The Master remembered when first he had seen these marks of wear in Pippin’s face; Pippin had been far younger than Fair was now, and more cruelly bereft of innocence than any hobbit of such tender age was ever meant to be. Merry Brandybuck’s heart had twisted painfully when first he saw this in the Houses of Healing, when Pippin came to comfort him of the hurt he had taken on the Pelennor; and Paladin Took had wept outright to see it when his son returned at last to the Shire—not because it was unnatural in a hobbit but because his boy was yet so very young. But Pippin had borne his marks with such a sweet, winsome dignity that most folk did not recognize the odd shadows of harsh privation or the newly etched lines of heartbreak that seemed somehow to smooth and settle the riotous exuberance that had distinguished him before—though it was often remarked when first he donned the mantle of the Thain that he was extraordinarily kind, and more patiently discerning than any Took in living memory, and some folk wondered privately if this was a natural inheritance or something akin to the gift Sam Gamgee had brought home in his little Elvish box. In any event, however this quiet dignity had come to Pippin, it was clear as time went by that he had passed it on to all his children, and the Master thought judiciously now that it sat most handsomely on Fair.
He could not think how Theo and Fair had come to this maturity without his noticing, but surely they had, and he was astonished now to think that they were both of them older than he usually felt himself to be. It gave him yet again that odd sense of telescoping time, of years sliding away before he had time to count them up—like the stars slipping through his fingers last night, borne away into the liquid darkness. Time passed so quickly!
But Fair’s slender face yielded yet more cause for concern, and the passage of time was put out of the Master’s mind with crushing haste as he discerned in the lad’s eyes an expression that was in no way characteristic of Pippin’s cheerful and capable eldest son. As a rule, Fair Took’s warm green eyes danced and teased and flashed and shone as the wind blew and the seasons changed, and rarely if ever were they to be seen shadowed with anxiety, for Fair, like his father, did not lightly relinquish hopeful expectation, no matter how dark the clouds overhead. Only once before had the Master seen Fair look so, and the memory of the grievous days before they had lost Diamond came back to him now with an ugly twist of apprehension.
“Fair!” he said, shrinking a little within. “What’s amiss? Is it your father?”
Faramir paled a little. “Save us, Uncle,” he said unhappily, running his hand distractedly over the back of his neck and through his sooty curls. “I hoped you would tell me! I thought perhaps you might know something we do not. Are—are you not come now because he called you?”
“No,” said the Master, shaking his head uneasily. Pippin had not summoned him since they had parted in the winter; he would swear to it. And yet, here was Fair, as contented and optimistic a fellow as ever his father was, in a rare taking over his parent and rumor enough behind on the road to whisper of cause for his alarm.
“I came upon business of my own this time, Fair,” he said, trying to keep his voice even. “But your father seemed well enough when last I was here, and he has said nothing in his letters….” He hesitated. “Though I collect now I have not had a letter in over a month.”
Faramir grimaced, squinting the visible length of the long country road. After a moment’s silence he said, “But if something were really wrong with Father, you would know it, wouldn’t you, sir?” His quick, sidelong glance was an open plea for reassurance; the Master felt his heart contract.
Flicking the reins, he said as easily as he might, “Aye, I would know.” The pony started forward in the traces with the same veiled urgency he himself was feeling, and Faramir’s noble little mount followed quickly if gravely on his fine lead behind, his eye bent ever on his master.
“Perhaps you’d better tell me what’s happened, lad,” the Master suggested after a short silence, but when Faramir sighed and nodded grimly, he could not forbear any longer to ask: “Ought we to hurry, Fair? Is he lying ill?”
Faramir blinked and caught his breath with a look of dismay. “Oh, no, sir!” he exclaimed, flushing deeply. “Forgive me; I have frightened you to no urgent purpose—or at least I may hope so! It is not so desperate as that: I suppose it only seems so to us, as we have none of us ever seen him like this before.” He shook his head unhappily. “Father is seeming well, for the most part, but—he is not himself, sir.”
The Master blew a quiet breath of relief and leaned back in the seat as the weight of his fears lightened somewhat. “That is some good news, then. In truth, Fair, I have been worrying a bit along the road. Robin Gamgee said that Goldilocks mentioned to him a fortnight ago your father was not himself; and Theo thought to mention as I left Buckland that you were managing matters for the Barway now. I own it worried me, wondering what it could mean.”
Faramir said quickly: “Oh, I beg you will not worry over the Barway, Uncle. Father left that to me after Mama died; he said I knew more of it by that time than he did and would do better to continue. And you know the ways of Tuckborough, sir: it is the Thain’s prerogative to delegate wherever he sees a willing hand, and there are always many.”
Fair’s handsome face relaxed now into a smile for the first time since he had climbed up into the cart. “And you should know how Goldilocks worries over Father, sir. She has come to love him as her own and clucks over him now just as she always did with Father Sam.”
The Master nodded solemnly. “Aye, she does that,” he said.
Faramir’s smile broadened. “Oh, sir!” he laughed affectionately. “Do not say you’re smarting still over the pillows and possets she forced on you last time you visited! She cannot help it, you know—Father Sam’s parting words, two years past, were ‘look after Mr. Pippin, Golden—and Mr. Merry, too, if he’ll let you!’ and so she has done, dearest girl, or tried to, in any case.”
Faramir grinned mischievously, looking sidewise at the Master. “I observe that Mr. Pippin takes to it rather greedily,” he said, “but I confess it has not escaped my notice that Mr. Merry is nowise willing to be wrapped up in cotton wool by anyone, let alone my pretty wife!”
The Master sniffed a little self-consciously at this and Faramir laughed again, squeezing his arm companionably. “Oh, Uncle Merry! You know we mean well, sir—do have patience with us!” he exclaimed, and the Master could not help then but laugh a little.
In truth, though, he was thinking about the Thain’s prerogative. To be sure, he and Pippin had always had different styles—the Master feeling the need to hold very closely the reins that guided Buckland in order that everything be properly organized and controlled, and the Thain content to lead his vast collective of Tooks with shrewd, if casual instruction flung at any number of eager and willing lieutenants. It seemed to work for Pippin, and perhaps that was the better way, the Master thought ruefully; surely Theo would not have held himself back to such a degree if he himself had been more generous with his authority. But then, he reflected somberly, it could not have had the same effect in any case; for Meriadoc the Magnificent cast a shadow, and Thain Peregrin could only scatter light everywhere he went. Pippin had never thrown a shadow over anyone in all his life—until now. Faith, what is it ails him? he wondered fretfully, and was startled to realize he had spoken aloud.
Fair answered on the instant, as if waiting to be asked. “He doesn’t sleep, Uncle.”
The Master stared, then shook his white mane incredulously. “Fair! Is that all? Your father and I are—well, we’re of an age if you will, lad, when sleep can be elusive. I myself am often awake in the night. ‘Tis nothing, I promise you!”
