Normally, he did not notice such things—and certainly he rarely acknowledged them. Merry Brandybuck had not suffered the coming of age gracefully; in fact, he had refused to suffer it at all. He regarded his vast accumulation of years with wry delight, but declined in every instance to consider what it must mean to him sooner or later. He ignored his aches and pains with implacable determination, and made it his business to defy the dictates of age at every turn.
Pippin’s beautiful walking stick dismayed him: “What’s that?” he demanded. “Are you ill?”
“No,” laughed Pippin. “But I’m not as sure as I once was, Merry. I find it very useful, especially on long walks. It’s handsome too, don’t you think? I think it gives me an air. And it’s nice to be able to lean on it when I need to.”
“Bah!” said Merry. “You don’t need to! Think you were old!”
“I am old!” returned Pippin, not at all perturbed, but slyly seeing his advantage (he had learned to, over the years). “And as I’m the youngest, why, that makes you considerably older! You should have a stick, Merry. Don’t think I haven’t noticed you’ve slowed a bit yourself.”
“What a lot of rot!” exclaimed Merry, exasperated. “You can think yourself old if you like, Pippin, but I’m having none of it. I don’t believe in old age, and neither would you, if you knew what was good for you. I don’t want a stick; I feel quite the same as I did when I was fifty!” And he stuck to this opinion, though he was every day of a hundred. Pippin, wisely, did not pursue the matter; in truth, it did seem, more often than not, as if Merry did not feel his years.
Nonetheless, on this morning, the Master had a myriad of aches and pains that were hard to ignore. He bore them grimly, acknowledging them only because they were the aftermath of heartbreak, his deep, aching sorrow for Éomer and the Tree. It was the way of things with him: five years ago, when Estella had passed so quietly and gently out of his life, the resulting overflow of fury and loss had wracked him for months, and Pippin’s painful grief for Diamond this past autumn had laid a burden on him, too. Well, he would allow for it today, but then it must be set aside, for he would be off to Tuckborough tomorrow and that was a fair trek; he had no notion of letting it bother him all the way along the road. He had spent the night making decisions, after all, and the last thing he intended to let stand in his way was age.
He quit the stairs and made his way down the quiet passageway to the kitchen, where he stopped to arrange a tray of morning tea. More than once he had thought to imitate Pippin’s cozy way, to keep a kettle and a little pantry in his study; but then he reminded himself that Pippin had to do so, as trays were out of the question if one insisted on walking about like an old person with a stick! He could still carry his own tray, thank you, and endure his old bones now and again without creeping about like some enfeebled venerable. He hoisted the tray and made for the study; Jamy would be sleeping still, but a cup of tea, along with toast and preserves, would make a start; he hoped they might have a little talk before it was time to meet the others for breakfast and the planned departure downriver.
He lifted the latch quietly and shouldered his way through the door, stopping in surprise to see that the fire was stirred up and snapping briskly, and the boy was awake, sitting up among the pillows with the lamp dispelling the gloom at his right hand and Estella’s portfolio spread out on the blankets before him in the firelight. Jamy looked around in surprise when the crockery rattled faintly on the tray.
“Sir!” He made to rise, but was slowed by concern for the pictures and the lamp.
“No, stay there, I can manage. Faith lad! Don’t tell me you’ve been up all the night pouring over those pictures?”
“Oh, no, sir. I slept a long time—this is as soft a bed as I’ve never seen since I was little! I’ll be spoiled for the deck before long.” He smiled warmly and then glanced at the pictures on the blanket. “I—I hope you don’t mind, sir. I woke a while ago and thought to look at the rest.”
The Master set the tray on the refectory table and flexed his fingers a little before pouring out the tea. “Something caught your fancy there?”
“Yes, sir! Come and look!”
He carried a mug of tea and a plate piled with toast to the boy and then went back for his own. Meanwhile, Jamy eased out from under the blankets and sprang up to tug his bed a little to one side and pull the Master’s chair forward to the fire. He set one of the tables next to it. “There you are, sir,” he said, taking the dishes so the Master could settle himself and laying them carefully beside him on the table. He sniffed appreciatively. “It smells good!”
“Well, eat, then!”
The Master took up his tea and Jamy returned to his pillows. For a few minutes they savored the tea and toasted bread and butter and Berry’s delectable strawberry preserves in busy silence. The Master studied the pictures on the blanket over the rim of his mug. He had not looked at these for many years.
