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Epilogue - Amends
“And did she? Banish her?” Twitch asked, though the answer was obvious. He had never heard the name Amaryllis Took before today, never knew the Whitwells had a fourth daughter, never knew his father had ever loved another before his mother. Amaryllis Took, the one-time Darling of the Tooks, had been erased from the Family Trees and sent to the borders of the Tooklands never to return.
Ferumbras nodded. “Father did try to reason with Mother. He suggested that Ami merely be cut off the Took money and not be allowed in Great Smials, which was hard for him. Yes, he did agree that Darling was acting selfishly and he wasn’t comfortable with the union, but he did trust Adalgrim to make the right decision regarding his daughter. And that was the trouble, the old argument between him and Mother. He listened to the advice of the First Cousins more than he did to her, and I think in her mind, Ami became a symbol of that. In the end, for once in their marriage, he agreed with her and permitted her to banish Ami.
“From what I heard, Ami didn’t wait for the final verdict. She gathered her things, said her good-byes and left with Perry to Nohill while Father and Mother were still squabbling over terms. The Whitwells tried to stop her, to at least make her wait to see if Father could reason with Mother, but she’d have none of it. Clematis was distraught, naturally. They had clung to the hope of being able to bring Ami home at some point, if need be. Now it seemed they wouldn’t be able to do so. Perry was upset, naturally. First his grandfather was banished from his home for thievery, now Ami was banished from hers for nothing more than getting married to someone below her station. Was banishment to be the curse of Nohill? By the time Father agreed to consent to Mother, Ami was gone and the rest of the Whitwells were readying to make a hasty departure.
“I wonder sometimes if things would have been different, had Darling been allowed to go through with her original plan. Would the extra year have mattered? Would my mother’s pride have been as wounded, once I was already married and happy? What if we had been honest with her and included her in our plans rather than shut her out in her own home? I think in the end, that’s what hurt her most, that Father and I lied to her to protect Darling. Banishing Darling was as much our punishment as it was hers.”
“Why did Thain Fortinbras agree to it though? Everyone seemed to like him, from what I’ve heard,” Twitch said, trying to wrap his head around this. He’d heard stories of hobbits being banished from the Shire before, branded for their crimes, sent to the Bounds and refused reentry. These were hobbits who had done unspeakable things: theft, vandalism, even purposely endangering another. But to be banished for falling in love? Even if it was with the wrong person? At least Lalia had stopped before banning Miss Amaryllis from the Shire altogether. Still, to be banned from your homeland, your family and friends? Twitch shuddered just to think of it.
“I asked my father when I returned from my hunting trip and learned what happened. According to him, it was either Ami or my mother. She threatened to leave him, to actually break their marriage contract. It was simply too great a slight, and in the end, I think my father agreed simply because he agreed. He didn’t approve the marriage, regretted it even as he performed it. He wouldn’t have banished her without my mother’s prompting, but he agreed with it.
“The Whitwells returned to their farm, leaving a day early, and remained there for years. The Aunts - Amber and Heather - thought about moving out of the Smials for a time, but in the end they decided my mother should have to see them every day, as a reminder of what she had done to their sister. They went to Whitwell for their holidays though, and in the summers the whole Whitwell clan would holiday in Pincup, residing with the Banks family. Pincup became quite a popular destination for a fair number of Tooks after that year.
“I was furious when I heard, but to be honest, I was just as angry at Ami as I was everyone else. Did I want her banished? Most of the time, no, but there were moments when I was glad I wouldn’t have to see her again. I, along with nearly everyone else, simply couldn’t fathom what she saw in Perry Nettleburr. How was he better than me?
“My initial concern was that she had in some way been duped. I wanted to go to her and talk to her, to make sure this really was her decision. It took me three months to work up the nerve to ask your father to take me to her, and when I got to Nohill, I could do nothing more than look at it from afar, watching until I saw that fiery red head of hers emerge from the ground. I watched her move around that place, and my heart broke because I knew as impulsive as she was she never was one to be tricked into anything. She had made this choice, and she had agreed to the consequences of it for a lad that the rest of us wouldn’t have even noticed. So I left and did my best never to think of her again.
“That summer and autumn were havoc for my parents. Once word got around about what happened - keeping in mind how rumors take on lives of their own and often the facts are forgotten for pure speculation - the Smials were ready to erupt. Half the Tooks wanted Ami immediately reinstated to the family, the other half were convinced my parents had done the right thing, and there was constant squabbling over the matter. Finally, my parents had to remind everyone that no one should even be speaking her name, much less about the situation. By that point, everyone was happy to let the matter drop and move on, as much as they could.