Faramir frowned down the long road. “So did I think, when first it began, but now I am afraid,” he said quietly, and indeed the faint tracery of lines in his face seemed to grow harsher as he spoke. He turned to look at the Master. “Something is driving Father from his sleep to wander the hills in the wee hours of the night.”
“How’s this?” the Master said sharply. “Driving him? Dark dreams, do you mean?”
“I think not, sir, for whatever it is follows him waking, as well.”
The Master was very still for a long moment. Then he said into the quiet: “From the beginning, if you please, Faramir. Tell me what has happened.”
Faramir shifted unhappily on the seat. “A month ago old Cousin Will came to talk to me. He told me that Father had been slipping out of the library an hour or more before dawn every day. He was worried; it didn’t seem natural to him that Father should wish to climb the hill every day in the dark. Nor did it to me.”
The Master rubbed his jaw. “Certainly, it has never been like Peregrin to embrace cold, dark and discomfort if he could avoid it.”
Faramir nodded. “I asked Father about it and he said that it was nothing untoward, only that sometimes he could not sleep and liked then to talk to Mama. I want to be fair, Uncle. I deem his loss lies closer to the bone than any of us here can fathom and I thought then that we should respect his need for privacy. So I left him alone and asked Goldilocks to do the same, and as he was coming down the hill punctually for breakfast every day, we didn’t press him further. But then, more and more he did not come down in time for breakfast, and now he goes up the hill again after luncehon as well, and, Uncle, always when he comes back he is pale and weary and distracted. And often when we speak to him, he is like something fey, as if some shadow has fallen over him —and, sir, there is something in his eyes I don’t understand.”
If the Master wondered at what was in Pippin’s eyes, he set it aside for the moment. He could see Fair’s, after all, and his own were hard now with alarm. “Sitting with your mother would not affect him so,” he said with decision. “What’s he really doing up there?”
Faramir shook his head. “A little more than a fortnight ago came a day when he did not come down the hill for breakfast at all. I stood upstairs watching through the window for an hour and fighting the urge to go up after him—I didn’t want to interfere, Uncle! At last I saw him coming down the hill, but halfway he stopped suddenly, and stumbled on his stick, and then leaned hard against the fence, as if he must steady himself or fall. Then he laid his head down on the rail as though he would be sick, and it seized me then that something was really wrong. I ran down to help him, but by the time I got clear of the smial, why! there he was in the lane, about to present himself at the kitchen door in high hopes of second breakfast, and just as sunny as he could be! When I asked about what I had seen, he laughed as he always does—you know how slippery he can be!—and said very prettily that I must remember that an old hobbit might be expected to have a feeble spell now and again! Very engaging, he was, but his eyes put a lie to the whole thing. They were very strange, Uncle; he seemed somehow distrait.”
The Master shook his head but remained silent. Faramir continued: “The next morning, I went up the hill after him, and when I came to Mama’s barrow I could see his marks in the grass, but he was not there. I cannot say by that time that I was surprised, but I was fearful; I went on and found him at last up on the highland in the tall grass; his back was to me and he was looking away into the south. When I came close to him I could see he had been weeping: there were tears in his eyes and upon his face, and there was everywhere anguish in his aspect—I shall never forget it, sir, the look that was upon him. It was as if he waited upon death itself!”
“Save us!” the Master said, quite startled, sitting up straight on the bench. “What in all the Shire—?”
A shudder passed over Faramir, though the afternoon was warming. “You’ll own, sir,” he said softly, “that is not like my father. I am sore afraid he must be very ill indeed.”
“But surely he has something to say for himself, Fair?”
“Surely he has not!” Faramir exclaimed indignantly. “The moment he saw me, everything changed and he was himself again. I begged him to tell me what was wrong, Uncle, but he would not talk to me! And then he changed the subject again, and ladled out the most sparkling sauce you’ve ever heard! Now the others have noticed that he is sometimes odd, but he heads them off very nimbly—even Amy, and you know he has never been able to keep a secret from her! Mind, he’s as kind and good as he always has been, but he won’t speak of this to any of us, for any reason.”
“He’ll speak of it to me,” said the Master grimly, frowning darkly at the horizon.
“I hope so, Uncle,” Faramir said, favoring the Master with a tired smile. “To tell you the truth, I’ve quite set my heart on that.”
They drove in ponderous silence for a while, listening to the sharp, steady counterpoint of the ponies’ little hooves and the quarrelsome chatter of the squirrels in the trees that formed a canopy over the road. From time to time there was a faint shout of greeting from the fields as they passed, and while they responded with ingrained gestures of friendliness, Faramir’s usually laughing eyes were hard and dimmed and his face was etched with worry; and the Master’s was hardly less so, though the harsh imprint of age masked a good measure of his turmoil.
“Fair,” he said with deep reluctance after a long silence. “If your father is seriously ill, it might be like him to hide it from you so you would not worry over him—and to keep it from me for the same reason. Have you had anyone up to see him?”
Faramir looked up from a brown study. “Oh! I forgot to tell you!” His eyes warmed a little. “Our fears grew too much for us to bear without comfort, so Amy and I sent for Galen about a se’nnight before we had your letter. He came late last night, and Laury with him, without so much as a word sent in advance—and both of them quite alarmed, as you might think. Poor Father was quite astonished to find them waiting for him when he put in an appearance at second breakfast this morning. I think he knew well enough what they were about, but he said nothing, and was only very happy to see them. He misses them sorely now, I think, since Mama has been gone. No doubt he wishes we might all be together again. I left him attempting to divert them with all the news—and ladling out another smacking portion of his odious sauce, as well—may it do him no good at all!”
“Galen is come?” said the Master, sincerely pleased to hear this. “And Laury, as well? Well, here is some hopeful news at last, Fair! I should like to see Peregrin slip that net: sauce won’t see him past Galen’s medicine and Laury’s Talents plied in twain! How do your brother and sister, lad?”
Faramir’s younger brother Galen had followed the long tradition of his mother’s folk and studied for much of his life the arts of healing. The North-tooks, in whom the gifts of the fairy-wife were often to be found in special Talents, were as adventurous and eccentric as their cousins in the middle Shire, but they were also adept in medicine, and Galen, who came by more than a fair share of that inheritance, found his calling early—a happy circumstance for the second son of a Great House, even one who came from such an open-handed family as the Tooks. He began his studies with his mother, whose Talents were considerable, and learned more still from his Grandfather Leodegar, who was a Healer in Long Cleeve; and then in his tweens he prevailed upon his father and Uncle Brandybuck to arrange for him to spend a year and then some in Rivendell where he might learn the Elvish traditions of medicine they had admired and spoken of over the years. And so it was that upon his coming-of-age, he had been well qualified to set up as a fully-fledged physician: a hobbit of rare medical skill, and—rarer still, among the Tooks—a steady and serious nature. In face and form he was a near match for his father at the same age, but the intangible aura of the fairy-wife lay very close about him, and the sweetness of his heart was overlaid with the fiercely gentle passions that came of his northern clan.
