legs. At the very least, he would be able to eat in the stables and hear some of the local gossip. Not to mention that if they were taking their elevenses off the road, then it was quite likely they were still some distance from their destination. 

Twitch closed the screen again and steered the ponies down the Southfarthing road. Only a few small farms lay on this side of the market, and Twitch urged the ponies faster as the foot traffic thinned the farther from town they rode. Soon enough, the last building was far behind them and he noticed a likely spot to pull over for a brief stop. A pair of alders stood close together, almost appearing as one tree split from the same trunk. They offered shade and the grass grew high, which would delight the ponies to no end. 

Twitch pulled off the road and urged the ponies to a halt. The Thain didn’t wait for him to clamber down from the coach’s seat but instead let himself out. Twitch grabbed the second picnic basket and jumped down from his seat. The Thain took the basket and began to set out the food while Twitch saw to the ponies. He left them hitched and poured some water from a jug into a bucket and placed it between them. 

The beasts content, Twitch walked to the spot where the Thain had chosen to eat, a patch of grass just on the edges of the shade. He sat where the Thain indicated and they ate in silence. When the meal ended and he was preparing to stand, the Thain met his eyes and smile jovially.

“So lad, tell me something of yourself.”


Chapter 13: Home Again

Whitwell was just over ten miles down the main southern road from Michel Delving. Sprig and Nab had the carriages ready and loaded by the time Adalgrim and his family finished first breakfast. The ponies were brushed and fed, and Sprig and Nab stood next to the carriage doors, ready to receive their passengers.

Ami asked to sit atop the carriage again, and Adalgrim had not the heart to deny her. After her initial tears, she had cheered up considerably, but they had all noticed the effort she put into it as they ate. She attempted to make herself look presentable before leaving the room but there was little she could do about the redness in her eyes and the puffiness of her cheeks. A little sunshine and fresh air was the cure for that, she told herself. 

She chose to ride with Sprig again, and Esme joined her this time. Pally sat with Nab, and once everyone was settled they were on their way. Ami didn’t look as the fairgrounds disappeared behind them, and she turned away from the bakery on their slow ride through town. Esme kept a firm grasp on her hand but let her sit in silence until she was ready to talk. 

The noise and bustle of Michel Delving was soon behind them, but the road was not much faster as they followed a line of other fairgoers out of town. Sprig watched the road with an eagle eye. The carts and carriages were not of any concern, except their speed, but there were many on foot or ponyback who were not so easy to see. Constantly looking down while in motion had made him queasy when he first started his apprenticeship, but he had accustomed himself to it and learned that looking up from time to time helped greatly. 

Despite his attention to the road, he couldn’t help but notice Ami’s silence so it surprised him when she finally spoke.

“I feel I’ve hardly seen you, Sprig,” she said about a mile out of town. “Did you enjoy the fair?”

“Yes, Miss Ami,” he answered promptly and honestly. “Thank you for speaking with the master ostler and requesting more time off for us.” He needn’t tell her that neither he nor Nab had taken advantage of it.

“You did what?” Esme said but seeing Ami’s frown she quickly added, sincerely, “That was very kind of you, Darling.”

“You’re welcome, Sprig,” Ami said. “Do you have plans for Yule? Will you be going to see your family then?”

“Nay, I go in early spring,” Sprig said. “Both my folks have their birthdays then, so it’s the best time to go for visits. I stay on at the Smials for Yule, but they let half of us take the day off on First Yule, and the other half on Second Yule.”

“Planning on making more bets at cards are you?” Esme asked.

Sprig grinned. “The trick to that one is to not get drunk.”

Ami and Esme laughed. “So that’s how you do it then. Always wise to have a strategy,” Esme said. 

“Indeed it is,” Sprig said. “May I ask, what is Yule like in Whitwell? I’ve not been there afore.”

They spoke cordially all the way to Whitwell. The traffic thinned out the farther from Michel Delving they rode, and Sprig was able to pay more attention to what they were saying even as he urged the ponies faster. 

Adalgrim had given orders not to pull over for a stretch, since it was only a three-hour ride. Even so, Sprig kept an eye on his passengers, ready to pull over the moment the sun and heat became too much for them to bare. They made no complaints however and despite the mild heat there was a gentle breeze, refreshing and invigorating. 

They reached the outskirts of Whitwell just after eleven, and Sprig began looking around for the roads he would need to take to get to the Took farm. Adalgrim had given them both directions, taking care to describe landmarks and buildings. With Ami and Esme riding with him, these proved to be unnecessary as they pointed out the upcoming turns yards ahead of time. 

Soon enough they were pulling into the long drive that led to the Took farm, though it looked more like a ranch to Sprig’s eyes.  Acres of head-high wheat bowed and danced in the wind, and there were plots for herb and kitchen gardens, a stable, barn, chicken coop, a small nursery, and of course the house, built to resemble a smial as much as was possible. There was even a glasshouse for growing things out of season, not something that most could afford. Having seen Adalgrim, Sprig had to wonder just how much he actually lent his hand to the farming. Not much, was Sprig’s guess and the farmhands walking to and fro confirmed this. 

Sprig pulled the carriage around so the door faced the house and gently tugged on the reins for a slow stop. He dismounted and helped Ami and Esme down before opening the door for Adalgrim and Clematis. Behind them, Nab was likewise helping Amber, Heather and Arlo from the carriage; Pally had dismounted on his own and was greeting the servants and farmhands who were lining up to welcome home their master and mistress. 

Nab and Sprig began to unload the carriages with the help of some of the servants. They watched discreetly as the family finished their greetings and went inside, no doubt to change and eat elevenses, though not necessarily in that order. Their own stomachs grumbled but they kept their eyes to their work.

Once the carriages were unloaded and the trunks and baggage carried inside and set in the appropriate rooms, they were ushered into the kitchen by an elderly maid named Posy. “Will you be returning right away or staying o’ernight?” she asked as she set plates piled with cut apples and bread in front of them.

“Right away, so far as we know,” Nab said politely before digging into his food.

“We best find out for certain,” Posy said and swooped away in a flurry of skirts and apron strings. 

“So what’d you and your precious Darling talk about?” Nab whispered as soon as they were alone.

Sprig frowned into his bite of rye. “She’s not my precious anything,” he said.

“Come off it. You like her,” Nab said. “Don’t even try to deny it.”

“What of it? It’s naught as though I’ve a chance with the likes of her,” Sprig said.

Nab nodded with a wink. “Bout time you see it. She’ll have forgot all about you before we even reach the end of the lane, is my thinking.”

“She’s not so callous as that,” Sprig said but any other argument died instantly in his throat as Posy returned.

She stopped in the doorway, eyeing them warily. Had she heard them? They concentrated on their food, their faces flooding with guilt. “Mistress says as you can stay in the stables tonight and start off fresh in the morrow, if you’re wanting.”

They met eyes briefly, agreeing in an instant. “We’ll head off today if it’s all the same,” Nab said.

“Hmph,” she said, clearly thinking this was for the best as well. “I’ll gather some traveling provision for you.”

“We’ve food,” Nab said, not wanting to bother the forbidding matron more than they needed to. “Thank you kindly.”

She narrowed her eyes at them again, paused, then turned and left them to eat in peace. They let out breaths they hadn’t realized they were holding and ate the rest of their meal in silence. When at last their plates were empty, they stood and stretched. They should bid farewell to the master before leaving, but neither of them felt comfortable wandering through the house without escort. The longer they stood there, the more it seemed they had been left on their own. They were just deciding to let themselves out the side door to prepare the carriages and ponies for leaving, then knocking on the front door when they were ready to depart, when Ami came into the kitchen.

“Oh good! You’re still here!” she said, her cheeks dimpling. “I was glad to be able to talk once more.”

“Aye,” Sprig said, suddenly at a loss for words. She had freshened up and changed out of her traveling dress into a spring dress the color of lilacs. He tried not to be too obviously in his staring.

“We’re just leaving, Miss Amaryllis,” Nab said.

“You’re not staying overnight?” She frowned.

“They’ll be needing the carriages and ponies home,” Nab said, though he knew a half-day’s ride would hardly make a difference.

“Is your father about?” Sprig asked, finally finding his voice.

“He went outside to walk the grounds,” Ami supplied. “I’ll find him for you.”

“We can find him,” Nab said.

“Nonsense,” Ami said, waving a hand. She went out the kitchen door, clearly expecting them to follow her.

They walked around the front of the house, where Ami motioned for them to wait. They prepared to leave as Ami trotted off to the barn to fetch her father. By the time she returned with Adalgrim, they were ready and waiting. Adalgrim offered them each his hand.

“You both did a fine job. I’ll be letting the Thain know,” he said with a grin. 

“Thank you,” they said, blushing.

“Travel safely now,” he said and with final shake of hands he left them to return to the barn.

“Take care,” Ami said.

“We will,” Nab said and mounted his carriage. 

“Miss Ami,” Sprig started, but paused. He really had nothing to say to her. The only thing he had ever been planning to talk to her about was that Nettleburr chap, but as the chances of seeing that lad again were nil at best he hardly saw any reason to bring up his misgivings about the lad now. After floundering for a bit he finally settled on saying, “Thank you for your kindness.”

Ami smiled brightly, though it didn’t quite reach her eyes. “I’ll see you next summer. Or perhaps earlier, in the spring. I’m thinking of requesting an apprenticeship with my cousin Gardenia. I enjoyed learning carpentry. It’s such joy to work with your hands.”

Sprig frowned inwardly at that, dismayed at the thought of her smooth, flawless hands covered in welts and addled with splinters. “I’ll see you then, Miss Ami,” he said at length and stuck out his hand. He had to resist the urge to kiss her hand and let go sooner than was polite. He nodded curtly then mounted his own carriage. With a flick of the reins, he was leading the way down the lane back to the road and home.

By the end of the day the Tooks were once again settled into their home. Heather, Amber and Arlo quartered in the guest cottage near the main house, as they usually did on visits. Amber and Heather were unpacking their fair luggage and making sure that their other luggage had arrived safely from Tuckborough when a knock sounded on the door. Heather answered to find Ami and Esme standing on the stoop.

“We’re going into town for some supplies and thought we’d take Arlo to the sweets shop, if he wants to go.”

“Can I, Mummy?” Arlo asked, looking hopeful. His lower lip pouted out ever so slightly. 

“Of course, dear,” Amber said. “Be mindful of the sun though.”

“I will!” Arlo promised, already halfway down the lane. Ami and Esme ran to catch up.

Heather watched them to the end of the lane and closed the door. “What do you think?”

“About?” Amber asked.

“Ami and Rumbi? It’s odd. He told me about it yesterday, but Ami is just telling us this morning.”


Heather nodded. “Before the Fair’s End Feast. He looked heartbroken, poor dear, but when I saw Ami later she looked normal as ever. Now this morning, she’s crying. What do you think it means?”

“Maybe she’s changed her mind about saying no,” Amber said, looking up from her sorting. “Maybe she thinks it’s too late to tell him.”

Heather shook her head. “No, she knows if she changed her mind, Rumbi will take her back before she can blink. That’s not what bothers me.”

“What then?”

“Well, if she told him yesterday afternoon, then where was she this morning?”

“Probably off wondering if she did the right thing,” Amber said with a shrug. “You know Darling. She may not be one for sitting and thinking, but she can still fret with the best of them.”

“I suppose. Still, I think we should talk to her, make sure she’s all right,” Heather said, shoving the laundry pile in the bins for the servants to pick up later. 

“Actually, I need to talk to you.” Amber paused in folding Arlo’s waistcoats and sat on her bed, facing Heather. She had been going over how to approach this subject with Heather, to little avail. She took a deep breath and held her sister’s gaze. “I’ve decided not to stay for the winter, but I think you should. You’ve been doing such a good job of taking care of Arlo and me, and it’s time I do the same for you. You need this time away, but I’m ready to go home. I’ll be leaving after Yule.”

“Are you certain?”

“I am. If I’m to honor Mallard and the life we had, then I need to get back to living it, even if I will be living it without him. I’ve got Arlo after all, and the other children who need their lessons; I’m ready to start teaching them again. 

“You on the other hand haven’t taken any time for yourself, not really. You’ve left a lot undecided. Are you going to stay with me in the Smials, get your own apartments there, or go back to Chaco’s family or even remain here in Whitwell? Do you think one day you may want to marry again, have children of your own? You’ve always wanted your own family and you can still have that. Chaco wouldn’t want you to give up on that. You have to sort these things out and you won’t do it while you’re fretting over me and Arlo.”

Heather sat next to her and took her hand. “Thank you.”

Amber hugged her. “You’re welcome, dear sister.”

After Esme and Ami made their rounds of the shops for the supplies they needed for their various art and sewing projects, they took Arlo to the sweets shop, where he was promised he could have as many sweets as he could hold in one hand. Proving himself to be sharp as a nail, he grabbed a handful of salted taffies and grinned at his aunts. They made their way back home, walking at a leisurely pace. Esme was lost in thought, no doubt daydreaming about what she would do with all the lace in her basket, but Ami looked around the town, surprised by how different it seemed.

They had only been away for a couple of months, hardly the longest stay they ever had in Tuckborough, but for Ami it seemed like a lifetime had passed. She felt as though she was seeing everything through an odd sort of haze, or perhaps it was the opposite and she was seeing more clearly than she ever had before. She couldn’t pinpoint the change, couldn’t put into words why everything seemed at once familiar and strange, so small and confined. 

She wondered what Rumbi was doing. Had he told his mother already? Was he already contemplating which lass would make a good future Lady and wife? Was he slouched in the carriage, wishing never to see Michel Delving again? She smiled at that last ridiculous image. His pride might be wounded, but she knew he would never do anything self-pitying. He was a practical lad and he would have brushed himself off and moved on by now, or so she told herself.

She wondered what Perry was doing. He was still at the fairgrounds, waiting out the crowds. He was a mere three hours away, so close yet the distance felt impassible. 

She tried to imagine the home that awaited him and found it an impossible task. She had never known anyone who didn’t have a proper roof over their heads. It was such an unusual idea, so far removed from anything she had ever known. She simply couldn’t contemplate it. Surely, they must have some sort of shelter. What about the rain? What about the snow? 

It had been clear from the start that Perry considered himself an outsider. She hadn’t understood why until that morning, and she marveled again at his bravery in setting out for the fair. It truly was Outside for him. She tried to imagine herself heading for the bounds, stepping over them into the Blue and the unknown, and shuddered. She wasn’t nearly as brave as he was, no matter what he thought. 

She remembered the press of his lips against hers, and she was flooded with warmth again. She had been kissed before but never like that. No, actually, just like that - sweet, careful, tentative - and yet it had felt so... alive, if a kiss could be considered something that lived. She remembered the solid strength of his chest beneath her fingertips, which tingled still at the memory, the surprise of finding that strength there when she had expected only bones and sunken flesh. 


She jumped and realized belatedly that Esme had asked her something. She felt the burn of flush in her cheeks, and thanked the stars for the heat and sun to explain it away. Arlo was trotting ahead of them, working away at one of his taffies, and in the distance their house was growing larger. They were nearly to the lane, the mailbox a mere fifty yards away. Why did the post messengers never leave the post there? They always brought it to the house. She realized with a jolt that the mailbox was for the servants.

“Hm?” she asked, concentrating with effort. 

Esme looked at her with narrowed eyes. She didn’t say anything until they reached the end of the lane. She called to Arlo and handed him the bag of taffies with orders to hand them out. He dashed up the lane, eager to complete his errand.

“Where were you this morning?” Esme asked once Arlo was out of earshot.

“This morning?”

“It’s just that I thought you had decided days ago about Rumbi. I know you talked to him yesterday and you seemed fine then.” She waited but when Ami said nothing, she pressed on. “Why the sudden outburst? Are you having second thoughts?”

“No, no second thoughts,” Ami said. “I just needed to clear my head.”

“Why, if you weren’t having doubts?” Esme pressed. 

Ami should have realized she wouldn’t be able to fool Esme. She had just hoped it would take longer, perhaps so long that Esme would forget. 

“Do you promise not to tell anyone?” Ami asked. Esme’s eyes widened and she nodded. “I was saying farewell to Perry Nettleburr.”

“Perry Nettleburr? Who is-? Not that scroungy shepherd lad? I knew it! I knew you were about to kiss him the other night! Did you kiss him this morning?”

“He’s not scroungy!” Ami shot back. “And yes, I did kiss him, and it was wonderful.”

“Was it then? He didn’t try to take advantage?”

“Of course not! He was so sweet. We watched the sunrise together and it was marvelous. Then we kissed. I don’t know who was more nervous. But it was lovely, like... I don’t know. Like strawberries with cream.”

Esme frowned but didn’t say anything right away. She needed to sort out her thoughts, of which she had many. When she did finally speak, it was with a delicacy with which she usually wouldn’t waste time. “I can understand the appeal of someone mysterious. I used to have dreams about Bard the Bowman, from Bilbo’s stories, only in my dreams he was a hobbit naturally. And I do agree with you that there is more to someone’s worth than the coins in their pockets. I’m sure Perry is a nice enough lad. I trust this was just a summer tryst, a Free Fair... affair if you will. It would hardly be the first time such a thing ever happened, nor will it be the last. But it’s over now.”

Ami could have said many things in response to that speech but she knew it would be pointless. She knew very well all the reasons why her feelings for Perry should be shut away and forgotten. Not that she intended to forget them. 

She realized that Esme was watching her again, studying her face in the late afternoon sun. She nodded stiffly. “It’s over.”

“Good. So then, if you won’t take Rumbi for a husband, we’ll have to find you a respectable suitor,” Esme said. “You’re going to be of age in a year. You’re not going to be able to put this decision off much longer. What do you think of Phineas Longbottom?”

“He’s twice my age!”

“He’s not that old! He’s only forty-five, two years younger than Rumbi I might add.”

“Most bachelors who reach that age are bachelors out of choice. I doubt he’s interested in marriage.”

“All right then. What about Marcho Hornblower? He’s a sweet lad, quite handsome.”

Ami shrugged. “He’s certainly polite. We did court once before though. It didn’t last. Obviously.”

“That’s because you decided you didn’t like the way he parted his hair,” Esme said. “I’m sure if you just told him, he’d change it. Why don’t you give it another try? I happen to know he’s not courting anyone else at the moment.”

“I don’t know...” Ami trailed off. She didn’t want Marcho or Phineas. She wanted a lad she could never have, could never be with for numerous reasons. She could not consider the notion of courting someone else when all she wanted to do was retrieve a pony from the stables and go back to the fair before Perry could leave. “I’ll consider it.” She regretted it already.

Esme nodded and said nothing. Up ahead, Arlo was dashing up to the guest cottage, waving the bag of taffies with excited squeals.

That night was one of the longest in Ami’s memory. She feigned exhaustion shortly after dinner and went to bed early. She pretended to be asleep when Esme came into the room a few hours later, keeping still and breathing deeply until she heard Esme settle into bed, her own deep breaths of slumber following soon after. Ami rolled onto her back and stared at the ceiling, watching the moonlight drift across it from the bedroom window. She listened as her brother then her parents went to their rooms, and an hour or so later, the servants to theirs. She waited until it was well past midnight before slipping out of bed and sitting on the windowsill, staring out over the darkened fields towards Michel Delving. She brought her knees up to her chest and hugged them to her, to prevent herself from jumping up and running for the door as much as for comfort, and rested her head against the window frame. 

She itched to get up, to dress and leave, to find Perry and not look back, but what good would that be to anyone? Just a week ago, she wouldn’t have stopped to think about it. She would have followed her impulse to wherever it took her, never once considering the consequences. Well, no, that wasn’t true, despite what others might think. She did a good amount of thinking over the big things, and if her feelings for Perry weren’t to be considered substantial, she didn’t what else could be. She had decisions to make, but she was at a loss of how to make them, not while he was so close and so impossibly far away. All she could do now was remember that morning, laying in the field next to Perry and watching the sun rise, chasing away the dark.

Morning found her still on the sill, asleep against the cool glass.

The summer passed warm and languid. The long days were often passed in the shade or inside, out of the sun as much as possible, and the nights spent outside in the cooling air, fire pits roasting pheasant or boiling soup. 

After the first few weeks of finding themselves adrift in their former home, Amber and Heather settled into the guest cottage. They were delighted that their parents didn’t push them to dine with the rest of the family or join in the quilting circle at the town’s fabric store. They were able to join in these activities and more as they wished, and over the course of the summer and early autumn, without even realizing it, they were laughing and smiling more than they had all year. If they felt any twinges of worry about the quickly approaching winter, they hid them well.

Paladin found that he had a shadow in the shape and size of Arlo. When Arlo wasn’t playing with the servants’ children, he was following Pally around the farm and surrounding lands, going with him on surveys and errands. Their favorite shared activity was fishing. There wasn’t much to it really, just prop the poles up against some rocks and then lay down and relax. Arlo wasn’t very good at relaxing though, so Pally passed the time by having the lad go around and count as many rocks, twigs, bugs and flowers as he could find. They often came home with more toads, worms and clipped flowers than they did fish. When he could get away from Arlo, he went hunting or hiking with his friends and every Highday night could find him at the tavern enjoying the brew and flirtations of the barmaids.

Ami and Esme returned to their routine of sewing, painting and social teas with the other ladies and lasses of influence that lived in and near Whitwell. Their days were filled with planning parties, writing letters and invitations, hunting for fabrics and paints, and creating their art in the sewing room or along riverbanks. There had been an avalanche of mail from Ami’s friends and cousins in Tuckborough when word got around that she had turned down Rumbi’s proposal, but she answered all these letters politely and resolutely, then went on to write about other topics, mainly the many socials and teas she was enjoying.

During many of the teas, Marcho Hornblower would be in attendance and Ami found herself seated next to him more often than not. She enjoyed his company as much as she always had and she was grateful when he didn’t offer anything more than friendship. She wondered if Esme was coaching him; Ami walked into them speaking in the pantry once and Esme’s immediately blush of shame said more than her averted eyes and stammering did. 

Amber and Heather both attempted to speak with Ami soon after returning from the Fair, but once Ami established that she was not experiencing regrets over Ferumbras, she had nothing further to say on the matter. They had no better luck getting answers out of Esme, who was unusually tight-lipped about the whole thing, which only made them more curious. They decided not to push the subject though. If Ami wanted to talk to them, she knew where to find them.

Clematis did not share their sentiment. She couldn’t help but notice Ami’s distraction. Ami being easily distracted was nothing new, but this was different from the carefree and light-hearted distraction she was accustomed to. Ami wasn’t going off with friends at the spur of the moment and forgetting her chores, or remembering an obligation and forgetting to join her friends. Instead, she would suddenly stop in the middle of whatever she was doing and seem to forget everything around her. It was a quiet form of distraction, something internal, and it worried Clematis enough that she finally decided to say something. 

She found Ami one day near the end of Afterlithe as Ami was fashioning mittens out of some hides she had acquired at the Fair. Clematis admired the handiwork of the hides, which were dyed the color of a sunrise, wishing she had seen them to buy for herself. She waited until Ami noticed her and put down her sewing. Clematis had wisely brought ginger biscuits and sweet tea, which she now placed on the table next to the chair where Ami sat. Ami smiled and plucked up a biscuit, careful to put the hides aside so she wouldn’t drop crumbs on them.

“You look tired, Darling. Is everything all right?” Clematis asked.

Ami nodded. “I woke up early this morning. Other than that, I’m quite well.” She laughed at her own joke and munched on the biscuit.

“Have you heard from Ferumbras? Or Lalia?” Clematis watched the post with dread of seeing that familiar hand, hard and round. She wondered why Lalia hadn’t written, or if she had simply missed the missive. If Lalia hadn’t written, it couldn’t mean anything good.

Surprisingly, Ami nodded. “Not from Lalia, but Rumbi wrote the other day. Apparently there was some to-do at the Smials last week. Some of the tweens got into the wine cellar and had themselves a little party. Fortinbras is quite put out by it. He ordered for the tweens to be sent out to the stables and fields to work themselves into exhaustion for the rest of the summer.”

“Lads do have a penchant for trouble.”

“They weren’t all lads. The lasses are doing whatever it is lasses do in the fields.”

Clematis frowned at the idea of lasses sneaking into wine cellars but continued on. “I’m glad to hear that you and Rumbi have remained friends,” she said.

“Of course we’d still be friends,” Ami said.

“Are you sure you’re feeling all right, Darling? You haven’t been yourself.”

“I’m fine, Mother.”

Mother. She never said Mother.


Ami sighed and looked down at her hands. How much could she tell her mother without revealing everything? She still received the occasional suspicious glance from Esme. She didn’t need it from her mother as well. 

“I suppose I just regret the way things turned out. I didn’t want to hurt anyone,” she said, toeing the line between truth and lie.

“Of course you didn’t, Darling. I’m sure that Rumbi understands. Though if you are regretting it so, perhaps you should reconsider.” Clematis poured them each some tea.

“I don’t love Rumbi that way,” Ami said.

“What about Marcho Hornblower? He’s taken quite a shine to you.”

“He is nice, and handsome, and courteous.”


Ami sighed and bit into a biscuit. She munched in deep contemplation, analyzing the flavor and spices in the biscuit as much as her feelings. She swallowed and at last said, “I don’t think I can love him either.”

“Are you sure you’re not simply being persnickety? No one is going to be exactly what you want. You must learn to be lenient, or you’ll find yourself an old maid with no family of your own. I know that isn’t what you want for yourself.”

“I know, Mum. You’re right. I’ll try to be less fussy of Marcho.” Though how she would do that was beyond her. She wasn’t fussy about him now. She did enjoy his company and friendship, and perhaps if things were different, she might have considered courting him more seriously. For now, her heart was still too sore from losing Perry.

“He’s a good lad. He’d make a fine husband,” Clematis said. “Perhaps I should invite him and his family for dinner one night, the next time they’re in town?”

“They’re visiting all summer,” Ami said. She smiled again but it didn’t reach her eyes.

“Do you want me to invite them?” Clematis asked. “I don’t want to give them the wrong impression.”

“Perhaps dinner can wait then,” Ami said.

“You do know you can talk to me about anything, right?”

“Of course.”

“So then? You’ve been sulking all month. Out with it.”

Ami frowned and popped the rest of her biscuit into her mouth to give herself time to think. She had to swallow eventually though and when she did, she sighed and met her mother’s eyes. 

“I met a lad at the Fair, only he’s not what you might consider a proper lad,” Ami started, then hurried on before her mother could interrupt. “I mean to say, he’s smart and considerate and kind and caring, but he’s poor. Poorer than poor actually. I don’t care about that, but I know it will make things difficult for everyone.”

“Can he provide for you?” Clematis asked, watching in wonder as her daughter’s face lit up as she spoke of this lad.

“He’s trying so hard to be able to provide properly for his family and those who rely on him. It’s undoubtedly a lot of pressure, too much for such a young lad to bear - he can’t be much older than myself - but he bears it like he was meant to carry the burden. He says he has no idea what he’s doing, and yet he’s making he all the right choices without even knowing it. He’s going to see his home improved, I know he is. He can make it happen.”

“Who is this lad? Do we know him?” 

Ami shook her head. “Did you, by chance, happen to hear about the shepherd lad I was escorting over the fields the day before opening day?”

Ami was avoiding her eyes now, so she missed it when Clematis’s frown deepened. “Everyone heard about that. Your father and I didn’t think there was anything to it, so we didn’t say anything. It’s him then?”

Ami nodded and looked up, her eyes full of hope. “It is.” She held her breath and waited.

Clematis stirred some more sugar into her tea to give herself something to do while she quickly sorted through her thoughts. How had her daughter fallen in love without her noticing it? And how had she fallen in love with such a derelict? Yet she could not disregard her daughter’s feelings, even if she hoped it was just a passing thing. 

She clicked the spoon against her teacup and returned it to the plate. She took a sip to fortify herself before responding.

“Did I ever tell you that I was going to marry someone else before your father?”

Ami’s eyes popped open in surprise. She shook her head. “No. What happened?”

“I realized that while he appeared to be everything that I wanted, that once I started spending more time with him, there was simply no joy. Not that we didn’t get along, for we did, but he simply wasn’t the right match. He was from a different town, much smaller than Overhill, and they had a different way of seeing things and doing things that didn’t fit with the way I was raised, and he realized the same thing. We knew that no matter how much we tried, we wouldn’t be able to overcome that distance between us. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

Ami held her gaze a moment before searching for another biscuit. It was her turn to avoid eye contact, to hide her thoughts and disappointment. “I understand. Thank you.”

“You’ll find the right lad for you. You just need to make yourself open to possibilities,” Clematis said. 

“I will. Why don’t you invite the Hornblowers to tea on Highday? I can make strawberry-creme pie.”

“That sounds delightful.”

Ami smiled and reached for another biscuit.

Summer faded into autumn and harvest quickly approached. One night around the dinner table, Adalgrim announced that a nursery on one of his farms would need to be expanded before the spring breeding season and that a new home was going to be built to accommodate the extra hired hands needed for the expansion of another farm. Both needed to be done as soon as the harvest was finished and before the cold weather set in. Winters were usually mild, but rain was inevitable and he wanted the buildings finished before it grew too wet and muddy to ensure firm foundations.

Ami waited until the following night before approaching her father in his study after dinner. She knocked on the doorframe and waited until her father bade her to enter. She sat next to his desk and sat up straight and sure. “I want to help with the construction of the home and the nursery on Bell Point and South End,” she said. “It will be good practice for me, if I’m to be apprenticed to Gardenia in the spring.”

Adalgrim’s quill slowed to a stop. He paused, stuck the quill in its well and looked up over his spectacles. He studied his daughter closely for a moment or two. “Gardenia will be teaching you to make furniture, specialty items.”

“Which requires more or less the same tools necessary for a nursery expansion or a house raising,” Ami said, excitement sparkling in her eyes. “It will be a worthy experience for me. Gardenia said I should not let my hands sit idle, lest they forget the feel of a hammer or chisel. Blistering makes it harder to use the tools and will slow down my learning. It would be best to toughen my hands now, and it will be an extra pair of hands for you, which you said you needed. I’m a quick learner; they won’t have to dawdle over me. I’ll pay attention to everything they tell me and I won’t forget anything, I promise.”

“I’m sure you’ll be more than helpful,” Adalgrim said, considering. “Lasses don’t typically do such work. It’s physically demanding. Injuries are common even for the strongest of lads.”

“I won’t do anything that will be a strain to me. I’ll stand out of the way and watch and learn. But I’m sure there must be something I can help with.” She looked up hopefully, not exactly a pout but close enough.

“I’ll think about it,” he promised. 

“You told her what?” Clematis asked him later that night as they lay in bed, waiting for sleep. 

“You should have seen how excited she was,” he said. “I haven’t seen her that alight in months. You don’t think she’s still sulking over this lad she met at the Fair do you?”

“No, but anything to distract her from that couldn’t hurt. Perhaps you should consider it. If Marcho were part of the crew, it would give them more time together doing something they both enjoy. I think Darling’s forgotten that the reason she took an interest in carpentry in the first place was because of Marcho.”

“I can send a letter to Tobold and request his son’s assistance. Then I’ll speak with the forehobbit tomorrow and see if there is anything she can do for him. If nothing else, she can help to cut the wood and lay the tile.”

“I’d feel more comfortable if she was helping to fix the food to feed the workers.” Clematis sighed. “She hasn’t responded to Marcho’s latest letter.”

“It only just arrived this morning.”

“If she were serious about him, she would have responded straight away. What is she waiting for?”

She wasn’t talking just about Marcho. There were too many possible answers to that question and no way of knowing if any of them were right. 

Adalgrim found her hand under the covers and squeezed. “Perhaps this will buy us two cakes for the price of one.”

“We can hope. Perhaps Ami can help with the design process, if the floor plans haven’t been drawn yet. That should satisfy her.”

“That’s brilliant. I’ll tell Ted in the morning.”

Those decisions made, they snuggled further into the sheets and soon drifted off to sleep. 

To be continued...

