The Brandybuck brothers were not so alike as they had seemed in the woods. They were akin in height and build, and shared in a general sense the deep brown hair and eyes they must have inherited from their mother, but here any real resemblance between them ended. What made them seem a pair, in truth, was the sense of quiet solidarity they presented, a seeming empathic connection that appeared to go beyond even the warmest affections of brotherhood. The sons of Merry Brandybuck, first and second, faced the Shire and their father’s legacy as partners. Charming and easy they certainly were, but something there was that whispered they could be resolute as well, and doubly so, for wherever one might be moved to step forward, it was easy to see the other would be close behind.
Their affection for Berry (quite obviously their much younger sister) was tender and expressive. The sight of her prompted wide smiles, and they endured her scolding for their tardiness with amused equanimity, afterward teasing her curls and ruffling her ribbons like tweener boys until Theo suddenly whisked her away to a quick tryst in the corner with Tom while Bo distracted their father with arrant if cheerful intent. The Master saw it all, of course, and played the game with dexterity, drawing them both further into the room by way of presenting Jamy and giving Berry the opportunity to slip away with Tom. This she did, and Jamy found to his immense relief that, like their father, the younger Brandybucks were not of a mind to hold his feet to the fire. Once the Master had settled them at the table and confessed his game and the reason for it and presented Jamy as fondly as if he were a long-lost relation down from Dwaling, they were as affable as uncles, and Bo, with a sly bow to his father, raised a solemn toast to “any lad tough enough to stand his ground with the Master of the Hall.” When Berry and Tom joined them soon enough, their hands shyly intertwined and their faces bright with happiness, the Master laughed and raised his mug to “any lass” as well.
At close quarters, Theo Brandybuck was what Jamy might have called “starched” had he no reason to know him better. The heir to Brandy Hall, even in his rough working clothes, was an earnest and eminently proper gentlehobbit with a thoughtful and warmly conventional manner. He had his father’s boyish smile and the same cool, appraising mind that spoke to smart and sound efficiency, but nothing of the Master’s sparkling aura of intrigue. In Buckland, this had led to the conviction that Theo was “more Bolger than Brandybuck”, a nod to his mother’s family, who came from “the other side of the river.” There was no condemnation in this, though, for the gallant Estella Bolger had set her mark on Buckland as surely as had Merry Brandybuck, and had been held in great esteem.
Jamy thought suddenly and with a pang that the Master’s study would not look like this when it came to be Theo’s; that it would reflect (as he himself had innocently expected it should) the everyday considerations of the farms, forests, villages and streams that must come under the protection of the Master of Buckland—as carefully ordered and competently dispatched as any Bucklander could wish who had never known Meriadoc the Magnificent, or acknowledged there would never be another like him. What he could not know was that this troubled Theo himself; that it was because of this that there was about the Master’s steady eldest son a curious, muted air of reluctance, as if his own assurance were somehow held resolutely in check, tightly reined in humble acknowledgement of his father’s long and artlessly picaresque authority.
By contrast, the Master’s second son seemed possessed of a deep and quiet spirit—like the misty woods, Jamy thought, or the hidden backwaters of the Brandywine—shadow tempered with a sweet, intangible light. Bo’s handsome face was more absorbed and watchful than Theo’s, the expression in his dark eyes a match for the Master’s lancing blue gaze and the hidden well of banked emotion that Jamy had also briefly glimpsed in Berry. A naturalist and scholar by vocation, in his father’s footsteps, he was often abroad in the deep forests of Buckland and along the shores of the river. He wore his workman’s gear as if he were born to it, and indeed he endowed his simple stuff with such an air of dignity that it seemed quite the equal of his father’s finer raiment. And of the luminous spirit that attended the Master there was much in Bo, for behind his quietly perceptive glances flickered a shimmering, elemental consciousness, an accord with earth and water and air that wove a sturdy complement to the keen practicality that Theo would bring to the Hall someday, when the old Master was legend.
Berry and Tom settled across the table and Jamy looked up curiously through his curly fringe at Tom, so ruddy and fair beside Berry’s dark-haired brothers. Browned by the sun and toughened like Bo by work in the outdoors among the trees, Tom was a quiet hobbit, watchful and careful of speech, but no less keen of grasp because of it. “Ah, lad,” he said with a sympathetic smile, “I hear you’ve been led a bit of a chase here.”
