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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?”
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.”
“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?”
“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...
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