GF 10/16/11

Ferumbras was only half listening to Twitch as the lad fumbled for something to say. Ferumbras gently prodded with a few leading questions: what did he do on his time off, were there any lasses in his young life, was there anything else he would like to do rather than being a groom?

While Twitch spoke, Ferumbras thought back to the day before, when that knock had sounded upon his door. He had been in the Thain’s study, enjoying a glass of wine after his luncheon. It was a new habit, and a bad one, observing the hour of his mother’s death with a draught. 

When the knock came, he realized he had been waiting for it since his mother’s fall. He had known it was coming, it was only a matter of how long would they wait. Two days after his mother’s funeral, as it turned out, though to their thinking, it had been closer to thirty-eight years. He supposed that was long enough. 

“Enter,” he said and drained his glass, fortifying himself.

The door opened and the Whitwells entered, Paladin first, followed by his sisters Amber, Heather and Esmeralda. Arlo had even turned up for the event; he hadn’t been to Great Smials in nearly a decade, preferring the company of his wife’s kin in Overhill. 

“Good day, Ferumbras,” Paladin had begun. From their set shoulders and stern faces, they were expecting a fight that wasn’t to come. 

“Good day, Whitwells,” Ferumbras said. “How are you this fine day?”

“Quite well,” Amber said. “How are you holding up?”

“I’ve been better, though I can hardly remember when,” Ferumbras said and after a pause, he continued. “Be that as it may, I’m guessing you’re not here for idle chinwagging.”

“It’s about our sister,” Esmeralda said, “and what Lalia did to her.”


Chapter 14 - Tuckborough

30 Halimath, 1364

Dearest Rumbi,

Thank you most kindly for the lace you sent with your last missive. That was precisely the color for which Heather had been searching. She was able to finish her hat and she wore it quite proudly during the Harvest festivals.

I was glad to hear that you were able to attend the hunting party in Southfarthing. I know it is an annual tradition for which you look forward. I trust you performed well, for you are an excellent markshobbit. I can’t wait to hear all about your Adventures. 

My sincerest apologies for not writing a response sooner, but I have been quite busy here. As you may recall, Father agreed to allow me to help with the building of a few new structures here in Whitwell, and the work has taken up much of my time of late. He introduced me to the forehobbit, an elderly and kind fellow named Ted Higgleby, who has designed and built nearly every building and structure in Whitwell today. Well, perhaps that is an over-exaggeration - he’s not that elderly - but his wealth of experience is to be marveled at. 

Mr. Higgleby took me under his tutelage and has taught me much about design and architecture. I never would have realized that so much went into building a home. I had thought it was nothing more than slapping up some boards and putting sod over the sides, but it is quite an involved process and much to remember. 

I doubt I’d remember even half of it if Marcho were not here to help me. They are both ever so patient with me, and Marcho has taken to quizzing me each night as he walks me home. He also started me on writing down everything I’ve learned and gathering it into a notebook, which he checks for accuracy whenever he comes to tea. He’s yet to find any errors, of which he is not surprised. He says I’m a natural and will likely pass his skills someday. 

I now possess reams of notes and schematics and even mathematics, at which I was never very good until recently. I go over my notes every night and learn something new each time. I trust I will be able to put this knowledge to good use when I come to Tuckborough in the spring.

Did I tell you? Gardenia has taken me as her apprentice! I will be arriving at the Great Smials with Heather in the Spring and will be staying with her and Amber while I am studying carpentry. I never thought I would enjoy working with my hands as much as I do, but it is quite satisfying to know that you are working to help others. Painting and sewing and crocheting are enjoyable enough pastimes, but honestly, how many mittens and scarves does one really need?

The hour is late and my burst of energy is now waning quickly. I must go to my slumber. Do take care of yourself, Rumbi, and give my regards to your mother and father.

I shall see you in Rethe!

With affection,


P.S. Do you know what a flying buttress is? What a marvelous term, don’t you agree?

Rumbi grunted with amusement and refolded the letter. He knew what a buttress was - a projecting support that stood against a wall - but he couldn’t imagine any of them flying. It seemed to him as that would rather defeat the purpose. He would have to go to the library and find some tomes on architecture if he was to continue having intellectual correspondence with Ami. He was glad that she had found a passion that held her interest, even if that passion wasn’t him. If only he could find a passion besides her...

He pulled out a fresh sheet of parchment, uncapped the inkwell and sharpened a quill. He already had a response forming in his mind as he worked. He would tell her about going hunting with Adelgar and their friends, about the first cousins’ constant bickering over where they should camp and which direction they should head. Sigismond and Flambard both considered themselves expert hunters but they could never agree on strategy, and Sigibert took it upon himself to make the cooking schedule and then kept forgetting who he assigned to cook and when. Rumbi decided not to tell her any of the details about Adelgar’s upcoming nuptials. Talk of weddings felt off-limits for the time being, and he was certain that Verbena, Delphenia, Rosamunda and all the other lasses would be keeping her up to date on those particular developments. 

He was paused in his writing, trying to think of a delicate way of describing the first hunt, when Lalia looked up from her needlework and clucked. Rumbi managed not to sigh, but it was a close thing.

“I don’t understand why you continue to correspond with that lass,” she said, her tone gentle but with an underlining disapproval sharpening the edge. 

“Perhaps for the same reason you continue to work on that shawl for her,” Rumbi said without turning around. He could almost feel his father’s gaze bouncing back and forth between them. Fortinbras had kept silent on the matter so far, at least in front of Lalia, but he would speak up if need be.

“I promised I would make her one for Yule, and so I will,” Lalia said. “Are you hoping she will change her mind? I had heard she was being courted by Marcho Hornblower. Again.”

“Yes, I’ve heard that also.” If Ami’s constant mentioning of Marcho wasn’t hint enough, Heather also brought it up at least once in her letters. Heather at least tried to soften the blow by referring to him as ‘the Hornblower’s son.’ However one worded it, it was obvious he was spending a good deal of time with Ami, and that she was welcoming it. “And no, I am not hoping she will change her mind. I know she won’t.”

“I just don’t understand it.” Lalia sighed as one greatly put upon and returned to her needlework. “What can Hornblower offer her that you can’t?”

A less tedious mother-in-law. Rumbi bit his lower lip to keep the words from tumbling out. For one horrible moment, he thought he had actually said them, but the calm and relative peace continued uninterrupted so he knew he only imagined it. He returned to his letter, having decided to skip over details of the hunt itself and give a simple tally of their kills for each day.

That night, they supped with Candelaria Proudfoot and her parents. Lalia had been arranging more of these casual dinners, at least two a week all summer. Now that autumn and harvest were upon them, she had been forced to slow down to two a month. 

The Proudfoots arrived promptly at four for tea, then remained to help with dinner and talk about the various goings-on of Tuckborough and Hobbiton. Dinner was pleasant and the conversation  flowed easily. Candelaria was a sweet lass. She fiddled nervously with her napkin throughout the meal and seemed to be trying too hard to think up topics that would interest Rumbi, often getting it wrong. Rumbi did what he could to put her at ease and by the end of the meal, she did loosen up enough to tell him something of her own interests. 

After the Proudfoots left and they finished the washing, Lalia mussed Rumbi’s cheek. “She’s a dear lass, don’t you think?”

“She’s lovely,” Rumbi said. 

“Perhaps we’ll have them for dinner again before they return home?”

“That would be lovely,” Rumbi said.

Fortinbras cleared his throat. “How about a pipe, lad?” He ushered Ferumbras outside into the garden and leaned against the gate.

“Thank you,” Rumbi said under his breath.

“Don’t. Your mother found all your letters from Ami. She couldn’t help but notice you aren’t saving anyone else’s correspondences. Are you hoping Ami will change her mind?”

“Did she read them?” Rumbi asked instead.

“Most likely, yes,” his father replied, his mouth pinched. He didn’t condone spying on anyone, much less his own son. He wouldn’t even ask what the letters contained and would have insisted Lalia put them back where she had found them if he had caught her in time. “Do you think Ami is likely to change her mind?” he repeated.

“No, I don’t,” Rumbi said, with more conviction than he had said it before, and he recognized the truth of it. He didn’t think Ami would change her mind. For whatever reason, he wasn’t what she wanted. He hadn’t really accepted it before, but her letters never hinted at regret or second thoughts, no matter how many times he attempted to read between the lines. He sighed and sat down. “She’s my cousin, my friend. I’m not supposed to write to her? That would be cruel.”

“Then why are you saving the letters?” Fortinbras didn’t seem to expect a response, and after a few moments he continued, “There are other lasses out there. You can at least give them a chance to make an impression.” He dropped his voice to a whisper. “Some of them are even willing to tolerate your mother.”

“For the chance of being the Thain’s Lady. Ami wouldn’t have cared about that.”

“Nor did she care about you, not in that way at least.” Fortinbras said it as gently as he could, but it still felt like a blow to the gut. “There’s no Rule saying that love cannot be pragmatic. Find a lass with the qualities that one expects to find in a Lady, one who can be patient with Lally, one whose company you enjoy. Court her and marry her. Love will come later. Plenty of marriages begin in such ways.”

Rumbi nodded but didn’t give voice to the fact that he had done all that and been rejected anyway.  

That night as he lay in bed, he stared out the window at the blue moon hanging low in the night sky. The moon fit his mood, until he realized how silly it was to pout over something he had known five months ago was over. He would put more of an effort into finding a suitable lass, this time being fair in his assessment of the lasses. He would not compare them to Ami. He would go to the Proudfoots and invite them to tea; Candelaria was a sweet and lovely lass but he wasn’t convinced yet she would be a proper Lady. Then he would respond to the Boffin’s request for tea with their daughter.

Satisfied with his choices, he rolled onto his side and drifted to sleep.

Yule came and went in a flurry of activity followed by long, silent days of soggy rain and crackling hearth fires. He received a few letters from Ami, to which he politely responded, detailing the goings-on of the Smials and himself. He wasn’t boastful about the various lasses he was courting, but he gave brief descriptions of his teas and dinners. He didn’t mention that he was narrowing down his choices, but Ami inevitably noticed the repeated names and encouraged him in his endeavors. Despite himself, he felt a twist of disappointment at her obvious enthusiasm for his future happiness - with someone else. 

He had tea with nearly every available respectable lass and her parents in the Westfarthing over the months of Blotmath and Foreyule, narrowing his considerations to two just before the holiday. His mother approved of Ambrosia Bolger, who was as meticulous in her appearance as Lalia and happily went along with any opinion Lalia spouted. Perhaps it was an attempt to get into Lalia’s good graces before she revealed her true personality. If so, that was a dangerous game and Ambrosia didn’t strike Rumbi as the daring type. She was afraid of mud and spiders. And she hated golf.

He saw more potential with Chrysanthemum Grubb, who wasn’t afraid to disagree with his mother but managed to do so in a way that Lalia couldn’t take offense. Chrysanthemum was considerate and had a quiet grace that earned her the admiration of everyone she encountered, a Lady through and through. She didn’t care for spiders or other crawling things, but she didn’t squeal and hide when she encountered them either. She could shoot par on the Tuckborough links, and she had her own clubs. Most telling was Rumbi’s disappointment when she left to have Yule with her family in Frogmorton. He wrote her a letter inviting her back for another visit after the sowing and sent it by Quick Post, with the hopes it would be waiting for her by the time she arrived home. Three days later, he had her reply: she was eagerly anticipating their next meeting. She had even inserted a lock of her hair. He went and told his parents of his decision.

The end of winter passed in a flurry of correspondence. Never a day went by that he did not receive a missive from Chrysanthemum, and he found he had just as much to say to her in return. He began to plan when and how he would ask for her hand, and he tried to read any hints she might have dropped in her letters. He didn’t want to use his grandmother’s butterfly pendant necklace and bracelet, as he had given them to Ami. It wasn’t mere sentiment; it was plain bad luck to regift a rejected promise token. He was trying to decide between his grandmother’s charm bracelet and his great-grandmother’s ruby necklace when Lalia tapped on the door. 

Rumbi glanced over, then did a double take. Lalia was holding a case containing the heart pendant necklace, which she has worn every day since Fortinbras asked for her hand in marriage. Rumbi stared in amazement as Lalia stepped into the room and pressed the box in his hand. He swallowed the lump forming in his throat and managed to croak, “Thank you.”

“She’s a lovely lass,” Lalia said. “She will be good for you and for the Tooks. That’s all I ever wanted for you, dear heart.”

Rumbi nodded and surprised them both by pulling her into a fierce hug. She hugged him back after a startled moment. After a few moments, she pulled away and patted his cheek. “Her mother wrote to me and said that her daughter always dreamt her suitor would propose in front of a large crowd. Perhaps you can ask her at the welcome feast. You’ll have her entire visit to celebrate and make your plans.”

“That doesn’t add to the pressure,” Rumbi said. His laugh came out shaky. 

“You’ll do fine,” Lalia said. She patted his cheek again and departed.

Elation rippled through him. He opened and reopened the heart-pendant box, staring at the necklace and envisioning it around Chrysanthemum’s neck. He went over a couple of proposal scenarios, drafted a few short speeches, wondering how flowery or straightforward she would want the proposal to be. He managed to find a midway point and spent the rest of the night perfecting it, agonizing over each word. Finally, he put the box and the parchment safely away in the hidden compartment of his wardrobe and went to the main kitchens, seeking an after-afters treat to make the night perfect.

The tunnels were vacant, with here and there only a burning candle to light the path. He could hear only the shuffle of his feet on the wooden floor and his breath seemed to echo off the walls in soft pants. He could almost imagine himself completely alone, the only body in the whole of the Great Smials. He passed through the dining hall and swung open the door to the kitchen, not noticing the faint flicker of candlelight and oven until he looked up and spotted the kitchen’s other two occupants. After his imagined isolation, it was jarring to find himself suddenly in the company of others. 

He blinked, his mind quickly making sense of the scene before him, as well as what he had caught in the half-moment that he walked in and they jumped away from each other. He recognized the chambermaid from around the Smials. She worked primarily for Isengar’s family since the legendary Took’s passing. Rumbi didn’t know her name but he was fairly certain she was not yet of age. The lad he recognized immediately as one of the grooms. 

They all stood frozen, Rumbi feeling increasingly uncomfortable, the lad and lass increasingly horrified by their expressions. Whatever they had been planning for the night, being caught by the Thain’s son had not been a consideration. To their credit, it was late, almost eleven. There would be no reason to expect interruption. Nor were they necessarily doing anything wrong, though by their stricken expressions, he wondered how much longer it would have been before their innocent baking turned into something decidedly less innocent. Their hands were in a bowl of batter, enmeshed up to their wrists. Rumbi was fairly certainly they had been kissing just a few seconds before. 

The moment stretched and it would have been funny had Rumbi walked into a pair of his cousins. As it was, he was thinking fast. There was protocol on this, wasn’t there? For the life of him, he couldn’t think of it. Should he demand to know what was going on here, or should he simply dismiss them both to their rooms? From the looks on their faces, they likely expected to be dismissed from their jobs. He needed to consult his father before he did anything else, and letting these two fret for a while would do them both good.

Rumbi cleared his throat and made an effort to appear oblivious. “Oh good. There’s still someone here,” he said. “Can you point me to the pantry where the leftovers are stored? I’m hoping to grab another bite of that wonderful cake that was served for afters tonight.”

The lass pulled a hand from the batter and pointed to the shelves over the washbasins. A small portion of the cake remained.

“Were you planning on having any for yourselves?” Rumbi asked, arching his eyebrow in what he hoped was a pointed look. He could always go back to the apartment and raid his own pantry if they said yes.

The lad shook his head. “No, Mr. Ferumbras. We were just, um...” He trailed off and looked down at the batter.

“Well then, if you’re certain, I’ll take what’s left and leave you to it.” Rumbi took the cake, platter and all. He didn’t want to torment them by having to hunt for a plate. “Have a good rest of your evening.”

The lass and lad nodded. “You as well, sir,” they said together. It was the standard answer, one Rumbi has heard numerous times on several occasions, though it had never sounded so chocked and panicked. 

Rumbi left them to their continued fretting and went to the nearest parlor before realizing he had forgotten to get a fork. He could either go back to the kitchen for one - unimaginable - or back to the apartment for one - undesirable. He sat in the windowsill and opened the shutters, letting in the moonlight. Cool silvery beams spilled across him to the floor at his feet as his shadow loomed over the rest of the room. Shrugging, he picked at the cake with his fingers and munched absently as he tried to make sense of what he had just witnessed.

He waited until luncheon the following day to speak to his father. He mentioned only the circumstances, how he had found the lad and lass, and asked for clarification on what should be done. Fortinbras had come across similar situations many times during his Thainship but there was little he could do about servants having dalliances. There were no Rules against it, except those of Decency which were to be strictly abided by. The only policy among the Tooks concerned servants who married someone who worked for another family: the family that was to gain a servant was to search among their townships for an apprentice of the appropriate age and willingness to fill the job for the family that lost a servant.

“But for two of our servants who marry each other?” Ferumbras asked.

Fortinbras shrugged. “We of course will offer them a private apartment in the servant quarters if they request it.” He leveled an eye on his son. “Did you get the impression that perhaps things were not Decent?”

“I didn’t see enough to tell. I do know the lass is underage, but she is at least courting age. I doubt her father would appreciate learning how his daughter is spending her nights. I can speak with the lad,” Rumbi offered.

Fortinbras looked out the window of his study. “Speak with him but do not confront him about his behavior. A simple reminder of what is expected of our servants - and the consequences for failing to uphold those expectations - will suffice. Likely, you appearing when you did was all the reminder that was needed, but it never hurts to follow through. I don’t need one of our lasses disgraced while in our care.”

Permission granted, Rumbi departed and went to the stables. He found the master ostler and asked if any of his grooms had been out of bed last night.

“Not that I know of,” the ostler said. “Nab! Any of you lads slip off last night?”

A lad with curly black hair looked up from his mucking, caught Ferumbras’s eyes and blushed. He pointed with his chin to the other end of the stables. “Sprig weren’t feeling well. He’d gone for a stroll.”

The ostler led Rumbi through the stables to a couple of empty stalls near the end of the row. Inside was the lad from the night before. He was sitting on a stool and reading a missive. The lad was so engrossed in his reading that he didn’t notice his audience until a few moments later. He read with a little smile on his lips, which moved slightly with the words on the page. 

Rumbi took a closer look at the missive and felt a jolt of surprise as he recognized the parchment Sprig was holding. He had come to know that parchment well over the last several months. The address on the back of the parchment was upside down, but Rumbi could read clearly the familiar, delicate scrawl of Ami’s hand staring back at him. “Sprig Dingle, Westfarthing, Tuckborough, Great Smials, Stables.”

A hundred questions sprang into Rumbi’s head but were interrupted when the ostler cleared his throat. Sprig looked up, saw them and jumped to his feet, eager to look as though he had not just been shirking his duties.

“That the one?” the ostler asked. Rumbi nodded. “I’ll leave you to it then.”

Rumbi stood rooted in the doorway, trying to make sense of everything. Seeing this lad reading a letter from Ami had pushed out all other concerns. He had no idea how Ami could know this lad, much less know him well enough to be writing him. He was certain of the besotted look Sprig had been wearing while reading the letter, and yet the groom had been engaging in flirtations with one of the chambermaids last night. What exactly was going on here?

Sprig waited patiently while Rumbi gathered his thoughts. He had tucked away the letter in his breech’s pocket and he now stood still, as though willing himself not to fidget. The longer it took for Rumbi to speak, the harder it became for Sprig to stay still. Finally, Sprig seemed to realize he would have to be the one to speak first. He breathed in deeply and, with a great deal of aplomb he undoubtedly didn’t feel, he said “Good day to you, Mr. Ferumbras. Were you needing something of me, sir?”

 “Good day, Sprig,” Rumbi replied. Speaking helped. He focused on the matter at hand first. “Might I have a word with you?”

“Of course,” Sprig said, his shell of confidence cracking a little. 

Rumbi could practically feel all the ears in the stables, hobbit and pony alike, straining to hear what they were saying. It wouldn’t do anyone favors to be overheard. “Let us walk over the hills for a bit.”

He led the lad away from the stables, down the hillsides, going in no particular direction except away from prying ears. “How is Miss Deliah this morning?” he asked once they were well and truly on their own. He had learned the chambermaid’s name that morning from Dicentra over first breakfast. 

“She is well, sir,” Sprig answered promptly. His voice was tight with nerves, no doubt anticipating his inevitable dismissal. 

“Is she still in possession of her innocence?” Rumbi asked.

Sprig stopped abruptly and gaped at him. “Of course she is, sir! I would never disgrace any lass.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” Ferumbras said. “I trust you have her father’s approval to court her.”

Sprig nodded. “I sent him a missive and he sent his reply.”

“An affirmative reply,” Rumbi pressed.

Sprig’s face reddened. “Yes, it was affirmative. If you must know, we are Promised. We are planning the wedding for next summer.”

“Ah! Is that so? Congratulations are in order then,” Rumbi said, hoping he sounded sincere. So Sprig and the chambermaid were promised. And yet... Rumbi had not misinterpreted the expression on Sprig’s face as he had been reading Ami’s letter. How though to bring it up tactfully? “I had not heard the announcement.”

“It’s not official yet,” Sprig said. “We’ve still to meet the other’s families.”

“So I’m the first to hear this news?”

“Our families know, naturally,” Sprig said.

“Of course, of course. Is she the only lass you’ve been courting? You wouldn’t want to leave any other lasses hanging onto false hopes.”

“No, sir.”

“So she isn’t the only lass you’ve been courting?”

“No. I mean, yes, she is the only lass. I meant, no there are no other lasses,” Sprig clarified. 

“I see. This is good news,” Rumbi said. “I fear I may have interrupted your reading unnecessarily. It’s rather sweet, the two of you living so close and yet you still write letters to each other.”

Sprig paused and Rumbi waited. This was the moment of truth. Would Sprig take the opening that Rumbi had given him and continue the lie, or would he tell the truth? That would depend if Sprig sensed that Rumbi was baiting him, and whether or not he knew that Rumbi had seen and recognized the handwriting.

“Deliah doesn’t have her letters, sir,” he finally said and left it at that.

“My mistake,” Rumbi said. So he had his answers, in a fashion. Pressing for more accurate details would be pushing his hand. “Well then, good luck with your pending nuptials, and in the meantime, might I suggest leaving the baking for a more daytime part of the day.”

“Of course, sir,” Sprig said.

“Let’s also see that Miss Deliah is returned to her rooms no later than nine o’clock from here on out, and let’s have no more of these isolated gatherings.”

“Yes, sir,” Sprig said, relief at not being dismissed clear on his face.

“Very good, Master Sprig. Return to your duties then.” Satisfied, Rumbi returned to the Smials, leaving Sprig alone on the hills to marvel at his good fortune.

The beginning of Afteryule brought the return of Amber and Arlo Lightfoot to the Smials. Amber looked renewed. There was a shine in her eyes again and a bounce in her step. She started her lessons almost at once with a cheer she hadn’t displayed in nearly a year. She sought out Rumbi a few days after returning to thank him for his part in helping her overcome her melancholy, which Rumbi brushed off out of hand. She insisted on inviting him for tea, and as they ate, their conversation invariably came around to Ami.

“Darling surprised us all,” Amber said. “I’d never seen her so focused as when she was helping Ted and the chaps with the construction. She of course forgot everything else she was supposed to be doing, but she never forgot anything when it came to the construction. I almost didn’t recognize her.”

“And she’s courting Marcho Hornblower,” Rumbi stated. “Is she happy with him then?”

Amber nodded. “I believe so, yes.”

“I am glad for them,” he said and he almost meant it.

In Rethe, Heather arrived with Ami in tow. Ami roomed with her sisters and nephew, settling in almost instantaneously. Indeed, her calendar seemed to fill with appointments for elevenses and teas and dinners before she even reached her room. By the time Rumbi saw her at dinner that evening, her every spare minute for the next three weeks not taken up with her studies and apprenticeship was devoted to friends and cousins all clamoring to be in her company. 

Rumbi only managed a few pleasantries with her before she was pulled away by her friends. He watched her weave her way across the dining hall and sighed. She was as lovely as ever and his heart still squeezed tight when he looked at her, but only for a half-moment before he remembered Chrysanthemum. Then his heart swelled and floated, and he turned, grinning as he thought of his intended’s pending arrival. 

Chrysanthemum Grubb and her parents arrived the second week of Astron. Lalia organized a welcoming feast for the Grubbs, a simple affair with all the good food one could hope for and plenty of hearty ale to wash it down. Chrysanthemum charmed Fortinbras and the first cousins, entertaining them with tales of tween adventures of her siblings and even a few of herself.

When dinner was over and they were waiting for afters, Rumbi stood and raised a glass. The chatter dropped to a low buzz, and further still to a few scattered whispers. “Thank you all for joining us in greeting our fine guests, Harlan and Miranda Grubb and their fair daughter, Miss Chrysanthemum.”

His audience applauded, and this too quieted as he remained standing. He took a deep breath and hoped his mother was right. He turned to Chrysanthemum, reached into his pocket and pulled out the heart-pendant box. “Rysa, in these last few months, I have come to know you as a fine, wise and strong lass, compassionate and respectable, full of good humor and good sense. I could not ask for a better lass to stand at my side than you. Will you marry me?”

Several hobbits started clapping and cheering, without even waiting for Rysa’s reply. When she said yes and Rumbi placed the pendant around her neck, the others joined in, filling the dining hall with such a clamor that Rumbi couldn’t even hear himself when he tried to speak again. He gave it up and sat down, his hand clasped with Rysa’s, and signaled for the cake to be served. 

Rysa stayed at Great Smials through the rest of spring, and that time was filled with social engagements with Rysa and Rumbi as they had tea with the first cousins and his closest friends and anyone else of importance. When he wasn’t having tea or helping his father with the running of the Smials, he was with his mother, Rysa and her mother making plans for the wedding, which they all agreed to have the following spring. 

Rumbi rarely had a moment alone with Chrysanthemum, but on the few occasions he was able to whisk her away, they would stroll the hillsides talking about everything and nothing. They might hold hands or she might slip her arm through his, but he was always thrilled to have her near and see the excitement dancing in her eyes. Kissing her was like sunshine after heavy rains and on one memorable occasion, she pulled him into an empty sitting room, blocked the door, and kissed him until his lips were numb.

When finally summer came and the Grubbs returned to Overhill, Rumbi thought it was impossible to wait until spring to see her again. He immediately started making plans to visit her for autumn. They also made plans to meet each other halfway at Three-Farthing Stone whenever they were able. She had to be more careful about disappearing too often for too long, so they didn’t have their first rendezvous until midway through Forelithe. They met up at noon, had a picnic and spent a few lovely hours riding through the open fields before she had to return home. They agreed to try another meeting after Lithe, kissed and reluctantly rode away in opposite directions.

Rumbi didn’t go directly home, taking the pony for a long, rambling ride over the Green Hill Country. It was twilight before the Smials came into view. His stomach was grumbling in loud protest for his neglect and he rode faster, reaching the stables and dismounting. He walked the pony into the stables, knowing that the ostlers would be off to their own meal at this hour. He turned down the third aisle and put the pony in her stall, brushed her down and saw her fed. He was on his way out when he spotted movement in the corner of his eye. He turned and found Ami standing with Sprig in front of the second aisle, contemplating a bay-and-white pony. 


She startled and turned with what he thought was a fleeting expression of guilt. This was quickly replaced with her customary smile and cheer, so perhaps Rumbi was mistaken. He paused, considering, then went to join her. It seemed to him that he hadn’t seen her in months, though of course that wasn’t true. He had glimpsed her several times in the tunnels, halls and grounds. They had simply never had time to speak.

Sprig looked back and forth between them and then quietly excused himself. Ami thanked him for his assistance and returned her attention to Rumbi. 

Rumbi waited until Sprig disappeared in the shadows before speaking again. “What are you doing out here at such an hour? Where’s Paladin?”

The rest of the Whitwell Tooks had arrived for their annual summer visit a couple of weeks earlier. He and Chrysanthemum had met with Adalgrim and Clematis before the Grubbs left, but Ami had not been present for the tea, being at an engagement of her own. 

“Oh, they’re inside,” Ami answered vaguely. “I just needed some time alone.”

Alone? With the groom? Rumbi looked at her closer in the failing light. “Is everything all right?”

“Of course,” Ami said with a grin.


She sighed and went back to staring at the pony. “I was just imagining taking her out for a ride, the long kind, like Isengar and Hildigrim. Sprig was helping me decide on a pony.”

Rumbi felt the hairs on the back on his neck stand up. She was serious. There was no teasing gleam in her eye, no carefree inflection in her voice. She was actually considering an Adventure.

“Is that so?” he asked, hoping he sounded composed. “Are you planning a long Adventure?”

“Not sure yet.”

“What brought this about?” he asked. He knew Ami could be impulsive - she had more than her Took’s share of it - but an Adventure? He swallowed and asked the question he didn’t want answered. “Will you be going Outside?”

“No, not Outside,” Ami quickly assured. 

Rumbi relaxed fractionally. So at least she wasn’t that impulsive, though once she was alone and near the Bounds, who could say what she’d end up doing. His neck hairs started prickling again.

“Alone?” he asked.

Ami shrugged. “Seems the way to do it. I’ve been planning it for weeks. I’ve got all the usual sort of supplies gathered already, camping gear and the like, a sleeping roll and a tent in case it rains. I’ve got dried food, water, changes of clothes.”

“How have you had time to do all this?”

She grinned impishly and winked. “Not all those teas were teas.”

“Does anyone else know about your plans?”

She nodded. “I told my parents, of course. They disapprove, but once I’m of age, they can’t do anything about it. Not really. They could forbid me to go, but I wouldn’t have to listen to them. Thankfully, they’ve refrained from doing so.”

Rumbi didn’t have a response to this. He was too shocked at the idea that one didn’t have to listen to their parents simply for being of age to think of a proper response. Where had she come up with such an odd notion? Then again, hadn’t he defied his mother when he had insisted on asking for Ami’s hand? And look how that had turned out.

Quite well, actually, otherwise he never would have considered Chrysanthemum. 

“I’ve coin too, of course, for when I tire of sleeping on hard ground,” Ami said. “I think a nice romp around the Shire is a nice little Adventure, don’t you?”

“I do indeed,” Rumbi finally managed. “But alone?”

“I’ll never be more than a day’s ride away from someone else, no matter where I go,” she pointed out. 

“When are you planning to leave?”

“Well, after Midyear of course, sometime in Afterlithe.”

“I wish you the best,” Rumbi said, thinking quickly.

“Thanks, Rumbi.”

“We should have tea before you go. I’ve hardly had opportunity to speak with you since you arrived.”

“You’ve been busy. I like Rysa. She’s nice and kind. She’s a good fit for you.”

“Thank you. I quite like her myself. How are things with Marcho?”

Did he imagine the pinching of her mouth? She never seemed to stop smiling, so perhaps he had. And yet... “He’s wonderful and sweet. He’ll be coming here for my birthday, of course. I think he might be making his move soon,” she said, blushing slightly. “Tomorrow then? For tea,” she clarified.

“Yes, tomorrow. I’ll see you then.” Rumbi left her examining the ponies and returned to the Smials. He would keep a close eye on Ami from now on, and speak with Adalgrim about his daughter’s Adventure plans. It wouldn’t do to have Ami wandering the Shire on her own. At the very least, someone should follow her for the first few days to see that she got on all right.

The next morning, he spoke with Adalgrim and Pally. Neither were happy about Ami’s plans, but she had sworn not to cross the Bounds under any circumstances and to write at regular intervals, at least once a week when she could manage it. Pally had naturally offered to escort Ami for the first week or two, but she had refused, insisting to go alone. They were both grateful when Rumbi offered to follow her at a distance for a few days and promised to inform him as soon as they knew when she planned on departing.

Rumbi met Ami for tea and inquired further about her plans, with little success. She maintained that she simply didn’t know yet, but he knew her well enough to know when she was holding something back. He would like to believe that perhaps she was changing her mind, but he thought it was rather the opposite. She knew exactly what she was doing and she wanted to make sure that no one else did. Curious, considering that her parents were not preventing her from leaving, which apparently wouldn’t have stopped her anyway. He doubled his resolve to keep an eye on her and recruited a few trusted servants to help in that endeavor. 