“That is when the supposed Feud began between my mother and the Whitwells. I suppose it was a feud in a way, especially in those first years following Ami’s banishment. They never shirked their responsibilities to the family or Father, and when Father became ill, they returned to Tuckborough, ending their own self-imposed exile. They resumed their summer visits and gave my mother a wide berth, which she was happy to return. They were always cordial to her, as was everyone else. Then when Paladin took over the running of Whitwell, Clematis and Adalgrim retired to Great Smials.”
Ferumbras was quiet for a moment, wrestling with the various thoughts warring in his mind, before gathering his thoughts again and continuing. “Folk will see things as they want to though, and with Mother passing as she did, with young Pearl at hand, it stirred up all the old rumors. Folk are now saying that the Whitwells have been strategically taking over Mother’s role for decades. The Aunts, of course, are the Authorities of Manners and Politeness in the Smials. Even Mother would find herself listening to their edicts. Perhaps she felt she owed them that much.
“Paladin eventually married Eglantine Banks, as you know. They had the wedding in Pincup, a private ceremony for just their immediate families, and everyone knew that was so that She could attend. So the Aunts became Authorities, and Pally would eventually gain the Thainship, which would then pass to his son, if he should have one. The conspirators quietened after his third daughter, but then of course they did have a son, and Pally went and named him Peregrin.” Ferumbras’s grin was grim. “Mother never thought to forbid that name and it was always a thorn in her side. She insisted they add the I to his name, so that he became Peregrin I. This of course was to prevent anyone from making the mistake that Pippin could possibly be named after Him.”
“Why would he do that? Just to upset your mother?”
“That’s no doubt what she thought, though of course, she wasn’t allowed to speak of it. I think that over the years, he came to respect Nettleburr. There was never any doubt that the Whitwells’ many holidays in Pincup were covers for their visits to Nohill. As Pincup is not part of the Tooklands, the banishment did not extend there, and Mother couldn’t forbid them from visiting there. There was contention between them at first, Pally and Perry that is, but as the years went on, they grew as close as brothers. Eventually, all the Whitwells were able to see in Nettleburr what Ami had seen from the start.
“Then Esmeralda married Saradoc Brandybuck, and there were some who claimed that was only so she could be Lady in Buckland, while her brother would be Thain and Took someday in Tookland. That of course was preposterous. The Brandybucks of course have some kin in Pincup as well, and their visits often coincided. It was never anything more sinister than that.
“And... you never married...” Twitch left it as a statement of fact. He didn’t expect the Thain to explain, though Twitch thought he could guess at the reason now. The popular theory about why Ferumbras had remained a bachelor all these years was because of Lalia. No one had wanted to be her daughter-in-law, but he suspected now that the Thain had more to do with it than had previously been speculated.
“No, I didn’t. Marcho did though. He married his Rosalie and they have six children, including a daughter named Amaryllis.” Ferumbras moved towards the carriage, picking up the picnic basket as he went. It was time to go.
Ferumbras let himself into the carriage and let his thoughts swirl as Twitch moved around outside, readying to leave. Chrysanthemum Grubb had been understandably hesitant about marriage after what Lalia did to Ami, but she had declared herself willing to marry him nonetheless, so long as she didn’t have to live in the Smials. Ferumbras might have agreed, but he knew that distance would not be enough to keep his mother away, and after the betrayal she imagined Ami to have dealt her, she was never the same person. She would wait for any little slight, real or imagined, and then she would latch out. Ferumbras simply couldn’t put Chrysanthemum through that. He had called off the engagement with great regrets and Chrysanthemum eventually married a Boffin from Stock. They had six children now and were as happy as could be.
Ferumbras never tried to find another wife after that. He became close friends with Heather, and while they enjoyed the occasional tryst together, neither of them wanted more than that, at least, not while Lalia had been alive. And now, well, surely they were too old be getting married and having honeymoons. Their trysts had been another reason for moving into his own apartment. Heather could come to him there when the mood struck to spend a few hours in his company before slipping away again, rather than having to plan ahead of time where and when to meet and risk someone overhearing their plans. He thought perhaps Amber knew of their arrangement, but they never spoke of it. If Lalia had also known, she never gave any indication.
He opened the curtain and looked out the window. When he felt Twitch climb up to the driver’s seat, he knocked on the roof.
