Deephallow was a pleasant stopping place, a little green slip of a village on the wooded channel west of the confluence where the Shirebourne merged with the Brandywine. The source of the Shirebourne was not much more than a frivolous rivulet, but when it joined the slightly more practical Thistle Brook at Willowbottom, the merger created a slender tributary that—while no longer possessed of the youthful enthusiasm that had brought its twin sources leaping with abandon out of the Green Hills—proved a clever and experienced little river. It approached the convergence with dignity and purpose, and wended its way between the sloping green banks—delved and dotted with the holes and occasional houses and sheds of the fisher-folk at Deephallow—in a very friendly fashion.
The folk thereabout reflected its character. They had ever been spirited and capable, but their most celebrated inclination was born of the little river’s gentle courtesy: they had acquired a reputation for hospitality. So it was that boats plying the long haul up and down the Brandywine often headed up the Shirebourne channel in search of safe haven at the end of a long day. There was a snug little pub with a crackling fire on the landing at Deephallow where the ale flowed into the wee hours, and a homely inn with a bustling kitchen and a well-appointed guest-hall where both the plates and the beds were piled high for comfort’s sake. It was rare that a weary river-hobbit chose at sunset to pass up the comforts to be found at Deephallow in favour of cold and encroaching darkness on the river.
A little sailing dinghy, painted a soft blue-green to the water line and lately certified at Sarn Ford, had been patiently tacking upriver all day long against the current and some of the most faithless breezes its pilot thought he had ever known; now at twilight it had come in sight of the Shirebourne and within fifty miles of the Bridge. The skippers of several other boats, passing close as they headed gratefully in to Deephallow to rest for the night, hailed him with glad recognition and bade him share their company, but though for a moment he looked longingly at the welcoming lights winking through the leaves up the channel, in the end he did not follow but set his face resolutely to the Brandywine. He could make his destination by midnight if only he could find favour with the wind. In any case, he had to go on; his heart was set upon its goal and nothing would turn it.
As the sunset burned itself out, the fickle breezes came together and produced a real wind at last, and this, after leaping and swirling freakishly to get the feel of things, settled on a course and the pilot sighed with grim satisfaction to feel it at his back. The sail pulled tight as the sun went down and the last golden glints of light on the water faded away into the dark; the little boat leapt forward, and the pilot put a flame to the lantern he kept stowed beneath his bench and went forward to hang it on a ring beneath the bow.
There was no moon as yet, but the little craft was coming up on Haysend and he could see the two small dock lanterns burning pale yellow along the shoreline there, just enough to illuminate the length of the rough wooden pier and, in the shadows beyond, the dark curl of the current where the Withywindle emptied into the Brandywine. Here was a less predictable confluence: the pilot came about and trimmed the sail so that the dinghy scooted into the center of the big river. He had no wish to occasion any sort of attention from the Withywindle, especially in the dark.
With Haysend behind him, the only lights on the river were his own and an occasional gleam from beyond the causeway next the Marish where folk were late in getting to bed. The pilot sat with one hand on the tiller and the other on the sheet and watched the dark movement of the current, alert for unexpected debris, feeling beneath his hand the tension in the sail and adjusting by degrees as the wind directed. Thus he passed silently and steadily over the black water, and one by one the stars came out above him and laid down a glimmering course for him to follow. The only sounds were the songs of the frogs in the shallows and the calls of the owls in the trees along the banks, and the soft splash of the water parted by the bow.
The pilot was a sturdy river-hobbit with a comely, weathered face and strong brown hands. His thick chestnut hair was longer than most and tied into a tail at the back of his neck with a leather band. He had warm hazel eyes and a kind mouth grown stern in consequence of care and duty, both of which constrained him this night to tax himself beyond the wisdom of his senses. He kept his narrow gaze on the river and habit kept a portion of his mind on the task at hand, but his thoughts were elsewhere and it was his heart that drove him onward through the dark. There was a struggle between the two just now, and while he knew his heart had already won and would win every time they met, he also knew it made no difference. The logic of honour was certain; it was love that made it unbearable.
The little dinghy made its dogged way upriver, encountering no others. This was not surprising; while there were no sailing Shirriffs among the river-hobbits, there were nonetheless plenty of rules and precautions to observe; only matters of considerable urgency drew boats out onto the Brandywine in the dark of night. The little lantern bobbed below the bow of the boat, and flung its light forward to glisten on the surface of the river, strewn like a length of pale golden silk over the white stars that shimmered on the water; but the pilot kept his steady gaze on the darkness just beyond.