The next couple of weeks passed in a flurry of activity as everyone prepared for the big day. Not Midyear’s Day in itself, though there was certainly much commotion over the annual holiday as well, but this year it would serve as Ami’s birthday and her coming of age. Everyone seemed astonished she had made it all the way to thirty-three, considering the curse, and they were all eager to attend the party to celebrate the fact that she seemed to have dodged misfortune. 

In between all the preparations for the festival and the Birthday Party, Rumbi would receive the occasional report from his servants of Ami’s doings. She had spoken to the master ostler and taken her chosen pony on a long rambling jaunt one day. She had also received his permission to store her supplies for her journey in the pony’s stall. On the last day of Forelithe, she, Esme and Dicentra were seen hauling supplies to the stables. These proceedings were interrupted by the arrival of the Hornblowers. Then the festival began and she was nearly impossible to keep track of, but she was also constantly in the company of her friends, sisters and Marcho as they enjoyed the fair in Tuckborough. 

Then 2 Lithe arrived and the Birthday Party began at noon and went on through the night. Ami danced with nearly every lad there when she wasn’t dancing with Marcho Hornblower. He had the decency and good sense not to ask for her hand right then and there, though several Hobbits expected him to. She handed out many presents - Rumbi’s was a watercolor of Great Smials - and she displayed some of her work, a jewelry box, a snuff box and a rocking chair, all lovingly crafted with a sure and expert hand. She had a knack for it, that was certain, and she received many offers for future projects, all of which she promised to entertain and get back to the requestor after the Party. There was music and singing and food and ale and a cake big enough to feed all of Tuckborough that must have taken days to bake and assemble. 

The Party went past midnight before people finally started stumbling to their rooms or passing out where they sat. Rumbi found his way home and sank into his bed with gratitude. The Party had seemed to last for days, rather than hours, and he sank into dreams of cake and ribbons and swirling skirts. 

He was woken the following morning by an incessant knock upon his door. He wadded his way out of his sleep and blinked. The midmorning sun was streaming into his room, announcing Her surprise at finding him still asleep at such a busy hour. He yawned and stretched, pushed the blankets away, stumbled to the door and opened it. One of his spies stood there and Rumbi instantly knew it was bad news, if only from the cold trickle that ran down his spine to his toes.

“She’s gone, Mr. Ferumbras,” Gorton announced. “Must of slipped away o’er the night. No one’s seen her this morn, and she ain’t in her rooms. She didn’t show up for breakfasts or for her tutoring with Mistress Gardenia. I’ve been to the stables, sir. The pony’s gone, ‘long with her things.”

“I see. Thank you.”

“Your father is waiting for you in his study, sir.” Gorton bowed shortly. His job now done, he left to return to his regular duties. 

Rumbi stood there, watching the old servant retreat down the hall, and he continued to stand there after he heard the apartment door click softly closed. 

Ami was gone. Rumbi should have known and he was disgusted with himself that he hadn’t been more vigilant. He had missed following her and there was no way now to find out which way she might have gone. Except... Ami wasn’t entirely rash. She must have told someone of her plans, at least her initial plans. 

Rumbi dressed hurriedly, splashed water on his face right out of the ewer, grabbed something to eat from the pantry and munched that down on his way to his father’s study.

To be continued...

GF 10/22/11

“Sir?” Twitch said, recalling Ferumbras to the present.

“That’s lovely, lad,” Ferumbras said. He was fairly certain Twitch had just revealed that he enjoyed gardening more than grooming. “Perhaps when we return to the Smials, I can speak with the master gardener for you.”

Twitch’s smile was surprised and hopeful. “Really?”

“Certainly,” Ferumbras said, glad he had heard correctly. 

“Thank you, sir,” Twitch said, warming up to him for the first time.

Ferumbras supposed it was time to offer some answers of his own. He cleared his throat and met the lad’s gaze. “I’m sure you’re full of questions about why we’re here and where we’re going. There is a settlement not far from here. Your father took me there once, a long time ago. If he were not retired, he would be taking me again. Or perhaps not. Who am I to say, really? Still, I think he’d be pleased that you are able to accompany me today.” 

“My father?” Twitch asked. “What does he have to do with this?” He was so astonished by the Thain’s announcement that he forgot to add ‘begging your pardon.’ 

Ferumbras smiled wistfully. “Quite a lot, actually. I suppose he never told you about the time he brought me out here? Your parents weren’t even married then.”

“I know nothing of it, sir,” Twitch said, his curiosity growing by leaps and bounds. 

“Of course not. My mother saw to that,” Ferumbras said, a bitter note in his voice. He considered the young hobbit across from him, watching him for longer than was comfortable. Then he nodded, as though coming to some great decision. “I think we are far enough from the Tooklands now to speak of it safely, and you should know some of it, before we get there. It’s best to be informed as much as you can, I’ve learned.”

Twitch nodded and settled in to hear the Thain’s tale.


Chapter 15 - A Conspiracy Unmasked

Ferumbras made it to his father’s study in under two minutes. He knocked once and entered without waiting for an invitation. He paused when he saw his mother there, but refocused immediately on Clematis and Adalgrim, both of whom were mid-sip in their tea and appeared relatively calm, not panicked and fretful as he expected they would be.

They were all watching him, waiting for him to explain his presence. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly in an attempt to regain his own composure. He smoothed out his waistcoat and approached an empty chair around the tea table, where they all were sitting. He took his seat and met his father’s eyes.

“Gorton found me.”

Fortinbras nodded. 

“Have some tea, dearest,” Lalia said. Her tone was neutral, never a good sign.

Rumbi poured himself a cup, added cream and sugar, stirred and sat back. He met first Adalgrim’s then Clematis’s eyes. He saw then that Clematis was slightly red-eyed, and Adalgrim’s mouth was pinched at the corners. Even his father seemed to have more wrinkles around his eyes than he normally did. “I am sorry I failed in my promise to keep watch on her,” he said.

Adalgrim’s pinched mouth attempted to smile. “It’s not your fault, lad. Ami was just too clever for all of us.”

“Perhaps I could still track her,” Rumbi said. “Does anyone know what direction she was planning to head first?”

“No,” Clematis said, her voice softer than normal. “Esmeralda didn’t know what her plans were. If Darling were to tell anyone, it’d be her. We asked Marcho too, of course, but he doesn’t know anything either.”

“Did he know Darling was planning to go on an Adventure?” Rumbi asked.

Adalgrim nodded with a sigh. They had clearly gone over all this already, but they would go over it again for Rumbi’s benefit. “He knew. He was hoping to propose before she could leave, but he says he’s content to wait until she returns. We checked with all her friends, just to be certain, but none of them know anything either.”

“What about the ostlers?”

“The ostlers?” Lalia repeated, making sure she heard correctly.

“She did have to go to the barn to get the pony,” Rumbi pointed out. “One of them might have helped her to prepare the pony, or least been awake to see which way she went. Has anyone asked any of them?”

“Gorton didn’t say anything,” Fortinbras said.

“He might not have asked,” Rumbi said. 

Lalia sniffed. Rumbi knew that sniff well. It meant she would hardly be surprised that one of the help didn’t take initiative to discover such important details on their own. She reached for the bell she kept on the table and rang it. Rumbi gritted his teeth; he detested that dratted bell.

A few seconds later, the door to the adjacent room opened and Gorton appeared. “Yes, Mistress?”

“Did you ask any of the ostlers where Amaryllis might have gone?” Lalia asked. Her tone suggested she already knew what the answer would be and she wouldn’t be surprised to hear it.

She was surprised however, though she didn’t show it. “I did, ma’am. Most of them were still at the festivities, and those who were in the stables were fast asleep. No one heard or saw anything.”

Still, that didn’t mean that none of them knew anything. “What about Sprig? Ami is friendly with him. He might know something,” Rumbi said.

“I can send for him, sir,” Gorton said.

“No, best to speak with him at the stables,” Fortinbras said. Having a groom escorted to the Thain’s study would only cause more whispers, and there was whispering enough already.

“I’ll go,” Rumbi offered, already standing. “I’ll be back shortly.”

Lalia watched her son depart and then waved for Gorton to be dismissed. Once they were alone again, she studied her husband. They had been here going over the plans for the end-of-summer ball when Adalgrim and Clematis had arrived. They had hesitated when they saw Lalia, but she had insisted they stay and say what was on their minds, for clearly something was amiss. She listened in astonishment as they explained Ami’s sudden departure. Her astonishment only grew as Fortinbras issued his orders to Gorton - check the stables, check with Ferumbras - and she realized that he had already known about this. That meant Ferumbras already knew as well, which he confirmed as soon as he arrived, and yet no one had thought it important enough to inform her. No one had thought that she, the Lady of the Tooks, needed to be informed when one of the fold was planning to skip away on some foolish Adventure and make the Family a spectacle in front of the whole Shire.

“Why would she want to go on an Adventure?” Clematis said into the silence. “This is all Bilbo’s fault, filling their heads like he does.”

“I don’t know about that,” Adalgrim said. “She enjoys his stories, but she’s never shown the least bit interest in Adventuring until a few weeks ago. I just don’t understand what happened, nor why she failed to tell us she was leaving. She promised to tell us.”

“I’m sure she just forgot,” Lalia said, and bit down on the rest of her statement, ‘like she does with everything else.’ If Rumbi still could not see how fortunate he was that Ami had refused his hand, then he was more blind than Lalia had thought. And now Ami was, in effect, rejecting even Marcho Hornblower’s hand, though everyone but her failed to see that as well. Of course Ami was rejecting Marcho, for he had no other reason to be here than to propose to the lass, and he was content to wait? What was it about Darling that made everyone blind to her snubs and disrespect?

Lalia drank her tea and hoped, guiltily, that Ami would never return.

Sprig was cleaning out the stalls with his fellow junior ostlers when Rumbi entered the stable. The master ostler called Sprig over at Rumbi’s request and Rumbi went outside, to the far end of the paddock where they would not be easily overheard. When Sprig stood in front of him, Rumbi paused, both to compose himself and to figure out the best way to get the information he needed. 

“I promise, Mr. Ferumbras, I’ve been doing as you asked,” Sprig said before Rumbi could put two words together. “I make sure as she’s at her rooms by nine o’clock every night, and we’ve not been alone.”

“Come again.”

“This is about Deliah?”

“Who? Oh, no. This is about Darling. Miss Amaryllis,” Rumbi said. “She took the pony in the middle of the night and left.”

“Aye. We told Gorton as much.”

“You know where she went.”

Sprig stepped back in shock. “I don’t, sir,” he insisted.

“She’s been writing to you, all through the last year. Then she comes here to look after the pony and prepare for her journey, and she talks to you about the best one to take. She’s been keeping her supplies in the stall, packed and ready to go at any moment. She didn’t talk to you? Tell you anything?”

Sprig shook his head, shock still evident. He didn’t dare question how Ferumbras knew about the letters. They were innocent enough, but it rattled him that anyone outside the stables knew about them. Had Ami told Ferumbras? Why? “No, sir. She said as she’d got permission from her folks to go.”

“She did have.” Sprig relaxed considerably at this affirmation. “However, she was supposed to tell us when she planned to leave.”

Sprig shrugged. “She said she was leaving in Afterlithe. It is Afterlithe, sir.”

Rumbi grudgingly admitted that Sprig had a point. Still, to leave before the first day was over? Indeed, to leave when the first day had barely just begun? “She must have told you something to have written you so often.”

Sprig’s expression turned sour. “I’ll retrieve the missives if you wish to read them, sir.” His tone suggested he would rather eat rotten eggs. “I assure you, she said naught to me of her plans.”

Rumbi paused. No, he realized, she would be more subtle than that. “Did she ask you about any places she might visit on her journey? Who she might be able to stay with in certain places?”

Sprig paused, considering. He glanced back at the stables and saw Nab watching from the shadows. 

“Sprig, this is important,” Rumbi said. “What did she ask you?”

Sprig let out a huff. “She did ask for the quickest routes to certain places: Hobbiton, Pincup, Budgeford. She’s family of some sort in all those places. I’d assume she would stay with them.”

That made sense enough. Rumbi tried a different track. “Did she seem inclined towards one place over the others?”

“She didn’t say which one, but she did ask about Pincup again the other day. Her aunt’s a Banks, ain’t she?” Sprig met Rumbi’s eyes, his own troubled. “Do you- You don’t think as she’d get into trouble, do you, sir?”

“No. No, of course not. What could happen to her in the Shire?” Short of falling, breaking an ankle and being unable to get herself to help. Why had Adalgrim permitted this? Not that Ami would have been stopped by that, but it at least would have made her planning more difficult. “Thank you, Sprig.”

Ferumbras returned to his father’s study and conveyed the news. In the end, it was decided to send out riders to attempt to pick up her trail. Rumbi would ride towards Pincup, which seemed the most likely destination. Adelgar would head for Budgeford and Adalgrim for Hobbiton. They would search for the trail for two hours then return to report their progress. If the trail wasn’t found in that amount of time, it was unlikely to exist. Once they knew for certain which way Ami had gone, Adalgrim and Clematis would decide if they still wanted Rumbi to follow her or not. 

Rumbi went in search of his friend and Adalgrim went to have ponies readied. Clematis needed to find her other children and tell them what was happening, and Fortinbras had other duties to attend to. Lalia went to find Marcho. She wanted to hear it from the lad himself that he was all right with Ami’s disappearance. 

Lalia went to the guest quarters, but the Hornblowers were already out and about for the day. She looked in some of the sitting rooms and parlors, with no luck. If she came across any tweens, she asked after Marcho, only to get a shrug and a blank stare. One lad thought he saw Marcho heading out over the fields earlier that morning but couldn’t be sure.

Giving it up for the moment, she returned to the study to do some crochet and wait with Clematis for the riders’ returns. Adalgrim returned first, just after two. He had found no trail leading from the Smials to the north, and he had looked thoroughly, even getting off his pony from time to time whenever he saw something likely. He could only conclude that Ami had not gone that way. Adelgar returned shortly before three, with the same news. Rumbi arrived a half-hour later.

“I found her trail,” he said. “She’s headed for Pincup. If I hurry, I can get there by nightfall. If she’s visiting kin, it’s unlikely she’d have moved on yet. I can still catch up with her.”

Clematis and Adalgrim shared a glance. “I’ll write a missive to the Banks and ask them to make certain they find out where she’s going next and send word to them. Perhaps we can keep track of her that way,” Clematis said. “We knew what we were agreeing to. I suppose we’ll simply have to become accustomed to worrying until she comes back.”

“I can deliver the missive myself. I really don’t mind,” Rumbi offered.

“But she will,” Adalgrim said. “She’s not the only one who can be wily. So long as she doesn’t change destinations from one place to another, we should be able to keep track of her without her being any the wiser. Thank you all for your help, and for getting this information for us, Rumbi. Now, we’re to have tea with Gardenia. If you’ll excuse us.”

“Of course,” Fortinbras said.

Adelgar and Rumbi left with them to go to their own teas, leaving Fortinbras and Lalia alone. Fortinbras studied his wife. “What are you thinking?” he asked.

“Marcho hasn’t been seen since this morning,” she said. “He could be back by now of course, now that it’s coming on teatime. If he’s not...”

“Yes, if he’s not, there could be implications,” Fortinbras said. “Let’s not jump to conclusions. We’ll wait for dinner. If he’s not returned by then, we’ll speak with the Hornblowers.”

The Hornblowers were all in attendance at dinner. Lalia waited until the first servings had been eaten before excusing herself from the head table. She caught Clematis’s attention and together they approached the Hornblowers, where they sat with some Boffins visiting from The Yale. 

“Jonquil, dearest,” Lalia said, approaching them. “Might we have a word with you and Marcho?”

Jonquil looked up, her eyes round. She nodded, having just taken a bite of roast. She swallowed hastily and with a glance at Marcho, stood. Marcho followed them to the adjoining ballroom, empty and silent, lit only by the waning sunlight outside. The room glowed golden and dust motes danced in the rays of sunlight lingering near the ceiling. 

“I’m sorry to pull you away from your meal, but I thought it best to speak in private. It shouldn’t take long,” Lalia said.

“Of course,” Jonquil said. “What is the matter? Has Ami returned already?”

“No,” Clematis said, “but we know now she was headed for Pincup.”

“You do?” Marcho asked, sounding more surprised than relieved. Lalia watched him closely.

“I’ve forwarded a missive to Reynard Banks, though surely they must know she’s there by now.” Marcho paled considerably at this announcement. If he’d been sitting down, he’d be squirming. “I cannot express my sympathies enough at my daughter’s rash behavior. I know what this visit meant to you both.”

“It’s not a worry, dear,” Jonquil assured. “No disrespect, but she is a Took. I warned Marcho, Tooks love Adventures. He just laughed it off. Best she get it out of her system now, don’t you agree?”

“Even so,” Lalia said, “you’re taking your intended’s departure in good stride, lad. To leave so suddenly and unannounced, one might consider it rude.”

“Ami is never rude,” Marcho said. “And it’s not sudden or unannounced. She’s been planning this for months.” He realized his mistake as soon as the word left his mouth. He clamped his lips shut as though to keep anything else from escaping them.

“Months?” Clematis repeated. “She only told us a few weeks ago.”

“What do you know, lad?” Lalia asked. “Are Reynard and Nomina Banks going to have any idea what that missive is about when it reaches them?”

If it were possible, Marcho paled even more. “I don’t--”

“Before you finish that sentence, boy, you should know I do not tolerate liars or deceivers in my house,” Lalia said, her voice cold. “Now what do you know?”

“Marcho?” Jonquil asked, looking at her stricken son. 

Marcho let out a breath and considered the Lady before him. Then he looked at his mother and Clematis and took another deep breath. “I’m sorry. I will not betray Ami’s confidence.” He turned and left for the tunnel, rather than the dining room. The door closed softly behind him, leaving the room in silence once more. 

“This begins to sound like a conspiracy.” Adalgrim lit his pipe and paced the parlor. “How does Marcho know something that Esme does not?”

“Perhaps she’s merely a better conspirator,” Clematis said. “What is Ami up to?”

They had gone over every possible scenario they could think of and were no closer to figuring the riddle out than they had been that morning. If Marcho had disappeared as well, the riddle would have been simple - he and Ami had run off to elope. When Marcho went missing mid-morning, that’s what everyone had thought had happened. Now Marcho was back from having gone fishing and Ami was still nowhere to be seen. She was headed for Pincup, but whether or not she would visit her kin while she was there was anyone’s guess. One thing was clear: this was not a simple Adventure.

“It’s not too late to send Rumbi,” Clematis said.

“He won’t be able to see anything at night. If she didn’t go to Pincup, he could lose her trail,” Adalgrim said. “Esme has to know.”

Esme had made plans to stay with Dicentra that night, so Adalgrim had left a message with Sigibert to send Esme home at once. He’d left a similar message with Ingilbold, in case Esme and Dicentra decided to stay with Verbena instead. When night fell and she still wasn’t home, they sent Pally out to search for her. He was gone only a few minutes when she arrived with Amber and Heather. Pally was right behind them with Arlo in tow.

“What’s the fuss, Da?” Esme asked.

“As if you didn’t know,” Clematis said. She pointed to one of the chairs and Esme sat. “We know Ami has been planning this little Adventure of hers for more than just a few weeks. Is there something else we should know?”

Sensing trouble, Amber and Heather took seats on the settee and Pally pulled Arlo onto the other chair. They sat still and quiet, watching their parents and Esme with great interest.

“Oh, you know Ami,” Esme said with a wave of her hand. “For all that she’s impulsive, she can fret over a thing for ages before she does anything about it. She’s been talking about wanting to go on an Adventure for months, that’s true, but she didn’t seriously start to plan for it until a few weeks ago. That’s when she told you about it.”

“If it were that simple an explanation, Marcho would have told us,” Adalgrim said. “Instead, he closed up like a trap and wouldn’t let out another peep. There is something else at work here and we want to know what it is.”

“I wouldn’t know what she’s told Marcho,” Esme said.

“You two tell each other everything,” Clematis said. “We may not be able to get Marcho to talk to us, but you have little choice. What is Ami doing in Pincup?”

Esme’s eyes widened. “You know about Pincup?”

“Of course we know about Pincup,” Adalgrim said. Taking a poke in the dark, he went on, “Just as we know she has no intention of stopping there. So where is she really going?”

Esme began to open her mouth but stopped. She fingered the hem of her dress and stared at her feet. 

“Esmeralda Took,” Clematis said, a stern warning in her voice. “Out with it. Now!”

“She went to Nohill.” Esme spoke so softly, they almost didn’t hear her. 

“Nohill?” Paladin asked. “Where in all the green Shire is that?”

“Just outside of Pincup.”

“And what’s in Nohill?” Adalgrim asked.


“Who?” Amber repeated.

Esme let out a deep breath, one she felt she had been holding for months. When she next spoke, she let out the entire story. Marcho, despite appearances, hadn’t wanted to court Ami again, nor had she wanted to court him. When Marcho arrived to help with the reconstruction and they were forced to interact, they came to a quick realization and had struck a deal. Marcho had been trying to gain the interest of Rosalie Chubb with little results, and Ami had her heart set on another as well. They agreed to help each other in their endeavors. He would pretend to court Ami to keep other lads at bay and assist her with her scheme, and she would help him win the favor of Rosalie. Ami befriended the other lass and raved about Marcho to her at every opportunity and passed on key pieces of information to Marcho about his secret love. He then helped her, going over their schematics and design books that had nothing to do with the construction in Whitwell. The last stage of the plan was getting away on an Adventure to give her time to carry out her scheme.

“But who did she go there to see?” Heather asked.

“It’s a lad she met at the Fair last year. She thinks she loves him. I told her she was being daft, but then I thought, maybe it was best if she go and see for herself that she was mistaken. She’d be back the next day and no one would be the wiser.”

“Who is this lad?” Clematis asked, her stomach dropping. Surely not the shepherd lad?

“His name is Perry Nettleburr. He was the one who had those sheep.”

“You’re joking,” Pally said, not amused.

“You knew about this and you said nothing to us?” Adalgrim asked.

“I figured she’d come straight home once she realized what a mistake she was making, and if anyone tried to talk her out of it, well, you know how stubborn she can be,” Esme said. “She’ll be back by this time tomorrow, you’ll see. There’s no way would she want to stay in that place once she gets a look at it. Just hearing about it gives me the shivers.”

“I’m still not clear on what is going on,” Amber said. 

“Ami’s lost her mind, that’s what’s going on,” Pally said, standing up. “I think the curse has caught up to her at last. I’ll go and see to readying some ponies.”

“I don’t think that’s wise,” Adalgrim said, surprising them all. “We should give Ami time to reconsider her actions and return on her own.”

“And if she doesn’t?” Clematis said. “This afternoon, everyone thought that she and Marcho had gone off to elope. How do we know she hasn’t gone off to elope with this lad instead?”

“She wouldn’t do that!” Esme said. “Her plan was to help them rebuild their town, get them proper homes and all that. Then she’d bring him here and ask to be married. She figured it would take maybe a year.”

“And where is she planning to stay during this year?” Clematis asked. “Certainly not with him!”

“No! She figured she could stay with someone else, someone with a daughter,” Esme said. “But she’ll be back tomorrow, you’ll see. She’s probably headed back already.”

“Probably?” Pally repeated. He was still poised for heading out the door at a moment’s notice. “She’s been planning this for months! When have you ever known her to keep her mind on something for that long and not go through with it? She’ll stay out of pride if nothing else.”

“I’m taking it that this lad isn’t well off, then?” Heather asked. She and Amber were still trying to follow along and wondering how they could have missed all this to-do while they had been staying in Whitwell. How had they missed when Ami had been staying in their apartment here? They were clearly the only ones who had no idea who Perry Nettleburr was.

“He’s a derelict,” Pally said. He was more disappointed than angry. He had thought Ami was smarter than this. “I told her to stay away from him. She promised she would. How did this happen? She couldn’t have possibly fallen in love with him over a loaf of bread.”

“She came across him a couple of other times,” Esme said. “That night when Arlo was ill, and then she snuck out to meet him the morning we left the Fair.”

“And you knew all this?”

Everyone looked at Esme. “It’s not my fault!”

“That is enough,” Adalgrim said, raising his voice but keeping his tone calm. “Children, to your rooms please. Your mother and I must discuss what we intend to do.”

Amber, Heather and Arlo said goodnight and returned to their apartment, and Pally and Esme retreated to their rooms. Clematis and Adalgrim stood for a time in silence, each lost in their own thoughts. Without speaking, they went to their own room and readied for sleep. Once they were abed, Clematis took her husband’s hand, a silent request for him to go first.

“So she feared we would disapprove of her choice,” he said. “She could at least give us the benefit of the doubt and let us meet him before she ran off.”

“I fear I may not have helped. She spoke to me and I dismissed her feelings. I was certain it was merely a whim, or I was hoping it was.”

“You only wanted her to think things through. She should have told us her intentions. Perhaps we should find this Nohill, meet with Nettleburr, see what he’s like.”

“We can’t very well leave her there. Imagine the scandal if anyone found out she was staying with a lad not of our kin?”

“So we’ll go. If she doesn’t come back tomorrow, we’ll go.”

“We’ll go tomorrow. If she does come back, we’ll meet her on the road.”

“We don’t even know where to go.”

Clematis was silent a moment. “Rumbi seemed to think that the groom Ami was exchanging letters with might know something. He’s from Pincup as well. His mother works as a maid for Fiona’s cousin. He may know where to find it.”

“We’ll ask him in the morning. If he doesn’t, then perhaps Fiona will.”

“If we talk to Fiona, she’ll tell Flambard and then it will be mere minutes before all the Tooks know what Ami has done. We can’t do that to her.”

“Agreed,” Adalgrim said. “Let’s talk to Sprig first. We’ll worry about the rest later.”

Their decision made, they settled down to sleep at last.

“I would like to come,” Rumbi said the following morning.

“I appreciate the offer, lad, but this is a family affair,” Clematis said. “We only require the groom, Sprig.”

Fortinbras nodded. “Of course. Rumbi, go with Pally and see to it they have enough supplies for a three-day journey, and have them ready four ponies.”

Ferumbras and Paladin left the Thain’s study, leaving Adalgrim, Clematis and Fortinbras behind. 

“Thank you for helping us, Peanut, and for your discretion,” Adalgrim said.

Fortinbras leaned back in his chair and eyed his cousin, his gaze keen. “I do not like to admit this, but I begin to see what Lalia meant all these months. Darling has grown increasingly impulsive and irresponsible. She put herself not only in danger by setting out alone, without leaving word of her destination, which she had promised as a condition of being permitted to travel, but she now jeopardizes her reputation and the good name of the Tooks. To think that she spent the night in this lad’s home, it is beyond imagination.”

“Esme assured us that Darling did not intend to house with the lad while she was there,” Clematis said. 

“It hardly matters. Folk will think what they want to think, should this get out and become general knowledge. Discretion is required on all of our parts.”

“We understand. Believe me, none of us will be saying anything about it,” Adalgrim said.

“About what?”

Lalia entered from the adjoining room, her parasol in hand. She was coming to inform her husband that she would be going into town with Gardenia and Calluna and had caught only the last remark. Sensing trouble, and seeing Clematis and Adalgrim there, she assumed this meeting must have something to do with their wayward daughter.

“Has Amaryllis yet to return to the nest?” she asked.

“We have decided to go and retrieve her,” Adalgrim said. “We erred in permitting her to go. We should hopefully be back by tomorrow, the day after at the latest. Thank you again, Peanut.” He and Clematis said their farewells and left, Lalia’s gaze boring holes in their heads as they retreated.

Lalia waited for the door to close before addressing her husband. Her tone terse, she said as easily as she could manage, “So they figured out where she was headed then?”

“They believe so,” Fortinbras said. He sat forward and returned to his correspondence with an air of finality. He had effectively dismissed Lalia and ended the conversation. Lalia sniffed, clutched her parasol and left without another word. Let him figure out where she was going, if he was so good at it. Meanwhile, she would do what she did best and find a way to get Marcho Hornblower to talk.

To be continued...

GF 10/28/11

Twitch listened as the Thain began to tell him about that long ago Free Fair. Ferumbras told the tale in what Twitch would consider a straightforward manner. He listened with particular interest whenever his father entered the story and wondered anew why he never heard any of this before. Why had he never heard of this Amaryllis Took? He waited for the answers to come as the Thain continued his recounting of the events of the summer of 1364.

The Thain stopped his monologue after the Fair’s End Feast, looking off into the far west, as though he was seeing again those events. When the Thain continued, he breezed through the next year. Twitch’s ears sharpened at mention of Chrysanthemum Grubb. Everyone knew the Thain wasn’t married, though he had been engaged at one time. The only thing Twitch knew about that was that it hadn’t worked out, always said with a shake of the head and a sigh by whoever was speaking.

As he continued to listen, he began to remember other whispers he had heard growing up, rumors about the Lady, about why everyone feared to cross her and why so many chose to stay away. 


Chapter 16 - Nohill

Ami was beginning to doubt herself. She should have gone to Pincup first and sought someone who knew where Nohill was located. She would have too if she hadn’t worried about being recognized. Her accent and red hair would tell anyone she was a Took. Plus her Aunt Fiona was a Banks, and Ami had met some of her Banks relations over the years. If she could remember what they looked like, chances were some of them would remember her. She didn’t want word getting back to her family of where she was going, and she knew Marcho and Esme wouldn’t volunteer information.

She continued to roam the flat grasslands south of Pincup. The hills of the Woody End looked small in the distance, maybe perhaps too small? The only direction she had for Nohill was that it was “just outside of Pincup.” That could mean anything, yet she had the impression that it was far enough away that the residents of both places could avoid each other with little effort and often did. 

The mid-summer sun was burning her neck and face and she realized belatedly she should have brought a hat or parasol. Or a shawl. Lalia had sent her a shawl for Yule. She still didn’t know what to make of it: peace offering or a not-so-subtle reminder to take more care of other people’s things? 

On top of the burn, she was sweating profusely from the heat, her hair had gone lank and shapeless, even the curls had lost their bounce, and her legs were beginning to ache from riding so long. At least she had slept. Once she was sure that Tuckborough was far behind her, she had found a soft patch of grass and slept for what was left of the night, planning to awaken with the sun. She woke well past sunrise, however, and ate a hasty first and second breakfast while on saddle. She had since stopped for elevenses and luncheon and she was no closer to her destination than she had been that morning from what she could see. 

She stood up in her stirrups, hoping to get some height to see farther afield. No such luck. The land was flat and revealed nothing, and at this time of day and with this heat, there would be little reason for the residents of Nohill to have any hearth fires going in their homes, which meant no telltale smoke trails to spot and follow either. But Perry had said that they had built some sort of structures, and presumably they were still standing in some form or another. She just needed to keep riding. 

She bit her lip and cast about. “What do you think, Buttercream?” she asked her mount. The pony swished its tail unhelpfully. She chose to check north and veered the pony that way.

Paramount to her discomforts were the butterflies in her belly. She had been planning this for months, since her father first announced the need to rebuild some structures in Whitwell. Everything had fallen into place. She could hardly believe how easy it all had been, how effortless the charade and planning. It had felt as though it were meant to be. 

Now she was having second thoughts. Perry naturally had no clue she was coming. What would he say or do when he saw her? What would he think of her plans? What would his village think of her plans? She certainly knew what she wanted to happen, she had dreamt it often enough: they would see each other, he would grin in surprise and run to meet her, they would hug and kiss fiercely and declare never to leave each other again. She somehow knew the reality would be quite different and it unsettled her more than she cared to think.

She had never contemplated what her reception would be from everyone else in the village. Now it’s all she could think about and each scenario was more discouraging than the one before. Perry’s people were private, secretive and they distrusted the gentry. Ami had gathered that much in their conversations. Would they even want her help? Would they accept her if Perry said they should? Would Perry side with her over his people if the need arose? There was simply no way of knowing without more information about this odd group of hobbits. She had wanted to ask Sprig about Nohill, but something kept telling her not to, that she wouldn’t like the answer he gave her. There had been no way to bring up the topic with her Aunt Fiona. By all means, Ami shouldn’t know that Nohill even existed. She had nothing to go on besides Perry’s own words and fears, and yet, Perry had befriended her despite those fears. Perhaps it would work out after all.