“Aye sir?” Twitch called through the opening.
“Go two miles down the road then turn east through the fields. It may take a while, but you will eventually see the hamlet,” Ferumbras directed.
“Yes sir,” Twitch said. A moment later, the reins snapped and they were on their way.
Ferumbras looked out the window at the grasslands passing to the east. The land appeared little changed over the years. Other than the tree they had eaten beneath, there were no other trees or even bushes to be spied. The fields still bloomed with jonquil and lupine, and flitting from flower to flower were butterflies, moths, bees and dragonflies. The air even hummed with their quiet buzzing, and overhead the midday sun shined bright and hot.
Two miles later, they turned off the road and Ferumbras moved to the opposite seat. He unbuttoned the flap and opened the little window. It was located below the driver’s seat and just over the heads of the ponies, a small sliver through which he could see the fields in front of him, both eager and terrified now that they were so close to their destination.
He remembered back to that fateful day so many years before when Sprig brought him here. They had snuck away from the Smials and walked through the night over the hills to reach the plains before dawn. As there were no trees or brush to hide behind, they used instead the cover of darkness. They had come as close to the hamlet as they dared, crouching low to avoid detection, and what Ferumbras saw had done little to impress him. Indeed, he remembered shaking as he walked home, which he couldn’t get back to fast enough.
Back then the settlement would have fit nicely into the Tuckborough marketplace. What buildings there were had been little more than four walls and a roof, so poorly made that the inhabitants lived in pits in the ground. What hobbits he had seen were clothed in what he would consider rags and looked as though they hadn’t bathed since the last rainstorm. They scraped together a living by hunting and foraging. They attempted to trade from time to time, traveling to Pincup with what few goods they had to seek the best bargain they could come by. Hard coin was something few of them had ever held in their hands, and they wouldn’t know what to do with a penny-piece if they came across one. They fed themselves from their own gardens and livestock, and went without the comforts of chairs, tables and beds.
Ferumbras remembered asking his father why anyone would want to live in such a manner and had been just as shocked by the answer. “There are those in Tuckborough who live in such a way,” Fortinbras had told him. “Not all hobbits are as fortunate as we are.”
Lalia had her own bit of wisdom to add to this. “Oh posh,” she had said with a sniff. “All the Shire started in such a manner, and if they haven’t managed to pick themselves up after all these years, they’ve only themselves to blame.” That was the last any of them spoke of the hamlet below Pincup.
Ferumbras could not exactly deny his mother’s statement but still, after all these years, he shuddered to think of those settlers of the Fell Winter, many still in their teens and tweens, leaving behind their homes and kin to travel to remote areas of the Shire and start anew with whatever resources they could find. Such hobbits and their descendants were not to be pitied or disdained, for they were brave in a way Ferumbras doubted he could ever be.
The carriage was nearly to the hamlet now and the Thain was surprised at what he saw. Heather had told him, of course, but he had never been able to fully appreciate it until now. A line of houses emerged over the horizon and the town began to take shape. It looked so much like any other town that he thought at first they were in the wrong place.
The shacks and rudimentary holes had been replaced with proper homes of wood and stone. None were of a great size, but they were quaint, elegant even, and built to perfection. From the outside, the homes had everything one would expect, from walk paths, porches and window boxes. There were flourishing gardens and pens for the livestock. The roofs were of sod and green grass. A tannery stood near the edge of the main square and seemed a busy place. There were a half-dozen hobbits there busy at work. Around the tannery were a spinner, a weaver, a tailor and a seamer. Three communal ovens sat on the square opposite, and in the middle of the square were several tables and benches where children were sitting to their studies.
The sun was an hour past noon and the townshobbits, sharply dressed, were going about their business. Only a few noticed the approaching carriage at first. They tipped their hats or waved as the carriage went past, smiles on their tanned faces. Then someone pointed at the symbol on the door, the emblem of the Tooks, and made a shout. The word spread quickly after that, with hobbits poking their heads out of windows and doorways. A few started to gather in the square, curious to see who this visitor was.
Ferumbras knocked on the roof and when the carriage came to a stop, he did not wait for Twitch to dismount. The Thain opened the door and stepped outside into a quickly-gathering crowd.
“Good afternoon,” Ferumbras greeted pleasantly. He removed his hat and bowed.
Twitch climbed down from his seat and looked about with some confusion. No doubt, he had been expecting some derelict place. So had Ferumbras, despite the faith he had in Ami’s abilities and Heather’s reports. The work that had been done here in the last four decades was truly astounding.