Long Cleeve had suffered a painful loss when their Diamond “married away”, for she was in truth the jewel of their little village, being lovely in the startling way of the North-tooks, and possessed of Talents the village could ill afford to lose. Her widowed father, who was chieftain of the celebrated Clan of the Bullroarer in addition to being a Healer in his own right, had taken care to teach his son and daughter the secrets of the plants that grew in their hidden valley and the potions and cures that might be drawn from them. He had hoped his children would follow after him, but fate directed otherwise. His son, Josselin, while a willing apprentice, was no Healer when all was said and done; his real talents lay in applying the Law and in directing and keeping the peace in the long tradition of the Bullroarer. The old chieftain was pleased to step gracefully aside when time decreed Josselin was ready to lead the clan, for he could see the lad was destined to hold the title with honour. And so it was that Diamond worked and learned at her father’s side, and as time went on, it was to be seen that the fairy’s gifts to her, in addition to her face, were Sensibility and Sight, for her hands, together with her heart, could discover hidden hurts, and her dreams conjured visions that all too often came to pass.
The ardent and honourable Peregrin Took was one of these visions; by the time he appeared, Diamond had met him a hundred times in her dreams already and she knew what he was to her. Their tender courtship became the stuff of legends in itself, but it proceeded at a stately pace, for both Paladin and Leodegar believed their children should be older to marry, and so it was fully three years before Peregrin rode north, a suitor for the last time, and claimed Diamond as his own. And it was with a fierce and affectionate pride that the village wished her joy and let her go. But while deeply fond of Peregrin and chuffed at the acquisition of this wonderfully tall goodson (“taller even than the Bullroarer, mind!”) Leodegar bore the loss of Diamond’s skill with profound regret; and when he grew very old he was deeply grieved to think that there were none to follow him, for his son’s sons were fair and worthy in the mold of the Bullroarer, but they were not Healers.
It was Galen, far to the south in Tuckborough, who took his grandsire’s grief to heart. Once he finished his course in medicine, he spent a few months of every year working in the far village in his grandfather’s place until at last he understood the whole of his destiny and begged leave of his parents to remove to the North Farthing permanently so that he might serve his mother’s folk and make up for her absence there. Pippin and Diamond smiled through their tears and sent him with their fondest blessings, for though he looked a Tuckborough Took with his glossy auburn curls and wide-open smile, they well knew that in his heart he was a true descendent of the fairy-wife and the North-tooks, and more than at home in the little green valley tucked into the uplands of the north. And so also was his next-sister Laurelin, fondly known in Tuckborough as Laury of the Fairies, for she had been born with Talents as well, and Sight and Sensibility were among them. Laury had her own visions, and she knew where her path must lead: she went with her younger brother to keep his house and help him with his work, and in time—when Galen had taken the weaver’s bright-eyed daughter Bryony to wife, and Laury’s heart was won by the gentle woodcarver, Hugo Vale—they lived and worked side by side in two charming dwellings dug into a leafy hollow overlooking the Water, and the northern branch of the Tooks grew strong again in Healing skills, for of their two youngest children the Thain and his Lady had five grandchildren now, all with the bright look of the fairy-wife, and all with Talents besides.
“A very useful thing it is to have a physician in the family, Faramir,” the Master said now. “We have many times been grateful for Galen’s skill at Brandy Hall. You must miss him and Laury—and their families, too—living so far away in the North.”
“Aye,” said Faramir a little sadly. “We often wish them nearer, but Long Cleeve makes much of them, and in all fairness they belong there, the two of them so handsome and wishful of taking Mama’s place among her folk. We try not to call them back too often, save in celebration or in need…” He sighed. “I own we have had our share of need this year.”
But knowing Galen was at hand had made the Master feel better, and he patted Faramir’s arm bracingly. “This will come right, Fair. Don’t be worrying overmuch. There’s something back of this, of course, and if Galen and Laury haven’t dug out your father’s trouble this afternoon, you may rest assured I will.”
Faramir nodded silently, abstracted; then suddenly he frowned and fixed the old hobbit with an inquiring eye. “Uncle,” he said, “What business brings you here? The road is long, and cold morning and night at this time of year. As a rule we do not look for you so early.”
The Master shrugged. “I had something to discuss with your father, Fair, and I didn’t want to wait. I own my letter was too brief to make much of an explanation.”
“I never saw it, sir,” said Faramir candidly. “But I mind now I did see Father’s face when he tucked it away. He was—perplexed, I should say. Save us, I have been none too mannerly! Are—are you come in some difficulty, Uncle?”
“Not a bit, lad—though you are good to care. Here is the truth: I have come with some news from Éomer King in Rohan that bears upon the two of us— Peregrin and me—and beyond that, I wanted to see how he was getting on. I have not been widowed so long as that, after all, and I know how it must be with him, these first months without your mother.”
Faramir nodded, his eyes soft with sympathy. “That is good of you, Uncle. And Father is always keen to hear news of the Wide World; I hope it may please him to hear what passes there. I trust the rest of us may hear the King’s news tonight beside the fire, sir? and learn how our Bucklander cousins do as well? I know Goldilocks will want to know if her little brother is yet awaiting Berry’s pleasure.”
The Master started, and sat up, and stared. “Save us!” he cried, incredulous. “Am I the only hobbit in the Shire who didn’t know of this? Only yesterday did Theo explain this to me, Fair, and I don’t mind telling you I am shocked to my toes! I can’t think what Berry is about! Mind, I shall be setting it all to rights sooner than later—and in Tom’s favor, too, in case you have cause to wonder.”
Faramir shook his head, chuckling. “I told Tom he should come to you, but he told me—and very earnestly, too, sir!— that Father Sam would never forgive him for insulting the Master of Buckland!”
The Master said, bewildered: “Insulting me? How do you mean?”
“By bringing up the matter of your age, sir,” said Fair solemnly, “as that is Berry’s concern and the reason for her reluctance to marry.” And as the Master’s eyebrows rose and his blue eyes widened it could be seen that Fair’s fairly danced with laughter. “Oh, indeed, sir,” he went on, his eyes sparkling wickedly in fun, “your aversion to discussions of age is well known: my own father has warned me that you find the topic unspeakable! Though I can’t say I perfectly understand why—?”
“Bah!” growled the Master, but not without a twinkle, for Fair had Pippin’s sparkling way with a jest. “Some folk have very odd notions of what it means to grow old, my boy, and all I’ll say is that I’m sure I don’t hold with any of ’em!”