“It has to work out,” Ami said. The alternative was unthinkable.

She rode for another hour at least before a row of structures appeared on the horizon. The hills of the Woody End were still far to the north, and there were no other homesteads near Pincup, no farms or ranches this far away from the town. Her heart leapt, and the butterflies grew frantic. She clutched the reins tighter and instead of urging Buttercream on as she would have expected, she found herself pulling the pony back, slowing her down to a saunter. A half-hour later, she was glad she had done so.

The village - hamlet, more like - that was coming into view was unsettling. Perry had told her, but she really had never been able to imagine it. The buildings, which had seemed sturdy from afar, proved to be dilapidated, with beams missing or rotten, and more than a few of them leaning to one side or another. Surely no one lived in them? There were eight in total, not nearly enough to house those hobbits gathering in a long, forbidding line around the perimeter of the village. 

The closer she approached, the longer the line seemed to grow. She counted quickly: fifty-three hobbits of various ages, the youngest just a faunt in his mother’s arms. Looking beyond them, she could see various animals milling about at their leisure: the sheep she had come to know so well, though naturally not the same sheep, the cows and goats Perry had traded for last summer, as well as numerous chickens and a few pigs. Looking at the ground, there were about twenty vents for the holes that had been dug underground, but nothing else that she could see to distinguish where homes might be. There was a cooking pit and a large stone oven in what appeared to be the middle of the hamlet and several gardens scattered throughout, but nothing else. 

Ami tightened her grip on the reins, with a vague fear that the tether would soon be cutting into her hand. She scanned the line of hobbits for the one face she knew but didn’t see him. She saw a lad around the same age as Perry who looked like he could be kin: his brother perhaps?

When she was still fifty yards away, a gaffer stepped out from the line and held up his hand. She was close enough to see the curiosity on their faces, the stains on their patched clothes, and the dirt on their feet. She swallowed the bile threatening to creep up her throat and attempted to look friendly and confident, rather than shaken and scared. 

“Where ye be going to, Miss?” the gaffer asked. 

“To Nohill,” Ami said, her voice surprisingly steady. “Have I found it?”

A buzz went up and down the line as hobbits turned to each other to whisper. The curiosity increased by leaps and bounds.

“Aye, ye’ve found it at that,” the gaffer said. “What’s yer business here?”

“I’m looking for Perry Nettleburr.”

“And who can we say is calling?”

Ami hesitated. Perry had said he knew who the Tooks were and what her family meant to the Shire. Would using her full name help or hinder her? She decided it would be better to be forthcoming than appear as though she were hiding something. “Amaryllis Took.”

The buzz became a chatter. The gaffer turned back to conference with the other gaffers and the gammers there. The lad who looked like Perry’s brother slipped away from the line. He disappeared underground about twenty yards behind the line. Ami noticed a small depression in the ground where he disappeared and quickly scanned the other vents, spotting similar depressions. 

The gaffer, who didn’t seem to have noticed the lad’s retreat - in fact, no one had noticed it - turned back to Ami and looked her up and down with a skeptical eye.

“A Took are ye?” he asked. “And how does a Took come to know our Perry?”

“We met at the Free Fair last year,” Ami said and paused again. That hardly explained her presence here, but she wanted to talk her plans over with Perry first, not the entire village, such as it was. “Is he here?” She looked to the depression where the lad had gone and saw no hint of movement. 

“Maybe he is. Maybe he ain’t,” the gaffer said. “What are ye wanting with him?”

“That would be my business to tell to him,” Ami said, hoping they didn’t hear the same strain in her voice that she did. Breathing deep, she pried her hands off the reins and dismounted. Nearly all the juniors were staring up at the pony with awe, a few with fear. A few shifted their gaze to follow her. The adults and elders watched her even closer. The line tightened as she approached. She headed for the gaffer and stopped just a few feet away. The line of hobbits had quietened and were listening with sharp ears. “I have a matter of which I would like to address with him personally.”

“Alone?” a gammer asked from the line. “That’s hardly proper, lass.”

“Is Perry here or not?” Ami asked again. From ground level, she could not see past the line of hobbits. Surely it was taking too long for the lad to be retrieving Perry, if that had been his intention. Perhaps he had gone in search of something else entirely. A line of sweat trailed down Ami’s back and she resisted the urge to push her hair behind her ears. 

“He might be,” the Gaffer said.

Ami considered what to do next. The gaffer was standing resolute and the line was equally unforgiving. She could hardly barge through them; that would be a mistake and no doubt. She could stand there and wait however long it took for Perry to arrive. Or she could introduce herself properly and get to know these hobbits’ names. Pretending a bravery she didn’t feel, she smiled sweetly and said, “I must apologize for not introducing myself properly before. Amaryllis Took, at the service of you and your family.” She curtsied and held out her hand.

The gaffer raised his eyebrows in surprise but her took her hand awkwardly and shook it briefly before letting go. “Horace Drucker at yer service,” he replied.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Master Horace.”

Horace actually blushed. “And ye, Miss Took.”

“Please, call me Ami.”

“As ye wish, Miss Ami.”

“Would you be so kind as to introduce me to the others, Master Horace? I very much wish to meet them.”

Horace turned around and at the hesitant nods of the other elders, he ushered Ami forward and started the introductions. She did her best to keep track of the names swirling around her and the various relations they rattled off along with each one, but she soon had to settle on memorizing names and figuring out the relations later. She was being introduced to Horace’s children and grandchildren, and noting that the elder hobbits all addressed her properly but the younger ones called her either Miss Ami or Ami equally, when she heard a familiar voice to her right. 

“Ami? What are ye doing here lass?”

Perry was standing there next to his brother - yes, they were definitely brothers now that she could see them side by side - and he looked marvelous. Ami forced herself to remain where she was, all too conscious of everyone around her, but she let her eyes drink their fill. He was still far too thin, but he had clearly just washed and his clothes were more intact than those around him. He looked stunned, nervous and excited. Their gazes locked and Ami felt a tug just behind her navel, pulling her toward him. She took one step, as did he.

“I came to see you,” she answered needlessly. “You look well.”

Perry nodded tightly. He throat worked and he started to speak before changing his mind. He paused a moment before saying, “As do ye.” He shook his head, confused. “But what we ye doing here?”

She noticed then that he was shaking from holding himself too tight, trying to keep himself in control. Oh, why couldn’t these other hobbits go away, just for a few minutes? She could feel herself trembling as well, but she’d been doing that since morning. “I needed to see you. I’ve thought of something and I wanted to discuss it with you, something that might help.”

“Help with what?” his brother asked.

“Can we speak privately?” Ami asked, hopeful. 

“Of course,” Perry said. Instantly, his face flushed and he added hastily, “Merlin, fetch Grandmother and bring her to our hole.”

His brother gave Perry an odd look, but he nodded and ran off towards the edge of the hamlet and beyond. Wherever their grandmother was, she wasn’t nearby. Ami sensed what Perry was doing. He was allowing them some time alone but not so much time to create a scandal. They would be interrupted sooner rather than later was her guess, or at least, sooner than they would like.

Perry waited until Ami was finished being introduced to everyone present, then led her to the depression that led down to his home. A large hole gaped up at her, wide and long, a steep ramp leading down into the earth. Perry went first and she followed him, grateful to get away from prying eyes and the summer’s heat. The light failed quickly as they descended, so that only a pale glow remained by the time they were standing in what could only be the parlor. It was difficult to tell in such dim lighting. Ami stood there waiting for her eyes to adjust as Perry moved around and lit a few candles. The added light helped but she only made out a few extra features before Perry’s arms were wrapped around her, holding her close.

He was gentle, for all his emotion, for all he undoubtedly wanted to crush her to him. She held him just as delicately, as though both he and this moment were fragile and grabbing too hard, too quickly, would end it all too soon. She could hear his heart hammering beneath her ear and he smelled the same, like earth and sun and green things growing, with the heady tang of sheep sweat. He smelled, and felt, wonderful.

“By the stars, lass, what are you doing here? You are here? I’m not dreaming again?”

“I’m here,” Ami said and held him tighter despite herself. A whole year apart. It had felt like forever. “I’m here. I had to see you. I couldn’t bear another moment.”

They pulled back at the same moment, just enough to look at each other. He ran a thumb across her cheek, wiping away the tears she hadn’t realized she was shedding. “Nor could I,” he said. He smiled awkwardly, still not believing. “I nearly followed ye.”

“I wanted to go back to you the moment I got home. I wish I had.”

He shook his head again and a thousand different thoughts crossed through his eyes. He said not a word though but merely continued to look at her, drinking his fill - preparing for when she would have to leave again. 

Her heart squeezed at that thought, and she drew him back to her. Their lips met and it was like fireworks over the Tooklands, like the midnight bonfires lighting the fairgrounds on Overlithe, like the sunrise on a cold winter morning, snow sparkling golden and crimson. It was marvelous and wondrous and over far too soon. 

They parted again and Perry stepped back, breathing deeply. “Are ye thirsty?” he asked and moved to find water.

Ami remained where she was and finally had a chance to inspect the hole. There were three rooms, such as they were, divided more by imagination than any kind of physical border. The earth was hard-packed throughout the hole, but she could now understand why everyone’s feet were so dirty. Even the firmest earth tends to get under nails and in foot hair when you walk on it enough. 

The parlor was little wider than five feet and for seating had mats on the floor and a couple of tree stumps. Next to this was a little slip of an area that she deemed to be the kitchen/bathing room. A pitcher stood on a table and there were a couple of motley rags hanging from a beam between the table’s legs. Beneath the table was a bucket for washing. On the opposite wall were shelves for their dishes and cutlery, wooden all except for some well-crafted stone knives, and running across the ceiling between the two walls was a rack for hanging and drying herbs. On the other side of this area was the bedchamber. Straw mats sat on low frames. There were only two beds and along the wall many hooks made from antlers for hanging clothes.

“Here ye are.” Perry handed her a wooden cup filled with fresh rainwater. She drank thankfully, her thirst now remembered with drink in hand. He refilled her cup and motioned towards the stumps. “Have a seat.”

She chose a stump and sat, expecting Perry to take the one next to her. He remained where he was though, his arms crossed and his gaze averted. The initial rush of seeing each other was ebbing and in its absence uncertainty was taking hold. Ami again began to feel the doubts that had followed her here, and Perry still looked like he didn’t quite believe she was real. Either that, or he feared she was all too real. 

She hadn’t thought this part through either, or rather she had but not very well. She’d had vague imaginings of telling him of her plan but she could never figure out how to start. Yet she had to say something, since she couldn’t continue to sit there and pretend to drink her water. 

“How have you been?” she asked, for lack of anything better to say.

“Well. And you?”

“Well enough.”

He nodded, his head turned towards the ramp.

“I have a plan,” Ami said, “a plan that will help us be together.”

“Where’re yer kin? Ye came alone.”

“I’m on an Adventure. It’s part of my plan.”

“Do they know where ye’re at, lass?”

He was giving her a look she couldn’t read. Whatever it meant, she had a feeling she wouldn’t like it. “Not here specifically, no, but they know I’ve gone on an Adventure. That’s the point of an Adventure, isn’t it? You never know where your feet might take you.”

“So where else are ye going, then?”

“Nowhere else. My Adventure involves coming here, helping you build, and then once it’s all done, taking you home to meet my family.” She held the cup in her lap to hide the fact that her hands were shaking. She smiled, hopeful and fearful at the same time. Perry continued to give her that look, still half-listening to whatever was going on outside. She rushed on. “I’ve learned so much over the last year about building homes, above-ground homes mind you, about the importance of a proper foundation and framing, support beams and how to put up walls and frame windows and build chimneys. I’ve learned it all and while I’m still no expert, I can help. I’ve brought all my books and notes and some money that should get us started on material and--”

“Why are ye doing this, lass?” His voice was soft, curious, confused. Not grateful. Not yet anyway.

“Because I want to help you. I want to be with you.”

“And if they’re not willing to accept yer help? Because they won’t be. Ye’re not one of us. Ye don’t belong here.”

“I belong wherever you are.” She set her cup on the ground, stood and took his hand. “I belong with you, because when I’m with you, I’m home.”

Perry pressed her hand gently and let go again. Up close, she could see the strain in his eyes, which only made his expression all the more disconcerting. His next words didn’t help. “Except this ain’t yer home and that’s where I’m going to be taking ye back.”

Ami didn’t have time to protest. A shadow covered the entrance hole and soon two hobbits appeared in the parlor, Merlin and an elderly matron carrying a basket filled with herbal flowers and roots. She was bent nearly in half and her skin had the same cracked brown leathery appearance as the other elders. She looked up at Ami with sharp eyes, Perry’s eyes. 

“So, yer the one as turned my grandson’s head upside down, are ye?” she asked. 

“Nana,” Perry started, his tone trying.

His grandmother gave him a Look. Perry swallowed and took a deep breath.

“Nana,” he repeated, his tone softer and full of the respect the old lady obviously demanded, “this is Amaryllis Took. Ami, this my nana, Eveline Nettleburr.”

Ami curtsied. “It’s a pleasure to meet you at last, Mistress Nettleburr. I’ve heard so many good things about you.”

Eveline’s mouth disappeared into a thin line. “I ain’t no mistress to one of yer standing, lass. That’ll be Missus, or just Eveline.”

“Yes, Missus Nettleburr,” Ami said. She belatedly realized that Perry had taken her hand again and she clenched back in gratitude. Despite her fear, her mind was racing. If Missus Nettleburr knew the Rules of Address, she would have undoubtedly taught them to her grandchildren. Why then was Perry so unconcerned with them?

“Now then, what’s this business ye were wanting to discuss with my grandson?” Eveline said, interrupting her thoughts. 

She moved to one of the tree stumps with a glance at her grandchildren. Merlin hurried to take her basket and get her some water. Perry now sat with Ami on the mats across from his grandmother. When Merlin returned, he took one of the tree stumps and handed Perry the saddlebags he had slung over his shoulder.

“Yer beast’s being looked after,” he told Ami, almost shyly.

Ami smiled encouragingly. “Thank you, Merlin.” She then opened her bags and pulled out the book she and Marcho had made about home construction. She opened it to the schematic of the house she had helped to design and showed this to Eveline. “I’m a carpenter, or training to be one. I know how to build homes, how to design them so they’re sturdy, what’s needed to construct them, everything. Perry had told me that you didn’t have anyone who knew how to do this, and now you do. I can teach those willing to learn everything that I know, and I can help you to get the supplies and tools you’ll need. It will take time, and resources, but it can be done.”

“That’s a kind thought,” Eveline said, “but we can’t be taking yer help, Miss Amaryllis, and we’ve no way of repaying ye.”

“It’s a favor,” Ami said. “You don’t have to repay it.”

“A favor accepted is a favor promised. Yer going to want something in return. What is it?”

Ami looked at Perry, and swallowed nervously when she saw that same look in his eyes as before. She sat up straighter. He wasn’t going to send her away that easily, not after everything she risked to come here. “That you keep my presence here a secret. If folk know I’m helping you, word will get back to Tookland. I’m not supposed to be here, strictly speaking. I can tell you who to talk to in Pincup and where to go for deals, and I’ve brought some money, enough to get us started at least. With some inventive strategy and finessing, we can make it stretch a long way.”

“And where’re we supposed to say as we got the money?” Merlin asked. “We’ve none for ourselves and they know it.”

“Some of the calves I traded was for money,” Perry said, surprising everyone. He explained for Ami. “I went to the Fair again this year, but the one here in Pincup. I already know Mr. Banks, and he knows I sold the beast as I had to pay him for the plot I used. We’ll use that money.”

“Ye didn’t tell me ye were bringing money into this house,” Eveline said, shocked and more than a little upset.

“It’s not in this house. I hid it in one of the shacks,” Perry said. “We need money, Nana. We could get away with some bartering and trading, had we anything to barter and trade with, but we don’t. But money,” and here he met Ami’s eyes and winked, “that can be used for anything.”

“So how much money do you have?” Merlin asked. Eveline’s mouth was a line again.

“Forty pennies. Is that a lot?”

Ami’s jaw dropped. “Yes, that’s a lot!” It was more than she had been able to bring.

“Ye know how yer grandfather felt about money!”

“I know, Nana, and I know his reasons for it, but I don’t share them.”

“So,” Merlin said, looking between his brother and grandmother, “are we doing this, then?” He pointed at the schematic, which he had been studying with interest up until now. “I think it’s a great idea myself.”

“Ami needs to go home,” Perry said, regret thick in his voice. 

“Yes she does,” Eveline agreed.

“Well, I’m not going home,” Ami said. “Not until I’ve accomplished what I set out to do.”

“Yer family wouldn’t want ye to be here,” Perry said.

“And yours didn’t want you going to the fair,” Ami said in return. “Better to ask forgiveness than permission.”

“This is different,” Perry said. “I went because I had to. Ye don’t have to do this.”

“I don’t?” Ami asked. “What makes you think I don’t?”

“Because if yer only here out of pity, I couldn’t bear it,” Perry said.

“I’m here because I saw a lad willing to do anything that he had to do to improve the station of his people, and I admire him for it. There’s no other reason, and there’s certainly no pity. Pity implies shame, and you’ve nothing to be ashamed of. I’m here because I want to help. I’m here because I want to be with you.”

“And yer folk don’t know yer here because they wouldn’t allow it.”

“No, they wouldn’t,” Ami said. “They wouldn’t understand. They wouldn’t be able to see you as I do, not now anyway. But when we’re finished, they won’t be so bothered that you have no titles or position. At least, I hope they won’t be.”

“And if they are?” Perry asked.

Silence fell between them. Ami wasn’t willing to consider the implications of that question. The result would be unbearable.

“What’ll happen to the holes?” Merlin asked, filling the silence.

Ami returned her attention to her book. She flipped to a page near the back, where she had worked on some designs for new houses. She pointed at one that was similar to her own. “The holes can be used for cellars to keep food cold and meat frozen, if you dig deep enough. See here? This is your garden for growing your seasonal produce. And this here is a well. Here’s a shed for keeping your gardening tools and seedlings. You can grow flowers in these window boxes and put up feeders for the birds. I like to watch the birds come and go.”

She flipped to another page, where she had sketched the basic outlines for workshops. “This is a smithy, and a nursery for your beasts, and a barn here. This is a bakery, and an inn, and this is a tailor’s shop. You’re not big enough to require most of these, but you’ll certainly need the nurseries and barns.”

“And we can do all this with Perry’s forty pennies?” Merlin asked in awe.

“No,” Ami admitted, “but we can use the money for the things we aren’t able to barter. If you don’t have anything to barter now, that doesn’t mean you won’t in the future. Lots of folk barter that way. You get something today, say tools for a smithy, and in return you promise to shoe their ponies for free for the next five years. In the meantime, you can build your business up and hire out workers, take apprentices, get contracts with the other farmers or gentry. 

“Pincup already has a smithy, but one thing they’re lacking is a tannery. They usually get their hides tanned in Tuckborough or Willowbottom, sometimes even Budgeford. That’s a long way to go for tanning, and you’re right here. If the hides Perry gave me are anything to go by, you have some skill working with hides. I spoke with some of the tanners in Whitwell who were helping to rebuild the farmhouse and I learned nearly everything that you need to have a successful tannery.” She flipped to another page.

“Ami.” She looked up and saw Perry smirking at her with a cross between amusement and disbelief. “Ye’ve been doing all this, all the last year?”

“Most of it. I’ve done other things as well.”

“So are we going to do this then?” Merlin asked again and looked between his grandmother and Perry once more.

Eveline didn’t speak at once, but when she did it was to Ami. Her eyes were hard and her voice, while gentle, was not kind. “Will ye leave us, dear, to talk this out, and I’d appreciate it if ye didn’t mention this plan to aught else until we can come to some sort of decision.”

“Of course.” Ami met Perry’s gaze, but his amusement from a moment before was now replaced with deep contemplation. She saw nothing encouraging in his return gaze, though he did smirk for her again. She stood with a slight curtsy and left. 

Above ground, she found most of the villagers had returned to their previous activities, but a few of the juniors remained circled around Buttercream, who was happily munching on grass and ignoring her audience. Ami went to join them.

Perry, Merlin and Eveline remained in conference much of the afternoon. Once Buttercream’s admirers tired of staring at the pony, Ami was left more or less to herself. She attempted to offer help with whatever tasks the others were doing, only to be told it was unnecessary, and she was dismayed to find that no one seemed interested in talking. In fact, they made it a point to ignore her, some even getting up and leaving when they saw her approach. 

She was not accustomed to feeling unwanted. She had always been the center of attention, the Darling of Tookland, but here she was a stranger and an interloper. Merlin had shown interest, but there had been hesitance also. Perry she knew wanted to improve things here, but he hadn’t seemed as thrilled by her offer for help as she had hoped he would be. He was glad to see her, she didn’t doubt that, but he would also make good on his promise to escort her back home. Whether that was today, tomorrow, or a year from now was yet to be seen. Eveline was a mystery. She had been upset at the idea of money in the village and hadn’t wanted anything to do with it. She very clearly didn’t want Ami’s help and was suspicious of her motives. It seemed the other villagers agreed with her.

Ami ended up with the sheep. These were as docile and friendly as the ones Perry had taken to the Free Fair and sitting with them allowed her to remember meeting Perry and their various encounters. She was here for Perry, no one else. So long as Perry wanted her, nothing else mattered. But did Perry want her?

Around five, a young lass a few years her junior brought her a plate of food. Ami thanked her and tried to ask her name, but the lass blushed shyly and hurried off back to the cooking circle where everyone else had gathered. The implication of bringing Ami a plate rather than inviting her to join the others was clear, but she chose to ignore it. She took a deep breath and went to join the others, smiling as cheerfully as she could. She found Horace and sat with him, and after several attempts finally got the gaffer to talk to her, though he didn’t say much other than to comment on the food and to ask what the food was like in Tuckborough. 

She was starting on her second serving with Perry and his family emerged from their hole. Everyone immediately fell silent, and those nearest Ami shifted away from her. Eveline sat with the other elders and the lass who had brought Ami her plate jumped up to make one for the matron. Merlin joined the lass, making plates for himself and Perry. Perry found Ami - she was easy to spot sitting apart now from everyone else - and motioned for her to follow him.

They stopped several yards away, out of earshot. Ami could feel the eyes of everyone on them as Perry started to explain in a low voice, “We’ve not agreed yet. Merlin’s in favor of it, and so am I, though I don’t much care for yer conditions. Nana thinks as we’re doing fine as we are so there’s no need to change aught. That is, she don’t want to be getting help from anyone in Pincup or the Tooklands. She liked some of yer designs and all, but she’s convinced as we can figure it out on our own.”

“She was angry at you for having money. Why?”

Perry shook his head. “It’s naught to do with me or with ye. It was my grandfather’s decision as not allow money here, but he’s gone now and the reasons for it are gone with him. We’ll talk more tomorrow, but we’re all agreed on one thing.”

Ami was afraid to ask. She held her breath and waited.

“The Tooks are a powerful family, and yer cousin or other’d be the Thain as well. We’re not needing the Hobbitry-in-Arms marching on us if it should be found out as yer staying here. I’m sorry, lass, but I’ve got to be taking ye home.” 

He did look sorry. He looked ill, even. He took her hand, not caring who saw it. “If yer folk agree to let ye come back, ye can of course. Otherwise, we’ll make do as best we can.”

“That’s not good enough for me. I want to be with you. Don’t you want to be with me?”

Perry’s hand tightened on hers and he was about to answer when Eveline interrupted them. “Perry, get yerself some food, lad. Miss Amaryllis, as it’s so close to nightfall, ye can stay till morrow. Ye can bed with Felicity and her daughter Ambrosia for tonight. I’ll show ye where.”

“Yes, Missus Nettleburr.”

Eveline took Ami to a hole on the other end of the hamlet from the Nettleburrs. How Eveline knew which hole belonged to whom, Ami couldn’t begin to guess. She doubted she could find the Nettleburr hole again on her own, and she realized quickly that was probably the point. Not of course that Ami had any intention of putting Perry in a compromising position. 

Once at the correct hole, Eveline whistled and a moment later a head popped out. It was the lass who had brought Ami her plate. She smiled up at them and motioned for Ami to join her. Eveline turned without another word and returned to the cooking circle, and Ami followed the younger lass into the hole. She introduced herself as Ambrosia. Her mother Felicity would be joining them once everything was cleaned and cleared.

“I could help with that,” Ami offered, eager to be of service. 

Ambrosia patted the straw mat next to hers. “Ye make ‘em uncomfortable, Miss. That’s not fair to ye, maybe, but it is what it is.”

“Do I make you uncomfortable?” Ami asked, sitting next to her. She glanced around. This hole was even smaller than Perry’s. The parlor doubled as the bedchamber and the kitchen/bathing area was spread out along one wall. Ami’s bedchamber in Whitwell was nearly as big. 

Ambrosia considered the question before answering. She had a freckled face and bright blue eyes. Her dark hair was pulled back by a bit of wool string, and her dress was patched together like a quilt. She shrugged. “Aye, but ye seem kind enough, even though ye’re one of ‘em.”

“A Took.”

“Gentry. They can’t be trusted, that’s what the elders always tell us, but I think we can trust ye. Whether anyone else will is another matter.” Ambrosia finished this astonishing statement with a grin and a wink. “We might fix that though, if we knew what ye were here for. Surely not just for Perry, though he is a fine lad. A lass like ye must have the lads lined up for yer picking.”

Now it was Ami’s turn to shrug. “Sorry, but I did come here for Perry. He’s a very fine lad.”

“My mum and his mum thought as we’d be wed some day, but I rather prefer his brother. Beak’s simpler and easier to please and he’s not so tall I can’t look in his eyes.”

“So you’re courting then? Is Beak his nickname then?”

Ambrosia shook her head. “We’re not of age yet. Beak’s the only name as we ever use. I’d nearly forgotten his proper name until Perry used it earlier.” She paused. “Perry isn’t courting no one either.”

Ami had assumed as much, but she was relieved to hear it said. She hadn’t been able to figure out how to ask Perry. 

“Tell me about Tookland,” Ambrosia asked.

Ami would have rather heard more about Nohill, namely why it was here in the first place and why everyone was so cut off from the rest of the Shire, but she knew those answers were best given by Perry. She also doubted that Ambrosia would tell her anything significant, which was likely why Ambrosia was asking her about her homeland instead. So Ami obliged, telling her about Tuckborough and the Great Smials, Whitwell and her various relations and friends, their traditions and festivals, and tried not to feel too homesick. 

Felicity arrived a few hours later and it was time to turn in for the night. Ami settled next to Ambrosia but had trouble falling asleep. Long after her hostesses were sleeping soundly, Ami was awake, staring into the dark and trying to figure out how to convince Perry and Eveline to let her stay. 

In the end, Ami simply refused to leave. Eveline retrieved her after first breakfast and took her back the Nettleburr hole. Merlin and Perry had travel sacks packed and leaning against the wall at the bottom of the ramp. Perry looked ill again and Merlin looked like he’d rather eat rock than leave the familiarity of the hamlet.

“I’ve thought about it,” Ami said before any of them had a chance to speak, “and I’ve decided I’m not leaving. You won’t be able to find Tuckborough without my help, and even if you did get me there, I’d turn right around and follow you back.” She crossed her arms and did her best to look stern. “I came here to do something, and I’m going to do it, even if I have to do it alone.”

Merlin’s jaw dropped. Eveline’s mouth formed a hard line again, much as it has been since Ami’s arrival. Perry waited, sensing further argument.

So far, so good. Ami continued, “You need someone who knows what they’re doing, and that’s me. I have experience with design and building. I know how to use the tools and I know how to strategize. Forty pennies is a lot of money, but it won’t get you everything you need, not even close, but I know what you can barter to get what you need and who to barter with.”

“But ye’re not wanting anyone to know ye’re here,” Merlin reminded. “To do all that, ye’d have to go into town with us.”

“I can dress as one of you,” Ami said. “I can hide my hair under a hat.”

“It’s more than just yer hair, lass,” Perry said. “It’s the way ye carry yerself, the way ye talk and expect to get everything ye want.” He smirked on that remark. “They’ll spot ye out in an instant.”

“Then I won’t go into town. I’ll tell you who to talk to and how to negotiate. Perry has an excellent sense of business strategy. All you really need are some tips.”

“I still can’t believe ye brought money here,” Eveline said. “Money is the root of all ills.”

“We need money, Nana,” Perry said patiently. He met Ami’s gaze. “Ye’ll really follow us back?”

“I will.”

“If’n they’ll let ye.”

“I’m cunning and wily. I’ll find a way, and I know how to find you now.” She grinned, making good use of her dimples. 

They waited as Perry debated with himself. It seemed to take forever for him to reach a decision and Ami had to force herself to keep breathing, to remain calm, as the silence stretched. Finally Perry nodded and declared, “Then we’d not want to be wasting time taking ye back and forth to Tookland. We’ll need to get started right away, I take it?”

Ami nodded. “We’ll need to get the designs for all the houses and other structures, that’s key, and then we’ll need to plot them out. I’ve stakes and ropes for that; hopefully I brought enough. While we’re doing that, we can begin to gather what supplies we’ll need, at least enough to use the shacks as practice. I figure we can convert those into sheds. The ones you’re using for privies can be better sealed, and a door would be nicer than a drape of wool. Folk can get started on leveling the foundations for the various structures as we’re doing all that. That’ll give us a start.”

“They can’t know it’s yer idea,” Perry said. “Even if they like it, they won’t accept it. Best to tell ‘em I asked for yer help, which I suppose I did, and that’s why ye’ve come, which I suppose is the reason, or part of it. Get everyone gathered for me, Beak.”

Merlin nodded, eyes dancing with excitement, and darted up the ramp.

Eveline’s mouth was nearly invisible now. Ami was surprised she could still find it to speak. “Ye’re set on doing this, ain’t ye, lad?” she asked.

“Do ye really want us to keep living like this, Nana?” Perry asked.

“No, but accepting her help, even if she’s mean well, it’ll bring naught but trouble.”

Eveline left, her word spoken. Perry waited until her shadow moved away from the hole, then placed a solid hand on Ami’s shoulder. He looked as serious as she’d ever seen him, and it was with effort that she held his gaze. “Ye’re not staying, lass. This is a reprieve only. As soon as ye get us going in the right direction with the building and whatnot, I’m taking ye home. I won’t sneak around behind yer folks’ back, and I won’t be a liar for ye.”

Ami’s smile faltered. “I didn’t mean to make you a liar, Perry. I’m sorry.”

“I know ye didn’t.”

“Why do you call me Ami?”

Perry lifted his eyebrows. “Ye told me to. Ye said, ‘ye may call me Ami,’ so I did.” He kissed her briefly. “Get yer book. Ye’ve a whole village of skeptics to be convincing of yer plans.”

Ami kissed him back and darted to the corner where her saddlebag still rested. She pulled out her book and rejoined him. They went up the ramp and into the morning light.

To be continued...

GF 11/1/11

At length, the Thain came to the summer of 1365. Twitch thought he could guess now where they were going, though he still didn’t know why. He did know that they were close, despite his previous assumptions, and they would be there within the hour once they were off again. 

He was curious about their destination, but he was nervous as well. From the Thain’s brief description, it didn’t sound like a place where he wanted to spend much time. In fact, if it were possible to turn around and go home now, he would. He looked off in the direction where he assumed they would soon be headed. There was nothing to see there at the moment besides rolling green plains and wildflowers. An occasional tree stood tall and proud, offering shade. 

The Thain got to the point of Ami’s coming of age party and suddenly stopped talking. Twitch shifted uncomfortably. They had only the silence to keep them company.