Jamy sighed. “I have that, sir, but there’s only myself to blame. Begging your pardon, I never would have dished such sauce if I’d guessed the lot of you were the very gentry I’d come to see.”
Tom laughed. “Gentry! Bless you, lad! My folk have been gardeners and farmers for as long as there have been Gamgees and Cottons in the Shire, and no exceptions either till my old Dad went away Outside with Mr. Frodo and Mr. Peregrin and the Master here, and came back a King’s man and Mr. Frodo’s heir. He always said he came back with a bit more sense than he’d left with, but he didn’t own to much more polish. If we be part gentry now, we Gamgees and Gardners-of-the-Hill, ’twas Mr. Frodo’s gift to us—and my father’s, all unknowing!”
Berry reached laughing across the table to tweak Jamy’s curls, her eyes flashing privately, I told you so. “Faith!” he murmured, his face warming. “I expect I haven’t spoke a word right all day!” He subsided into a rueful silence and beside him Bo laughed kindly and ruffled his hair.
The Master, to Jamy’s left at the head of the table, said, “Master Tom’s father was Samwise Gamgee, Jamy, one of the finest gardeners ever to lay hand to the soil of the Shire, and Mayor for something near fifty years, on account of his goodness and as clear and cool a judgment as the Shire ever saw. I miss your father, Tom. There’s only the Thain and me left now of our little Company. Jamy, Sam was with me long ago when I so misjudged the King!”
“In the deep dangers, sir?” Jamy said at once, taken in before he could think to stop himself, and the Master winked and nodded. “The very same,” he said, and Jamy’s shining smile met Tom’s across the table.
Luncheon was passed and a fine amount of food and ale made its way up and down the board and onto the plates and into the cups, and the conversation moved easily as well. Bo proved both a keen and comfortable neighbor; if he suspected Jamy’s discomfort, he did not comment on it, but quietly did everything he might to dispel it. So easy was his manner of talk and tale over the board that Jamy soon forgot his uneasiness and was himself again, watching and listening closely as talk turned this way and that, and speaking when he was spoken to and sometimes when he was not. The argument in the woods seemed forgotten, or at least set aside, for it was not remarked, but other business was under discussion and the Master was interested and gentle with them all.
Theo was looking for the return of his family soon, his wife and children being away as Berry had mentioned earlier. “I thought perhaps I should like the quiet after the long winter,” he mused, “but I’ll own now there’s too much of it. I’m lonely, and that’s the truth. Well, tomorrow I shall welcome them back, and gladly! I was never made for bachelorhood.”
“Indeed not,” observed the Master. “You were barely come of age when you took Cammy to wife, keen to settle and, I should say, happily ever after, eh?”
“That’s so,” said Theo, lifting his cup in a warm salute. “I can’t think why you stay alone, Bo.”
“You have not a wife, sir?” Jamy asked, emboldened by the easy company and conversation and interested in another hobbit of his father’s age who was also unwed.
“Nay,” said Bo, shaking his head with a smile that might have been regretful. “Though I’m not opposed to the idea. I am just too busy to think of it most of the time, and I don’t suppose there’s a maid to be found who dreams of being wedded to a fellow who is either tramping the woods all the day long or lost in his books of an evening.”
“Your mother managed,” said the Master wryly.
“That’s true, sir, but you’ll own she had to go some lengths to convince you she would. You were close on fifty when you married.”
The Master smiled. “Aye,” he acknowledged. “And so are you now, Boromir. I have been a bachelor early and late in life, and a husband and father in-between. Take some advice: the next time you go off to the woods, take a picnic and that pretty red-haired girl who used to come about here looking for you.”
“It’s good advice, Bo,” said Berry, leaning her head on Tom’s shoulder, but Bo only laughed and reached for the bread basket.
“Speak for yourself, Berry,” he said, laying butter thick upon the loaf. “But look to my friend Tom there, for any more such talk from you, and he’ll need to take some air!”
Tom took ale with a red face, but took also Berry’s hand in his. “As my old dad used to say,” he murmured, “You don’t want to waste too much time.”