Estella’s most telling gift had been her talent for infusing images with truth, and when those images were faces, the renderings were exquisitely accurate. Beyond that, however, she had possessed an uncanny ability to shade her portraits with the deepest measure of spirit, suggesting characteristics of mind and heart that should have been nearly impossible to portray with brushes and inks. Yet time and again she managed, and she had most certainly done so with these, her portraits of The Travellers Returned: he and Pippin and Frodo and Sam, long, long ago. Gentle memories they seemed to him now, with sigils worked like pale dreams into the backgrounds: whispers of the destinies they had met and embraced.
Jamy set down his mug and carefully wiped his fingers on his trousers. Gently, he lifted one of the pictures: a sandy-haired youngster with fierce, flashing blue eyes and a daring smile. “This is you, I reckon,” he said, glancing back and forth between the painting and the Master. “I can’t make out how, but you look the same. And here,” he pointed to the sigil, an intricate weave of equine symbols in shimmering echoes of green and wine, “this means to signify the Horse-lords?”
“Aye, you’ve the way of it.” The Master felt a little exposed. He wondered if the boy could see what he saw in this portrait of apparent youthful triumph: the unfocused resolve and the dark, roiling well of emotion, barely contained and all but concealed behind that brash, self-confident smile. Certainly Estella had not been fooled— one of the few, save for Pippin and Sam, who had their own secrets and could easily understand. Estella had been such a surprise to him, he thought, with a sharp pang of loss: such an unaccountably lovely surprise!
“And would this be the Thain, then, sir?” Jamy was looking admiringly at young Pippin now, free and easy and undeniably dashing before a misted shadow of the White City, seven silver stars atop the tower. How long had Estella studied him to be able to catch that elusive shadow in his spring-green eyes, and the faint but unmistakable lines round his mouth, that buried sadness that nonetheless marked him with such gentle dignity? Not long, he thought. The subtle imprints that resulted of the Travellers’ collision with Darkness had never been lost on Estella: she could see in a glance what others wouldn’t notice in a lifetime.
Jamy said with satisfaction, “So this is who I remind you of! I like the look of him! What’s that in the back? Is it the same as there?” He pointed to Estella’s rendering of the Battle of the Pelennor Fields in the loft, the painting that had held him spellbound the previous day.
The Master nodded. “That is the white stone city of Minas Tirith,” he said with proper solemnity, “the home of the High King. The Thain has long been a member of the Tower Guard there, a Knight of Gondor, if you will.”
“A Knight?” Jamy cocked a shining eye at the banner above the fire. “And are you a Knight of Rohan, then?” he asked.
He studied the familiar banner, trying to see it as he had when it was new and he had been so very young and desperate. “Yes, though in the beginning I was not a knight, but esquire to King Théoden.”
“Who was he? You haven’t said anything of him before now.”
“He was the King of Rohan in the days when first I came to Edoras,” he mused. “He was uncle to Éomer, a good and gracious man. He died in battle on the field at Minas Tirith. My Theo is named for him.”
“Oh! Why, that’s so, isn’t it? What is an esquire, sir?”
“That is a knight’s young attendant, his shieldbearer and servant.”
“Servant!” Jamy shook his head. “I shouldn’t want to be anybody’s servant—I should want to fight!”
The Master ruffled the boy’s hair with a smile of admonishment. “A knight is himself a servant, child: of his liege lord, or if he is a king, of his people. Théoden King was as great a man as I ever knew. I loved him. I wished to serve him, you understand, and he was good enough to find a place for me in his court, an untried boy from a far country, no great hand with a sword, but full of heart—like you!”
Jamy smiled to acknowledge this compliment. His bright eyes seemed to shimmer more gold than green in the firelight. He looked again at Pippin. “Faith, sir, he doesn’t look old enough to be a Knight there, does he? Did he fight? Does he have a sword, too?”
“He did fight,” he said gravely. “And he was not so very old; he was not even come of age then. But he was very brave: he slew a troll, you know, on the battlefield before the Black Gate of Mordor.”
“He never did, sir! A troll!”
He had anticipated this response and smiled as he teased gently: “Oh, yes indeed. Master Peregrin is nearly as fascinating—if not quite so tall—as myself!”
Jamy laughed. “Did you kill monsters, sir?”
“I might have. But that’s for another day, lad.” Not this morning, he thought; there isn’t time. “What else have you got there?”
Jamy took up yet another of the Travelers, this one margined by a silver tree with golden blossoms: a grave, handsome face with thoughtful grey eyes, soft beneath a tangle of light brown curls. “I make this must be Sam—er, the Mayor, sir. He’s most the image of Master Tom, isn’t he? I like him. What’s this tree about, now?”