“Good afternoon,” said one villager, an older lass with a confused look on her round face. No doubt they had been expecting a familiar face, one of Ami’s siblings perhaps. “Can we help you, sir?”
“Yes, I do hope that you can,” Ferumbras said. “I am Thain Ferumbras Took and I am looking for Master and Mistress Nettleburr. It is a matter of grave importance. Could any of you by chance point me in their direction?”
There was some excited murmuring at the word Thain but it seemed they were too busy conveying this information to everyone else that they forgot to answer his question. Then one young lad close to his coming of age stepped out of the crowd. His dark auburn hair framed a round face with bright green eyes. He was only slightly slimmer than the rest of the hobbits there, though just as brown. “What do you want with them?” he asked.
“It is a private matter,” Ferumbras stated, looking the lad up and down. “You’re her son, aren’t you?”
The lad nodded and bowed. “Cort Nettleburr, at your service.”
“Ferumbras Took, at the service of you and your family,” Ferumbras said, bowing back.
“I know about you,” Cort said and for a moment Ferumbras thought the lad might refuse to help. He examined the Thain carefully, then shrugged. Whatever was going on here, it was for his parents to decide if they wished to speak with this fellow. “I’ll take you there,” he offered.
“I’m much obliged,” Ferumbras said and turned to Twitch. “Unhitch the ponies and set them to grazing in the plains, if that’s all right?” He looked at the lad.
“There’s a corral the other side of town,” Cort said.
A young lass stepped forward. “I can take him there, then bring him to Perry’s,” she offered and waited for Cort’s nod. She grinned up at Twitch, her brown eyes flitting from him, to the carriage, to the ponies and back again.
Cort gestured to Ferumbras. “It’s just this way.”
Twitch helped the lass onto the carriage seat while Ferumbras followed Cort. There were narrow lanes between the houses and gardens, and down one lane, he could see a row of small roofed stables, pens and nurseries for the livestock. In the town center, a large fire pit was dug next to the communal ovens. Ferumbras imagined the townsfolk would gather there for holidays and special occasions. One of the ovens was currently lit, and the smells of baking bread and pies filled the air, making his mouth water.
“The village has changed much since I last saw it,” Ferumbras said, making small talk.
“So I hear,” Cort said, amiably. “I remember there always seemed to be something getting built when I was younger, but I really only remember it looking as it does now.”
“Your parents have done a fine job of making a town here,” Ferumbras said. “It’s not an easy thing to do.”
Cort shrugged. “They did what they had to do. The folk in Pincup are a great help to us, as are my mother’s kin.” There was an odd note in his voice on that last word. No doubt the lad was wondering why Ferumbras was here.
“Yes, I’m aware of that,” Ferumbras said, wondering just how much the lad knew about what happened all those years ago. Had Ami told her children, or did Cort only recognize Ferumbras’s name from hearing it mentioned in casual conversation? “Are you there eldest?”
Cort nodded. “I’ve two younger brothers and a little sister, though she’s not so little anymore. They’re at their studies right now. I was just coming from sending a message to the Bankses about the harvest. We’re planning the feast, see.”
They turned down a short lane, at the end of which stood a house somewhat larger than the others they had passed. The house was made of both wood and stone, with sod covering the sides and roof, and smoke billowed out from a chimney at the center. A blue round door with a knocker was set between an herb garden and vegetable garden, and tidy window-boxes blooming with marigolds and pansies hung under every round window. Cort opened the door and led the way inside.
“If you’ll have a seat, sir, I’ll go fetch my folks,” he said. He disappeared through a doorway, leaving the Thain alone.
Ferumbras looked around the parlor. There were a pair of settees in the center, lit by the sunlight glowing through the windows, and a pair of rocking chairs sat on either side of the hearth. A basket of yarn sat next to one chair, a stack of books near the other. The hearth itself was lined with rocks and was double-sided to heat both the parlor and the room - a dining room - behind it. There was a tea table, elegant but practical; it had sections beneath the table top for storing cups, plates, a pipeweed box and napkins. It was a unique and innovative design, and Ferumbras had no doubt that Ami had made it herself, as she likely made most of the furniture here. Just off the parlor was a small study, and through the doorway, a hall led to the back of the house, where Ferumbras assumed the chambers, kitchen and pantry would be.