“Did he say that?” said the Master, raising an eyebrow at Berry. “What a fine fellow he was!”
“Now, what do you think, Father?” Bo said, abruptly changing the subject and helping himself to a spicy compote of apples before passing the bowl to Jamy. “Tom and I stopped at Haysend on our way here, for there was word that there had been a great tree come down across the Withywindle there sometime in the winter. All manner of debris has caught upon it and settled in, and it has become a weir all unlooked for. The folk there deem it too dangerous to break themselves and are asking help. The river will be flooding over the banks in a week unless we break it down.”
“This is below the High Hay?” the Master asked, frowning. “We have no rights to the river beyond the Hedge.”
“No fear, it’s on our side,” said Bo. “But there’s a great deal of water wants to be moving, Father, and soon. The folk in Haysend fear a flood will wash away their spring planting. And should that weir grow any larger, and break away on its own, it will surely tumble down into the Brandywine and there’s no telling what a tangle it might make there.”
“Faith!” Jamy nodded vehemently as the conversation turned to something he knew well. “A great stack like that can make a right mess of a rudder, not to mention tripping up the poles. And trees! Well, we’ll thank you for fair warning if there’s to be trees lurking beneath the bows!”
Theo grimaced. “Well, that’s to be avoided at all costs. You agree, Father?”
The Master nodded, frowning. “Something must be done.”
Jamy shivered. “Ah, but—’tis the Withywindle!” He hissed through his teeth. “Faith, sirs, it’s haunted, and every hobbit on the river will tell you so!”
Tom nodded solemnly. “And so they have, Master Jamy,” he said, his glance flickering in the Master’s direction. “So they have. But, here’s the problem: they’ve tried working from the shore, and it’s no good. The bulk of the tangle is in the center of the stream, and it’s wide and very deep now, with the rains running off of those dark downs away upriver—as you and my Dad would remember them, sir. We’ve need to work from a boat or a barge of some sort, but we can’t find a barger willing to stand on the Withywindle. We’ve made inquiries, but they told us at the ferry that all the best barge-polers are away downriver this season.”
Jamy drew a breath and his jaw hardened. The Master watched silently as the boy pulled away and into himself for a deep, embattled moment. It was clear that if he fought to meet any such expectations as might lately have been imposed upon him, he did not prevail for long. “They’re not all of them gone,” he said at last, with an angry toss of his curls. “There’s me!”
“A barger?” Theo looked up in surprise. “You’ve skill with the poles, then?”
Jamy lifted his chin, a sudden, fierce light in his eyes. “Aye, sir, I have,” he said, and there was in his tone a flying echo of defiance. “I’m reckoned a fair hand when there’s work to be done—most times.”
“Is that so?” Theo sat back, regarding him thoughtfully. “How old are you, lad?”
“Coming fifteen, sir.” He acknowledged the quiet surprise around the table with a scowl. “I know I don’t look it, but I am. And I’ve been at work on the river since I was six!”
Bo’s eyes met Tom’s over the board and then sought his father’s. The Master hesitated, sighed, and nodded slightly.
“Well, this is a piece of luck! I’d surely welcome a waterman’s opinion about now. What do you think, lad? Can we work off the water as Tom says?”
The boy turned to Bo with an expression of carefully guarded interest. “Depends on how wide the stream is, and how much water is behind the dam,” he said, “But you can’t work from a boat, that’s sure. You’d need a flat deck, a small barge, and that might have to be secured, depending. Else if the weir goes down in a surge, the barge might spin down with it.” He shrugged, leaning forward on his elbows. “It’s hard to say, though, without I could see it.”
“Well then, you should see it!” said Bo, and Theo, catching his eye, and then their father’s, nodded assent. Bo said companionably, “Tom and I know the forest well, Jamy, but we’re neither of us perilous wise to the ways of water, save along the shore. It’s too late to go today, but how about tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow?” Jamy sat up uncertainly, caught off guard by this startling offer, struggling once again to find a foothold, just when he thought he knew his way. The Hay Gate suddenly loomed large. “Oh…I—I don’t think so, sir.”