“Ah,” said the Master, gazing on the mild and youthful Sam, in whose eyes Estella had most certainly reflected the crucible endured for Frodo. “That is the only Mallorn tree in Middle Earth west of the Misty Mountains. It was given to Sam when it was but a silver seed, in a little box of earth from the Golden Wood: the Elf-land of Lothlorien. It was a gift from the Lady Galadriel herself, who was Queen over all who lived and walked there.”
Jamy caught a dazzled breath. “A queen, sir! And Elves! Why did she give one of her trees to Master Sam?”
“Because she knew she looked on a hobbit who loved the earth as much as the Elves did and who would care for the best bit of it with all his heart when they were gone. The tree stands to this day in the Party Field on the Hill in Hobbiton. Sam used to say it should remind all of us how fine we can be, if we try.” He reached down now and drew the last painting onto Jamy’s knees. “And what do you think of Frodo?”
The boy stroked the edges of the portrait with a pensive hand, uncertain. “He was… fine, wasn’t he? Gentry, I’ll warrant, but that’s not all.” He cocked his halo of chestnut curls, perplexed. “He looks sad,” he murmured.
The Ring-bearer’s face glowed in the lamplight against a pale shadow of the Grey Havens, the high, curving rise of the Ship’s bow nearly obscuring a shining thrust of sail. Beauty veiled as ever his heart’s anguish, but the tremulous curve of his lips suggested the grief and exhausted resignation that had drawn him at last to the shores of the sea. The light in his eyes brought tears to the Master’s. Jamy glanced up in time to see them.
“He was fine, lad.” He never bothered to hide his tears for Frodo. “He was the very best hobbit that ever was.”
“Whatever happened to him was bad, wasn’t it?” The boy’s small face was grave. “Did he die of it, sir?”
The Master sighed. “No, but he could not stay in the Shire. We saw him to the Grey Havens; that’s an anchorage beyond the Tower Hills in the Westmarch. He took ship there with the Elves and sailed away into the west.”
“He sailed away…?” Suddenly the boy’s attention was riveted on the watermark. “In this, sir? Save us, I couldn’t make it out! It’s a boat?”
“It’s a ship, made for the sea. That is only the great bow, you see, and look, here, the sail rising up.” He remembered it as mistily now as Estella had made it of his memories, skimming like a fading dream over the waves toward the mouth of the harbour where the great western sea and sky opened up to receive it, the white gulls crying in farewell.
Jamy’s small brown hands flitted over the fractional image of the ship, and they seemed suddenly to belong to someone other than a boy, as practiced and precise they measured and extended the translucent lines, working to assemble for his mind the whole of the unfinished memory that Estella had left for them. But after a moment he sighed in gentle recognition of defeat and looked up at the Master, his face shining nonetheless with wonder and discovery. “An Elvish ship! I can’t quite see it all, but faith, I own it must have been something!”
“Aye,” nodded the Master, struck by this sudden radiance of passion. “Indeed it was, and very swift, as I remember it.”
“How big was it? How many sails did it carry?”
He closed his eyes, tried to see it again. “I’m not sure, lad: one, maybe two masts. I could never remember it clearly afterward, but I know I never saw anything so tall on the river. It was built for the sea and for carrying the Elves away home.”
A shadow seemed to flicker in the boy’s eyes for an instant. “You’ve seen the sea, sir…what is it like there, on the shore?”
He answered gravely, “Nothing like the river, child. It stretches to the horizon and beyond, a great world of water, and the tides rise and fall without end. The Elves called their journey on it the Straight Road, you know, but it seemed a great barrier to me, with Frodo gone beyond it forever.”
Jamy’s hands settled and traced gently the pale cheek of the Ring-bearer. “Do you think the Elvish land made him happy, sir? Do you think he got well there?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know, lad. I always hoped so.”
If the boy understood, he kept his counsel. He nodded but said nothing more. Gently, he held the painting and for a moment he looked again at Frodo, and then his eyes flickered to and lingered on the image of the Ship. Then carefully, he laid the page with the others within the leather bindings of Estella’s blue book. He tied the ribbons in silence and got up to put it away. The Master watched him thoughtfully and a little sadly. He wished he need not do anything to cause such a child as this any unhappiness.