Chapter 17: Truths Revealed

Getting the master ostler to release Sprig from his duties had been simple enough, once Adalgrim explained to him that he and his family wanted to go small game hunting and needed a guide who knew the lands closer to Pincup. Getting Sprig to join them had also been simple, as the lad was under orders and had no choice. Getting him to tell them anything was another matter. Paladin was of the mind that the groom knew nothing of Ami’s machinations, but the groom still knew something. Sprig had met Perry briefly, for one, and he was from Pincup, for another. Pally said as much but this only seemed to make Sprig more reluctant to talk.

Clematis finally asked as a concerned mother for her darling daughter, and Sprig sighed and told them what he knew about Perry Nettleburr and the hamlet from which he hailed. This only prompted Adalgrim and Clematis to ride faster.

They rode over the Green Hill Country to reach Pincup on its southern edge. Sprig didn’t take them into town, which they could just glimpse beyond its outlying fields and ranches. Instead, he turned them south down the main road and led them for some miles, until the last homestead was a dot on the horizon and all around them were empty fields and bright sky.

“Is it much farther?” Clematis asked. She wore a hat to keep off the sunlight, but she was perspiring from the heat and going through her water bottle at an alarming rate.

“I’m not sure, Mistress,” Sprig said. “I’ve naught been there myself. I know at some point we have to leave the road and go east. I’m just not sure where.”

“How did Ami know where to find this place?” Pally asked, looking at Sprig accusingly.

Sprig looked back, his expression bland. “That I don’t know, Master Paladin.”

They only rested for a few minutes, eager to be on their way again. Sprig wished they would rest longer, it being their first break. They had been eating from the saddle and riding continuously through the hottest part of a mid-summer day. He feared the mistress would pass out from heat exhaustion if they continued much longer, but she took the reins of her pony in a stubborn grip and Sprig knew it would be useless to protest. He led them forward, gauging the road as best he could from the few scant directions he remembered overhearing from his childhood.

They rode for another few miles before he led them off the road, reminding them again he wasn’t entirely sure where the hamlet lay. There was nothing around them but open fields and silent earth. Few trees grew here, not so much as a bush, and aside from the wildflowers and butterflies there was no sign of life. 

It was two hours later when Pally pointed to a spot on the horizon where a plume of smoke appeared to be rising out of the earth. They continued in that direction and as they drew closer, they began to make out forms moving back and forth. Closer still, and they could make out the shapes of the now famous black-faced sheep, some cows, a couple of goats, several chickens - and a line of bedraggled hobbits standing cross-armed and waiting for them. 

Sprig sensed trouble and slowed to a stop. “Best to let me talk to ‘em, sir,” he said to Adalgrim. “They’re untrusting of gentlefolk.” 

Adalgrim nodded, searching the line and beyond for any glimpse of his daughter. Clematis looked ready to pass out, and Pally was frowning. He too was searching beyond the line and he didn’t like what he saw there. No homes. The few buildings he saw were poorly built and didn’t seem to be much used. There were a few unkempt pens for the livestock that were currently wandering about as they pleased. There were several plots for growing vegetables and small crop. These at least were well-tended and flourishing, but there was only enough to feed those who lived here. There would be nothing left to trade, nothing left for lean winters, of which he was sure they saw many. 

They dismounted and walked the rest of the way to the line of hobbits. Nearly all of the villagers wore the same sort of formless breeches and shirts, many times mended. Several shapeless dresses also appeared in the line. All their faces were hard and suspicious. A few held gardening hoes that could quickly be repurposed as weapons should the need arise.

Sprig bade the Tooks to stop and went the last few steps alone. He nodded cordially. 

“Hullo,” he said. “My name’s Sprig Dingle. These are the Tooks, Mr. Adalgrim, Mistress Clematis and Master Paladin. We’ve come to retrieve their daughter, Miss Amaryllis Took, who we have on good authority as having come here in search of one of your own, Perry Nettleburr.”

“Aye? And who’s authority is that?” asked an older hobbit. He was nearly bald, with just a few tufts left around his ears and nape, and as he spoke, Sprig could see he was missing some teeth as well. 

“We know she came this way,” Sprig said. “We know she is friends with Nettleburr and that she intended to see him.”

“And how exactly be you knowing this?” the old hobbit asked again.

“She said as much,” Sprig lied.

“She ain’t here,” the old hobbit said.

Sprig nearly asked if there was really any ‘here’ here, but he didn’t want to insult them. Things were going bad enough as it was. He looked around and spotted Buttercream, the bay-and-white pony that Ami had taken from the stables. “That’s her pony.” It was, in fact, the only other pony there.

The hobbits shuffled on their feet and their apparent leader scrunched up his face, thinking quickly. 

“You’ve no authority to be here. Be off,” he said at last.

“I have no authority?” Adalgrim asked, incensed. “She is my daughter!”

“And ye gave her leave to go as she wished,” the hobbit replied. “Now as yer not liking where she’s come, ye changed yer mind.”

Sprig cringed inwardly. So much for not insulting them. They clearly understood the situation for what it was, and the Tooks’ simple presence here was insult enough already.

“Besides, she’s of age,” the fellow said, but Sprig could see the doubt in his eyes.

Ceasing a chance, Sprig said, “She’s not actually. Not for another few months.”

“No, she is,” a young lad said. “Perry was there at the fair last year when she turned thirty-two. She’ll be thirty-three now, the fair being over.”

“Ye best be off,” said another of the burly chaps. 

“I want to see my daughter!” Adalgrim said.

“Please,” said Clematis. “We only want to talk to her.”

A mother’s plea was difficult to ignore. The line started shifting uncomfortably again and at last the old hobbit took one small half-step forward. “We speak with Banks only.”

Sprig’s ears pricked at this, his own suspicion rising. Unless things had changed drastically since he left for his apprenticeship, these folk didn’t speak with anyone. The lack of a first name indicated that they knew only the surname of the primary family of Pincup and were hoping to get rid of them long enough to... do what? Spirit Ami and Perry away? To where?

“Which Banks?” he asked.

The fellow narrowed his eyes. Those holding the garden hoes gripped the handles more tightly.

Clematis decided she’d had enough. She charged the line and pushed through a couple of the lasses, who were too surprised at this sudden insurgence to do anything but gape after her. “Ami! Darling!” she called, walking around the gardens, searching the ground for entrance holes. “Ami! It’s your mum. Come out at once, lass.”

The two lasses who had let Clematis through broke away from the line, but they only followed her at a close distance. Adalgrim and Pally instinctually stayed where they were as the line reformed and tightened after the loss of two of their rank. 

“Amaryllis! Please, Darling, we just want to talk. Ami!”

No one and nothing stirred.

“So I take it ye’ve got a plan for getting us wood?” Perry asked.

Ami nodded. “It’s the standard way of doing business. You can’t build without wood, and there’s no way you can pay for all the wood we’re going to need. You can however become tree wards.”

“Tree wards?” Merlin asked.

Eveline brought them tea. Her mouth was still a tight line, but she at least looked interested. The meeting that morning had been more successful than any of them could have hoped. The other tenants of Nohill had been excited and eager at the idea of making proper homes and buildings. The elders were wary and hesitant about dealing with the Banks family, or anyone outside their little hamlet, but they couldn’t deny the wishes of everyone else. 

After the meeting, Ami had shown them her designs and taken the villagers around the shacks, explaining what could be done with the buildings and how. She emphasized that these were only her suggestions and all final decisions rested with them. She explained that she could help them design their own homes, whatever they needed or wanted. They listened attentively and afterward seemed to have warmed up to her considerably. Ambrosia even invited Ami to go foraging when the other lasses were getting ready to set out. They were now back and Ami was meeting with Perry and his kin in their hole to talk about possible negotiating strategies. 

“Yes, tree wards,” Ami said. “The woods don’t belong to any one Hobbit, of course, nor to the Banks family. It’s the custom that if you need the wood, you can cut down whatever you can replace, so long as it’s not too much.”

“But we can’t replace naught,” Merlin said.

“No, but we can buy seeds,” Ami said. “You offer to pick a section of wood to raze and clear, then you’ll replant and tend it until the saplings are hardy enough to continue to grow on their own. You’ll continue to watch over your section of woods for signs of possible disease or rot. The usual contract is five or ten years, depending on the types of trees. Ideally, you’d have trees already growing in planters to be transported to the forest. We could still do that, but it would mean a delay of at least two years.”

“And that should work?” Eveline asked, doubt in her eyes.

“You’ll need to go before the assembly to make your bid.”

“Assembly?” Perry said.

Ami nodded. “Or whatever they have here in these parts. In the Tooklands, it’s usually just Uncle Peanut. The Thain, Fortinbras,” she clarified at their blank expressions. “It could be you’ll only have to speak with Reynard Banks. If there is an assembly, getting Reynard on your side will go a long way to getting the others to agree.”

“Mr. Banks seems like an agreeable chap,” Perry said, but he still looked nervous and more than a little overwhelmed. 

As long as he’s been wanting this for his people, things now seemed to be moving too fast. He had originally planned on rebuilding the hamlet five years down the line, once they had everything they needed to properly sustain themselves, and his plan had only involved homes, at least to start. Ami wanted to do everything all at once: homes, nurseries, sheds, gardens, pens, cellars, tanneries and who knew what else. There were simply not enough of them to do everything she wanted to do, not in a year’s time. Not in ten year’s time.

He was about to say just this when Merlin stiffened. Merlin was sitting closest to the ramp, and Perry noticed his brother’s ears twitching. The concern on Merlin’s face was alarming. “Beak?”

“I hear something,” Merlin said.

They all stopped to listen and soon enough, they could hear it too. A woman was calling Ami’s name.

“Mum?” Ami said, startled, and stood up. “That sounds like my mother. But how?”

“So much for no one knowing where ye are,” Perry said, standing as well.

“Esme,” Ami muttered. “They must have cracked her.”

“So your mother’s here,” Eveline said, giving Perry a knowing look. Perry missed it though as he was watching Ami closely.

“Ye have to go up there, lass,” Perry said.

“They’ll want to take me back,” Ami said and grabbed Perry’s hand.

Eveline huffed and went back to the kitchen. Merlin remained seated, unsure what to do. Perry motioned for him to stay where he was and, gripping Ami’s hand, led her up the ramp.

There was movement to the right. A head popped out of a shallow slope in the ground, followed by a torso and legs. He was a young chap with golden-brown hair and bright golden eyes, wearing slightly cleaner and less motley clothes than the rest of the hobbits present. Pally recognized Perry Nettleburr instantly. He leaned into his father’s side and whispered in his ear, “That’s him.”

Perry nodded politely to Clematis, who was standing just a few yards away, and turned to offer a hand to the lass following him out of the burrow. Ami.

Clematis ran to her and hugged her tightly. Perry gave a wave and the line of sentries broke apart. Adalgrim and Pally hurried to Ami and joined the hug. Sprig watched with the others, curious and still wondering how they had come to be here. Surely, this must be some sort of odd dream he was having.

Ami managed to pry herself loose after a few minutes. Her parents were too busy asking her how she was doing for her to answer, but once the hug ended, they fell silent. She stood back and took Perry’s hand. “Mum, Da, Pally. This is Perry Nettleburr. He is the friend I met at the Fair last year. Perry, this is my father Adalgrim Took, my mother Clematis Grubb Took, and my brother Paladin.”

Courteous as you please, she made the introductions as though they were standing in the entrance hall of Great Smials or sitting to tea in the parlor of their guest rooms. They all shook hands, going along with the ruse. 

“Adalgrim Took at your service,” Adalgrim said with a tight bow.

“Peregrin Nettleburr, at the service of you and your family,” Perry said, bowing back. “It is an honor to meet you at last, Mr. Adalgrim.”

He formally greeted Clematis and Paladin next. Only years of ingrained manners made Pally bow to the lad. All the while, Ami kept a grip on Perry’s hand, as though she believed if she let go for even a second, they might whisk her away. After the introductions and another awkward silence, Adalgrim seemed to recall where they actually stood.

“Darling, we need to have a word with you. In private.”

“Of course.” Ami dimpled, her grip on Perry’s hand tightening.

Perry slipped his hand free and gently pushed her towards her parents. Another wave of his hand and the hobbits dispersed entirely, going into their holes or the few buildings that were present. He rested a reassuring hand on Ami’s shoulder before retreating himself, going back into the ground. 

Clematis linked her arm around Ami’s waist and guided her back to where they had been resisted. Sprig politely removed himself to check on the filly, who was milling about with the sheep and cows, munching grass and enjoying the sun. It gave the illusion of distance, but voices traveled well here on the plain and he could hear their conversation clearly. He bet those hiding in the buildings could hear also and were likely keeping an eye out in case the Tooks attempted to take Ami away against her will. 

“Let me guess. Esme told you,” Ami said.

“We made her, yes,” Adalgrim said. “Marcho refused to say anything, at least so far.”

“What exactly did Esme tell you?”

Clematis took her daughter’s hand. She was scrutinizing Ami, making sure her daughter really was all right. “That you believe yourself in love with this lad, that you came here to help him build proper homes, that once you had done that you intended to bring him to the Tooklands to ask permission to marry him.”

Sprig’s heart shrunk at this. Clearly, they had to be wrong, and yet, what were they doing here otherwise? He waited for Ami’s response, holding his breath and hoping for... he wasn’t sure what. 

“To ask for your approval, yes,” Ami said. “I don’t require your permission.”

“You don’t?” Adalgrim said, sounding as astonished as the others looked. “You’ve got another think coming, lass, if that’s what you believe.”

“We could have eloped yesterday,” Ami said.


It was a fair question. A proper Took lass showing up with a lad obviously below her station and without her kin to witness would have difficulty finding anyone willing to risk such a ceremony. Even in Bree they would find the situation odd. 

Sprig rested his forehead against Buttercream’s flanks. All this time, he had imagined Miss Darling was a proper lass, but a proper lass would never do such a thing as this: sneaking around, lying, running away to be with a derelict. He had defended her based on that belief. How had he been so wrong? He didn’t want to hear anything else, but he didn’t have much of a choice.

“I did the research,” Ami said. “Anyone is capable of performing the service, and any seven adults can sign as witnesses. There are more than enough people here to qualify, and the contract would be as legally binding as any other. It’s only tradition that kin sign as witnesses and that the service be performed by a family head or lawyer, if not the mayor or those in his employ.”

“Darling,” Clematis said, beseeching, “you hardly know this lad. How can you be so sure that he’s what you want?”

“What makes you think he isn’t using you for your money?” Paladin asked.

Ami took a deep, even breath before replying. “First, I do know him. I know the important things: he’s kind, fair, intelligent, and an exceptional leader. He’s honest.” She gave her brother a piercing look. “Everything else, I’ll learn as I go along. That’s how all relationships work. If you need proof that he isn’t using me: one, he didn’t even know that I was coming; two, he tried to send me home as soon as I got here and again this morning until I refused to go; three, he won’t even hear of using any of the money I brought with me; and four, he actually has more money than I do. Anything else?”

“But Darling.” Adalgrim looked around, unsettled all over again. “How can he possibly provide for you? You can’t honestly want to live here.”

“Why not? A home is a home, whether it’s above ground, in a hillside or below it. It may not have all the comforts that we’re accustomed to but it has everything that’s needed.”

“To survive, Darling. That’s all,” Clematis said.

“You haven’t even spoken to Perry,” Ami said. “Come down and meet his family. Talk to him. Please.”

Adalgrim and Clematis conferenced silently with their eyes and nodded. “We would like very much to speak with him,” Adalgrim said. His tone and set shoulders weren’t promising. 

“Right this way,” Ami said and turned to lead them over the ground. She stopped at a hole and whistled, waited, then descended into the earth. After more brief glances between them, her parents and brother followed. 

Sprig watched them disappear and tried not to shiver. None of this made any sense to him, but he reminded himself he was only here as a guide. He hoped to soon be guiding them back to Tuckborough. All of them.

The meeting could have gone worse. It could have gone better, and might have if Eveline hadn’t spoken up when she did. Adalgrim and Eveline took seats on the tree stumps, while the others settled down on the rugs. Clematis and Paladin flanked Ami, separating her from Perry and Merlin. Ami introduced everyone, explained more fully how she and Perry met and what she’d been planning this last year. 

Then it was Perry’s turn. He explained how he came to be at the Free Fair the year before and why, and how he has been planning to improve things here for his kin and people. He was polite and appeared confident, but he was addressing Adalgrim and Clematis with proper titles, the first real sign of how nervous he truly was. Ami wanted to take his hand but didn’t dare reach around her mother to do so. 

“It was a smart decision to go to the Free Fair last year,” Clematis said. “That’s a long journey, when there’s a fair right here in Pincup.”

“Me granddad had told us about it a few times, and it was free,” Perry said. “We’ve no money to speak of, so I couldn’t figure a way to pay for a stall or whatnot. I weren’t too sure where the Free Fair was even. Just started heading west, then followed the others heading that way once I was close enough. I’d never been so frightened or unsure of myself. If yer daughter hadn’t found me, I’d’ve turned tail and run for it. Ye’ve a kind and caring lass.”

Ami smiled and felt herself blush. She shook her head. “You wouldn’t have left.”

“She taught me a valuable lesson that day - if ye pretend to be confident well enough, confidence will come to ye.” He returned her smile, everyone else momentarily forgotten. “It’s served me well. So this year I decided to try the one in Pincup. It is closer, as ye say, and I figured there weren’t no harm in offering a trade, as we lacked coin. 

“I met with Mr. Reynard Banks, and I was right nervous about it. Me granddad never trusted no one, always said as those Outside weren’t to be trusted, especially the gentry, which weren’t fair of him, considering. Mr. Banks is a kind chap and honest. He was more than happy to give me a stall for payment once the fair was over. All I had to offer was one of our sheep, but he said as the fare weren’t nearly worth that much. He let me set up my stall and told me to find him once I had the required coin. He trusted me. How could I not trust him in return?”

“Well, you certainly are ambitious,” Adalgrim said, with something close to praise in his voice. “You said you wanted to improve your community.”

Perry nodded. “Aye sir. We can’t be flooding out every spring with the rains no more. Most of our folk ain’t so young anymore and it’s that hard on them. The buildings we do have leak so much as to hardly be worth the shelter. I’d no idea where to start though, figured that was still a few years down the way, until Ami came with her plans and sketches. For the first time, I’m beginning to think it might actually be possible. What’s more, everyone else is eager to start working. It’ll be a long road, but we’re willing to travel it.”

“You have some plan in mind for accomplishing this, I assume,” Adalgrim said. “How are you to build with no materials?”

“We were just discussing plans for that when you arrived,” Ami said. “I was telling you earlier, Perry got some coin during the fair this year. With some imagination, we can make that stretch a long way. The folk here have great skill with working hides, and they don’t have a tannery in Pincup. I thought they could set one up here. As for wood for building, they could sign a contract to be tree wards and get their wood that way. Wood will be easier to acquire than stone, not to mention easier to transport. As for getting tools, they could offer product from the tannery they’re going to build in exchange for tools now. It’s a common enough practice.” 

“We’re willing to try anything, so long as it’s fair,” Perry said, getting up to pour himself some water. He took a drink, topped the glass again and retook his seat. Merlin jumped up and offered tea to everyone else and served this as well. When Merlin was seating again, Perry continued. 

“There’s trust to be built with the folk in Pincup on both sides. Me granddad weren’t a trusting fellow, nor were his friends. They taught us to be wary of outside folk, especially the gentry. Said as they take as they wish and don’t care ‘bout those they take it from. I’ve not seen that to be the way of it. I did talk to Mr. Banks after the fair about wanting to build some here, and he said as he can find folk to help us, so long as we help them in turn, with the harvesting and sowing and whatnot. I’ve yet to convince everyone on the idea, but I will. Along with the plans yer daughter has, I think we might actually be able to accomplish this, and it’ll strengthen our relationship with Pincup. We’ll work and trade fair for all we get, and we’ll have a proper home.”

Adalgrim and Clematis nodded with approval. Next they discussed Perry’s lineage and were surprised to discover he was distantly related to the Bolgers through his great-great-great grandmother. Perry told them about growing up in Nohill, about some of the hardships of living with little but also the many joys of living in such a close knit community. He told them about learning to cook from his grandmother and to hunt from his grandfather and father. He told them about his lessons with his mother and uncle, and his many treks and explorations through the fields with his brother and friends. He could almost be speaking of Tuckborough or Whitwell by the way he talked.

It was clear to Ami that her parents were impressed with Perry and hope began to flutter in her chest. Even Paladin had begrudging approval in his eyes, hiding behind the skepticism. There was a lot of skepticism. When Perry finally got to a stopping point, Pally asked, “Pardon me, but how did this... village come to be here in the first place?”

Eveline’s mouth disappeared again and Merlin held his breath, trying to catch his brother’s eye. Perry glanced briefly at Ami. She thought she could read that look, regret that she had to hear it this way and hope that she would understand. Perry took a deep breath and looked squarely at Adalgrim and Clematis. 

“The official story is me granddad and his friends settled there after the Fell Winter. Their village, Brokenstone, at the base of the Brockenborings, had been crippled in an avalanche, and the recovery was slow. They figured they stood a better chance rebuilding elsewhere. Might’ve helped if they’d brought a carpenter along, but they knew the basics and figured as that was good enough. It wasn’t, of course. They had no tools, no materials, naught but the clothes on their backs and whatever they could carry with ‘em. Me granddad said as he settled here in Nohill as it was just below the hills of Pincup; it reminded him of home. I know as they tried to make relations with those in Pincup at first, but every town and village was suffering then and they’d not much to spare or offer, and me granddad had even less. The decision was made to go it on their own, and so it stayed that way until me granddad passed away and I took over.

“That’s the official story. It’s not all as happened though.” Perry swallowed and ignored the steely gaze of his grandmother. He plowed ahead. “Me granddad was desperate to feed his family, as were those who had gone away with him. They were settled for a time in the Woody End, but there was hardly any wildlife to hunt or wild food to gather. They’d brought a few pennies with ‘em, but those were long gone by the spring, when some of their friends got the ague. Me granddad figured if they could get more money, they’d be able to get what they needed. So he went back to Brockenstone, snuck into the home of his former employers and stole their cache, which he knew they kept hidden in a secret drawer in their wardrobe. He was caught sneaking back out. They branded him a thief, gave him a few coins and sent him on his way. He got back to the Woody End, picked up camp, brought everyone here and threw the coins afield. Coin was banned and we’ve been making due with what we’ve got ever since. We don’t accept charity or help that we can’t repay. We’re careful to be fair and honest in our trades.”

Silence followed this revelation. Paladin’s skepticism had won out, all admiration gone, but Adalgrim and Clematis at least seemed to be attempting to understand. There were many stories of hobbits starving to death in the years following the Fell Winter. Many hobbits had been displaced or left willingly to find their own way. Very few of those settlements survived, as those who settled there eventually returned to their homes or assimilated into other towns or villages. The villagers of Nohill hadn’t had that choice, or at least, Perry’s grandfather hadn’t. That anyone chose to remain with him, despite what he had done and the additional hardships he had brought them, spoke volumes of his friendship and leadership. 

“I know as me granddad always regretted what he did. Not because he was caught, but because he knew it was wrong to do. I know his reasons for not wanting money in our home, but the plain truth is we need it. That’s why I traded some of the beasts for coins.” He was talking to his grandmother now, hoping she would understand. She sipped her tea and refused now to look at him. 

“That is not what happened and you know it!” she said, her voice nearly strangled with rage. 

“How dare you besmirch yer grandfather’s name?”

“Because he lied to ye, Nana. He lied to everyone. He was afraid if he told everyone the truth, they’d leave him. Ye’d leave him.”

“Ye were there when he told us, Nana,” Merlin said.

Eveline shook her head. “He weren’t thinking right when he said that, and ye said as ye wouldn’t go repeating his lies.”

“And I haven’t,” Perry said.

Eveline stood, her face pinched and eyes glaring. “Even if that is true, they didn’t have to be branding him as they did! They made sure as he’d never be able to provide for us again. Yer grandfather was right.” She glared at the Tooks. “The gentry can’t be trusted. They’ll use ye up then turn ye out. Thank ye kindly for coming to retrieve yer daughter. Ye can all be on yer way now.”

Perry stood and faced his grandmother. “Ye can’t turn Ami away if she’s not wanting to go.”

“No? I am still in charge of this family, and she’s not welcome here.”

“She’s here to help the village. It’s naught to do with this family. She can stay if she wants.”

Eveline smiled sadly. “She’s here for ye, lad, and naught else. It’s everything to do with this family. She’s going. Maybe once she’s gone, ye’ll start thinking clearly again.” She plowed on before Perry could protest. “She doesn’t belong here, and ye know it. Ye said so yerself last night. Now do as ye should of done this morn and say yer farewells. The sooner ye do it, the easier it’ll be.”

“You said that, Perry?” Ami asked.

Perry met Ami’s gaze with reluctance. He thought for a moment then turned to her parents. “May I have a moment alone with yer daughter? Just a moment.”

Adalgrim considered him closely then nodded slowly. “Of course,” he said. 

Everyone else stood, except Ami who remained where she was seated, looking at the rug. They filed outside, squinting a little as their eyes adjusted to the sunlight. The Tooks moved a few paces away from the hole, as did the Nettleburrs. Merlin looked forlorn and Eveline looked no better. She knew she was hurting her grandson, but she knew also it was for the best. Eventually, he would understand that.

Clematis felt she should say something, perhaps apologize for what happened to Eveline’s husband, but she doubted that would solve anything. Eveline might even feel that Clematis was being condescending. Adalgrim was torn. He quite liked Perry and thought him a good, sensible lad, but he couldn’t leave his daughter here. Paladin was eager to go and he watched the hole with suspicion. He didn’t trust Perry alone with his sister, especially as the moments stretched into minutes. What was taking so long?

They stood in awkward silence until Ami and Perry finally emerged from below. Both looked worn and red-eyed, and their hands were clasped tight. Perry led Ami to her family and with great effort handed her over to her mother. “Ye’ve a fine lass, Mr. Adalgrim. It was my honor to know her.”

Adalgrim had trouble meeting that pain-filled gaze, but he somehow managed it. He swallowed the tightness in his own throat and said, “It was our honor to meet you, Master Peregrin. Good luck in your endeavors. Extend our farewells to your grandmother and your brother.”

Adalgrim put his arms around Ami’s shoulders. She was shaking so badly she could hardly walk on her own and it took him and Clematis both to guide her back to the ponies. She didn’t even notice Sprig as he helped her onto her pony. Pally mounted his steed and took Buttercream’s reins. Once they were all mounted, Adalgrim led them out of the hamlet; they didn’t see the line of villagers who gathered to see them off but Sprig did.

He couldn’t have seen things as he thought he had, yet it was hard to argue with himself over it. Miss Ami, his lovely, delightful and proper Darling, had come to this accursed place because she was enamored with that shepherd lad. That lad had even less position than Sprig did and was entirely unworthy of Miss Ami’s affections, which surely Miss Ami had to know. When he thought of all those times he stood up for Ami and defended her honor, it made him sick with disappointment. He wanted nothing more than to get back to Tuckborough and never see the Whitwell Tooks again.

They reached Pincup just before teatime and stopped at the inn to check in for the night. There had been no discussion about trying to make it to Tuckborough; Ami was too distraught to stay in saddle for that long. As it was, she hardly made it to Pincup and once checked into their rooms, she went straight into the second chamber, insisting she was tired. Clematis brought her a tray of tea and crumpets and left her to her sorrows. Knowing she wouldn’t notice if they left the inn, they went across town to Ridge Manor, home of the Banks family. Adalgrim wanted more information on the squatters in Nohill and hoped that Reynard Banks would have some answers.

They found Reynard at home and they were ushered into the sitting room where the family was enjoying tea. The Bankses rose to their feet and Reynard made the introductions: his wife Nomina, his sons Lanson and Beregin, and his daughter Eglantine. Adalgrim introduced himself, Clematis and Paladin and after a series of never-ending handshakes, they all sat down. The maid arrived with cups and plates for the guests and served their tea. 

They chatted amiably while they ate, about the weather and the crops and the fair that just ended. When they exhausted the food, Reynard excused his children. Paladin was likewise dismissed, much to his chagrin. He went outside with Lanson, Beregin and Eglantine where some of the servants’ children were playing a round of kickball. The Banks children joined them immediately, and after a moment’s hesitation, Pally followed. He needed the distraction from whatever was taking place inside the smial.

Adalgrim and Clematis waited until the door was closed behind the children. Nomina and Reynard exchanged a look and turned to their guests. “We received your letter just this morning, so I take it this isn’t a social call?” Reynard said, blunt and to the point.

“It is not, no,” Adalgrim said. He explained as briefly as possible what had happened, leaving out as many details as he could while still keeping the story coherent. He made no mention of Perry’s grandfather and the thievery that had forced them into exile. Finally he finished his story and said, “What can you tell us of this hamlet?”

“Nothing you don’t already know,” Reynard said. “In fact, you know a great deal more than we ever did. They’re not a trusting bunch, from the little I’ve dealt with them. I’m surprised they let any of you into their hamlet at all.”

“Our dealings with them are brief, when we have any at all,” Nomina said. “They keep to themselves and don’t harm anybody or anything. Livestock might wander that way during a storm; they bring the livestock back, in exchange for hides and supplies.”

“Their leader now is a young chap named Perry Nettleburr,” Clematis said. “He told us he met with you.”

“Yes indeed. He’s quite an astute and observant young lad, a quick study, that one,” Reynard said. “He came to the Fair this year, seeking trade in livestock. He sought our audience for a tea just before the Fair to inform us he’d be there, in case it caused a stir. Quite a surprise, all the way around. He was more intelligent than I would have expected, though I certainly never had the impression any of them were dull. Far from it. He was even learned in some of our history and legends and he knew his numbers, yet he couldn’t tell a farthing from a penny and seemed unfamiliar with most of our cutlery. Isn’t that remarkable?”

“We spoke with him at length this afternoon,” Clematis said. “He makes quite the impression.”

“He has a way about him,” Nomina said, weighing her words carefully. “He always seems in control, so confident. It draws people to him. It’s no wonder he turned your daughter’s head.”

They asked a few more questions but could get no more information from the Bankses. Finally, they concluded their interview and rose. Their hosts followed them outside, where Pally and the others were still playing kickball. 

“I’m sorry to hear of your misfortune,” Reynard said. “I hope the best for your daughter.”

“She sounds impulsive enough,” Nomina said. “A dashing young lad with spirit should make her forget all about Nettleburr.”

Clematis wasn’t so sure but she knew better than to voice her doubt. She thanked their hosts for their help.

“Come along, Pally,” Adalgrim called when the game reached a lull. “Say farewell to your new friends.”

Pally bade the Bankses farewell and followed his parents back to the inn. Inside their suite, they found Ami sitting on the divan and staring out the window, her eyes red but dried. She looked up bleakly when they entered, then straightened and lifted her chin in preparation for whatever was coming. 

She needn’t have worried. Her parents merely kissed her on the brow before retreating to their room to wash off the day’s ride and discuss what to do next. Pally stood for a time at the window before joining Ami on the divan. He reached over for a crumpet, conscious on his sister’s gaze upon him. He finished his crumpet and sat back, looked at her.

He could have said any number of things but her distress made him reconsider. Whatever she thought she was feeling, it was genuine and painful. He patted her hand and pulled her close for an awkward hug. Then, as though unable to help himself, he said, “Is Marcho really so bad?”

“No,” Ami said. “He’s sweet and kind and caring.”

“So then why not give him a real chance?”

To his surprise, Ami nodded. “I suppose.”

Pally suspected she simply didn’t have the energy to argue. Or perhaps she had used her time alone to consider the situation practically and had already come to that decision on her own. She could be quite pragmatic when she put her mind to it. 

He didn’t say anything else and finally Ami pulled away. “I need some fresh air.” She slipped outside. 

Pally waited a few moments and followed her. She could be pragmatic; she rarely was though and he didn’t want her slipping away on his watch. He needn’t have worried. Ami wandered the town, keeping away from the more crowded lanes. After an hour or so of this aimless wandering, she returned to the inn and their rooms. If she knew Pally was following her at a distance, she made no indication of it.