Hours passed and he grew stiff with cold, and weary; now he became aware of lights flickering through the trees just ahead to the east. He sighed and shifted a little to ease the strain in his shoulders; ’twas not the work, he thought tiredly, but the worry. Still, it could not be too long now: this would be the landing for Brandy Hall and Bucklebury, and the Bridge was only twenty miles beyond. He viewed the Hall dispassionately as it loomed up out of the darkness: a great lot of gentry lived in that pile.
There were two lanterns on the landing at Brandy Hall as at Haysend, but as he glided by he saw that the lights he had seen through the trees were up at the Hall itself; a number of windows on the lower right shone bright with light, as did a few others, scattered at random across the face of the hill. In one small window alone up near the top of the hill there shone with a small, steady light, as if a single candle burned there. He remembered a time in his life when he had been blessed to come home to a candle in the window, but the memory made his heart hurt and he thrust it roughly away. The lights on the ground floor looked vivid and busy; he wondered what was keeping the Brandybucks up so late at night, and his mouth twisted in a bitter grimace: no doubt it was the servants who must be bustling about there, ordered to as if they had no need to rest. He shook his head. Maybe the old Master couldn’t sleep and everyone was making a fuss. Useless folk, gentry, he thought idly, as bad as riff-raff, in their way. He made it his business to avoid both whenever he might. He looked once more at the candle in the window, though: someone was waiting there, he judged, and someone else was very late in coming.
When the dinghy had passed beyond the gleam of Brandy Hall, the wind leapt up, colder and sharper, and he shivered, putting up the collar on his well-padded coat. He fished a worn knitted cap out of one of his capacious pockets, pulling it down over his head, then settled in to race on the wind, and close after midnight he came to the docks at the Brandywine Bridge and guided the dinghy into sanctuary at last. Raising the centerboard, he tied everything down for the night and, hoisting his small duffle out onto the jetty, clambered after it. He doused the lantern at the bow and slipped the line over the pilings, then took up the bag and headed down the landing for the path that scaled the hill to the Dockmaster’s little stone house on the crest overlooking the river. On the way he passed a large shed; there was a smear of light in its single dirty window and the boisterous sound of youthful laughter within.
In two strides he was at the door; after knocking briskly, he heaved it open. For a moment, dead silence met his startled gaze as a cluster of lads gathered round a dicing ring in the light of the fire gaped up at him in guilty surprise. The air was thick with pipeweed and there were a number of wine bottles scattered around the hard earthen floor together with what appeared to be the bones of several badly handled chickens. The fire was a pitiful thing, barely holding in a grease-spattered grate that needed attention.
“Hoy!” cried one of the lads, rising indignantly. He was grimy and disheveled and flushed with wine, and while obviously the eldest present, certainly no older than sixteen. He knew disapproval when he saw it though, the pilot thought, coolly meeting the defiance that blazed up in the young eyes. “What’re you staring at?” the boy challenged, to a chorus of inebriated giggles from the rest. “This game is closed, mate—shove off!”
Frowning, the pilot scanned the dissipated child faces round the dice cup, then looked around the rough room. It appeared this was not a lodging, as he had at first supposed, but an empty storage space appropriated for the rascally purposes scattered about the floor. “Where are your fathers?” he asked with a sinking heart, and the boy-leader laughed and sat down again with lazy indifference, elbowing one of the littler lads out of the way. “The Barway,” he said bitterly. “Or dead. What’s it to you?”
The pilot stood for a moment, counting heads, then turned silently and went out. A quarrel erupted behind him over the dregs in one of the discarded bottles.
There was a lantern burning on the Dockmaster’s porch. The pilot knocked sharply to announce himself and pushed open the small round door to behold a cozy little interior where a warm fire burned in the hearth, hot bread scented the air, and the Dockmaster sat behind his desk frowning over the entries in his great book. He was an elderly hobbit, fierce of visage but secretly warm of heart—a fact not everyone on the docks could know, most certainly not the lads down below. Among the river-folk, everyone held the Dockmaster in great—or grudging—respect.
For a moment the pilot leaned on the doorframe, and then a slow smile spread across his weary face. “Hello, Reg,” he said, pulling off his cap as he crossed the threshold and closed the door behind him. “Weren’t you sitting there when I left?”
The Dockmaster hove to his feet. “Why, Mat Bucket!” he cried delightedly, throwing down his quill and pattering out from behind the desk. He seized the bag and gestured his guest to a seat by the fire. “Is it really you at last? Well, I’m glad, Mat; I confess I was starting to worry! You’ve been a long while.”
“I’ve been a long way,” sighed the Captain, “and I’m yet a longer way from home, to tell the truth. But I’ve tales to tell, as you knew I would, and I’ve seen the Sea, Reg. I wish you might lay your own eyes on it. It’s so big and wild—like nothing you’ve ever thought to see before!”