“Listen, Jamy,” he said finally, facing to the task at hand. “ I need to talk to you now for a few minutes, before you’re away to Haysend. Fill up the mugs again, will you? There’s a good bit of tea left.”
The boy nodded, carefully setting the portfolio back into its place of honour. He went to the table and took up the tea tray; he carried it back and set it on the hearth. The Master handed over his mug and the boy filled it, and then his own. He remained standing with his back to the fire, holding the cup in both hands with his face lowered, rosy, into the rising steam. The Master sat with his mug beside him on the table and considered him for a long moment.
“Jamy,” he said. “I should like to keep you on here at the Hall with us—that is, if you’ve a mind to stay. Bo can surely use your knowledge of the barges and boats, and Rory will be very glad of you as well. I think you could be happy and busy here—a sight more than I think you must be at the Gate. But there’s something I must know, and I want you to tell me the truth.”
Jamy looked up, flushed and wondering.
“I asked you a question yesterday: What’s a lad from the river-folk doing running post for the Hay Gate? Now—I can see you’ve a story, lad, and I know you don’t want to tell it. But I think I need to hear it, if you please. I can’t take you in if someone is looking for you. How did you come to be on your own like this? Where is your family, lad—your father, your mother?”
The boy stilled. His mouth hardened and he closed his eyes, as if to marshal and stay all his thoughts within. Then he ducked his head and lifted the mug to his lips in faintly trembling hands. “My mother is dead,” he said softly.
The Master sighed. “Berry thought perhaps. I’m sorry, lad. How long has it been?”
“A long time, sir.” The boy’s tone was guarded. “I was…but little then. I don’t remember very much, though I thought of her yesterday, on account of Berry. I mind she was pretty, and very fond….” He frowned, as if some stray memory suddenly found and pierced him unexpectedly, and lowered his head again.
“Well, if she was anything like Berry, then she was a fine lass. I’m sorry you lost her too soon.”
The boy nodded silently, his eyes fixed on the wavering circle of firelight at his feet. First light was arching over the Old Forest, pearling the windows in deep lavender-grey. The Master said gently:
“Jamy, you told me your father worked the river, and you with him, living on the boats. I have no doubt that you spoke the truth, but you are not with him now. Why is that? How did you come to be dry-docked at the Hay Gate?”
It was easy to see how sore the boy was, and at the same time how grief-stricken. Almost defiantly he raised his face to the Master, drained now of colour, and angry and ashamed. His lips trembled. With shaking hands he reached to set his mug on the chimney shelf. “Sir,” he began tightly, but his voice broke on the words that would have followed. He set his teeth, his small face hard with resolve, but his feelings welled up so quickly he had no chance to bite them back; tears brimmed and fell despite his mutinous determination and sparkled angrily on his cheeks. He brushed them away with his fists.
“Oh, lad!” The Master came to his feet, silently cursing himself for not finding a way to make this easier. He had not misjudged the tear he had witnessed fall last night; no matter the anger that blazed on the surface, the boy was aching for his father and no mistake. With one hand he reached to clasp his narrow shoulder and Jamy stiffened, taut and embattled, at his touch; with the other he dug into the deep outer pocket of his jacket and extracted a clean handkerchief. He proffered it silently, and Jamy accepted it with a mutter of thanks, sniffing fiercely.
“Did you quarrel?”
“No—well, yes— but it’s not what you think, sir! I didn’t run away!”
“No, sir!” Angrily he looked up, tossing aside the curls that spilled over his forehead, his tear-damp eyes flashing with indignation. “Think I would take myself off the river? He did that!”
The Master yielded to the embittered honesty of this scornful judgment with a wry smile. “What happened, then?” he asked quietly, and the boy twisted for a moment, mute and miserable beneath his hand.
At last, in a shaking voice, low and angry and thick with despair, he gave voice to his disgrace: “He put me ashore, sir. I’ve been his first mate since I was eleven: everyone knows I can hold my own anyplace. But he wouldn’t have me—he left me behind!”
“He sailed without you?”
Jamy nodded, sniffling resentfully. “He signed me over to two months’ service with the Dockmaster, sir.”
“He apprenticed you to the docks? Is that usual?”
“More or less, if you haven’t any place to be.” He shook his head, desolate, as a tear stole down his cheek. “I never was in such a corner before in my life.”
“You were to work the docks while he was gone?”
He shrugged dully, “The Dockmaster parcels jobs, sir, but usually more for riffraff than real river-hobbits like me. He sends you wherever somebody needs a hand, and sees to it you stay busy when you haven’t a berth on the river. The Dockmaster sent me up to help with the post.” He quirked a haphazard smile. “I own that wasn’t so bad in the end.”