Faramir patted the worn hand on the reins warmly. “I hope I may be so fine a gentlehobbit as you and Father when I have so many years,” he said gallantly. “You do set a good example, sir!”
“Huh! Don’t think that will smooth it over, boy!”
They settled then into the comfort of long association, the old Master of Buckland and the Thain’s heir, chatting genially for the duration of the journey. For his part, the Master asked a good many questions about the Barway which Faramir answered promptly and knowledgably and, when told about Jamy, gave as his opinion that the river-folk were quite right to keep their young ones away from the far gate. “For you heard aright, sir,” he said gravely. “There are brigands—ruffians from ships on the sea as I take it—who creep up that inlet from time to time, to see what they might steal away. And while the King’s men are charged with the fighting, a few of our folk have seen some ill chance, and some have suffered fates that no hobbit child should ever be told, for fear of evil dreams.” And when the Master asked what those might be, and Faramir had told him in troubled tones, he vowed silently that on no account would Jamy see the Barway while he had anything to say about it, and at the same time he hoped fervently that Captain Bucket was safe and well and on his way home.
“He is anxious to come to the end of the road,” he said, and the Master nodded, taking in as he always did, with a swift, admiring glance, the commanding front elevation of the Great Smials, the neat road sweeping down before it, and the leafy arch through which they were approaching. He transferred the reins to Faramir. “So am I, lad,” he said, “notwithstanding your good company, for which I thank you very much. You’ll know best where to take us from here, but promise you’ll set me down soon so that I may see your father without delay!”
Faramir guided the lead pony up the lane and into the curve of the drive leading to the ancient House of Took, unquestionably the largest and most storied delving in all the Shire. The Master conceded each time he visited that Brandy Hall was but a riverside cottage compared to the vast ancestral seat of the Tooks, which boasted at ground level at least half a dozen imposing front doors, all painted a warm claret red—the Took’s signature colour—embellished with polished brass handles and hinges, and overhung with bowers of leafy vines and blooms. Even now, in these still-early months of spring, the turf was bright with wildflowers; above the great doors a raft of windows and balconies and erratic flights of stairs dug into the hill to define the many levels of the Great House, and on every tier a profusion of growing things spilled forth from box and rail. Behind the front doors were passageways of legend, some said to extend the better part of half a mile into the Green Hills, too numerous to count, and in some cases too far back or belowstairs to be remembered. Various branches of Tooks lived in various locations within the smial, and it was said a Took could live his whole life there and never see every corner of the family manse, though the Thain and the Master, when very young, had mounted a determined if not altogether successful effort to do so. The Master smiled to remember this and to consider that, regardless of its quirks and secrets, Great Smials was startlingly beautiful and strangely elegant for such a baffling construction, and as fanciful, inventive and outrageously romantic in nature as all the generations of Tooks who had ever lived in it.
The Smials was nestled in a sheltered hollow of Tookland and the air was warm on this spring afternoon; a good number of Tooks were abroad in the yard beneath the trees, the adults at work and the children playing industriously, and as it was coming late in the afternoon, many of them had stopped to take tea at tables on the lawn. The Master’s gaze swept across the park but he could not see the Thain.
“We’re early; they won’t be looking for us yet,” counseled Faramir, quietly interpreting both the Master’s glance and his silent anxiety, but even as he spoke a piercing whistle split the air and they looked up to see his brother Galen standing a little way ahead alongside the drive, his arm raised high, waving their attention.
Less elegantly tailored than Faramir, Galen wore a work hand’s leather jerkin with his rough linen shirt and dark breeches, and while this should have rendered him quite unremarkable among the throng at Tuckborough, it rather curiously did not. The sunlight caught the deep cinnamon glints in his hair and the brightness of his small, comely face, and disclosed not only his descent from the fairy-wife, but also the sparkling grace of his Westfarthing heritage: readily it could be seen he was a son of Thains. At his throat he wore a Healer’s Stone, soft, sea green, threaded on a band of fine, braided leather; this token had been bestowed by his Elvish teachers and was now the symbol of his profession. Looking at the lad now with pleasure, the Master recalled how captivated the remaining Elves at Rivendell had been by their diminutive student from the Shire, and how, when they had conferred upon him the status of physician, they had also impetuously named him Elf-friend—for not only had Galen trod the paths of Rivendell with due respect, and acquitted himself with honour, but such was his stature and countenance that his teachers were reminded of the vanished time when there had been children among them, and in these, their last days, this was a forgotten joy they were glad to know again. They had taken Pippin’s second son to their hearts unreservedly, and the sons of Elrond themselves had set the Stone around his neck.
“Galen!” cried Faramir, drawing hard on the reins. “What news?” The forward pony pulled up sharply, anxious to please now, and Faramir’s mount came to a halt as well; several grooms materialized from the stables across the lane to take charge of them. Faramir jumped down with friendly words of thanks and careful instructions with regard to the cart and the luggage; Galen, heading round the other side of the rig, met his brother’s worried glance with a quick nod and turned to the Master with his bright, open smile.
“Hullo, Healer!” said the Master fondly. “How are you keeping, my lad?”
“Well! And welcome, Uncle!” Galen returned warmly, reaching up to hand the old gentlehobbit down over the wheel, while the Master, dismayed at finding himself more than a little stiff after the long ride, braced himself for the shock of his descent with practiced endurance. But he arrived on the ground on Galen’s surprisingly strong arm none too jarred at all, and affectionately embraced Pippin’s youngest, whose clever, good-natured features were so like Pippin’s—though the oddly bewitching blue-violet eyes that gazed at him from beneath the fall of tousled auburn curls had most assuredly come of Diamond.
Galen met the muted anxiety of the Master’s eye with a soft gleam of understanding in his own, and the embrace with equal affection and—had the Master but known it—some well-concealed professional scrutiny. “How well you look, Uncle!” he said approvingly. “And how very glad I am that you have come to help us.”
Over the years, the Master had often sat with Pippin in this garden, enjoying a pint and the lively conversations that came of their long friendship. The pleasant enclosure was sheltered on three sides by tall hedges of leafy hawthorn and wild rose, and on the fourth by the turf-covered outer wall of the library. There was a low wooden gate in one corner that opened the hedge to the lane beyond and a little cobbled path leading there. Diamond had overseen construction of the garden and had often conferred enthusiastically with Sam about what should grow there; Pippin had simply enjoyed it, scent and sound and beauty, for many years.
The Master sighed, thinking of the weeks he had spent at the Smials in the long autumn just past. It had been unsettlingly cold then, and the wind had blown strong and biting, and the little garden had been dark with neglect. The brown leaves had gusted down from the thorny hedge and scattered across the abandoned remains of the summer’s blooms, but the Tooks had been distracted and forgetful, wrapped as they were in the awful hush of illness and bereavement, and no one had heart or mind to go out and tidy the beds. In any event it was bitter out, and he and Pippin had stayed indoors next to the fire in the private seclusion of the library, clasping cups of hot wine in trembling hands and trying to find words for one another while beyond the door the younger Tooks watched and waited and letters came from the younger Brandybucks, sharing their sorrow and hoping to allay their fears.