Ferumbras occupied himself looking at the portraits that hung around the mantle. There was one of Ami and Perry, just after they were married, then a few years later with wee Cort in Ami’s arms. The portraits showed the expansion of the family as each child was born, a lad, another lad, and finally a lass. The final portrait looked to have been done a few years prior. The children were grown and growing. The middle lads resembled their father, and the lass looked like a younger version of her mother, though with her father’s honey-colored eyes. With that red hair and those eyes, she was likely to be the Darling of Nohill. Her smile even revealed her mother’s dimples.
Ferumbras heard movement behind him. He turned to find Perry Nettleburr himself entering the parlor. He was dressed for a day of rest at home in a well-fitting shirt, waistcoat and breeches. His frame was still compact, if a little softer in the middle, and he had a bounce in his step and a sparkle in his eyes. He stopped in the middle of the room, a few paces from Ferumbras. He hesitated, only a brief moment, before sticking out his hand for a shake.
“Ferumbras, wasn’t it?” Perry asked, pleasant but wary. “How might I help ye?”
“Good afternoon, Master Nettleburr,” Ferumbras said, taking his hand for a brief shake. “I apologize for intruding upon you unannounced. Might you have a few minutes with which to speak?”
“I might,” Perry said, a hint of a smirk on his lips. “Which minutes were ye wanting?” If Ferumbras had needed any further proof Nettleburr had been married to a Took for nearly forty years, that was it.
“The next five, if it’s not a bother,” Ferumbras replied smoothly.
“Certainly.” Perry moved to one of the settees and Ferumbras settled himself on the other.
They observed each other in silence for several moments, noting the differences, the misremembered features, the surprising smallness of the other. After so many years existing only as a memory, the reality of the fellow sitting opposite them was somewhat disappointing.
“I’m surprised to see ye here,” Perry said at length, breaking the silence. It was clearly his invitation for Ferumbras to begin explaining himself.
“I imagine you would be,” Ferumbras said, trying not to fidget under that assessing gaze.
“Didn’t think on ye ever showing up here again. At least ye made it into town this time,” Perry said. “So how can I help ye, Ferumbras?”
“That will be Thain Ferumbras to you, dear,” said Ami, coming into the parlor from the hall. She was tucking her silver-streaked auburn hair into a tight bun. Her dress was lilac and fringed with white lace. She looked down to inspect herself, found a telltale puff of flour and batted it away. She smiled warmly, her cheeks dimpling.
“Darling,” Ferumbras said, rising from his seat and bowing, somewhat unsteadily. His voice was hoarse and shaky when he spoke, which he hoped neither noticed. He straightened up, wrung his hands on his hat and looked at her again. Her face was lined with soft wrinkles and a few, more distinctive, lines across her forehead. Her fingers were stained with berry juice from her earlier activities and she was plump with happiness and a life well-lived.
“And I’m no Darling, Rumbi,” Ami corrected kindly. “No one’s called me that in years. It’s Ami now. Please, do take your seat again. Cort will be out shortly with some tea, and he’ll see to your lad as well.”
She sat in the chair opposite her husband and they both commenced to look at Ferumbras expectantly.
Ferumbras sat again and looked over his host and hostess. He could still see the young hobbits they once had been, especially Ami. For years, he’d only had his memories of her as he had last seen her. It had been the day he was setting out for his hunting trip with Adelgard. She had come to wish him luck, just a simple passing thing. There had been a spring in her step and a hope in her eyes he hadn’t understood at the time. She had been in a hurry to get out for her daily walk along the hills and had barely stayed a minute to give her best wishes. Something in that brief but distracted encounter had bothered him. He knew, without knowing, that he had lost her as more than a wife, and when he returned, he discovered that everyone had lost her.
His throat clenched around that memory and he had to clear it in order to speak, though words failed him at the moment. He realized this would be far harder than he had hoped, and he wondered again for the thousandth time what might have been if things had gone differently, if Nettleburr hadn’t attended that Free Fair.
“Are you all right, Rumbi?” Ami asked.
Ferumbras nodded and forced all the what-ifs and could-have-beens from his mind. “I don’t know if you heard that Mother died a week ago.”
“Oh, Rumbi, I’m so sorry,” Ami said. “We hadn’t heard. Did she go peacefully?”
Ferumbras choked back a laugh. “Mother never did anything peacefully.”
Cort entered then, carrying a tray of tea, honey, sliced apples and strawberries. He set this on the table and bowed, then went outside, presumably to look for Twitch and bring him to the house. Ami withdrew cups, plates and spoons from beneath the table. Once they each had their tea and plates of fruit, Perry returned his gaze to his guest.