“I see.” The Master tried to imagine what could have induced anyone to leave a clever and dutiful child with “riffraff” for two months. He came easily to the conclusion that there were no relatives to take the lad, but he could not fathom why any father would leave a son alone in such circumstances, particularly when that son loved him so fiercely as this one did, and when he was (at least by his own account) an able and experienced hand on the job. It seemed to him something was missing here.
Jamy retrieved his mug from the chimney shelf and drank deeply. The Master gestured him to sit and returned with a sigh to his own chair. He felt strangely touched when the boy sat close beside his knee, as Rory had done with Theo the night before.
“Let’s see if we can sort this out. Did your father have a reason for leaving you behind?”
“Aye,” Jamy answered readily, though he frowned darkly and tossed his curls yet again in resentment. “He did—but it was no good reason!”
“No? What was it, then?”
“’Twas for safekeeping, he said! But I am no babe, and no fool, either! I don’t want for safekeeping—only for him and the river!” He stared gloomily into the fire, biting his lip.
The Master raised an eyebrow. “Left behind for safekeeping? In the Shire? I don’t understand, lad. Where was he going?”
Jamy said heavily, “The Barway, sir.”
“The Barway!” The Master picked up his mug and frowned into the fire. “So that’s the way of it,” he murmured.
The Brandywine River wandered away from the Shire just past Sarn Ford and meandered then two hundred miles into the west before it came to a narrow inlet where it emptied into the sea between the wooded shores of Eryn Vorn and the coastal plain south of the Blue Mountains. There were very few river-hobbits who had ever given any thought to following their cherished river so far as that, and until very recently those who did had been written off as fatally eccentric, since more often than not they failed to return. Steeped in fishing and local trade and the pleasures of boating, they saw no practical purpose in making a trip into unexplored regions that hinted at no useful bounty. The shores of the sea were of no concern to the hobbits of the Shire, and the river-folk among them felt no differently than the rest. As far as they were concerned, the world ended at the Bounds.
Following the War of the Ring, the High King had draped a net of isolation over the Shire and forbidden the Men of all nations to walk there. Even he did not set foot beyond the Brandywine Bridge, but relied on his three Counsellors—the Mayor, the Thain and the Master of the Hall—for news of what transpired there and what might be needed. For sixty-five years his Rangers, unnoticed, had continued to watch (as he himself had once done) over the land of the Halflings, and nowhere with more secrecy and vigilance than in the five miles of wooded inlet on the coast that kept the winding golden thread of the Brandywine hidden from the sea.
It never occurred to the Shirefolk to wonder if perhaps their little land might be considered bounty to anyone on the Outside, even when the example of Sharkey’s invasion had not yet faded from collective memory. But the king had no such illusions: as time passed after the defeat of the Dark Lord, and the lands of Middle Earth were slowly reunited, he foresaw that the western sea would play host as it had not for many generations to the great ships of Men, to explorers and merchants and mercenaries and pirates alike from all parts of the expanding world, and that one day the wooded cove at Eryn Vorn might shelter a passer-by with more time and inclination to investigate than was good for everyone.
The Counsellors of the North Kingdom had been aware of the risks for fifty years, but as nothing untoward had occurred in all that time, they had come to view the danger as largely remote, and the King’s long-held plan to build a fortification and gate on the river as a contingency that would likely never come to pass. The King had maintained a small, armed garrison in the rough environs of Eryn Vorn for many years and this, in addition to occasional visits by various ships of His Majesty’s navy, seemed sufficient to discourage any incursions for as long as need be.
But a year ago, a small group of Shire fisher-folk had strayed much further south than usual and woken one thick, foggy dawn to the strange, stealthy sound of many oars quietly plying the water just beyond the bend where they were moored. Stealthily, under cover of a dense and shifting mist, the hobbits mounted the high bank overlooking the bend and peered down to see that the oars were attached to a decidedly alien longboat and a good many Man-sized rowers. A hurried conference resulted in the river-folk issuing a friendly call, which was in turn greeted with shouts of aggression and a volley of spears loosed blindly into the fog. Happily, all the spears went astray, but the river-hobbits, instantly territorial and variously armed with stones and bows and wickedly sharp arrows of their own, delivered a savage and far more effective assault that quickly convinced the intruders to come about in midstream and to take flight on the current in a hail of well-aimed projectiles. They left at least four of their own behind, drifting in the dark water, pushed overboard in death to lighten the load. Disgusted, the fisher-folk dragged them from the river and buried them in a stony field nearby. The boat, which had slipped silently past the garrison in the fog on its way up the river was taken when it re-entered the strait, and identified as a scouting party for a ship filled with wandering bandits moored some distance along the coast to the south. Within two days messages had gone forth from both Tuckborough and Eryn Vorn to Gondor.