For his part, he had striven to offer some spoken comfort that might undo the numbing spell of sorrow and loss that was woven thick about Pippin’s heart in the wake of Diamond’s passing. But the autumn slipped away before an early winter and still they were bereft of speech, and finally they had fled the hearth and taken to the byways and the hedgerows; and one windy day the snow had begun to fly, and in a swirl of glistening crystal Pippin had waked suddenly from his dreadful dream of grief. He had stopped in his tracks and clutched at Merry’s arm with a hesitant, breathless smile, the tears in his eyes reflecting not only his sorrow but the welcome return of all the feelings and senses that he had banked against it; and then he had raised his face to the pearlescent sky and begun to laugh softly as the snow spun down to sweetly kiss their hands and hair and noses—and words had come at last, and the season of hard mourning was over, for they knew now that life would go on again, as it had always done with them; and they would go on as well, as it seemed they were meant to do.
Still, as he rested now in Pippin’s garden, swept of all the sorrow and neglect of the sad time just past and abloom with the shy new life of spring, the Master wondered uneasily what else might have come to Pippin on that sparkling winter wind, and what Galen would have to say of it, and what must come of it all in the end. A breath of foreboding stirred uneasily in the back of his mind and he shuddered a little, for it had never once occurred to him as he set forth from Buckland on his errand that Pippin might not be able to undertake the adventure he had planned.
Galen brought the foaming mugs to the table. “This is a rare treat for me, Uncle,” he said lightly, handing them round. “We do not get much Buckland beer in the north.”
“No?” said the Master genially, his teasing response masking a quick glance of penetrating consideration. Galen, like Fair, had a tranquil nature, and he was justly confident of his skills, but to the Master he seemed strangely troubled. “I shall instruct Theo to send you a barrel every year from now on, my lad,” he said easily. “Meanwhile, tip up that cup, sir! You look a fellow who could use a good draught before he must unburden himself of hard news.”
Galen smiled ruefully as he slipped into his seat and took up his mug. “To your good health, Uncle,” he said sincerely, “and to our Father’s, Fair,” and when Faramir and the Master had touched their cups to his, he drank deeply. “Ah, that’s good!” he sighed, when he had done. “That’s lovely….” And he took a deep breath before he set the mug down and then scrubbed wearily at his eyes.
Faramir winced. “It’s bad news, then?” he said in a low voice.
Galen raised his face to his brother’s, and something like a shadow fell across his crisp, quicksilver features; he shook his glossy curls as a sharp crease formed between his brows. “Not altogether bad, brother,” he said hesitantly. “But then not altogether …good…either….”
“I see you have come from your father none too happy, Healer,” the Master murmured, and Galen heaved a fretful sigh. “You’re right,” he said frankly. “But I beg you will have patience with me—I shall explain all my concerns in just a little time. First, though, you shall hear what Laury and I learned today….”
“Where is Laury?” asked Faramir, looking round suddenly with a frown. “And where are Goldilocks and Amethyst? Oughtn’t they to have joined us by now?”
“They aren’t coming,” Galen said, and it seemed now that the physician spoke, rather than Faramir’s younger brother. “I don’t want them to hear this, Fair.” And he threw out a hand as Faramir half rose in protest:
“Please, brother—for now! It’s for the best. Laury has taken them aside for this little time with fairings and news from Long Cleeve, and for now she means to keep what she knows about Father to herself. I do not want Amy and Goldilocks to hear what we have learned yet—not if there is any chance we might set it to rights before they must know the whole of it. You know—you know, Fair!—they will move as one to wrap Father up in cotton wool the minute they know something is truly amiss.” He looked grimly from Faramir to the Master. “So might we have done, as well, in other circumstances,” he conceded, “but in this I want the truth. I want to buy him a little more time, so that perhaps he will tell us what is toward.”
Fair’s eyes warmed with affection and he reached for Galen’s hand. “If there is something truly amiss with Father,” he said, meeting his brother’s wary gaze, “then I won’t question your decision, Galen. I might have argued otherwise but a breath or two ago, but I can see now that what you have to tell us will be nowise comforting.”
Galen sighed and nodded. “I am sorry, Fair,” he said, and regret shone open in his deep, lavender-blue eyes. Faramir saw this and held his hand a moment longer before he let it go. “I beg you will not worry now about what you must say to me, or how you are to say it, little brother,” he said quietly and with the sweet, open expression of feeling for which the Thain’s children had always been known. “You are the Healer here, Galen. I sent for you because I needed you—and I am prepared to hear the truth.” And Galen met his gaze and smiled gratefully, leaning forward to speak with his neat, capable hands cupped before him on the table:
“Laury and I caught Father completely off guard today,” he began, and they marked that his eyes sparkled merrily for a moment. “I must report that Father was very good about it. He suffered my examination without a murmur and enjoyed it immensely when I was forced to confess I could find nothing whatever wrong with him. He diverted most of my questions with a ridiculous amount of sauce—save us, but you were right, Fair! I was never set upon with so many beguiling distractions in all my life! That proved a useful thing, though, for Laury was able to do her delving while Father was busy disarming me. She and I are in agreement: he is not ill, nor is he in some decline of age, or wasting away with sickness. Further, he’s younger in his mind than anyone of his years I have ever known, save you, Uncle Merry. So, the good news is that so far as his health is concerned, he is seeming well, and much as he has always been.”
The Master heard these words and exhaled with silent relief: for such news as this he was more grateful than either of them could know. But Faramir shook his head, dismayed. “But how can that be?” he demanded. “You know what I saw, Galen! He is not himself! Surely you saw something to explain that?”
Galen nodded and took up his mug again, and for a little time he was silent and absorbed, frowning down into the brown depths of his beer. “You’re right, Fair,” he said finally. “I am loath to say what I must. There is more to tell: we did find what we were looking for, though what it is and how it came there, I am not prepared to say. Laury sensed it lying deep, as she so often can with hidden hurts, and told me what to look for. We said nothing to Father, though, for it was clear he wished to keep it from us and was working very hard to do so.”
Fair and the Master exchanged dark glances and waited for Galen to continue. The young Healer leaned forward on his elbows, closed his eyes and bent his forehead to his steepled fingers.
Softly he said, “There is some…struggle…some…war lying close upon our Father’s heart,” and then he opened his eyes and they saw for the first time in his bright gaze a hard glimmer of fear. He marked their dismay with a grimace and bent his head to his hands again.
“Galen,” said the Master, holding his breath. “You fear this thing? Why?”