“Well, I don’t want to see it!” the Dockmaster said crossly, “and why you ever thought you should is beyond me—but here: I’m mighty glad you’re back, Mat. You’ve been missed, and believe me, more than one fellow hereabouts will shout hooray to know you’re home for good now.”
The Captain flinched a little at the word hooray and eased himself stiffly into the soft chair, thrusting his feet toward the fire. “I’ve a month in dock, no more,” he said grimly, as the Dockmaster’s eyebrows came together in sharp surprise. The older hobbit made to speak, but the Captain continued: “I’ll need to load and refit some once I get the Lyssa up here; I’ve come from the Ford in the dinghy.” His expression changed, his eyes lighting with anticipation. “Reg—where’s Jamy? Save us, but I’ve missed him! I thought at first to find him with that gang in the shed down on the landing, but I’m glad to say I didn’t.” He cast a curious glance at his friend.
“Nor will you find him there, as long as I have anything to say about it,” growled the Dockmaster, pouring a cup of hot ale from the steaming kettle and thrusting it into his hands. “That lot is trouble.”
“Who are they?”
“Couple of Barkers, some Digswells, a Rumble and one or two Mudruffins, if I remember aright. Word got around, what you’d done with Jamy before you left. Seems the idea took hold—those lads were sent to work for me while their dads were away down south. Little did I know what I was taking in! But you needn’t fret about Jamy, Mat: he’s doing well.”
“Where is he?” the Captain asked eagerly. “I know it’s late, but—”
“Well now, as to that, Mat, he’s not actually hereabouts just now. He’s downriver—at the Hall.”
The Captain came so swiftly to his feet that the ale slopped over the lip of the mug on to the grate. The fire hissed as he whirled to confront the Dockmaster. “At the Hall? At Brandy Hall?”
“Aye,” said the Dockmaster placidly, easing him gently back into the chair. “Very friendly with the Master and his folk is your young fellow these days.”
“Friendly!?” cried the Captain in clear distress. “With Brandybucks? With the Master of Buckland? Save us! By my life, what’s next? How in all the Shire did he manage to fall overboard there?”
“Well, Mat, I own I had a hand in it,” the Dockmaster said frankly, settling with a grunt into his own chair. “Now, don’t unsettle yourself! You’ve had a look at that wretched crew down there?”
“I have, but a few riff-raff can’t begin to compare with gentry! What possessed you?”
“Well, I’m about to tell you. You drink that while it’s warm and listen to me. I saw clear after a very few days that Jamy didn’t belong with that bunch of hooligans down there. They don’t work unless you beat ‘em and there’s nobody as can make ‘em follow the straight and narrow for longer than half a day. I didn’t know they’d be such a wild lot, Mat, and I didn’t like to see your lad any more unhappy than he already was. So I sent him up to the Postmaster at the Hay Gate; that’s Arno Mugwort, a good friend, and fair. Raised a Bree-hobbit, which makes him a shrewd fellow to have on the Gate. Nothing confuddles him for long! Anyway, he always has a few good lads from the river and the village up there helping out this time of year, and I thought Jamy might fit in better there. The boy was needful of keeping busy, Mat, and so far as I could tell, he had no more use for that riff-raff down there than you and I do. He tried hard to steer clear.”
The Captain nodded abstractedly. “Aye, he would do. If I’ve done nothing else for him, Reg, he knows his worth.”
“And so do other folk know it, if they have their eyes! Anyways, Arno took him on, and Jamy bided well enough there; I even heard he had got some of his cheek back, which was good news to me! And then one day a few weeks’ back a fearsome official-looking packet came from the Outlands addressed to the Hall—a King’s letter, if it please you, Mat—which I see it don’t. Well, all the regular post messengers were abroad, but such a letter to the Master can’t wait, as even you should know, so Arno sent your boy along to deliver it quick. Now, Mat, don’t glare! He allowed as how Jamy was the only one as looked able—and that’s a compliment to both of you! ’T any rate, your lad set off with the letter and the next thing anybody knew, Arno had a message from the Magnificent telling him they’d invited Jamy to stay on for a few days at the Hall and not to worry over him, and a day or two after that I got a letter directing me to send his things on downriver, as the Master wanted him to stay on there until such time as you came back. Word is they’ve taken quite a liking to him, Mat, and given him some work about the place.”
“Work?” Captain Bucket stilled, his face darkening. “Work, did you say? He’s not…a servant, Reg? You didn’t send my boy into service with gentry?”