Pally waited until she closed the door on her room again before returning outside. He needed some fresh air himself, hoping perhaps a good walk and a clear head could help him make sense of the day’s many revelations. 

The sun was on its final descent. The surrounding trees muted the sunset’s startling orange glow to a dusky yellow, casting everything in a mellow light that helped to ease his heart and mind. Yet no matter how far or long he walked, he could not begin to understand why his sister was willing to throw everything away for this scrap, especially when the scrap didn’t even want her. No, Pally didn’t quite believe that. He had not missed the pain in the lad’s eyes when he had turned to address Adalgrim and send Ami home. At least the lad had sense enough to know where Ami belonged, even if she didn’t. 

“Farthing for your thoughts.”

Pally startled. He had been leaning against a fence and hadn’t heard the approaching footsteps. He turned to find Eglantine Banks leaning over the fence a few feet away, watching him curiously. He looked past her and realized he had come to a stop outside Ridge Manor.

He laughed ruefully. “I doubt they’re worth that much.”

“It’s the least I can offer,” Eglantine said, which was true enough. Shire currency went no lower than a farthing, but Pally caught the double-meaning. 

“What’s the most you can offer?”

Eglantine looked to make sure no one was watching from the manor windows, then snuck a flask from her dress pocket. “It’s bourbon, diluted with cider, so don’t get too excited.” She handed it over. “Consider it medicinal.”

Pally took it gratefully, uncapped it and knocked it back, once, twice. If it was diluted with cider, it wasn’t diluted by much. The sting started in the back of his throat and quickly spread from there, punching its way into his sinuses and gut. He spluttered and coughed, handing back the flask. Dimly, he heard her laughing over the roar of the liquor in his ears. When the onslaught subsided, he fixed his hostess with a hard stare. It had little effect on her.

“Feeling better now?” she asked. She had pocketed the flask again and was watching him with much amusement. “It’s Daddy’s secret recipe.”

“Not secret enough apparently,” Pally said, or tried to say. He had to clear his throat and try again. His voice was scratchy but he managed to make himself understood.

“What fun is a secret if no one else knows about it?” Eglantine looked up at the stars emerging to the East, little white sparks peeking through the coverage of leaves and branches. “I hear your sister is unwell. I am sorry.”

“Thank you.”

“May I ask what she’s ailing from?”

“A broken heart.”

She drew in a sympathetic breath. “Poor dear.”

“She should never have fallen for him in the first place. He’s entirely the wrong person for her.”

“Oh, but the heart doesn’t care much for such considerations,” Eglantine said. “I once had a crush on a lad named Tobias Pincer, a respectable enough family but no real wealth. He was brash and unreformed and entirely exciting.”

“And what happened to good ole Tobias?”

“He stopped being exciting and became annoying and presumptuous, like most lads do.”

“Is that so?” Pally was offended on behalf of lads everywhere but was wise enough not to voice that opinion.

“Oh indeed it is,” Eglantine said gravely. She couldn’t be more than twenty-five, but she managed to sound like a lass wise to the ways of the world, or at least the Shire. “Lads go out of their way to impress us when we first meet them, and once they think they have us, they show themselves for the sloths they really are.”

“No exceptions?”

“There’s always an exception, or so I’m told. I just haven’t found mine yet.”

“Well don’t expect me to try to impress you.”


“It hardly seems worth the trouble, does it?” Pally turned to face her. “Perhaps I should start off by disappointing you, that way things can only improve.”

She weighed this option and nodded. “It’s an interesting approach. What are your absolute worst qualities?”

“I’ve been told I take too long to wake up. That is, I wake at the normal hour but I’m not pleasant company until after second breakfast.”

“That is a late hour to become pleasant,” Eglantine agreed. “Go on.”

“I often forget to put the bath towels in the hamper. I can never keep the crumbs on my plate no matter how hard I try. I dunk my crackers in my tea; they taste so much better that way, you know, but it is considered poor form. I’m told I snore, but that never bothers me at nights.”

Eglantine giggled. “Anything else?”

“Not that I can think of at the moment, but I’m sure there’s more.” Pally squinted at her in the failing light. “What about you? What are your worst qualities?”

“Oh, I don’t have any. I’m perfect in every way,” she said, a mischievous grin spreading across her pretty face. 

“Is that so?”

“Tina!” The call came from the manor. No doubt, Nomina had noticed her daughter wasn’t indoors where she belonged. 

“It is so,” Eglantine said, stepping back from the fence.

“Can I call you Tina?” Pally asked, reluctant for her to leave.

Eglantine shook her head. “You may not.” Then still grinning, she turned and ran back into the smial. The soft click of the door shutting announced that Pally was now alone.

Pally pushed away from the fence and returned to the inn, wondering how soon he could write to Eglantine without appearing presumptuous. 

To be continued...

GF 11/4/11

Ferumbras stood to stretch his legs. Twitch rose to his feet also but neither made a move towards the carriage. 

“I often look back at that one week at the Free Fair and wonder if there was any hint of what was to come,” Ferumbras concluded his tale. “How could one week change all our lives so dramatically? And why did Perry Nettleburr have to chose that year to attend? I suppose in the end it was inevitable.”

The Thain fell silent, staring off into a past that still made little sense to him. 

Twitch wasn’t sure what to make of the Thain’s story. In a way, it answered a lot of questions about all the fuss taking place there now. In other ways, it created more questions and he could only hope he’d have the opportunity to have those answered later. It was clear to Twitch that Ferumbras only knew so much for certain; the rest he guessed after years of thinking back and perhaps picking up a whisper here and there.

“Miss Amaryllis sounds just like any other Took I know, begging your pardon,” Twitch said. “What happened after the party? Why’ve I never heard of her afore?”

“That would be Mother’s doing,” Ferumbras said.

“But why has my dad never told me?”

“Again, Mother. But I also suspect your father was in love with Darling. Even if he had been permitted to speak of it, I don’t think he would have. I think that’s why he agreed to take me to Nohill, once it was all over. It was there it all ended for him, you see. He needed to let it go, I suppose, to move on.”

“Did something terrible happen there?” Twitch asked, feeling dread at the Thain’s hollow expression.

“Some would say yes. I only know what I heard. After the Fair, it seemed like everything would end all right, that everything would go back to normal. A year passed. Then Ami came of age and tried to reunite with her love. Even that seemed to have been resolved, but we all knew. Somehow, I think we all knew how it would end. It’s the Curse of the Tooks, after all.”


Chapter 18 - Torn

They arrived at Great Smials just before luncheon the following day. Sprig said little on the way back, aside from ‘yes, sir’ and ‘yes, ma’am’ whenever Adalgrim or Clematis required something. He said even less to Ami. He was more than happy to unload his charges at the stables and return to his regular duties of attending ponies, such easy-going, predictable creatures.

Adalgrim split from the others once inside the Smials. He needed to report to Fortinbras that they had returned and all was well. Clematis and Pally continued with Ami to their rooms. Being past noon and so close to luncheon, they only ran into a few relations, who expressed mild surprise at Ami’s early return from her Adventures. Clematis gave some obligatory response that explained nothing at all and kept them moving. They were soon in the quiet of their apartment. 

Ami went to her room to rest. Pally helped his mother make lunch for them. Once Adalgrim was back, they ate quietly in the kitchen. Ami was summoned from her room and sat at her chair politely. She had hardly spoken since the day before, but her appetite was as strong as ever. She finished her meal quickly and excused herself back to her room.

An hour after their arrival, Esme came home. She spent a few brief moments with her parents before going to check on her sister. She found Ami lying prostrate on her bed, staring blankly at the canopy. She joined her sister on the large mattress, sitting tailor-fashion beside her. She was just figuring out how to ask what had happened, when Ami spoke.

“His grandmother made me leave. She said I didn’t belong there.”

“I’m sorry, love.” Esme was sorry to see her sister forlorn, but she couldn’t say she regretted the end of this whole affair. Perhaps now Ami would allow herself to realize what a marvelous lad Marcho Hornblower was and win him back from Rosalie Chubb. “What happened?”

Ami inhaled deeply, let it out slowly. She sat up and faced the wall for a different view. She felt as though she had run into a wall, repeatedly and in quick succession, so it was only appropriate she look at one. 

“I arrived there with little difficulty just after elevenses. I admit, I was shocked by what I saw. Perry had told me but... I thought I’d maybe help them fix repairs on old buildings. There were some buildings, but that’s by the strictest definition. I wouldn’t even house a pig in those shacks. They do have gardens, though it seems they’ve only enough to feed themselves. I’d never been so afraid, Esme, but what else could I do? I kept riding and by the time I reached the village, it seemed like every hobbit in it was waiting for me. They thought I was lost, and when I introduced myself and asked for Perry Nettleburr they all looked at me with such shock and amazement, like I was something they’d never seen before.”

She detailed her stay in Nohill, up to and including the meeting with her parents and Eveline tossing her out of the village. She did not tell Esme about staying to speak with Perry privately. What transpired then was between her and Perry alone. She closed her eyes and felt again the press of his lips on hers, the tight clench of his hands on her waist. He had held her so tightly she could hardly breathe, but she hadn’t noticed. She remembered his whisper in her ear, his promise to her. She clung to that promise; it was all she had left.

“Oh, Darling, I’m sorry,” Esme said when Ami stopped talking. She hugged her sister tight, though privately she was grateful to Eveline for seeing what Ami could not, that such a union was impossible. She couldn’t tell Ami that however, so she settled for patting Ami’s back while Ami took several deep breaths.

After a few minutes Ami pulled away. Her eyes were dry but red. “Why did they have to follow me? What did they think was going to happen?”

“They thought you were going to elope.”

Ami stared at her, stunned. “Elope?” She said the word as though she had never heard it before. “Why would I do such a silly thing?”

“I told them that wasn’t part of your plan, but you know how they worry sometimes.” 

“I think they liked Perry.”

Esme patted her back again. “Do you want me to bring you anything?”

“Anything sweet,” Ami said. 

“I’ll be right back,” Esme said.

Ami heard the door click behind her sister. She looked up at the canopy but didn’t see it. She was seeing Perry’s golden eyes, full of yearning and determination.

She would see him again.

“I don’t know what the lass was thinking, going off on an Adventure. At least she came to her senses,” Lalia said over tea that afternoon. This was the general consensus among the inhabitants of the Smials, who were delighted and surprised to discover that Ami had returned so soon and before the Curse could get her.

Fortinbras and Rumbi said nothing. Neither liked keeping secrets from Lalia, but if she discovered the truth, it wouldn’t take long for everyone else to learn it as well. So far the only ones who knew what Ami had really been planning were themselves, her family, Marcho Hornblower and the groom Sprig. None of them were about to say anything. 

Rumbi wanted desperately to talk to Ami, but he wasn’t sure how much she herself knew. Did she know that he and his father knew about her plot? If she did not, how would she react to learning that they did? Rumbi figured the best thing to do was to wait until dinner and approach her in the dining hall. He could ask how her Adventure went and let her lead the conversation from there. She would either trust him enough to tell him, or she’d come up with some story. If necessary, he could ask Pally but he didn’t know if Pally would be any more forthcoming.

Only none of the Whitwell Tooks were present at dinner that night, or breakfast the following morning. Even Amber and Heather had chosen to dine with their family in their apartments. 

He spotted Ami and Amber taking Arlo for a stroll over the hills later that morning, but they were surrounded by a flock of Ami’s friends and he was unable to approach them. He did pause and watch her for a time. She was smiling and laughing, but even at that distance, he could see the slump of her shoulders. Surely they must see it too, but there was nothing unusual about the way they were treating her.

He did manage to get in a few words with Pally at luncheon. They took their food to the Thain’s study and Pally gave him a brief recount of everything that transpired. He had no more to add than what Adalgrim had told his father. He did mention that Sprig had been nearly rude to Ami the following morning. He had wanted to mention it to Fortinbras, but Adalgrim figured they had enough trouble.

“Ami writes to him,” Rumbi said. “I think he is, or was, enamored with her. He’s engaged though, to one of the chambermaids.”

“I suppose he’s just disappointed. I know I am. What was Ami thinking, falling for someone like that? And his grandmother! I don’t know who’s worse, her or Lalia. Don’t take this the wrong way, but she’d have been much better off marrying you. At least you can see she has all she wants and needs.”

“No I couldn’t. Not all she wants,” Rumbi said. He didn’t know what to make of Nettleburr. Had there been any warning that summer of what was transpiring? Clearly, Pally had thought so. Pally had asked Rumbi to tell Ami not to continue associations with Nettleburr, but Rumbi had been content with her explanation for seeing the lad had something to eat and had not seen a reason to lecture her. Would that even have helped or made the situation worse? Was there anything any of them could have done to prevent any this? Not from the sounds of it.

So what did Nettleburr have that Rumbi didn’t? And why was Rumbi even obsessing over this when he had chosen to marry Chrysanthemum? In fact, he should be preparing for the Grubbses arrival.

“Darling and Mum are meeting with Marcho and his mother for tea,” Pally volunteered with a frown. “Darling told Mum and Da she’d talk to Marcho.”

“You don’t think she should?”

“Not for this reason. Not because she feels she has no other option. She could have any lad she wanted.”

Except for the one she really wanted. The truth hung uncomfortably between them, silent but ever present.

Rumbi cleared his throat. “She just needs time. She’ll come to love Marcho.”

“I’m sure she will.”

They finished their meal speaking of fishing, golf and hunting. 

In the room adjoining the Thain’s study, Lalia silently seethed. 

Ami refrained from sighing. She had been refraining all through this dismal tea, and it was becoming a chore, draining her of what little energy she had. She wanted nothing more than to retreat to her room and crawl into bed, but that was out of the question for the time being. She was stuck here, trapped as surely as a coney in a sling. Her chest felt too tight. She was short-winded and the walls were too close. It was an effort to concentrate on what was being said around her.

“Don’t you agree, Darling?”


Clematis treated her with a warning glare. Jonquil Hornblower grinned, looking confused. “I was saying that a wedding in the spring would be most ideal, just after the Clearing but before the Sowing.”

“Oh. Yes. Absolutely,” Ami agreed hastily. She risked a glance at Marcho, who was watching her with concern.

Marcho turned to his mother. “Mum, Darling and I aren’t actually Promised yet.”

“Well then ask her already before she can slip off again! You brought it, didn’t you?”

“I forgot it.”

“Well, it’s only for ceremony anyway. Ask the lass, you can give her the token later.” Jonquil beamed at her son and Ami.

“May I have a moment alone with your daughter, Mistress Clematis? Just out in the garden?”

“Of course,” Clematis said. She watched Marcho take her daughter’s hand and escort her outside to the gardens that lined the sitting rooms. She reached for the tea kettle once the door was closed behind them. “More tea, dear?”

Jonquil nodded. “Thank you, Clematis. Or what about an autumn wedding, just when the leaves are turning? That’d be lovely, don’t you think?”

Clematis’s return smile was tight. “It would be, but I think it’s best to let the children decide what they want.”

“How long do you think until we have grandchildren?”

Grandchildren. In all this time, Clematis had never once thought about grandchildren. She saw again the vast nothingness of Nohill and tried not to shudder. As much as she had liked Nettleburr, she could only hope that Ami would come to her senses and settle on Marcho. 

Outside, Marcho led Ami to the farthest corner of the garden and settled on the grass. He was aware that anyone in other sections or walking the pathways could still hear them, even if their mothers couldn’t, so he kept his voice low as he asked Ami about her Adventure. “I gather it didn’t go so well.”

Ami shook her head. “Thank you for not saying anything.”

“To be honest, it was for my sake as much as yours. If word got out I was conspiring like a Took, my kin would disown me.”

Ami managed a smile. “You’re an honorary Took if I ever knew one. Have you had any luck with Rosalie?”

“Some. She thinks I’m courting you of course, so she’s been keeping her distance. I think she’s interested though.”

“How do we get out of this?”

“Tell the truth, or as much of it as we can. We could say that in your brief stint of an Adventure, you realized you weren’t ready to settle down yet and I realized that Took blood was too bold for me after all, and we parted friends.” Marcho rested an arm over her shoulders. “Or we could get married.”

“And what about Rosalie?”

“She won’t know the difference.”

“You’re fond of her.”

“Aye, but I’m fond of you too. I might prove to be boring for you.”

“You’re not boring to me.” Ami rested her head on his shoulder. “I look at Amber and Heather and remember how happy they were when they were planning their nuptials. To husbands they no longer have. So short a time they had to be married, to belong to someone else. If I ever fooled myself to think I could be content with someone other than Perry, I know better now. It’s him or it’s no one.”

“What are you planning?”

She shook her head. “He’s coming for me. He figures he can change his grandmother’s mind, and even if he doesn’t, he’s going to come for me.”

“I can keep a lookout for him if you want, but first, we should tell our mothers we decided to call it quits. Will yours suspect anything, do you think?”

“Probably, but no more than she already does. Thank you for being such a dear friend to me, Marcho.”

“Just let me kiss you once. That’ll be all the thanks I need.”

Ami grinned and kissed him gently, a soft pressing of lips, nothing more. “Good luck to you.”

“And to you. You’re going to need it more than me,” Marcho said, standing. He offered his hand and helped her to her feet. Then they went inside to break the news.

By dinner, everyone had heard the news. Ami’s friends gathered around her at table and offered their condolences. They seemed to think she needed comforting, even after she told them it was a mutual agreement and there were no ill feelings. Dicentra offered to let Ami sleep over that night so they could talk, and Verbena and Euphorbia started planning the rest of her week, packing it with activities to keep Ami’s mind off Marcho. They didn’t seem to believe her when she said she was fine. Dicentra even patted her hand and said, clearly humoring her, “Of course you are, dear heart. You’ll be just fine.”

If Ami had felt suffocated before, she realized now that there were worse things than simply missing your love. She didn’t want to lie to her friends, she didn’t want to let them believe that this supposed break up with Marcho was difficult for her, too difficult for her to be comforted by her friends. Yet she couldn’t fathom spending endless hours, no, days, explaining over and over again that she was fine, that this was what she wanted. If only she could tell them about Perry, but she knew that would be unwise. 

Yet, why was it unwise? She wasn’t ashamed of Perry, far from it. He might be poor but that was hardly a reason not to tell her friends about him. Her parents had warmed to him sooner than she had thought they would, so surely her friends would understand. She glanced at her parents, so clearly happy to have her home. Pally was watching her closely, just as he had been since Nohill. Too closely. She hedged and assured her friends that she was certain to find her one true love soon. They were quick to agree.

She managed to hold out until afters, then she excused herself to her room. She wasn’t surprised when she heard someone calling after her halfway down the tunnel. She was surprised when it turned out to be Amber. She waited for her sister to join her and followed as Amber led the way back to her own apartment. Once they were safe inside and the door closed, Amber sat Ami down on the settee.

“Mum and Da told me everything,” Amber started. Her tone and expression were sympathetic and sincere, and Ami listened intently, wondering where this was going. “It’s easy to get lost in the emotion of love. You see only that one person, and everything else just fades away. You miss things, sometimes important things, because of that. This place, Nohill, it’s not going to get fixed in a year, or even two or five. Are you sure you’re prepared for this, Darling? Or do you think Perry would agree to move here?”

Ami tried to imagine Perry dressed up proper, having tea in the sitting rooms and speaking about the latest scandals and secrets. It was enough to make her smile. He might be more comfortable back on their farm in Whitwell, but he would want to get his hands dirty, not simply oversee things as her father did. And he would not under any circumstances abandon his people.

As though sensing the way her thoughts were going, Amber continued, “I understand why they originally settled there. They couldn’t go back to their homes and were understandably too afraid to join any of the other towns, but that’s over. They needn’t be frightened anymore. They can move on, settle into proper homes in Pincup or wherever else they want to go. If Perry wants to bring his family to Whitwell, I’m sure Mum and Da wouldn’t object.”

Ami remembered the thrill in the eyes of the hobbits when she was talking about building up Nohill, making homes, planning the tannery, plotting proper gardens and digging wells. Perry’s grandfather was the only reason that village had been settled, and he had passed away over a year ago. If any of them had wanted to leave Nohill, they would have done so already. They loved their home and wouldn’t give it up easily. Nor would Perry. 

“So maybe it will take longer than a year,” Ami said, sobered by the thought but every bit as determined as before. “I’m prepared for that, so long as Perry is at my side.”

Amber reached out and brushed the bangs from Ami’s brow. Her smile was proud but sad. “I imagine all the Shire started out that way; we’ve just forgot.” She pushed Ami’s hair behind her ear, a comforting gesture. “Are you sure about this? About him? If you add up the amount of time you’ve actually spent together, it’s hardly more than a day.”

“I knew as soon as I saw him, I just didn’t know that I knew, if that makes sense. But it was instant. I looked up and saw him standing there, so small and uncertain. Then he started talking about his sheep, and he transformed. He was grand and confident and still unassuming. And the more I spoke with him, the more certain I became. He’s kindred to me. He’s a part of me, and I’m a part of him. We can’t be separated, no matter how far apart we may be.”

Amber’s hand left Ami’s hair and settled on her shoulder. She smiled at her younger sister, bittersweet and proud. “You’re lucky then. Not all of us get to have that. If that’s how you truly feel, then I wish you well, Darling. Promise you’ll visit us from time to time, and you’ll write regularly.”

“I’ll write a letter every day,” Ami promised and hugged her sister. For the first time, this actually felt possible and she could hardly wait for Perry to arrive.

That night, Clematis and Adalgrim again lay awake. They hadn’t spoken yet about Ami and Marcho breaking off their false courtship. They had meant to, until they returned to their apartment to find Amber waiting for them. Ami and Esme were spending the night with Amber and Heather, and Pally was at the inn with Ferdinand. Amber took the opportunity to speak with them in private and she’d had a lot to say.

Now they lay in silence, each thinking the same things, the same doubts, the same hopes. Finally, Adalgrim sighed and Clematis took his hand.

“He does seem like a nice lad,” she said. “He’s honest enough. He didn’t have to tell us about his grandfather.”

“Ami could still find someone else. She could change her mind.”

“I don’t think so. Pally was right. If she hasn’t changed her mind by now, she won’t. She’s set on him.”

“If they don’t rebuild, she’ll be living in squalor.”

“We’ll convince her to come home. Somehow, we’ll convince her.”

Adalgrim turned his hand and laced his fingers with hers. “Do we send her back? I don’t think I can do that.”

“We let him come for her, as he promised her. If he doesn’t, that will tell us all we really need to know.”

“Maybe he won’t come.”

Clematis squeezed his hand. “Maybe he won’t.”

“What if he does?”

“Then we’ll go down that path when we come to it.”

Afterlithe passed without a peep from Nohill, and Wedmath was nearly half over when the Whitwell Tooks began preparing to return to their home amongst the farmlands. They had stayed longer than they normally would, and they all noticed Ami’s many wanderings over the hills. She could often be seen looking out to the east, watching for movement on the distant horizon. Sometimes Pally and Esme joined her, and Marcho was true to his word, keeping a watch when Ami couldn’t until his family returned to their home. Adalgrim and Clematis sympathized, but they couldn’t wait indefinitely. Harvest would arrive all too soon, and they had matters to attend to. 

When they finally announced that they would be going home in two days’ time, Ami again felt the tightness in her chest squeezing out all the air. Why hadn’t Perry come? What if he arrived after they left? What if he was waiting in Whitwell? But no, she had told him they were staying in Tuckborough, so surely he would come here first. She needed only wait, even if that meant remaining behind when her family returned to Whitwell. 

The day of their departure had nearly come when Perry at last arrived. Ami and Esme were strolling along the hills near dusk and were preparing to turn back towards the Smials when they both spotted movement on a distant hill. That was nothing new or unexpected. Tooks often came from that way on their return from hunting in the Woody End or fishing in the streams. Out of habit, they waited until they could see the approaching figures more clearly, which at this hour meant waiting until they were nearly at the same hill on which they stood. 

Esme could sense Ami’s growing excitement as the group came closer. Though Ami remained still, she was shaking with the effort, waiting until she was sure. The group reached the bottom of the hill and stopped. Then one figure came forward and Ami was hurrying down the hill to meet him. 

They met about halfway, Ami colliding into Perry with such force that she almost knocked them both over. She was barely aware of the tears trailing down her face as she clung to him and felt his arms circle around her to hold her close. Perry started to say something, but she stopped him with a kiss. She didn’t know how long it was before she became aware of their audience again. She took a half-step back with reluctance, but kept her hands clenched in his, afraid that if she let go, he would disappear.

“I’m sorry,” Perry said. “I’m sorry I’m late.”

Ami shook her head. “You’re just in time.” She looked to the group that stood at the bottom of the hill. “Were you expecting resistance?”

He grinned. “I heard as the Tooks have archers.” He sobered quickly and closed the distance between them with another hug. “I was afraid I’d lose my nerve halfway here. They were to pick me up and carry me if they had to.”

“Do I scare you that much?” She was mostly joking.

“Aye. I was terrified ye’d’ve changed yer mind.”

“And here I was beginning to wonder if you had changed yours.” She breathed in the scent of him, the familiar, lovely twang of dirt, earth, sheep and Perry, before stepping back again. “Your grandmother?”

“She’ll learn to love ye as I do.” He was grinning again, but even in the fading light Ami could see the worry in his eyes. “She consented but she still has her concerns. She just needs some time, is all. She did give me this for ye.” He reached into a pocket and pulled out a ribbon with a wooden lily dangling from it. “Granddad gave this to her when they were Promised. He carved it himself. She’s never taken it off till now. The ribbon’s new though. It’s hard to tell in this light, but it matches yer eyes.” He forced himself to stop babbling, took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He looked at her intently, hopefully. “Will ye marry me, Ami?”

Tears threatened to spill again as Ami nodded. “Aye, I will. I’ll marry you, Perry.”

They kissed again, and Perry slipped the necklace over Ami’s head, gently lifting her hair so it settle it upon her shoulders. She shivered as his fingers lightly brushed against her neck and collar bone. He was being so gentle, so caring, her heart swelled with affection and the tears did spill over. She hugged him again, she couldn’t seem to stop herself from touching him in some way, and she breathed his scent once more. 

Finally, she forced herself to step away but she kept hold of his hand. “Ready for this?”

“As I’ll ever be.” He breathed deep again and turned to the group behind them. “She said aye.”

“Then she’s a glutton for punishment and perfect for ye,” Merlin’s voice drifted up as the group began to move towards them. 

From above, Esme made her way down. Soon, they circled the couple and Ami recognized all the faces, though she had forgotten a few of the names. She introduced her sister, and Perry obliged them both by introducing his brother and friends. Besides Merlin, there were three of their friends, Dougal, Will, and Filigon, and their cousin Arvin. All but Merlin were of age. Ambrosia and her mother were also there; Ami knew without asking that they were there in case this plan actually worked, so that Ami wouldn’t have to travel alone to Nohill with a group of lads. It was the proper thing to do, and whether they had come out of friendship for her or loyalty to Perry, she was glad for their presence. 

“You must be hungry after your journey,” Esme said, thinking fast. Dinner was over in the Smials but there were liable to be some hobbits lingering in the dining hall; it was the labyrinth of tunnels leading to it that would pose the greatest risk. Their guest quarters were near enough an entrance hole that they could probably get the group there without being seen. That seemed safest for all concerned. They could figure out later where everyone would sleep. “We can take them to our apartments.”

“What? Go in there?” Dougal asked, looking up the hills at the many lighted windows of the Great Smials. As they watched, a handful more windows popped into view by candlelight. In the near dusk, it looked like the hillsides were glowing. “What is that place?”

“It’s a smial,” Ami said. “Or rather it’s a group of smials linked together by tunnels and ramps. Our apartment is in the guest quarters, just around that bend.” She tugged on Perry’s hand, and he obliged by taking a step but then stopped. He was as awestruck as the rest of the group.

“How do ye not get lost in that, lass?” he asked.

“I do sometimes,” Ami admitted. “I get turned around or forget where I need to go. You get used to it. It’s not so bad once you’re inside.”

“Maybe we could take our rest out here,” Filigon suggested with desperate hope. “And we’ve ‘et already, Miss Esmeralda.”

“Aye, it’d be better to approach Mr. Adalgrim in the morn, don’t you think Perry?” Merlin said.

“We could get you rooms,” Ami said, heart sinking. “Most of the summer guests have gone and the winter guests won’t arrive until after Harvest, so there’s plenty of room. We might even be able to get you rooms on the same hall, if not next to each other.”

“We’d have to ask the Mistress,” Perry said, even as he wondered if any one hobbitess could possibly be in charge of a home that large. 

Esme caught Ami’s eyes and shook her head. Asking Lalia’s permission would mean explaining who they were and why they were here. It was a complication best to be avoided if at all possible. Ami nodded, giving in with reluctance. “I’ll come fetch you first thing in the morning. At least that way, I can prepare Da and Mum, and we could have breakfast in the apartment. Do you need help setting up camp?”

“Nay, we’ve got it,” Arvin said. He and Will were already heading back down the hill to the next slope over. They couldn’t seem to get away fast enough. 

Ambrosia shook her head. “It won’t look so big come day is my guess,” she said with confidence. “It’ll just look like a hill. It’s the lights, see. There’s just so many of them.”

Ami and Esme followed the group to where they were making their camp. Ami held onto Perry’s hand the whole time, reluctant to let go. She didn’t know how she would manage to sleep tonight, with him so close. Yet he might as well be in Nohill for all the good it did them. 

When they reached the spot where Arvin and Will had begun to lay out their things, Perry forced himself to let go of Ami’s hand. “I’ll see ye in the morn, lass.”

“We’ll watch the sunrise together,” Ami promised. Since she wouldn’t be getting much sleep, she was certain she would be awake with time to come here before dawn. She also sensed it would be best to get them inside the Smials and the apartment before too many of the gentry could awaken.

Perry smiled sweetly, remembering their first, and so far only, sunrise. “Aye, I’d like that.”

They kissed once more, a meeting of lips and a promise of tomorrow. Then Esme hooked her arm around Ami’s elbow and pulled her sister away. The hike back to the Smials was done in silence. Ami was lost in her thoughts, walking on a cloud as they say. Esme was lost in thoughts of her own and none of them cheerful. She simply didn’t see how they could get away with this. They had been lucky that there had been no other hobbits around to witness Ami’s and Perry’s reunion, but even if they could get the group inside in the morning without being seen, what then? She sensed trouble looming but she kept those fears quiet. Ami was too happy to ruin her mood with doubts.

They made it to their apartment, running into only a few others. Thankfully, no one stopped to exchange pleasantries though Lalia seemed on the verge of asking them something. She settled on wishing them goodnight and saying she was looking forward to their farewell tea tomorrow. For reasons she couldn’t fathom, that sent shivers down Esme’s spine and rose the hairs on the back of her neck. She told herself there was nothing to worry about. The farewell tea was a tradition and the engagement had been set since last week. They bade Lalia goodnight and made it to the apartment without further incidence. 

As luck would have it, Adalgrim and Clematis were both in the apartment, getting ready to leave again for drinks in one of the main parlors. One look at Ami and the pendant around her neck and they quickly changed their plans. A half-moment later Ami was hugging them fiercely.

“He came, Mum. He’s here. Well, he’s not here here in the Smials here but he and his friends are camping on the hills here and they’ll be here tomorrow morning once I go to fetch them. He gave me this, it’s from his grandmother actually, so she still doesn’t entirely approve but she’s willing to accept me, and I invited them to come in so we could get them all rooms, but he didn’t want to come into the Smials tonight, none of them did really, I think they weren’t prepared for the size of it, but he’s here and he’s asked for my hand and I gave it to him and-”

“Darling, breathe dearest,” Clematis gently chided. She and Adalgrim exchanged a look. They had come to the path and found themselves unprepared to take it. Of course, they wanted their daughter to be happy, and she clearly was at the moment. She was radiant with hope. They also wanted to have a serious discussion with Perry Nettleburr before they gave their consent.

“How many of them are there?” Adalgrim asked.

“Seven,” Esme answered. “I figured it would be best to have first breakfast here.”