The young Healer hesitated, and his face reflected then an inner battle they had not marked before and the wounds that had come of it to his spirit. Faramir caught his breath in sorrow, for he could see his brother was not only afraid, but also deadly pale with shame.
“Save us, Uncle, but I cannot touch it!” Galen said low, in a voice that trembled. “It has no substance! It is no easy tangle of bone or flesh, or even some evil humour that I might name or set to rights—it is the stuff of dreams, woven into some strange, aching cry that rises up in Father’s blood to tear his peace from out his heart! My skill counts for nothing here: I cannot dose it or cut it out, and Laury cannot loose it from him either!” He shuddered. “I cannot fail my father!” he murmured brokenly. “I am not fit to call myself a Healer if I give him up to this!”
“What is it, then?” Faramir whispered, watching him fearfully.
Galen fingered the Stone at his throat. “When first we came upon it,” he said, frowning to himself, “it seemed but a shadow; but as the hours wore on today, we marked it stir and murmur and then it began to sing as in his blood, and then Father’s heart began to fall into the rhythm of its song. I could see it made him ill—just as you said, Fair—but Father made no murmur, and behaved as though he knew it for his enemy but accepted it as his master, without complaint. He held on for as long he could and then he left us with the sweetest of speeches to hurry away up the hill—to sit with Mama, he said, and then to await your coming, Uncle.”
The Master shook his head wordlessly.
Galen said, as if laying out the case to himself: “I think he must go up the hill to be alone when it overtakes him. And I think he knows what it is, and what it is doing to him, and he means to keep it from us if he can. But I cannot think why he does so, and it vexes me: it’s easy enough to see how burdened and anxious he is—and how angry with himself for letting it show! But what could be worse for us than knowing how he suffers? And what could be worse for him than suffering alone? Why does he do it, and why won’t he tell us what it is?”
And then Galen’s bright young face was further dimmed with grief, and in a low voice, thick with anguish, he said: “I think perhaps he knows there is nothing I can do!”
Faramir’s eyes misted over now with tears: “I beg you will not believe that, brother!” he whispered, and his words were both a cry and a caress.
The Master bit his lip, marking both the sick-making understanding rising in Faramir’s eyes and the despair standing open now in Galen’s. His own heart was cold with apprehension, all his vague uneasiness now perfectly focused with dread. “Are you quite sure he is not grieving still?” he asked without much hope, mostly to stay his fear, but thinking of his own painfully long adjustment to being alone again and mindful that it had only been six months since Diamond’s passing.
But Galen answered thoughtfully: “He is yet grieving, surely, for he will ever miss our mother. But I cannot think he has any reason to make such a secret of it; nor can I think that any grief would lay siege upon him in this way. You know Father: life will be what it will be is his philosophy, and even when it is breaking, his heart is filled with light. I own I always thought that strange until I went among the Elves, but I learned something there of bright spirits like Father’s, ever hopeful even in the darkest hours. They are rare in this world, and precious. Grief alone could not quell such a spirit, or the light surrounding it; indeed, the long grief of the Eldar, buried deep as it is in years, reveals itself in light. You can see it, when you look on them in twilight. It is not quite the same with Father, of course, but like enough, it ever seemed to me. In any case, it is his way, or has been, so long as I have lived. I cannot think it would be different now. Still—you have known Father all your life, Uncle. Perhaps you have known him to sorrow like this before?”
Slowly the Master shook his white head. “No,” he said softly, his narrow blue gaze darkening perceptibly. “I have not.”
Galen drew a breath. “Uncle,” he said, “I have marked that you have always been a source of strength for Father, and never more than when our mother died. I confess I was amazed at what you did for him, sir. I have never witnessed such a bond before—not here among our own folk, nor far away in Rivendell, which is all but empty now of broken hearts. Father’s grief was nowise what it might have been had you not come to share it. We all of us tried to help, but I tell you true: you were his best medicine.”
The Master shrugged. “’Twas no more than he did for me when it was my loss, lad,” he said, and perceiving in their eloquent expressions that both Galen and Faramir were thinking of that dark, dreadful time, he added quietly, “We have ever looked out for each other—Pippin and I—from the time we were little lads; and so we shall continue, I expect, for as long as may be.”
Galen reached to clasp the Master’s hand in trembling fingers. “Then I beg you will look out for him now, Uncle,” he said, “for he is sore beset by some nightmare that is not within my skill to dismiss, and I think it may be that he needs some special understanding that only you may have of him.”
The Master said slowly, “Some…special understanding? You think you cannot help him?”
Galen’s hand tightened on the Master’s; he bent his head. “I do fear it is beyond me,” he said in a voice thick with tears, “and oh! that is not all! Now I must tell you both the worst of it, and never has this task been more hateful to me! I am afraid for Father’s life if this struggle continues. It is too hard; he is too old! The day will come when his heart will be unable to withstand it. Save us, but it will kill him soon or late!”
There was a ghastly pause. Faramir froze in his seat, staring. “Galen!” he whispered.
“No.” The Master surged blindly to his feet. “NO.”
Galen rose quickly, meeting the old hobbit’s anguished protest and Faramir’s horrified dismay with hands out flung in support of each. “I’m sorry,” he said, his face white with pain, “but I can see he despairs of his life before this thing. I wish it were not so!” And then he cried, “Oh, Uncle, I beg you! Don’t abandon reason now!”
For as he had done when first he sat before his own hearth with Éomer’s letter open in his hands, the Master lost himself now in the shock of tidings he could not comprehend, and his spirit failed beneath him. Pippin! he cried silently, wordlessly, and he saw again the stars slipping through his fingers. No, please, not Pippin! He sagged toward the table, but Galen caught him on the instant, and Faramir, startled to his feet, threw an arm about him as well, and then his own unsparing instincts rocked him back into place. He flattened his hands on the tabletop to steady himself and, finding his sight again, stared down at them: rough and brown, hardened and battered with age. He felt odd suddenly, untethered and painfully unsure. After a long moment he sighed and looked up at the two young hobbits standing beside him.
“I am sorry; I was not prepared for this,” he said softly, straightening with determined dignity. “I beg your pardon, lads. But never have I known Pippin to despair of his life, even in the worst of circumstances. I did not think he could. You are right, Galen: the joy of existence shines in him like the sun and it has ever been so, even when he was very small. Such joy as he has given us because of it! I cannot believe that anything could dim that light; faith, but it has seen me through some of the darkest moments of my life!” He smiled suddenly: his crooked smile, the one he reserved for his most unguarded moments: “Shall I tell you a secret, lads?” he said. “I depend upon it!”
“So do we,” murmured Faramir, swaying suddenly under Galen’s hand. His eyes burned pale green now, hard and steady in his taut, fine-boned face, as if suddenly there had shifted to his shoulders a burden that was almost too heavy to carry, but which he meant to bear regardless. The Master recognized it as the same uncanny dignity that Pippin always conjured in times of necessity and his heart stirred with both pain and joy to see it.