“Mercy, no, Mat! Are you listening? Oh, but I’m forgetting you wouldn’t know the first thing about doings at the Hall, being as how you’ve avoided those folk nearly all your grown life. The Brandybucks may be gentry, lad, but they ain’t what you think. The Magnificent don’t hold with such foolishness as some of those Southfarthing folk get themselves up to—body servants and folks as come in to cook and clean. He grew up picking up after hisself and helping in his daddy’s fields right along with the hands when need was. The whole bunch of ’em nowadays help with the harvest, and they set a fine table for those as come in to help from the town. The Heir is married to one of Maggot’s lasses from down the Marish—you know them for good folk, Mat—and his brother is Forester this side of the river and there was never a better one—fellow’s known to sleep in the woods when darkness catches him too far from home, just like his dad used to do. A naturalist is the Magnificent; bit of a scholar, too, though that don’t make bit of difference when there’s work to be done. There are no servants of the sort you’re imagining at Brandy Hall, Mat—only a great lot of folk pleased to be doing what they can day to day, just like the rest of us, and help brought in when a job’s too big. Make no mistake, lad, whatever your boy’s busy at down there, there’s a Brandybuck sharing the load.”
But the Captain eyes had gone coldly flat. “I’ll not have my son serving gentry,” he said softly, dangerously.
“Nor is he, as I’m telling you!” said the Dockmaster patiently, taking a small loaf from the warming pan and cutting a wedge of cheese from the round on the settle to press into the Captain’s hands. “If you ask me, the Magnificent saw his cut, Mat—which is a finer cloth than life on the river might suggest to some. And don’t think he wouldn’t know: there were Brandybucks on the river not so long ago—Ha! You didn’t know that, did you? Two of ‘em, father and son, lost in the Great Flood of ’28. Terrible tragedy, that was. Before your time, of course, but your old dad would have remembered. After that, no Brandybucks have ever again took to the boats as a way to live, but they’ve a history with the river and wouldn’t disavow any one of the river-folk just to be proud. It ain’t their way.”
Captain Bucket shook his head, staring at the fire. “I sailed right past the Hall,” he murmured, thinking of the candle gleaming in the small window so high above the river—servant’s quarters those must be, so far from the ground. No gentry would stir themselves to scramble up into a lookout like that. Had the candle been meant for him, then, set there by his boy in hopes he hadn’t been abandoned altogether? His heart was wrung. He gathered himself to rise. “I have to go back.”
“Not tonight you don’t,” said the Dockmaster mildly, looking him over with a knowledgeable eye. “You’re done in, Mat. You’d better get some sleep for now.”
The Captain rubbed his eyes, his shoulders drooping suddenly with weariness. “You’re right,” he admitted with a sigh, tucking away his bread and cheese and tipping up his mug. “I’ll be lucky to stand my feet long enough to find a berth tonight. But I’m off to get him first thing in the morning, Reg—and mind, no gentry will stand in my way!”
The Dockmaster chuckled softly. “All right, then, don’t listen. Let’s get you to bed, eh?”
“I thought to bunk with Jamy,” the Captain said forlornly. “Well, can I take his spot in the barn, Reg? The dinghy is too small to sleep in at ease, and what’s more, that lot of young villains down there is making enough noise to keep the fish awake all the night.”
“Aye…well, I’ll be taking a broom to them directly,” said the Dockmaster in warming tones. “But you’ll sleep here, Captain Bucket, and no argument. I’ve an extra bed, and a warm fire, and any hobbit who’s come all the way from the Barway in the middle of the night deserves better than the dock or the barn. As for that young rabble—mercy! There’s a trial gone wrong! I don’t know what I’m going to do with them, Mat. They’re too young to be on their own, and I’ve not enough for them to do, nor time to keep a real eye out. They need hard raising, those lads do, and I’m too busy and too old to do it, and the good wife gone these seven years.”
The Captain shook his head tiredly. “They’ll have to go back to the Ford soon,” he said. “I know them now; they’re not really riff-raff, just lads under sail without a rudder. Their fathers sailed the Rotation with me—most of ’em, anyway—and they’ll be along home soon. They thought to have an adventure, I guess, and they did, when all’s said and done, but the every-day is where they belong, and all those lads, as well.”
Tears welled suddenly in the Captain’s eyes and he stared into the fire, blinking hard. “Mat,” said the Dockmaster, touching his arm. “What’s happened? What’s all this about a month in dock? What then?”
The Captain gave his head a rough shake and set his teeth hard, struggling to keep his composure, which proved to be in vain. Soon enough he was overcome; he put his head down and wept brokenly. The Dockmaster asked no more questions but frowned to himself; at length he clapped a hand on the Captain’s shoulder and helping him to his feet, led him to a small bedroom round the corner of the fireplace. There he turned down the soft coverlet on the bed and the Captain shrugged out of his jacket and the sturdy jumper beneath and fell beneath the blankets with a groan. “Ah, thanks, Reg. Thanks. You’ve always been a good fellow….”