“Yes,” Clematis agreed, thinking ahead. She had been letting the cupboards run low since they were to be leaving in two day’s time. There wouldn’t be enough to feed a group that size. “I’ll find Belinda and ask her to bring us provisions for tomorrow. You’ll take Pally with you when you go to fetch the group. He’s staying the night with Ferdinand.”

“And Rosamunda,” Esme said. “If Ami tiptoes over to Uncle Siggy’s to wake Pally to go fetch Perry in the wee hours, you can be sure everyone in the Smials will know about it before first breakfast. She’ll wake them all up if she has to.”

Adalgrim nodded. “I’ll ask Pally to cancel his plans, or perhaps Ferdinand will agree to sleep here instead. He’s better at being discreet than his sister.”

“Try to get some rest, Darling,” Clematis said. “Tomorrow will be a long day.”

They kissed their daughters goodnight and left. Ami sighed happily as the apartment door closed behind her. A half-moment later, she was looking at the door in alarm.

“What?” Esme asked.

Ami turned a fretful gaze on her sister. “I don’t have anything to wear!” She dashed down the hall to her room. 

After a pause, Esme followed, certain that Ami’s wardrobe was the last thing about which her sister need worry.

To be continued....

GF 11/8/11

“I wasn’t there when it all happened,” Ferumbras said. “Ironically, I was small-game hunting with my friend Adelgard. We were near Three-Farthing Stone and didn’t return until the following day to find the Smials in an uproar and the Whitwells gone in a fury. Would anything have been different if I had been there? I doubt it.

“We had been careful to keep everything from Mother, or so we thought. Mother was as good a Took as any other, and once she put her nose to something, she always rooted out the truth eventually. She had been sneaking about, learning all she could and putting everything together. Mother could be incredibly shrewd. She required only the barest of facts and the rest she could generally figure out on her own. Asking the right people the right questions got her enough information, and going with that to my father, demanding that he tell her everything at once, told her more than she ever wanted to know. 

“To say she was furious would be an understatement. She was livid that her son would be rebuked for a tramp. It was an affront to the Took name and she would not have that. What she did then would follow her the rest of her years. Though many agreed with her, no one could forgive her for her actions that day.”

“What did she do?” Twitch asked, almost afraid to hear the answer.

“The only thing she felt she could do,” Ferumbras said.   


Chapter 19 - Curse of the Tooks

Ami barely slept. Every time she thought of Perry out there on the hills, so close, she wanted nothing more than to dress quickly and go to him. She marveled that she had been able to withstand the separation for the last six weeks - no, the last year - when now she wanted only to be in his arms and never leave them again. She did get up a few times during the night, but remembering her promise to take Pally, and now Ferdinand, with her, she did nothing more than pace the floor. Finally, she settled on the window ledge and looked out over the hills, wishing her window faced east. 

She did manage to doze and so was startled awake by a light rapping on her door just after four in the morning. She rubbed her eyes and yawned widely, her jaw popping. She pushed off the window ledge and shuffled over to the door. Pally was standing in the hall, along with a half-asleep and thoroughly curious Ferdinand.

“We should go get them now,” Pally said. “It’d be best if we can get them inside before too many folk are up and about.”

“I don’t think it’s necessary to sneak them in under cover of night,” Ami argued, though she wasn’t sure why. The lack of sleep and the anticipation and, if she were honest with herself, fear of what the day might bring was not a soothing combination. 

Pally refrained from responding.

Ami huffed. “Perry and I were going to watch the sunrise.”

The light was low. The single lamp that Ferdinand carried lit a small circle in the hall and her doorway where they stood. Even in that light, Ami could see the bitterness in Pally’s eyes. “If you get your way, you’ll have all the sunrises you’ll want with him. If Mum and Da haven’t completely lost their minds, that is. Now get dressed.”

Ami shut the door in their faces, then fumbled about her room to the bedside table. She lit the lamp and turned up the flame, then carried the lamp to the vanity. The light reflected off the mirror and filled the room with a haunting glow. She shivered from the cold, or so she told herself. 

She washed quickly and dressed, ran a brush through her curls and foot hair and clipped her hair back with a rose clip to match her Promise gift. She added a dash of rose water to her neck and washed her mouth with a few quick swishes of water. She looked at herself in the mirror and hoped she wouldn’t look as tired as she felt once the sun rose.

She opened her door to find Pally and Ferdinand leaning against the opposite wall. “I’m ready.”

“Let’s go then.” Pally went ahead and led the way outside.

They walked quickly over the hills, the small flame of the lantern falling around their feet, lighting their path. The predawn air held a hint of chill, the promise of autumn nearly arrived. Ami wished she had thought to grab her shawl but the chill wasn’t so cold to make her uncomfortable. They walked in the silence through the steel-grey night, and within a half-hour they reached the hill where Ami had been reunited with Perry. Over on the other hill, a small fire was burning. Ami’s heart leapt.

“So these are friends of yours?” Ferdinand asked, breaking the silence. 

Ami didn’t know what Pally had told him already. She looked to her brother quickly, but his expression was carefully neutral. “Yes, they are. I met them at the fair last year.”

“It’s that shepherd lad, right?”

Ami threw another quick look at Pally. He was frowning slightly but still didn’t look inclined to say anything. “Yes. His name is Perry Nettleburr. It’s him, his brother and their friends.”

“They’ve come for a visit? Are they thinking of apprenticing some of their young ones here?”

“That would be something,” Pally muttered but whatever he could have meant by that, he didn’t elaborate and Ami didn’t ask.

“No. I’m helping them with a project of theirs,” Ami said. “They need some construction done.”

“Ah. So they’ve come to speak with Master Tobold?”

Ferdinand was slowly and craftily whittling out as much information from Ami as he could. He should know better than to play that trick on another Took. “Master Tobold doesn’t know they’re here, but it would perhaps be prudent to speak with him, now that you mention it. Do you know if he’s available today?”

Ferdinand grinned, recognizing the attempt at deflection. “I’ll check his calendar when we get back.”

“Here we are,” Pally interrupted. 

They had reached the base of the hill. Ami looked up and could see their guests moving about, packing up their camp. A figure was approaching them. Ami guessed it was Ambrosia from the swaying of skirts, but it was her mother Felicity instead.

“They’re nearly ready,” Felicity said. “Might I speak with ye for a moment, Miss Ami?”

“Of course,” Ami said, baffled. She followed Felicity for several paces farther downhill. “Is something the matter?” she asked, once they came to a stop.

Felicity shook her head. “Nay, Miss Ami. I’ve just been asked to give ye this, if ye accepted Perry’s proposal. Tis from Eveline. Ye’ve got something old,” she said, indicating the pendant. She rooted in her pocket and produced a handkerchief of soft sheep wool. An amaryllis was sewn in the middle. “Tis something new. Perry’s got his already.”

Ami hadn’t even thought of the traditional wedding handkerchiefs and she teared up thinking of Eveline making this for her, knowing how the elderly matron felt about this union. She took the handkerchief and surprised Felicity with a hug. “Thank you.”

“It’d be yer ma’s job to give ye something borrowed and blue.” Felicity returned the hug, feeling awkward but pleased. “Perry’s a fine lad. I thought he might marry my daughter at one time, but she went and set her sights on Beak. Eveline was worrit Perry might not find himself a lass, we’re so few and the other lasses so much younger. Funny how things work out, isn’t it.”

“Indeed.” Ami tucked the handkerchief into her pocket and walked with Felicity back to Pally and Ferdinand, then onward to the camp. 

She found Perry almost at once. Conscience of her brother’s and cousin’s presence, she settled for embracing him and pecking his cheek. “No sunrise today, I’m afraid,” she said regretfully.

Perry nodded. “We’re just about ready to go,” he said as Dougal came with a bowl full of dirt and extinguished the fire. They hadn’t unpacked much - they didn’t have much that needed unpacking - and once everyone’s bedrolls or blankets were squared away, they were ready to move. 

Ami could sense the hesitancy in the group as they approached the Smials. There were no lights shining in the windows now and the vast hill and those surrounding it were as dark and innocuous as any other. They remembered the lights though, the mere hint of the vast warren that awaited them below ground, and they hung back slightly. Perry, despite his own fears, squared his shoulders and walked in the lead with Ami, Pally and Ferdinand. Ferdinand watched Perry curiously but oddly refrained from asking any questions. Ami wondered if that was good or bad.

They made the trek in silence and reached the door to the guest quarters as the first hints of pink lighted the eastern sky. Ami regretted the lost opportunity to watch the sunrise, but if all went well today, as Pally said, she’d have plenty of sunrises to share with Perry.

The tunnels inside were sparsely lit with wall sconces, just enough to see where one was going. The first impression was of a long dark tunnel with many doors on either side, all leading to places unknown. Even Perry hesitated for a moment but he gripped Ami’s hand and continued forward, pulling the rest of his group with him. 

The Whitwell Tooks stayed in an apartment not far from this door. They rounded the first corner and at the second door, stopped. Pally and Ferdinand entered first, leaving the door open. The smells of food cooking wafted out into the tunnel, settling the nerves of everyone there in an instant. They all suddenly realized how hungry they were. Ami met Perry’s gaze and saw his determination. She risked a quick kiss then led them all inside.

After the introductions, they led their guests to the bathing rooms to wash. If they had been wide-eyed by their brief encounter with the apartment, they were nonplussed by the bathing rooms. Merlin said it best for everyone. “An entire room just for bathing? What do you bathe in here?” he asked as he glanced around in awe. 

Dougal pointed to the tub. “Is that where you wash your clothes?” None of them could believe it was for washing hobbits.

“I get it now,” Ferdinand said to Pally as they closed the doors behind their guests. “You’re pulling a prank on me.”

Pally shook his head. “I wish I were.”

“So then what is going on here, Pally?”

“I’ll explain later.”

When they returned to the apartment, the guests offered to help with the food preparations. Their eyes traveled over the parlor and adjoining kitchen, taking in everything around them. A few had glazed-over expressions, overwhelmed by all the things to explore. Still, they insisted on doing their part to help with the food and soon they were forming a line around the kitchen, chopping, mincing, juicing and peeling. Conversation was limited to the preparations and food in general, further relaxing everyone.

When first breakfast was ready, Adalgrim pulled Perry aside and into the study. Clematis and Ami followed, leaving Amber and Heather to entertain the guests. In the study, Adalgrim sat at the table, where he had placed both of the room’s chairs. He and Clematis took the settee, leaving the chairs for Ami and Perry. They settled in and began eating in strained silence.

“The meal is delicious, Mistress Clematis,” Perry said about halfway through.

“Thank you, Perry,” Clematis said. “It was kind of you all to help.”

“Indeed it was,” Adalgrim started, keeping his tone amiable. Now that they were talking, they may as well continue. “It’s good to see you again, lad. We’d just about given up. In fact, we were to set out for home tomorrow.”

One didn’t have to be fluent in Took double-talk to understand the question Adalgrim wasn’t asking.

Perry swallowed the bite he was working on and reached for his tea. After a sip, he answered. “I’d’ve followed right behind ye if I could,” he said. “But I wanted to give Nana time to be accepting of it. She deserved that.” He paused, looked at Ami then back at her parents, all watching him expectantly. He didn’t require any further prompting.

“I’ve been busy though. I did go up and speak with Mr. Banks. I’ve seen him several times in fact. We’ve worked out a deal for the wood. It worked just as yer daughter said as it would, but seeing as we’re going to need so much, we changed it a bit. We’ll cut the trees by thirds - every third tree that is, and plant in their spot. Once the saplings are growing good and hale, we’ll take the other third, and finally the last. Figures it’d take about ten years in all, and another five after that to see to the final plantings. He’s lent us the tools as we’ll need.

“He’s also given us the rocks as were dug up when they excavated the last holes in the hills. They’ve been taken up land behind some farms, which the farmers are wanting to expand but can’t. They couldn’t find no one interested in hauling them away afore now, so they’re given ‘em to us clear and free, so long’s we’re willing to do all the work of hauling ‘em. We’re more’n interested and willing, and the smith offered to break the rock down into workable chunks for us, so long as we keep him in belts for five years once we’ve got the tannery up and going. 

“None of the plans as Ami left us detailed how to build with rock, but I remembered seeing all the homes and buildings in Michel Delving and along the way, and in Pincup too, so I know it can be done. I figure we could use that for the foundations and only have to use the wood for the roofs and inside walls. I haven’t figure out yet how far we can make it stretch, but each time we haul a load to Nohill and go back, there seem to be just as many rocks left as what we started with. It’ll do us a good spell is my guess. We’ll need mortar, which Mr. Banks says needs to be ordered special from the North Moors, as none of us felt comfortable dealing with Brockenborings. The smith said as he could cut the larger rocks to sit atop each other without needing mortar, so that’ll help. The mortar’s expensive.”

“A large part of that expense will be to cover the cost of delivering it,” Adalgrim said. “The Brockenborings is closer, and I doubt anyone there will remember anything about your grandfather. Even if they do, you’re not him. There’s no reason you can’t deal with them.”

Perry shook his head. “Nana would have fits, as would all the elders. They remember and that’s enough. If it’s the delivery that’ll cost so much, I’m sure I can find a few willing to make the journey. Now as we’re dealing with Pincup and seeing how easy it is, folk are getting bold. How do you think I got so many to follow me here?” His grin was both self-deprecating and proud.

“You’ve certainly been keeping busy,” Clematis said, sounding as impressed as Adalgrim looked. “Do you think you will get any building started before the winter?”

“We plan to fix the shacks up and get them solid,” Perry said. “Those’ll take the least amount of work and give us something to practice on. It’ll also give us someplace dry to sleep when needed and we can better store the harvest. We’ll use the winter to draw up our plans and figure out how much material we’ll be needing and to finish hauling the rock. We won’t start cutting trees until after the sowing in the spring. 

“We need to figure out a build order. The tannery will be first, of course. After that, I figure we can pull names from a sack and we can probably manage having three projects going at once. Beak figured five, but I think it’s best to start slow, at least until we know what we’re in for. So two houses for one communal structure at a time is what we’re going with for now and everyone seems happy with that.”

“It’ll take time to get everything accomplished at that rate,” Adalgrim said.

“We’ll get it done,” Perry replied simply. “Once we know what we’re doing, we can add onto the number of projects we have going at once. The lasses are willing to help, and the elders and younglings can see to the crops and beasts. We want to build as much as we can without outside help.”

“I believe you will get it done,” Adalgrim said.

They finished their meal, and while Ami and Clematis went to the kitchen to get everyone seconds, Adalgrim took the opportunity to fix Perry with a hard stare.

“My children are everything in the world to me,” he said, keeping his voice low so as not to be overheard; the lasses had left the study door ajar. “I want nothing but what is best for them. When you have your own children, you’ll understand why I’m hesitant to allow this match. Darling has always been trusting, too easily at times. It’s clear to me you’re an industrious lad and that you are truly committed to seeing your situation improved. That’s a comfort to me, but I still have reservations.”

Perry looked down at his teacup, empty now, then back at Adalgrim. He drew a deep breath, pretending a confidence he didn’t feel. “I love yer daughter, sir. I know I’m not good enough for her, and I don’t deserve her. Honestly, I don’t know why she’s set on me. Perhaps I am being selfish, taking what shouldn’t be mine, but I’ll make myself worthy of her, and you, even if it takes the rest of my life.” 

He glanced around the room, furnished and resplendent, and swallowed audibly. That she was willing to give up so much for him, seemingly without hesitation or regret, he couldn’t believe his good fortune. It only made him more determined to prove himself to her and everyone else. “It’ll be a hard and long road afore I’m able to provide her with what she’s used to. I want nothing more’n to travel that road with her, and I’ll do all in my power to see her taken care of. I’ll not disrespect her or treat her unkindly. I know why ye worry about her, living with such as us, but she’s stronger than ye know and I’ll see as she wants for naught. It may be some years afore I can give her what she’s used to here, but she’ll have it. We’ll all have it.” He risked a grin. “Including one of them bathing tubs. Those are nice.”

Adalgrim laughed. “They are nice, aren’t they? Even in Whitwell, we only have a wooden one and not nearly as big.”

Clematis and Ami returned then and they commenced eating. Clematis steered the conversation effortlessly, asking about Perry’s childhood, his parents and grandparents, and sharing her own remembrances of growing up in Overhill. Her own upbringing could be considered humble by Took standards. In her own way, she was telling Perry that she understood, at least in part, where he was coming from. Perry was grateful for the gesture. Adalgrim then launched into a debriefing on his duties in Whitwell, overseeing the farms there and all that the job required. It was a lot of information, but sprinkled with helpful tips. Perry listened intently, asking questions for clarification when needed. Ami mostly sat silently through all this, offering a tidbit here and there but content to sit back and watch her parents interact with Perry, and him with them. It almost felt as though they had been doing this for years.

The interview lasted nearly two hours. It was almost time for second breakfast when they finished. They had imparted all the wisdom and advice they could for the moment, and Perry had passed their inspection and scrutiny. Adalgrim and Clematis met eyes, a silent conversation taking place in those glances. Eyebrows lifted and mouths twitched and all the while they didn’t break eye contact. Finally, they reached out and clasped their hands, holding tight. Clematis closed her eyes, but not before Ami saw the tears forming there. 

“Very well,” she said, her voice choked. “You may marry our daughter.”

Ami’s concern for her mother was momentarily forgotten at her joy of hearing these words. It was all she could do to keep from jumping up and hugging everyone. 

Adalgrim grasped his wife’s hand harder still. He didn’t cry but his voice was low when he spoke, as though it would break if he used his normal tones. “I do not want to regret this decision, Peregrin. You are taking something very precious from us today.”

“Ye won’t regret it, sir,” Perry said, his voice shaking slightly with his own veiled emotions. 

“Oh, I already do, though not for lack of faith in you,” Adalgrim said. “I imagine a long engagement is not what either of you have in mind.”

“If they’re to start building before the winter, I’ll need to go back with them now,” Ami said. “I can only do that properly if we’re married.”

“We do have to leave tomorrow, Darling. We can’t put it off any longer,” Clematis said. “Weddings take time to plan and organize.”

“If we go with you back to Whitwell, it’ll be just as long to come back, plus all that time to plan a wedding...” Ami trailed off. “It won’t leave us time to get anything accomplished before the cold sets in.” She shook her head. “I never wanted a big fancy wedding, and while waiting for harvest would be ideal, I feel as though if we don’t do it now, it will never happen.”

“Are ye sure, lass?” Perry asked. “Ye’d want yer friends there, surely. I don’t want ye doing something hasty and regretting it later.”

“I’ve thought about this, nothing but this, for six weeks. I only need you, seven witnesses and an officiator,” Ami said. “I don’t need anything else. We can do it today, and I’m already packed.”

Adalgrim sighed. “Leave us alone with our daughter for a moment, Perry, then we shall see the Thain.”

Perry left and Ami hugged her parents. They were all crying, though Ami’s tears were not entirely sad. She would miss her family but she was eager to start her life with Perry and return to Nohill. Hearing all of Perry’s plans, she realized anew how competent and enterprising he was. That he wanted her help, needed her help, needed her, was both astounding and humbling. She hoped fervently that she could live up to all his expectations, even as she envisioned the future of Nohill. She had drawn it so often in her mind and now it would someday become reality, and she would be there to see it. When it was built and finished, she would bring her family to see it and ease their minds once and for all that they had made the right decision today. 

She thought she might have said all this in between the hugs and kisses and tears, but she couldn’t be sure. She distantly heard their instructions to be careful, to keep warm, to come visit often, to keep in touch. They expected a letter every day. They needed to figure out what to do for Yule. They stood back and looked at Ami long and hard, as though they would never see her again, then with an effort turned to the door and went to the parlor to announce the engagement to everyone there.

Clematis took Ami into her chamber and loaned her a pair of lace gloves to wear for the ceremony. She then redid Ami’s hair, braiding it, weaving in a blue ribbon and tying it off with a blue butterfly clip. When Ami was ready, she hugged her tightly and they cried again.

“My Darling,” she said and kissed her daughter’s brow. “I suppose now I give you the talk about what a wife should expect from her husband and vice versa.”

“You don’t have to, Mum,” Ami said but was grateful when Clematis sat her on the bed and started speaking anyway.

Before she knew it, she was again in the parlor with Perry at her side. Soon after that, they were walking through the tunnels, receiving curious glances and warm good-days. A couple of gossiping busybodies tried to engage them in conversation, to little effect.

“What was that about?” said one to the other as the Whitwell Tooks and their unusual guests walked past.

“I don’t know,” said the other, “but Lalia would. Where is she this morning?”

“I’m not sure. She shouldn’t be too hard to track down.”

They went to find the Lady.

The Whitwells reached the Thain’s study and upon his admittance, filed inside the room. Lalia wasn’t there, to everyone’s relief. Fortinbras lifted an eyebrow and smiled. “Good day, Whitwells,” he said. “What might I do for you today?”

“A word, if you please, Peanut,” Adalgrim said, indicating the private garden. 

When he and Fortinbras slipped outside, Esme pulled Ami aside. “Wouldn’t you rather have a proper wedding?” she asked her sister.

Ami shook her head. “I don’t want to wait. I can’t go back to Nohill until we’re married and Perry came here only to get me. We both want to get back and start our work there, and when all’s done, you can come for a nice long visit.”

Esme hugged her, tears forming in her eyes but not falling. “You’ll be so far away. What am I going to do without you?”

“You could marry Marcho Hornblower,” Ami teased. 

Esme laughed. “That’ll be the scandal!”

Outside, Fortinbras stared around his private garden and listened to all his cousin said. More so, he listened to the strain and forced cheer in Adalgrim’s tone. When Adalgrim finished speaking, Fortinbras said, “I can be the mean one for you. I can forbid this marriage. I probably should.”

Adalgrim paused. That he was actually considering it, after giving his consent, made him sick. He was worried, yes, but he didn’t doubt Perry’s determination. If worse came to worst, he could always insist that Ami and Perry come to live in Whitwell. “No. If you feel uncomfortable performing the ceremony, just point me to the marriage contracts. I’ll do it myself. We’ll still have enough witnesses.”

“How poor is he?”

“He’s rich enough where it counts.”

“I have to ask this, and please don’t take offense, but is Ami with child?”

“Of course not!”

Fortinbras held up his hands. “Folk will want to know, because of the rush and the secrecy. I don’t like that this is being rushed. I think it would be prudent to wait a while, at least a month, to do things properly.”

“He came here to get her, and they don’t want to wait. Please, Peanut. This is hard enough already.”

 “There will be concern that he’s only after the Took money.”

“He isn’t. He and his kin aren’t very fond of money, especially money from the gentry.”

 Fortinbras nodded. “Very well. Let’s go in and end their suspense.”

They stepped back into the study. Fortinbras was still uncertain. He knew nothing about this lad, his people or his village, and he had more to consider than just Ami and her parents by allowing this marriage to go forward. Yet he trusted Adalgrim’s judgment and knew his cousin would not consent for his daughter to marry someone who was only interested in the Took gold. If Adalgrim and Clematis were in agreement, he had no reason to refuse them. He knew also that refusing would accomplish nothing. Adalgrim had already said he’s perform the marriage himself if need be.

“Darling,” he said. Ami stepped forward. “Are you sure about this?”

Ami took Perry’s hand. “I am, more than anything.”

Fortinbras looked Perry up and down, then scrutinized the others. If they had any idea of whom’s study they stood and what that meant, they gave no indication of it. Perry met his eyes unwaveringly. At least the lad had gumption, and quite a bit more than that from what Adalgrim told him.

Fortinbras nodded. “And who shall witness?” 

Adalgrim said, “I shall, as well as Clematis.”

Perry nodded towards his cousin and friends. “Dougal, Filigon and Will are of age.”

“That leaves us two short,” Fortinbras said. 

“I’ll witness,” Amber said. 

“As will I,” said Heather. As widows, they held their late husbands’ authority for legal transactions.

Fortinbras shuffled through the stacks of parchment on the shelves along the wall until he found a blank marriage bond. The language on all marriage bonds was the same, except the names and date. He dipped his quill and paused before touching ink to parchment as Lalia’s face popped into his mind’s eye. 

She had cornered him shortly after Ami’s forfeited adventure. When she had overheard Rumbi and Pally discussing Nohill and the shepherd lad, she had threatened the poor stable lad Sprig with dismissal if he didn’t tell her everything he knew. By the time Fortinbras finished filling in the blanks as much as he could, she had been even more furious than when he started. She had only refrained from saying anything to the Whitwells because Fortinbras had assured her it was all over. That was before Ami and Marcho called off their false engagement. Lalia had been waiting for the eggs to crack ever since, but she had also held her tongue. Fortinbras could only imagine what she would say about this. Hopefully, her elevenses would go long and she wouldn’t be back until after the ceremony was finished.

“Peanut?” Adalgrim said when he paused too long. “If you’ve forgotten Darling’s proper name, it’s Amaryllis.” He spoke lightly, but Fortinbras could hear the strain in his voice. 

Fortinbras met Adalgrim’s eyes. Another silent conversation took place, ending with Fortinbras drawing a deep breath, nodding and dipping the quill again. Best thing to do now was to hurry before his wife returned from visiting Gardenia. Thank the stars Rumbi was on a ramble with Adelgard; this would devastate him, of that Fortinbras had no doubt. Several minutes later, the bond was completed, awaiting only the signatures.

“Have you the wedding cloths?” Fortinbras asked. 

Ami pulled her kerchief from her dress pocket and gave it to her mother. Merlin produced his brother’s. Perry’s kerchief was dyed green and had an emblem of a sheep in the center. Merlin handed this to Dougal, the eldest of their group besides Felicity.

Fortinbras paused again, then forged ahead. He looked at both Ami and Perry, speaking to them alone. “Marriage is not a vow to be taken, or given, lightly. You will find that a life together will be both joyous and trying, it will have both comfort and conflict, triumphs and trials. Only those of sound mind and full understanding of what they are about to undertake may be so joined, and only when it is of their own choosing. Amaryllis Took, have you come here today of your own free will and accord, and do you understand the duties and blessings of marriage?”

“Yes I do,” Ami said. 

“With whom do you come and whose blessings accompany you?”

Adalgrim bowed. “She comes with me and with the blessing of all her family.”

Fortinbras turned to Perry. “Peregrin Nettleburr, have you come here today of your own free will and accord, and do you understand the duties and promises of marriage?”

“Yes I do,” Perry said.

“With whom do you come and whose blessings accompany you?”

Dougal bowed. “He comes with me and with the blessing of his family.” 

Fortinbras said to the room in general, “Is it the agreement of those assembled here today that this couple be joined in marriage?”

“It is,” they said as one. Only Paladin remained silent, but he nodded. He didn’t trust himself to speak.

“Will the bride and groom face each other and touch right hands together,” Fortinbras said. Ami switched hands and faced Perry, meeting his eyes. They both smiled. Fortinbras addressed the bride first. “What is your name?”

“Amaryllis Took.”

“And what is your desire?”
“To join with Perry, whom I love.”

Clematis handed the wedding cloth to Fortinbras, who folded it lengthwise and wrapped it around Ami’s and Perry’s wrists. “With this symbol of your love, so speak your promise,” he said.

Ami let out a nervous breath, but she spoke clearly and unwavering. “I, Amaryllis Took, do take you, Peregrin Nettleburr, as my husband. Now do I make my promises to you. I promise to share laughter in times of joy and wonder; to share tears when sorrow touches our lives; to share my dreams and hopes, that our love and minds may grow; to share compassion and understanding during times of frustration and anger; to share all that I have, and all that I am, to the end of days.”

Fortinbras turned to Perry. “What is your name?”

“Perry Nettleburr.”

“And what is your desire?”

“To join with Ami, who I love.”

Dougal handed the groom’s wedding cloth to Fortinbras, which he placed over the other. “With this symbol of your love, so speak your promise.”

“I, Perry Nettleburr, do take ye, Ami Took, as my wife. Now do I make my promises to ye. I promise to share with ye laughter in times of joy and wonder; to share tears when sorrow touches our lives; to share my dreams and my hopes, so that our love and minds may grow; to share compassion and understanding during times of frustration and anger; to share all that I have, and all that I am, to the end of days.”

Fortinbras placed his hands over Ami’s and Perry’s. “By your vows of love and these symbols of unity, I now declare you husband and wife.”

Ami threw her free arm around Perry’s neck and they kissed soundly. Then the witnesses signed and the bond was completed with the Thain’s stamp. Ami kissed Perry again. 

“I’m your wife,” she said, dazed.

“Aye.” For once in his life, Perry couldn’t think of anything to say.

“So what do we do now?” Merlin asked.

“You explain yourselves.” The voice came from the adjoining office and sounded hard, almost savage.

Everyone turned as one. Lalia stood in the doorway, face red with rage. She stepped into the room and towards Ami, everyone else forgotten.

“You harlot! You ingrate! You insufferable, selfish child!” Lalia was so focused on getting to Ami that she was stopped short with surprise when Perry neatly stepped in front of her, blocking her path.

“Lady, I don’t know who ye are, but that’s my wife yer disrespecting.”

Lalia’s laugh was shrill. “Of course you don’t! You’re nothing but a scrag, a whelp, a burr to decent folk. You think you can besmirch the Took name?”

“Lally,” Fortinbras started.

“No. You know I’m right. You agreed with me that her antics were out of line, and then you do this? I will not tolerate it.” She looked around Perry at Ami. “Either this marriage gets annulled or you get out, out of my home, out of Tuckborough, out of the Tooklands, out of this family. And you never return. Do you hear me? You are banished!”

To be concluded...

GF 11/14/11

Epilogue - Amends

“And did she? Banish her?” Twitch asked, though the answer was obvious. He had never heard the name Amaryllis Took before today, never knew the Whitwells had a fourth daughter, never knew his father had ever loved another before his mother. Amaryllis Took, the one-time Darling of the Tooks, had been erased from the Family Trees and sent to the borders of the Tooklands never to return.

Ferumbras nodded. “Father did try to reason with Mother. He suggested that Ami merely be cut off the Took money and not be allowed in Great Smials, which was hard for him. Yes, he did agree that Darling was acting selfishly and he wasn’t comfortable with the union, but he did trust Adalgrim to make the right decision regarding his daughter. And that was the trouble, the old argument between him and Mother. He listened to the advice of the First Cousins more than he did to her, and I think in her mind, Ami became a symbol of that. In the end, for once in their marriage, he agreed with her and permitted her to banish Ami. 

“From what I heard, Ami didn’t wait for the final verdict. She gathered her things, said her good-byes and left with Perry to Nohill while Father and Mother were still squabbling over terms. The Whitwells tried to stop her, to at least make her wait to see if Father could reason with Mother, but she’d have none of it. Clematis was distraught, naturally. They had clung to the hope of being able to bring Ami home at some point, if need be. Now it seemed they wouldn’t be able to do so. Perry was upset, naturally. First his grandfather was banished from his home for thievery, now Ami was banished from hers for nothing more than getting married to someone below her station. Was banishment to be the curse of Nohill? By the time Father agreed to consent to Mother, Ami was gone and the rest of the Whitwells were readying to make a hasty departure. 

“I wonder sometimes if things would have been different, had Darling been allowed to go through with her original plan. Would the extra year have mattered? Would my mother’s pride have been as wounded, once I was already married and happy? What if we had been honest with her and included her in our plans rather than shut her out in her own home? I think in the end, that’s what hurt her most, that Father and I lied to her to protect Darling. Banishing Darling was as much our punishment as it was hers.”

“Why did Thain Fortinbras agree to it though? Everyone seemed to like him, from what I’ve heard,” Twitch said, trying to wrap his head around this. He’d heard stories of hobbits being banished from the Shire before, branded for their crimes, sent to the Bounds and refused reentry. These were hobbits who had done unspeakable things: theft, vandalism, even purposely endangering another. But to be banished for falling in love? Even if it was with the wrong person? At least Lalia had stopped before banning Miss Amaryllis from the Shire altogether. Still, to be banned from your homeland, your family and friends? Twitch shuddered just to think of it.