“I’m sorry to hear about yer mum,” he said and to his credit, he was sincere. “This past week must have been difficult for ye.”
“It’s been hectic, to say the least,” Ferumbras said.
Ami set her tea down. “It seems an odd time for a visit,” she said. “You’d be the Took now. They need you at home, surely.”
“It wasn’t an easy decision to come,” Ferumbras said, “but I believe this is the only way to help Pearl.”
“What’s happened to Pearl?” Ami asked, alarmed. “Is she hurt?”
“No, no, of course not. At least, not in the way you’re thinking,” Ferumbras assured. He took a sip of his tea to wet his throat and then launched into the whole story of the last week, from the accident to the rumors to his decision to come here. “It’s not so much about Pearl, but the Whitwells in general, because of what happened to you. No one ever forgot what happened, or why. There was no feud as some think, but there was strain, a great deal of it. Some folk believe that your family has been trying to usurp Mother for years. They are convinced this is all a conspiracy, a final act of vengeance against Mother. I thought if I could persuade you to return to Tuckborough, that it would alleviate the hostilities.”
“So I’m permitted back in my homeland?” Ami asked.
“You are to be fully reinstated, along with all monies due to you,” Ferumbras said. “I never wanted you banished, Darling.”
“I know,” Ami said. “But maybe you were glad for it.”
Ferumbras paused, a hesitation they all noticed. “You were simply following your heart,” he said. “I cannot blame you for that, and it led you right. You’ve done wonders here, and now that you’re a Took again, Nohill can be a town in its own right.”
Ami shook her head. “Only if everyone agrees to make it so. We like our little community as it is. Put it on a map, and who knows what will happen.”
Perry put down his empty plate. “It may be the boost we need,” he said. “We get a few new settlers every year or so, mostly from Pincup but also from the Woody End or thereabouts. If we’re a proper town, we could get more crafthobbits here and wouldn’t have to rely on Pincup as much.”
“The folk of Pincup have been good to us,” Ami said. “We don’t want to break all ties. We have a good trade set up with them, which is beneficial to all of us. It will take some discussing, and we should include the Bankses if we’re to decide anything. We could be sister towns, as Hobbiton and Bywater are.”
She considered Ferumbras. “As for Tuckborough, I’m sorry to hear about your troubles. I know it was hard for my family, after I left. It was hard for me too. I think I cried nearly every night that first month. It wasn’t how I had imagined my honeymoon.” She paused, shook her head. She seemed to be weighing her words, deciding what to say or not say, what to reveal and what to hold back, at least for now. “I’m sorry about Chrysanthemum. I know that couldn’t have been an easy decision for you to make, and I fear what happened to me may have been the cause of it. I always seem to hurt you somehow.”
“It was for the best,” Ferumbras said. “I don’t blame you. I’m glad beyond words that all your plans were carried out. The town looks magnificent.”
“It was a lot of hard work. I laugh sometimes at myself, thinking all this could be accomplished in a year. It took much longer than that of course. Wren was a faunt when we finished the last of our original plans. We’ve built a few things since then, and there’s plans now for a proper inn and a post station.”
“I’ve no doubt you’ll get it done,” Ferumbras said. “And I really don’t blame you. Mother was the one who overreacted.”
Perry grunted and Ami smirked. “Perhaps she did, just a little,” she said.
Ferumbras huffed a laugh. “That was her specialty. For the record, I think your banishment had more to do with the fact that Father and I lied to protect you, which makes it just as much our fault as hers. We didn’t trust her and that hurt her. It shouldn’t have happened.”
“So will you? Come home?”
“This is my home, and I think if I were to show up in the Smials now, it will only add to your troubles.” Ami poured herself more tea. “It will be confirmation for the conspirators, and I really don’t want to be the center of anymore controversy. Nor is my returning to Tuckborough the only solution. You are the Took now, Rumbi. It’s time you start acting like one. Token gestures are all well and good, but you must speak up if you know Pearl is innocent of any malicious intent, otherwise it appears half-hearted. Let them know that you stand by Pearl unequivocally and all this nonsense will end faster than you can blink. Once things settle down and enough time has passed, you can revoke my banishment officially. Then marry Heather and make an honest lass of her.”
“What?” Ferumbras had the odd sensation of feeling his face drain of color only to flush red hot a half-moment later.
“Don’t worry. She would never write anything in a letter as scandalous as that, but the way she talks about you, it’s quite obvious to anyone paying attention. You both deserve your happiness. Take it while you can.”