“Mat?” said the Dockmaster quietly, pausing as he turned for the door. “What’s it all about? You did your Rotation.”
The Captain lay on his back with his eyes closed. “I know it,” he sighed. “But fate has turned the tables on me again. I have to go back, Reg— for at least a year.”
“What! But that’s not fair! What about Jam—?”
The Captain threw up his hand. “Oh, don’t, Reg!” he cried softly. “Don’t say it! I can’t bear to think about it anymore tonight!” And he turned on his side with a ragged gasp and buried his face in the pillow.
“There, Mat. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” the other murmured, fading now beyond misery. “I’ll tell you all about it in the morning.” And he sighed again despairingly and slept.
The Dockmaster went back to his fireside and tidied up. Then he went out onto his porch and stooped to grasp a thin, overlong pole that was laid the length of it. He walked out on the crest of the hill and swung the pole over the precipice, thrusting vigorously until he heard with satisfaction its noisy collision with the roof of the shed below. He banged it down several times with considerable energy.
“Here, you lot!” he bellowed. “Get to bed, or I’ll have you mucking worse than the stables tomorrow!”
A jeer went up, and he banged again. “Don’t make me come down there!” he shouted and heard them tumble out the door; he peered down to see them make for the path, weaving and giggling in the shadows below. He sighed heavily. It took strong fathers to tame such boys, and honest work, too; young river-hobbits were wont to go adrift if someone didn’t pull them up short. Jamy Bucket was different than these, though, he thought: it had always been easy to see there was more to him than one might expect. The Buckets had ever been respected among the river-folk, their quiet, honest ways and considerable skills being the stuff of which far-reaching reputations were made; but Lyssa Headstrong had left a mark of gentility on Jamy as well (her own folk notwithstanding). He would find his way, all right, and it would run straight and true, no matter what might settle on his path to distract him. Still, he would not take it well, this news that Mat had only a month in dock before he must be gone again—and for how long? Perhaps it was fortune unforeseen that the lad had come under the Hall’s influence now, even granting that Mat didn’t see it that way.
The Dockmaster went to bed troubled; it was clear that Mat was in desperate straits. He had known him from a child, the better part of forty years, and only once before had he known him so close to giving up, and that in the days when Lyssa had been lost to him and the babe with her, and her folk had come down to the Ford to curse her existence and his, and to beat him into the mud alongside the river for daring to think he had the right to love her. Afterward, when they had gone home to bar their fine doors against her only living child, he had gone his way in silence, with all that was left of his dignity pulled close about him, and Jamy held tight in his arms. He had never, up to now, let go. The old hobbit frowned into the darkness: how in all the Shire could fate turn the tables on a fellow like Mat twice in a blameless lifetime?
“Why, I never saw such an embranglement in all my days,” he mused. “But this is what comes of adventures without the Bounds: decisions ain’t so easy anymore. I’ll allow as you were trapped, Mat, but I can’t help but think you did right, for all it don’t seem so where Jamy’s concerned. But there’s good and bad in this: if you ask me, it smells of fate! The thing is, for now: don’t borrow trouble. You’ve yet a month and a lot can change in that time. And make no mistake, Mat, you’ve friends at every bend in the river and we’ll all do what we can to help.”
“It won’t matter,” said the Captain, his heart wrapped around with bitterness. “Not to Jamy.” And abruptly he remembered his errand to the Hall, set aside for these few moments, and all his fears for the boy and of the Brandybucks came flooding back to add to his distress so that in the end he was so deeply agitated that he was hard pressed to eat. The Dockmaster was having none of that, however: fussing kindly, he insisted that the Captain must take nourishment before he presented himself at the Hall, and to that end he spooned generous portions of ham and mushrooms onto his plate, and pushed a stack of airy golden pancakes and a crock of apple butter at him, and bade him think, and not act the fool.
“You want to keep your wits about you, Mat,” the older hobbit advised, having decided it was futile to argue the benevolence of Brandybucks any longer. He could see the lad’s mind was closed on that score, and the best he could hope for was that someone at the Hall—the Master or young Mr. Theo, perhaps—would realize Mat’s desperate error and reunite him with the boy before there was any kind of dust-up.