Six weeks later the King’s envoy arrived at the Brandywine Bridge with letters for the Thain, the Master of the Hall, and the “new” Mayor, Young Nick Cotton. Young Nick had actually held his office now for eight years, all of them heavily encumbered by the memory of his Uncle Samwise—a burden he bore both humbly and cheerfully as part of his job. In this case, both he and the Master deferred, as tradition dictated, to Thain Peregrin, whose responsibility it was to call a Shire-moot in times of emergency. This he did, quietly and in a limited fashion, bringing together a select group of landholders from the South Farthing and the riverbanks of Buckland (who would be most at risk if pirates were to boil up from the river) and as many pockets of river-folk as he could get word to—which, through word of mouth, turned out to be every head-of-clan on the river. A large number of hobbits thus appeared and sat in a deep and respectful silence while the old Thain read the King’s letter and explained what had happened and went over the plans that had been struck long ago should this current state of affairs ever come to pass. He thanked—and to rousing cheers bought a round of ale for—the fisher-folk who had routed the longboat and alerted them all to the danger.
The Thain tendered the opinion of the Counsellors: that as the King intended now to build the long-considered fort and gate, the Shire should perhaps join in the effort, for its own protection and by way of showing appreciation for the shield they had been so loyally afforded all these long years. Hopeful of mustering support for a cause he knew to be outlandish to his countrymen, he was therefore decidedly pleased and surprised by the response: the river-folk (being curious now and having a few ideas of their own about how it might be done) offered to assist in the building of the gate and further in manning the watery fortifications, if need be, if it could be done in some sort of rotation that did not keep them away from the Shire and their personal businesses overlong. The farmers offered a tithe on South Farthing leaf to help offset the costs to the Shire and the lost revenue the river-hobbits would surely incur by seeing to the King’s business before their own. And the Thain sweetened the pot by confiding that there was talk of establishing a small port on the inlet if the fortifications held, so there was a possibility of launching trade there in the future, as well.
The plan had gone into effect in the autumn just past, when the river hobbits had made the most of the harvest season and were looking ahead to slowing down for the coming winter. A complement of six boats made up the first rotation and twenty hobbits spent eight weeks on The Barway, as the secret gate was now called, considering the lay of the land and how best to put a lock on their river. A second Rotation, bearing equipment and supplies and fresh hands, had left close upon the return of the first, and the Master reckoned that this one had included Jamy’s father; he little wondered now that a lad not yet into his tweens had been left behind, for there was no telling the conditions there.
He looked up, startled; Jamy sat waiting, pained and apprehensive at his knee. “Oh, child, your pardon. I was thinking about the Barway. Your father has joined the Rotation, then?”
“Aye, though he didn’t mean to, sir—at least not to start.” He shook his head, perplexed. “I didn’t understand why he didn’t want to go. It sounded a grand adventure to me! But he said he couldn’t spare the time: that he and I had too much business to take care of. And that was true, sir. Even in winter we’re in business most every day we don’t have to break ice. But then the others said as how any river-hobbit who wouldn’t put his hand to the Barway was no true Shire-hobbit, and Tilman Rafter, who heads up the clans, said as my Dad was the best pilot on the river and it was his duty and all our folk would be shamed if they had to own that one of their best was too gutless to go downriver.”
Once again his eyes were wet with tears. “That hurt him, sir—it did—I never saw him so sick and shamed as that night. And the thing was, I could see he did want to go, but that something powerful was holding him back. But he wouldn’t speak of it to me, and the clans kept after him—even after the first Rotation left—and finally he owned that he had to go, but he couldn’t think what to do with me. ‘Well, that’s easy enough,’ I said. ‘I’ll go with you!’ But he wouldn’t even think it, sir—just ‘No! And that’s flat!’ It got so we couldn’t even talk without fighting about it, which was just the worst thing, sir, and then one day he went out and came back with the papers that gave me over to the Dockmaster. I was so angry I never spoke a word to him after that, even when he put me on the dock and tried to say goodbye.” He winced, obviously reliving the memory.
