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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…
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