You couldn’t blame Mat, the Dockmaster thought, considering the matter. He had suffered a mortal blow to his self-respect at the hands of Lyssa’s folk, and he had no cause to suppose that any other wealthy gentlefolk would not be the same: cruel and disdainful and proud. Certainly he had never gone close enough again to find out. The Dockmaster knew also that Mat didn’t fear for Jamy’s safety so much as for his substance; what he could not bear was the thought of his lad’s bright spirit being broken on such pride and prejudice as he assumed ruled Brandy Hall. It did no good to assure him that the Brandybucks were as different from the Southfarthing Headstrongs as night from day; he would simply have to see it for himself—and then, the Dockmaster reasoned, he would be free to address the larger part of his troubles, for the matter of his return to the Barway was clearly a matter of anguish for him, however you chose to look at it, and would be nothing less than a mortal blow to Jamy.
The Captain accepted his cheer and advice as he did the hearty breakfast fare: with a bleak smile of resignation and very few words. The Dockmaster took no offence at this but kept up an encouraging monologue, prattling on even as he walked his friend down to the quay to see him off. “I know you’ve never stopped at the Hall before, so mind you’ll want to walk up the road toward Bucklebury when you come off the landing,” he counseled. “That road passes right by the gate to the Hall. You just give your name there and ask to see the Master and I promise you, Mat, all will be well.”
“Aye, well, we’ll see,” came the dour reply and so they parted, the Captain to his little craft and the Dockmaster to survey the remnants of the night’s debauchery left behind in his repair shed. He had hardly gone in when he came hastily back out again. “Mat!” he called.
“Aye?” the Captain answered over the water.
“If you find that miserable lot trashing my shed again when you get back tonight, you and Jamy pitch ’em all in the drink!”
The morning sun slanted across the river, and the current caught the dancing beams in blinding flashes that rained liked blows upon his tired mind; it seemed that even the river had turned against him now. He did not understand how it could be that by doing well he had turned his life and Jamy’s into such a tangle, and no end to their troubles in sight. The tumultuous moment quayside on the Barway last week, the moment that might have been a triumph had his life not been sliding from his grasp at the same time, came back to him in bitter confusion as he leaned on the tiller and swung the sail against the light.
“Mattie, Harbour Master wants to see you! Says he’s coming down, but you’d better hop to quick!” Well, he had surely hopped quick enough, but as he mounted the stairs from the river to the quay he had wondered deeply, too: what could the Harbour Master want with him? He had kept his head down and taken his orders every day of the last six weeks from Tilman Rafter as he was expected to, and if he’d made a mistake, well, the chain of command, as he understood it, did not include being summoned to the Promontory over the head of the Commander of Hobbitry.
Tilman was his second cousin, a sailor by birth, skillful, popular and helpful (though there were those who might have said meddlesome was more to the point), but he had ever aspired to more, and many were the hobbits on the river who joked slyly that Tilman Rafter would only be content with his lot when the river-folk agreed to crown him King. He had recently risen to the position of clan-leader—though in truth by default, Mat having vigorously opposed his own nomination. Tilman was more than pleased to step up, of course, though soon enough he was looking for something more again, and it was not long before he acquired, through a campaign of shameless politicking, the office of Thain’s Representative on the Barway. Folk could not help but be impressed. Further, what Tilman lacked in grace, he more than made up for in wherewithal: once he set his mind to something, it was done, and so in time folk forgave his driving ambition and willingly tendered their respect. As the Thain’s Representative, he was third in command on the Barway after the Harbour Master and the Garrison Commander, and so it was that he had been able to leverage the authority he needed to force Mat into the Second Rotation.
“I can’t spare you, Mat,” he had declared. “You need to come along.” Mat had turned to stare at him: he had supposed they had an understanding. “I told you, I can’t go, Til,” he said mildly. “You know why.”
“Mattie, Mattie,” said Tilman, shaking his head ruefully as once again ambition required that he seize the day; he meant for his clan to make a name on the Barway and Mat Bucket was, quite honestly, the key to his desire. To that end he brazened it out: “I don’t know anything about this that makes any sense, Mat, saving the clan won’t answer for a coward.” Mat had looked him full in the face, incredulous, but it was a defining moment for Tilman, and in the end Mat had turned away, sick at heart. “You mean to force me, then.”
“Mattie! It’s for your own good!” Tilman managed to summon enough grace to look uncomfortable for what he was about to do, and in truth he was nothing if not sincere. “Think, cousin! If you shame the clan they’ll be within their rights to shun you for the rest of your life—Jamy, too. You don’t want that hanging over him when he comes of age, a lad who’s only half river-bred, with no other family to stand by him. He’ll not have many friends left on the river if he’s shunned, and none of those in a way to help him make a life for himself when you’re gone. Come on, Mattie! You’re the best pilot we’ve got and all the clans respect you, but how much honour will you have left if folk think you’ve shirked a duty to Thain and King and made our folk look bad into the bargain? Please, Mat: I’ve thought it out and I’m asking you to do the Rotation. I can’t answer for what the clan will do if you don’t.”