“I’m sure he was sorry, lad. It sounds like it was a bitter choice for him.”
“Aye.” He ran the back of his hand over his brimming eyes. “I oughtn’t to have blamed him, I guess,” he sighed. “He signed me over to the docks because he knew I’d come after him otherwise.”
“Would you have?” asked the Master curiously, and when the boy nodded resolutely he said, “Well, no wonder, then! How long has he been gone?”
“I make it close on six weeks, sir. I’ll be looking for him soon.”
“Six weeks, lad! And you’ve been lonely and angry all this time?”
The boy nodded, chagrined. “I reckon I shouldn’t have been, though, if I’d been here at the Hall instead of up at the docks. They’re a rough lot up there and you do have a way of setting a fellow straight, sir. If the Dockmaster can see his way clear to letting me go, I would like to stay. I’ll work hard to earn my keep.”
The Master laughed and tousled his hair and the boy smiled ruefully. The smile did not hold, though, for now that he had owned to the nature of his disgrace, it smote him all the more. He bent his forehead to the Master’s knee and whispered despairingly,
“Why did he put me off, sir? I could have helped him, don’t you think? I’d like to see anybody else crew as well as me on my own father’s boat!”
The Master sat back in his chair. The sky beyond the windowpanes was brightening now, a deep blue, faintly laced with pink and gold. He knew that outside the forest was standing shadowed and motionless before the coming of dawn, and down below the dark river was moving past, deep and silent, on its long way to the sea. The banner of Rohan caught his eye and he thought with a sigh of the young esquire who had defied his lord’s safekeeping so long ago, that he might come to battle—and heartbreak he had never dreamed of; of his father’s face the day they had met on the road after the Battle of Bywater, the cold grey terror in the old hobbit’s eyes replaced in an instant with such a wild, fierce joy that tears had rushed to his own; of his two little sons standing mutinously abreast in silent resentment, accepting with furious grace his own fear-driven edict: ‘No, and that’s flat!’ Gently he brushed the curls back from the tear-streaked face at his knee.
“Depend upon it, lad,” he said softly. “He meant to keep you safe. It’s a father’s fate to love his child too much sometimes for anybody’s good. He meant to keep you safe is all, and he’ll be relieved to see you are, when he comes home again—for unless I miss my guess, he’s been as anxious about you all this while as you’ve been about him.”
The boy sighed. “Do you really think so, sir?” he asked hopefully, and the Master answered, “Indeed I do,” and they sat for a moment in silence, the Master very still, listening to the wood popping gently in the grate and watching the rising dawn glisten on the windows, the boy sitting up and pulling himself together, feeling as though a stone he had not marked before had been lifted from his heart and all his hurt and anger with it. Forgetful of the handkerchief clenched in his hand, he brushed away the last of his tears with his sleeve, and clambered to his feet. As he did so, the injured bird in the loft began to coo very softly in the confines of her basket. He cocked his head to listen, a wondering smile easing the strain out of his young face.
“I daresay this is the first chance she’s had to get a word in edgewise,” smiled the Master. He shoved himself out of the chair, an action accompanied by a stifled gasp, and Jamy caught his elbow solicitously. “Are you alright, sir?” he asked.
“Oh, certainly, lad.” The old hobbit frowned a little, as if he were annoyed with himself. “We’d best take a look at our patient, shall we, and then get a wash and a proper breakfast?”
Jamy peeped into the basket to meet the bird’s bright contented eye and then, stepping aside for the Master, went to see to his bed, stacking the pillows next to the hearth again and rolling up the blankets.
“You’ll be careful down at Haysend, won’t you?” the Master said, funneling some seed into the basket as he spoke. “You’ll not take any risks or do anything your father wouldn’t want you to do?”
The boy looked back over his shoulder and flashed a smile. “I’ll be careful, sir, no need to fear. I know my way, and I mean to brag on it some, when my Dad comes home again!” He shrugged into his jacket. “You won’t come with us, sir?”
“Nay, though I should like to,” said the Master, fastening the basket and returning to the hearth. He slipped a parchment envelope out from behind Ella’s painting on the chimney shelf and settled it in his pocket. “But I am away to Tuckborough tomorrow morning and not likely to return until next week.”
Jamy stopped rolling the blanket in his arms. “You’re going away, sir? Why?”
“I must take counsel with the Thain over this business of Éomer King,” the old hobbit said, bending with a silent grimace to pick up the tea tray while Jamy hurriedly rolled and thrust the blanket aside in order to take it from him. “He has a merry way about him, has Peregrin, and a good head for proper observance. We must consider what is best to do.”
