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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
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!
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.”
“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.
“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...
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