“I asked my father when I returned from my hunting trip and learned what happened. According to him, it was either Ami or my mother. She threatened to leave him, to actually break their marriage contract. It was simply too great a slight, and in the end, I think my father agreed simply because he agreed. He didn’t approve the marriage, regretted it even as he performed it. He wouldn’t have banished her without my mother’s prompting, but he agreed with it. 

“The Whitwells returned to their farm, leaving a day early, and remained there for years. The Aunts - Amber and Heather - thought about moving out of the Smials for a time, but in the end they decided my mother should have to see them every day, as a reminder of what she had done to their sister. They went to Whitwell for their holidays though, and in the summers the whole Whitwell clan would holiday in Pincup, residing with the Banks family. Pincup became quite a popular destination for a fair number of Tooks after that year.

“I was furious when I heard, but to be honest, I was just as angry at Ami as I was everyone else. Did I want her banished? Most of the time, no, but there were moments when I was glad I wouldn’t have to see her again. I, along with nearly everyone else, simply couldn’t fathom what she saw in Perry Nettleburr. How was he better than me? 

“My initial concern was that she had in some way been duped. I wanted to go to her and talk to her, to make sure this really was her decision. It took me three months to work up the nerve to ask your father to take me to her, and when I got to Nohill, I could do nothing more than look at it from afar, watching until I saw that fiery red head of hers emerge from the ground. I watched her move around that place, and my heart broke because I knew as impulsive as she was she never was one to be tricked into anything. She had made this choice, and she had agreed to the consequences of it for a lad that the rest of us wouldn’t have even noticed. So I left and did my best never to think of her again. 

“That summer and autumn were havoc for my parents. Once word got around about what happened - keeping in mind how rumors take on lives of their own and often the facts are forgotten for pure speculation - the Smials were ready to erupt. Half the Tooks wanted Ami immediately reinstated to the family, the other half were convinced my parents had done the right thing, and there was constant squabbling over the matter. Finally, my parents had to remind everyone that no one should even be speaking her name, much less about the situation. By that point, everyone was happy to let the matter drop and move on, as much as they could.

“That is when the supposed Feud began between my mother and the Whitwells. I suppose it was a feud in a way, especially in those first years following Ami’s banishment. They never shirked their responsibilities to the family or Father, and when Father became ill, they returned to Tuckborough, ending their own self-imposed exile. They resumed their summer visits and gave my mother a wide berth, which she was happy to return. They were always cordial to her, as was everyone else. Then when Paladin took over the running of Whitwell, Clematis and Adalgrim retired to Great Smials.”

Ferumbras was quiet for a moment, wrestling with the various thoughts warring in his mind, before gathering his thoughts again and continuing. “Folk will see things as they want to though, and with Mother passing as she did, with young Pearl at hand, it stirred up all the old rumors. Folk are now saying that the Whitwells have been strategically taking over Mother’s role for decades. The Aunts, of course, are the Authorities of Manners and Politeness in the Smials. Even Mother would find herself listening to their edicts. Perhaps she felt she owed them that much. 

“Paladin eventually married Eglantine Banks, as you know. They had the wedding in Pincup, a private ceremony for just their immediate families, and everyone knew that was so that She could attend. So the Aunts became Authorities, and Pally would eventually gain the Thainship, which would then pass to his son, if he should have one. The conspirators quietened after his third daughter, but then of course they did have a son, and Pally went and named him Peregrin.” Ferumbras’s grin was grim. “Mother never thought to forbid that name and it was always a thorn in her side. She insisted they add the I to his name, so that he became Peregrin I. This of course was to prevent anyone from making the mistake that Pippin could possibly be named after Him.”

“Why would he do that? Just to upset your mother?”

“That’s no doubt what she thought, though of course, she wasn’t allowed to speak of it. I think that over the years, he came to respect Nettleburr. There was never any doubt that the Whitwells’ many holidays in Pincup were covers for their visits to Nohill. As Pincup is not part of the Tooklands, the banishment did not extend there, and Mother couldn’t forbid them from visiting there. There was contention between them at first, Pally and Perry that is, but as the years went on, they grew as close as brothers. Eventually, all the Whitwells were able to see in Nettleburr what Ami had seen from the start.

“Then Esmeralda married Saradoc Brandybuck, and there were some who claimed that was only so she could be Lady in Buckland, while her brother would be Thain and Took someday in Tookland. That of course was preposterous. The Brandybucks of course have some kin in Pincup as well, and their visits often coincided. It was never anything more sinister than that.

“And... you never married...” Twitch left it as a statement of fact. He didn’t expect the Thain to explain, though Twitch thought he could guess at the reason now. The popular theory about why Ferumbras had remained a bachelor all these years was because of Lalia. No one had wanted to be her daughter-in-law, but he suspected now that the Thain had more to do with it than had previously been speculated.

“No, I didn’t. Marcho did though. He married his Rosalie and they have six children, including a daughter named Amaryllis.” Ferumbras moved towards the carriage, picking up the picnic basket as he went. It was time to go. 

Ferumbras let himself into the carriage and let his thoughts swirl as Twitch moved around outside, readying to leave. Chrysanthemum Grubb had been understandably hesitant about marriage after what Lalia did to Ami, but she had declared herself willing to marry him nonetheless, so long as she didn’t have to live in the Smials. Ferumbras might have agreed, but he knew that distance would not be enough to keep his mother away, and after the betrayal she imagined Ami to have dealt her, she was never the same person. She would wait for any little slight, real or imagined, and then she would latch out. Ferumbras simply couldn’t put Chrysanthemum through that. He had called off the engagement with great regrets and Chrysanthemum eventually married a Boffin from Stock. They had six children now and were as happy as could be.

Ferumbras never tried to find another wife after that. He became close friends with Heather, and while they enjoyed the occasional tryst together, neither of them wanted more than that, at least, not while Lalia had been alive. And now, well, surely they were too old be getting married and having honeymoons. Their trysts had been another reason for moving into his own apartment. Heather could come to him there when the mood struck to spend a few hours in his company before slipping away again, rather than having to plan ahead of time where and when to meet and risk someone overhearing their plans. He thought perhaps Amber knew of their arrangement, but they never spoke of it. If Lalia had also known, she never gave any indication.

He opened the curtain and looked out the window. When he felt Twitch climb up to the driver’s seat, he knocked on the roof. 

“Aye sir?” Twitch called through the opening.

“Go two miles down the road then turn east through the fields. It may take a while, but you will eventually see the hamlet,” Ferumbras directed.

“Yes sir,” Twitch said. A moment later, the reins snapped and they were on their way.

Ferumbras looked out the window at the grasslands passing to the east. The land appeared little changed over the years. Other than the tree they had eaten beneath, there were no other trees or even bushes to be spied. The fields still bloomed with jonquil and lupine, and flitting from flower to flower were butterflies, moths, bees and dragonflies. The air even hummed with their quiet buzzing, and overhead the midday sun shined bright and hot.

Two miles later, they turned off the road and Ferumbras moved to the opposite seat. He unbuttoned the flap and opened the little window. It was located below the driver’s seat and just over the heads of the ponies, a small sliver through which he could see the fields in front of him, both eager and terrified now that they were so close to their destination. 

He remembered back to that fateful day so many years before when Sprig brought him here. They had snuck away from the Smials and walked through the night over the hills to reach the plains before dawn. As there were no trees or brush to hide behind, they used instead the cover of darkness. They had come as close to the hamlet as they dared, crouching low to avoid detection, and what Ferumbras saw had done little to impress him. Indeed, he remembered shaking as he walked home, which he couldn’t get back to fast enough. 

Back then the settlement would have fit nicely into the Tuckborough marketplace. What buildings there were had been little more than four walls and a roof, so poorly made that the inhabitants lived in pits in the ground. What hobbits he had seen were clothed in what he would consider rags and looked as though they hadn’t bathed since the last rainstorm. They scraped together a living by hunting and foraging. They attempted to trade from time to time, traveling to Pincup with what few goods they had to seek the best bargain they could come by. Hard coin was something few of them had ever held in their hands, and they wouldn’t know what to do with a penny-piece if they came across one. They fed themselves from their own gardens and livestock, and went without the comforts of chairs, tables and beds. 

Ferumbras remembered asking his father why anyone would want to live in such a manner and had been just as shocked by the answer. “There are those in Tuckborough who live in such a way,” Fortinbras had told him. “Not all hobbits are as fortunate as we are.”

Lalia had her own bit of wisdom to add to this. “Oh posh,” she had said with a sniff. “All the Shire started in such a manner, and if they haven’t managed to pick themselves up after all these years, they’ve only themselves to blame.” That was the last any of them spoke of the hamlet below Pincup.

Ferumbras could not exactly deny his mother’s statement but still, after all these years, he shuddered to think of those settlers of the Fell Winter, many still in their teens and tweens, leaving behind their homes and kin to travel to remote areas of the Shire and start anew with whatever resources they could find. Such hobbits and their descendants were not to be pitied or disdained, for they were brave in a way Ferumbras doubted he could ever be. 

The carriage was nearly to the hamlet now and the Thain was surprised at what he saw. Heather had told him, of course, but he had never been able to fully appreciate it until now. A line of houses emerged over the horizon and the town began to take shape. It looked so much like any other town that he thought at first they were in the wrong place. 

The shacks and rudimentary holes had been replaced with proper homes of wood and stone. None were of a great size, but they were quaint, elegant even, and built to perfection. From the outside, the homes had everything one would expect, from walk paths, porches and window boxes. There were flourishing gardens and pens for the livestock. The roofs were of sod and green grass. A tannery stood near the edge of the main square and seemed a busy place. There were a half-dozen hobbits there busy at work. Around the tannery were a spinner, a weaver, a tailor and a seamer. Three communal ovens sat on the square opposite, and in the middle of the square were several tables and benches where children were sitting to their studies. 

The sun was an hour past noon and the townshobbits, sharply dressed, were going about their business. Only a few noticed the approaching carriage at first. They tipped their hats or waved as the carriage went past, smiles on their tanned faces. Then someone pointed at the symbol on the door, the emblem of the Tooks, and made a shout. The word spread quickly after that, with hobbits poking their heads out of windows and doorways. A few started to gather in the square, curious to see who this visitor was.

Ferumbras knocked on the roof and when the carriage came to a stop, he did not wait for Twitch to dismount. The Thain opened the door and stepped outside into a quickly-gathering crowd.

“Good afternoon,” Ferumbras greeted pleasantly. He removed his hat and bowed. 

Twitch climbed down from his seat and looked about with some confusion. No doubt, he had been expecting some derelict place. So had Ferumbras, despite the faith he had in Ami’s abilities and Heather’s reports. The work that had been done here in the last four decades was truly astounding. 

“Good afternoon,” said one villager, an older lass with a confused look on her round face. No doubt they had been expecting a familiar face, one of Ami’s siblings perhaps. “Can we help you, sir?”

“Yes, I do hope that you can,” Ferumbras said. “I am Thain Ferumbras Took and I am looking for Master and Mistress Nettleburr. It is a matter of grave importance. Could any of you by chance point me in their direction?”

There was some excited murmuring at the word Thain but it seemed they were too busy conveying this information to everyone else that they forgot to answer his question. Then one young lad close to his coming of age stepped out of the crowd. His dark auburn hair framed a round face with bright green eyes. He was only slightly slimmer than the rest of the hobbits there, though just as brown. “What do you want with them?” he asked.

“It is a private matter,” Ferumbras stated, looking the lad up and down. “You’re her son, aren’t you?”

The lad nodded and bowed. “Cort Nettleburr, at your service.”

“Ferumbras Took, at the service of you and your family,” Ferumbras said, bowing back.

“I know about you,” Cort said and for a moment Ferumbras thought the lad might refuse to help. He examined the Thain carefully, then shrugged. Whatever was going on here, it was for his parents to decide if they wished to speak with this fellow. “I’ll take you there,” he offered.

“I’m much obliged,” Ferumbras said and turned to Twitch. “Unhitch the ponies and set them to grazing in the plains, if that’s all right?” He looked at the lad.

“There’s a corral the other side of town,” Cort said.

A young lass stepped forward. “I can take him there, then bring him to Perry’s,” she offered and waited for Cort’s nod. She grinned up at Twitch, her brown eyes flitting from him, to the carriage, to the ponies and back again. 

Cort gestured to Ferumbras. “It’s just this way.”

Twitch helped the lass onto the carriage seat while Ferumbras followed Cort. There were narrow lanes between the houses and gardens, and down one lane, he could see a row of small roofed stables, pens and nurseries for the livestock. In the town center, a large fire pit was dug next to the communal ovens. Ferumbras imagined the townsfolk would gather there for holidays and special occasions. One of the ovens was currently lit, and the smells of baking bread and pies filled the air, making his mouth water.

“The village has changed much since I last saw it,” Ferumbras said, making small talk.

“So I hear,” Cort said, amiably. “I remember there always seemed to be something getting built when I was younger, but I really only remember it looking as it does now.”

“Your parents have done a fine job of making a town here,” Ferumbras said. “It’s not an easy thing to do.”

Cort shrugged. “They did what they had to do. The folk in Pincup are a great help to us, as are my mother’s kin.” There was an odd note in his voice on that last word. No doubt the lad was wondering why Ferumbras was here.

“Yes, I’m aware of that,” Ferumbras said, wondering just how much the lad knew about what happened all those years ago. Had Ami told her children, or did Cort only recognize Ferumbras’s name from hearing it mentioned in casual conversation? “Are you there eldest?”

Cort nodded. “I’ve two younger brothers and a little sister, though she’s not so little anymore. They’re at their studies right now. I was just coming from sending a message to the Bankses about the harvest. We’re planning the feast, see.” 

They turned down a short lane, at the end of which stood a house somewhat larger than the others they had passed. The house was made of both wood and stone, with sod covering the sides and roof, and smoke billowed out from a chimney at the center. A blue round door with a knocker was set between an herb garden and vegetable garden, and tidy window-boxes blooming with marigolds and pansies hung under every round window. Cort opened the door and led the way inside. 

“If you’ll have a seat, sir, I’ll go fetch my folks,” he said. He disappeared through a doorway, leaving the Thain alone.

Ferumbras looked around the parlor. There were a pair of settees in the center, lit by the sunlight glowing through the windows, and a pair of rocking chairs sat on either side of the hearth. A basket of yarn sat next to one chair, a stack of books near the other. The hearth itself was lined with rocks and was double-sided to heat both the parlor and the room - a dining room - behind it. There was a tea table, elegant but practical; it had sections beneath the table top for storing cups, plates, a pipeweed box and napkins. It was a unique and innovative design, and Ferumbras had no doubt that Ami had made it herself, as she likely made most of the furniture here. Just off the parlor was a small study, and through the doorway, a hall led to the back of the house, where Ferumbras assumed the chambers, kitchen and pantry would be. 

Ferumbras occupied himself looking at the portraits that hung around the mantle. There was one of Ami and Perry, just after they were married, then a few years later with wee Cort in Ami’s arms. The portraits showed the expansion of the family as each child was born, a lad, another lad, and finally a lass. The final portrait looked to have been done a few years prior. The children were grown and growing. The middle lads resembled their father, and the lass looked like a younger version of her mother, though with her father’s honey-colored eyes. With that red hair and those eyes, she was likely to be the Darling of Nohill. Her smile even revealed her mother’s dimples. 

Ferumbras heard movement behind him. He turned to find Perry Nettleburr himself entering the parlor. He was dressed for a day of rest at home in a well-fitting shirt, waistcoat and breeches. His frame was still compact, if a little softer in the middle, and he had a bounce in his step and a sparkle in his eyes. He stopped in the middle of the room, a few paces from Ferumbras. He hesitated, only a brief moment, before sticking out his hand for a shake.  

“Ferumbras, wasn’t it?” Perry asked, pleasant but wary. “How might I help ye?”

“Good afternoon, Master Nettleburr,” Ferumbras said, taking his hand for a brief shake. “I apologize for intruding upon you unannounced. Might you have a few minutes with which to speak?”

“I might,” Perry said, a hint of a smirk on his lips. “Which minutes were ye wanting?” If Ferumbras had needed any further proof Nettleburr had been married to a Took for nearly forty years, that was it.

“The next five, if it’s not a bother,” Ferumbras replied smoothly.

“Certainly.” Perry moved to one of the settees and Ferumbras settled himself on the other. 

They observed each other in silence for several moments, noting the differences, the misremembered features, the surprising smallness of the other. After so many years existing only as a memory, the reality of the fellow sitting opposite them was somewhat disappointing. 

“I’m surprised to see ye here,” Perry said at length, breaking the silence. It was clearly his invitation for Ferumbras to begin explaining himself.

“I imagine you would be,” Ferumbras said, trying not to fidget under that assessing gaze.

“Didn’t think on ye ever showing up here again. At least ye made it into town this time,” Perry said. “So how can I help ye, Ferumbras?”

“That will be Thain Ferumbras to you, dear,” said Ami, coming into the parlor from the hall. She was tucking her silver-streaked auburn hair into a tight bun. Her dress was lilac and fringed with white lace. She looked down to inspect herself, found a telltale puff of flour and batted it away. She smiled warmly, her cheeks dimpling.

“Darling,” Ferumbras said, rising from his seat and bowing, somewhat unsteadily. His voice was hoarse and shaky when he spoke, which he hoped neither noticed. He straightened up, wrung his hands on his hat and looked at her again. Her face was lined with soft wrinkles and a few, more distinctive, lines across her forehead. Her fingers were stained with berry juice from her earlier activities and she was plump with happiness and a life well-lived. 

“And I’m no Darling, Rumbi,” Ami corrected kindly. “No one’s called me that in years. It’s Ami now. Please, do take your seat again. Cort will be out shortly with some tea, and he’ll see to your lad as well.”

She sat in the chair opposite her husband and they both commenced to look at Ferumbras expectantly.

Ferumbras sat again and looked over his host and hostess. He could still see the young hobbits they once had been, especially Ami. For years, he’d only had his memories of her as he had last seen her. It had been the day he was setting out for his hunting trip with Adelgard. She had come to wish him luck, just a simple passing thing. There had been a spring in her step and a hope in her eyes he hadn’t understood at the time. She had been in a hurry to get out for her daily walk along the hills and had barely stayed a minute to give her best wishes. Something in that brief but distracted encounter had bothered him. He knew, without knowing, that he had lost her as more than a wife, and when he returned, he discovered that everyone had lost her.

His throat clenched around that memory and he had to clear it in order to speak, though words failed him at the moment. He realized this would be far harder than he had hoped, and he wondered again for the thousandth time what might have been if things had gone differently, if Nettleburr hadn’t attended that Free Fair. 

“Are you all right, Rumbi?” Ami asked.

Ferumbras nodded and forced all the what-ifs and could-have-beens from his mind. “I don’t know if you heard that Mother died a week ago.”

“Oh, Rumbi, I’m so sorry,” Ami said. “We hadn’t heard. Did she go peacefully?”

Ferumbras choked back a laugh. “Mother never did anything peacefully.” 

Cort entered then, carrying a tray of tea, honey, sliced apples and strawberries. He set this on the table and bowed, then went outside, presumably to look for Twitch and bring him to the house. Ami withdrew cups, plates and spoons from beneath the table. Once they each had their tea and plates of fruit, Perry returned his gaze to his guest.

“I’m sorry to hear about yer mum,” he said and to his credit, he was sincere. “This past week must have been difficult for ye.”

“It’s been hectic, to say the least,” Ferumbras said.

Ami set her tea down. “It seems an odd time for a visit,” she said. “You’d be the Took now. They need you at home, surely.” 

“It wasn’t an easy decision to come,” Ferumbras said, “but I believe this is the only way to help Pearl.”

“What’s happened to Pearl?” Ami asked, alarmed. “Is she hurt?”

“No, no, of course not. At least, not in the way you’re thinking,” Ferumbras assured. He took a sip of his tea to wet his throat and then launched into the whole story of the last week, from the accident to the rumors to his decision to come here. “It’s not so much about Pearl, but the Whitwells in general, because of what happened to you. No one ever forgot what happened, or why. There was no feud as some think, but there was strain, a great deal of it. Some folk believe that your family has been trying to usurp Mother for years. They are convinced this is all a conspiracy, a final act of vengeance against Mother. I thought if I could persuade you to return to Tuckborough, that it would alleviate the hostilities.”

“So I’m permitted back in my homeland?” Ami asked.

“You are to be fully reinstated, along with all monies due to you,” Ferumbras said. “I never wanted you banished, Darling.”

“I know,” Ami said. “But maybe you were glad for it.”

Ferumbras paused, a hesitation they all noticed. “You were simply following your heart,” he said. “I cannot blame you for that, and it led you right. You’ve done wonders here, and now that you’re a Took again, Nohill can be a town in its own right.”

Ami shook her head. “Only if everyone agrees to make it so. We like our little community as it is. Put it on a map, and who knows what will happen.”

Perry put down his empty plate. “It may be the boost we need,” he said. “We get a few new settlers every year or so, mostly from Pincup but also from the Woody End or thereabouts. If we’re a proper town, we could get more crafthobbits here and wouldn’t have to rely on Pincup as much.”

“The folk of Pincup have been good to us,” Ami said. “We don’t want to break all ties. We have a good trade set up with them, which is beneficial to all of us. It will take some discussing, and we should include the Bankses if we’re to decide anything. We could be sister towns, as Hobbiton and Bywater are.”

She considered Ferumbras. “As for Tuckborough, I’m sorry to hear about your troubles. I know it was hard for my family, after I left. It was hard for me too. I think I cried nearly every night that first month. It wasn’t how I had imagined my honeymoon.” She paused, shook her head. She seemed to be weighing her words, deciding what to say or not say, what to reveal and what to hold back, at least for now. “I’m sorry about Chrysanthemum. I know that couldn’t have been an easy decision for you to make, and I fear what happened to me may have been the cause of it. I always seem to hurt you somehow.”

“It was for the best,” Ferumbras said. “I don’t blame you. I’m glad beyond words that all your plans were carried out. The town looks magnificent.”

“It was a lot of hard work. I laugh sometimes at myself, thinking all this could be accomplished in a year. It took much longer than that of course. Wren was a faunt when we finished the last of our original plans. We’ve built a few things since then, and there’s plans now for a proper inn and a post station.”

“I’ve no doubt you’ll get it done,” Ferumbras said. “And I really don’t blame you. Mother was the one who overreacted.”

Perry grunted and Ami smirked. “Perhaps she did, just a little,” she said.

Ferumbras huffed a laugh. “That was her specialty. For the record, I think your banishment had more to do with the fact that Father and I lied to protect you, which makes it just as much our fault as hers. We didn’t trust her and that hurt her. It shouldn’t have happened.”

“Thank you.”

“So will you? Come home?”

“This is my home, and I think if I were to show up in the Smials now, it will only add to your troubles.” Ami poured herself more tea. “It will be confirmation for the conspirators, and I really don’t want to be the center of anymore controversy. Nor is my returning to Tuckborough the only solution. You are the Took now, Rumbi. It’s time you start acting like one. Token gestures are all well and good, but you must speak up if you know Pearl is innocent of any malicious intent, otherwise it appears half-hearted. Let them know that you stand by Pearl unequivocally and all this nonsense will end faster than you can blink. Once things settle down and enough time has passed, you can revoke my banishment officially. Then marry Heather and make an honest lass of her.”

“What?” Ferumbras had the odd sensation of feeling his face drain of color only to flush red hot a half-moment later.

“Don’t worry. She would never write anything in a letter as scandalous as that, but the way she talks about you, it’s quite obvious to anyone paying attention. You both deserve your happiness. Take it while you can.”

Ferumbras nodded tightly. “Anything else?” he asked, a smile tugging on the corners of his mouth. 

“I believe that should be all,” Ami said. “We’ll come visit for Yule. How’s that?”

“It will be wonderful to have you in the Smials again, you and your family. I look forward to it.”

“Good,” Perry said. “Then it’s decided. Will ye be staying the night?”

“No. We should get back before the day is out. I want to get this issue with Pearl resolved as soon as possible,” Ferumbras said. 

“Would ye care for a look around afore ye go?” Perry asked.

“I would be delighted.”

“Excellent,” Ami said, getting to her feet. Ferumbras and Perry stood also. “You lads go and do that, and I’ll get back to my cooking.” She hugged Ferumbras and pecked his cheek, just as she used to all those years before. “Come see me before you leave. I have something for you.”

“Of course,” Ferumbras said and followed Perry outside.

Perry proved to be a proper guide, showing Ferumbras around his community with great pride. Ferumbras admitted that Perry had much to be proud of. As Ferumbras was led around, he began to see that the entire town was set up as one enormous home, much as the Great Smials. Each family had their individuals homes, but everything else was shared: ovens, barns, nurseries, sheds, wells. The earliest homes they had built were now used as bathing houses and guest houses. As their expertise and efficiency improved, they had started to build proper homes, each built to accommodate the family that would live there but none more fancy than another. They had converted the old shacks into coops or pens for the animals, and the pits in the earth had been converted into cellars. 

The town often shared meals together in the meeting square around the fire pit and ovens. Each family had their assigned tasks that they completed to ensure everything in the community continued to run smoothly, and they had set up an apprenticeship program with Pincup and Willowbottom. Their numbers were growing; they counted over a hundred citizens now and over thirty families. Their livestock had expanded from sheep, chicken, pigs and cows to include geese, ducks, goats and even oxen. The animals had all been tended by Perry their first years in the community. They seemed to share some unique kinship with him and trusted his gentle, steady manner. Crops had been added to supplement the gardens and trees had been planted around town to offer shade. There were tanners, seamstresses, carpenters and even a healer. 

They finished the tour and returned to Nettleburr’s house. Perry led Ferumbras in through the kitchen door. Ami and a young lass of about twenty were putting the finishing touches on a goose to be baked for dinner. 

“Rumbi, this is my youngest daughter, Wren. Wren, this is my good friend and cousin, Ferumbras Took.”

Wren quickly wiped her hands on her apron and offered one for a shake. Ferumbras grasped it and smiled. Wren looked even more like her mother in person than she had in the portrait. Her honey-colored eyes caught the sunlight, making them glow. She smiled, cheeks dimpling. “Pleased to meet you, Ferumbras.”

“It is an honor to meet you Miss Wren.” Ferumbras bowed. “You have two other brothers, I believe?”

Wren nodded. “Morton and Adan, but their off fishing just now,” she said. “Are you leaving already then? I’m making apple crumble. It’s Aunty Esme’s receipt.”

“I do love Esme’s apple crumble, but I really must be going. I just need to find my driver.”

“Twitch, was it?” Ami asked. “He’ll be Sprig’s youngest.”


Ami motioned towards the parlor. “He’s eaten already. He’s keeping Cort company.” She moved towards the hall. They entered the parlor, where Cort was looking over a schematic that Cort was studying. It looked to be plans for the inn Ami had mentioned earlier. Ami led Rumbi into the study.

“I had something for you,” she said, searching around the little room cramped with desk, tomes and scrolls. “I meant to send it as a wedding gift, but then I heard the wedding was canceled. I’ve been holding onto it, dithering about what to do with it. If you don’t want it, I’ll save it for Cort’s wedding, whenever he marries.”

Ferumbras waited in the doorway while she rooted around, found a stool amd stood up on it to retrieve a wrapped parcel from the top of the bookcase. She removed the wrapping to shake off the dust before handing the frame to him. He looked down at the watercolor of the Green Hill Country in spring. A couple stood under a tree in the top right corner of the frame. The couple could be any pair, their faces indistinguishable. 

“It’s beautiful. Thank you.” He handed it back. “If Heather agrees to marry me, you can give it to us then. If not, then save it for your son.”

“Why wouldn’t Heather marry you?”

“My first two engagements didn’t end so well,” Ferumbras pointed out.

Ami grinned. “Third time pays for all, or so they say.” She wrapped the painting again and put it back on top of the case.

She led him into the parlor to retrieve his driver then she, Cort, and Wren led them outside, where Perry was dismounting from the carriage, having retrieved it from the corral. Ferumbras took Ami’s hand.

“I was right about you,” he said.

Ami cocked an eyebrow. “How so?” she asked.

“You make a fine Lady.” He raised her hand to his lips and kissed it gently before letting it go. “We look forward to seeing you in the Tooklands again, Darling, you and your family.”

“Good luck, and let me know how everything turns out.”

“I’ll send you word,” he promised.

Twitch opened the carriage door and saw the Thain inside. He closed the door, turned to Ami and Perry and bowed before climbing up to the driver’s seat.

“Twitch,” Ami said as he straightened the reins. “Tell your father hello for me, and that I wish him every happiness.”

“I will, Mistress,” Twitch said. He clicked the reins and guided the ponies in a wide loop around the fire pit, back towards Tuckborough. He waved as he passed by again, and then there were headed for home.

The going was faster than the coming. Twitch took them over the hills, in as nearly direct a line for Tuckborough as he could manage, bringing them to the Smials’s stables just after sunset with an hour to spare before dinner. Ferumbras thanked him for his service and headed for the Smials, his shoulders set and head high.

At dinner that night, Ferumbras waited until his relations were well sated and filling in the corners before he stood and clicked on his glass. When he had their attention, he called Pearl, Paladin and Eglantine to join him at the head table. He turned to Pearl and put an arm around her shoulders.

“I want to formally apologize to you, Pearl, for all that you’ve had to endure this last week, and by the tongues of your relations no less who should know better. I’ve no doubt in my mind that you did everything you could to save my mother. I’ve no doubt that it was nothing more than a horrible accident, as I know I have warned my mother about that chair for many a year.” He looked out over the hall. “I will not tolerate anyone saying otherwise and slandering Pearl’s good name. She is fully exonerated of any wrongdoing.” He looked back at Pearl, who had tears standing in her eyes. “Hold your head high, lass. No longer shall you be burdened unjustly.”

Pearl stared up at him in wide-eyed surprise but she nodded and straightened her shoulders. Paladin and Eglantine shook his hands, gratitude clear in their eyes. 

“Come see me after dinner,” Ferumbras whispered in Paladin’s ear as he leaned in for a quick hug. “Bring your sisters.”

Paladin nodded and took his wife and daughter back to their seats.

“Everyone, please return to your meal,” Ferumbras concluded and retook his seat. 

The dining hall broke into excited chatter, everyone now exclaiming how they knew Pearl was innocent all along. Several of Pearl’s cousins and friends went over to hug her and were soon dragging her away for some after-dinner play. Ferumbras smiled to himself; he hadn’t quite believed it would be that easy, and he knew there were some that still had their doubts, but they would keep those doubts to themselves from now on and Pearl won’t have to hide from her family anymore. 

Two hours later, Ferumbras was standing in his study, staring out the window overlooking his garden, when a knock sounded.

“Come in.”

The door opened and the Whitwells entered: Paladin and Eglantine, Esmeralda and Saradoc, Amber and Arlo, and lastly Heather. “You wanted to see us?” Amber said.

“I did. I went this morning to Nohill.” Ferumbras paused as he let that statement sink in. “I reinstated Darling to the Took clan and lifted her ban. I would have announced it tonight, only she felt it might cause more problems than it would solve at the moment, and I agree. I think it best to let things settle for a few months. I’ll announce it at Harvest, and she plans to visit at Yule. I thought you would like to know.”

Tears formed in the lasses eyes and even Paladin appeared choked up. They thanked him and hugged him and after he briefly detailed his trip to Nohill, they stood to take their leave.

“Heather, will you stay a moment?”

“Of course,” Heather said and closed the door behind her family. She leaned against the door, watching Ferumbras closely. “You can’t have anything vigorous in mind. You look ready to drop.”

Ferumbras laughed in acknowledgement of that statement. He wouldn’t be keeping his eyes open much longer, that was certain. “I wondered how you would feel about getting married.”

Heather’s eyes glinted with mischief. “That depends. To whom?”

“There’s this old chap I know who happens to care quite deeply for you,” Ferumbras said. “I would be honored if you’d be my wife.”

Heather stepped away from the door and came to stand in front on him. She took his hand in hers. “And I’d be honored to call you husband.”

“How do you feel about a Yule wedding?”

“I think that can be arranged.”

They kissed again, the future once again bright and new.

The End

GF 10/16/11

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