Ferumbras nodded tightly. “Anything else?” he asked, a smile tugging on the corners of his mouth.
“I believe that should be all,” Ami said. “We’ll come visit for Yule. How’s that?”
“It will be wonderful to have you in the Smials again, you and your family. I look forward to it.”
“Good,” Perry said. “Then it’s decided. Will ye be staying the night?”
“No. We should get back before the day is out. I want to get this issue with Pearl resolved as soon as possible,” Ferumbras said.
“Would ye care for a look around afore ye go?” Perry asked.
“I would be delighted.”
“Excellent,” Ami said, getting to her feet. Ferumbras and Perry stood also. “You lads go and do that, and I’ll get back to my cooking.” She hugged Ferumbras and pecked his cheek, just as she used to all those years before. “Come see me before you leave. I have something for you.”
“Of course,” Ferumbras said and followed Perry outside.
Perry proved to be a proper guide, showing Ferumbras around his community with great pride. Ferumbras admitted that Perry had much to be proud of. As Ferumbras was led around, he began to see that the entire town was set up as one enormous home, much as the Great Smials. Each family had their individuals homes, but everything else was shared: ovens, barns, nurseries, sheds, wells. The earliest homes they had built were now used as bathing houses and guest houses. As their expertise and efficiency improved, they had started to build proper homes, each built to accommodate the family that would live there but none more fancy than another. They had converted the old shacks into coops or pens for the animals, and the pits in the earth had been converted into cellars.
The town often shared meals together in the meeting square around the fire pit and ovens. Each family had their assigned tasks that they completed to ensure everything in the community continued to run smoothly, and they had set up an apprenticeship program with Pincup and Willowbottom. Their numbers were growing; they counted over a hundred citizens now and over thirty families. Their livestock had expanded from sheep, chicken, pigs and cows to include geese, ducks, goats and even oxen. The animals had all been tended by Perry their first years in the community. They seemed to share some unique kinship with him and trusted his gentle, steady manner. Crops had been added to supplement the gardens and trees had been planted around town to offer shade. There were tanners, seamstresses, carpenters and even a healer.
They finished the tour and returned to Nettleburr’s house. Perry led Ferumbras in through the kitchen door. Ami and a young lass of about twenty were putting the finishing touches on a goose to be baked for dinner.
“Rumbi, this is my youngest daughter, Wren. Wren, this is my good friend and cousin, Ferumbras Took.”
Wren quickly wiped her hands on her apron and offered one for a shake. Ferumbras grasped it and smiled. Wren looked even more like her mother in person than she had in the portrait. Her honey-colored eyes caught the sunlight, making them glow. She smiled, cheeks dimpling. “Pleased to meet you, Ferumbras.”
“It is an honor to meet you Miss Wren.” Ferumbras bowed. “You have two other brothers, I believe?”
Wren nodded. “Morton and Adan, but their off fishing just now,” she said. “Are you leaving already then? I’m making apple crumble. It’s Aunty Esme’s receipt.”
“I do love Esme’s apple crumble, but I really must be going. I just need to find my driver.”
“Twitch, was it?” Ami asked. “He’ll be Sprig’s youngest.”
Ami motioned towards the parlor. “He’s eaten already. He’s keeping Cort company.” She moved towards the hall. They entered the parlor, where Cort was looking over a schematic that Cort was studying. It looked to be plans for the inn Ami had mentioned earlier. Ami led Rumbi into the study.
“I had something for you,” she said, searching around the little room cramped with desk, tomes and scrolls. “I meant to send it as a wedding gift, but then I heard the wedding was canceled. I’ve been holding onto it, dithering about what to do with it. If you don’t want it, I’ll save it for Cort’s wedding, whenever he marries.”
Ferumbras waited in the doorway while she rooted around, found a stool amd stood up on it to retrieve a wrapped parcel from the top of the bookcase. She removed the wrapping to shake off the dust before handing the frame to him. He looked down at the watercolor of the Green Hill Country in spring. A couple stood under a tree in the top right corner of the frame. The couple could be any pair, their faces indistinguishable.
“It’s beautiful. Thank you.” He handed it back. “If Heather agrees to marry me, you can give it to us then. If not, then save it for your son.”
“Why wouldn’t Heather marry you?”
“My first two engagements didn’t end so well,” Ferumbras pointed out.
Ami grinned. “Third time pays for all, or so they say.” She wrapped the painting again and put it back on top of the case.