“But Tuckborough, sir! That must be fair fifty miles!” Jamy frowned, setting the tray on the nearest chair and reaching to gather the two mugs. “Is Master Theo going with you?”
“No, Theo will stay to look after the Hall. It is his responsibility, when I am away.” The Master hesitated for a moment and then nodded. “Aye, and his right,” he declared quietly, “and too long denied him perhaps, more fool I.” He went in the lead to the door and opened it, stepping back so the boy could shoulder through with the tray. “Worrying about me, are you?” he asked, hiding a small smile. “Thinking I’m too old to find my way?”
“Oh, no, sir!” Jamy flushed. “But…it is a long way…and you are…of an age, sir.”
The Master smiled outright. “Lad, I’ve been up and down that road more times in the last sixty years than you’ve been up and down the river in your whole life!”
“Well, sir, that’s most likely true….” Jamy began earnestly, and then he stopped and looked up, meeting the Master’s smile with one of his own: bold, impertinent and inordinately fond. “Well, I mean to know that you’ll be safe, sir, if you’ve a mind to go off on your own!” he finished sternly.
The Master laughed as he shut the door behind them and Jamy danced aside with the tray and an impish grin. The child so reminded him of Pippin that for an instant they seemed one and the same; it was almost unaccountable that he should have to leave the one to go in search of the other. Still he knew that in Tuckborough dwelt the one person left in the world who need ask no questions to know his heart, or to perceive the immensity of what lay upon it now. He must go to Pippin and see what he could make of it all.
The Master stood apart, watching as Jamy tried to make the tentative acquaintance of his pony while Tom tied the bags on behind. The boy had little experience of riding and had been somewhat taken aback to learn that they were not going to Haysend on a barge, which was the only way he could imagine getting anywhere in timely fashion. He had manfully hidden his dismay though, and swallowing hard, was now at work coming to terms with the little beast that would carry him south along the twenty miles of forest trail to the end of the High Hay. He scratched the pony’s ears and offered it a sugar lump as Tom instructed him, keeping his toes well out of the way of the stamping hooves and looking askance at the saddle straddling the little animal’s wide back where he was expected to sit. The Master smiled to himself, remembering Sam’s life-long aversion to boats.
He drew his fine wool cloak close about him, shivering a little, for the cold was at his bones in earnest today, and the sun was not yet high enough to warm the early spring morning. He joined the others in making their farewells, sharing a private, earnest word with Bo, and a droll bypass with Rory, and pretending he did not see how long and ardently Tom and Berry kissed in parting before Tom turned to make him a grave and courteous good-bye. He went at the last to Jamy.
“Farewell, lad,” he said, bending down to hold the stirrup for the reluctant rider. “Just give this little beast his head and you’ll be fine. He’s as steady as a barge in his own way and knows the trail like you know the river. I wish you safe journey and a quick return.”
“And you the same, sir,” the boy replied, struggling up into the saddle where he settled in with caution, clutching the reins, acutely and uncomfortably aware of being completely without advantage there. Still, he voiced but one concern: “You’ll let us know as soon as you are come safe to Tuckborough, sir? You’ll send a note through the post?”
This ingenuous request, which brooked none of the faith readily accorded the resilient nature of Meriadoc the Magnificent, meant much to the Master, which surprised him. “I shall address the letter to you yourself,” he said solemnly, and he clasped the boy’s free hand tightly in farewell. “Take care of yourself, lad.”
Afterward, he and Theo stood alone in the yard and watched as the ponies threaded their way into the woods to the path alongside the river. When he had waved one last time he put his hands into his jacket pockets for warmth; the parchment envelope lay in one and alongside it, Éomer’s letter. The Master blew a breath as a means of settling himself and turned to look at Theo.
“I must walk down to the dock to leave notice for your Uncle Peregrin of my visit,” he said. “Will you come with me, lad? I should like to talk to you.”
“I’m promised to Eirien for a few minutes, Father,” Theo said with an apologetic smile. “It won’t take long; she means only to demand an explanation for why six year-old maidens are not allowed on dangerous expeditions to the end of the High Hay. I expect I shall run out of acceptable excuses in a trice; I’ll meet you coming back, shall I?”
The Master laughed. “Surely—and don’t think I shall envy you that confrontation! She is altogether too much like me, I think. Poor Theo! I’ll meet you in the woods. I think I’d like to take another look at the Tree.”