“I must go up to him,” he murmured. “Now.”
Both Faramir and Galen turned their faces to him, and hope leapt up in their eyes. Galen glanced briefly in the direction of the hills beyond the rose and hawthorn hedge. “Father will be glad,” he said. “He’s anxious to see you, sir. And I’ve a notion he means to tell you what is happening.”
Suddenly the Master of the Hall was himself again, in all his storied Magnificence. Beneath the shining cloud of silver hair his eyes, sharp as any eagle’s, blazed with dark blue light, his jaw settled in pugnacious determination, and he drew himself up to his full height—always impressive, but in this moment the very embodiment of unparalleled authority. Fair and Galen exchanged awestruck glances; the Master turned away, frowning and muttering to himself, patting his various pockets, making a silent inventory.
“You think he means to tell me?” he said suddenly, his eyes alight with resolve. “Oh, indeed he will! And let me tell you: he will do so whether he means to or not!” And bending on the two of them a look of mordant significance he took up his mug and drained it in one long, continuous swallow. “And there will be no flinging of sauce about, either!” he declared darkly, setting it down with a thump.
Pippin’s sons looked at one another and suddenly, helplessly, they began to laugh. The Master paused, struck by the sound. Poor lads: they were exhausted with care and their fair features were wrung with worry, but still, like their father, their hearts were brave and hopeful, and they stood in solidarity, together against the dark.
“How good you are!” he said feelingly, and he moved to embrace them. “You do your father very proud, such fine sons as you are,” he said, and they looked at one another and coloured faintly, as if suddenly they felt shy.
The Master glanced up to gauge the position of the westering sun. “There are still some hours of daylight left,” he said, considering. “You said the highland, Fair? Beyond the barrowfield?”
“The groom will have a pony saddled for you in a twinkling,” said Fair, taking a step toward the gate, but the Master stopped him with a gesture. “I thank you, lad,” he said, “but there’s no need. I am in haste, it is true, but I have been sitting nearly all the day and it will be a relief to get up and stretch my legs. I shall enjoy a good walk up the hill.”
Galen and Faramir exchanged a glance. “It’s a fair hike, Uncle,” Faramir said doubtfully, “and steep!”
“Aye, I remember it.” The Master winked at him. “Don’t fuss, now, my boy; I’ll be fine.” He took up his cloak. “Is there anything I can carry up to him? Food, or drink? Has he had his tea?”
“Oh, I think you may depend upon that, Uncle!” said Galen with a slow smile, casting a wry look at his brother.
Faramir smiled ruefully. “You know Goldilocks, sir. My good wife will not think of letting Father go up the hill anymore without a wealth of provisions for his comfort. I’ve no doubt he can lay you a tea worthy of kings, Uncle! But you won’t let him distract you with that, will you, sir?”
“Surely you have noticed by now that I am hard to distract,” the Master said, smiling archly. “And Pippin has never yet got the best of me when I set out to get the best of him first! Depend upon it: I shall have his confession by nightfall.”
They crossed the garden to the little wooden gate and Faramir lifted the latch so they might step through into the busy lane that lay between the smial and the stables. The sounds of the Great Smial filled the air here: the shouts of children, the stamping of ponies, the ring of the smith’s anvil and the hard tap of the farrier’s hammer, the laughter of the lasses in the kitchens around the corner, the busy chatter of the hands coming in from the fields. It seemed another world, after the seeming stillness of the garden; the Master wondered whether it was the hedge or the subject of their talk that had created the hush within.
Galen turned aside now to pluck a short staff from a barrel set next to the gate and this he gave into the Master’s startled hands. “Take this to ease your way, Uncle,” he said. “You are not used to walking in the hills.”
The staff, which was shorter than the usual and reminded the Master rather too closely of Pippin’s walking stick, met with his instant disapproval. Gently, he pushed it back into Galen’s hands. “I think not this one,” he said gently. “I should like a longer one: that one, there.”
Galen considered this alternative for a moment and shook his head. “I think you would do better with the shorter, sir,” he said. “At your age, the balance is important.”
The Master could not help but glare resentfully at this, but the young Healer only smiled warmly, quite oblivious to his displeasure, and went on: “I am told the upward path is very slippery toward the top, sir, and the stair to the highland can be hazardous. You’ll have more control over the shorter; Father finds his stick very useful up there, you know, and he is years younger than you.”
The Master opened his mouth indignantly, caught sight of Galen’s sweet expression—so lately anguished and so very like Pippin’s, in any case!— and thought the better of saying what he thought of this counsel. He loved the lad, even if he was apparently in agreement with Amethyst and Goldilocks (and Jamy, the little knave!) when it came to managing hobbits of heroic age. The Master glowered darkly behind his eyes and began to appreciate Theo’s tact and deference and Bo’s subtle discretion. Even Berry’s occasional fits of temper when he was at his most obstinate did not seem so bad as this gentle insistence upon his supposed limitations! Seeking a way out, he looked for Faramir and observed him over Galen’s shoulder, smothering a smile. Traitorous puppy! His eyes narrowed.
“Now, sir!” Faramir said hastily, flinching under his baleful eye. “Surely it couldn’t hurt to carry it up with you—you never know when you might need it!”
From the look that crossed Faramir’s face now, the Master saw that the boy must have realized instantly this was not the right thing to say, but it was too late now, and to his credit, Faramir acknowledged it. His green eyes danced as he surrendered all his pretences. “Oh, Uncle Merry!” he laughed. “Do forgive us, won’t you? You know we can’t help it!”
“Gah!” growled the Master, snatching up the stunted branch from Galen and shouldering it like a pike staff. “I’ll take the wretched thing—but I’m quite sure I shan’t need it! You mark I’m only taking it to please the two of you! I’m going now—look for your father and me at sundown—and Faramir, please to tell your good wife that I shall not require any hot milk or possets when I retire tonight!”
“Very good, sir!” said Faramir with as near to a straight face as he could muster, and the Master of Buckland bowed stiffly, turned with extreme dignity upon his heel and marched away down the lane. The stick rode high on his shoulder, and never once before he passed from their sight did it touch the ground.
The brothers leaned on the gate watching him go, and when he was out of earshot Faramir clutched the gatepost and whistled softly. “Save us! That was bold, little brother! Surely you know there is nothing he hates so much as Father’s stick?”
Galen frowned in his serious way. “Aye, but he is an old fellow and he should take more care. Do you think I overset him?”
“Overset Uncle Merry?” Faramir shook his head. “It can’t be done! That is Uncle Magnificent, little brother! It’s true he is uncommonly sensitive about his age, but Galen, even you have to admit he’s steady as a rock yet. You saw how he marshaled himself after his fright.”