She led him into the parlor to retrieve his driver then she, Cort, and Wren led them outside, where Perry was dismounting from the carriage, having retrieved it from the corral. Ferumbras took Ami’s hand.
“I was right about you,” he said.
Ami cocked an eyebrow. “How so?” she asked.
“You make a fine Lady.” He raised her hand to his lips and kissed it gently before letting it go. “We look forward to seeing you in the Tooklands again, Darling, you and your family.”
“Good luck, and let me know how everything turns out.”
“I’ll send you word,” he promised.
Twitch opened the carriage door and saw the Thain inside. He closed the door, turned to Ami and Perry and bowed before climbing up to the driver’s seat.
“Twitch,” Ami said as he straightened the reins. “Tell your father hello for me, and that I wish him every happiness.”
“I will, Mistress,” Twitch said. He clicked the reins and guided the ponies in a wide loop around the fire pit, back towards Tuckborough. He waved as he passed by again, and then there were headed for home.
The going was faster than the coming. Twitch took them over the hills, in as nearly direct a line for Tuckborough as he could manage, bringing them to the Smials’s stables just after sunset with an hour to spare before dinner. Ferumbras thanked him for his service and headed for the Smials, his shoulders set and head high.
At dinner that night, Ferumbras waited until his relations were well sated and filling in the corners before he stood and clicked on his glass. When he had their attention, he called Pearl, Paladin and Eglantine to join him at the head table. He turned to Pearl and put an arm around her shoulders.
“I want to formally apologize to you, Pearl, for all that you’ve had to endure this last week, and by the tongues of your relations no less who should know better. I’ve no doubt in my mind that you did everything you could to save my mother. I’ve no doubt that it was nothing more than a horrible accident, as I know I have warned my mother about that chair for many a year.” He looked out over the hall. “I will not tolerate anyone saying otherwise and slandering Pearl’s good name. She is fully exonerated of any wrongdoing.” He looked back at Pearl, who had tears standing in her eyes. “Hold your head high, lass. No longer shall you be burdened unjustly.”
Pearl stared up at him in wide-eyed surprise but she nodded and straightened her shoulders. Paladin and Eglantine shook his hands, gratitude clear in their eyes.
“Come see me after dinner,” Ferumbras whispered in Paladin’s ear as he leaned in for a quick hug. “Bring your sisters.”
Paladin nodded and took his wife and daughter back to their seats.
“Everyone, please return to your meal,” Ferumbras concluded and retook his seat.
The dining hall broke into excited chatter, everyone now exclaiming how they knew Pearl was innocent all along. Several of Pearl’s cousins and friends went over to hug her and were soon dragging her away for some after-dinner play. Ferumbras smiled to himself; he hadn’t quite believed it would be that easy, and he knew there were some that still had their doubts, but they would keep those doubts to themselves from now on and Pearl won’t have to hide from her family anymore.
Two hours later, Ferumbras was standing in his study, staring out the window overlooking his garden, when a knock sounded.
The door opened and the Whitwells entered: Paladin and Eglantine, Esmeralda and Saradoc, Amber and Arlo, and lastly Heather. “You wanted to see us?” Amber said.
“I did. I went this morning to Nohill.” Ferumbras paused as he let that statement sink in. “I reinstated Darling to the Took clan and lifted her ban. I would have announced it tonight, only she felt it might cause more problems than it would solve at the moment, and I agree. I think it best to let things settle for a few months. I’ll announce it at Harvest, and she plans to visit at Yule. I thought you would like to know.”
Tears formed in the lasses eyes and even Paladin appeared choked up. They thanked him and hugged him and after he briefly detailed his trip to Nohill, they stood to take their leave.
“Heather, will you stay a moment?”
“Of course,” Heather said and closed the door behind her family. She leaned against the door, watching Ferumbras closely. “You can’t have anything vigorous in mind. You look ready to drop.”
Ferumbras laughed in acknowledgement of that statement. He wouldn’t be keeping his eyes open much longer, that was certain. “I wondered how you would feel about getting married.”
Heather’s eyes glinted with mischief. “That depends. To whom?”
“There’s this old chap I know who happens to care quite deeply for you,” Ferumbras said. “I would be honored if you’d be my wife.”
Heather stepped away from the door and came to stand in front on him. She took his hand in hers. “And I’d be honored to call you husband.”
“How do you feel about a Yule wedding?”
“I think that can be arranged.”
They kissed again, the future once again bright and new.
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