It was base intimidation, of course, but it was the way of the river. Further, it was true. A river-hobbit did have an obligation to his clan, a duty to consider how his actions might adversely affect the rest—and adversely affected, the rest could tender opinions powerful enough to ruin any one of their own. As for running away, the river was big, but not that big. Mat had accepted the rebuke with equanimity, to set a good example, but the defeat stuck in his craw, hard and bitter, and he went warily with Tilman afterward, silent and resentful.
The Harbour Master had come down the gangway as Mat went up and they had met halfway, on a low ridge overlooking the river. Only a few boats plied the current as the sun dipped westward, casting long shadows off the cliffs onto the water and the spidery scaffolding on the far shore down toward the sea, where one day a great wharf would be built and the ships from Dol Amroth would come to port; for today, the work was nearly done. A swarm of curious onlookers materialized in the vicinity: understandable as the Harbour Master had never before singled a hobbit out in such a public way. Mat saw Tilman coming up from the boats and watched him hover uneasily on the edge of the crowd, wondering what had come amiss. Mat thought grimly that whatever happened here, he would be satisfied to have provided Tilman with even a minute of acute misgiving. Tilman saw the look in his eye and pushed his way anxiously to the front, his own eyes on the Harbour Master. “What’s all this then, Mr. Forlong?” he asked.
The Harbour Master was taller than most of his Men and fair, rugged in the style of the King’s Rangers who sometimes put in at Sarn Ford, though he had been a mariner all his life. He had a pleasant way about him, particularly with subordinates, and as he had nodded crisply at Mat in the manner the hobbitry had requested in lieu of a salute, he had winked as well. When he began to speak, it was with every measure of respect and goodwill, and his words were pitched so that they could be heard roundabout. The crowd quieted and he turned and took a rough wooden box from the adjutant at his side and very deliberately sat down on it, so he might be eye-to-eye with Mat, who coloured at the unexpected gesture of courtesy. The Men in the crowd smiled conspiratorially, some of them nudging the Little Folk who stood beside them, and among themselves the hobbits exchanged looks of shy surprise.
“Well, Mr. Rafter,” said the Harbour Master, “I am about awarding a commendation to one of your fellows today. It is an unusual circumstance in the King’s Navy to so honour a civilian, but one we celebrate as a matter of great importance when the occasion arises.” Tilman, completely at sea, nodded blankly and the Harbour Master turned to Mat who gazed at him in no less bewilderment.
“Captain Bucket,” the Harbour Master said with amiable formality, “There are fifty seafaring Men on this station, the best the King has at the ready, and while they have spent a fair amount of time plying the breadth of Belegaer in ships, they believe that in the small boats they have met their match in the shoals and currents and shifting bottom of your River Baranduin, here where it comes home to the sea. Further, they tell me there is no better bar pilot—Man or hobbit—on this inlet than you, and that you have been pressed into service on several occasions to save a number of loads coming up from the ships that in other hands might have foundered on the bar. I agree that this a significant achievement, and I should like to acknowledge the Men’s confidence in you, and mine as well, with this token which the King bestows on persons who have proven themselves in his service on the waters of Middle-earth: it is called The King’s Anchor, and you, sir, have earned it.”
He took from his pocket a small box covered in dark blue silk, and opened it so that all could see before he handed it across to Mat. The box contained a small silver disk hanging from a fine blue ribbon embroidered with silver stars. Mat took the box, touching the medal in wonder. It was handsomely engraved with a rope and kedge entwined; running his thumb over the image he could feel the raised design, smooth against its silver background. Around him there was a glad, collective intake of breath and a cheer began to go up, Men and hobbits both lending their voices to a delighted tribute. “Captain Bucket! Captain Bucket! Hip hip hooray!” Dumbfounded, he looked at the Harbour Master, who sat studying him with thoughtful grey eyes, and bowed humbly. “I thank you, sir,” he murmured, flushing deeply and pleasurably. “I never thought to come by such a fine thing in all my life.”
The Harbour Master smiled warmly: “Well, there is more, Captain. As I said, the bar is proving a trial to moving supplies efficiently from the ships at anchor up the inlet to the Barway, and there have been some accidents and injuries among the crews, as I’m sure you’re aware. The Men say that situation would be set to rights if you commanded the boats, taking over the bar and the shallow passages fore and aft, with a complement of river pilots approaching your skill level. You would be free to hand-pick your people as they arrive on the station, and once all the ships have come and gone—a year at the most, I should think—we would be prepared to offer you another command on the gate itself. What say you? We would be most grateful for your help.”