The Healer sighed. “Aye,” he said softly. “But Fair, they’re old now—as old as anyone can be and still totter around the Shire with a purpose. And neither of them is immortal, or exempt from old age, no matter the greatness destiny bestowed upon them. Mark me: Uncle Magnificent will need that stick before he crests the highland, and unless I miss my guess, Father is considering his own mortality even now.”
“Ahh!” Fair loosed a ragged moan. “Galen, can Uncle Merry really help Father?”
“I think we must stake our hearts upon it,” Galen said, running a restless hand through his hair. “Listen: you’ve marked how they understand each other, sometimes even without speaking? Mind you when Auntie Stella passed so suddenly and Uncle Merry was broken nearly to death with grief and fury, and Father stayed with him for all those long weeks when Uncle would have no one else near him, sleeping or waking? Or when Uncle came unbidden to be with Father last autumn and knew exactly how to console him, even if it meant just sitting next him in silence day after day? I have never seen anything like that, Fair, in all my life. When Uncle said he depended on Father to light his way, he spoke the truth, for himself and for Father. They draw some kind of strength from one another—and I think that is what Father needs now.”
“Fortune attend them both, then,” Faramir said softly, “as it has ever done! Let them both be well! But what are you saying, then, brother? That one may not go on without the other?”
“Aye,” murmured Galen, frowning, as they went back through the garden door and walked together toward the library. “I almost think that is the way of it….the way it will be. But now, brother, answer for me: what did Uncle mean when he said he was unprepared for this? Did he not come for Father’s benefit? What brings him to Tuckborough, if he had no knowledge of our trouble?”
“Oh—‘tis news of the Horse-lords,” said Fair over his shoulder, stopping to gather the mugs from the table. “He’s had a letter from Rohan he’s keen to share with Father.”
“Truly?” Galen stooped for the barrel and lifted it to the sound of a satisfying slosh. “A letter? But that doesn’t serve….Two days on the road, Fair, in a spring come late upon a bitter winter—when yet the nights are so cold that we must wrap ourselves in downy quilts till morning—to carry some distant news that could be sent faster by the post?” He frowned, turning around to stare thoughtfully at the gate.
“I said much the same,” shrugged Faramir, “but he maintained his business was the letter from Éomer King—and wanting to see how Father was getting on alone.”
Galen shook his head, a pensive smile curling the corners of his mouth. “I don’t believe it! No—depend upon it, Fair: he’s got something on his mind, and he came for Father’s advice! That means it’s important; I wonder what it is?”
“Save us!” cried Fair, scrubbing wildly at his curls. “What next? Not even out of the pan—and already into the fire? Who would think two such amiable old fellows could blast the peace of two households so completely? For now that you mention it, little brother, I’ll wager Uncle left Brandy Hall in an uproar behind him. I wish we could talk to Theo!”
Galen laughed softly. “Theo no doubt has his own problems, but we have Father and Uncle Merry here together, and both of them keeping secrets! Faith, if I were not so otherwise concerned about Father, Fair, I think I should be very frightened indeed!”
The path steepened suddenly as it dug upward out of the hedgerows and he stumbled a little; in his hand the staff seemed to swing up and then down before he was consciously aware of it. Now it thumped along the ground beside him, sharing the burden of the sharper incline and the rough verge and he regarded it darkly as he clambered up over the last little ridge and stopped at the edge of the meadow-garden cradled there between the hills: the barrowfield of the Greater Tooks.
“Well, perhaps it was a bit steep,” he thought crossly, still unwilling to give Galen any measure of satisfaction in the matter. “But I am not required to climb hills in Buckland, so it is natural I should feel it somewhat.”
Resentfully he noted now that the intensity of his worry for Pippin and the effort required to climb the hill had combined to snatch his breath away; his legs pained him somewhat, too. He leaned panting on the staff, ruminating indignantly on this state of affairs; after awhile he seemed to fumble without thinking in the pocket of his coat, but as his fingers closed on what he sought, he caught himself abruptly. “Save us!” he muttered savagely, pulling his hand back and clamping it firmly round the stick. “Am I become a fool now, as well as an old gaffer? I am nearly forgetting poor Pippin with all this nonsense!” And he set off across the meadow toward the escarpment that marked the upward passage to the highland.
Patches of spring wildflowers had sprung up in the grass along the pathways cut through the field and he had not gone far before he paused with a little smile and stooped to gather a small bouquet of violets and heartsease from one of the borders. He wrapped the stems round with a long, thin blade of grass and tied it off when there was only a little length left, and this he carried to the green hollow beneath the stone stairs that climbed to the highland. He could see Pippin’s marks there beside Diamond’s barrow, a vague confusion of grass where he must have sat talking to her earlier in the day. He stood considering the marks for a moment, then bent to lay the flowers carefully on the mound.
The bouquet was for both of them—for Estella and Diamond, whom he and Pippin had so loved, each to his own, and missed now so very much. He had combined their flowers in his offering, for he had a vague notion that anywhere hobbits slept in the earth must be a place where any might be addressed, of those who were no more. It was a fanciful thought, born of his travels abroad and of time spent learning the ways of Men, but it was also oddly comforting in a way he could not quite fathom; whenever he thought of it he walked cautiously in his mind. It seemed to him an idea as pale and true as dawn, and yet again, as fragile as eggshells.
He wanted some comfort now, with Pippin so strangely ill and his snug little plan for Édoras very possibly scattered to the four winds because of it. He wanted courage, too, and patience, if the anxiety that weighed on his heart was any indication.
“Help me, Di!” he begged softly, conjuring her in his memory, knowing that her love, combined with his, must be strong enough to protect Pippin from whatever menaced him. “I mean to save him, dear, and I will, if you will help me!” And then, putting his hand to his breast he said silently to Estella, as he turned to the stairs, “Stay my heart, love! You know how it is for us; we have always been as brothers and I could not bear to lose him now!”
A hawk sailed overhead keening on the wind: a falcon, called peregrine in the world of Men. His rusty screech sounded to the Master’s ears like a cry for help; he took the steps to the highland two at a time, and when he reached the top, he was sorry for it. He leaned on the despised walking stick, gritting his teeth until the ache in his legs subsided, his eyes anxiously sweeping the breadth of the meadow, the falcon swooping away down into the lowlands with another piercing cry of distress. The grass on the hilltop waved around his calves, a lush green meadow, with here and there a clutch of buttercup and chamomile. Pippin was nowhere to be seen.
There was a large flat stone at the top of the stairs, and he saw that Pippin’s old leather pack lay haphazardly beside it, as though it had been hurriedly cast aside. His heart contracted. He threw the staff down next to it and waded out into the grass. “Pippin?” he called. “Pip, it’s me—where are you? Pippin? Pippin!”
No answer came, but away down below toward the Smials the peregrine falcon swooped and circled, and the sound of his cry leapt up into the hills and the grass stirred beneath it.