“Ah, come now, Master Jamy,” Tom said, teasing gently. “Sure you’re not afraid of the Withywindle! The river-folk are known to tell some fine stories of a quiet night, but ‘tisn’t really haunted, is it?”
Here was solid ground and a welcome diversion. Jamy said at once: “Oh, aye, sir, it is! The River Woman and her children wander there!”
Tom shook his head blankly, and Jamy continued, “You’ve only to look into the Withywindle, sir, down and down, to see how different it is from the Brandywine—oily green and black and filled with shadows—saving they’re not shadows, but the River Woman and her little maidens, drifting along in the deeps.”
“Save us!” murmured Berry.
“The River Woman,” said the Master thoughtfully. “That’s a tale from the Old Forest. What do your folk say of her?”
“Oh, it’s an old tale on the river, sir—no river-child goes on board without he’s heard that story ten times before he’s breeched and ten times after!” Jamy looked round the table.
“Well,” said Tom. “I reckon we should hear it too, then.”
Jamy nodded. “Where the Withywindle meets the Brandywine,” he began, “where the green runs alongside the gold, the River Woman brings her little Daughters to play.”
“What are they—the River Woman and her Daughters?” asked Berry.
Jamy shrugged. “Fairy folk, some say. The River Woman lives at the bottom of a deep pool far up the Withywindle, and her little maidens with her, they say. The little River Daughters are pretty as can be, with their golden hair all a-tangle with reeds and flowers, and innocent as can be as well. They don’t know what she’s about when they come down to where the waters meet alongside the trees of the Old Forest. They’re only wanting to play— and they’re happy to see playmates in the hobbit folk who are just as small as they. But you don’t want to go near them, Berry, or slip in by accident, for if you do they’ll lay hold of you, and draw you down, wanting to show you their little gardens and treasures of shells and shiny stones. They mean no harm, but it’s drowning nonetheless. They don’t understand that folk like us can’t breathe beneath the water, you see. But she does, and there she drifts among the water-weeds, waiting for you to drown, so she can have her way with you.”
“Oh!” cried Berry, recoiling from this bloodcurdling pronouncement. “That’s dreadful!”
“Never underestimate the Old Forest,” said the Master quietly. “Much there is beyond our ken in that wood—and a good bit of it wild and black at heart.”
Jamy nodded enthusiastically. “She’ll eat you, you know,” he said with relish, and Bo gave a little bark of laughter and retired behind his napkin.
“Jamy Bucket!” Berry exclaimed. “That’s enough!” Quickly, but with a smile, he lowered his head and she turned on Tom and Bo. “As for you,” she said fiercely, “You’ll be careful!”
“Ah,” said Bo regretfully, “but we shan’t have occasion to if Master Jamy can’t lend his opinion to the problem. I wish you will help us, lad. Won’t you think about it? I promise to tie a good, stout rope to your person and pull you back if the water babies try to lay hold of you.”
Jamy looked up. “And I should thank you for it,” he said frankly, “but….” He shook his head, his voice fading away in disappointment.
“I would come,” he said with a sigh, “but the truth of it is I’m expected back on the upriver packet this afternoon. I can’t think they’ll let me come back tomorrow.”
The Master said, “They’ll be looking for you tonight at the Gate, then?”
“Oh, aye, sir! The postmaster won’t sleep tonight if he thinks that letter’s gone astray.”
“And if you go astray? Are you in his keeping?”
The boy hesitated for just a moment. “Yes, sir.” He nodded glumly. “I guess you could say so.”
The Master nodded, as if to himself. “Well, then,” he said mildly, “we must set his mind to rest on both counts. How if I write a note and tell him you’ve delivered my letter, and thanks, and that you’ll be staying on for a few days or more to do some work for me? That should do it, don’t you think? There’s a post box on the dock; you can leave my note there and the packet will take it on up and relieve the good postmaster of his anxieties.”
“Sir!” Jamy sat back speechless, starry-eyed, as a warm cry of agreement went round the table. Berry stood up, her hand on her father’s shoulder. “Don’t you make an argument,” she admonished the boy quietly. “He owes you the end of this trick he’s tangled you in, and bless him, I think he means to give it to you!” And kissing her father lightly on the cheek, she slipped away to gather paper, pens and seals from the desk.