An excited murmur had run through the Shire-folk. “Mat Bucket! Our own Mattie! Chief pilot!” Tilman had turned spontaneously to wring his hand, genuine in his affection and delight, as if they had not been estranged all these weeks and more; and the others had applauded where they stood, all of them flushed with pride and smiling broadly.
It took a moment to fully comprehend the scope of the Harbour Master’s offer, but as he took it in, Mat had gone cold and breathless with horror. He was not insensitive to the honour that had been offered him, nor averse to the job, which he had found very much to his liking, but it was impossible! Jamy had been alone for seven weeks: he had to go home! His green eyes, wide with alarm, had sought the Harbour Master’s: “Begging your pardon, sir,” he said, as quietly as he could, “but sure I’m set to go back to the Ford? The Rotation ends next week.”
The Harbour Master shook his head. “Forgive me, Captain! I keep forgetting you folk are not of the Navy and I haven’t fully explained: this would be in the nature of a promotion and outside the Rotation schedule, if you could manage. We would like you to stay on, Captain, a proper mainstay of the complement here—with suitable rank and compensation for your business losses, of course.”
Mat’s part of this exchange had not been heard, but the Harbour Master’s was: the river-hobbits began clapping and stamping their feet and the Men to sing a lively song to match. The Harbour Master whistled and waved them all to silence, waiting for Mat to give his answer, though for the moment all Mat wanted to do was weep. Indeed, there was a faint echo of tears in his voice as well as an edge of desperation as he countered: ”But I’ve a young son, sir, waiting for me to come home. He’s just a lad—not yet into his tweens—”
The spark of sudden discernment that had flashed round the ring of river-hobbits—folk he had known and lived with and trusted all his life—was unmistakable; even with his eyes on the Harbour Master, he had felt it, the terrible, incredulous pause. Mat Bucket was going to shame them, and all on account of his boy! He looked quickly around, hoping to find a friendly face, someone who understood. He found only one, and it was Tilman’s. The clan-leader’s face was taut with compassion, but there was urgent warning in his eyes: How much honour will you have left, Mat? And what of Jamy, then?
The Harbour Master, sensing the sudden confusion and dismay of all the parties present, had moved skillfully to diffuse the situation with a weather eye to his own needs. Raising his voice for the benefit of the onlookers yet again, he said, “Of course you are right, Captain. I judge you will need some time to see to settling matters with your family and ordering any personal affairs that cannot wait. What do you say to six weeks’ leave now and two more, of a month each, later in the year?”
Mat looked from the Harbour Master to Tilman. Please, Mattie. He closed his eyes, holding tight to the blue silk box with the King’s medal, so that no one would see that his hands were shaking. He knew what he must do, even as his heart cried aloud for what he must not. He said, as if he were dreaming, “Very well, sir. Thank you, for my son. I’ll be back in six weeks’ time to take up the command, then.”
And then there was a great shout of joy from the whole contingent, and he had been borne up the hill where the Harbour Master stood several rounds of splendid ale for all hands and the buttery produced a rare dinner, and the Men and river-hobbits danced and sang. But when it was over and he had gone alone to his bunk on the Lyssa with shouts of congratulations yet ringing in his ears, he had not slept, but lay for many hours staring into the dark while his mind tried to make sense of it all and his heart cried despairingly that it made none at all and never would. And when at last he slept, he had dreamed vividly of the night he had been thrashed and battered into the riverbank under cover of stealth and darkness, and woke in such a way to think that he yet lay where he had fallen then, in mud and water and blood, blinking through his tears at the furious faces of Lyssa’s brothers, who were the only other near relations that Jamy had left in the world.
“And now what?” he murmured as he angled in toward the bank. “Do I just present myself to the Master of the Hall and beg leave to take away the child he stole from me? Aye, that should go exceeding well!” He blew a furious breath, squinting upward through the trees, and suddenly Lyssa’s face came into his mind, as clear as on the day she had come into his life, and just as sweet, her cool, brook-water eyes beseeching him: Mat! He took a deep breath and forced his anger down. “Don’t you worry, Lyss,” he promised, “Come what may, I won’t come out without him.”
He caught the leafy branch of a low-hanging tree and steadied the dinghy close in to the bank, securing it by looping the lines round a tree trunk so that it lay safe a little distance from the ferry landing and partially concealed beneath the leaves and branches that arched over the water. Once again he tied everything down and then swung himself out of the boat to make his way along the shore. In short order, he had intersected the path that led up from the ferry dock, and resolutely turned up the hill, wondering grimly what manner of hobbit the Master of the Hall would prove to be, and whether or not he fought his own battles or sent his sons to do it for him.